Faith and Sustainability
At the First Thursday meeting on April 5th 2012 we began some discussions on this topic, looking at what various world faiths and philosophies have to say about human responsibility for the future of the planet.
Faith and Sustainability (summary of the discussion, First Thursday, April 5th 2012)
We began our discussions by looking at some of the material produced by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Our modern human ability to look at the Earth from space has put our planet into a fresh perspective for us- some would say this a “religious experience” creating a fresh sense of “the Earth is the Lord’s”. “Sustainability” means the capacity to endure, and raises the question whether humanity has become destructive of the earth. Perhaps so if we only do things for our own good and benefit. For Quakers faith must lead to action as part of their testimony to peace, simplicity, equality, truth and sustainability. We need to realise our connectedness with creation, and take action to sustain community- both local and wider, discovering ways in which people can become responsible.
We looked very briefly at the Buddhist tradition, which emphasises that all change begins with our own consciousness, recognising that suffering exists because of our tendency to cling to things. A Buddhist way of life is one that seeks to let go of our craving and clinging, to achieve right livelihoods and wisdom that ceases to do harm. We will need to explore this tradition further in future meetings.
Finally, we looked at the creation stories in the Book of Genesis. Chapter 1 is a celebration of the goodness of creation (perhaps a hymn sung in worship). Its constant refrain that “God saw all he had made, and it was good” is a strong contrast with many religions at the time, which saw the created world as being under the control of many supernatural forces, some well-disposed to humanity and others dangerous and threatening. Its conclusion that humanity has “dominion” in creation can lead (and often has led) to an attitude of exploitation, unless balanced by the emphases in the other account of creation in Genesis chapters 2 and 3.
That second account stresses the vital role of human beings to “cultivate and take care of” the garden God has planted (2:8 and 9, 15). There is even (2: 5) a recognition that vegetation has an important role in influencing rainfall. The man is unable to fulfil his task alone- he needs the help of others, of animals (2:18 to 20), but above all of a woman (2:21 to 24). Strong limits are placed on their powers and responsibilities, however. They are not to grasp the fruit of the “knowledge of good and evil” (2:17; 3:2 to 5). We need to understand that the Hebrew word for “to know” is far stronger than our English word, which merely implies knowledge “about” something. The Hebrew word also has the sense of “mastery” or “control”- in other words the temptation for humanity is to think that we “know” what the standards of good and evil and of justice should be. This in effect means that right and wrong will be decided in human society by those who have the power to impose their will on others. It is this, according to the Genesis story, that destroys the good relationship humanity has with the created world (3:17 to 19), between the man and his wife (“he will lord it over you”, 3:16), and (in the following chapter 4) between brothers who are farmers and herders.
Summary of First Thursday discussion, May 3rd 2012
We looked at some of the approaches of the Jewish faith to the question of sustainability. It is important to stress that the basis of Jewish faith is not the scriptures alone, but also the oral tradition (in orthodox belief given to Moses on Mount Sinai) which was finally written down in the Talmud from about 1800 years ago. There are two versions of the Talmud, the Jerusalem and the Babylonian. Also important are interpretations of the law, for example by Rashi, who lived from 1040 to 1105 CE. The word “dominion” in Genesis 1:28 derives from a verb y-r-d, which means “to step down, to descend”. So if human rule is unjust and not meritorious, humanity becomes subject to the beasts. Much of the Hebrew law shows a strong sense of human link with nature and the land- for example Leviticus 25:23, the land belongs to God. The seventh (Sabbath) Year gives a rest to the land. Fruit trees are protected, even in time of war (Deuteronomy 20:19 and 20). Justice in distributing the fruits of the earth is required, since everything comes from God (eg Job 12:7 to 9)- this was emphasised in the Talmudic period through the use of blessings which give thanks for everything in life. Also these principles are applied to the construction of cities- requiring the placing of some factories away from residential areas, and insisting on a “greenbelt” surrounding a built-up area.
We noted for future discussion an apparent contrast between the “active” attitude found in eg most Christianity and in Judaism, which values positive action, and an approach in eg Buddhism and some Quaker thinking, which puts a higher value on “non-action”. Is this a genuine distinction, and if so what is at its root. Can it be said that action taken without sufficient knowledge or thought can do a great deal of damage, in contrast to the Buddhist ideal of “do no harm”.
A suggestion by e-mail for water-saving (storing the water that is usually allowed to run away until it runs hot) led to a discussion of advice given by a water company that sewers needed to be kept flushed to prevent them blocking, and whether a water-based sewerage system would be sustainable if water became increasingly scarce.
In June we will look at more Biblical passages (Genesis 9:8 to 17; Leviticus 19:23 to 25 and 25:1 to 7 and 18 to 24; Deuteronomy 4:5 to 6 and 7:12 to 13), and hopefully continue to discuss some Jewish approaches to sustainability.
Summary of First Thursday discussion, June 7th, 2012
We discussed where the balance should be between relying on the planet’s own “self-correcting” mechanism, and putting our trust in technology.
We also looked at the promise which ends the story of the Flood in Genesis chapter 9, and whether a “natural” assessment of creation can come to the conclusion that it is “good”, or reliable and just. Some religious views see a balance or even conflict in nature between what we as humans experience as “good” and “evil”. Hindu faith appears to see the divine as creative, sustaining, but also destructive (in order to bring about renewal). For the Hebrews it was their experience of being delivered from slavery in Egypt that convinced them that justice and goodness was at the heart of all creation.
On July 5th we will continue this discussion, and ask how these different viewpoints influence our understanding of our responsibility for the planet we inhabit.
Summary of the “First Thursday” discussion, July 6th 2012
For many years now the greatest threat to sustainable life on earth has seemed to be the inexorable growth of the human population- now 7 billion and still growing. However there is some evidence that the situation is changing. Population is still growing, but the rate of growth is declining, and, in particular, fertility levels (the average number of children born to each woman) have fallen rapidly in many part of the world. In some countries (particularly wealthy countries) fertility rates have fallen below “replacement” levels, so populations will fall unless there is immigration from elsewhere. Examples of fertility rates from the most populated countries are China 1.55, India 2.58, the European Union 1.59, USA 2.06, Indonesia 2.23 and Brazil 2.16. The world average is 2.5. In some countries fertility rates are still high: for example Nigeria 5.38, Ethiopia 5.97, Dem. Rep. Congo 5.09. The clue is that rising levels of economic growth (in particular a decline in the need for child labour) and greater emancipation of women lead within a generation or two to smaller families.
Of course, there is no guarantee that this trend will continue, but at the moment it seems likely that world population will stabilise somewhere between 9 and 10 billion.
James Lovelock’s books “Gaia” (1979) and “The Revenge of Gaia” (2006) suggest that the world is capable of “correcting itself, perhaps at the expense of humans who over-exploit it. Political and cultural change is inevitably slow- perhaps too slow to combat climate change? And there are other threats to sustainability: excessive aerosols, extinction of vital species, water and arable land resources, excessive nitrogen (mainly from industrially produced fertilizers).
So is “deep ground heat” part of the answer to climate change? Is sustainable living easier to organise in cities than in rural areas? Will “fracking” put back the timetable for sustainable energy for many years?
Perhaps Western civilisation is in its adolescence- enjoying a sense of power and not yet fully aware of its responsibilities. Are people of faith (and not just religious faith) prepared to take some responsibility for the planet, compared to many who are content to live for the moment?
But how do we recognise and deal with the experience of many people, who feel they are locked into a system that they cannot begin to change?
On September 6th we did not continue the “Faith and Sustainability” theme, but discussed an article in the day’s newspapers.