Leaders of the major world religions can play a key role in preserving biological diversity. A new study carried out by ecologists at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), among others, indicates that if the world's religious leaders wished to bring about a change, they would be ideally positioned to do so.
"Our study investigates how the various religions are distributed around the world and how they overlap areas that are important for global biological diversity," says Grzegorz Mikusinski, a researcher at SLU who directs the project. Our analysis indicates that the majority of the most important areas lie in countries dominated by Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism.
Most countries in Latin America belong to that category: Roman Catholic and with areas of importance for biological diversity. There is also a certain amount of overlapping of areas important for biodiversity and areas that are Buddhist (Southeast Asia), Hindu (Indian subcontinent), or Muslim (Asia Minor and parts of North and Central Africa).
"We believe that members of religious groups, guided by a moral resolution to preserve the world's natural resources for coming generations, can implement a conservation agenda both in their daily lives and in their political activities," says Grzegorz Mikusinski.
Religions strive to be morally good and for centuries have led people in terms of right and wrong. Therefore, says Grzegorz Mikusinski, they have the potential to guide them to "miracles" also when it comes to conservation in the places where the religion has a great influence on society.
"The results show that Roman Catholics, per capita, have the greatest potential to preserve biological diversity where they live," says Hugh Possingham, a researcher at University of Queensland, Australia, and a co-author of the study.
The Catholic Church has just elected a pope, Francis -- a name associated with the Catholic Church's "greenest" saint, Francis of Assisi, the special patron saint of ecology. Let us hope that he and other religious leaders seriously consider the possibility of becoming more involved in the conservation debate. But at the same time scientists need to more actively encourage religious leaders to take part in such a debate.
Many solutions have been proposed to halt the loss of biological diversity. But the notion of conservation has seldom become part of daily life, either among individuals or among nations.
"Conservation research needs to adjust its focus, toward strategies that can change people's ethical attitudes toward nature and encourage modes of thinking and lifestyles that are good for the environment," says Malgorzata Blicharka, a researcher at SLU and a co-author of the study. Religions are central to fundamental beliefs and ethics that influence people, and they should be taken more seriously in the debate about biological diversity.
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