SCIENTIFIC AND SPIRITUAL DIMENSIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
A STUDY COURSE
Spiritual and Practical Dimensions - The Individual
Section 1: Stewardship of the Earth
All religions and many traditions teach that the Earth is God's creation and that it is our responsibility to preserve it:
American Indian Tradition: The most sacred force in 1700 Quapaw religious practice was called Wakondah or Wakontah. Wakontah was an energy or force that permeated everything that existed and kept everything in balance. Since the Quapaw revered this force and the force was in everything, the Quapaw respected everything. Because they revered both nature and animals, they were in a sense the first environmentalists in North America. They felt obligated to honor animals they had killed in a hunt with ceremonies. (1)
Judaism: “When God created the first human beings, God led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “See my works how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Think of this, and do not corrupt or destroy My world.” (2)
Christianity: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (3)
“And God created humankind in God's image... having dominion over the earth.” (4) Some theologians and religious leaders say the word 'dominion' should not be understood as a license to dominate and exploit nature, but rather as an obligation of stewardship of the Earth.
“And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” (5) Another translation says: "The Lord God took the man and settled him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it."
Islam: "If any Muslim plants any plant and a human being or an animal eats of it, he will be rewarded as if he had given that much in charity." (6)
Sikhism: “Air is the guru, water is the father, and Earth is the mother of all.” (7)
Buddhism: “Water flows over these hands. May I use them skillfully to preserve our precious planet.” (8)
Jainism: “Nonviolence is the supreme religion. One who looks on the creatures of the Earth, big and small, as one's own self, comprehends this immense world.” (9)
Baha'i Faith: “Know thou that every created thing is a sign of the revelation of God.” (10)
“Religions can help us to recapture a sense of the sacredness of creation, for nature mirrors the beauty and love of God.” (11) (Stefan Edman)
Religion also warns us what can happen when we transgress against its teachings:
“The earth mourneth and fadeth away, the world languisheth and fadeth away, the haughty people of the earth do languish. The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant.” (12)
"... ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you." (13)
“This is the Day whereon the earth shall tell out her tidings. The workers of iniquity are her burdens, could ye but perceive it.” (14)
Discussion: What will change in our personal lives and in society when we act with the intention of stewardship of the Earth?
Watch this video:
The Story of Stuff 20 min.
The Story of Stuff is a fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world.
Section 2: Spirituality as Opposed to Materialism
Let’s stop for a moment and think about how we allowed this environmental crisis to reach the critical point of endangering our very survival. There may be two main factors: In the past, we honestly didn’t know the unintended consequences of industrialization, and now, we are in the grip of materialism. Let’s examine these two reasons a little closer:
Scientific and technological advances have allowed our cultures to progress in numerous positive ways. Just think about means of communication, like the telephone or the Internet, or about the unprecedented fast means of transportation that allowed the coming together of cultures. Since the industrial revolution, machines have been doing much of our work connected to our everyday needs, freeing up large parts of humanity to have some free time to pursue other activities such as science, art, literature and music. Instead of gathering wood and tending to a fire we just turn on the stove or the heat. Instead of walking or riding, we save much time with a car and therefore can get much more done. Electrical appliances have made our lives much easier. There is nothing inherently evil in all of that.
Before the 1980s there was no strong evidence of global warming. We just didn’t know that the burning of fossil fuels would have these unintended consequences.
Now, our whole existence is dependent on fossil fuels: our transportation, our food system, and especially our energy supply are all based on fossil fuels. Even with best intentions it’s not easy to get out of these systems, to think out of the box, and to act in an environmentally responsible way.
And materialism has greatly exacerbated the magnitude of the environmental crisis. Many people are not connected to a higher purpose in life and therefore fill their inner emptiness with material things. This all-pervasive materialism results in excessive consumption. “Millions of people try to find meaning in their lives by shopping and owning. One scholar even called consumerism the first global religion.” (15) However, several scientific studies indicate that, once basic needs are met, human beings don’t increase their life satisfaction or happiness by accumulating greater wealth. Religion confirms that point:
“Man is, in reality, a spiritual being, and only when he lives in the spirit is he truly happy.” (16) 'Abdu’l-Baha
Materialism is the root cause of greed, over-consumption, injustice and the destruction of the environment.
