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Global Ideas

When environmentalism becomes a religion

Religious leaders are important opinion-makers and exert a major influence on public thinking and actions. They're thus well-placed to convey the importance of environmental preservation.

A man praying on a boat

Religions teach that man should respect nature

Even the Bible teaches that nature needs to be taken care of. "And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it," it says in the Book of Genesis (2,15).

Christianity is not the only region to acknowledge mankind's dependency on a healthy planet. Most of the world's religions make a similar connection. With 80 percent of the global population describing itself as religious, widespread environmental awareness should be the obvious consequence. But the message is taking a while to sink in.

"The idea that if the planet suffers then we suffer has yet to filter through to our consciousness," says Fazlum Khaled, who set up the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (Ifees).

An environmental organization that promotes green Islam, Ifees supports the building of mosques according to green principles, ie: by using renewable energy only. As all Muslims know, green was the Prophet Mohammed's favorite color.

Religious leaders enjoy authority

People planting trees in Uganda

One faith-based initiative in Uganda encourages couples to plant a tree before they get married

The faithful tend to base their beliefs on their leaders' interpretation of the holy scriptures, so growing awareness of green issues reflects the changing priorities of religious leaders.

As US ethnologists James Peoples and Garrick Baley explain in their book "Humanity," faith leaders therefore exert a major influence on public thinking and actions. They are among the world's main opinion-makers.

In many parts of the world, religious leaders enjoy considerable authority. They provide their communities with practical as well as spiritual direction; they facilitate peaceful co-existence and preside over rituals such as marriage and death – and also mediate in conflicts.

Ultimately, they determine the practices of their communities – and are increasingly keen to use this leverage to convey the importance of environmental responsibility.

Faith-based environmentalism

Burning incenses sticks

Burning less incense reduces pollution

In 2009, representatives from nine of the world's major faiths – Baha'ism, Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shintoism and Sikhism – gathered for a conference called "Many Heavens, One Earth" in Windsor, England, to commit to long-term practical action to save the environment.

According to a press release, “they announced a huge range of practical initiatives, from new faith-based eco-labelling standards for Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism to the planting of 8.5 million trees in Tanzania; from sourcing sustainable fuel for India's Sikh gurdwaras (which feed 30 million people every day) to the greening of religious buildings and introducing eco tourism policies for pilgrimages – still the world's biggest travel events.

Chinese Budhists and Toaists, meanwhile, announced a plan to reduce the number of incense sticks lit in the temple to three per person, thereby reducing pollution, while Anglicans and Sikhs discussed installing more solar units on the roofs of their places of worship.

A few months later at the 2010 Interfaith Forum on Climate Change held by the British Council in Abuja, Nigeria, more than 60 faith leaders from 10 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa met to discuss their role in tackling the escalating destruction of the environment. They spelled out how the environmental crisis is already leading to worsening poverty, disease and conflict in Africa with desertification in the north and rising sea levels in the south.

At that meeting, they signed the Abuja Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change, committing themselves to take action and making a call for assistance in resources and expertise to help move forward.

The Ugandan Mufti Sheikh Shaban Ramathan Mubajje regularly tells the country's Muslim community what they can do to help protect the environment, from using less coal to avoiding deforestation.

In Uganda, many cut down trees to use the wood to build homes and cook with. As part of an initiative launched by the British Council, one Anglican bishop in the Bunyoro region in western Uganda has gone one step further and will only officiate at weddings and christenings after the couple or parents have planted a tree.

European efforts

A church interior

Religion gives people direction

The Protestant church is also pulling its weight in Europe. One religious initiative in Germany is the campaign "Klimawandel – Lebenswandel" (Climate Change – Life Change ) launched in January 2011. It aims to have saved one million kilograms of CO2 by Thanksgiving later this year with car-free days, meatless Fridays and various other efforts.

"It's time we stopped waiting for political decisions and started taking matters into our own hands," says project organizer Annelie Hollmann.

As Nobel prize-winner Bishop Desmond Tutu remarked at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, "we have only one world, this world, if we destroy it, we have nothing else."

Michaela Fuehrer (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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