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Martin Palmer explains why faiths can shape future generations

September 13, 2009 :

Martin Palmer, ARC's Secretary General.

In an interview with Jane Little, Radio 4's Sunday Programme Presenter, Martin Palmer, ARC's Secretary General described the positive energy faiths have in influencing future generations - and why HRH The Prince Philip and the UN Secretary General, His Excellency Mr Ban Ki-moon will be celebrating with the faiths - at Windsor in November - their long term commitments to the natural world.

The full radio interview is available on BBC iplayer until Sunday, 20 September.

A transcript of the interview follows:

Jane Little: “The Government’s former Chief Scientific Advisor, Lord May, has called on religious leaders to play a bigger role in helping to tackle climate change. The Peer said religious groups could use their influence to motivate believers on green issues and suggested that the belief in hell and a punishing God might spur them to action. Well joining me now to discuss the role faith groups can play are Chris Goodall, Green Party candidate for Oxford and Abbingdon West at the next election, and author of “How to Live a Low Carbon Life”, and by Martin Palmer, Secretary General of ARC, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation”.

“Martin, this fear of eternal damnation would be a good motivator to save the planet wouldn’t it”?

What the religions have focused on is celebration, empowerment, abundance and joy.
Martin Palmer: “No, I don’t think so and in the 25 years or so in which most of the major religions have been very active on environmental issues, something that Lord May perhaps hasn’t noticed. What they have focused on is not fear, and sin and guilt, we have rather left that to the environmental movement. What they have focused on is celebration, empowerment, abundance and joy. Because if we go into an issue like this with a notion that if you can scare people into morality, you will discover what every religion has discovered, which is that that lasts for a very short period of time. Whereas if you speak to people, say in the Christian tradition or the Daoist tradition about partnership, both with the planet and with the Divine, then you’ve got something that is long lasting. It is slightly worrying that aetheists always want the very God that they want us to reject, ie angry, domineering, stroppy God and then they get very cross with us when we say that that is not actually the God we believe in”.

Jane Little: “Well, it is true Lord May is actually an atheist, but he also talked about religion being a mobiliser and religions having great organizational reach. Chris Goodall, do you agree with that”?

Chris Goodall: “Oh absolutely. I think that its not just religions but civil groups across society are capable of making an enormous difference to this. The challenge of climate change does need an enormous cooperative effort. Religions are well organized and have a set of theories, theology, call it what you like, that can help us address the issue more effectively”.

Jane Little: “Lord May also talked about the evolution of cooperation Chris, and the fact that religious groups can help encourage cooperation …. Chris”?

Chris Goodall: “Indeed religious groups also can say there is more to life than consuming more, there’s more to life than buying more goods, more to life than having a materially prosperous life, that is where I think religious groups in society can probably make the most significant impact at the moment is by stressing that the challenge of climate change does mean that we need to live our lives differently”.

Jane Little: “Martin Palmer, if you think of the religious right in the US, it has been resistant to action on climate change. Elements are starting to shift, but religion can be a bar to caring about the environment can’t it with its focus on the next life”?

Faiths move slowly, but when they move, they have the power to shape generations to come.
Martin Palmer: “Well, no, I think that’s wrong. There was a period about 10 years ago when the religious right in the States were a major obstacle, but the fastest growing environmental movement in the world, not just religious, but the fast growing environmental movement in the world, is the Evangelical Americans and in fact this November at Windsor we will be consolidating a partnership between the three largest Evangelical networks solely around the issue - not of climate change – I think this is very important to stress. We work with all the major faiths around the world".

"Climate change is not the issue. Climate change is a symptom of the issue and the symptom that we are looking at is the issue of, well to use old-fashioned language, “sin”, or the “fall” or “discontinuity” with God or however you want to put it. If we focus only on climate change which is important, I am not denying that … we begin to lose sight of the fact there are deeper more profound issues, so its not just about changing your lifestyle as Chris says. And I think his book by the way is excellent on that. Its actually more, about a profound understanding of the rest of creation, nature, call it what you will. And if you focus only on climate change which tends to have a very human centred consideration you perhaps lose what the faiths can most powerfully bring – which is a sense of something infinitely more significant”.

Chris Goodall: “I couldn’t agree more with that, absolutely. We need to rediscover that we are a very small part of a very large hole. Western society has been very good over the last 50 years at insulating people from the environment in which they live. Capitalism, as the world economy has grown and we have all become more prosperous, we have lost touch with the extraordinary fragility of the world around us”.

Jane Little: “Martin Palmer, you mentioned Windsor – tell us more about the Seven Year Plan because it’s a very adventurous initiative isn’t it to get a lot of religions together in connection with the UN”?

HRH The Prince Philip and the UN Secretary General will celebrate with the faiths in November 2009 at Windsor, where major faiths will launch their long term commitments to the natural world.
Martin Palmer: “Yes and it picks up on what Chris was saying a little earlier which is civil society’s role. ARC was asked two years ago by the UN Secretary-General if we would get the major religions to lobby for Copenhagen with political leaders, and we said no we wouldn’t. They were slightly surprised. And we said the reason for this is that most faiths are not lobbying"...."Most faiths’ strengths are that they can sustain. They have outlived every major empire and dynasty, they have outlived the League of Nations, they’ll outlive the UN and therefore the placing our trust on Princes, as the Bible says, is not a terribly good idea and therefore what we have done is to say that "you take a long time to move but when you move that shapes generations." There is no other body, certainly not in civil society, most certainly not in politics, that can have that effect. And so at Windsor in early November the UN Secretary General and HRH The Prince Philip will celebrate the fact that every major faith tradition around the world will launch its own long-term commitments”.

Jane Little: “And can you give me one brief example of what one faith will do”?

Martin Palmer: “Yes. If we take Islam for example, Islam is going to print all its Qur'ans, the 15 million it prints each year, on FSC or recycled paper and is developing an environmental labeling scheme”.

Jane Little: “Briefly Chris do you think this is an alternative to governmental and international agreements”?

Chris Goodall: “No its not an alternative. I think its a complement in that direction. We all, as individuals, need to take the actions to live our lives better. Groups, civil groups, religious groups need to do their bit and governments need to do everything as well. The environment challenge is so enormous, so all-encompassing that we have to take every step that we can”.

Jane Little: “And very briefly Chris, which do you have more faith in? Government action or faith groups”?

Chris Goodall: “Civil groups I think, and religious groups are potentially the most important actors for change because they can force governments in the way that individuals cannot”.

Jane Little: “And Martin would agree with that”?

Martin Palmer: “I would wholeheartedly agree. I think that civil society is actually the only key to the future”.


Radio 4 Sunday Programme Interview with Martin Palmer.

Chris Goodall, Green Candidate for Oxford and Abbingdon West.

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