#notjustoldnews: How will the faiths shape our future?

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Ian Christie: Why sustainability matters to the faiths, and why the faiths matter for sustainable development

By Ian Christie / 19 Aug 2015

In 2009, Ian Christie, a Fellow at the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, wrote a feature about the role of the world’s religions in sustainable development, published in ‘Moving Mountains: how can faith shape our future?’ - a special edition from Forum's former magazine, Green Futures.

Six years on, in the light of a new wave of environmental and social activism in Christian churches and other faiths and the Pope’s Encyclical in particular, he discusses how the role of faiths in our future has changed. He writes in a personal capacity only.

2009: A tale of two conferences

As I walked up Castle Hill from the station, I saw a more colourful and exotic crowd of pedestrians than the old English town of Windsor is used to. There were Buddhist monks in saffron robes coming out of shops; Evangelical American priests taking photographs; muftis and imams gazing at the walls of the Castle; Catholic monks in their habits; white-bearded Hindu elders sharing the pavement with nuns and Pentecostalist Nigerian women in full West African finery. Everywhere I looked, there were eco-Muslims, Green Christians, zero-carbon Zoroastrians and environmentally friendly Jews. What was going on?

In November 2009, a month before the Copenhagen climate summit, an altogether more successful and better organised conference was held in Windsor. This was set up by the United Nations Development Programme and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) to highlight the work done by the major religions to protect the environment, act on climate change and to promote more sustainable development projects by faith communities, in their own right and in collaboration with other faiths and with secular bodies. ARC has been encouraging faith organisations to produce ‘Seven Year Plans for Generational Change’ (see www.arcworld.org for downloadable copies and updates).

These Plans set out how each faith tradition relates its values and beliefs to the environmental crisis, what work its organisations have done so far, and what they plan to do in the coming decade. Projects include the greening of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca; development of a global sustainable and ethical product labelling scheme for Muslims; environmental building schemes by Buddhist communities in China; climate change twinning projects between US evangelical churches and communities in developing countries; and the Church of England’s bold target of a 42% cut in its carbon footprint by 2020, leading towards a reduction of 80% by 2050.

The conference at Windsor was a dramatic contrast to what eventually happened at Copenhagen; and it was a startling occasion for any non-religious observers convinced that all faith communities are enemies of one another, havens of ignorance and sources of violence. The event did a powerful job of showing how inter-faith cooperation can flourish. As well as presenting the plans from their particular faiths, many delegates also announced new partnerships they’d created at the event with colleagues from other religions. Fittingly, this multi-cultural, multi-faith conference closed with a psalm read by a member of WWF, and then sung in Arabic by a Maronite Christian priest from Lebanon, who was wildly applauded by the assembled Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Evangelicals, Catholics, Anglicans, Greek Orthodox priests, Zoroastrians and Sikhs.

As the conference ended, news came through of further breakdowns and disputes in the run-up to the intergovernmental conference on climate change. As I left, after talking to an impressive young Muslim from a UK-based Christian-Muslim forum on climate action, I was struck by the contrast between this event and the looming disaster at the Copenhagen summit.

From Copenhagen to 2015: disappointment and renewal

The failure of the climate talks at Copenhagen understandably knocked the confidence and morale of sustainable development and climate campaigners worldwide. And this loss of energy was felt in the churches that had gathered so impressively at Windsor. Over half a decade later in 2015, however, there is renewed confidence and a sense of momentum in the sustainability world. There is hope that governments might really mean business at the Paris climate talks in December this year, and hope that the emerging Sustainable Development Goals from the UN will strengthen sustainability thinking and policy worldwide.

The renewal of hope reflects two developments. First, concern about climate disruption and wider ecological risks has been growing among major corporations – think of Unilever or Wal-Mart – and other key players in the global economy. Governments are under pressure from pro-sustainability corporations as well as from fossil fuel lobbies. 

And second, there is a new wave of activism and rethinking about sustainability at work in the world’s major faiths, and especially in Christian denominations. The movement to dis-invest from fossil fuels has caught the imagination of churches and many of them are among the leaders in the divestment / reinvestment campaigns. Churches have launched many new projects and campaigns in the run-up to the Paris climate summit in December. 

Above all, Pope Francis has energised the entire debate on climate and sustainability with the astonishing Encyclical Laudato Si’ (June 2015). This document offers an analysis of the unsustainable trends in our environment, economies and societies; a powerful critique of consumerism and materialism, and of neoliberal capitalism; an endorsement of scientific consensus on climate change and other ecological crises; and a poetic, ringing call for personal and collective action to protect and renew the Earth. Whether you believe in the Pope’s Christian vision or not, the Encyclical is compelling as a political and ethical text. For Christians, it is also a dramatic revision of Catholic teaching to integrate ecological values fully within the church’s social thought. 

