Cultivating a Constituency for Conservation


As the head of a faith-based environmental nonprofit organization, I believe enacting sound public policy and on-the-ground conservation practices in the next 25 years depends critically on widening and diversifying the set of supporters and users of conservation science, and that set must include evangelical Christians. In the United States, evangelical Christians are credited with outsized influence on the public-policy process (Lindsay 2007). The same is increasingly true in the developing world, where growth in the number and size of conservative Christian churches has been explosive (Jenkins 2002). Building public support for conservation science and policy in the next 25 years must increasingly take conservative Christianity into account at the global extent.

There are strong ties between evangelicals from the northern and southern hemispheres (Kristof 2002), but the concentration of Christians is shifting southward (Jenkins 2011). Christians from the developing world now send missionaries to increasingly secular nations within Europe and North America, whereas developed-world Christians are making efforts to recognize developing-world voices. Evangelicals from the northern hemisphere provide disproportionately large flows of private international development assistance relative to other faith groups (Smith 2008). According to one poll (Barna Group 2008), many evangelicals in North America (23%), especially young adults, participate in short-term service projects abroad. Such trips sensitize participants to the concerns of developing nations and possibly boost their financial generosity and willingness to support development aid on their return (although this possibility is contested [Honig 2005]). Communicating conservation science to evangelical practitioners in the international-development community is therefore also important.

Cultivating evangelical Christians as both supporters and as users of conservation science is feasible, but the pathway to partnership is not smooth. Understanding some of the recent trends in the evangelical movement will help chart a useful way forward.

There has always been a minority of evangelical Christians in North America and Europe who are avid naturalists, birders, gardeners, hunters and anglers, farmers, and even scientists for whom a conservation ethic is a priority. For this minority, conservative theology includes a stewardship ethic, a respect for place, and a sense of gratitude and responsibility for the natural order. The most emblematic Christian group among these is A Rocha International, a member organization of the International Union for Conservation of Nature composed of Christian conservation professionals working in 20 countries (Harris 2008). Others include Restoring Eden, a grassroots organization in the United States that has worked on wilderness protection, restoration of salmon fisheries, forest policy, and the ecological impacts of coal mining in the Appalachians (Illyn 2011). The Evangelical Environmental Network is credited with helping defend the U.S. Endangered Species Act from being dismantled in the 1990s, basing their efforts on conservative theological grounds (Johns 2003). But the conservation priorities of these groups have yet to catch on among mainstream evangelicals. Although evangelical Christians are increasingly aware of environmental issues, in the past 25 years they, like other people in the developed world, have tended to hunt, fish, camp, and visit natural areas less often every year (Pergams & Zaradic 2008). This has a direct effect on support for conservation (Zaradic et al. 2009). Ignorance of the natural world can be framed as a theological problem. One of the historic statements of faith of the Christian church, the Belgic Confession, argues that there are two primary ways to learn about God. The inspired Scriptures are essential, of course, but the very first way in which we encounter God is “by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20” (de Bräs 1561).

No evangelical parent would dream of letting his or her children remain ignorant of the Bible. So how can it be that modern Christians in the United States permit their children to be so woefully untutored in the “beautiful book” (de Bräs 1561) of Creation when the Bible speaks so clearly of nature's value in revealing the Creator (Keyes 2007)? There is clearly biblical warrant for the movement to “leave no child indoors” (Louv 2006).

Most evangelical Christians (like members of the general public) simply fail to distinguish between conservation and environmentalism. A growing number of evangelical Christians are sympathetic to environmental concerns, but most probably consider conservation a subset of environmentalist causes. Those opposed to modern environmentalism, when pressed, will sometimes state “I am a conservationist, not an environmentalist” (Thomas 2007), mainly to signal they have not fallen for what they believe is global-warming alarmism or that they support private environmental stewardship over government regulation. Political conservatives tend to use conservation to denote utilitarian environmental stewardship, reserving the (generally pejorative) epithet environmentalist to disparage those who want to save the whales (or, more recently, the polar bears). Aside from evangelical environmental professionals and academics (Toly & Block 2010; Van Houtan & Northcott 2010), discussion about conservation, biological diversity, or ecosystem services is still rare.

