In honor of UN Day this weekend, we wanted to highlight the work of Forum partner, UNEP Faith for Earth. Forum associate, Anna Thurston, interviewed Faith for Earth director, Iyad Abumoghli, to learn more about what they do and their upcoming projects.
Dr. Iyad Abumoghli has long focused on global solutions when it comes to environmental sustainability. In an interview with Anna Thurston, he discusses his role as director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Faith for Earth Initiative, the power of religious values to address environmental action, and the future of UNEP’s partnership with the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE), which has been working on these issues for 25 years.
Anna Thurston (Yale FORE): There are many ways to address environmental protection and conservation. With a background in chemical engineering, how did you end up leading UNEP’s Faith for Earth Initiative?
Iyad Abumoghli (UNEP Faith for Earth): After graduating with a PhD in Chemical Engineering, I first worked in the private sector and universities for many years. When I began working with the UN, everything was grounded in environmental issues. Goals outlined in Agenda 21 from 1992, the Millenium Goals from 2000, and the Sustainable Development Goals from in 2015 forced me to look even broader and consider structural and economic issues related to the environment. I recognized that I was passionate about the impact of humans on the earth and I asked myself, “What’s missing from all this?” I realized that environmental work is more than protecting trees or greening land; it’s also about what people believe in their hearts to be reasonable and good.
A few years ago, I participated in seminars where organizations spoke on what religions have to say about biodiversity and the environment. I deeply felt that connection. Eventually, there was a discussion within UNEP about this movement of religious values for environmental protection, and I wrote a paper on how UNEP could harness and build on this energy. This resulted in my appointment as Director of the Faith for Earth Initiative in 2017.
Anna Thurston: What an interesting and compelling trajectory. What were your first steps as Director of Faith for Earth?
Iyad Abumoghli: While I could have treated this opportunity like any other project, for me it was a mission. For the first six months, I locked my doors and started to learn all I possibly could. I had to do a lot of reading! This research led to our development of strategies to work with faith leaders and strengthen the actions of Faith Based Organizations (FBOs). We recognized that the UN could help facilitate a mutually supportive environment between environmental science and religions. Part of this requires the translation of scientific reports so they can be understood by any person, and as a result can be used by faith leaders. What I do I do with passion, of course. What has increased my attachment to Faith for Earth is my interactions with these faith leaders, because these conversations go deeper than policy; the conversations are heart to heart.
Anna Thurston: What excites you the most about Faith for Earth? Any topics you like to discuss in particular?
Iyad Abumoghli: I am excited about two aspects of this work. The first is that we are changing the status quo in the international community. Many policies and resolutions have not yet fully integrated ethics and spiritual values into them, which are what makes people want to adopt these resolutions. We are actively in conversation with governments, states, and policy makers around the world to advocate for a deeper integration of values that touch people's hearts and inspire them to act.
The second topic that excites me is the future of sustainable lifestyles and how that relates to consumptive practices. In all of the world’s religions, there are instructions regarding dress, food, generosity, and waste. Growing up in Amman, Jordan, I was raised that if you throw away a piece of bread, you will be asked about it when you face God at the end of your life. Yet, recent studies show that the month of Ramadan generates 30% more food waste. While the purpose of religious festivities is to bring values and families together, they can also result in wasteful behavior and other unsustainable ways of living. There are different understandings of accountability to a higher power in addition to accountability to your neighbors, and a religious understanding of sustainable lifestyles can go a long way as we care for the environment.
Anna Thurston: In this role you speak to many different audiences. What is a common reaction when you introduce Faith For Earth to others? Are the ideas well received?
Iyad Abumoghli: Generally, people respond to this Initiative very well. Certainly, I have faced skeptics within and outside of the UN. People ask me: “Why, Iyad are you working on religions?” The idea is that religions can be tricky and politically dangerous, and that for the UN to engage in such a thing might offend somebody, some government, or some religion. A key issue is that practices are not synchronized within religions. For example, some religions call for living as a vegetarian and do not eat meat, while other religions are based on hunting practices. This is why we are careful to emphasize that Faith for Earth is not coming up with a religion that is common for all. We are not unifying religions. On the contrary, we are highlighting the strength that comes from diversity of religions as we work together for a common goal. Initially, religious leaders considered Earth Charter and Agenda 21 as an attempt to create “new bibles.” Our response is to say: not at all. We are not asking you to change your religion; we are inviting you to explore how your religion works, how your practices might synchronize with the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, and how you might adopt your own beliefs in support of environmental protection and conservation.
Anna Thurston: In 2019 you spoke to an audience that has been termed the “Laudato Si’ Generation” and you advocated for youth to sit at the table of decision makers. How do you see Faith for Earth empowering this rising generation?
Iyad Abumoghli: At that international conference in Kenya on Laudato Si’, there were 360 young people from all over the world. I remember one participant observing that youth are 50% of the population but 100% of the future. This is indeed the issue. We don’t want to wait for younger people to be leaders of the future. We want to empower them for the present. We want youth leadership to be the norm rather than the exception, which is why we are launching a Faith for Earth coalition that includes a Council of Youth. This council of young faith leaders will be an important pillar in our work to integrate religious values with environmental action, and to integrate the wisdom of older religious leaders with the enthusiasm of the younger generation.
Anna Thurston: It has been five years since the UN’s adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, three years since the launch of the Faith for Earth initiative, and almost six months since UNEP joined forces with the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. How do you envision UNEP’s partnership with the Yale Forum continuing to flourish?
Iyad Abumoghli: Some indicators say that the future for these 17 Sustainable Development Goals isn’t bright, but it can be done. Look at how COVID-19 stopped the world. When there is determination and will to change, we know that countries and governments can mobilize resources into one direction.
From the perspective of Faith for Earth’s partnership with Yale, the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology has been a tremendous project of knowledge. Its website is already a one stop shop for books, statements, and key teachings on religions of the world in relation to the environment. I don’t want to call the Yale Forum the facebook page of religions in this regard, but it is! What I envisage is for us to create an all encompassing platform that uses current technologies and social media so this wealth of information can reach all ages, especially young people. We cannot brag and say we are empowering young people because they are already empowered. This is why youth have the right to sit at the table for what decision makers are doing. We want to do things that can be seen and felt, and we need all generations to start doing things on the ground.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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