Spirituality is about putting principles into practice, says Porritt

Sensemaking / Spirituality is about putting principles into practice, says Porritt

Jonathon Porritt shows that there's more to sustainable development than the triple bottom line.

12 Aug 2011

Jonathon Porritt shows that there's more to sustainable development than the triple bottom line.

Sustainable development isn’t just about triple bottom lines, or enlightened self-interest; primarily, it’s a heart and soul story.

I wonder how many people are comfortable with that assertion. I’ve been struck over the years by the number of people in my ‘green’ world who have remained sceptical about, or even hostile to, the so-called spiritual dimension of the green movement.

As with so many aspects of sustainable development, this is both personal and political. Personal because people have strong views about faith and religion. They say: “This is what I believe”. And beliefs are not just theoretical: they matter enormously to people in practical terms. And it’s political, in that the world’s major religions play a hugely influential role in the lives of billions of people – and as such, are critical intermediaries in helping to inform and inspire people about living more sustainably.

As Gandhi said, “I claim that human mind or human society is not divided into watertight compartments called social, political, religious. All act and react upon one another. I do not believe that the spiritual law works on a field of its own. On the contrary, it expresses itself only through the ordinary activities of life.”

It is these ‘ordinary activities’ that we need so urgently to address, and so the special edition, Moving Mountains, looks at the role of spirituality in doing so. The challenge of dealing with materialism and the excessive lifestyles of the rich can only become more pressing in the future. A lot of the terminology associated with sustainable living – wellbeing, quality of life, simplicity, downsizing – implies a lesser emphasis on money and possessions, and a greater focus on our ‘inner’ lives, on family and friends, the arts, and on activities with a smaller environmental impact. There is, of course, a lot of secular advice and teaching on living more simply. But for many, the spiritual dimension provides that extra impulse.

There remains the widespread suspicion that the spiritual means to ‘drop out’: to disappear narcissistically inwards, devoting one’s life to meditation and even navel-gazing. There is a time for contemplation, but it seems clear that an exclusive emphasis on the unworldly, on withdrawal from this grubby industrial culture of ours, merely reinforces the parody of spirituality as a morally superior way of dropping out.

For many people today, a more spiritual orientation demands the exact opposite of dropping out. When it comes to the defence of the Earth and its people, it means militantly putting into practice what we profess to believe.

Two sides of the same coin

If we’re going to achieve sustainability, we have to be inspired by the values and visions which we find in the sphere of ethics, morality, spirituality and religion – in other words, in faith. The moment faith and sustainability are separated they lose power. But when they are united they become a force for good.

The scope of politics and economics to drive change is limited by external pressures and circumstances, as well as by vested interests. They are both utilitarian concepts: they teach us to value natural resources only in terms of their usefulness to people, and in particular, to the privileged and the powerful.

From a faith perspective, nature is a divine gift to be celebrated for the joy and benefit of all living beings. Such joy and benefit has to be built on the foundations of humility, mutuality, reciprocity, interdependence and interconnectedness. The enduring principle of faith is that we are all part of the web of life, and therefore we must treat each other and nature with care and compassion.

Of course life supports life, and we need to take from nature for our survival and wellbeing. But we should receive these gifts with humility and gratitude, not greed and arrogance.

Faiths too have a great responsibility to practise and promote sustainability. They need to transcend their narrow dogmas and institutionalised interests to do so. The ecological integrity of people and the planet overrides all differences and divisions. Sustainability is the spiritual imperative of our time.

Satish Kumar is Editor, Resurgence.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future.

Photo credit: kertlis / iStock

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