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Religion and science join forces on the environmental crisis
by Cielito Pascual

A report on the World Religions and Ecology Series, sponsored by Harvard University, emphasizing the urgent need for fundamental change in the way people consume the earth's resources.


New York City, USA
In New York City, in the autumn of 1998, scientists and religious leaders met before the public, intent on addressing the environmental crisis in a way that scientific data alone has yet to achieve: by calling for a change in the way people treat the earth.

Speakers acknowledged religion as a rich source of insight into man's relationship with nature and the cosmos. It has the potential to counterbalance the dominance of the profit ethos and inspire people to be better stewards of the planet. Religion can also be a medium of communication, with a reach and influence unrivaled by television or the Internet.

So, drawing inspiration from a diverse range of faith traditions, these scholars are in the process of formulating a set of environmental ethics that they hope will set the pace for an eventual transformation in the human/earth relationship.

This transformation is the central endeavor of the World Religions and Ecology Series sponsored by Harvard University -- an on-going project which has brought together people the world over, to engage in scholarly discourse on a range of religious practices and theological views of the natural kingdom. The New York meetings, held at the United Nations and the American Museum of Natural History, moved this burgeoning partnership of religion and science from academia onto the public stage.

It was a heartening program for the audience of students, advocates and concerned citizens gathered to hear what was at once a motivational rally and a grim reporting on the state of the earth by some of the foremost names of the environmental movement. The obstacles that activists face are tremendous. In recent years, world concern for the environment has languished beneath the push for global market growth while advocates for commercial interests have launched campaigns to discredit scientific proof of global warming.

Ultimately, ethics-based solutions to the earth crisis will demand a fundamental change of course away from many dearly-held assumptions and life choices. As one participant put it: the biggest hurdle we face may be ourselves.

Redefining the good life

"Whatever happened to the virtue of frugality? This used to be a very strong Protestant virtue and a Catholic tradition as well. We've lost any sense of knowing when enough is enough," said Sallie McFague, Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt University. With the eminent journalist Bill Moyers as moderator, McFague and a panel of religious scholars discussed the perilous effect of over-production and over-consumption on the ecosystem and the ways that religious tradition can motivate people to see life in terms other than consumer-based.

"As religious leaders one of our jobs is to give a vision, especially to our young people, of a different kind of abundant life," McFague said. "A life where a person has satisfying work, they have their basic needs met, they have time for their relationships and they can pursue opportunities that they want -- that can be called 'the good life'."

In Islamic culture, the issue is not a disconnection between economics and ethics, according to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. He pointed out: "It is not a problem to get people to realize the correct balance between the spiritual and economic. It's the other way around -- of trying to prevent modernized minorities, influenced very strongly by the West, from corrupting the natural and normal view of the Islamic majority."


Religion can remind us of those values, and sensitize a society of American voters to expect environmental leadership from their elected officials.


Indeed, it is a Western nation that is the world's largest polluter and the most recalcitrant on issues of the environment. The United States, by a vote in Congress, refuses to enter into any treaty to protect the earth that is perceived to be damaging to the nation's economy. It's a policy that many would say follows economic logic. But that logic reduces a person to a mere unit of an economic transaction motivated solely by price and profit entirely bypassing the range of spiritual and social values that motivate human life. Religion can remind us of those values, and sensitize a society of American voters to expect environmental leadership from their elected officials.

But religious ideals alone aren't enough to save the planet. The investigative vigor of science is needed to report what we're actually doing to the planet. Jane Lubchenko, Professor of Marine Biology at Oregon State University, described the magnitude of the "human footprint" on the planet: half of the planet's land surface has been transformed by humans; nearly half of its surface fresh water is used by humans; 30 per cent of the contents of the earth atmosphere has been altered since the Industrial Revolution; two-thirds of the ocean fisheries are fully overexploited or depleted; and 30,000 species a year, or three species per hour, are lost due to human activity.

Offering hopeful news, Dr Lubchenko noted the "remarkable progress" of nations to control the release of ozone-destroying chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. And among the major oil corporations, British Petroleum and Shell have taken prompt action to begin converting to sustainable practices.

Civil society network

Linking the aspirations expressed in New York with the world community is the Earth Charter Initiative, a project launched in 1995 to define the principles of a planetary ethic based on worldwide participation. It was the brainchild of Mikhail Gorbachev and Maurice Strong, the man considered to be the most influential figure in contemporary environmental advocacy.

Steven Rockefeller, Professor of Theology at Middlebury College and the director of the Earth Charter drafting process, invited the New York audience to read the latest draft and contribute their own ideas on common goals for humanity. Distinct from the World Religions and Ecology project, which is primarily an academic endeavor, the Earth Charter Initiative is a people's treaty which seeks to involve the ideas of the largest possible number of people, from individuals to international organizations, representing a broad range of cultures, religions and groups of society. Professor Rockefeller sees the Charter as a demonstration of a "powerful civil society network", and because of it, he says, the nations of the world were moved to accept the landmark treaty in Kyoto, Japan, for the reduction of greenhouse gases.

The Earth Charter drafting process will continue with extensive consultations and reviews which will bring a finished document to the United Nations General Assembly for endorsement by the end of 1999. Professor Rockefeller believes the Charter is generating international consensus on environmental issues but cautions that opposition is strong: "There are many people who would rather exploit the earth than respect it."

Considering the urgency of environmental challenges, an onstage invocation for divine intervention might not have been out of place. But there was recognition that the human species is not laboring alone. Journalist Bill Moyers asked rhetorically: "If the wisdom of the religious traditions could speak with one voice, through the centuries and across the varieties of human experience, what single question on this issue of the environment would it put to the human species?" The philosopher Brian Swimme suggested the possibility of an interactive cosmos: "If we regarded ourselves as a subsystem of the whole earth community, what guidance would the governing tendencies of the universe offer us?" And Thomas Berry, the elder statesman of environmental ethics, in closing remarks of encouragement said: "We are not left alone. The powers of the planet, the powers of the universe, are ready to support us."

Shaping the ecological debate was a role that religious communities on the whole did not initiate on their own. In fact, it was a direct appeal to the faith traditions made by the Union of Concerned Scientists which inspired the genesis of the World Religions and Ecology Series. Through this project, scientists and religious leaders are boldly stepping out of their conventional domains, understanding that a single specialized view can no longer adequately address the multitude of challenges that make up the earth crisis.

There's no lack of conferences calling for a revolution in consciousness but can it happen soon enough? Said Professor Nasr of George Washington University: "I believe there's no possibility of healing the earth within the modern paradigm. We need really heroic people to be able to challenge the world view at its very foundation but it takes a lot of courage because you are now not the voice of the majority. We need a few voices crying in the wilderness."

From the May 1999 issue of Share International.


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005