“Consider the peoples of the West.Witness how, in their pursuit of that which is vain and trivial, they have sacrificed, and are still sacrificing, countless lives for the sake of its establishment and promotion.” (17)
“Why, then, exhibit such greed in amassing the treasures of the earth, when your days are numbered and your chance is well-nigh lost? Will ye not, then, O heedless ones, shake off your slumber?” (18) Baha'u'llah
Being slaves of our material desires and our self-interest prevents us from growing as human beings. We can rise beyond that to attain our true human station of nobility.
“Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created.” (19) Baha'u'llah
Spirituality is the antidote for materialism and consumerism. All religions teach that human beings are essentially spiritual beings. A spiritual outlook can help us shift the emphasis from consumption to well-being and a meaningful life. We cannot and don’t want to go back to the kind of life people led 200 years ago. However, science tells us that we do need to lower our greenhouse gas emissions significantly, not just a little bit. Scientists estimate that in industrialized countries we need to lower them by 80-90% by mid-century and phase them out completely by the end of the century. This is huge and will require major changes and some sacrifice.
Section 3: Moderation
All religions teach us to be satisfied with little and to live a simple life:
Buddhism teaches restraint and moderation in all things:
“The one I call holy, letting go of attachment to humans, rises above attachment to gods, and is independent from all attachments.
The one I call holy calls nothing one's own, whether it be in front, behind, or between, is poor and free from attachment.” (20)
From “Sayings of the Buddha”
Islam condemns wasting natural resources:
“Eat and drink, but waste not by excess: He loves not the excessive.” (21) The Qu'ran
“And give thy kinsman his due and the poor and the son of the road; and waste not wastefully, for the wasteful were ever the devil's brothers; and the devil is ever ungrateful to his Lord.” (22) The Qu'ran
The Baha'i Faith teaches:
“Fear ye God, and take heed not to outstrip the bounds of moderation, and be numbered among the extravagant.” (23) Baha'u'llah
“Content thyself with but little of this world's goods!" (24) 'Abdu'l-Baha
Being satisfied with little is not only a social and environmental imperative, but also a prerequisite for our spiritual growth and hence for the fulfillment of our potential as a human being. Baha'u'llah said:
“O my brother, when a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading to the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse and purify his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge. …That seeker should ... be content with little, and be freed from all inordinate desire.” (25)
Religion warns us to avoid over-consumption and injustice:
“Take from this world only to the measure of your needs, and forgo that which exceedeth them. Observe equity in all your judgments, and transgress not the bounds of justice, nor be of them that stray from its path.” (26)
“Take heed, ... that ye hunt not to excess. Tread ye the path of justice and equity in all things.” (27) Baha’u’llah
Gandhi warns us in a similar way:
“The earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”
“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. ... If [our nation (India)] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” (28)
We can evaluate our impact on the planet with the help of the ecological footprint. “The ecological footprint is a tool that measures how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its wastes. When resources are consumed faster than they are produced or renewed, the resource is depleted and eventually used up.” “Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year.
Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the mid 2030s we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we only have one.” (29)
We can observe the depletion of our resources in the loss of groundwater in much of the world, in collapsing fisheries, and deforestation. Carbon-induced climate change is another example. The carbon footprint measures the demand on biocapacity that results from burning fossil fuels in terms of the amount of forest area required to sequester these carbon dioxide emissions. Note that this does not suggest planting forests is ‘the solution' to climate change; on the contrary, it shows that the biosphere does not have sufficient capacity to sequester all the carbon we are currently emitting.
In many countries, people are living beyond the means of our Earth. If everyone lived like the average North American, for example, we would need 5 planets. Society and individuals made the assumption that more was better. We must learn to live within the limits of one planet. In a sustainable world, society's demand on nature is in balance with nature's capacity to meet that demand.
For example, wealth and greed are strong drivers of deforestation. Western ‘over-consumption’ is exerting a big demand for harmful crops in rainforest areas like palm oil and soybean. In fact our food consumption patterns can have a big influence on deforestation rates. If we could shift to a more vegetarian diet, the area needed for food production, including via livestock grazing, would be much reduced. We therefore need to consider the carbon footprint of everything we do and eat.
Mahatma Gandhi made the point very clear with his famous statement:
"Live simply so that others may simply live."
