The Earth is Our Home

Photo © European Space Agency via Flickr. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license. Colours modified.

This 4-part series argues that any understanding of development which disregards the role of faith is lacking a key dimension for a substantial proportion, perhaps a majority, of humanity. But can we identify precisely what that key dimension offers which might otherwise be missing?

In the third part of the series John Dornan and Suzanne Bunniss review faith groups and action over many years on environmental issues such as climate change, sustainability and our collective responsibilities to each other on a shared planet.

In September 2017, Wired magazine published an article entitled “11 terrifying climate change facts” with these sub-headings:

  • Temperatures are breaking records around the world
  • There is no scientific debate about the reality of climate change
  • Arctic sea ice and glaciers are melting
  • Sea levels are rising at their fastest rate in 2,000 years
  • Climate change will lead to a refugee crisis
  • We will consume all of Earth’s 2017 resources by August (Earth Overshoot Day)
  • Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef has been damaged as a result of climate change
  • The ocean is 26 percent more acidic than before the Industrial Revolution
  • Global flooding could triple by 2030
  • More greenhouse gases are in our atmosphere than any time in human history
  • Earth could warm by six degrees this century

Two months later, UN Environment launched the Faith for Earth Initiative to:

  • inspire and empower faith organizations and their leaders to advocate for protecting the environment,
  • to ‘green’ faith-based organizations’ investments and assets to support the implementation of SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals],
  • to provide them with knowledge and networks to enable their leaders to effectively communicate with decision-makers and the public.

 “Spiritual values drive individual behaviours for more than 80 per cent of people. In many countries, spiritual beliefs and religions define cultural values, social inclusion, political engagement and economic prosperity.”

– UN Faith for Earth Initiative

Faith-based organisations have been recognised as key players in eradicating poverty, improving people’s health, protecting the environment and working toward sustainable development. Their agility is crucial, especially at the local level and with faith actors. FBOs are also sustainable institutions and, in recent years, policymakers have begun to engage them in environmental conservation and natural resources management. The website includes a 6-page list of faith based organisations working and campaigning on climate-related issues.

Care and concern for the earth is not simply a recent discovery for the world’s major faiths. The Judeo-Christian Bible begins with the book of Genesis, telling the story of the creation of the earth: God saw all that he had made and it was very good. (Gen. 1.31)

Likewise there are numerous references in Islamic scriptures:

“The Earth is green and beautiful, and Allah has appointed you his stewards over it. The whole earth has been created a place of worship, pure and clean. Whoever plants a tree and diligently looks after it until it matures and bears fruit is rewarded. If a Muslim plants a tree or sows a field and humans and beasts and birds eat from it, all of it is love on his part.”

Hadith (record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).

While it’s fair to say that people of faith have been just as culpable for abusing the earth’s resources as anyone, the key principles of the major world faiths assert the need to care for the earth and all forms of life and to ensure that all people have enough to meet at least their basic needs:

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

– John 10:10

More recently, concern for the environment has been given more prominence by religious leaders:

“What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?”

Laudato Si, 2015, Pope Francis exhortation on care for our common home

“My question is: after we burn the lifeboat how will we stay afloat? Presently the Church has a unique opportunity to place its vast authority, its energies, educational resources, its spiritual; disciplines in a creative context, one that can assist in renewing the Earth as a bio-spiritual planet… Only by assuming this religious responsibility  for the fate of the Earth can the Church regain any authentic status either in the human or in the Earth process.”

Thomas Berry, Riverdale Center for Religious Research, New York,
quoted in To Care for the Earth, A call to a new theology, Sean McDonagh, 1986.

"DIVEST THE DAIL IN LIGHTS" Trocaire's message to the Government to divest from fossil fuels was spelled out in 5ft high lights outside the gates of Dail Eireann on May 10th, 2017. As part of the Global Week of Action on Divestment Trocaire sent a clear message to the Government that to have a fighting chance to combat catastrophic climate change we must phase out fossil fuels and stop the growth of the industry that is driving this crisis. "Trocaire has seen it on the ground, from Malawi to Honduras, climate change is decimating the world's poorest communities". Photo: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland (via Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA)

Author and blogger, Duncan Green, has raised the question of whether faith-based organisations (FBOs) are not, in many cases, better placed to deliver positive impact due to a variety of characteristics which other secular organisations may find difficult to match:

  • better understanding of social and cultural norms and attitudes
  • their presence in remote areas where state agencies are almost non-existent
  • assisting with the transition from aid to more local support
  • generally less vulnerable to state crackdown on civil society organisations or accusations of foreign interference
Graphic: Poverty to Power Blog (2017)

While the most immediate impact of climate change will fall hardest on poorer countries, the radical actions required to minimize the potential damage will primarily need to be taken in the high income economies of the West and the rapidly developing Indian and Chinese economies. The connections of global faiths, particularly Islam and Christianity, can have a major role to play in motivating individuals and communities to make the necessary personal lifestyle and collective changes.

Case studies 

  • Trócaire and Divestment in Fossil Fuels – Trócaire is one of Ireland’s leading development and human rights NGOs. For many years it has been active on a range of climate change issues and has supported a wide range of actions on the issue, particularly as regards divestment in fossil fuels See a summary of divestment actions and access a detailed 7-page briefing paper on the fossil fuel divestment bill work. The website includes a set of climate justice resources including a 30-minute documentary.
  • Eco-Congregation Ireland (ECI) encourages churches of all denominations to take an eco approach to worship, lifestyle, property and finance management, community outreach and contact with the developing world. Their vision is to see churches of all denominations throughout Ireland celebrate the gift of God’s creation, recognise the inter-dependence of all creation and care for it in their life and mission and through members’ personal lifestyles. The ECI website offers a set of practical, daily-life tips and ideas on how this can be done.
  • Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale is a rich resource for those seeking faith inspired ideas and interpretations of climate change issues. It catalogues major ecology-focused statements from over 15 major world religions. It also offers an extensive list of resources (including an excellent video listing) on key topics and issues.  The site also has links to other major related perspectives, see for example, that on ethics.
  • Christian Aid – The Big Shift – a faith inspired campaign against the backdrop of the more than a billion people in the world who still don’t have electricity, let alone affordable, renewable energy. The campaign seeks to provide energy access to these people, while also reducing carbon emissions that cause climate change and stimulating investment in renewable energy.  The site offers case studies of success stories, ideas for lobbying the World Bank on the issue and onward links to other, related campaigns.

About the series

This 4-part series explores three key issues – poverty and wealth, climate change and women’s rights – from an explicit faith perspective, and introduces a range of activities, links and resources for facilitating learning exercises and workshops.

The next part in the series, published tomorrow, explores how the equality and empowerment of women relates to religious faith and development.

Take a look at other parts in the series: part 1. Faith, justice and development; part 2. Is wealth the problem?; part 4. Women and development

  • Suzanne Bunniss (PhD) is a social science researcher and charity director of FireCloud, based in Clydebank, Scotland.
  • John Dornan has been a development education activist for over four decades and recently retired as project manager of global education at the Conforti Institute based in Coatbridge, Scotland.
  • Note: this series has been developed with additional reporting, commentary and review by Colm Regan of and Stephen Farley of Trócaire.