faith, Science

Having Faith in Action on Climate Change?


What hope do we have now?

A Trump presidency has so many implications for our world, it would be hard to know where to start. For at least half the country it would be a path of fear, lost ideals and calamities. But of all potential misfortunes that could befall us,  the worst will almost certainly ride behind all the others. The delay could make action to solve the problem of global warming too little too late. Climate may defeat us.

Soon the string of climate firsts will add up to a national awareness. The unprecedented and ferocious floods,  fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, northeasters, heat records, rainfall deluges, all will come and damage our world.  It is happening now.  In our shameful denial of this threat, many will want to agree with Trump’s assessment that we can dismiss this catastrophic reshaping of the world.  Some will find comfort in the delusion that all this will affect only others.  And all the while our chances of keeping the earth’s climate to a moderate  1.5 degrees C will fade.  Then the eminently doable  2-degree target will disappear. And our future will crash on the rock of the foolish American voters who pushed this country over the edge.

It’s not hard to guess the future for the planet as this graphic below describes.



This graphic describes the dramatic increase in global temperature.



But are the stakes greater than our selfish interests?  Will we also tarnish our spiritual lives or to put more directly to Trump voters,  do we risk our immortal soul?  Pope Francis framed climate change this way in his encyclical Laudato Si, Caring for Our Common Home.  His message was lost in our national reality show election because it didn’t fit into the media’s shameful silence on the rapidly changing world’s climate.

The Pope ‘s nuanced take on climate change also didn’t fit the media’s need for controversy.   The first reports ginned up the usual fight between liberals and conservatives.  Conservatives suggested the need for a schism in the church.  Liberals accused the Pope of reframing the pro-life debate to his advantage.  But anyone reading the encyclical would know they both missed the point. This pastoral leader of 1.2 billion souls equated the abuse of the earth to other pro-life issues, including abortion.  In so doing, he made the ignorance of the impact of climate change a sin no less than any other. He framed it as a pro-life issue because most of the impacts fall on the world’s poor.




And so I ask the question.  Are Americans, who cared so little about their country that nearly half choose not to vote in the most decisive election in memory,  about to wreak the world, their lives and lose their souls in the process.

Or will faith move us to a new debate, a spiritual one that stands above the wasteful dialogue of our nation’s destructive political and economic leaders?  Will we, the 89% of Americans that believe in God, build a non-political movement to fight climate change?    Can wildlife conservationists and other environmentalists unite people of faith in the divine to overcome the people preventing climate change solutions for God’s sake?



Laudato Si – Caring for our Common Home


Last year Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic clergy and nearly 1.2 billion lay Catholics ( 1 in 6 of all people ) wrote and published an encyclical called Laudato Si or Praise be to you O Lord: On Care For Our Common Home.  The encyclical, a form of theology treatise, is meant to provide pastoral direction to the Catholic priests and bishops around the world.  The Pope wrote Laudato Si for all, but especially for those who lead the flock from day to day, the parish priest, the teaching nun, the bishop who shoulders the responsibility of his diocese.   He aimed to take the church in a new direction, and he started with the lowest ranking clergy.  The people from whom he arose. First priest, then bishop, finally a cardinal in the grim warrens of the poor in cities like Buenos Aries Argentina.

I work in similar circumstances in Brazil and the poverty there could defeat anyone.  We trap shorebirds on the northern coast near the city of Sao Luis.   People don’t fall into poverty there; it is the condition in which most people live.  If they drive at all, it is with the most dilapidated of vehicles.  If they own a home, it is a room or two with cesspools as the only form of water treatment.  They have no city water, just shallow wells very likely contaminated by the cesspools.  Most of the petroleum wastes, solvents, cleaning chemicals and other chemicals (many illegal in the US) flow downhill into a tidal waterway and out to the beach, where both shorebirds and people take refuge. Stealing is ubiquitous.  To provide any succor to the poor would take one with a strong belief in humanity.






