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UNESCO recognises relevance of faiths in sustainable development

April 30 2007:

For the first time, UNESCO this year recognised the critical role of faiths in both education and development, in a conference held in Barcelona in March, hosted by UNESCO-CAT.

Eight different faiths were represented at the conference entitled "Faith-based organisations and Education for Sustainability" as well as NGOs, academics, and ARC which has traditionally created bridges between these groups.

The conference has been thoughtfully summarised in a full document which can be downloaded Link here. Meanwhile here are a few brief extracts to get a flavour of the discussions:

Learning to Dance in the Earthquake

Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Centre in the USA stated: “the whole world is today in an earthquake: politics, economics, sexuality… all is off the ground. People look for something that isn’t quaking, desperately trying to find something stable, and so they don’t pay attention to the state of the Earth”. Our calling today, as Rabbi Waskow emphatically put it, is like “learning to dance in an earthquake”. This quaking will transform everything, including religions: “We know what religious traditions were like three hundred years ago, but we don’t know how they will be after learning to dance in an earthquake”.

A Plea for Non-Technical Language

A number of participants made a plea for everyday language, avoiding technical jargon, in the discourse on sustainability. Reaching the people should be a priority, and this requires that they can relate to our language. Only when exclusively dealing with the “establishment” may jargon be required.

On Sustainability and Development

It was suggested that in its early years the notion of sustainability may have been able to take centre stage only by getting into an uneasy marriage with development. Not everyone in the workshop criticized the notion of “sustainable development” but most of the experts expressed mixed feelings (to say the least) about this notion and criticized it as inefficient or self-defeating. In fact, none of the experts directly representing faith-based organizations appeared to be comfortable with this term.

A suggested alternative that received ample endorsement (particularly, but not solely, from the non-Western experts) was sustainable life or sustainable living, more understandable and appealing. A shift of language towards “sustainable life” was called for in a number of ways. It was suggested that instead of “Education for Sustainable Development” it would be more appropriate, appealing, inspiring, and effective to speak of Education for Sustainable Living. One delegate remembered a story of when children in New Zealand were asked what they understood by "Sustainable Development" and one little girl said "It means making the good things last longer."

Overcoming the Religion of Materialism

Dr. Mary Joy Pigozzi of UNESCO's ESD panel noted that the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development is not just about the environment, it’s about social change and about transforming economic and political structures. It should therefore, as pointed out by Fazlun Khalid, also have an impact on institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO. Sustainability is not possible unless we overcome our worship of economic growth and our subtle identification of money with fulfillment. People in the UK, it was noted, are keen to switch off lights, but they are in no way willing to accept paying green taxes on fuel.

“Materialism has become the dominant faith of our world” and religions must now help to dematerialize our world view (Dr. Dahl). One way of countering consumerism would be to set limits to the advertising industry and to explicitly teach children and adults how to critically evaluate adverts (Rabbi Waskow). Faith-based traditions have the possibility of presenting an alternative vision to counter the allure of endless consumption and endless economic growth, which is “devouring the planet and driving humans toward a precipice of no return”.

Comparison with the Earth Charter

Detail from the Sagrada Familia rose window in Barcelona, designed by the architect Gaudi to celebrate nature's exuberance
There is a consistent overlap between the Earth Charter and the five core values that emerged in the Workshop. However, some differences of emphasis might be pointed out. Three of the core values seem to be sufficiently addressed by the Earth Charter. Planetary awareness is explicitly or implicitly present throughout it; expanding our ethical horizon to include issues of ecological justice is, likewise, present in many of the principles and paragraphs of the Earth Charter, and caring for future generations corresponds to principle 4. The remaining two values are somehow less represented, not appearing in the phrasing of any the 16 principles of the Charter, but they are not missing: celebrating life is praised in the very last sentence of the Earth Charter, and cultural diversity is implicit or explicit in several subprinciples

Celebrating Life

Celebration is essential, as Victoria Finlay of ARC emphasized. Faith-based traditions offer us a sense of beauty and harmony, often conveyed through inspiring aphorisms and stories, that needs to be integrated into sustainability. Festivals and ritual celebrations can enhance our awareness of the cycles of nature.

In the Andean region the Andean Peasant Technologies Project (PRATEC) is successfully reintroducing traditional agricultural festivities into the school calendar. Most participants agreed that awe is necessary to achieve a sustainable life. The best of science can provide awe and wonder, but awe at the scientific, intellectual level, doesn’t last and doesn’t reach deep enough, while spiritual celebrations strike very deep in the heart of people. Awe at life is most fully expressed through rituals. In most indigenous cosmovisions, harmony with the local world or bioregion is achieved and sustained by ritual activity: “without it I cannot see how to achieve sustainable living” (Jorge Ishizawa of PRATEC).

Embracing Interdependence

In the modern West matter has been divorced from spirit, but in other traditions there is no such split. The Daoist notion of qi refers neither to dispirited matter nor intangible spirit. Matter should be revalued. Billy Wapotro of the Alliance Scolaire in New Caledonia explained that in his native Melanesian culture, rather than living by “cogito ergo sum” they have traditionally understood that “it is the other who causes my existence”: “if the other doesn’t exist, I don’t exist; if the other suffers, I suffer”. Note that in this context other is not restricted to fellow human beings: it includes the ocean, trees, stones, water and “the whole of creation”. Each native clan is specifically related to a natural feature (Wapotro, for instance, means “the tree”). Many indigenous traditions have a sense that all things are connected.

Revising notions of progress, prosperity and development

The Jewish practice of a sabbatical year after six years of work and money-making was a traditional way of putting a rein on unlimited growth. Dr. Mary Joy Pigozzi of UNESCO's ESD panel noted that ‘development’ needs to embrace ‘well-being’ and ‘spirituality’. One recent and significant step is to replace our zealous pursuit of a higher GDP (that knows of no other reality than money) with a more humane aspiration: Gross National Happiness, GNH, initially launched in Bhutan. GNH, as reported by Somboon Chungprampree of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists in Thailand, has four pillars: good governance, cultural autonomy, environmental justice, and an economy providing enough for basic needs in a sustainable way.

We need positive alternative lifestyles that don’t depend on material things. As Dr. Dahl emphasized, these can be most readily provided by religions. Religions have the power to open us up to something bigger than our individual selves.

From the Keynote Speech

Religions have always helped to shape civilizations and cultures through their stories, symbols, rituals and ethics, and “now they are being called to assist in the great transition to a viable future for all species”. From the keynote speech by Prof. Mary Evelyn TUCKER, Forum on Religion and Ecology, Harvard University, USA.

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