Faith Groups Begin to Embrace Sustainability

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, December 20, 2002 (ENS) - Religious groups and environmentalists have not always been the closest of allies, but a new report from the Worldwatch Institute finds that this is starting to change. The benefits of cooperation between the two, according to the report's author, could have profound positive impacts for the global environment.

"If the environmental and religious communities were to embrace their central concerns, the progress toward a sustainable society could be vastly improved," said Gary Gardner, director of research at the Worldwatch Institute and author of "Invoking the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in the Quest for a Sustainable World."


Gary Gardner (Photo courtesy WorldWatch Institute)
Gardner shared the findings of his report at a luncheon held Thursday at the Worldwatch Insitute in Washington. "This collaboration could change the world," he said.

It is only within the past decade that environmental and religious groups have started to work together, Gardner explained. The exact cause of this increased cooperation is hard to pin down he said, but the growing visibility of issues such as climate change, species extinction and rampant consumerism are all factors in the shift.

There is ample logic for environmentalists and religious groups to join forces on some issues, Gardner said, as both view the world in moral terms with nature as having value above simple economics.

Moreover, the two groups have complementary strengths. Environmentalists bring strong scientific and policy backgrounds to the table, and religious groups offer strong moral authority, the capacity to shape worldviews, and large followings as well as financial leverage and social capital.

"We need to acknowledge there is tremendous common good between the two groups," Gardner said.

Environmental initiatives from religious groups are indeed happening and proving successful, he added, and they are occurring throughout the world and across denominations.


Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the Orthodox Church (Photo courtesy Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople)
For example, during the past six years the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the symbolic leader of the 250 million member Orthodox Church has pulled together scientists, journalists and religious leaders for four week long symposia focusing on water related environmental issues.

In 2002, the Patriarch led a symposium on the environmental threats to the Adriatic Sea that ended with a declaration on environmental protection jointly signed by the Patriarch and Pope John Paul II. Earlier symposia focused on the Black Sea and the Danube River.

Gardner also noted the work of Buddhist monks to stop deforestation in Thailand as well as lobbying work by the World Council of Churches to mitigate climate change. These conservation efforts clearly benefit from the moral authority of the religious leaders involved, he said.

The combined forces of sustainable development advocates and religious groups also have the potential to help shift consumption patterns.

"Cultures are increasingly good at creating consumers but less good at creating citizens," Gardner said, adding that religious groups have a powerful opportunity to levy their large followings with religious teachings that warn of excessive materialism.

These concerns prompted some 3,500 Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian and Quaker congregations to establish the Interfaith Coffee Program, which encourages individuals and institutions to switch to coffee that is traded fairly. The congregations have partnered with Equal Exchange, a worker owned cooperative that sells fairly traded coffee from small-scale farmer co-ops in Latin America, Asia and Africa.


San Francisco's Grace Cathedral is powered with renewable energy as part of the Episcopal Power and Light initiative. (Photo courtesy Grace Cathedral)
The Episcopal Power and Light initiative has inspired churches in the San Francisco Bay Area to purchase renewable energy for their buildings. In March, Episcopal Power and Light was named the winner of the Energy Globe Award 2002, and staff traveled to Austria for a ceremony where the award was presented by head of Green Cross International, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

There is ample opportunity for religious groups to use their significant financial clout to push corporations to change their behavior. A recent campaign led by a broad coalition of religious groups links fuel efficiency to morality and has gathered a wealth of coverage through its "What Would Jesus Drive?" advertisements.

In addition, a group of religious orders recently filed shareholder resolutions with Ford and General Motors to try and get those companies to build more fuel efficient and alternative energy vehicles.

Many of the efforts cited by Gardner do not appear to be direct partnerships between environmentalists and religious groups. Rather, they are religious groups taking on an environmental cause for their own motivations and in their own manner.

This demonstrates that the sides are still a bit wary of each other, Gardner explained, as the ethical and spiritual motives of both sides do not always mesh. Population control initiatives would be a primary example of this, he added, as would differing views on the role of women, the nature of truth and the moral place of humans in the natural order.

"There can be much more collaboration," said Walt Grazer, director of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Environmental Justice Program, "but there is the danger of environmentalists trying to rent a constituency."

Holy family

The Holy Family (Photo courtesy U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)
Religious institutions are like "big families," he said, often with diverse viewpoints on environmental issues. It is important for environmental groups to see and respect this challenge, he added, if true collaboration between the two is to take roots. The environmental community does not always own the environmental message, Grazer said.

"People are starting to see and internalize the relationship between faith and the environment," said Cassandra Carmichael, a consultant who formerly worked with the environmental grassroots organization the Center For a New American Dream. "It is a great success that this paper has been written and that we are having this discussion."

Carmichael said she'd like to see more environmental groups armed with a staff member dedicated to reaching out to religious organizations, as well as better funding for cooperative initiatives.

A representative from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who preferred not to be identified, said the department is interested in trying to use President George W. Bush's Faith Based Initiative to fund future projects, although the initiative has not yet been tailored for this.

The opportunities for partnerships between the two communities are boundless, Gardner said, so long as both sides respect their differences while embracing their commonalities.

"This is a great opportunity to reintegrate the societal heart and head," he said. "This is a powerful combination that until recently remained virtually unexplored."

The WorldWatch Institute paper is available online at:
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