Many other faith communities, not least the Church of England and the Orthodox church under Patriarch Bartholomew, have been preaching similar messages for decades. The Pope’s two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, also spoke out on environmental concerns and critiqued the materialist culture and neoliberal economies of the West. But the Encyclical is more comprehensive and dramatic, and more carefully timed for political impact, than any previous Christian intervention. 

The action has not been confined to the Catholic church. We now have commitments from across the major faith communities. The summer of 2015 has also seen the Lambeth Declaration, a multi-faith call to action on climate change, coordinated by the Church of England and launched by the Archbishop of Canterbury and leaders from other major religions. And an international network of Muslim scholars and policymakers have produced an Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. All these statements reinforce one another and point to an international common cause across the faiths, and between faith communities and the secular world. 

Make no mistake: the Encyclical and the related declarations of 2015 are big news for sustainable development. The Pope’s statement is aimed at the entire world, and one way or another, its message will be reaching the 1.2 billion Catholics on Earth over coming years. The reception for the Pope’s clear and powerful message has been remarkable. He has trended on social media; been hailed as a hero by secular NGOs; been denounced by climate ‘denialists’ in the USA and beyond; and, most important, he’s been unignorable for policymakers in government and business. Francis has also drawn attention to a key fact for sustainable development advocates - that religion is a potent force worldwide, and can be a massively important ally in the movement for a sustainable future. At the very least, religion has to be understood and worked with - it won’t be going away, and it has potential to mobilise enormous resources for sustainability.

Facing up to a global reality

The human population of Earth is now well over 7 billion – and almost certainly it will keep on rising to the middle of the century at least. Sustainable development, if we achieve it in different ways, will be based on cooperation at all scales among these billions of individuals and communities. Depending on which statistics you decide are most reliable, at least two-thirds of them are in varying degrees adherents of religious traditions. And at most followers of the world’s faiths could amount to around 80-85 per cent of the global population. Whichever way you look at it, the religious are in the great majority.

Moreover, they will stay that way. For the growth in the world’s population is taking place almost entirely in countries with high levels of religious adherence. And in the West, where birth rates have plummeted over recent decades, any population growth is now associated with immigrant groups, who tend to be members of faith communities. In short, whether you like it or not, the world that must be steered towards sustainable development paths is overwhelmingly a religious one. Sustainable developers everywhere have to face up to this reality. 

Sustainable development organisations have often had little or no contact with faith communities. Given the scale of religious adherence worldwide, sustainable development movements can’t afford to ignore or reject communication and opportunities for collaboration with faith-based communities. As Martin Palmer, Director of the think-tank and catalytic network Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) puts it, ‘Why would you not want to work with the world’s largest source of social capital?’

But there is a lot of awareness-raising and dispelling of misconceptions to be done. What is happening among religions worldwide, and what resources do they have for promoting sustainable development? What are the barriers to cooperation and how can these be overcome? How are the faiths responding to environmentalism and sustainable development? What are the initiatives that can and should inspire cooperation between secular activists and faiths, and across faiths? 

‘God is Back’ - and never went away as expected

For most of the past century and more, sociologists and many other observers have confidently expected that the world would become ever more ‘secularised’. According to  ‘Secularisation Theory',  modernisation (the sum total of industrialisation, urbanisation and the impact of science and technology on everyday life) erodes religious belief and observance. For a long time, that seemed plausible. And in the past 50-60 years, there has been a rapid decline in church-going, baptisms and other signs of faith in Europe. Especially in the UK, where church attendance has been falling since the late 1950s, Secularisation Theory looked like common sense. 

We need to think again. Outside Europe and liberal urban North America, the faiths are thriving. This is a great age of religious expansion, in fact. Forms of Christianity and Islam in particular are booming, above all in Africa and Asia. In a recent book, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldrige show that ‘God is Back’ (God is Back: how the global rise of faith us changing the world, Penguin, 2010). The authors highlight the startling projection that China, not long ago officially atheist, is on track to become both the world’s biggest Christian and Muslim nation over the coming decades. Pentecostal Christianity is perhaps the biggest story of all - and largely unreported in secular Britain and the rest of Europe. This form of the faith is taking the urban poor of Latin America from Catholicism at a rapid rate; and it is thriving in sub-Saharan Africa and in industrial South Korea alike. 

