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Soul Solution

When the new Archbishop of Canterbury spoke out against war and rampant consumerism, the media took notice. But this was just the crest of a wave of growing empathy between the world's major faiths and the sustainability movement. Ian Christie charts the start of what could be a beautiful alliance of surprising power...

American TV viewers got a surprise in early 2002 as the ad break suddenly turned into a campaign for environmental awareness. In a stunning departure from the normal fare of adverts, an unusual partnership took an overtly political line. In the advertisement, a Jewish prayer is recited in which God declares "This is a beautiful world I have given you. Take care of it; do not ruin it." This was followed by pictures of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, at risk from the Bush administration's plans to drill there for oil - all accompanied by arguments against exploration and in favour of energy saving and renewable power. Finally we get the payoff line: "Brought to you by the Sierra Club and the National Council of Churches."

It couldn't happen here, of course - tempting though it is to imagine the equivalent in the UK, featuring the big skies and birdlife of the Cliffe marshes, as Rowan Williams intones a moving prayer for sustainability, and the Director of Friends of the Earth offers a somewhat more pungent comment on unsustainable aviation and the lunacy of building an airport in North Kent.

We might not get our new Archbishop lining up with NGOs quite so explicitly any time soon. But recent developments linking religion and sustainability campaigning suggest that something significant is in the air. The Church of England now has a leader who has made clear his intention to challenge the 'marketisation' of society and the damage done to community values by consumer-ism. And bishops such as James Jones of Liverpool and John Oliver of Hereford have been keen to promote challenging debate on environmental issues.

It's not the only religious institution to be taking a stance in this area. In Invoking the Spirit, a new report from the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, Gary Gardner suggests that after decades of limited contact between the world of faith and the sustainability movement, a significant convergence of agendas might be taking place. The Sierra Club's alliance with the National Council of Churches might be a signal of a massive cultural shift. Indeed, says Gardner: "The quickening of religious interest in environmental issues suggests that a powerful new political alignment may be emerging - one that could greatly strengthen the effort to build a sustainable world."

Heady stuff, if true: the extent to which it's really happening is open to debate, but there's no doubt that recent years have seen a burgeoning of initiatives along exactly these lines [see box, 'In communion']. What's striking about them is both the range of high-level ethical debate underway, and the lack of public awareness of the shift taking place in the outlook of the major religions. That's in part due to the fact that these initiatives are hardly headline-grabbers - and that, WWF excepted, few of the major green NGOs have made public connections with them.

There's another factor which might explain the lack of links between environmentalists and the major faiths. Although eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism have a post-hippy reputation in the West as being essentially 'green', there is a widespread perception that the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) are somehow at the root of modern exploitation of the environment - and of a sharp philosophical division between humans and the natural world. There is a substantial body of argument in theology to challenge this perception, but for many environmentalists, the mud has stuck.

Sceptics also argue that there is little that faiths and their leaders can offer to sustainability beyond windy statements of principle that make no difference in the 'real world', whether to believers or non-adherents. Unsustainable development is as marked in the most devout parts of the world as it is in the more secularised ones. Many campaigners in Europe would claim that the long-standing decline in religious observance here make partnerships with faiths less than attractive. And the clinching argument for many would be that the great religions are associated so much with violence, oppression of women and reactionary values that sustainability campaigners have nothing to learn or gain from them.

But maybe the faiths are only at the start of a profound process of connection with sustainable development ideas. If their potential were harnessed by the sustainability movement, then massive capacity for positive action could be tapped: faiths have powerful assets. The resources of the world's religions are nothing short of staggering. They produce more daily newspapers than the total currently published in Western Europe, and have vast holdings of land and buildings; their financial assets run to many billions of dollars. If religious institutions worldwide began to take seriously issues such as energy saving, procurement of eco-friendly and fair trade products, and ethical investment, their combined leverage could be huge.

Above all, the faiths have people - a membership whose values and behaviour as consumers and active citizens could make a powerful difference on the ground. Globally, the faiths are thriving. Nearly five billion people count themselves as adherents - over 80% of the global population. True, adherence to a faith need not translate into any positive behaviour or attitudes in practice, and opinions within religious communities are sometimes starkly divided. But despite this, vast numbers do seek to reflect faith in personal action for the benefit of others.

Even in 'secularised' Europe, where formal Christian allegiance has been waning for decades, the churches, not to mention the Islamic communities and other faiths that have taken root here, are a significant force. Over a million people in the UK attend services each week, and the latest census shows over 70% of the adult population identifying themselves as Christian. Although formal religious observance may have declined, the religious impulse remains strong even in the most 'advanced' societies.

But it's not just the combined clout of religions which could give them influence over the course of sustainable development. Gary Gardner notes three other important assets. Religious bodies are able to influence fundamental world views; they can bring moral authority to political debates and initiatives; and they provide community-building capacity. All of these have an obvious attraction to campaigners for a sustainable future, so let's unpack them in turn.

The influence that the faiths can have on worldviews in a time of rapid globalisation can be profound. The 'bias to the poor' inherent in Christianity, Islam and other faiths has a natural affinity with ideas on global justice and social sustainability. And the major religions are among the few 'counter cultures' left that challenge the values of the market and the 'McDonaldisation' of business and society - a key point of contact with much of the Green movement and with sustainability campaigners. (One of many reasons I go to my church each week is to find a space free of consumerist messages, money-worship and meritocracy - the church is one of the last social spaces we have that is resistant to materialism, and where anyone can find a welcome and be treated as an equal regardless of money and status. Similarly, one major factor behind the upsurge of Islam has been the desire of millions to find moral resources with which to resist the invasion of an aggressive Western consumer culture.)

