OOS 30-3 - Sustainable communities, sustainable faith: Challenges and opportunities in engaging the general public through religious environmental programs

Wednesday, August 10, 2011: 2:10 PM
14, Austin Convention Center
Bee Moorhead, Texas Impact, Austin, TX

Ecologists are key to engaging the broader public in earth stewardship. Religious people have disproportionately higher affinity with public policy, justice concerns and community activities than the general population, and are organized for adult education, so they are ideal groups to partner  with the ecological community

Texas adults can be a test group for ecology education effectiveness, as they participate in organized religion at higher rates than other Americans— e.g. Texas accounts for eight percent of U.S. residents but more than 10 percent of U.S. Methodists. Texas religious organizations are often more conservative than those in other states and resist messages they perceive as associated with political parties. Questions explored include: “How can ecologists make environmental topics accessible and compelling for religious audiences?” “What kind of scientific information is most useful for faith communities, and how is it best presented?” and “What kinds of goals should ecologists have for engaging the broader public through religious organizations?”


Examples from a decade of religious environmental education in Texas show how environmental professionals have contributed to increased environmental engagement in religious organizations. Ecologists and other scientists are ideal messengers for the religious community because they are seen as objective, rigorous and detail-oriented.   Even more so for scientists who are religious, because they are comfortable using faith terms that can help audiences connect ecology and stewardship conceptually.   Second-career religious leaders who had prior careers in science are seen as especially trustworthy.

Religious organizations often have long-standing commitment to health care, and frequently are financially invested in providing care to low-income populations. Ecologists and other scientists who relate ecological concepts to specific issues of human health are important messengers because they can tap into an existing area of interest. Food systems are another important point of connection for similar reasons. Scientific information is especially engaging when it relates to observable conditions in the local community, especially conditions that have disproportionate impact on the wellbeing of children such as mercury contamination of local food fish.

By focusing their public communications on religious organizations, ecologists can influence a subpopulation that is key to cultural transformation.  In the process, ecologists may find that such engagement also enriches the presenter. One expert exclaimed at a recent religious presentation in Austin, “I’ve been doing this work for 30 years, and no one has ever raised the kind of questions you all are asking.”

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