As if by divine intervention, out of the July edition of Forum for the Future’s Green Futures magazine fell a special edition booklet on how faith can shape our future. The role of faith communities in promoting pro-environmental behaviours and carbon dioxide emission reductions is something we have considered before in our previous work evaluating community projects, but some of the key points from the booklet were certainly thought-provoking:
Somewhere between two-thirds and nine-tenths of world’s population follow faiths, depending on which statistics you consult. The world’s religions therefore play influential role in lives of billions, and religious leaders and groups are therefore critical intermediaries in the promotion of environmental messages. This influence isn’t diminishing – the world’s population growth is largely taking place in countries with religious adherence. As Ian Christie concludes: “The world that must be steered towards sustainable development is a religious one”.
Purely from the perspective of achieving results in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, maybe this is a good thing? Faith leaders may be better positioned to communicate with these audiences than ‘greens’, knowing the people that they are addressing and speaking in words and phrases that the audience understand – they might focus on the protection of nature, rather than trying to educate around ‘carbon’, for instance. Scripture or religious guidance may also help to get these messages across – the Christian idea that God retains ownership of the Earth, giving humans ‘stewardship’ has be interpreted as a call for environmental protection, while the concept of Khalifa in Islam is similar in marking humans as inheritors or custodians of God’s earth. Furthermore, if people are changing behaviour in the belief that it’s the right thing to do – not just because of a crisis, or financial incentive – the change is more likely to last.
Certainly then there is a clear case that religious organisations can use their undoubted influence and have a potentially huge positive contribution to environmental causes internationally. But does this apply to our increasingly secular society in the UK?
Previously some environmentalists and climate change campaigners seemed to deliberately distance themselves from associations with religion, but over the last few years in particular, many community organisations have shown a desire to work with faith groups on environmental and climate change issues. Religious institutions and networks have also established or developed their own successful environmental projects and campaigns (see Eco-Congregations or Faith and Climate Change for successful examples of faith-led projects), and The Church of England has committed to a carbon reduction of 42% by 2020.
From our experience and research (see also work by LSx with Hindu and Islamic communities in London), working with faith groups or within faith networks in the UK on a local scale can bring numerous benefits to climate change related projects. For a start, having a message endorsed or embraced by a faith leader can ensure that it reaches more participants. The links with faith and the respected position of these leaders also make the message more powerful. Some faith groups may be able to take messages to populations within them that have characteristics (for instance, English not spoken as a first language) that might make them difficult for organisations to reach through traditional media. Given regular attendance at a place of worship, there may be opportunities for repeating the message and following-up face to face, that other campaigns lack (though admittedly it is this regular attendance that has fallen over the last half century in churches across the UK). There are chances to tie messages to particular religious festivals as well – e.g. for food awareness, campaign events could include an Organic Harvest Festival or Fair Trade Ramadan.
There are further reasons why religious organisations are likely to have significant influence on environmental issues in the UK going forward. Firstly, population growth in the West where birth rates have dropped in recent decades is associated with immigrant groups, who are more likely to be members of faith communities . Secondly, there are around 30,000 places of worship, 7,000 faith schools (almost entirely Church of England or Roman Catholic), and thousands of acres of land owned by religious institutions in the UK. Large buildings such as schools and places of worship are often suitable sites for community owned renewables, such as Ground Source Heat Pumps or solar photovoltaic cells. These are investments that institutions or communities without short-term economic goals may be willing to make to achieve long-term savings.
There may be questions from some quarters about the suitability of religion and sustainability as bedfellows in this day and age. But, in the same way that climate change and environmental issues can transcend political divides, finding the common ground between different religious and non-religious groups has the potential to bring people together to take positive action on a local, national and global scale.