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Green Futures

Green Futures

This article originally appeared in Green Futures magazine. Green Futures is the leading international magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures, published by Forum for…

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Can Religion Steer the World Towards a Greener Future?

The world's faiths are global organisations with billions of followers. Ian Christie explains why it's high time they were brought into the sustainability debate.

Sometime during 2011, the human population of Earth will reach seven billion – and it will almost certainly keep on rising to the middle of the century, at least. Sustainable development will be based on cooperation at all scales among these billions of individuals and the communities to which they belong. But who are these billions? Depending on which statistics you decide are most reliable, at least two-thirds of them are, in varying degrees, adherents of religious traditions. At most, followers of the world’s faiths amount to 90% of the global population. Whichever way you look at it, the religious are in the great majority.

“The world that must be steered towards sustainable development is a religious one”

Moreover, they will stay that way. For the growth in the world’s population is taking place almost entirely in countries with high levels of religious adherence. And in the West, where birth rates have plummeted over recent decades, any population growth is now associated with immigrant groups, who tend to be members of faith communities. In short, whether you like it or not, the world that must be steered towards sustainable development is overwhelmingly a religious one. Sustainable developers everywhere have to face up to this reality.

Our special edition, Moving Mountains, explores the relationship between faiths and sustainable development. Sustainability organisations in the West are dominated by secular people and attitudes. Indifferent, or perhaps hostile, to religion, they have little or no contact with faith communities. Given the scale of religious adherence worldwide, sustainable development movements can’t afford to ignore or reject opportunities for collaboration and communication associated with faith. As Martin Palmer, Director of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) puts it: “Why would you not want to work with the world’s largest source of social capital?”

There is a lot of work to be done in raising awareness of this capital and dispelling misconceptions. What resources do religions worldwide have for promoting sustainable development? What are the barriers to cooperation – both between the faiths, and between religious and secular groups – and how can we overcome them? And how are the faiths responding to environmentalism and the challenges of sustainable development?

God never went away

For most of the past century and more, sociologists and other observers have confidently expected that the world would become ever more secular. Influential philosophers (including Marx, Freud, Weber and Durkheim) have argued that modernisation erodes religious belief and observance. For them, faith simply isn’t compatible with advancements in science and technology, industrialisation and urban lifestyles.

For a long time, this theory of secularisation seemed plausible. Especially in the UK, where church attendance had been falling since the late 1950s, it looked like common sense.

We need to think again. Europe no longer looks like the vanguard of inevitable global secularisation. Instead, it looks like a global anomaly. Outside Europe and liberal urban North America, the faiths are thriving. This is a great age of religious expansion, in fact. Forms of Christianity and Islam are booming, particularly in Africa and Asia. In a recent book, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge show that ‘God is Back’. The authors highlight that China, not long ago officially atheist, is on track to become both the world’s biggest Christian and Muslim nation over the coming decades. Pentecostal Christianity is perhaps the biggest story of all – and largely unreported in secular Britain and the rest of Europe. This form of the faith is taking the urban poor of Latin America from Catholicism at a rapid rate, and it is thriving in sub-Saharan Africa and industrial South Korea alike.

Even in Europe, where formal Christian allegiance has been waning for centuries, the churches, and now the Islamic communities and other faiths that have taken root, are a significant presence. Over a million people in the UK attend church services each week, and the last census showed over 70% of the population in England and Wales identify themselves as Christian. Sociologist Philip Jenkins argues that migration to the EU in the next few decades will inject more Muslim and Christian influence into Europe, and could also stimulate a revival of home-grown Christian traditions.

Whatever happens, the idea that modern life means the triumph of atheism or agnosticism has taken a battering.

So what does this mean for sustainability? It’s worth taking a moment to consider the assets and resources of the major faiths. Their scale is often not fully appreciated.

Take the media. In the Worldwatch Institute report Invoking the Spirit, Gary Gardner estimates that the faith traditions produce more daily newspapers than the total published in Western Europe. Increasingly, religious organisations and communities are sophisticated users of the internet, mobile communications and television. Influential Christian television networks include Emmanuel TV, one of the most viewed stations in Africa and SAT-7 in the Middle East. In the US, the National Religious Broadcasters represent over 1,600 broadcasters with “billions of dollars in media holdings and staggering political clout”, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

Religious groups also have immense holdings of land and buildings. According to ARC, this includes some 5% of the world’s forests, and many of the world’s most visited tourist destinations: temples, mosques, synagogues, monasteries and churches.

