Can the devout stay on the right path for the planet?

Sensemaking / Can the devout stay on the right path for the planet?

Dixe Wills asks how we can reduce the substantial footprint of the world’s pilgrims.  

30 Sep 2011

Dixe Wills asks how we can reduce the substantial footprint of the world’s pilgrims.

“I’m going on a pilgrimage.”

How many other statements say so much about a person in so few words? Anyone who seeks to be a pilgrim must nurture a taste for adventure, be unafraid of hardship, harbour a singular devotion to their religion, and not be too fussed about global warming…

Or so it might seem, when one looks at the vast carbon footprint left by the sandals of the world’s pilgrims. With every major religion on the planet encouraging some form of pilgrimage amongst its adherents, the number of souls criss-crossing the globe is staggering.

Precise numbers are impossible to come by but, for example, the Saudi Arabian authorities claim that around 3.5 million Muslims participated in last year’s Hajj. Five million Christians flock to Lourdes every year, and Mexico City’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe attracts 20 million. Buddhists (no accurate record exists of the numbers) head for four main pilgrimage sites in northern India and southern Nepal, among others. Jews of the Diaspora visit Israel. Sikhs, meanwhile, seek spiritual nourishment in Pakistan. But it’s Hindus that are the most enthusiastic pilgrims, with Melas on particularly holy years attracting up to 60 million devotees to various cities in India.

Raising a highly speculative finger in the air, if we were to say that a typical year sees 90 million pilgrims on the move, and that a third of these fly an average of 4,000 miles on a round trip, the carbon dioxide from flights alone would amount to over 15 million tonnes. That’s something like the annual emissions of four coal-fired power plants. Add to that all the other forms of transport, the infrastructure needed to receive pilgrims, the possible water stress caused by the huge numbers involved, and the manufacture and transport of the obligatory souvenirs – and the environmental impact that pilgrims impose on the planet becomes apparent.

Thankfully, there is hope for those who would rather their faith did not conflict with their ecological principles. The biggest breakthrough in terms of emissions reductions has come with the opening in 2010 of the first section of the so-called ‘Mecca Metro’, an 18km Chinese-built light railway. Once complete (in 2012) it is expected to replace approximately 30,000 car journeys a day during the Hajj. A high-speed rail network linking Mecca with the holy city of Medina and the port of Jedda is also on the drawing board.

Another significant move came at an International Islamic Green Movement meeting in Jakarta, with a clarion call to governments to green up their respective Islamic holy sites. The Saudi authorities have already responded with plans to switch mosques, hotels and banqueting suites over to solar power.

So what might a truly sustainable pilgrimage look like? For an idea, one could do worse than examine the Way of St James routes to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. Christians traditionally make the journey to the city on foot and are encouraged to live simply, using small wayside inns or specially provided hostels. Rather than have one prescribed route, the physical impact of the pilgrimage on local fauna, flora and water tables is dissipated by a network of paths spread across Western Europe for the faithful to follow.

Hoping to make such examples more mainstream, ARC has launched the Green Pilgrim Cities network [see ‘Sacred sites on the move’, below]. Devised by representatives of nine of the world’s major religions, the network’s vision is to inspire both the journey-makers and their destinations to act more sustainably.

“The plan for the city of Jerusalem is initially to green the infrastructure through initiatives such as the new light rail system currently under construction”, notes ARC’s Alison Hilliard. “The Etchmiadzin greening plan includes offering pilgrims affordable and healthy traditional food, installing solar panels at the Gevorgyan Theological University, and setting up twenty sustainable bed and breakfast facilities for pilgrims.”

Kusum Vyas, ARC representative and President of the Texas-based Living Planet Foundation, was encouraged by a visit to the state of Gujarat in India, where the cities of Dwarka, Somnath and Ambaji have been drawing up their eco-pilgrimage plans:

“I’m particularly impressed with Ambaji”, Vyas says, “where they have adapted the Hindu practice of prasadam. Instead of the pilgrims receiving food at the temple, they are given tulsi seeds and saplings of fruit-bearing trees to take home to sow or plant.”

And in Amritsar, alongside a mass tree-planting programme to celebrate the recently inaugurated Sikh Environment Day (14th March), locally made and designed pedal rickshaws were recently introduced to ferry visitors about.

But ultimately, responsibility for the footprint of a pilgrimage rests with the pilgrim. Conscious of this, Arwa Aburawa – a journalist with a particular interest in how Islam can inspire more people to care for their planet – is studying the carbon footprint left by her relatives when they went on Hajj from Manchester last year. Asked how she would green the experience when she follows in their footsteps one day, her answer is unequivocal: “Slow travel – that would be the really interesting way to do it. It’s not only greener but I’m sure it would also add to the spiritual benefits of the Hajj.”

And perhaps this is the message that will most resonate with all devout wanderers: that where pilgrimages are concerned, it’s better to travel holistically than to arrive.

Sacred sites on the move

The popular destinations already signed up to ARC’s network of Green Pilgrim Cities are:

  • Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple (above), which enshrines the Holy Book of the Sikhs
  • Assisi, the burial place of St Francis and one of the most important destinations for Roman Catholics
  • Etchmiadzin, where the Armenian Church has its headquarters
  • Jerusalem, a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims
  • Trondheim, where the Nidaros Cathedral draws Lutherans from across Norway
  • The sites of three important Hindu shrines: Dwarka, dwelling place of Lord Krishna; Somnath, where one of 12 important temples to the Lord Shiva is found; and Ambaji, where the goddess Shree Visa Yantra is worshipped by blindfolded followers.

Dixe Wills is a freelance writer specialising in sustainable travel and tourism.

Photo: ARC

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