Even in ‘secularised’ Europe, where formal Christian allegiance has been waning for centuries, and especially so since 1945, the churches, and now the Islamic communities and other faiths that have taken root here, are a significant presence. Over a million people in the UK attend church services each week, and the last census still showed over half of the adult population identifying themselves as Christian. Decline in church attendance is real and serious for the Church of England, but other evidence shows some forms of Christian worship in Britain staging a comeback - such as cathedral services at Christmas and Easter. Sociologist Philip Jenkins, in his book ‘God’s Continent’, argues that migration to the EU in the next few decades will inject more Muslim and Christian influence into Europe, and could also stimulate a revival of home-grown Christian traditions. 

Whatever happens, the idea that modern life means atheism or agnosticism will inevitably triumph has taken a battering, to the bewilderment and dismay of many non-religious observers. Even in the many places where formal and traditional religious observance has declined, the religious impulse remains strong even in the most ‘developed’ societies, as the religiosity of the USA has long shown. Religion is ‘back’, and it is not going away. So secular-minded sustainable developers need to deal with it. Can this be a mutually beneficial relationship? The outpouring of support for the Pope’s Encyclical from secular campaigners certainly suggests it could be.

The resources of the major faith traditions

There are plenty of reasons for secular campaigners and practitioners to be interested in working with the major religions. If their potential for mobilisation of resources – from investments to buildings to people - were to be harnessed for sustainable development, then massive capacity for positive action could be unleashed: the scale of the assets of the major faiths is not often fully appreciated. The combined financial and physical resources of the world’s religions are staggering. 

The faith traditions include major owners of media assets. In his pioneering 2002 report for Worldwatch Institute on religions and sustainability, Invoking the Spirit, Gary Gardner estimated that faith traditions produced more daily newspapers than the total published in Western Europe. Increasingly, religious organisations and communities are sophisticated users of the Internet, mobile communications and television as well as of print media.  

They also have immense holdings of land and buildings. ARC has estimated that in some countries religious organisations own large proportions of the land area - up to 7 per cent. The real estate includes buildings, farmlands, forests, with value running to many billions of dollars. The religious organisations of the world are also big business: they are major players in financial investment. It’s estimated that the combined shares of the world’s 11 largest faiths amount to some 6-8 per cent of the world’s total market for institutional investment. These are major resource holdings on a global scale. If religious institutions were to put these assets to work for energy saving, procurement of eco-friendly and fair trade products, and ethical investment, their combined leverage could be immense. 

The major faiths do not simply have physical assets. They also have a pervasive presence in communities as providers of social services of many kinds. Even in secularised Europe, which has seen the state become the dominant provider of education, health and social care, faith organisations remain important suppliers of social services (for example, the Salvation Army) and especially of education (for example, faith schools). Elsewhere, and especially in the developing world, religious bodies are key players in providing essential public goods - health care, education, social services - alongside the state, or in its absence in many places. 

Above all, as noted already, the faiths have people power – around 4 out of 5 people on Earth, in fact, who are in varying degrees members of faith communities. Their values and behaviour as consumers and citizens matter enormously: even if a fraction of this huge body of believers were to connect their faith to sustainable development and act accordingly, with the support of their institutions, the gains could be world-changing. 

Already there are plenty of hopeful signs, as indicated by the multi-faith Lambeth Declaration this summer and by the major statements from the Pope and a global network of Islamic scholars, mentioned above. Here are three other major initiatives worth highlighting. First, a landmark initiative in 1995 was the founding of the RSE (Religion, Science and Environment) programme by the leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew, to promote dialogue between religious bodies, scientists and policymakers on environmental challenges and solutions. 

Second, the work of Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), with support from the UN Development Programme, has led to the creation of ‘Seven Year Generational Plans’ on climate action, environmental protection and sustainable development, by many faiths and denominations. These Plans draw on the texts and traditions of the faiths to highlight their relevance to action on the environment, and to put the values of the religions to work in promoting initiatives on the ground. (See box below on the Church of England’s Plan.)

Third, the US initiative Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) is a pioneer in sustainable procurement by faiths, indicating the immense potential for religious organisations to use their purchasing power for sustainability. IPL promotes projects among US faith communities for energy conservation, purchasing of renewable energy systems, awareness-raising and low-carbon development. IPL works throughout the USA, reaching many thousands of congregations. 

So the world’s faith traditions and communities have immense resources of value for sustainable development. What are the barriers to faster and broader progress?

