Press releases
News archive
Selected books
ARC Home > News and Resources > News archive:

Geographical Magazine article: Can God Save the World?

October 2007:

By Charlie Furniss

This article was a major feature in October 2007's Link Geographical Magazine and includes interviews with ARC, IFEEs, CI and other partners.

On 30 July this year, Barclay Hall in East London’s Forest Gate hosted the Islamic version of Live Earth. An evening of Islamic songs, poetry and discussion about Allah and creation, Live ’Ard aimed to raise awareness about climate change and other environmental issues, discussing them in the context of the Qur’an. It didn’t have the slick presentation of Al Gore’s event earlier that month; nevertheless, it was a hit, and by the end of the evening, it was standing room only at the back of the hall.

Live ’Ard was organised by the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, a UK-based organisation that promotes conservation and environmental responsibility through Islam. Its popularity is an indication of the growing number of religious institutions and faith-based groups that have taken steps during the past couple of years to begin addressing climate change and other environmental issues.

In the UK, the Church of England has launched a campaign encouraging its clergy and parishioners to reduce their carbon footprints. And the Jewish Board of Deputies has teamed up with the principal Jewish environmental organisation and committed to integrate environmentally sustainable practices into traditional religious life.

Further afield, Buddhists have been blessing trees to protect them from logging in Thailand and promoting sustainable forestry management in Sri Lanka. And Hindu holy men have been encouraging pilgrims to plant millions of trees in India and giving their blessings to environmental activists.

In fact, it’s happening all over the world: there are environmentally active Buddhists in Mongolia, Catholics in Colombia, Lutherans in Sweden, Muslims in Tanzania, evangelicals, Methodists and Jews in the USA, Orthodox nuns in France, Shintos in Japan and Sikhs and Zoroastrians in India. There are even moves afoot among Daoists in China.

One of the most significant developments came in the USA last year, when 86 evangelical leaders launched a campaign calling for the government to commit to reducing carbon emissions. Then, in April this year, the Vatican threw in its hat, hosting a two-day conference on climate change.

Although each faith brings its own particular values and beliefs to the debate, a theme is emerging that is common to all: that if we’re to overcome the challenges of climate change, deforestation, pollution and species loss, we not only have to tackle the political and economic issues, we must also consider the spiritual dimension of our relationship with the environment. Indeed, some claim that only a transformation in the human psyche equivalent to that of the Age of Enlightenment will see us through the looming crisis.

Paradise lost

If one ever needed evidence to back up the assertion that God’s beauty is manifest in His creation, then the Tanzanian island of Misali wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Lying around five kilometres west of Pemba in the Zanzibar archipelago, Misali is the archetypal uninhabited paradise island, all swaying palms, white-powder beaches and aqua-blue sea. It has some of the western Indian Ocean’s richest coral reefs and its most valuable turtle nesting sites, and its waters provide a livelihood for more than 1,000 fishermen from Pemba.

Since 1998, an area of 22 square kilometres around and including Misali has been protected by a community-run marine conservation area. However, it wasn’t a love of nature or concern over the sustainability of natural resources that led to the island being protected, but Islam.

During the 1990s, the region’s coral reefs and marine fauna became increasingly degraded as the fishermen began swapping their nets for dynamite. Instead of spending hours looking for fishing sites, they simply dropped a few explosives and wait for the dead fish to rise to the surface. While it proved an efficient fishing technique, it devastated the biodiversity.

Fearing an ecological and economic crisis, in 1996, the government launched an environmental education campaign that aimed to teach the communities how important it was to look after the reefs for their future livelihoods. But few fishermen paid attention to the leaflets handed around the villages. So the government upped the ante and officially banned dynamite fishing. Despite the threat of gunboat patrols, however, the ban had little impact.

It was only when Fazlun Khalid became involved that the fishermen began to take note. As director of the UK-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES), Khalid had developed an Islamic theology on the environment. ‘We began discussing dynamite fishing in the context of the Qur’anic texts,’ he says. ‘We discussed Allah being the encompasser, the idea that He embraces everything. We talked about mizan, or the balance of creation, and our human responsibility to maintain this balance. We also talked about the fact that Allah does not love wasters, so we should use our resources in moderation, and the idea of khalifa or stewardship.’

