Sunday, April 5, 2009

Greening Faiths: Towards Sustainable Living

I mentioned a couple of weeks back that Jan and I (mostly Jan) have been involved in setting up a multi-faith day conference with Reading Faith Forum. There were about 45 people present for some really interesting talks. Unfortunately the Sikh representative (Jagdeesh Singh) had to drop out at the last minute although a representative of the Sikh community who was attending very helpfully stood up to give us some information on their perspective. These are from my hasty notes - please send corrections if I've made errors.

To open the day Tahira drew attention to a leaflet that the green group of Reading Faith Forum have produced. Like the conference itself it is entitled Greening Faiths: Towards Sustainable Living and it consists of A5 pages on the ideas of six major faiths about the environment: Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism and Islam. If you'd like copies of it contact Jan at

The first presentation was on the science of climate change by Rev Prof Ian James (formerly of the University of Reading's Department of Meteorology). He explained that the greenhouse effect is essential to life on earth - without it we would be as cold as the moon. The trace constituents of carbon dioxide, water vapour, methane, ozone etc are what keeps the earth at 15C the optimum temperature for life. But whereas there were 280 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere for centuries before the industrial revolution, there are now 387 parts per million. That 280 ppm was actually the largest concentration there had been for at least half a million years, probably a million.
By the end of the summer of 2020 there may be no Arctic ice cap. That is a very serious thing to do to our planet, remove an ice cap.
As he showed us the now familiar charts of sudden growth in CO2 and temperature my mind flicked back to a recent e-mail discussion I'd seen with loads of people still determined not to believe the science. As Prof James put it: there is not the slightest doubt that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is the direct result of human activity: the burning of fossil fuels. 'Climate change is real, it is happening. At the moment it is relatively slight but there is no sign of it slowing down. By the time the problems are large and serious it will be irreversible'. In the questions afterwards he explained that since the start of the 20th century there has been a temperature rise of around 0.6 C. It is difficult to make accurate predictions of how much it will increase by and the movers and shakers use this uncertainty as an excuse for inaction. The range of estimates is
2 C = uncomfortable (obviously worse than that for low-lying countries like Bangladesh)
4 C = pretty catastrophic
6 C = horrendous

Swami Ambikananda Saraswati, a Hindu monastic, then gave us a Hindu perspective on the environment. [I found myself blinking back tears]. Time and space had a beginning. Before them was darkness that was only one until love arose in it and it became the many. Only the one still exists but in the guise of the many. How did we so forget our god-like nature that we have laid waste to our beautiful habitat that is also the one?
It seems there is now no stopping what we have begun. There is going to be an enormous cull of life and humans will not escape. We will die in our thousands of millions. We will die and watch each other die in the time of our children and our grandchildren. Our civilisation will not survive this devastation. Yet we are remarkably complacent.
We have abused our scriptures to put on blinkers, to grip the bit of ignorance as if tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow will continue. We need to abandon the boundaries between us to find ways of working spiritually together. Our scriptures are abused whenever they're used to justify our individuality and separateness. I beg you all to commit to working together spiritually to protect and nurture what God has give us. By exploring nature together we might together discover the mystery of our existence in this vast unbounded universe.

Muzammal Hussain, founder of the London Islamic Network for the Environment, emphasised that he was presenting 'an Islamic perspective' rather that 'the Islamic perspective'. He linked the environmental crisis to the economic culture in which money has become unreal and in which we are all expected to be bound into debt which needs to be paid off by more and more production and consumption: so resources are depleted, human rights are depleted to acquire these resources and increasing throughput leads to pollution and greenhouse gases.
He touched on three Islamic principles:
Balance: as the Koran says 'surely we have created everything in proportion'. Our problem is an imbalance of greenhouse gases and an unbalanced economic situation in which the economy is growing and resources are shrinking
Natural disposition: Human beings are changing what things were created to be with worrying consequences
Guardianship: as the Koran says 'It is he who has appointed you guardians of the earth'. We need maturity to leave our short-termism. To be God-conscious is to have the ability to recognise the consequences of our actions. We need the balance between inner compassion/mercy/love and the call for justice that we see in the prophets.