Laudato Si sees the suffering of the poor and the abuse of the earth as one issue.  The encyclical lays out a theological case, complete with biblical references in the same way one would construct a hypothesis in a scientific paper.  He argues that most of the damaging impact of climate change falls on those, who have no political power or even a voice in the decisions that are being made by world leaders.  And it is not lost on Francis that the wealthy nations get to keep all the wealth they mine, cut, plow and harvest from the land, on which the poor scrape a bare existence. And the insult to injury is the poor must live with the consequences after the plunder: contamination, resource depletion, and damaging erosion of the soil.  He believes, and he has made it church doctrine,  that the rich have turned their backs on the poor and the world itself.  Thus we sin against God’s creation.

The pope has a different view than the people leading the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, even Silicon Valley.  He thinks the market cannot work for all ills,  and that advances in technology do not necessarily represent progress for humanity.   The explosion of innovation has made the wealthy and powerful more wealthy and powerful.  He pontificates that a democracy based on market forces is essentially an ideology of no ideology.   If the poor suffer and the rich waste money, too bad the market must work.   Capitalist democracy turn a blind eye to all these inequities.

A word cloud of the encyclical helps to understand Pope Francis's emphasis.

A word cloud of the encyclical helps to understand Pope Francis’s emphasis.


But we all know it’s not fair.  I see it on Delaware Bay, arguably one of the most important ecological features in the state.  Cumberland and Salem counties, two of three bordering the bay in New Jersey, are the poorest in the state. Nasty agriculture-related chemical contaminant the drinking water, sea level rise assisted storm surge regularly threatens bridges and other infrastructure, education ranks among the lowest in the state while levels of violence among the highest.   Despite these inequities these relatively poor rural communities set tax rates three times higher than those of the rich countries in the north or coastal area of the state.


Mill Creek Pond in Greenwich NJ

Mill Creek Pond in Greenwich NJ


One can see the Pope’s message unfold in my hometown, Greenwich.  The town’s main road crosses a  200-acre inter-tidal pond formed by a deteriorating dike regularly threatened by rising sea levels and storm tides. They could have choose to fix the road and dike.  Instead, they fixed neither choosing instead to drain the ecologically valuable tidal pond.  They destroyed an anadromous fish run, critical habitat for wintering waterfowl and some of the best bald eagle habitat in the area.  Without tidal waters the pool turned fetid,  the exposed sediments potentially releasing dangerous heavy metals. Without fish, the shallow and stagnant water bred a plague of mosquitoes.  With each rainfall, the pools floods than slowly drys increasing our communities chances of botulism, West Nile disease, and equine encephalitis.   All this in one of the richest states in the richest country in the world.

The pope says the market has failed in three ways.

  1. It creates enormous inequity; the market exploits the poor for the benefit of the wealthy.  The rich in their turn deny the basic needs of life to save money.
  2. This inequity causes untold damage outside of rich areas.   The US, Europe, Canada, Australia and a handful of other places see the least of it; the poorest countries see the most.
  3. This injustice degrades our spiritual lives. Only the rich are truly free in our world and our unbridled consumerism never satisfies our hunger for more goods.


His asks not for incremental change.  Instead, he wants those who believe in the spiritual, especially Catholics, to put aside their political convictions and serve the poor and the earth, our common home. He calls it integral ecology.  Laudato Si lays out a rational case for an integrated approach to climate change by solving both the issues of poverty and protecting nature.


Protecting God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue


In addition to it’s message to humanity, Pope Francis’s  encyclical on Climate Change also provides us with a more profound and fundamental justification for healing our damaged earth. Protecting God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue.  He says to all the world’s Catholics, rich, poor, right wing, left wing – one cannot lead a virtuous life and sin against the earth. He says:


“[l]iving our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (LS #217)


This exhortation inspires a conservationist in two ways.  First, it expands our faith to include all life, as Christianity first intended.  Laudato Si includes an extensive list of biblical passages, both famous and obscure, that justify his theological conclusions, just as a conservation scientist would cite papers to justify scientific conclusions.   He also quotes his predecessors.  Hidden beneath all the bluster about contraception, abortion and other divisive issues, the past leaders of the Catholic Church have helped build the theological underpinnings for Laudato Si.  They concluded that Christians have the right to private property but that private ownership brings with it a social contract to protect the poor.  Pope Francis expanded this social contract to include protecting the earth.

