Faith in conservation: Representatives of multiple religions commit to protecting the planet

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Prince Philip and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon discuss the Buddhist 8-Year Plan at an event dedicated to faith and conservation. (Photo courtesy of ARC/Richard Stonehouse)

A Grand Mufti, a Rabbi, an Archbishop, a Daoist Master, and a Shinto priest went into a bar . . .

This may read like the start to a bad joke, but it happened last week in Windsor, England (though let’s be clear that the bar was serving only hot drinks and chocolate cookies). It was all part of the “Many Heavens, One Planet” Celebration organized by ARC and UNDP, at which all the major faith traditions launched “Long Term Commitment Plans for Protecting the Living Planet.” They were honored at a special ceremony in Windsor Castle, hosted and attended by both HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and United Nations Secretary-General HE Ban Ki-moon.

That such august people would give time to this is because they understand that the faiths represent the oldest, most enduring, and largest institutions on the planet and that each – with their hundreds of millions of adherents – can mobilize significant action. Olav Kjorven, the Assistant Secretary-General, said “The faiths’ active engagement on climate change is crucial if we are to realize a greener future for our planet, and the United Nations is very proud to support what could spark the largest civil society movement in history.”

The fact that environmentalists and faith adherents are increasingly discovering the commonalities in their concerns brings into play a vast array of potential and partnerships. For some six years I had managed the World Bank’s ‘faith and environment’ initiative and I had seen a great deal of that potential released and encouraged. As Gus Speth has famously remarked, a mistake made in our objective and science-focused world has been for environmentalists to ignore the spiritual dimension despite both ‘sides’ sharing an apocalyptic vision, fighting common enemies in apathy, greed and self-interest, and demonstrating an equal (and sadly sometimes opposite) missionary zeal.

Over the three days, there were speakers and break-out groups, but this was not a conference but a celebration. Around the world many major religious traditions have spent the past year drawing up environmental commitments.  These plans were originally conceived as covering 7 years which, while being fine in Abrahamic faiths, misses the fact that 8 is a much more auspicious number in Buddhist world, and 9 is favored in Hinduism. These action plans are perhaps the most powerful visible signs yet of the faiths taking up the challenge of protecting the natural environment. That, it was felt, was worth celebrating.

Many faith groups stressed that they see climate change as a symptom of a deeper malaise – our abuse and misuse of the natural environment. This precursor to the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen was thus not so much a climate change event as a commitment to all life on earth. Happening a few weeks before the conference in Copenhagen, the faiths event was marked by realistic hope rather than despair.  As a delegate from the Jewish Climate Initiative put it, “’Hope’ is optimism with its sleeves rolled up.”  

The meeting was thus not about demands and petitions, about lobbying governments, or telling the UN or World Bank what they should do. That approach is not exactly an empty niche. Instead the organizers followed an old piece of Chinese advice: “First practice what you want to preach and then you can preach about what you are already doing.”

The completed plans (pdf) for action have come from major faiths:

And from many forms of Christianity, such as:

Others are due and for the World Bank’s part we are helping to finance the 8-Year Plan being formulated by Mongolian Buddhists.

Participants of various faiths walking up to Windsor Castle as part of the “Many Heavens, One Planet” Celebration. (Photo courtesy of ARC/Richard Stonehouse)

In the grand setting of the Waterloo Chamber in Windsor Castle, Prince Philip and Mr Ban both presented certificates to faith representatives recognizing each of the plans.  After this we were treated to the first Royal vegan banquet. Following that, there was a feast of drama, poetry, music and dance from all the faith traditions following the general themes of creation, degradation, and restoration.  In the spirit of celebration and hope, the whole thing was rounded off by the great voices of the gospel choir from the 7,500-member New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland.

Some of the figures present in Windsor were truly larger than life, such as black-robed Archbishop Seraphim of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa in Johannesburg and Pretoria; the magnificently bearded, orange-clad, Time magazine ‘Hero of the Environment’ Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal; the red-robed, deeply sonorous-voiced Richard Chartres, Bishop of London who contributed an especially perceptive and clear sermon; and Ali Gomaa. The Grand Mufti of Egypt gave an address (pdf) in an opening session, explaining the establishment of the Muslim Association for Climate Change Action (MACCA) as part of the Muslim 7-Year Plan. Practical steps to execute the plan are underway: major Islamic cities are to declare their ‘green’ status soon, such as Sala in Morocco and Medina in Saudi Arabia. His own Dar Al-Iftaa, has started taking practical steps to go carbon neutral by 2010.

The hubbub in the bar was intense as ideas and experiences were swapped. People had come from so many traditions and cultures, but all were joined by a desire to see the various plans followed as a positive demonstration of faith in action for the world to see, to be challenged by, and to emulate.

Editor's note: This post was updated on 11/18/2009 to include references to ARC and UNDP.


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