Very quickly, the fishermen came to the conclusion that dynamite fishing was inconsistent with being a good Muslim. ‘The fishermen are now using nets,’ says Khalid, ‘and are sticking to a strict regime imposed by their own associations, overseen by the mosques.’

Similar faith-based grassroots conservation initiatives have sprung up all over the world. In Colombia, for example, US NGO Conservation International teamed up with the Catholic Church to save the yellow-eared parrot and the tall wax palm from extinction. In India, thousands of Hindus have drawn inspiration from ancient stories and rituals to clean the Ganga and Yamuna rivers.

In Saudi Arabia, the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development is using traditional water and land management practices set out in Shari’ah law to manage a 2,200-square-kilometre reserve created to protect the endangered Nubian ibex. And in Mongolia, Buddhists have invoked an ancient teaching of compassion to all life in order to reintroduce bans on hunting and logging in seven sacred reserves that had been all but destroyed by Communism.

According to Ben Campell, director of Conservation International’s Faith-Based Initiative, working with religions is often a better way of getting an environmental message across in the developing world. ‘In Western society, we’ve become very good at compartmentalising our religious and spiritual beliefs and politics and so on,’ he says. ‘But in many parts of the world, people’s religious beliefs are paramount to how they view their world. If you can articulate environmental issues in the context of their religion, you will have a much better chance of communicating their urgency and of mobilising people to respond to them.’

This idea has been at the heart of hundreds of faith-based conservation projects initiated by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) since 1995. ‘We say to people, “You’ve got these wonderful teachings, these fantastic prayers and these fascinating traditions of the world as being divine”,’ says ARC’s director Martin Palmer. ‘It’s great that you see God in nature. But can you also see that to protect nature is godly?’

It isn’t just in the developing world that religious groups are making the connection between faith and environmentalism. The Church of England’s Shrinking the Footprint campaign is based on the same idea. ‘Being concerned about the environment is core Christian business,’ says Claire Foster, the Church’s policy advisor on the environment. ‘It isn’t an add-on. It isn’t something that you do if you have some spare time, or if you’re comfortable and middle-class. It’s really part of Christianity, because the Earth came from God and we have to look after it and not exploit it.’

However, the influence of religions on the environmental debate extends far beyond preaching ‘green’ messages to the faithful in the churches, mosques and temples. Many organisations around the world have added environmental education to school curriculums.

Since 1984, the Buddhist Perception of Nature has distributed environmental educational materials to schools in Thailand and the Tibetan community in India. IFEES has established faith-based environmental education programmes in schools in the UK, Indonesia, Kenya and Tanzania, and is now developing similar initiatives in Nigeria, Pakistan and Yemen. And in the UK, Palmer points out, about a quarter of all religious education is environmentally oriented. ‘Given that the faiths run more than 55 per cent of the world’s schools, the potential for influence in this context is huge,’ he says.

Religion also plays an important part in politics. Indeed, it has already helped to shape the direction of the environmental debate: at the Kyoto Protocol meeting in The Hague in 2000, faith leaders from 23 countries persuaded their governments to sign up; and in 2004, the Russian Orthodox Church played a pivotal role in persuading Vladimir Putin to sign.

It’s for this reason that the launch of the Evangelical Climate Initiative in February last year caused great excitement among environmental groups. ‘Christian groups in the USA form a large part of the power base of the current Bush administration,’ says Friends of the Earth’s Tony Juniper. ‘Their support was one of the reasons why that administration felt quite comfortable advocating all these doubts about global warming science and telling us there was no need to do anything. The shift of these communities to a much more active engagement with the issue is very encouraging.’

Putting God’s house in order

St James’ Church in Piccadilly is, in many ways, the quintessential London church. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and consecrated in 1684, it was bombed during the Blitz and subsequently rebuilt to its former glory. It’s also one of the UK’s greenest churches, having installed 40 photovoltaic cells on its roof in 2005. These solar panels provide more than 20 per cent of the electricity needed to light the church. There are now plans to dig bore holes to help regulate the church’s heating.

St James’ actions pre-empted the Church of England’s environmental campaign, which aims not only to encourage members of its congregation to reduce their carbon footprint, but also to cut its own emissions, by 60 per cent by 2050. Foster recognises that the Church’s efforts won’t halt the onset of climate change on their own. ‘They are primarily about setting an example and giving authenticity to our bishops when they speak out about the environment,’ she says.

