A holistic way to save Earth
Speakers drawn to the second annual Conference of Religions for the Environment (CORE), held at Universiti Malaya, reiterated their faith in the world's religions and the goodness of Man, religions sought to nurture and promote as the missing link for success.
The pivotal role of the individual - it began and ended with each and everyone - was a point not missed in any of the presentations.
There were signs, at once encouraging and frustrating. Encouraging because the word "spiritual" had appeared in various statements of resolve.
Frustrating because there appeared to be little understanding of what "spirituality", "spiritual vision" and "spiritual development" meant in principle or in practice, lamented the Baha'i speaker Yuet Mee Nambiar.
She highlighted Agenda 21, crafted at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, which called for "social, economic and spiritual development" and also recognised that "individuals be allowed to develop their full potential, including physical, mental and spiritual".
In the Beijing Platform for Action born out of the Fourth World Conference on Women, it was agreed that "religion, spirituality and belief play a central role in the lives of millions in the way they live and in the aspirations they have for the future".
In the Habitat Agenda, the world's governments stand committed to "achieve a world of greater stability and peace built on ethical and spiritual vision.
"If, indeed, spirituality is as crucial to sustainable development as these global action plans have avowed, then it is time to move beyond generalities and instead explore, in depth, the spiritual principles at the heart of development and consider fully their ramifications for all stages of the development process," said Nambiar.
She was gratified by recent developments in inter-faith relations and expansion of inter-faith initiatives as auguring well for the task at hand.
Dr John Gurusamy, giving the Christian perspective, added his bit, saying the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio was a high point in ecumenical involvement in issues of sustainability.
"Representatives of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and other faiths provided a substantial profile of religious communities at the conference. It showed that issues being addressed had ethical, spiritual and theological dimensions that could not be ignored," he said.
In conjunction with the conference, the WCC convened a meeting at which the participants concluded:
"The present system is exploiting nature and peoples on a worldwide scale at an intensified rate. It is extremely urgent that we as churches make strong and permanent spiritual, moral and material commitments to the emergence of new models of society based on deepest gratitude to God for the gift of life and respect for the whole of God's creation."
As Nambiar also noted, experience showed that meaningful social transformation could not come from political or technical recipes alone. Development had to be approached via moral and spiritual imperatives for enduring changes in individual and collective behaviour.
Just how was this behaviour to be developed? S. Thiagarajah, one- time management consultant who opted for the earnest study of the Vedic scripture and its dissemination, gave the Hindu insight.
To begin with, he said, it was necessary to have transcendental (spiritual) knowledge as opposed to material knowledge.
Scripture provided this knowledge which helped brush aside ignorance of the self as more than just the body and recognise, tap one's spirituality in coming to terms with reality.
There was the element of ego, which, when false, expressed itself by way of lust and greed leading to envy, illusion and anger.
"It is this (false ego that one is the master of all one surveys) that leads Man to exploit the environment and other living entities."
Exploitation could be seen at five levels of relationships, human or otherwise. Contact to begin with, followed by getting to know, then wanting to control, leading to manipulation and finally exploitation.
Exploitation took place because there was little or no spiritual dimension in people's lives. In the Bhagavad-gita, the Hindu holy book, God instructs Man to conquer lust through transcendental knowledge.
Material energy was interwoven with three modes - goodness, passion and ignorance. An individual's qualities were based on one or generally a combination of these modes and was exhibited through mentality and attitude, character and behaviour.
Thus an understanding of ego, the three modes of material nature and Mother Nature itself was vital in order to address the environmental crisis.
Skills could be taught, knowledge acquired but what do we do with attitude asked Thiagarajah.
"Only through the spiritual dimension can the attitude factor be penetrated to pave the way for a successful holistic approach."
Dr Nather Khan Ibrahim, an environmental management consultant, in giving the keynote address, provided an overview.
Problems, he said, were well documented but solutions were proving elusive and complex.
The crisis called for "philosophical and religious understanding among ourselves as creatures of nature embedded in life cycles and dependent on eco-systems. Religions thus need to be re-examined in the light of the environmental crisis."
Religions helped shape attitudes towards nature in conscious and unconscious ways.
What people did about ecology depended on what they thought of themselves in relation to things around them.
Nather Khan offered this view: True believers of any faith would not be inclined to abuse nature. Rather, the degradation and destruction were due to the failure of believers to intervene and stop non-believers from such activity."
Dr Omar Stahic, a Bosnian and assistant professor in the International Islamic University, said in Islam the earth was regarded as a platform for Man to elevate his status above that of the angels, provided God was embraced.
The earth and life on it was like a plantation which had to be taken care of at all times if man was to harbour any hope of "a decent, wholesome harvest on the Day of Judgment".
"The relationship between Man and the environment is closely related to our faith. The more committed Muslims are to the teachings of Islam, the better their understanding and treatment of the environment."
Harbajan Singh, a retired government servant and community leader, likened the spiritual dimension to the lotus flower which stood pure even in dirty water. "Man must be encouraged to be like the lotus," he said.
In concluding, he had a satellite picture of the earth held up for all to see. He then asked the audience to close their eyes and focus on the picture with their mind's eye.
In this way he hoped that it would be imprinted in their consciousness for constant reminder of responsibility towards Mother Earth.
The audience interacted by adopting and putting their signature to the resolution:
To exert every effort as individuals to safeguard the environment and strive to be able custodians of the Earth for future generations.
To strive to promote awareness of basic principles in our immediate families and local religious communities as well as the community at large.
Practical suggestions for safeguarding the environment were also forthcoming, among them:
Experience elsewhere had shown that switching off engines when vehicles were at a standstill at traffic lights or in traffic jams helped reduce air pollution.
The best time to appreciate nature was at dawn with the soft glow of the rising sun, when birds were chirping and there was a freshness in the air.
Weather and cool surroundings permitting, air-conditioning can be avoided to good effect.
For fostering guardians of nature, perhaps, electing members to local councils, instead of the current practice of appointing them, would be a good idea.
A pre-prepared list of suggestions such as switching off unnecessary lights, fans and other appliances and not leaving taps running wastefully served to indicate the error of human ways for the participants to dwell and act upon.
* The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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