They are also connected to more than half of all schools, and this goes beyond simply owning the sites. Across the developing world, and even in Europe, where the state is the dominant provider of public services, religious bodies are important suppliers of education, health support, and community hubs.

And their activities aren’t restricted to the charitable do-good type: they are also big business. ARC calculates that the combined shares of the world’s 11 largest faiths amount to 6-8% of the world’s total market for institutional investment.

But above all, the faiths have people power: four in five of us are, to some extent, members of faith communities. If just a fraction of this huge body of believers were to connect their faith to sustainable development and act accordingly, with the support of their institutions, the gains could be world-changing.

Religious leaders could play a significant role in making explicit the connections between current concerns for the environment and age-old teachings about our dependence on the natural world, and the dangers of greed and excess. If all of this were harnessed for sustainable development, imagine what capacity for change would be unleashed.

Stumbling blocks on both sides

But for many believers, awareness of environmental problems in their everyday lives remains low. The connection between their faith and sustainable lifestyles and policies is not obvious – just as many non-believers fail to make the link between their consumption and environmental problems. In the West, faith communities can feel marginalised by mainstream media and policymakers. In the face of consumerism and capitalism, fundamentalist sects have grown, determined to resist modernity and cling to what is imagined to be the core of their religion.

This has led to conflict not only between religion and secular cultures, but also within faiths. There are fault lines in many faiths between those willing to adapt and interpret their beliefs and traditions in the light of contemporary realities, and those who insist on literal interpretations of the sacred texts. These divisions are exacerbated in many places by economic, ethnic, social and environmental tensions.

There is also resistance to harnessing the power of faiths for sustainable development on the other side of the fence. Sceptics argue that there is little that faiths can offer beyond abstract statements about values that make no difference, whether to believers or non-adherents. Unsustainable development is as marked in the most devout parts of the world as it is in secular ones. It doesn’t help that the major religions, especially since 9/11, have been associated with violence, oppression of women, resistance to birth control, and other agendas rejected by liberal societies. Such associations, though unrepresentative, offer little incentive to secular bodies to see the faiths as partners in sustainable development.


But whatever the obstacles, the case for making common cause is a powerful one [see ‘Why green activists should embrace the faiths’]. There is a fundamental and urgent need for change, not just in technologies and policies, but in values and behaviour, particularly among the affluent who dominate global consumption.

Green movements and global justice campaigns have been almost the only political forces in the last quarter century in the West to challenge the free-market ideology. But they have often failed to recognise the shared themes between their critique and that of many religious leaders.

Some of the fiercest critiques of modern capitalism and globalisation have come from the present Pope and his predecessor John Paul II – a fact obscured by the sexual policy obsessions of the Catholic churches. Some of the most profound reflections on our responsibility to act on climate change have come from Anglican bishops. There is a large movement among conservative US evangelicals – not well-known as environmentalists to date – to promote ‘creation care’ and action on climate change. And a profound emphasis on respect for the natural world and the connections between human and non-human life is at the heart of the Eastern faith traditions, such as Buddhism, Daoism and Hinduism.

The sustainability agenda can offer the religions of the world an incentive for cooperation – both between themselves, and with secular parties. The development of many multi-faith initiatives suggests that this is not an empty hope. Major statements from religious leaders on the ecological crises we face demonstrate that there is plenty of common ground between Pope Benedict, the Muslim World League, the Church of England, the World Jewish Congress, the Hindu Virat Samaj, the Dalai Lama, the Baha’i delegation to the UN, and so on, around the world’s faiths. The Seven Year Generational Plans of the faiths, as promoted by ARC and UNDP, offer a striking array of initiatives.

Where do we go from here? We know that technology and market-led approaches to the ecological crisis and to global inequalities are necessary – but not sufficient. A sustainable future also depends on changes in values and behaviour. As this becomes ever more apparent, the need for a spiritual and ethical vision to bring policy to life will grow. It is vital to explore the potential here with imagination, energy and open-mindedness. Together, the faiths and secular organisations could indeed ‘move mountains’.

By. Ian Christie

Ian Christie is a Fellow of the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, and an Associate of Green Alliance.

This article originally appeared in Green Futures magazine.  Green Futures is the leading international magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures, published by Forum for the Future.  Its aim is to demonstrate how a sustainable future is both practical and desirable – and can be profitable, too.

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