“In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” – Senegalese forestry engineer, Baba Dioum

When I left university, I was a budding conservationist armed with good intentions, theoretical head knowledge, and an enthusiasm to change the world. I then entered a real world where human hearts were not so easy to sway. After firsthand experience in a variety of contexts, I was left wondering how to negotiate that space between understanding facts and inspiring a sacrificial love which is powerful enough to change our ways. It is not a simple step, but our Christian faith can help this conversation, and possibly the whole planet, in a big way.

My introduction to practical marine conservation began in the tropical waters around Madagascar and the Maldives. Here I dived into the rich world of the coral reef and came to delight in the familiar characters—territorial fish protecting their anemone, eels poking their heads out from caves, and graceful turtles surfacing nearby to breathe. In this busy picture-postcard scene, the reef-building coral are quite easily overlooked. It can be difficult to appreciate the rock-like structures for what they are: animals supporting an ecosystem under extreme threat.

If you watch a reef for long enough, or have the pleasure of a night-time snorkel, you will see small flower-like animals emerging all over the coral's surface. Coral is not just a hard skeleton—it is a colony of animals called polyps. Each polyp lives within its own calcium carbonate cup, which it builds by drawing minerals from the seawater. The animals emerge under the protection of night and use their tentacles to snatch passing food from the water around them. This feeding behavior only supplies a fraction of what they need. The bulk of their fuel is collected during the daytime from a relationship with colorful single-celled algae called zooxanthellae. These tiny organisms live within the polyp's body tissue, converting energy from the sun into carbohydrates.

Today, increasingly dire headlines announce concern for this relationship between coral and zooxanthellae in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Coral are suited to live in a very particular range of water conditions. When a coral is shocked or stressed by a sudden change in these conditions, it loses its zooxanthellae in a process called bleaching. Using aerial surveys, scientists have estimated that the latest temperature increase in Australian waters has left more than two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef bleached. If the zooxanthellae do not return to the polyps in time, the coral will starve and die, leaving behind lifeless white skeletons.

Article continues below

This bleaching affects not only the coral and a huge array of reef species, but also coastal communities, who depend on healthy reefs for sustenance, income, protection from storm energy and, for island states, the very sand they live on.

Healthy coral can withstand this lean period without their zooxanthellae if conditions quickly return to normal. However, many coral communities are not in good health. They face a myriad of local pressures like overfishing, poor water quality from construction, waste, and nutrients from nearby agriculture. When coral are weakened, even small changes in the water temperature or pH can act as the final straw for the important animal-algae relationship. These fluctuations are ultimately linked to ocean-wide processes and even to the Earth's changing atmosphere. The complex connections between land, ocean, and atmosphere are fascinating to study but impossible to restore without global cooperation.

Great Barrier Reef scientists now believe that this ecosystem can only be restored if many choose to change their lifestyles in consideration for other species, as well as people suffering in different countries and future generations. Cooperation must work on multiple levels from large-scale government support and energy change in industry down to households and churches using sustainably, ethically sourced products and individuals living aware of their carbon contribution, which includes wasting less food and cutting down on red meat, to name a few. Yet, with a problem this daunting and far removed from most of our everyday lives, how do conservationists inspire change?

The Making of a Disciple

In 2008, environmental education experts Joe Heimlich and Nicole Ardoin found that psychologists have difficulty explaining a clear relationship between “pro-environmental attitudes” and “pro-environmental behaviour.” Each of us are physical beings bound to a context: a specific time, place, culture, and set of values. We are not all motivated by the same things, and we are not equally capable of changing our routines. Different communities live under very different pressures, and some people—like the coral—are struggling for their very lives.

Heimlich and Ardoin's review also found that awareness of the issues and solutions are key steps along the road to action but that this knowledge alone is not enough. Beliefs are important for motivating behavior change. These include our responses to questions like: Do we believe that we are able to change and make a difference? Do we feel responsibility for and connectedness toward those suffering? Who do we believe has control over the events in our life?

Article continues below

While scientists may wish a simple knowledge transfer will inspire change, I am reminded of the relational way of Christian disciple making. After spending 24 years in pastoral ministry, the writer, speaker, and discipleship teacher Greg Ogden noted in his book “Discipleship Essentials,” that Jesus’ own disciple-making pattern "was to be intimately involved with others and allow life to rub against life."

