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Faith for the future

September 1, 2003 12:00 AM
By Paul Bodenham in Challenge

Paul Bodenham describes Operation Noah

'What's religion got to do with the environment?' is a question that has been asked on countless occasions in the past - by believers, non-believers, and no doubt many politicians. But you will hear it far less today than even ten years ago. Instead there is a dawning awareness, among both faith leaders and in government, that spirituality could offer terms of debate which finally help humanity negotiate an end to the environmental crisis.

The logic is simple. The crisis is one of our own making. It results from the determination, among those who are rich enough, to fulfil unsustainable expectations of consumption and activity. And the cause of these expectations? On one level it is the consumer culture which values personal 'fulfilment' above the universal good. But this culture did not arise from nowhere. It arises from deeper a dissatisfaction, which in various ways the world's religions have attributed to the search for ultimate meaning. Saint Augustine echoed people of all faiths when he prayed to God, 'our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You'.

It is in helping to define fundamental political values that faith groups perhaps have most to offer to green politicians. In their different ways, the world's faiths assign 'value' to environmental goods so that they are seen as valuable in themselves. Faiths also draw our attention to the mutual obligations which generations have towards each other. Without a consciousness of value and tradition there is little hope for establishing a culture which will reverse the environmental crisis.

Within the churches, the list of official resolutions and publications on the environment is growing rapidly. The World Summit on Sustainable Development saw unprecedented activity and reflection among Christians on the suicidal course of development to which we are currently committed.

But the churches are not just another pressure group. The Christian perspective introduces a distinctive voice to environmental debate.

Christian Ecology Link (CEL) has been speaking about the environmental implications of Christian belief since 1981, when the faith and environment debate was often regarded with polite indifference. But the Bible's first words describe humans being created as part of nature, and responsible for it. At last the churches, once fearful of infiltration by New Age influences, are rediscovering the divine imperative to care for creation.

There are numerous results of this change in consciousness. For instance, many churches are taking part in the Government-funded Eco-Congregation scheme, which encourages churches to model sustainable living to the communities they serve. The Anglican Church in Wales is requiring every parish to undertake an environmental audit.

Perhaps the ultimate challenge to our spiritual resources is global warming. Our current model of human development will wipe out life on this planet as we know it. Despite all our know-how, we have hardly begun to envision an alternative. We know why we must act, and what measures we must take, but we simply lack the will to turn that knowledge into action. Government policy looks little further than the Kyoto Protocol, which will have a negligible impact on climate change. The inertia is compounded by ignorance among the general public as to their part in climate change, and its consequences.

This is a typical case of what psychologists call 'denial', and it is all the more dangerous because the state is implicated in it. It is a time for stating the truth clearly, and at the same time offering grounds for hope and for a change of behaviour.

CEL believes that the time is right for a mass-movement campaign on climate change. As with the Jubilee 2000 campaign to relieve unrepayable third-world debt, the churches can work with community groups and civil society to create a groundswell which finally provokes international action.

The campaign must persuade the public that we risk overstepping the climate's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, with dire consequences. It must unleash public support for a re-engineering of the world's fossil-fuel based economy, through investment in renewable technology. But the campaign must also motivate people in the West to adopt an unprecedented solidarity with developing countries, by allowing all countries, rich and poor, equal rights to emit greenhouse gases within the climate's natural limit. 'Contraction and Convergence' as proposed by the Global Commons Institute is the only framework which can ensure the twin outcomes of equity and survival.

There is now less than ten years left of the Kyoto Protocol. Then what? Governments should be put in no doubt what should follow it - a binding global treaty achieving reductions of at least 60% in greenhouse gas emissions in a framework of contraction and convergence. They should also be left in no doubt that they have the public's support in negotiating such a treaty.

Christians, Jews and Muslims have a precedent for this endeavour, which many of us will remember from our nursery school. When life on Earth was under threat from violent weather, Noah, in the Hebrew scriptures, knew he had to act. He used his skill to build an Ark, and so saved the whole of creation from the Flood. When the waters had receded, God made a covenant - a solemn promise - never to destroy the earth again. Today we are seeing that covenant being betrayed by human recklessness. Noah's time is coming again, but this time it will take new skills to build the Ark.

And so CEL is promoting Operation Noah. Over the next ten years, working with churches and community groups, the campaign aims to bring all sectors of society together to act against climate change.

Operation Noah invites you to take three easy steps.

Sign the Climate Covenant: Signatories simply sign a postcard and send it to a Freepost address. The Covenant reads:

"World leaders must act to avert dangerous climate change, and give everyone fair access to energy in a sustainable world economy

We ask the UK government to lead negotiations

We will take action personally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Take action personally: To show they mean business, signatories undertake to do something simple to cut down on greenhouse gases - such as switching their electricity supply to a renewable energy product.

Spread the word to family, friends and colleagues, and help them on board.

The campaign is being taken up by churches, but it is also suitable for community groups such as parent and toddler groups, Women's Institutes and youth groups. By reaching out to a wide range of mainstream organisations, Operation Noah is building a mandate which the Government cannot ignore.

A range of supporting materials is available, called the 'Ark in a Box'. This contains talks, magazine articles, a drama sketch and scientific briefings which give you all you need to introduce the campaign. Why not help your community on board?

Operation Noah offers a language to help society tackle this most bewildering of issues. The churches have traditionally offered ethical signposts on social justice and community wellbeing. We are perhaps not so used to hearing them speak out on the environment. Nor are the churches quite used to this brief themselves. But, as Operation Noah shows, things are changing, and there is more change to come.

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