It is in our gift to stop harming our planet.

An Environment Agency survey in 2007 of leading scientists and environmentalists asked them for their ideas on the 50 most important things that will save the planet. High up on the list at number 2 was the vital role that religious and faith leaders can collectively play. “Religious leaders need to make the planet their priority…the world’s faith groups have been silent for too long on the environment…” and even for those of no faith, it was pointed out that ‘Human responsibility for the future of our world calls for a reverence for what is natural that is deep enough to provoke proportionate action to protect it.”

Whether or not we have a faith, all of us who are touched by spirit and that “reverence for what is natural” are beginning to feel unease with the current materialist and consumerist culture of the West; we hold visions of a simpler and “better” way of life, which will be more satisfying and happier.

I was in the UK university town of Cambridge in September 2010, in unseasonably scorching weather, for a Conference organized jointly by The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE) and the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. Both these organizations have close links with the Christian community, but the organizers had gathered together an impressive panel of speakers from not only Christian but also Islamic, Buddhist, and secular backgrounds, all united in the desire to have an informed and honest dialogue about how between us we can face the challenges of climate change and global warming with a move towards more sustainable living.

Because Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists and others already believe that it is morally wrong to damage the environment. The problem is that we often simply choose to ignore this as we go about our daily lives.

So here we were, scientists, ordained Christian ministers, Muslims, representatives of charities, NGOs, students and more, over 100 delegates, gathered together to help achieve the two goals of the conference; firstly “to identify key sustainable and realizable policy changes for the next decade, at three levels: consumption, production, governance,” and secondly “to consider how to enlist the critical support of religious communities behind these changes.”

And it was an apposite time for the debate. The American environmentalist, activist, thinker and author Bill McKibben told us on the second day of the conference that Vermont set new rainfall records recently, causing widespread flooding, washing away bridges and, ironically, small farms that were being used as showpieces of how more sustainable farming should be developing.

There is now widespread scientific agreement on the parlous state of the environment, in spite of the cynics and skeptics who would love to believe that the earth will always be able to sustain the profligate Western lifestyle as it spreads across the whole world.

Earth has finite resources and she is groaning.

Although we were left with no illusions as to the urgency of the current situation, nevertheless all who attended over the two and a half days of talks, panel discussions and question and answer sessions came away with a very positive message as to how faith communities are well placed to unite in positive actions. Because there is no doubt that the world’s religions between them have enviable global networks and resources that when combined can be potent catalysts for change. And we now need to make this happen.

I cannot do justice here to the enormous scope and coverage of the conference and an edited audiovisual record of all the sessions will be available soon on the media section of the Faraday Institute website with full public access. It will also form the basis of a book in due course.

What follows are brief resumes of the many sessions, where I mention some of the pointers arising out of the event for those readers who would like a little more flavor of the conference now.

An early and vital message repeated again and again is that our economy is very sick, our economic model flawed, based as it is on growth and debt. Paul Ekins and Ann Pettifor led our first session, on Sustainable Growth. Paul is Professor of Energy and Environmental Policy at the UCL Energy Institute working on achieving an environmentally sustainable economy, and Ann is a fellow of the New Economics Foundation, and an expert on sovereign debt around the world and the challenges posed to economic policy by peak oil and climate change.

What sort of economy is needed for sustainable consumption and sustainable production?

Is our obsession with economic growth feasible or compatible? Are there better ways to measure growth than RPI and similar indices? Should we take human values into account? These questions and more were posed and considered by the speakers, whose talks were then further critiqued by Tim Cooper, (Professor of Sustainable Design and Consumption at Nottingham Trent University and Co-founder of Christian Ecology Link) Mawil Izzi Dien (Reader in Islamic studies at University of Wales) and Laszlo Zsolnai (Business Ethics Centre Corvinus University Budapest). Some of the flawed assumptions of our economy are that the earth has no intrinsic value, and financial wealth and prosperity are more important than individual “well-being” and happiness.

We must also question an economy based on debt, and challenge growth as the basis for a sound economy; it is anathema to the environmental ecologist. But sadly now is not a good time to be challenging the need that is firmly entrenched in our mindset; to spend more and to carry on over-consuming! And of course usury, or lending money in return for an unearned interest, the cause of much of our current ills, is considered wrong within Islam, and again was covered in different ways by the Muslim speakers. From Laszlo’s Buddhist perspective what we actually need is a “degrowth” movement worldwide, where small once more becomes beautiful.