Stumbling blocks on both sides

The potential of the faiths as actors in sustainable development is only just being realised. For many believers, awareness of environmental problems as a priority in their everyday life remains low - as it does for many non-religious people, of course. For many, too, the connection between their faith and sustainable lifestyles and policies is not obvious - just as for many secularised Westerners, the link between their consumption and environmental problems is not clear or something urgent to act on. There is a need for religious leaders to make explicit the multiple connections between today’s concerns about the environment and age-old teachings about respect for life, dependence on the God-given natural world, and the dangers of greed and excess. There are many examples of faith leaders taking a stand - as for example Pope Francis, senior bishops in the Church of England , Patriarch Bartholomew, and many others. But critics of religion can argue that much more needs to come from the biggest faiths, above all at the grassroots from the largest faiths, Roman Catholicism and Islam, to back up their eloquent statements of concern and eco-theological principles.

A major problem for the faiths is the perception and reality that in many places their priorities are remote from sustainable development. In many areas, especially in the secularised West, faith communities feel beleaguered by modernity and marginalised by mainstream media and policymakers. In the face of consumerism and globalised capitalism, many faiths have seen the growth of ‘fundamentalist’ sects, determined to resist what they see as perverse aspects of modernity and cling to what is imagined to be the core of their religion. This has led to conflicts and faultlines not only between religion and secular cultures, but also within faiths. There is a division now in many faiths between those willing to adapt and interpret their beliefs and traditions in the light of modern challenges, and those who insist on literal and rigid interpretations of the sacred texts. These divisions are exacerbated in many places by economic, ethnic, social and environmental tensions. Conflicts between and within religious groups are real and serious - and dominate Western media coverage of faiths.

Other barriers to harnessing the power of faiths for sustainable development exist on the other side of the fence, among secular people in many places and especially in the liberal West. First, there is widespread ignorance now in many sections of Western societies and about what religious communities are actually like - as belief and observance have declined among Westerners, so everyday contact and scope for understanding have diminished. To agnostic and atheist sections of the population in the West, the faiths often look like museum pieces, and are seen by many largely as sources of violence and ignorance. Another factor which might explain the lack of links between environmentalists and the major faiths is a perception that the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) are at the root of modern exploitation of the environment, and of a sharp philosophical division between humans and the natural world. There is a substantial body of argument in theology to challenge this perception, but for many environmentalists, the mud has stuck from arguments such as that of the US historian Lynn White over 40 years ago, who saw the mainstream Judeo-Christian traditions of the West enshrining an exploitative view of humankind’s relationship to the environment. (His call for a path of stewardship and care for Creation based on St Francis’s teachings to be taken by Christians has now been answered - by Pope Francis.)

A sceptic might argue that there is little that faiths and their leaders can offer beyond abstract statements about values that make no difference, whether to believers or non-adherents. It’s often pointed out that there can be a huge gap between the values espoused by religious leaders and the behaviour observed in their flocks. What guarantee is there that Pope Francis and Islamic leaders can inspire a significant section of their communities of faith to action? Unsustainable development is as marked in the most devout parts of the world as it is in the more secularised ones, and already plenty of conservative US Christians have denounced the Pope for what they see as dangerous engagement with environmentalism and anti-capitalism.  And many secular campaigners might argue that the major religions, especially since 9/11, have been associated so much with violence, oppression of women, resistance to birth control, and other values rejected by post-60s liberal societies, that sustainability advocates have nothing to learn or gain from them. The exposure of scandals in the Roman Catholic church and other churches over sexual abuse, even though they involved a tiny minority of priests, and the image of misogyny and violence given by media coverage and by many current conflicts in the faiths worldwide, offer little incentive to secular people to see the faiths as partners in sustainable development.

The case for making common cause

Against all this, there are powerful arguments why secular sustainable developers should want to make common cause with faith communities willing to make the connection. 

First, as we’ve seen, the numbers alone make the case. Sustainable development movements have been largely driven by secularised people, but this is a religious planet and is going to remain so. Secularists may dislike the fact that some 80-85 per cent of the global population is religious, but that is the reality. And the biggest issues of our age, from climate change to biodiversity loss to population, will not be solved without engagement with the religions of the world. Their assets and pervasive presence in societies worldwide make them immensely important as potential and actual collaborators in sustainable development.

Second, secularists need to recognise that media coverage of violence, conflict and bigotry among religious groups does not tell anything like the whole story about the everyday realities of the major faiths. It is a big mistake to identify the great religions with their noisy and sometimes violent fundamentalist wings. In most of the world, most of the time, religious observance is not connected with violent extremism, and is associated often with civic responsibility, voluntary contributions to community, and aspirations to justice and a sense of piety directed towards the cosmos and Earth. Moreover, the faiths still attract many of the best and brightest in society, and even in secularised Europe the views of religious authorities can count for a great deal in politics. The intellectual and moral authority of the most effective religious leaders can be powerful in naming and shaming those abusing power and in calling for a stop to unsustainable behaviour and policies.