Laudato Si also inspires a conservationist to find the promise of a virtuous life by healing the land and wildlife around us.   This includes the needs of rural communities, one of the poorest segments of American society,  It is they who shoulder the brunt of our reckless consumerism and it is the duty of those more fortunate to join in changing their fate.

In the Delaware Bay, there is no greater example of the damage and the need for healing than the industrial extraction of blood from horseshoe crabs.    We need crab blood because it contains the miracle drug Lysate.  It’s a valuable biochemical used to detect biological contamination in medical supplies like injectable drugs and syringes,  as well as medical devices like pacemakers and hip implants.  The international pharmaceutical companies derive tremendous wealth from the sale of this valuable biochemical, estimated at $100’s of millions each year.  Everyone benefits right?




Unfortunately not.  The companies keep the public in the dark, so no one knows how much they make or how many crabs they kill each year.  Independent and peer reviewed replications of the process conclude mortality enough to destroy the population of horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay.  They have already decimated populations in Asia.

Not that it would impact the poor communities of Delaware Bay. They receive not one cent of the river of money that comes from the crab’s blood systems.  Bleeding labs locate in wealthy and pliant Maryland, who takes no responsibility for the welfare of another state’s resource.   No Delaware Bay fishers get paid to take crabs for lysate harvest or return them.  No Delaware Bay community benefits from the laboratories on their tax roll.   But both will pay the price when the international corporations bleed the crabs to the edge of existence.  By then, inept government officials will finally step in with new regulations to recover the damage.  The price tag will be paid for by rural people.

It could be very different.   Companies and local fishers could collaborate to capture, bleed and release crabs with no mortality.  The labs could be relocated to Delaware Bay so the jobs would go to residents and fewer crabs will die in transit in the bargain.  The companies could be open about their process so all could be sure of their long-term commitment.  They could afford the conservation of Delaware Bay horseshoe crabs too –  for as they grow in number so can the amount of lysate extracted.  Everyone actually benefits.

This is integral ecology at work.  Laudato Si provides all conservationists with a solid moral ground to protect our shared home for wildlife and people.  They can help those of religious faith who will be guided by their divine inspiration to make change for wildlife and rural people.



Catholics join a religious struggle for Climate Action


So how have the Catholic rank and file reacted to the Pope’s message in Laudato Si?   This is an important issue for Americans because, as this Pew Study finds,  nearly half of them have a direct or indirect connection to the religion.

This remarkable study found that 20% of all Americans identify their religion as Catholic ( A Wall Street Journal survey says 25%).  The poll identifies another 9%  as “cultural Catholics” – those whose primary religious identity is not Catholic (most are Protestants or religious “nones”), but who say they consider themselves Catholic or partially Catholic in some way. An additional 9% are ex-Catholics – those who were raised Catholic but now eschew their Catholic identity. And 8% have other connections to Catholicism, such as having a Catholic spouse.

If one were only looking at the headlines on how Catholics reacted to Laudato Si,  she would see a muddled picture.  The first I saw described enraged liberals because the Pope defended the church’s position on abortion and angered conservatives because he was backing climate action. Both are right of course, but the headlines mislead.  It is true he took a pro-life position in Laudato Si but he expanded it to include the abused earth and the downtrodden poor, not just the unborn.

The Pope’s equating of abortion and climate change as a right to life issue angered many in the Catholic hierarchy, a group that has been widely seen favoring Republicans.  But Laudato Si is a church encyclical which guides all Catholics on how to view issues, including abortion.  An encyclical adds to the Catholic Magisterium and as such becomes required practice. In effect, the Pope equated the two issues, and this has alienated clergy.