Bill McKibben spoke with humor and passion on Sustainable Consumption. He is the author of The End of Nature (1989), the first book for a general audience about climate change, and he is a frequent writer in many well known, mostly American, magazines and papers, where he writes on global warming and alternative energy, and in support of more localized economies.  What is the trajectory of Western consumerism? How can we overcome barriers that exist amongst individuals and communities against reducing consumption? We need to break away from the idea that a consumerist society is “good.” It has become counter-productive. There are four clear issues here, he showed us, framed around the themes of ecology, economy, instability and human happiness. For example, there is 40% less ice now than when man landed on the moon: The massive inequality gap between the rich and the poor is widening: Our financial system is obviously unstable: and the peak of USA happiness was in 1956! Most of the American wealth since then has been soaked up by ever- bigger energy guzzling houses, with negative ecological and sociological effects.

Our goal, he said, must be to reduce scale, and get over the psychological barrier that always tells us growth is good!

Bill is convinced that we need an urgent 30% increase in fossil fuel costs to drive individual behavioral change and a system that privileges local level changes towards sustainability. And we need a very large number of us together to build a global political movement for change. We could make a start by supporting the campaign against the TransCanada proposed XL pipeline across America, he said.

Tom Crompton, (Change Strategist at WWF-UK), Satish Kumar and Ruth Valerio then each spoke briefly and formed the panel with Bill for the next Q&A session. Tom discussed the need to undermine the extrinsic values of wealth, prestige etc by building intrinsic values of love and unity with nature. At the moment there is a see-saw relationship between the two, and advertising is often harmful and unhelpful in this respect. Satish always speaks so eloquently; his theme was that money is not wealth: wealth is nature. Economy and ecology are essentially linked. Ruth challenged us with what the Holy Bible tells us about the four values of humility, frugality, justice and love. She was inspirational for truly and clearly practicing all that she preaches in green living.

As the founder and Chief Executive of Good Energy, the UK’s leading renewable electricity supplier, Juliet Davenport was well qualified to talk about Sustainable Production of our energy needs, and she left us with plenty to think about. What are the changes needed in the business sector to move towards more sustainable energy usage? Today our energy is still far too reliant on fossil fuels, it is undervalued and it is wasted. We need to move towards sustainability of our energy production, we need to value it, and manage it intelligently. What are the economic, psychological and technical blockages to overcome, and how do we do this?

In the panel session that followed, Cal Bailey spoke of the help that businesses need in green issues, but said that the corporate responsibility movement in big business is growing. It is important that they should be servants of society not kings. Democracy leads to short term thinking, he reminded us, and there is a need for more continuous government (this applies in the US as well as in the UK).

Harfiyah Haleem then spoke of Islamic principles relevant to sustainable production and Roy Tindle pointed out that some companies are already driving forward on green issues, citing Rio Tinto Zinc and KPMG as examples. He reminded us that Islam and Christianity had fundamental roles in developing math and science, and we need to restore that connection. We need to set up networks, do things together, to look again at how we can change behavior (very dear to my own heart). Consumers will act responsibly if they are given the information (e.g. the efficiency ratings on white goods). And churches need to help congregations fulfill their roles in their workplaces, he said.

After dinner on the second night of the conference, Satish Kumar – best known for his philosophy of reverential ecology, voluntary simplicity and holistic education – gave a welcome and engaging talk on spirituality and science – we need both for sustainable living – emphasizing that only by nurturing a love of the earth can we sustain it and live joyfully. He also told us the story of his 8000 mile walk for peace, from the grave of Gandhi to the grave of J F Kennedy, to be found in his autobiography No Destination.

Our current unsustainability is the sum of human activity at all levels, Paul Chambers told us in the fourth main session, Governing for Sustainability. We must live within our means, and we are not doing this. On our terms, this is still possible. If we leave it to nature to write the terms, then we are in for a rough ride, he said. He was speaking from the perspective of UK government, but as with all that had gone before, so many of the issues he discussed are common to all industrialized countries. He showed us that whilst there are good signs of positive change for the better, there can now be no doubt whatsoever that most global environmental trends are going in the wrong direction – depletions in fish stocks, greenhouse gases still rising, top soil erosion, salination of land, water pollution, see Living Planet report?

There is, he said, a distinctive role for the UK Government in promoting sustainable production and consumption both in the UK and internationally via global governmental arenas. There is a need for urgent global action to commit to Kyoto targets, and a need to demonstrate clearly that this need not mean economic suicide. It is also clear that we need to write a better story around the benefits of more sustainable living, with visions of a more attractive and happier lifestyle available from simpler living.

