What Does Religion Have To Do With Living Sustainably?

Circle containing symbols of major religions within different coloured circles

Image by vaXzine, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In our current world we see a lot of violence and environmental destruction. Much of this is done in the guise of following religious teachings. Conflict between religious groups tends to highlight perceived differences between them.

And yet we have more in common than we have differences between us.

We all live on – and share – the one finite planet.

We are all part of, and dependent upon, the Earth’s ecosystems. We are not separate from them. All forms of life, including our own as humans are entirely dependent on the natural world that sustains us maintaining its ecological integrity. Despite what some people think, that means that civilisation also depends on the natural world.

Because of this, religious faiths have at their core a love for this planet and its inhabitants and a deep reverence for life.  They share a common teaching that we have a responsibility to care for our world (which faiths often called Creation). In virtually all religions, we humans are called to be caretakers or stewards of the Earth.

Regardless of whether you have a religious faith or not, we have a responsibility to care for the ecosystems on which life depends.  We especially need to do this for future generations and other species with which we share the Earth and for people who are bearing the negative impacts of climate change and other environmental damage earliest and hardest. (It is important to note here that those who bear the impact most are usually the least likely to have caused it – and the least able to mitigate it.)

People of all faiths can take on this caretaker responsibility – as individuals, congregations and communities.

That is because faith is about attitudes and actions as well as words.

In the face of immense and increasing ecological damage and social injustices, we all need to need to affirm our love for this planet and its inhabitants and our deep reverence for life – and make decisions and take actions that foster and drive positive change for a healthier and more peaceful world.  Our faith – if we have one – can help us with this.

That is what groups such as Faith and Ecology Network (FEN) and Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) do.  They are groups of people of a range of faiths who share a common commitment to care for the Earth. Similar organisations exist in other countries and internationally.

Much of what ARRCC members believe and work toward extends beyond climate change and serves as a model for why people of faith should care about our environment – and how they can go about it.  (This is how it should be, because ARRCC draws on religious teachings and applies it to climate change and so this process should therefore be easily applied in reverse – and that is why this article draws heavily on material on the ARRCC website. I also acknowledge help from the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute website.)

Like many issues we face today, climate change and all environmental damage is not only a scientific, environmental, economic and political issue – it is also a profoundly moral and spiritual one:

  • Creation – the Earth’s ecosystems and all their components –  is intrinsically precious and beautiful and deserves protection;
  • the wellbeing of human beings is dependent on Earth’s ecosystems and their components maintaining their integrity and flourishing; and
  • it is the vulnerable people of the world who are most impacted by climate change and other environmental degradation and crises.

People of all faiths can and should be at the forefront of protecting Creation and reinstating the ecological integrity of Earth, including its physical elements such as a safe climate. That’s because people of faith are dedicated to the common good, inspired by their beliefs and energized by their spirituality.

While celebrating the uniqueness of their different traditions, people of faith can stand together in working for an ecologically and socially sustainable future. This can help us envisage embracing a sustainable future, one that is based on a more ethical understanding of human prosperity and the flourishing of all.

To achieve this vision of sustainability, people of faith and religious communities more generally need to actively reflect their love for our precious planet and its inhabitants and deep reverence for life in their day-to-day choices.

People of faith can also advocate, from a faith perspective, for public policies that contribute to ecological sustainability and justice.

Ways in which we see this leadership on environmental sustainability range from grand gestures such as public statements and divesting from fossil fuels to individual practical actions such as being thrifty, growing our own food or buying it from local producers, and walking, riding a bus or catching public transport instead of driving cars.

As then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said in his sermon at an international ecumenical service in Copenhagen Cathedral during the 2009 UN climate change talks:

We cannot show the right kind of love for our fellow-humans unless we also work at keeping the earth as a place that is a secure home for all people.

That is why religious leadership and action on environmental sustainability is so important.

We are seeing increasing leadership from people of faith, for example:

  • A global multifaith network, Our Voices, went online on 7 May 2014 to call for action on climate change.  It is focussed on generating the biggest possible upsurge of support for a strong international climate agreement to come out of the UN climate change talks in Paris in December 2015.
  • In November 2014 the Salvation Army issued a Positional Statement, endorsed by its General and particularly in the context of climate change, on Care for the Environment.
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury launched the Lambeth Declaration 2015 on Climate Change by UK spiritual leaders on 16 June 2015.
  • 360 mainly American rabbis issued A Rabbinical Letter on Climate Change on 17 June 2015.
  • Pope Francis released his encyclical Laudato Si’ on 18 June 2015, addressed to all people and supported by a range of leaders before and after the event.
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Ecumenical Patriarch made a joint call in the New York Times on 19 June 2015 about our moral responsibility to act now on climate change.
  • An Islamic Declaration on Climate Change was issued on 18 August 2015, also supported by other leaders.

In this critical year for decisions that will affect the future of life on Earth as we know it, there cannot be enough pressure and action to protect the habitability of our Earth.

If everyone speaks up – more than just a few faith leaders, more than just Roman Catholics or Muslims – we could make this a turning point for global action on climate change. In particular, all faith leaders need to back the moral urgency of climate action.

Regardless of your religious background, here are 3 things you can do right now (and for the first 2 you don’t even need to have a religious faith ;)):

  1. Ask your local religious leaders and communities to join this global call for action on climate change.  Especially encourage your local Roman Catholic community to protect our precious Earth. You could do this:
    • in person
    • by phone
    • by letter
    • using social media, for example:
      Dear [insert name or Twitter handle of your church/leader], will you join Pope Francis [@Pontifex] and speak out about the moral urgency of climate action?
      [insert name or Twitter handle of your islamic community or imam], will you join #Muslims4Climate and speak out about the moral urgency of climate action?
      (#PraisedBe #AllAreCalled #encyclical #LaudatoSi #popeforplanet #Muslims4Climate #climatechange are also good for connecting with others and getting messages and images to share)
  2. Urge your local religious groups to divest from fossil fuels – and encourage them to invest in renewable energy instead. As Bill McKibben says, if it’s wrong to wreck the planet, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage. Over 45 religious groups have already committed to divest from fossil fuels. You can join a local campaign or start one in your own community by signing up with 350.org – they’ll send you the information you need.
  3. If you have a faith, join the groundswell of people of faith calling for strong action to protect our Earth. Our Voices is a good place to start.

Till next time…be gentle to yourself and our world!

[Post updated 19 August 2015 and again 27 August 2015]

[Post updated to remove links to Our Voices – campaign finished and website no longer operating.]