Already in the 19th century, Baha'u'llah appealed to society to observe moderation in everything, and specifically moderation in civilization:
“Whoso cleaveth to justice, can, under no circumstances, transgress the limits of moderation. The civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men.… If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation.…The day is approaching when its flame will devour the cities. …“ (30) Baha'u'llah
Scientists now repeat this call for moderation. They say we need to reduce the amount of CO2 we are releasing into the atmosphere. That means to stop all the waste that is going on, to use energy more efficiently, to conserve our resources, to significantly reduce our burning of fossil fuels, to eat lower on the food chain, to buy less stuff, and generally to adopt a simpler lifestyle.
This doesn't mean that we should lead a life of asceticism. Even when observing moderation it is possible to enjoy life on this beautiful Earth including its material joys. Knowing that we are not harming the Earth and other people will increase our happiness. In addition, increasing our capacity for contentment will bring us a step further in our personal spiritual development.
It takes great courage to live a simple lifestyle today when society, the media, and the all- pervasive commercials advocate a philosophy, which says "more and bigger is always better".
- How much are we personally affected by consumerism?
- What can we do in practice to take less from the Earth and away from future generations?
- How can we teach this concept to our children?
Section 4: Fostering Unity - Avoiding Judgmental Attitudes
It is necessary to speak up for the truth and the reality of the state of the planet, to take decisive actions as individuals and communities. At the same time we must avoid criticism or fundamentalist attitudes, and nurture sincere tolerance towards each other.
The way most societies are currently structured, it is impossible to live a life without generating greenhouse gas emissions. We all need to eat and have shelter. Our goal is to substantially reduce our personal emissions. How we do this is a personal decision. We all are in different life situations; our levels of environmental awareness vary greatly; and we have different priorities of what we think is important and of what we are able and willing to do. Encouraging each other and sharing ideas on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can help us all along the path of treading lighter on the Earth.
“Show forbearance and benevolence and love to one another. Should any one among you be incapable of grasping a certain truth, or be striving to comprehend it, show forth, when conversing with him, a spirit of extreme kindliness and good-will. Help him to see and recognize the truth, without esteeming yourself to be, in the least, superior to him, or to be possessed of greater endowments.” (31)
“The heaven of true understanding shineth resplendent with the light of two luminaries: tolerance and righteousness.” (32) Bahá’u’lláh
Discussion: How could different levels of environmental awareness cause disunity, and what could be done to avoid that?
Section 5: Actions of Individuals
"Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." (33) The Bible
"Let deeds, not words, be your adorning." (34) Baha'u'llah
How we live makes a big difference in the way our lives impact the environment, and in turn other people as well, especially in these three major sectors: Energy use, transportation, and food. Not everyone will be able to carry out all the things suggested below, but everyone is able to do adopt many of these practical ways of treading lighter on the Earth:
- Choose green, carbon-free power. In many parts of the world, electricity providers offer green power at a slightly higher price than regular power.
- Insulate your home.
- Turn your thermostat down in the winter.
- If you live in a hot climate, only use air-conditioning if absolutely necessary and turn the thermostat up.
- Hang up your laundry instead of using the dryer.
- Wait with doing laundry until you have enough clothes to fill your washing machine.
- Take short showers. Heating water uses energy.
- Replace your incandescent light bulbs with LEDs or compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs. Fluorescent light bulbs use only about ¼ to 1/5 of the energy as incandescent bulbs and can last 10 times longer. If every household in the United States replaced one regular light bulb with an energy-saving model, we could reduce global warming pollution the same as taking 6.3 million cars off the road. (35) CFLs must be recycled properly by taking them to a collection center, and disposal directions must be followed if a bulb breaks, because they contain a small amount of mercury, about one fifth as much as a watch battery. Much of the energy in China, the United States, and some other countries comes from coal fired power plants which emit mercury in addition to greenhouse gases. Rain brings the mercury to earth, which pollutes our waters, which in turn results in high mercury levels in fish. As CFL bulbs and LEDs use significantly less electricity than incandescents, their use will reduce both greenhouse gases and mercury pollution.
- Turn off your computer, TV, lights etc. after use.
- Unplug chargers when not in use. Many electronics, such as TVs and computers, have a “sleep” mode, so that they can be started instantaneously or by remote control. They use a small amount of electricity in this mode, but over time it adds up. Turn them all the way off instead of putting them to sleep.
- Reuse water containers; purify tap water instead of buying bottled water.
- Reuse and recycle whatever you can.
- If your roof is sunny, install solar power.
- Go car-free if at all possible: cycle, walk, ride the bus or carpool and car-share.
- Use and support public transportation.
- Buy a fuel-efficient car if you can’t go without.
- Don't let your car idle.