In the United States, polarization on environmental issues including conservation has recently increased, and conservative evangelical opposition to environmental causes has hardened and grown more pugnacious (e.g., Beisner 2010), partly due to positive press coverage garnered by the growing Christian environmental movement. Opponents combine their critique of conservation and their skepticism about reported extinction rates under a rejection of environmentalism writ large. Their leaders paint the conservation and environmental movements as the same “Green Dragon,” warning of big government, dangerous new-age spirituality, global warming alarmism, and a pervasive misanthropy (Wanliss 2011).

Crossing Borders

Extreme skepticism about all claims of environmental crisis is an affliction mostly of the U.S. churches. Globally, evangelical leaders are less prone to conspiracy theories about environmental issues. In 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa, global evangelical leaders from countries in the northern and southern hemispheres gathered to discuss the broad mission of Christianity in the 21st century. The resulting Cape Town Commitment contains clear statements about conservation worldwide:

All human beings are to be stewards of the rich abundance of God's good creation. We are authorized to exercise godly dominion in using it for the sake of human welfare and needs…. As we do so, we are also commanded to care for the earth and all its creatures, because the earth belongs to God, not to us.… We lament over the widespread abuse and destruction of the earth's resources, including its biodiversity (Third Lausanee Congress on World Evangelization 2010).

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of short-term exchanges (service trips of 1–2 weeks) between churches in the northern and southern hemispheres in the past 25 years. These short trips probably account for the increase in concern among evangelicals in the United States about global poverty and environmental issues, but the concern has not yet been effectively coupled to concern about ecosystem protection.

Finding the Right Messengers

Given that conservation issues are highly polarized, the fundamental problem is finding the right messenger. Fred Van Dyke (2005) argues that “evangelicals engaged in conservation are the best equipped to speak to those [evangelicals] who are not so engaged.” The messenger problem is particularly important, and sensitive, because it touches on identity politics. There is no single evangelical personality in the field of conservation science like Francis Collins, an evangelical who headed the Human Genome Project and who is now head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Collins has been the most visible advocate for the acceptance of “theistic evolution” among evangelicals, arguing for the credibility of modern evolutionary biology and against scientific creationism and intelligent design (Collins 2006).

For now, conservation science will need to rely on a multitude of messengers to faith audiences rather than a charismatic megaspeaker. Conservation organizations could start within their own ranks. A number of conservation professionals are evangelical Christians; this is probably especially true of the national staff of conservation organizations in developing countries. Internal, voluntary surveys could be done at major nongovernmental conservation organizations to identify staff and partners who could serve as credible messengers to evangelical audiences. A smart, independent campaign to communicate to evangelicals a conservation vision that features sympathetic and faithful voices, engaged in inspiring on-the-ground work, could add much strength to grassroots political support.

Getting Past the Population Problem

World population growth is undoubtedly a serious driver of environmental degradation. But repeated insistence by some conservation advocates to control human population, generally through vastly expanded access to contraceptive technologies in developing nations, makes conservation seem misanthropic and imperialistic. In fact, the population problem seems to be solving itself. After mid-century, world population will begin to decline, perhaps rapidly, if global fertility rates continue to plummet, as they are now doing (having fallen from 4.9 births per woman in 1960 to 2.5 births per woman in 2009 [World Bank 2011]). Reduction in desired family size driven by changing economic factors, rather than by access to modern contraception, best explains changes in actual fertility (Pritchett 1994; Birdsall et al. 2001).

Because of these trends, my personal hope is that the advocates among us will begin to separate their support for population control from their conservation message, without feeling they have compromised their view that population is a concern. They would do well to concentrate support for policy interventions that make families better off (and that have the side effect of reducing desired family size), reduce per capita resource consumption, and accomplish conservation directly.

Fighting the Right Battles

David Orr (2005) argues that apocalyptic visions of the world's end make conservative evangelicals complicit in “sweeping us toward more terrible violence and the avoidable catastrophes of climate change and ecological ruin.” In fact, many evangelicals reject such views and believe instead that redemption and restoration will come to the entire created order (Wright 2008). But even evangelicals who hold apocalyptic beliefs decline to cite them as an excuse for environmental inaction (Wilkinson 2012). The seminary best known for such end-times theology actually argues that environmental stewardship must include concern for endangered species (Dallas Theological Seminary 2008).

The real ideology threatening evangelical involvement in conservation is radical libertarianism. Every environmentally minded evangelical leader I know has received an invitation to attend a privately funded retreat on free-market economics put on by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE). Through these retreats FREE promises to add rigor to their good intentions, and they provide the kind of encounters that have promoted a profound antiregulatory shift in the U.S. judiciary over the past 25 years (Kendall & Sorkin 2001).

