Religions, Ethics and Environment

Extract from the


Discussion paper presented by the Executive Director
at the 21st Session of the
(Nairobi, 5-9 February 2001)
UNEP/GC.21/5 18 January 2001

F. Religions and environment

145. Religion is sometimes defined as the relationship between people and that which they regard as holy, often in supernatural terms. Nine of the world's major faiths represent billions of people worldwide. They include 750 million Hindus, 10 million Jains, 700 million Buddhists, 12.5 million Jews, just under 2 billion Christians, 1.4 billion Muslims, 16 million Sikhs and 5 million Baha'is. All faiths around the world share a common ethic based on harmony with nature, although a wide gap is often perceived between the religious texts and the current practices of the adherents of those religions.

146. There is a close relationship between religion and environment. Religion has had major positive influences on the natural environment. For example, under animism, a view of the world found among many traditional peoples, a spiritual link is made between humans and nature. Many traditional approaches to conservation are based on various kinds of animism, and traditional beliefs have led to the founding of sacred sites. The Baha'i faith teaches that the grandeur and diversity of the natural world are purposeful reflections of God. Buddhism teaches that respect for life in the natural world is essential, underpinning the interconnectedness of all that exists.

147. Christianity teaches that all creation is a loving act of God and that humanity may not destroy biological diversity or destroy God's creations without the risk of destroying itself. In the Christian Bible, the book Ecclesiastes states in chapter 3, verse 19: "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts ... as the one dieth, so dieth the other ... so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast." There are other comparable passages in the Bible on the conservation of wildlife (Deuteronomy, chapter 2, verses 6 and 7, and Genesis, chapter 9), agricultural lands (Leviticus, chapter 25, verses 2 to 4) and the preservation of fruit trees (Deuteronomy, chapter 20, verse 19, and Genesis, chapter 19, verses 23 to 25). Christmas itself was originally a time of pagan celebration of the winter solstice, and Christmas trees came from sacred groves dedicated to a pagan goddess.

148. Islam teaches that the role of people on earth is that of khalifa, or trustee of God, whereby humans are entrusted with the safe keeping of Earth and its variety of life. The Koran states: "There is not an animal (that lives) on the Earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you" (Sura 13 Aya 15). The prophet Mohammed is quoted as saying: "There is a reward in doing good to every living thing". The first Global Environmental Forum from an Islamic Perspective, held from 23 to 25 October 2000 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with UNEP as a partner, adopted the Jeddah Declaration on the Environment from an Islamic Perspective. That Declaration notes that sustainable development from an Islamic perspective is the development and rehabilitation of the Earth in a manner that does not disrupt the equilibrium established by God for everything in this universe. It further notes that environmental protection is an integral part of sustainable development and cannot be considered separately. States should increasingly endeavour to achieve economic development, while conserving the environment in a way that does not prejudice the safe and dignified life of future generations. The promotion of consumption patterns characterized by over-exploitation and wastage of resources is noted as costly and harmful to health and to the environment; similarly, Islam strongly encourages the careful conservation of water. Furthermore, the concept of protected areas, haram, is intrinsic to Islam.

149. Jainism, one of the oldest living religions, teaches ahimsa (non-violence) towards human beings and all of nature. It believes in the mutual dependence of all aspects of nature belonging together and bound in an intricate relationship.

150. In Judaism, the Torah outlines a series of ethical obligations including several relevant to the conservation of nature. The Torah says: "When God created Adam, he showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: 'See my works, how lovely they are, how fine they are. All I have created, I created for you. Take care not to corrupt and destroy my universe, for if you destroy it, no one will come after you to put it right'" (Ecclesiastes, Rabbah 7).

151. All Buddhist teaching revolves around the notion of dharma, which means truth and the path of truth. It teaches that people are responsible for their actions and go through a cycle of rebirths before finally reaching Nirvana. Right actions lead to progress towards Nirvana, and bad actions, such as killing animals, cause regression from that goal. Buddhism cares for wildlife and teaches that the protection of biological diversity is respect for nature and that living in harmony with it is essential.

152. Followers of Hinduism believe in the forces of nature and its interconnectedness with life itself. Certain rivers and mountains are sacred, as they give and sustain life. All plants and animals have souls, and people must serve penance for killing plants and animals for food. The teachings of Hinduism, as expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, present a clear description of ecology and the interdependence of all life forms, from bacteria to birds.

153. Sikhism teaches that all forms in the universe exist under God's command and that, having brought a life form into being, God will protect it. The teachings of Sikhism are based on a premise of life liberated from conspicuous consumption.