All this from a few pages in an 184-page document.  In it though he also admonished those who would use the divisive issue of abortion to dominate other aspects of conscience, like deporting immigrants.   The Pope said to the Catholic clergy and laity, stop focusing on the divisive and build a coalition of people of all faiths to confront the most pressing issue of our time; the earth and its poor are suffering at the hands of man. Francis has changed the world for many people because all good Catholics must follow his guidance. 

Catholics around the world have largely embraced the Laudato Si and most support the Pope’s unflagging efforts to create action.     Most assessments showing little impact of Laudato Si were flawed because it took time for his message to reach the laity.   This was pointed out in the blog FiveThirtyEight, a website focused on opinion data.  The blog determined that most surveys of Catholics on Laudato Si followed shortly after the document’s release and it’s 184 pages long. Look at this assessment done in the British paper The Guardian done last year.  It cites the results of a paper presenting polling data but fails to mention the authors collection of data only two weeks after the encyclical’s release.  A more relevant review of catholic opinion was done six months after its release by Yale Program on Climate Communication.  They compared views in June 2015 to those in October 2015 and showed a significant shift of 13 points in just those six months. Others, done one year hence have confirmed this trend.  The polls suggest Catholics are about to lead the nation and other faiths.

This shift in both the opinion and action did not affect the US election in enough time enough to stop the deniers from taking power. It may have begun something much more important.  An environmental movement without environmentalists at the lead.



Maybe Environementalists need to change their approach.


What are the positions of the other major religions?


The Pope’s outspoken position on climate change is bold.  He has spoken out explicitly to the Catholic pastoral clergy on how they should council the laity on climate change, He also wrote one of the most compelling visions of environmentalism of our time.  How did the other religious leaders respond?

The answer for Christians?  It’s complicated.  Most Christian faiths are not like the Catholic Church. In fact, for many, they define themselves by not following the Catholic model.  Most Christian dominations spring from the declaration by Martin Luther that no man can come between God and one’s relationship with God.  Consequently most follow more local authorities.

Oddly enough one of the few denominations lead by one person is the Church of England, the very faith that helped get the Protestant ball rolling.  Famously King Henry the VIII challenged the Catholic Pope’s authority when he couldn’t trade in Catherine of Aragon for the younger Anne Boleyn.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, now leads the church but the nominal authority is Queen Elizabeth ll.

The Church of England and the Royal Family have spoken openly about our responsibility to the earth and the need to combat climate change.  The other related faiths, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church, have similar positions.   But from there the Christian view gets hazy.

The Baptists are the largest Protestant sect in the US,  second only to Catholics and they are divided openly and with great impact.  Some churches have spoken out clearly for action on climate change. Look at this position by the Southern Baptists. But more vocal are those who side with the Republicans and have aided their campaign to sow doubt on the science.  Jerry Falwell, perhaps one of the most politically influential religious leaders in American, says “The fact is this whole thing is cyclical,” Falwell told his congregation at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.  He continues, “and the scientists who are not on the payroll of the government …are saying the jury’s still out”.  More damaging are the many churches who have constructed radical notions of man’s relationship with the earth, clinging to no-holds-barred dominion.  At least on the face of it most Christians believe in the need for climate action, but many Protestant church leaders, like Falwell and individual churches like Westboro Baptist Church, have caused immeasurable damage in the fight to act quickly and decisively.


“ The fact is this whole thing is cyclical,” Jerry Falwell told his congregation and “the scientists who are not on the payroll of the government are saying the jury’s still out”.


Most religions are similar to Baptists in their hierarchal control, and it is far too difficult to characterize in this blog.  Muslim decentralize like the Baptists and have a similar share of climate activists and deniers.  The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences drafted a declaration on climate change that mirrors many of the encyclical’s key messages. The declaration ends with a call to action for Muslims everywhere to play a role in tackling climate change—and calls on other faiths and religious groups to join in the effort.  It inspires no less than Laudato Si.