But Palmer believes that, collectively, the faiths could make an enormous difference by getting their own affairs in order. ‘The faiths control much of the planet, and their activities have an enormous economic influence,’ he says. ‘The major religions own nine per cent of the Earth’s habitable land and five per cent of all commercial forests. Together, they form the third-largest investing group in the world, with centrally held funds estimated at US$7trillion. Thirty-four per cent of all stocks and shares are owned either by the faiths, or by individuals or organisations that acknowledge faith to be the basis of their investment policy.’

There are now signs that faith groups around the world are increasingly looking to reduce their environmental footprint. As Geographical went to press, the Lutheran Church of Sweden and the Association of Shinto Shrines of Japan were hosting a meeting with ARC aimed at developing Forest Stewardship Council management for all religious forests. In China, 10,000 Taoist temples are converting to renewable energy, as well as introducing education programmes teaching people how to cut down their energy use. And in India, Zoroastrians have committed to using wood from sustainable sources for the sacred fires that burn continuously in their temples.

Such is the perceived global influence of the faiths that UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon recently appointed Palmer as its special advisor on religion and climate change. ‘Organisations such as the UN and the World Bank have recognised that the faiths have a network that supersedes anything else in the world,’ he says. ‘They know this is particularly valuable in the developing world, where the poor trust religion as opposed to government by a factor of about ten to one.’

There is no doubt that the faiths can make a valuable contribution to the campaigns and practical projects promoted by environmental groups and to the political and economic solutions proposed at governmental level. But many within the faith community believe that we have to go further if we are to avert the onset of climate change.

The God solution

Currently, most of the proposed solutions to staving off climate change are discussed in a financial and economic context, whether it’s carbon credits and offsetting, increased taxes on air travel or fines for those who don’t recycle.

But while governments and corporations seem to believe that we can overcome climate change by tweaking the current economic model, many environmental groups argue that the model itself is a large part of the problem. ‘There are fundamental problems at the heart of this to do with the economic system,’ says Juniper. ‘It’s really a big-picture change that’s needed rather than the few little technologies here and there that might solve this stuff. Sustainability has to become the core objective rather than economic growth at all costs.’

Many within the faith community also point the finger at the economic system. ‘We need to understand the whole ethos of economic development and that this is destroying the Earth,’ says Khalid. ‘There is something to be said for switching to low-energy light bulbs and so on. If hundreds of millions of people do it, it will make a substantial difference. But ultimately it is still consumption based on fossil fuels. People need to be willing to talk and listen to the language of lifestyle change. If there is no lifestyle change, it is all over.’

But while organisations such as Friends of the Earth campaign for a new sustainable economic model, the faiths are looking to move the debate into a new arena, arguing that we need to look for answers beyond the realms of politics and economics. ‘Climate change needs to be understood in a broader moral and spiritual context that discusses the position of humankind within the natural world,’ says Khalid. ‘Faith can help us understand that we are part of the natural world, that we aren’t separate, so that one doesn’t look at one’s surroundings and see an exploitable resource. One feels that one is part of nature, and if we damage nature, we are damaging ourselves.’

According to Palmer, the faiths have an important role to play in the environmental movement by helping us understand what it means to be human. ‘At the moment, we are obsessed in the climate change discussion with the assumption that everybody has to be a consumer and we can’t break that cycle,’ he says. ‘But religions tell us that human fulfilment and happiness aren’t determined by what you own and what you can buy tomorrow. It’s actually fulfilled through relationships. It’s fulfilled through self-sacrifice, through compassion, through generosity and, therefore, to define us purely as consumers is reducing us down.’

Furthermore, he continues, the language of faith, which is common to all the major religions, is the very language we need to overcome the climate crisis. ‘Self-restraint and self-discipline is a very strong strand in every faith. And so is the idea that we live in a community and that we have a responsibility to those around us. According to the purely economic model, where we are reduced down to atomised individuals, the only reason you’re interested in the behaviour of others is whether it’s going to impact on your lifestyle.’

Getting the message across

The question remains as to how much the faiths can make their influence count. A crucial factor is the way in which they are organised. Catholicism, for example, has a very centralised structure, which allows it to disseminate information to all of its followers. The Pope’s encyclicals have historically had an enormous influence in this way, notably in 1968 when Humanae Vitae (‘Of Human Life’) made clear the Church’s opposition to abortion and contraception. ‘If Benedict XVI were to issue an encyclical on the environment – and we have an indication that he will – it would be very powerful indeed,’ says Northcott.