- Avoid any unnecessary car trips and flights.
- Combine shopping trips into one big trip rather than a bunch of small ones.
- Encourage your city to establish bike lanes to grocery stores, farmers' markets, and other frequently visited businesses.
- Use a bicycle to make small trips. It's good for the environment, and good for your health.
- Reduce your meat consumption, especially beef.
- Generally eat lower on the food chain, which means fewer animal products.
- Grow some of your own food or participate in a community garden.
- Buy locally grown and produced food.
- Shop at your local farmers' marketplace.
- Buy organically grown food.
- Avoid products with a lot of packaging.
- Compost your kitchen scraps with your yard leaves and lawn clippings.
- In general, just use less and live mindfully.
- Buy only what you really need.
- Consider the life cycle of everything you take into your hand. Where did it come from? Who made it and under what conditions? What were the costs to the environment and to people to grow or manufacture this item? How far did it travel? What will happen to it when it is broken and needs to be discarded?
In addition to the suggestions above, you can also
- Try to generate less household garbage. Remember when throwing things away that there is no away.
- Use cloth shopping bags.
- Naturalize your lawn and replace chemicals with alternatives. Many lawn chemicals are carcinogens. Children are particularly vulnerable and the most likely to be exposed to lawn chemicals. Children living in homes using pesticides are at higher risk for developing brain cancer, childhood leukemia, lymphoma, and asthma. Lawn chemicals pollute drinking water and have numerous other detrimental effects on the environment. Lawn mowers and fertilizers also emit a lot of greenhouse gases. Reducing the size of your lawn and growing your own food in its place is a win - win situation!
- Plant trees. They soak up CO2, make shade, block wind and prevent soil erosion.
- Continually educate yourself. Read some of the many books on climate change. Also read inspiring books about actions you can take, for example about permaculture and community gardening.
- Take your footprint quiz. You can search on the internet for a site where you can calculate your own carbon footprint or your general ecological footprint. See www.earthday.net/footprint, for example.
- Discuss climate change with your family and friends to help them become more aware of these issues.
- Teach a sustainable lifestyle by example.
- Encourage action. Be an advocate for environmentally responsible actions in your family, at your workplace, in your religious community and social circle.
- Support and vote for new laws and policies that help mitigate climate change.
Imagine the positive effect for the planet when millions of people simply save energy and water, recycle, and generally adopt a more simple and sustainable lifestyle.
Think about actions that you can undertake to mitigate climate change and to help the Earth heal. You may like to write down a few actions that you will be able to carry out now, some that you are planning to implement within the next weeks, and some that you would like to consider for the future. Then share some of your ideas with the group at your next meeting. And most importantly: follow through!
1. Info from: http://www.oocities.org/athens/aegean/1388/rel.html
2. Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7
3. Genesis 1:1, King James Bible
4. µ Genesis 1
5. Genesis 2:15, King James Bible
6. Hadith, Bukhari Vol 8
7. from The Green Rule: www.faith-commongood.net
8. Earth Prayers from around the World, p. 154, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, 1991
9. from The Green Rule: www.faith-commongood.net
10. Baha'u'llah Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 177
11. Stefan Edman (Swedish delegate to the World Council of Churches)
12. Isaiah 24: 4-5, King James Bible
13. Baha'u'llah, Persian Hidden Words, No. 20
14. Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 99
15. Gary T. Gardner, Inspiring Progress: Religions' Contributions to Sustainable Development, by p. 117
16. 'Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 72
17. Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 196
18. Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 127)
19. Baha'u'llah, The Hidden Words, p. 9
20. Buddhist, Dhammapada - Sayings of the Buddha 2 (tr. J. Richards)
21. Surah 7.31, Qu'ran
22. Sura 17 - The Night Journey, The Qur'an (E.H. Palmer tr),
23. Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 250
24. 'Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 97
25. Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 193
26. Baha’u’llah Suriy-i-Muluk, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 193
27. Baha'u'llah, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 40/41
28. Mohandas K. Gandhi, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/30/nyregion/30towns.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
29. Info from Global Footprint Network https://www.footprintnetwork.org/
30. Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 342-343
31. Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 8
32. Bahá’u’lláh LAWH-I-MAQSÚD (Tablet of Maqsúd), Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas p. 169-170
33. Matthew 5:16
34. Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words
35. Union of Concerned Scientists, http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/what_you_can_do/ten-personal-solutions-to.html
© Christine Muller and International Environment Forum