But this call for action has no core leadership to guide the pastoral ministry who must ultimately imbue the message to the faithful.  Sects in Islam are like Baptist Churches with broad audiences.  They answer only to their inspiration and devotion and can choose the opposite view of any declaration.  The Islamic climate change declaration is noble, but the authors cannot speak for the world’s 1.3 billion people of Islam.


The many branches of Islam is bewildering to outsiders but no less variable as southern baptists in the range of their beliefs.

The many branches of Islam are bewildering to outsiders but no less variable as southern baptists in the range of their beliefs.


As it happens, The Dalia Lama’s divine calling comes closest to the Pope’s, but he not only leads Tibetan Buddism but until recently Tibet.  He is the second most respected of all religious leaders ( Pope Francis is number one)  and has won the Nobel peace prize.  The Dalai Lama recognized the severe threat of Climate Change early on and arrived at the same conclusion as the Pope,  that climate change is an expression of the rich consuming too much and leaving the poor with what little is left.



He has argued all along that the job of climate action is better led by a religious coalition rather than a political one.  He says  “Countries think about their national interest rather than the global interest.”  American politicians have proven this critical point.

Like Tibetan Buddhists and Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox Church also has a divine leader, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.  Nicknamed the “Green Patriarch,” he has been calling out the “sin” of environmental degradation for years. Read the quote below and remember it isn’t from a hyperbolic greenie but from the leader of the Eastern Orthodox religion representing over 200 million people and the main church for Russia.

To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For human beings to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests, or by destroying its wetlands; for human beings to injure other human beings with disease by contaminating the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances – all of these are sins.


So the Pope’s message isn’t new to most of the leaders of the world’s religions, many have been calling political leaders to act well before Laudato Si.  For the most part, they take the same three fundamental positions.  The rich world’s greed is ruining the earth, not acting against Climate Change is an offense against God’s creation and the care of the earth and the poor are just one issue.

The big difference between the Catholic Faith and the other world religions is the Pope’s leads one of the largest religious flocks in the world, and he has made the call for action on Climate change a part of the Church doctrine that must be followed.    He is also reminding people of other faiths that many of their leaders are calling on their laity to fight for action on Climate Change because it is a sin to not.   Finally, he also draws more attention to the ongoing efforts of religious environmental groups (such as Interfaith Power and Light, the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, the Catholic Climate Covenant, GreenFaith and others).   This may be the conservationist’s key to action



Greenfaith members protesting at Standing Rock against the new natural gas pipeline through the Lakota and Dakota Native Peoples land. Greenfaith was there at the invitation of the Native American Elders

Greenfaith members protesting at Standing Rock against the new natural gas pipeline through the Lakota and Dakota Native Peoples land. Greenfaith was there at the invitation of the Native American Elders


Putting our faith into conservation


With Trumpians in power, wildlife and wild land conservation will almost certainly take a hit.  This will take two forms.  The republican right will accelerate the fiscal starvation of conservation agencies, both federal and state, to the extent they merely function to respond to the environmental disasters.   ” Crisis dejeur” government, where agencies only respond to the emergencies caused by lack of proper planning and forethought. Actions lost to budget cuts.   As the agencies gradually lose staff and resources, our world will become dirtier, more wasteful and increasingly unhealthy.

The second change brought on by a Trumpian presidency is to give away more natural wealth to industries that have no interest in the future.  The wholesale plunder of public trust resources, minerals, forests, rangeland and agricultural has probably already been mapped out without regard to impacts on wildlife and rural residents.   The political right always cozies up to the natural resources industries, especially those that pay back in lush campaign funds.   Industries like the Koch Brother’s Georgia Pacific Paper company – who use this political power to plunder the Canadian and US forests. They leave behind local communities with mostly minimum wage jobs, dollar stores, and impoverished local governments. Wildlife is someone else’s concern.


Most American rural towns are poor and getting poorer despite the immense natural surrounding them. As it is in Delaware most of that wealth goes to corporations and not the people living in the rural American.

