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Can religion fight climate change?

Religious orders and leaders are increasingly using faith to spread the message of climate change and environmentalism

Nuns at the Global Climate March in Bogotá, Colombia
Nuns at the Global Climate March in Bogotá, Colombia

The first week of February is celebrated as World Interfaith Harmony Week, when faith leaders from across the world convene to discuss interreligious relationships. It was adopted by the UN in 2010 to foster dialogue and mutual understanding among people of different faiths. While discussions on complex religious subjects have dominated the forum in the last decade, something unusual happened on its 10th anniversary this year. Led by the Parliament of the World’s Religions (PoWR), global faith leaders spoke about the immediate crisis of climate change that is staring the world in the face.

The parliament—inaugurated in 1893 in Chicago, US, as part of the World Columbian Exposition—has been the focal point for interfaith interactions for more than a century. Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the inaugural session is one of the most memorable moments in the parliament’s history. Instituted as an organization in 1988, it continues to hold landmark religious gatherings and guides global religious leadership.

In May 2019, the PoWR launched The Climate Commitments Project, aimed at “committing to a low carbon world". It enables proactive faith-based agents of change to network, document and access support from organizations such as Buddhist Global Relief, EcoSikh, Center for Earth Ethics, Govardhan Ecovillage, and The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

As one of the supporting organizations, EcoSikh represents Sikhism’s stand on the matter. Devinder Kaur Kill, founder of Eko Pasara, a Kolkata-based non-governmental organization that works for the welfare of the Sikh community, says: “The Sikh faith is well-aligned to nature, and several shabads in the Guru Granth Sahib prove this. For example, in this shabad that says ‘Air is the Guru, Water is the Father, and Earth is the Great Mother of all’, the Granth Sahib tells us to consider nature as our teacher. Organizations like EcoSikh are known for their ardent commitment to the environment, but even in gurdwaras like the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, saplings are distributed as prasad. The Sikh community has also produced exemplary leaders like Balbir Singh Seechewal and Baba Sewa Singh, who are renowned environmentalists."

A river clean-up.
A river clean-up.

Seechewal, also known as Eco Baba, is known for spearheading the anti-pollution campaign to save the Kali Bein river in Punjab and was awarded the Padma Shri in 2017. Baba Sewa Singh of the Khadur Sahib gurdwara received the Padma Shri in 2010 for planting 346,000 trees along 382km of roads and 400 villages in Punjab. Singh began his mission in 1999 to commemorate the 500th birth anniversary of Guru Angad Dev.

Similarly, the Govardhan Ecovillage (a PoWR supporter) is a property of The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) that reflects an aspect of its green ideology. Country director (communications), Iskcon, and Kaiciid international fellow Yudhistir Govinda Das says: “We entered into a partnership with the Indian Green Building Council (IGBC) in November 2019 to conduct energy audits across our 270 centres in India to make them more energy- and resource-efficient so that our carbon footprint is as minimal as possible. Our governing body passed a resolution in early 2019 asking all the Iskcon temples and members to desist from single-use plastic. This has had a major impact. We also partnered with UN Environment Program (Unep) for the World Environment Day wherein 55 temples with 1,000 volunteers helped to plant trees.

“In terms of religious philosophy, our scriptures also advise us exhaustively on this subject and give us a simple solution to fight the real cause of climate change—our greed and propensity to exploit others (including nature). This is the root cause of the issue".

While religious organizations like EcoSikh and Iskcon have taken action only recently, the intellectual discipline relating environmentalism to religion has been taking shape from the late 1980s. Cross-disciplinary fields like eco theology, spiritual ecology and religious environmentalism have been delving into the academic frameworks of environmentalism and religion, ethics and ecology to locate these ideas in each.

Universities have led research in this area by offering specialized courses. Bodies such as the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale and independent organization Alliance of Religions and Conservation (which shut in June 2019) have carried the narrative forward.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Mary Evelyn Tucker and Martin Palmer are some notable voices in the field. In his book, Islam And The Plight Of The Modern Man, Nasr noted that “the environmental crisis is fundamentally a crisis of values and that religions, being a primary source of values in any culture, are thus implicated in the decisions humans make regarding the environment".

As Nasr and Palmer have said, religion can be a compelling force in driving positive change and tackle the current climate crisis. Rooted deeply in social consciousness, religion is often a much stronger motivator in driving behavioural change than facts and figures. A careful selection of nature-centric scriptural messages, when delivered by a religious leader, can lead to the swift mobilization of a community.

The Christian community is an important case study. The Western capitalist world that is predominantly Christian has long (mis)used a domination narrative (the divine command to humans to fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over every living being, according to Genesis 1: 28) to justify rapid industrialization. But there seems to be a change in the consciousness of global Christians, irrespective of the denomination.

Father Luke Rodrigues S.J., a member of the Jesuits of the Bombay Province, says: “In recent times, concern for the environment has become an integral part of the mission of the Catholic Church. In his path-breaking Papal encyclical Laudato Si’ (June 2015), Pope Francis called upon the Church to join hands with all people of goodwill to care for our common home. Responding to this call, church organizations have plunged into the work of ecological renewal."

He adds that in September 2018, Cardinal Oswald Gracias launched a “Green Diocese" in the Archdiocese of Bombay. The task of taking forward this initiative has been entrusted to Bishop Allwyn D’Silva and the Archdiocesan Office for Environment based at St. Pius College, Goregaon. This is a long-term project which seeks to promote ‘Care for Creation’. Christian organizations like Tarumitra (Friends of Trees), Greenline and the ecological network of Jesuits have also been doing commendable work in afforestation," Father Rodrigues says.

When asked about the Genesis verse, he says that the Bible also provides us with vivid descriptions of the nurturing care God has for all of creation.Climate change is a problem of recent origin and hence we do not find direct references to it in the Bible. The Bible, however, points us towards something more fundamental—it offers us a vision of the sacredness of creation and invites us to treat nature with love and respect," he says.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a Mumbai-based researcher and writer.

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