Rev Prof Ian James then gave what he emphasized was 'my Christian perspective'. He described a formative moment in his life on hearing his vicar refer to 'those Christians who waste their time on issues like the environment'. Christianity is a very materialistic religion. It is about confirming the world we live in, not escaping it. The briefest summary of Christianity is 'God is love' - that is the mainspring of all our Christian faith and activity. God created a good world and loves that world and we're in it to love that world in response. Jesus summed up our response to God in two lines 'Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself'.
This is a huge responsibility and raises the question of who this neighbour is. The whole story of Christianity has been one of expanding our notion of who our neighbour might be. It started with Jewish people in a Christian sect, then extended to the Roman Empire, then there were debates about whether pagans beyond the Roman borders could be Christians. In the nineteenth century the argument was about black people who were slaves. Time and again we've had to expand our notion and we're at another time for this. There is no doubt that we live in a fully interconnected world. We must start to realise that the human race is dependent on the rest of the natural world for our health and well being. We all act to build walls around the human race as something separate. We cannot do that. Our neighbour is indeed the farmer in Bangladesh but it is also the tree in the Amazon rainforest and the plankton in the sea.
I look at the humblest creatures and ask 'why should I have a greater right to life than it?' Our perspective as a human race has changed enormously in my lifetime. The picture of earth sent back from space enabled us to see it as a fragile speck in the universe that is all we have and are. It is infinitely precious and infinitely valuable and love for neighbour means infinite concern for it.

According to an Environment Agency survey on where the response to climate change would come from, faith communities were second on the list, which surprised those present. Swami Ji commented that it is hard enough just to get temple members to sort the recycling. This led to discussion about faith groups having to pay for their recycling collections and ultimately a petition against this. I did sign it, but remain ambivalent - I do think that people should be able to take their recycling home. As I cycled back from church this morning with wine bottles in my paniers and a basket full of squashed bottles and boxes I felt I should have argued that when people have to take responsibility for their rubbish they usually make less of it.

The discussion after the papers included the need for people to work together across faith boundaries and the fact that a conservative estimate of climate change refugees is equal to the population of England, Germany and Italy (and that a great many of them will die on the journey).

After a short tea break we reconvened for a session on practicalities, beginning with Ben Burfoot of Reading Borough Council. He outlined the council's Climate Change Strategy which aims to cut the council's own carbon emissions to zero by 2050 and those of the community by 80%. The carbon pathway begins with
counting the carbon so this year they're trying to get people to understand how they can measure and manage their carbon footprint, just as they do their finances. Then there is the
change phase - starting to work on a bigger scale with new sorts of vehicles, energy plants, structures for doing business, trying to take more carbon out of everything we do. Finally
carbon offsetting - he admitted to some cynicism about the way this is often used, so it would be very much a last resort.
This Climate Change Strategy will be launched at Forbury Fever on World Environment Day, June 6th. Prior to that pledge posters will be available for community places to put up and everyone to write pledges in the footprints which will then be used at the launch. He emphasised the importance of making the response to climate change a positive experience and especially hoped the faith communities could help in this.
He highlighted the Heatseekers initiative that had taken thermal imaging of all Reading's houses and will provide a surveyor to help people work out what needs to be done to improve their house's energy efficiency as well as 50% financial assistance with this (100% for those on benefits or over 70). The telephone number is 0845 3909390 and the lines are open 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday. (Thanks to Owen for sending me this info)

A partnership for climate change is under formation which will have a steering capacity to determine policy for the longer term and will also be a network for putting out more information.

Muzzamal then explained about the London Islamic Network for the Environment - plenty of detail on their website from where I took the picture below of a stunt they did in Brick Lane, heart of the Bangladeshi community in London, to highlight the peril that faces Bangladesh from rising sea levels. I gave a brief introduction to Christian Ecology Link, Operation Noah, A Rocha and Eco-congregation. Finally Paul Harper introduced GREN the Greater Reading Environmental Network. They are primarily a yahoo group for exchanging information, and clearly need to do more of it since the Age of Stupid premiere happened in Reading without any Reading environmental groups being aware until the last minute (a sad missed opportunity). In 18 months they've facilitated effective lobbying to influence the council's draft climate strategy. They've put on a COIN event that led to the foundation of the Reading Energy Pioneers and they're currently involved in the Local Partnership on Climate Change. They will soon have a website too.

After a great meat free lunch we split into workshops to look at individual responses, greening our faith buildings and networks. I attended the latter which began with a presentation from Operation Noah's Ruth Jarman. We agreed to establish both Muslim and Christian Environment groups in Reading which we expect to come together for certain events, hopefully beginning with an Operation Noah stall at Forbury Fever. The workshop on individual responses included looking at carbon footprints at this site.

News coverage of the event can be found here.

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