154. Shinto, the system of indigenous religious beliefs and practices of Japan, is strongly rooted in rural agricultural practices with ceremonies and practices that guide the relationship between people and nature. Thus, societies with declining biodiversity are seen as being in decline themselves.

155. From the above brief account, it is evident that all faiths around the world share a common ethic based on harmony with nature. It is within this context that in Pakistan, for example, specimens of original tree species can still be found in old Muslim graveyards because of a taboo against cutting such trees. The Maronite Church of Lebanon has protected the forest of Harisa, a WWF Mediterranean Programme "forest hot spot", for over 1,000 years. Buddhist monks in Thailand have built small monasteries in endangered forests and thus made them sacred, helping to prevent logging. Examples of similar initiatives include the launch by the Sikh community in India of an initiative to reduce the amount of fossil fuels used in the kitchens of their temples in Delhi. The Church of Germany has installed solar power in 300 churches and is actively promoting this initiative within each local community, with the result that as many as 30 institutions have switched to solar power, under the inspiration of the local church. The feast of Kwanzaa, which has its origin in African harvest festivals, is not only an important element of the cultural identity of the African American community but is a reminder of the need to preserve the ecological heritage of our planet.

156. In September 1986, WWF brought together representatives of five major world religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism) to declare how their faiths led each of them to care for nature. The outcome of this gathering was the Assisi Declarations. After the meeting, three more faiths, Baha'i, Jainism and Sikhism, promulgated declarations to accompany those of the other religions. The Living Planet Campaign, launched by WWF and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), aims to secure commitments from the world's religions to undertake specific actions to be known as "sacred gifts for a living planet". These "sacred gifts" must focus on environmental conservation in the areas of advocacy, education, health, land and assets, lifestyle and media. Examples of "sacred gifts" made by the world's major religions to date include: the annual international Jain Business Award, which recognizes companies that make significant improvements to reduce impacts on the environment; the Lutheran Church's supportive role in developing the national Forest Stewardship Council process in Sweden; the introduction by the Kenyan Council of Churches of environmental education at all levels of its Christian education classes; in China, the Taoist examination of principles needed to introduce sustainable resource use into traditional Chinese medicine, which uses a wide variety of plants and animals; and the introduction of environmental programmes broadcast in local languages by six Baha'i radio stations in Latin America.

157. Held on the occasion of the WWF annual conference in Kathmandu, Nepal, from 14 to 17 November 2000, the conservation conference on "Sacred Gifts for a Living Planet" gathered representatives of the world's 12 major faiths, and additional gifts were announced on issues related to climate change, dioxins, rivers, forest conservation, protected areas, environmental awareness and the protection of endangered species. During the sixth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, on 22 November 2000, the Minister of the Environment of Mongolia announced a major initiative by his country's religious community aimed at raising public awareness on climate change. At the same meeting, a representative of the World Council of Churches stated that the destruction of the global atmosphere was a sin against God. In a similar vein, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment has promoted dialogue among religions and created an alliance of several Christian and Jewish denominations in the United States around the issue of the environment.

158. Within the framework of the UNESCO project on spiritual convergence and intercultural dialogue, the UNESCO Chairs on Reciprocal Knowledge of Religions and Spiritual Traditions aim to produce a brochure identifying best practices to provide guidelines for future pedagogical tools. Against such a background, the "Routes of Al-Andalus" project endorsed by UNESCO seeks to highlight the processes, mechanisms and heritage of the dialogue that developed in medieval Spain and to study the consequences of the interactions that took place in that context. Christian, Islamic and Jewish cultures and religions coexisted for nearly eight centuries in Al-Andalus, present-day Andalusia, providing an outstanding environment for dialogue and contact. This is illustrated by the "Patio de los Leones", situated in the famous palace of the Alhambra in Granada, once the political and cultural heart of Al-Andalus. In this patio, influences of the three religions met to produce what is considered to be an unequalled masterpiece.

159. The potential offered by the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations can be harnessed to bring together this common element among the faiths and, in that way, promote harmony and synergies among religions. The promotion of dialogue among religions is at the centre of this effort. In that context, the recent UNEP publication Earth and Faith: A Book of Reflection for Action is a result of its collaboration with the Interfaith Partnership for the Environment. The international seminar on the environment, religion and culture to be held in Tehran in April 2001, in collaboration with UNEP, could provide a unique opportunity for enhancing such interfaith dialogue from an environment perspective in the future.

