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ARC publish new book on faith and ecology through the World Bank

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Preface to Faith in Conservation

Extract from Faith in Conservation by Martin Palmer with Victoria Finlay, published by the World Bank, Washington DC, October 2003

Imagine you are busy planting a tree, and someone rushes up to say that the Messiah has come and the end of the world is nigh. What do you do? The advice given by the rabbis in a traditional Jewish story is that you first finish planting the tree, and only then do you go and see whether the news is true. The Islamic tradition has a similar story, which reminds followers that if they happen to be carrying a palm cutting in their hand when the Day of Judgment takes place, they should not forget to plant the cutting.

There is a tension in the environmental world between those who wish to tell us that the end is nigh and those who want to encourage us to plant trees for the future. In 1992, for example, we were all told, in any number of press statements before the event, that the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro was "the world's last chance to save itself." And indeed many major reports emerging from environmental bodies paint a picture of terrifying, impending destruction-in a sincere desire to shock people into action.

Year after year, these groups have been gathering information that shows beyond reasonable doubt that parts of our living planet are slowly but surely being diminished, polluted, fished out, hunted to the edge, built over, cut down, erased, or-as it is most chillingly expressed-simply "lost." It is increasingly clear, and still shocking, that human activity has assisted (if not created) the increase in global warming; the destruction of many core species of the seas (cod are almost extinct through careless overfishing); the destruction of entire forests within a single generation; and the accelerating spread of deserts. Around the world, hundreds of organizations chart, report, and analyze the declining health of our world and urge urgent action on anyone who will listen. Such groups often fall back on the vivid language of biblical or Vedic (Hindu) accounts of the end of the world-apocalyptic imagery that encapsulates our deepest terrors more graphically than any chart or statistical breakdown can ever do.

Powerfully emotive language is used to make us feel that we are sitting on the edge-that in the words of the Jewish story above, the end of the world is nigh. For example, Maurice Strong, secretary general of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, declared in 2000:
I am deeply convinced that the new millennium we have just entered will decide the fate of the human species. … The first three decades of this century are likely to be decisive. Not that we face the prospect of extinction as a species during this period but we will set, irrevocably, the direction that will determine the survival or the demise of human life as we know it. Surely the divine source of all life, which most call God, could not have presented us with a more paradoxical challenge.
Pg. 15, Survey of the Environment, The Hindu, Channai, India 2000
If the environmental crises facing the world today were simply a matter of information, knowledge, and skills, then we would be heading out of these dangers. For more than 30 years the world's major institutions, scientists, and governments, and some of the largest nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), have compiled and analyzed details of how we are abusing the planet. Since 1972, huge conventions have brought these people together to discuss the state of the world. Each year the World Conservation Union publishes its Red Data Books, chronicling the loss of species and habitats in great detail. Today we can discuss the issues of global warming in very specific terms. Charts show the destruction of tropical forests, and the loss of crucial habitats around the world is described in books and papers and films.

Yet the crises are still with us. The simple fact is that knowledge on its own is not enough. As the two stories at the beginning of this preface show, all this information has to be set within a wider framework to make much sense. Take, for example, the famous case of the destruction of tropical rain forests. At the first major United Nations meeting on the environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, scientists and environmentalists made powerful presentations on the fact that many countries were selling their rain forests for cash (for reasons of poverty as well as opportunism), only to find themselves left with eroded and impoverished soils. The experts presenting the case assumed that their audience would share their concern at this loss, and stop the deforestation. But that was not the framework within which everyone was listening. A number of politicians and business people went home to their developing countries and informed their superiors that apparently there were groups who would pay good money for all that rain forest-and the rate of destruction of the rain forests rose perceptibly after Stockholm. This was partly because the meeting had opened some people's eyes to the commercial potential of their forests. Both politicians and environmentalists had the same data. But they had different assumptions, different values, and different frameworks.

Ultimately, the environmental crisis is a crisis of the mind. And likewise, appropriate development is ultimately an appropriate development of the mind. We see, do, and are what we think, and what we think is shaped by our cultures, faiths, and beliefs. This is why one of the more extraordinary movements of the past few decades began to take shape. For if the information of the environmentalists needed a framework of values and beliefs to make it useful, then where better to turn for allies than to the original multinationals, the largest international groupings and networks of people? Why not turn to the major religions of the world?

In 1986 this is exactly what the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) International did when it invited five major faiths-Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism-to Assisi in Italy to explore how they could work on environmental issues. The encounter was so successful that in 1995 His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, then president of WWF International, launched a new international not for profit organization, the Alliance of Religion and Conservation (ARC). By 2000 six more faiths had joined the Alliance-Baha'ism, Daoism, Jainism, Shintoism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism-bringing the total to 11, with ARC working in just under 60 countries. Its role is to help major faith bodies develop environmental programs and projects, in association with secular bodies as diverse as WWF, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the World Bank. As part of the Alliance, each of the faiths has compiled its own statement summarizing its relationship with and beliefs about the environment. These statements are presented in part 2 of this volume.

Prepared with the help of the World Bank, this book shows how religions need to be, and increasingly are, in partnership with the environmental and development movements in order to make this world a better place for all life-or, as the faiths more poetically and perhaps more tellingly call it, all creation.

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