Most American rural towns are poor and getting poorer despite the immense natural wealth surrounding them. As it is in Delaware Bay, most of that wealth goes to corporations and not the people living in the rural America.


Face it, the people who love wildlife have lost – the people who care about the planet have lost.  Now, what?

I believe that we must follow the new path outlined by Pope Francis and religious leaders of all faiths. The rape of our natural wealth, the increasingly desperate plight of the rural poor, and the threat to our planet’s health must be viewed as one action. The path to fixing it has not arisen from environmental groups or agencies, they can’t do this.  They can only provide the methods used to create success.  It is the people of the world who must act on behalf of the earth, and it’s poor, and religious leaders inspire them.

The new path lies within Francis’s message.  He calls for a personal conversion.  A calling from within that tells every religious person that the world has fallen into the hands of people who care little for creation and the poor.   We now have a calling to fight against get-rich schemers like the Koch Brothers or the Trump Family for that matter.   But this is no longer a liberal cause but a calling from our respective God to care for the rural poor and our common home the earth.

But how can it be expressed?  For me, this is the most interesting part, because we must look for a new kind of conservation, one that serves both rural communities and wildlife.  For conservation scientists, managers and policy-makers its the most important thing to do.  How do we put Laudato Si into action?


American conservation – divided and ineffective


When it comes to conservation, I’m afraid there are few examples in the US of conservation action that puts rural communities at the forefront.  Here we pursue a schizoid conservation that almost completely ignores the interests of rural people.  On one side progressive conservation groups and some agencies focus mostly on popular or rare plant and animal species. Most see themselves as serving the broader public who care about wildlife, not the people feeling the impact of their management programs.

I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here.  I know from experience most conservationists feel the need to help rural communities.  And to be fair the progressive conservation groups are often the only people standing between wildlife it’s destruction.  But given the size of the task and immense economic forces they oppose, progressive conservation offers little hope for the wildlife they serve.  Reasonably one would expect they only superficially support the interests of rural people.

On the other hand conservative conservation, the kind that might support a Trump presidency, focuses mostly on game animals and fish.  They primarily serve sports hunters and fishers, who fund most conservation activities in this country.  Most state agencies and some federal fall into this category but politics varies widely depending on the region and state.


duck hunter


Although sportsmen have been the subject of sinister efforts by the resource industries to manipulate their opinion, they tend to  seek a close union with gun, agricultural, forestry and mining companies.  These resource industries use this unprecedented opportunity to control the fate of our fisheries, farms, and forests usually for selfish ends. Because many rural people are sportsmen, conservative conservation agencies have a much tighter relationship with rural people than progressives but do little to help their material condition. Instead they often just follow the corporation trope: exploit now worry later.  Deniers in their midst often compromise action on climate change.

In my view, both side’s efforts to create protection for our common home have been sadly defeated. 



Brazilian Conservation – Laudato Si in Action

At least in my experience, the better outlook comes ironically from the ravaged and desperately impoverished northern coast of Brazil.  Many saw the environmental ills of southern Brazil through the window of the Rio Olympics: contaminated drinking water, horrible sanitary conditions, and the spawling ghettos.   Northern Brazil is much worse.   It includes two states that in some ways mirror the two states of Delaware Bay – places with abundant natural resources whose value goes mostly to investors, politically connected carpet baggers and the politicians themselves.  Although poverty in northern Brazil goes far beyond that seen in NJ and DE, the relative differences between rich and poor are similar.  The corruption of all levels of government in Brazil is practically legendary.

In the 1980’s Brazil adopted endangered species laws similar to those that swept the US in the 70’s.    The results were similar.  Most species just took a place on the endangered species list and then despite the best efforts of agencies, could not recover.  Unfortunately for them, rare species joined the long list of liberal causes, becoming another unending fight, another unresolved environmental problem.  Now the Trumpians will find new ways to sacrifice these innocents close to losing a place on the planet.  In Brazil, they went another way.