What conservation organizations are conducting such targeted outreach to evangelical leaders? Recent overtures to evangelicals have been framed nearly exclusively around the politically contentious issue of climate change, when a more fruitful bridge is the role of natural resources in providing for human needs or the virtue of mitigating losses of species and ecosystem services.

Funding Conservation Directly and Indirectly

Conservation spending constitutes a tiny proportion of government aid (e.g., only about 1% of U.S. foreign aid goes to conservation). If more were done to ensure complementarities between conservation and social programs, it would be the equivalent of an expansion in funding for conservation. Incorporating conservation actions in social programs need not come at the expense of spending for human needs: Humanitarian work can achieve substantial conservation indirectly. In Haiti the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funds job creation for those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Some beneficiaries are conserving soils, planting trees, reducing flooding, creating habitat, and restoring ecological function while earning much-needed wages.

The trend of privatization of foreign aid is likely to continue. Privately directed aid now exceeds official development assistance in the United States, and perhaps as much as one-fifth of this aid comes from churches and faith-based organizations (Adelman 2003). If even a small fraction of this private aid were to be allocated to the protection and restoration of ecosystem functions that undergird livelihoods and development, it would be a substantial increase in funding for international conservation.

Emphasizing the utilitarian nature of some conservation work ought to complement and not displace a recognition of the intrinsic value of creatures and their habitats. Indeed, as the Cape Town Commitment makes clear, evangelicals recognize God as the owner of all Creation, and the value of nature derives from his creative activity, not merely from its usefulness to humans.

Recognizing a Common Humanity

For Christians, the uniqueness of the human species derives from being marked with the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26,27). For generations this mark has been understood to indicate that there is some quality of humans that sets them apart from other animals, be it rationality, language, tool making, government, violence, cheating, or hoarding. None of these qualities really mark humans as qualitatively different from other animals. Even worship is not uniquely human, if passages such as Psalm 96:11–12 have any meaning at all:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;

Let the sea resound, and everything in it;

Let the fields be jubilant, and all that is in them.

Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy (New International Version).

In my mind, the biblical picture of humans as divine image bearers describes the human responsibility to understand and steward the created order. In the words of theologian N.T. Wright, bearing the image of God means that humans are like an “angled mirror,” on the one hand reflecting out into the world the care, management, and concern God has for all of life and on the other hand reflecting the goodness and glory of the Creation back to God the Creator through awareness, gratitude, and worship (Wright 2010). To properly bear God's image means carefully attending to the wonder and the workings of nature, to natural history and ecological science. It means observing and conserving and repairing and restoring.

Humans fall far short of the mark. The story of the Fall into sin is also a part of the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. St. Paul described Jesus as the “second Adam” who, through his sacrifice, opens the door to restored relationships between God and humans, among humans themselves, and, by implication, between humans and the rest of Creation (Romans 5, Romans 8).

Other religions have ways of explaining humanity's uniqueness, its failings, and its possible redemption, but in the Christian tradition the concept of a creature bearing the image of God is inextricably linked to stewardship of Earth and care for all its denizens. It is about tending and keeping (Genesis 2:15), extending a gracious dominion (Genesis 1:26,28), and working with God on restoring and reconciling what is broken (Colossians 1:15–23). Crucially, evangelical Christians believe this commission to cultivate and conserve what is good in Creation falls to the entire human race, not just their coreligionists. It is part of the grand narrative that precedes any special revelation or specific religious tradition. It is warrant for even the most conservative Christian to work shoulder to shoulder with those of any faith and of no religious faith at all. In the Christian tradition, conservation is one indicator of what it means to be truly human.


I thank J. W. Jewell, T. Keyes, G. Murray, S. Sabin, K. S. Van Houtan, J. Wise, and N.T. Wright for useful discussions that influenced this essay. I thank E. Fleishman and K. Redford for very helpful editing. Any errors remaining are my own.

About the Author

Lowell (Rusty) Pritchard, PhD, is a resource economist with a background in systems ecology who is the founder and head of Flourish, a Christian environmental ministry ( He serves as a key adviser to numerous evangelical organizations and leaders on climate issues. In the past he has been active in global-change research and in 1999 helped found the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University.