This year, Earth Overshoot Day – the day on which our consumption of natural resources exceeded the planet’s ability to replenish itself – fell on August 13.

While the earth can renew itself – recycle water and carbon, regenerate plants and even rebuild wildlife populations and wild fish stocks – the 13th of August is when our use of its resources crossed over to the red for the remaining part of the year. This sobering news highlights the need for sustainable development and a new approach to the challenges of overconsumption, overpopulation, and poverty. And yet, we still have the opportunity to reverse many of the current trends leading to environmental depletion and ecological collapse.

The 27th International Congress for Conservation Biology, recently held in Montpellier, France, included a half-day where scientists and practitioners discussed whether and how the world’s faiths can contribute to a more responsible use of the planet. Considering that over 80% of the world’s human population identify themselves as believers and are influenced by their faith in their attitudes and behaviour, the potential impacts are enormous. However, the efficacy of such a partnership is often contested in the scientific community. During the congress, researchers and practitioners working in this field were able to address many of these concerns and based on a wealth of empirical evidence, demonstrate tangible impacts and merits of faith-based conservation projects.

The five top ideas that emerged and continue to resonate after the congress are:

  1. Faith-motivated calls to environmental action can be successful. Examples such as tiger conservation in Indonesia, following a fatwa by the national council of imams, climate adaptation and resilience led by Tibetan Buddhist eco-monasteries in the Himalayas, and environmental education conducted by a Catholic youth network in East Africa convincingly showed that environmental mobilization based on religious ethics and leadership can lead to an increase in environmental awareness and behavior in faith communities.
  2. At the same time, there was consensus that general calls to action are not enough. Activities established as projects and norms within religious institutions are more likely to produce a lasting impact than a general call to action from faith leaders. Research in behaviour psychology suggests that faith may be a catalyst for behavioural change but it also requires interventions in education, praxis, sanctioning and community. Empirical evidence supports the research; environmental initiatives established by local religious institutions who are capable of reinforcing the messages and activities via such channels are most likely to be successful.
  3. This notwithstanding, mastering the appropriate language remains a key requisite for conservationists who wish to work with faith groups and most speakers emphasized the importance of expanding one’s own vocabulary, whether scientific or religious. Understanding the science of why resources are becoming depleted or destroyed and how they can best be conserved is crucial for faith leaders who want to transform ethical imperatives into action.
  4. Reasons for failure in building alliances often boil down to the inability to bridge differences, as typically exemplified by the never-ending debate between religion and science. The past few years have shown that faith leaders can be concerned about the state of the environment and climate just as much as conservationists. However, these concerns may emerge from different world views and motivations, which conservationists sometimes have difficulties to accept despite the tolerance of paradigm differences with other environmental stakeholders.
  5. And, finally, this brings us to one of the most promising shifts in attitude towards faith-based conservation that surfaced during the conference; accepting faith leaders and religious institutions as an important and equal stakeholder group. Faith leaders that are looking to work with conservationists do so because they wish to benefit from the solutions that conservation science can offer. In that sense, faith leaders and religious institutions are stakeholders similar to others and should be wholly respected and welcomed instead of being vilified or placed upon a pedestal.

If we are to pull back on the reins of overconsumption, it is essential that we find new allies; ambassadors for conservation who can reach the hundreds of millions of people who are indifferent to conventional environmental messaging. Conservationists have every reason to celebrate Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, where overconsumption is laid out as a moral sin in non-negotiable terms, and global markets faulted for the rapacious abuse of natural resources.

However, as we learned in Montpellier, calls to action from even the most influential religious leaders will remain a missed opportunity if they are not accompanied by concrete changes at an institutional level. If we are to leverage the teachings and immense moral authority of the world’s faiths for the sake of our common planet, we need to work with religious institutions as well as their charismatic leaders.

Have you read?
How the Pope’s climate message went viral
Why does the Pope’s encyclical resonate so much?
MBAs, the faith factor and emerging markets

Authors: Dekila Chungyalpa, Director, Sacred Earth, McCluskey Fellow and Associate Research Scholar, Yale University and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Councol on the Role of Faith, and Fabrizio Frascaroli, Vice-President, Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group of the Society for Conservation Biology

Image: A Hindu woman performs ritual as she worships the Sun god on the banks of the river Ganges on the occasion of Chhat Puja in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw