Religion and environmentalism: A growing phenomenon

July 26, 2013
United Nations UNEARTH News

What is the relationship between religion and environmentalism? This has been a complicated issue for at least several decades, however, “religious environmentalism” is an emerging field of thought that has been gaining momentum through the programs and initiatives of several worldwide institutions, NGOs, and intergovernmental organizations.

Religious environmentalism is founded on the concept that the current environmental crisis is fundamentally a crisis of values. As Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr claims, religion not only provides a sound basis for ethics but also possesses a doctrine about the world of nature. Thus, because we all play a part in destroying our natural environment and because faith, spirituality, and religion help shape our worldviews, it is important that we change our worldviews to include values and ethics directed toward living sustainably and repairing the environment.

“Religious environmentalism is a movement that brings forward the moral commitment of the world religions to sustain the flourishing of life for the Earth Community,” Mary Evelyn Tucker, Co-Director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, tells UNEARTH News.

“With our present rate of destruction of ecosystems along with the toxification of water, air, and soil we have diminished the prospects for future generations to inherit a healthy environment,” says Tucker.  “Religious communities are helping to reverse this trend with statements, teachings, rituals, and engaged action.’

Along with Professor John Grim of Yale University, Tucker co-founded the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, which is the largest international multi-religious project of its kind. The Forum holds conferences, edits and releases publications, and directs academic programs that are engaged in exploring religious worldviews, texts, and practices in order to better understand the complexity of the contemporary environmental crisis.

Religious environmentalism has taken root throughout the rest of the world as well; in 1986 authorities from every major world religion were brought together by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to declare how the teachings of their respective faiths leads them to care for nature and the environment. Entitled the Assisi Declarations, the five religions – Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, were then joined in 1995 by four other religions, Daoism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Baha’i.

As a result, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) was launched; an NGO based in the United Kingdom, ARC works with religions around the globe, particularly in developing countries, to develop environmental programs based on their own teachings, beliefs, and practices.

“ARC works with the most sustainable organizations in the world; religions have already outlived empires, dynasties and ideologies, and they all have basic teachings about our role in the environment, even though in recent years some of them have forgotten how important it is,” ARC Secretary General Martin Palmer tells UNEARTH News.

“We also work with the faiths because in almost all countries they are more trusted than governments or even NGOs. If the sustainable future is in the hands of future generations then the fact that around 50 percent of schools are run or managed or were founded by faiths is significant,” says Palmer.

According to Palmer and ARC, an estimated 60-80 percent of schools in Africa are run or funded by faith groups, which is why the organization is currently focusing on educational schemes like the Faith Based Education for Sustainable Development toolkit. The toolkit was launched in Kenya this past month and is already set for adoption in Tanzania and Uganda.

Along with ARC, organizations like the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have developed and implemented educational modules and programs that combine religion beliefs, cultural norms, and sustainable living practices.

One educational activity in UNESCO’s program highlights the fact that developing countries have integrated religion and conservation with practical results, using Nepal as an example. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project aims to promote sustainability and conservation through natural resource and tourism management; furthermore, the Project incorporates the local communities’ religious worldview in its attempts to successfully promote sustainable living practices.

Time will tell if religion and environmentalism will be able to effectively promote sustainable living through the developing world; however it seems as though success has been achieved in some countries.

“Religious communities are frequently modeling simplicity and encouraging a change of life style for those living in the developed world,” Tucker tells UNEARTH News.

“By encouraging alternative technologies and renewable energy religions are also assisting sustainable development in many parts of the world. Moreover, they are empowering the poor through educating women, loans for small businesses, and affordable housing.”

Ultimately, both Tucker and Palmer agree that religion may be able to provide a powerful moral force that can awaken people to the environmental damage and degradation that is occurring on our planet.

“Every major faith has already been through local and regional ecological collapses over the hundreds or thousands of years it has existed,” Palmer tells UNEARTH News.

“They have been through civil wars, invasions, droughts, famines, floods…Psychologically the faiths know from example how to rebuild, defend, or adapt to ecological crises,” says Palmer.