However, while the Church of England and, more broadly, the Anglican Church are organised along similar lines, few other religions have such a centralised structure. ‘This is one of the great problems we face,’ says Palmer. ‘Islam, for example, is immensely complicated, so you have to work almost mosque to mosque. And Hinduism has traditionally not been very good at disseminating anything other than sentimental messages.’ A furious debate among US evangelicals, which has arisen since the launch of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, indicates the kind of challenges presented by dispersed authority.

Nevertheless, there are other ways of activating the faithful, says Khalid. ‘We are trying to approach Islamic scholars, such as those at Al Azhar Seminary in Cairo, who are universally recognised and respected across the sectarian divide,’ he says. ‘Their support would make a tremendous difference.’ And Muzammal Hussein of the London Islamic Environmental Network points out that there are other faith-based organisations with large numbers of followers that have a role to play. ‘This year, JIMAS, one of the UK’s largest Islamic organisations, has been collaborating with IFEES and has dedicated its entire annual conference to the environment.’

The political influence of religion will depend on the economic circumstances of each country, says Khalid. ‘In the case of Islam,’ he says, ‘Indonesia has good potential, as do some of the Middle Eastern countries. But Pakistan and the Central Asian countries are a long way behind.’ Mario Aguilar, director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics at the University of St Andrews, believes the influence will be greatest in the developed world. ‘It will be most pronounced in Europe, simply because this is where the debates of the world take place. For the next 20 years or so, Latin America, Africa and Asia will be more concerned with food, shelter and economic stability than the environment.’

This doesn’t appear to be terribly good news for those who hope that faith will provide salvation from ecological disaster: statistics show that secularism is on the increase in Europe. But Palmer is convinced that the faiths still have a significant influence here.

‘More than two million people go to church in the UK every Sunday – that’s the largest single collective action, more than twice as many as that which go to football matches. If you add to that the mosques, synagogues Hindu temples and so forth, you’re looking at around four million people who are affirming their faith and, to some degree, taking guidance about their lifestyle from that.’

Although the statistics tell us that we’re an increasingly secular society, there is also plenty of evidence that people are still looking for a spiritual dimension to their lives. ‘People are trying to understand how to create personal relationships and communities at a time when society treats us as individual consumers,’ Palmer says. ‘There’s a very real desire to find a different way of living that isn’t just about buying a more ecologically sound plastic bag.’

Foster agrees. ‘Businesses are beginning to recognise that to recruit and keep good staff they need to be about more than making money, for example,’ she says. ‘Talking about the spiritual or ethical dimension no longer raises eyebrows.’

Nevertheless, Khalid remains sceptical that the faiths will make much difference at present. ‘Collectively, the religions represent an enormous force for change,’ he says. ‘But at the moment, every one of us is intent on increasing our standard of living. Are the Chinese and Indians going to give up their double-figure growth?’

Environmental and social collapse is inevitable, he says. That may be the time when religion will make its mark. ‘When everything is collapsing, people will realise they have made mistakes and will look to their faith to help them pick up the pieces.’

Palmer remains more positive. ‘If you look back in history, there have been times when human society reaches meltdown point, and then, from out of nowhere, comes a major movement that is spiritually rooted that somehow pulls us back, tips the balance, changes patterns of behaviour in a way that no other structure could.’

He points to the Methodists, who, he says, transformed the lives of the poor in 18th-century Britain, as well as the Benedictine order that revolutionised farming in Europe after the ecological devastation caused by the Roman Empire. ‘We’ve been here before and we’ve pulled our way out before,’ he says. ‘The most hopeful thing is that there is a plurality of responses coming from the faiths – and from other communities as well – so I don’t think it will be Christianity or socialism or Buddhism that gets us out of this. It’s going to be insights from all of those that will help to pull us through.’ >


Link here for the article in Geographical magazine, October 2007, with pictures and a slide show


< previous 
ARC site map
Related pages
October 2007:
Geographical Magazine article: Can God Save the World?
Geographical's Charlie Furniss explores the work that faiths are doing on the environment - including interviews with ARC, IFEEs, CI and other partners.
ARC at a glance
ARC is a secular body that helps the major religions of the world to develop their own environmental programmes, based on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices.