New Directions at Faith and Environment Event
By Catrina Pickering 24th March 2011
Live simply that others may simply live (Mahatma Gandhi)
On Monday I spent the day at Lambeth Palace for the “Interfaith Seminar on Environment and Sustainability”. The event brought together people from faith communities from across the UK who are active on building resilience against climate change.
Amidst the many rousing examples of carbon cutting projects, there were also some new things being said. In particular a strong and recurrent thread that identified environmental issues as being inseparable to social justice – that the environmental and the social can only be addressed together.
There was Muzammal Hussain of Wisdom in Nature who called for a more holistic approach that works across class and race, across power and privilege by joining the dots with other forms of faith-based social action such as community development or fair-trade.
Ros Wade and Mary Young of South Bank University’s Education for Sustainability programme then exemplified this by talking about the work they’re doing in schools in West Sussex in which children are asked questions that get them thinking more holistically. They are encouraged to think not just about “how much carbon did it take to produce my lunch” but also “who produced the various ingredients for my lunch? Where and under what conditions? ” It struck me that this is increasingly the direction that Transition is moving towards – to thinking about carbon reduction alongside how climate change and resource scarcity impacts on vulnerable people.
Another theme that continuously cropped up was the need to build trust and community between everyone – faith or no faith. Peter Zinkin of United Synagogue caused quite a swirl of energy in his talk about maximising the use of faith houses. Faith houses, he said, are used as little as one morning a week and even then are often not filled to capacity. Could it be he asked that due to their limited use, our faith buildings are only used to as little as 1% capacity and that no matter how energy efficient we make them, they can therefore only ever be 1% sustainable? The solution he suggested is to maximise their usage, make them multi-functional, open them up to the community so that they can be a gym space one day and a meeting hall the next. Enable them to be buildings that serve the community rather than as they are now, being communities that serve the building.
On reflection, it feels like Transition is already doing this. Many Transition initiatives make good use of their local faith buildings for holding meetings though alongside this, it does also feel important to consider how the holding of meetings in a faith house might exclude others – for example someone from another faith or someone who holds secular beliefs and feels uncomfortable in faith buildings. But perhaps as suggested by Peter Zinkin, we can see this a gradual Transition process of faith houses being opened up to the wider community.
After a tasty kosher lunch, we divided up into discussion groups for the afternoon to talk about some of the issues that had been raised through the morning’s presentations. Here are just some of the things that we discussed that I found particularly interesting:
- There was some discussion about the role of faith activists versus faith leaders. Some felt that the energy for change lay with faith leaders who were in a position to communicate with and “lead” their faith community. Others felt that this wasn’t always possible and that it was necessary to support “faith activists” to support and generate activities in their faith communities. Still others reported that action from above (from faith leaders) was regarded with suspicion and there was more chance of promoting real change through faith practitioners at a grassroots level. My own thinking on this is that faith communities are incredibly diverse and that there are no hard and fast rules. Probably what is most useful is to be aware of these different ways of working and work with who and what seems best in each circumstance.
- A need to get better at telling stories because stories are an engaging way of sharing learnings – stories about different faiths connecting the stories in their sacred texts to ecology, stories about faith houses achieving huge carbon reductions, stories about inter-faith groups working in their communities on food growing or community events. These stories need to be told in and between faith communities so as to inspire, support and to encourage one another.
- Faith communities bring people together through shared values and belief systems, thereby creating a powerful foundation of trust and mutual understanding from which to explore and communicate ideas.
I left feeling moved and inspired by the range of activities and breadth of thinking that faith communities are taking in building more resilient communities. There is such a wealth of practical, faith-based projects out there to learn from and connect with such as Coventry Cathedral which is incentivising its congregation to invest in home renewables or Wisdom in Nature, the Islamic Ecological Activism group which is bringing together people in Tower Hamlets on a local food growing project.
Alongside these more practical outputs, I hope that Transition can also make best use of the inner strengths that faith communities bring. Drawing on the diversity of these many thousands of years of wisdom can really help to build personal and collective resilience and lessen attachment to consumerism and never-ending wealth. As Laurie Michaelis from the Quaker movement said:
“Could we together develop a way of life that embodies a spiritual response to climate change and enables individuals, communities and the natural world to flourish?… Well-being is mostly about connection – to ourselves, to other people and to nature… Perhaps the greatest challenge posed by climate change is to develop the personal and collective will for a new way of life.”
As for work that Transition Network is doing on faiths, you might find the following of interest:
- Quaker and Transition conference: A two day conference to be held in June for Quakers active in Transition.
- Faiths and Transition email discussion group: If you’re interested in joining this to hear about and circulate ideas around working with faiths on Transition related projects, email email@example.com.
- New interfaith and environment resource: Our partner, Local Initiatives for Faith and Environment (LIFE), have recently published a resource on setting up inter-faith and environment initiatives and are available to provide hands-on support.