Religion and Sustainability Fr. Seán McDonagh SSC (Saturday, May 7th 2011)

Religion and Sustainability

During the past week I have shared the concerns which have surfaced here in New York at the 19th Session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD).  The mountain we have to climb in terms of abandoning the unsustainable way of living of about 20 percent of the world’s population while, at the same time, meeting basic, food, clothing, education and health care needs of the poorest 25 percent of the world’s population, is immense and daunting.  The unsustainable trajectory of our current consumption and waste patterns was highlighted by Achim Steiner, the UN Secretary General and Executive Director of The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in the publication,  PAVING THE WAY FOR SUSTAINABLE  CONSUMPTION AND PRODUCTION; THE MARRAKECH  PROCESS PROGRESS REPORT. [1] According to him, the extraordinary progress of humankind within the past century is linked to unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. He wrote, “yearly consumption of biomass has more than tripled; use of fossil fuels, metals, minerals has increased 12 to 20 fold; and in respect to construction materials, consumption has grown 34 fold…. There is an urgent need for systematic change. This requires re-thinking current models of macro and micro economics and social development in order to catalyse a transition to far more sustainable and low carbon economies and economies.”[2]


That is the big picture which ought to be guiding the negotiations during the first week of the 19th Session of the CSD, but, unfortunately often old ways of thinking and vested interests, have prevailed to block real progress.

A number of speakers, especially from the NGOs side, did speak about the need for profound changes in our values, in our understanding of what constitutes the ‘good’ life and in our attitudes towards the natural world.  This is also the sphere of religion but, to be honest, there was no discussion about the role that religion might play in promoting sustainable development at the CSD. At the end of the Review of Work session on Friday evening (May 6th 2011), the chairperson encouraged us to get plenty of sleep during the weekend, but never mentioned the fact that some of the participants might also attend religious services.  Talk about airbrushing religion out of life!

Other institutes and scholars are beginning to focus on how religions might be mobilized to promote a more sustainable way of living on the planet, while at the same time alleviating the poverty which is the lot of over one billion people today. In a chapter in 2010 State of the World, on “Engaging Religions to Shape Worldviews,” Gary Gardner believes that even though, at present, there is only a small minority of environmental activists in most religions, religion “could become a major factor in forging new cultures of sustainability.”[3] In the Christian tradition, he pointed to the work of Patriarch Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople who set up the organization, Religion, Science and Environment (RSE) in 1996. This promotes dialogue between science and religion around environmental problems associated with oceans, seas and rivers.

Despite my criticisms of the lack of leadership of the Holy See in this crucial area, the Vatican is now engaging more seriously with the ecological crisis, though much more needs to be done. There are a number of ways in which religions can play a part in promoting ecological sustainability. The first, and most important role, is a prophetic one. This means challenging, at a global and local level, the current economic paradigm which underpins our unsustainable way of living.  Examples of this can be found in recent papal teaching. In, Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation, (January 1st 1990), the late Pope John Paul II wrote: “modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life style. In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause.  … Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few.”  Pope Benedict XVI in, If you want peace, protect creation, (World Day of Peace, January 1st 2010), writes that “technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles.” Further on, in No. 11 he writes, “it is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-styles and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view.”

All religions must challenge the greatest heresy in modern times which affects both religious and non-religious people, is that more and more consumption is the true, sure and only pathway to happiness and contentment.

The second thing Churches or Religions could do is to accompany people both at the local, national and international levels in the painful process of change from a non-sustainable to a sustainable way of life. Churches are well positioned to do this since they are present at the local, national and the international level. To achieve this they must educate their followers about local and global environmental issues. Each religious tradition has its own stories about the origins of the universe, the earth and humankind.

This generation, however,  is privileged to have available to it an understanding about the emergence of the universe, our solar system, the formation of planet earth, the emergence and proliferation of life, culminating with the evolution of humankind in the past few million years. As a result we have a new understanding of what it means to be human and intimately connects us to the 13.7 billion years which went into shaping the universe in such a way that it could support conscious life.

In the light of this new understanding, we are challenged to live in a way that does not undermine the well-being of the planet. Particular religious traditions can enhance this understanding of our connectedness with all creation by grounding their own theologies of creation on this new cosmology. In the Judeo-Christian tradition we believe that the creative principle behind the emergence of the universe and humankind is best addressed in personal terms as a caring, loving Father.


[2] Ibid.

[3]  Gary Gardner, “Engaging Religions to Shape World View” 2010 State of the World, page 23.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s