So often be believe that our actions are futile in the shadow of China’s expansion. But Andy Atkins, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, gave us cause for hope when he told us that China are interested in what the UK are doing with regard to the Climate Change Act (initiated by FoE) and are sending a delegation over to find out more. Andy urged us to do practical stuff in our own lives, whilst using our faith groups to collaborate and focus on influencing political change.

American Douglas Crawford-Brown, Director Emeritus of the Institute for the Environment at the University if North Carolina, US, has now moved to the UK, where, he says, he has cut his carbon footprint by 60% and also has a better quality of living and is much happier. He used the metaphor of an hour -glass or egg timer for our current global situation. We can plug the hole but cannot get at every individual grain of sand.

There is an American advertisement: “You have a vote; you vote 3 times a day; Change is possible.” Peter Melchett was speaking of our eating habits. He has been policy director of the Soil Association, the UK’s main organic food and farming organization, since 2001, as well as running an 890-acre organic livestock and arable farm. He gave us plenty of cause for optimism and hope, by showing us examples of where our behavior has been changed, towards a more organic lifestyle. We are in the grip of a false assumption, he said, that we cannot control our current food situation – that cheaper foods, less wildlife, lower animal welfare, lower nutritional content, are inevitable consequences of our need to feed a growing world population.

A sound ecological system can feed the world, and organic farming is a significant part of that model.

A UN initiated report, not reported widely enough, shows us that organic farming can feed the world. We don’t need factory farming. We can change our food culture, change our shopping habits, educate the young in good food, show them how to grow it themselves. He had huge success stories to tell, starting with essential work in schools, changing the school meal environment.

Religion and Sustainability in Global Perspective, our final session, was led by Fazlun Khalid and Elaine Storkey. Both emphasized that global religions can make key contributions to the current crisis, so what are they doing now? How can they be more effective? Fazlun left us with plenty of food for thought with his models and templates for sustainability within Islamic principles, and with his very clear explanation of the dangers of debt and fiat money.

Elaine Storkey told us that the full significance and value of religion for addressing our current climate and sustainability issues has not really been properly explored or exploited (although this is not to say that much good work is not being done by faith groups in this regard). Reasons for this she gave as absence in the public sphere (although this is changing), apathy towards organized religions from the secular population, antagonism from the media and attack from strident atheists, some at best disrespectful, at worst insulting. So what can be done? Firstly, offer a spiritual dimension in secular debates, she suggested. Then supplement this; by making individual contributions as believers:  drawing attention to the disproportionate effects of climate change on the poorest and most vulnerable: engaging in critical dialogue with culture from a faith perspective: make full use of hospitality and resources: re-address the education of the young (Oxfam has plenty of resources for schools on Climate Change – we only have to ask): mobilize our own global forces, coordinating strategies, sharing intelligence, setting up small regular campaigns: and celebrate our differences.

Share faith, trust, hope, respect and love, never forgetting that we are all human, we are all the same.

There is always a risk with conferences that much is discussed, but very little then happens. I am guilty myself. But I was impressed with the motivation inspired by this event in Cambridge, and am hopeful that many of the delegates truly will be going away to generate action. I certainly intend to, and as a part of this commitment hope to put up rather more of the conference ideas, with my own actions, on my blog from time to time. All of us reading this could perhaps commit now to some practical change in our lives that will be the start of our very own ripples towards a more sustainable future?

Note: A previous Faraday Institute initiative in 2008, with the John Ray Initiative, addressed the issue of “The Root Causes of Unsustainability.” This is now published as Creation in Crisis: Christian Perspectives on Sustainability (Robert S. White, ed., SPCK 2009)

Catch the audio transcripts of the conference here:

  • Session 1: Sustainable Growth? Paul Ekins and Ann Pettifor
  • Panel on session 1: Tim Cooper, Mawil Izzi Dien, Laszlo Zsolnai
  • Session 2: Sustainable Consumption: Bill McKibben
  • Panel on session 2: Tom Crompton, Satish Kumar, Ruth Valerio
  • Public lecture: Faith in a Sustainable Future: Bill McKibben

About The Author

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Eleanor was a classicly trained scientist, obtaining a Doctor of Philosophy degree by thesis from Sheffield University. Her interest is in the healing nature of empathy and compassion as well as the latest scientific research into empathy neurons and the social significance of these discoveries. Her published book was endorsed by Paul Ray of Cultural Creatives fame and she is now researching and writing on spiritual and religious tolerance.

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