Eco-theological values can be the key in mobilizing citizens towards a sustainable society in the face of our ecological crisis.
Contemporary climate scientists and policy-makers generally agree on the idea that all humanity is now living in a permanent state of uncertainty. Many of the great threats mankind faces, such as biodiversity loss, resource depletion, species extinction, pollution growth, climate change, overpopulation and overconsumption, are increasingly associated with environmental perils. In his book published in 1989, the famous American environmentalist Bill McKibben provocatively announced ‘the end of nature’, i.e. the total disappearance of the natural world because of human-induced environmental damage and devastation. He argued that human “modern” activities have so sharply influenced and manipulated the natural world that the very idea of nature has become completely irrelevant to us.
The rapid disappearance of ‘nature’ has made several religiously-based environmental communities realize that human action stands at the core of this. In order to combat these problems, new movements of ecologically-engaged religious people propose a possible remedy: eco-spirituality. These eco-believers emphasize the interconnections between ecosystems and their life forms: they see a strict correlation between their religions and ecology.
This remarkable relationship is mainly located in the common idea of a unified, interconnected cosmos. Almost all religions evolve by entering into dialogue with social and natural forces. In this way, the natural world is continuously affected by the specific ways in which religious ideas influence people’s values, beliefs and practices. For example, religious anthropocentrism (i.e., the human-centeredness of the cosmos) and its ethical principles historically supported (European) ecologically-unsustainable materialistic cultures. Human beings may have been commanded to be good stewards of God’s Creation, but at the same time this commandment locates humanity at the centre of the moral universe. Therefore, human interests are morally prioritized over other-than-human interests. Hence, this cosmological anthropocentrism clearly resulted in the human failure to respect or care beyond the human world.
Eco-theology and ecological activism
Nevertheless, in the last four decades, an increasing number of religious environmentalists has been engaged in various ecological struggles. Within this multifaceted framework, eco-theology is becoming a proactive social and spiritual movement aimed at respecting the whole of life on Earth. Some strains of eco-theology deal with the current ecological crisis by drawing on their deep-rooted and traditional moral resources. Their views reach, however, only their narrow circle of adherents. In contrast, many other people of faith try either to innovate or reinvent their own religious traditions in order to make these “green” and untrodden challenges important to a much wider audience.
For instance, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter on ecological issues reflects the Vatican’s hope to inspire decisive action on climate change. It will be officially published on June 18, to impact not only the church’s flock, but also the coming UN climate summit in Paris. This important manifestation of eco-Christianity clearly shows the increasing influence of eco-religion.
Eco-Islam and marine conservation in Zanzibar
Another good example is the UK-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES). It is one of the oldest eco-Islamic charity organizations still active today. IFEES launched the so-called Misali Island Islamic Environmental Ethics Project. This community-based educational program was established in 1999. Its main goal was the promotion of sustainable coastal fishery practices in the small forest-covered Misali Island, located in the Zanzibar archipelago (Tanzania). IFEES successfully managed to stop the illegal activities carried out by the predominantly Muslim local fishermen. The latter were threatening their precious coral reefs as a result of dynamite fishing.
After having participated in a series of workshops led by local sheykhs, religious authorities and Qur’an schoolteachers, the Misali fishing community decided to abandon these destructive techniques. The Zanzibar project relied on a set of training materials, including a booklet titled Qur’an, Creation and Conservation (1999) and the First Islamic Conservation Guide (2007), i.e. a pioneering teaching manual containing eco-Islamic conservation guidelines. Also eco-Islamic views give ethical and practical responses to the sustainability problems of Muslim-majority societies.
In sum, religion and ecology are closely linked. Whereas human-centred religious worldviews may harm the environment, new forms of eco-religiosity actively seek to build a sustainable future, with the help of eco-theological values.