First, they dropped the pretense of enforcing expensive regulatory and management system that never even pretends to reach its goals.  In the US  we call them recovery plans.  We list a species than establish impossible recovery goals because the most difficult issues lie outside the province of the agencies or groups proposing solutions.  In Delaware Bay, we will not recover red knots until we’ve stopped the wasteful use of horseshoe crabs for bait or killing them for their blood.  But these two industries control the regulatory framework and block any common-sense changes.  So red knots will stay on the list possibly until they go extinct.

The Brazilians dropped this pretense because the path to success was even more unlikely. Brazil supports an amazing world of wildlife and wild lands, far beyond this blog to describe, and the control of the industrial elite is nearly complete.  They can drain the land of any resource they choose, so politically compromised are the government institutions meant to oppose them.  If the endangered species act approach failed in the US, it didn’t even have a chance in Brazil.  The entire rainforest would be wrecked it it were to rely on the environmentalists or endangered species laws.



Chico Mendes with his son Sandino.   Mendes defied the cattle industry in Brazil seeking to destroy the forest that supported thousands of native people. He was murdered for his activism but started a new environmental movement based on "extractive reserves" or natural reserves who resource wealth goes to native people or rural people first.

Chico Mendes with his son Sandino. Mendes defied the cattle industry in Brazil seeking to destroy the forest that supported thousands of native people. He was murdered for his activism but started a new environmental movement based on “extractive reserves” or natural reserves who resource wealth goes to native people or rural people first.


So native people took matters into their own hand.  Led by men like Chico Mendes, a politically adept rubber tapper who didn’t learn to read until he was 18.  The corporations kept education from the native people for fear they would see their own exploitation.  In the 1980’s Mendes and others unionized and fought legal and illegal loggers backed by wealthy families. The families wanted to sell off the valuable rain forest, most of it for the wealthy in the US and overrun the ruined land with cattle.   The people living on the land, mostly native people tapping rubber trees to eke out a bare existence, were of no consequence.

The wealthy and their henchmen fought back with brutal violence.  By 1988 Chico Mendes was dead, killed by the son of a cattle rancher.  The wealthy families murdered thirteen other activists in the region for their courage in standing up for the forest and its people.  Watch the controversial movie Conspiracy to know how brutal the cattle industry treats rural people.  But the movement evolved into a new form of land protection called “extractive reserves” and the conservation agency in charge bears his name, the Chico Mendes Institute (ICMBio).

The Institute conducts a new form of conservation, at least new to the US, where the interests of the land, wildlife and the people making a living from the land, fishers, wood workers, rubber tappers, and others, are protected together.  The Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve (2.3 million acres), was the first  ( Reserva Extrativista) of many reserves created in the area where he lived.

I have a personal connection to this innovative conservation policy.  I co-lead a team studying the coastal region between the states of Para and Maranhao.  I collaborate with  Danielle Pluto, a biologist with the ICMBio, the Brazilian equivalent of our own Department of Interior and EPA.   We conduct research on the conservation of wintering Arctic nesting shorebirds, including the red knot,  in one of the largest Mangrove swamps in the world.  Within it lie ten extractive reserves.  These extractive reserves restrict for the sake of local people and the wildlife on which they depend.  For example within the reserve, the agency restricts the international fishing fleet from decimating the coastal fishery, the foundation of the small village economy.  The CMI helps rural communities with grants to create the infrastructure to get better prices for their catch.  They give funds to help local artists make use of local woods and other natural resources.   They help form collectives where rural communities can exert their influence on industry dominated politicians.