The Power to Change

Christians are not strangers to working with the complexities and resistances of the heart. Robert Sluka, a marine biologist working for the Christian conservation organization A Rocha, first introduced me to this synergy between environmental education and faith. Addressing a room full of secular conservation scientists in Cambridge, United Kingdom, he said, “In a way, you are evangelists too! You have a message you believe is important, knowledge you believe should change how people live, and you face obstacles as you try and help the people you are approaching.”

As I’ve read about environmental education, I have been drawn to think of Jesus as the perfect teacher and changer of hearts. God fully entered into our context and gave us, by his love, the ultimate motivation to change our lives. Further, Jesus' winsome example—his humility, compassion, and sacrifice—teach us how to reach out relationally to those around us. As a conservationist, this insight shapes my approach to community projects. As a Christian, it goes even further than this.

Christians have witnessed a real change of hearts and lives, both in the Bible and also personally. Knowing that Jesus was the promised Messiah should have been enough to inspire radical behavior change in the disciples, and yet—almost cringingly from our perspective—we can see how long it took for that head knowledge to become a conviction of heart which gave them the courage to change their lives and proclaim that truth to others.

Mercifully, God sent the Holy Spirit to take hold of their hearts and strengthen them for all that lay ahead. He thoroughly transformed them—and it changed the world! His Spirit now drives us forward every day, helping us overcome all the potential stumbling blocks to which our hearts cling to resist change.

Article continues below
The Gospel for Conservation

My ultimate encouragement to stay in conservation science rests in my hope for the church. If we, as his church of transformed and Spirit-empowered hearts, engage with the needs of a groaning creation, can we show his will and goodness here on earth as it is in heaven?

I look to Margaret W. Miller as an example of belief in action. Miller is a Christian coral ecologist, who works in Florida and faces the discouraging task of conserving coral reefs in a polluted world. She works with reefs where—like the Great Barrier Reef—increasing bleaching events have left large areas of coral severely compromised. She laments that throughout her career, “much of what we observe them doing in the world is dying.”

Every day she stubbornly continues in her work. Her efforts to help the coral reproduce even go as far as coral midwifery and coral gardening, which involve assisting egg fertilization, nursing young colonies, and spreading fragments to new areas. She believes that this work is an important extension of her discipleship, because a healthy reef's fruitfulness and examples of interdependence demonstrate God's provision for all. The task at hand is “a very humbling and scary prospect,” but she continues in this field because of her understanding that God loves his creation and wants ecosystems to flourish and function in the way he intended. This idea gives the system an intrinsic value as God's creation. It also connects us to God's command to care for the vulnerable and marginalized of his creation—in this case, his coral ecosystems and the human communities who depend upon them.

As I reflect on this as a Christian and a conservationist, I've been challenged by words I say quite often. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” I am quick to pray but slow to let it sink in. Am I really willing to be the hands and feet through which God works for his restored creation to be glimpsed, even partially, here in our world? When Jesus’ brother James described Abraham, he said, “You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (James 2:22).

Article continues below

In this hyper-connected world, with so much news at our fingertips, the overload can stop us from acting. So very often I let my environmental concern be momentary and head-based. I read an article, feel sad for a moment, wish I could change things, and then scroll on to news items that are going to affect my life more directly. Yet it is the equivalent of telling a naked, starving neighbor to “go in peace; keep warm and well fed” (James 2:16), while making no attempt to help them. James calls Christians to move beyond empathy to action.

After returning from the Maldives, I found it easier to connect with online news about the reefs and the sea turtles with which I had personally worked. We cannot all become active marine conservationists, but as a global body formed of many different parts, let us each do what we can, investing even a little bit of time, energy, or prayers.

Above all, my time caring for just a tiny fraction of God's world has helped me to praise him and challenged the way I had separated him from his creation. Let us enjoy time in God's presence through his works and declare our identities as children of the creator God by including stewardship issues in what we pray for and talk, sing, care, and preach about.

Cara Daneel, a South African native, received her Marine Biology and Oceanography degree from the University of Cape Town. She has worked in conservation and education in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. She works as a research assistant for The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion on a communications project: Wonders of the Living World.