Why green activists should embrace the faiths

Sensemaking / Why green activists should embrace the faiths

In the last 25 years, the faiths have become the fastest growing environmental movement in the world. Martin Palmer makes the case for engagement.

12 Aug 2011

In the last 25 years, the faiths have become the fastest growing environmental movement in the world. Martin Palmer makes the case for engagement.

Following the failure of Copenhagen and the rediscovery by green activists of civil society, secular groups are waking up to the potential of working with the faiths – even viewing them as crucial partners. So what can the faiths bring to the environmentalists’ table?

First of all, the fact that they are not conservation bodies. Rather, the faiths include the oldest and most sustainable human organisations in the world. They have perfected how to change constantly without appearing to do so. They can offer consistency and inspiration, but with a renewed emphasis on caring for the Creation.

A second asset is that they talk in a language people understand: not about ‘eco-system deliverables’, but about nature.

As for funding, they are already committed to running (or helping to run) more than 50% of all schools worldwide or manage up to 8% of the habitable surface of the planet. Doing this in a ‘sustainable’ way should bring cost savings through efficiency gains, and even additional income (for instance, through the sale of renewable energy, or community-grown food).

The faiths also know how to work with partners in a mutually respectful and trusting way. They hold communities together, inspiring the transformation of individuals, families and wider groups. As sustainability professionals agonise about how to mobilise citizens for effective action, there is much they can learn from these ready-made bodies of individuals who are committed to shared values and activities, and to the recruitment of new members.

They also have something lacking in most governments, mass media and political parties: a long-term view. It could hardly get any longer than human history seen in the light of eternity! It’s been said, famously, that the Vatican thinks in terms of centuries. And the same goes for most religious traditions.

And while some play an advocacy role, most bring continuity and integrity to political, economic and environmental debates. Religious observance is associated often with civic responsibility, voluntary contributions, and aspirations to justice. The faiths still attract many of the best and brightest in society, and even in Europe the views of religious authorities can count for a great deal in politics.

Finally, whereas sustainability professionals may have information, data and expert insights that the faiths do not, the faiths have an authority with the peoples of almost every country in the world – and this is something that the environmental movement could certainly use!

Twenty-five years ago, it was difficult to find any religious leaders who knew there was an environmental crisis. Now, it’s rare to find ones who don’t. Back then, most conservationists were appalled at the idea of working with religions. Now, I watch with delight as the faiths and environmental organisations are, increasingly, working side by side to save what is, for many of us, the wonder of God’s creation. 

The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) is a UK-based secular organisation working with all the major religions of the world to help them develop environmental programmes based on their beliefs and teachings. With support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), ARC has supported many faith groups to develop ‘Seven Year Generational Plans’ on climate action, environmental protection and sustainable development. These Plans draw on sacred texts and traditions, putting their values to work on the ground. They were presented at a summit in November 2009 which brought faith leaders from around the world together – a striking contrast to the negligible output of the Copenhagen Summit, one month later. www.arcworld.org

Martin Palmer is Secretary General of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Additional material by Ian Christie.

Photo credit: tioloco / istock. Shared ground: a stucco ceiling in Córdoba’s Mezquita, or Mosque-Cathedral, formerly the site of a pagan temple and Visigothic Christian church

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