The Contribution of Faith Groups to the Environmental Sustainability Movement

Author: | Date: 16 May, 2013 | Category: Reports | Comments: 1

Talk to Epsom & Ewell Energy Group by Tony Emerson  27/10/2011

How can the faith communities make a real difference to the climate restabilisation and sustainability movements? What distinctive have we to offer?

Those are the main questions that I address this eve. I will also discuss how the Faith-base sustainability movements are actually bringing different faiths (and secular groups) together;
but also the considerable difficulties we face in really getting the climate issue on the agenda.

I co-ordinate the Christian Ecology Link (CEL) ‘ecocell’ programme – a programme of personal, household and community action to reduce our emissions and impacts to sustainable levels in 5 years or so. See But I’m also very interested in the wider picture, in co-ordinated action at all the required levels (personal, local, national and global). I represent CEL on the Climate Alliance, an alliance of national and local organisations – NGO’s, trade unions, faith groups, transition towns, etc

The Bigger Picture
Lets first look at the bigger ‘picture’ within which we work.
If you accept that the threat to our climate, to biodiversity and to other global life-support systems are real, you can go down three broad directions

• Classic Green – decentralised localism, organic, small scale production, back to nature (almost), anti-growth
• Modernist – use every technology (including nuclear and GM) and employ it to green ends, within a growth-oriented market economy
• a ‘third way’ – but not in the New Labour sense (that was the modernist!) – optimising human well-being or welfare, within ecological constraints

I’m very much an advocate of the latter – which I see as very consistent with the faith-based approach, emphasising
• Care for Creation or Stewardship
• Love of your Neighbour

The principle advocate of this optimising human well-being, within ecological constraints approach is probably Tim Jackson, former Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission now at Surrey Univ., down the road from here.

See the quote from him on the A5 handout in front of you. (In box just below.)

Unrestricted, indefinite, growth per se is neither desirable nor ecologically possible, but selective economic and social development is desirable and possible.

Key features of this approach
I’ll only give a brief, broad overview here – see chart (at end)
• setting clear and defined limits for carbon emissions and other key ‘planetary boundaries’ (such as species preservation and nitrogen use)
• developing an economy within such limits, rather like the steady state economy advocated by Herman Daley, encouraging certain industries and services, e.g. through research & development grants, etc, discouraging others
• moves towards greater equality both within and between nations, as argued so coherently by Wilkinson and Pickett – Beckham’s millions are a problem;
greater equality supports both well-being and the pursuit of sustainability
• Greater equality of working hours and incomes – of which the Dutch-American economist Juliet Schor is the great advocate, and shows how work-life balance supports well-being and sustainable living
• Focus on improving those goods, services and practices that contribute significantly to human well-being (Richard Layard, English economist) – parks and local cafes, as against car show-rooms and travel agents
• including the improvement of our social capital – the vibrancy and friendliness of local communities (Robert Putnam, the American sociologist)
• Challenging the marketing processes and the other sophisticated and complex set of practices by which consumer demand is created and expanded. JK Galbraith (economist) and Vance Packard (journalist) were onto this in the 1950’s – and it has got a lot worse and more dangerous. (A few words about Mark Powley’s Consumer Detox strategy.)

On the diagram at the back of the handout I try to put all this together. (as PDF attachment)

Different active Faith and Christian environmental orgs: (a few words on each)
• Alliance for Religion and Conservation (ARC) – higher level, multi-faith, well-established…
• Envir. Issues Network of the Churches Together in GB & I – inter-denominational with formal church representation…
• Christian Ecology Link (CEL) – inter-denominational, purely voluntary – and therefore more flexible
• Operation Noah – offshoot of CEL focus on climate campaigning
• Eco-congregation – focus on practical action in local church communities – again inter-denominational
• Arocha – nature conservation projects, often in deprived areas
• The Christian NGO’s – Christian Aid, Cafod, Tearfund
• Groups within particular churches – e.g. Shrinking the Footprint in the CoE

What these orgs have in common: we see stewardship or Care for Creation as essential to the Christian message of love of our Creator, expressed through love of all creation – from members of our own family to the flora and fauna in the most distant parts of the globe to us, alive now or into the future.

• we’ve been around for a good while…
• Churches are based on fairly solid local communities of people who meet regularly and know each other – great potential for both influencing individuals and for communal action
• Even in modern secular societies the churches are still looked to for comment or guidance on the ethical issues of the day.
• ARC, Eco-congregation, EIN, CEL and ON are very much ecumenical – people from all the major faiths are on board. Despite differences …
• the idea of mission, and even personal sacrifice in pursuit of the mission, are intrinsic to the Christian Spirit – think Desmond Tutu, Deitrich Bonnhoffer…
• But also pursuit of mission joyfully: Christian should not be long-faced naggers
• Christian and other Faith groups have contributed quite actively to many campaigns in recent years – distinctive contributions include vigils… and multidenominational services before major events – e.g. the London climate marches

What gets in the way:
• current humanitarian concerns that are the main focus of so many churches – difficult getting the point across that climate problems are cancelling out so much development work in the poor world
• and ego’s involved with those concerns!
• fear of frightening away parishioners – our message not always palatable!
• esp in context of dwindling congregations, dwindling resources
• people being diverted into forms of Christianity who (let’s say) see the world differently, and er are firm in their views (e.g. ‘intelligent design’, rapture – and general attempts to apply the Scriptures, written 2k year ago, literally and in detail to solve problems of the modern high tech etc era)

But perhaps there is another bigger ‘getting in the way’ problem:
• the powerful marketing process & consumer values influences
• the undiscussable nature of this Q – challenging as it does beliefs about ‘the good life’, individual autonomy and the value of the free market – CEL is trying to address these issues in its educational work – conferences, etc
• There is also the difficulty of being over-whelmed by the project of turning the whole massive global economy around of seeing the manifold actions that are required at different levels as the problem – not as the opportunity for us all to get stuck in, according to our roles, according to our strengths
• The need for a Mandela or a Bonhoffer – to turn it all around!

Discussion Questions
Where are the opportunities for increasing well-being and reducing emissions at the same time?
Think either global, national, regional, local, household – change needs to happen at every level.
What would be the means of bringing them about? What barriers would need to be overcome?

Comments on "The Contribution of Faith Groups to the Environmental Sustainability Movement"

Philip Clarkson Webb:

May 23, 2013

An excellent overview of the current situation. May I add to the list of useful resources a new book called "Enough is Enough" by Rob Dietz and Dan O'Neill with a foreword by Herman Daly. Philip.

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