The system has problems.  Corruption, theft and ominously, violence against staff like Danielle Paluto, who heroically defend this system.  Its needs more funding.   But clearly, it’s the right path towards successful protection of the cultural and natural value. It also fortifies the coastline against sea level rise with energy absorbing Mangrove Swamps.  This is the system envisaged in Laudo Si


Danielle Paluto, with ICMBio, seated between from left to right, Ana Paul Sousa, Roberta Rodriqous. and ????, Brazilian reserachers supporting ICMBio's mission

Danielle Paluto of ICMBio (foreground left), seated between (from left to right), Ana Paul Sousa, Roberta Rodriguez,  Brazilian researchers supporting ICMBio’s mission



Laudato Si and success unimagined

So why do we pursue our fractured system of conservation despite the lack  of noticeable results?  Why shouldn’t rural communities reap the wealth of the land around them? Why not pursue conservation programs designed to benefit ecological landscapes and rural community?  If we did follow this strategy how would it look here in the US?

I describe the most obvious possibility on Delaware Bay above: give local communities a role in the extraction of lysate and stop the international drug companies from bleeding both crabs and communities to death. But one could demand more: why can’t we redefine the ownership of resources in a way that defends both community and resource.  There are some successful but isolated examples of success, such as the lobster fishery in Maine.  Lobstermen control the regulation and harvest of this valuable commodity in cooperation with agencies. Agencies take a backseat to the community of fishers who lead the way.  But these successes are few and far between.



Unfortunately, we don’t have much time to waste on conservationists leading the charge to a better way. Despite the rhetoric of politicians, the truth of climate change is undeniable and the options for preventing untold damage to our children’s world narrow day by day.   Imagine a world of harsher and more destructive natural forces, diminished resources, a lower quality of life for all but especially for the world’s poor.  Scientists know this and stand unified in their beliefs. But as long as we stay in the discussion created by politicians to avoid this truth,  we miss a larger point.  It is happening.  God’s creation is being mutilated, tread on, kick in the gut, by all us sinners.

We shouldn’t pretend it’s all the fault of politicians.  When they do take courageous actions or speak out loudly, we allow others to heap abuse upon them and treat them like idiots.  Look at the decimation of Al Gore.  He recognized the truth early on when action would have solved the problem much easier and would have sped the nation towards a new energy and conservation future.   Too bad about that, we missed a real opportunity.

The promises made by the winners of 2016 election will almost certainly destroy any chances for progress equal to President Obama, just when more progress is needed.  So it is up to all conservationists with concern for our common home to act by working with those of faith who want to follow their religious leaders.

Aldo Leopold knew this would be a critical period in conservation nearly 70 years ago.  He wrote in  The Land Ethic, one of his most important essays, “No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it.”


“No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it ” Aldo Leopold The Land Ethic


We are now at that moment.  Nearly all the world’s religions agree that the people inducing climate change are sinning against God’s creation.  Politicians marginalize this important message because they must act in the interests of their respective country, not the planet.  But it is an important message to all people of faith, most of the world’s population.


The trend in religious faith has declined slightly but still 90% of American believe in the spiritual.

The trend in religious faith has declined slightly but still 90% of American believe in the spiritual. I often must show this data to prove how many people believe.

This country’s citizens include an enormous group that cares about God.  Most have no doubt about the existence of God (79%), some have no certainty but hope for the best (10%), only a small portion are certain of a godless universe(11%).  Conservationists who believe in the spiritual owe it to others of like mind to relate their conservation message to their faith. We must say out loud we work to save God’s creation. We must integrate the interests of the poor in our conservation activities because it provides a solid moral frame for the protection of wildlife wildland, and rural people  The American public needs us to do this because they trust us, to act on their behalf.  But they must be inspired to create the political force and support for bold action to take place. Knowing the scientist and managers that speak for wildlife also speak for their faith will help religious leaders pave the way forward

So thank God for Pope Francis and all the religious leaders who fight for our common home.  They have hijacked the environmental movement just in the nick of time!  Conservationists should follow their lead and do the work we know best, figuring new ways to serve the earth and its poor.  The world’s religions are the new leaders in the global effort to save the world from changing the climate in a way that transcends Donald Trump’s greedy and myopic vision.  The threat he poses to conservation is certain, but from this threat might arise a universal basis for our work that could create success unimagined.