G. Environment and ethics

160. Environmental ethics may be defined as a set of norms describing how humans should behave toward nature and its resources. Such norms are often based on a moral attitude revolving around what is perceived as good or bad. The environmental crisis facing humanity is deeply rooted in a complex web of economic, social and cultural factors, as well as belief systems, social attitudes and perceptions. The prevailing unsustainable patterns of economic growth promoted by modern society are closely linked to belief systems and social attitudes. The root causes of widespread poverty and environmental degradation, such as unsustainable lifestyles, food patterns and the depletion of natural resources, including marine and terrestrial biological diversity, are related to manifestations of conventional beliefs and unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. The UNEP report Global Environment Outlook 2000 clearly demonstrates that if present trends in population growth, economic growth and consumption patterns continue, the natural environment will be placed under increasing stress. The report identifies unsustainable patterns of production and consumption as a major cause of environmental degradation.

161. The Seoul Declaration on Environmental Ethics was adopted on 5 June 1997 by an international seminar on environmental ethics for the twenty-first century convened in collaboration with UNEP on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment. It states: "We must come to an understanding that the current global environmental crisis is a result of value systems, driven by human greed and excessive materialism, and the mistaken complacency that science and technology would solve all our problems. Unless we re-examine our values and beliefs, such conditions will further environmental degradation, and ultimately lead to the collapse of natural systems that support life."

162. The Earth Charter launched on 29 June 2000 includes respect for the Earth and life in all its diversity as one of its basic principles.

163. As evidenced by the UNEP publication Ethics and Agenda 21: A Moral Implication of a Global Consensus, social value systems drive human action and are fundamental to everything we do. The values we hold govern the way we behave and what we expect from our society. The unprecedented economic progress achieved by humankind in recent history has been accompanied by the emergence of a global industrial human culture revolving around the belief that economic growth and the associated gross domestic product are limitless. It believes that natural resources are infinite and that science and technology can offer a response to all human problems, including those related to environment. This belief has been consolidated by the weakening of the ancestral relations between man and nature brought about by rampant urbanization and by the negative impacts of globalization and the shrinking of geographical distances.

164. World Resources 2000-2001 states: "It is easy to lose touch with our link to ecosystems. For millions of us who live in cities or suburbs and have transitioned from working the soil to working at computer keyboards, our link to ecosystems is less direct. We buy our food and clothing in stores and depend on technology to deliver water and energy. We take for granted that there will be food in the market, that transportation and housing will be available, and at reasonable cost." The report continues: "It takes roughly five hectares of productive ecosystem to support the average United States citizen's consumption of goods and services versus less than 0.5 hectares to support consumption levels of the average citizen in developing countries. Annual per capita CO2 emissions are more than 11,000 kilos in industrial countries compared to less than 3,000 kilos in Asia." As Samuel Huntington states in his well-known book Clash of Civilizations: "The West won the war not by the superiority of its values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence." It may be argued that degradation of the environment and the depletion of natural resources can be considered as a form of violence against nature.

165. Prompted by the situation outlined above, Global Environment Outlook 2000 calls for "a shift of value away from material consumption." It also stresses: "The processes of globalization that are... strongly influencing social evolution need to be directed towards resolving rather than aggravating the serious imbalances that divide the world today". In response to this call, the Malmö Declaration, which was transmitted to the Millennium Summit of the General Assembly, states: "The root causes of global environmental degradation are embedded in social and economic problems such as pervasive poverty, unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, inequity in distribution of wealth, and the debt burden." It further emphasizes: "Success in combating environmental degradation is dependent on the full participation of all actors in society, an aware and educated population, respect for ethical and spiritual values and cultural diversity, and protection of indigenous knowledge."

166. In response to the Malmö Declaration, the Millennium Declaration adopted on 8 September 2000 by the Millennium Summit of the General Assembly included respect for nature among the six fundamental values essential to international relations in the twenty-first century. The Declaration urges: "Prudence must be shown in the management of all living species and natural resources, in accordance with the precepts of sustainable development. Only in this way can the immeasurable riches provided to us by nature be preserved and passed on to our descendants. The current unsustainable patterns of production and consumption must be changed in the interest of our future welfare and that of our descendants." The Declaration calls for a new ethic of conservation and environmental stewardship. This call for action by the world's heads of State lends new significance to the World Charter for Nature, which provides: "Every form of life is unique, warranting respect regardless of its worth to man, and to accord other organisms such recognition, man must be guided by a moral code of action."

167. There is an urgent need for a new environmental ethic based on universally shared environmental values. Celebration of the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations provides an opportune context for such an undertaking. In accordance with its mandate, as further elaborated by the Nairobi and Malmö declarations, UNEP stands ready to take the lead in spearheading efforts of the international community to bring into existence a new environmental ethic for the twenty-first century.

International Environment Forum - Updated 1 January 2010