The importance of finding effective ways to influence basic values can't be overstated as far as the sustainability movements are concerned. Technological ingenuity and smart use of market signals won't be sufficient alone to reverse unsustainable trends. Values and attitudes need to shift, too. Sustainable developers need allies in the art of changing hearts and minds, and the faiths could be powerful ones.

This is linked to the issue of moral authority. The faiths command 'moral high ground' in societies across the world and are, like NGOs, core parts of civil society, more trusted in many cases than are governments and businesses. Sceptics argue that religious institutions are poorly placed to claim moral authority. In the West the Catholic Church is reeling from scandals concerning child abuse, and the corrupt antics of many 'televangelists' in the US have given born-again believers a bad name. In Nigeria, Sudan, Indonesia and elsewhere, tension between Christians and Muslims is a key ingredient in ethnic conflicts. In India, hard line Hinduism is becoming increasingly intolerant of Muslim communities. And the image of Islam has been profoundly damaged by the violence committed by its fundamentalist fringes in recent years.

But it's a big mistake to equate the great religions with their fundamentalist wings. Moreover, even in 'secular' Europe, the views of religious authorities can count for a great deal in mainstream politics. The opposition of Christian leaders to the plans for war on Iraq has drawn huge media coverage, and is something not easily ignored by politicians on either side of the Atlantic.

More generally, the intellectual and moral authority of the most effective religious leaders can be powerful in opening up debates on big issues avoided by politicians running scared of media, voters and business. Gardner cites the impact made by three interventions in particular. There is Patriarch Bartholomew in his role as catalyst for multi-sector partnerships for sustainability in the Danube countries and around the Black Sea. In Thailand the Buddhist monk Prhaku Pitak is a leading figure in forest conservation projects. And Buddhist values are integral in Sri Lanka's largest development NGO, the Sarvodaya Shramadana initiative for village-based sustainability projects. As the widespread welcome at home for the appointment of Rowan Williams implies, there does seem to be a hunger in Western society for an injection of idealism into public debate, and a willingness to engage with awkward moral issues, neither of which are supplied by an increasingly spin-sensitive mainstream political culture.

Finally, religions have always been community-builders . Faith communities are just that - bodies of individuals who are committed to shared values and activities for mutual support and for winning new members. Religious communities make demands on members that are willingly met, and are major providers of voluntary services in societies around the world. Faiths build social capital and can mobilise action on a large scale. They can also help translate the sustainability agenda into meaningful local terms for their communities.

So much for the potential attractions of alliances with faiths for sustainability campaigners. What makes the sustainable development agenda compelling for the faiths?

First of all, the core of the sustainability movement is a moral critique of modern society and economics, one which attaches a price to everything but too often fails to see the value of many vital features of life - the natural environment, human community and cultural diversity. Green movements and the wider global justice campaigns have been almost the only political forces in the last quarter century to challenge the 'economism' and obsession with 'marketisation' among conventional politicians in the West. They have refused to drop the language of morality in favour of that of money and 'what works': this ethical stance can be connected easily with the values of the major faiths. It means there are common messages about piety in the face of Nature, responsibility for stewardship of the Earth's resources, self-restraint in consumption, the need to care for others, concern for the poor and for ultimate ends. For the faiths, the sustainability agenda provides an idiom for translating their core messages into terms that are plainly relevant to the modern world. This is especially attractive for Christianity in the West, struggling with falling church attendances.

This can also offer the religions of the world some much-needed common ground to underpin co-operation between them. The success of many multifaith conferences and declarations on sustainability and the environment so far suggest that this is not an empty hope. From the evidence of major statements from religious leaders on sustainability and the ecological crises we face, there is plenty of common ground between Pope John Paul II, the Muslim World League, the World Jewish Congress, the Hindu Virat Samaj, the Dalai Lama, the Baha'i delegation to the UN, and so on and on.

Against all this, of course, non-believers can argue that the faiths are marginal to modern politics and business. "How many divisions has the Pope?" asked Stalin; the modern version of which is to wonder what difference John Paul II's eloquent assaults on capitalist culture have made to the excesses of consumerism and corporate power. How many Bible Belt Americans are interested in greener lifestyles and global justice? How credible is it that the faiths can mobilise their adherents to embrace sustainable consumption and ethical investment?

The answer is: we don't yet know. But the potential is there, and efforts to tap it are overdue. A sign of what could be achieved is the scope for energy saving and sustainable procurement by the 269,000 houses of worship and 44% of the US public attending church - if they could but be persuaded to engage with the challenge. It's time for NGOs and other campaigns to take this form of partnership as seriously as they take alliances with corporations and public agencies. Not every faith will be a willing partner, nor can we overlook deep differences of principle and policy that arise between religions, and between religions and secular campaigners for global justice. But partnerships between NGOs and governments or corporations don't imply completely shared agendas or the absence of fundamental conflicts in values.

So is it going to happen? So much depends on the success or failure of religions to overcome their divisions and internal struggles. If current tensions between the West and Islam, and between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, are not resolved, the great faiths will be riven by vicious disputes, and so be deeply unattractive partners for sustainability campaigners. But the well-publicised bitter conflicts fuelled by fundamentalism are not representative of the global experience of religion, and there are powerful forces working for co-operation between faiths. As the inadequacy of technology- and market-led approaches to the ecological crisis and to global inequalities becomes apparent in coming years, so the need for a deep spiritual and ethical vision to energise policy will grow. Sustainability campaigners and religious communities could find themselves sharing unexpectedly large common ground. And together, they could move mountains.

©Copyright 2003, Green Futures (United Kingdom)

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