Third, religions have always been community-builders. As sustainable development campaigners increasingly agonise about how to ‘mobilise’ citizens for effective action, there is much to learn from religious groups. Faith communities are bodies of individuals who are committed to shared values and activities for mutual support and recruitment of new members. Religious communities make demands on believers that are willingly met, and can mobilise large numbers to contribute to projects and fundraising. Faiths build social capital and can mobilise action on a large scale. They can also help translate sustainability issues into meaningful local terms for their communities.

Fourth, the faiths have something that sustainable developers find lacking in most governments, mass media and political parties - a long-term view. Indeed, it could hardly get any longer than human history seen in the light of eternity. It’s been said, famously, that the Vatican ‘thinks in terms of centuries’. And the same goes for most religious traditions. Faith communities don’t just store up traditional messages and look to the past - they also expect to be around for centuries to come. This outlook is rooted in values that can be powerful for motivating concern for the environment and for justice for unborn generations.

Finally, most advocates of sustainable development would agree that there is a fundamental need for changes not just in technologies and policies, but also in values and behaviour among the affluent who dominate global consumption. At the core of the sustainability movement is a moral critique of modern society and economics, which attach a price to everything but too often fail to see the value of many vital features of life – the natural environment, human community and cultural diversity. Green movements and global justice campaigns have been almost the only political forces in the last quarter century in the West to challenge the free-market ideology - one is tempted to call it a ‘religion’ - among mainstream politicians. They have not often recognised the common themes between their critique and that offered by many religious leaders. The sexual policy obsessions of the Catholic churches obscure the fact that some of the fiercest critiques of modern capitalism and globalisation have come from the present Pope and his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Some of the most profound reflections on our responsibility to act on climate change have come from Anglican bishops. There is a large movement among conservative US evangelicals - not well-known as environmentalists to date - to promote ‘creation care’ and action on climate change. And of course in the Eastern faith traditions - such as Buddhism, Daoism and Hinduism - there has long been a profound emphasis on respect for the natural world and the connections between human and non-human life.

This means that there’s a natural ‘fit’ between global justice and sustainability concerns and the traditional priorities of the faiths. What they have in common are crucial messages about piety in the face of Nature, responsibility for stewardship of the Earth’s resources, self-restraint in consumption, the need to care for others, concern for the poor and for justice. For the faiths, the sustainability agenda could provide a language for translating their core messages into terms that are plainly relevant to the secularised modern world of the West, and that could overcome mistrust between and within faiths.

This is a vital point. The sustainability agenda can offer the religions of the world some much-needed common ground to underpin co-operation between themselves as well as with the secular world. The development of many multi-faith initiatives and declarations on sustainability and the environment suggests that this is not an empty hope. From the evidence of major statements from religious leaders on sustainability and the ecological crises we face, there is plenty of common ground between Pope Francis, the Muslim World League, the Church of England, the World Jewish Congress, the Hindu Virat Samaj, the Dalai Lama, the Baha’i delegation to the UN, and so on and on around the world’s  faiths. The Seven Year Generational Plans of the faiths, as promoted by ARC and UNDP, offer a striking array of initiatives for sustainable development - and also are evidence of shared concerns around the world, and scope for common cause between faiths and among faith communities and secular organisations.

Where do we go from here? A lot now depends on how far the major religions can overcome their divisions and internal struggles. If the many current tensions between the West and Islam, within the Christian denominations between liberals and fundamentalists, within Islam, and between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, are not resolved, the great faiths will be deeply unattractive partners for many sustainability campaigners. But it bears repeating that most of the time, in most places, religious people are not at war with each other or with non-believers. On the ground, cooperation is more common than conflict.  And the basic fact remains - this is a religious world, and sustainable development cannot become a reality without profound collaboration between faiths and across the religious-secular boundary. We know that technology- and market-led approaches to the ecological crisis and to global inequalities are necessary but not sufficient. Sustainable development depends also on changes in values. As this becomes ever more apparent in coming years, so the need for a deep spiritual and ethical vision to energise policy will grow. Sustainability campaigners and religious communities could find themselves sharing unexpectedly large common ground. It is vital that this common ground be explored with imagination, energy and open-mindedness. And together, the faiths and secular organisations could indeed ‘move mountains’.

Ian Christie is Fellow, Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey; Associate, Green Alliance, and a tutor for Forum for the Future Scholars programme.

Image credit: Edwin Land / Flickr

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