News

Sounding the Trumpet

November 5, 2009
The Economist

A link-up between faith and greenery brings unlikely people together

NEW ORLEANS AND WINDSOR, ENGLAND - ENVIRONMENTALISM is a hard corner to fight in Louisiana, a state where oil, gas and chemical companies are big in the economy and politics. But it takes a lot to frighten Albertha Hasten, a larger-than-life campaigner for poor citizens, and above all for fellow African-Americans, who in her view suffer disproportionately from contamination of the air, water and soil.

In her small, rickety home town of White Castle, the tap-water often comes out “blacker than me”, she has complained. Mrs Hasten fights the cause of communities affected by oil spills in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and she makes indignant phone calls to the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, to say federal pollution standards are being violated. And like many people in and around New Orleans, she fears the city could again be threatened if sea levels rise and hurricanes become even more frequent as a result of climate change.

Ask what emboldens her, as a black woman of modest origins, to challenge the sophisticates of Washington, and she answers like a shot: her deep Baptist faith. “When God calls you to do something, you have to work patiently until all is well.”

The revivalist hymns that Mrs Hasten sings with gusto are a long way, culturally, from the grave beauty of Byzantine Greek chants—but she was glad to meet the Patriarch of Constantinople, “first among equals” in the Orthodox Christian hierarchy, when he came to New Orleans to host a symposium, the eighth he has convened, on faith and the environment. “If I weren’t so fat, I’d have made you a good wife,” she teasingly told Patriarch Bartholomew who, as an Orthodox bishop, is celibate.

As environmentally minded clerics, and greens with a spiritual bent, confer in increasing numbers, in particular over climate change, acquaintances are being struck that transcend many ethnic, ideological and theological obstacles.

And such encounters are not just a curiosity. They might make all the difference to the planet’s future: such at least was the view passionately expressed by Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, who flew this week from Kabul—where he made an emergency visit because of a bomb attack on his staff, and a political crisis—to a faith-and-ecology celebration in Windsor Castle, one of the residences of the British royal family.

Departing often from his script, Mr Ban told an audience of gorgeously attired Bahais, Buddhists, Christians, Daoists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Shintos and Sikhs that “you are the leaders who can have the largest, widest and deepest reach” when warning people about climate change. Religions, he said, had established or helped to run half the schools in the world; they were among the world’s biggest investors; and the global output of religious journalism was comparable at least to Europe’s secular press. People close to Mr Ban say he is frustrated by the reluctance of politicians to stake political capital in next month’s Copenhagen meeting; perhaps spiritual leaders are his last hope.

Prince Philip—whose wife, Queen Elizabeth, is head of the Church of England—and Mr Ban (see picture above) formally approved plans presented by all the religions present to cut their own emissions and promote green ideas. These ranged from a Muslim initiative to make the haj or pilgrimage to Mecca less environmentally wasteful to a Daoist pledge to burn less incense. The Church of England spelled out its programme for cutting carbon emissions (from churches, halls and vicarages) by 42% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

Nor was Windsor Castle the only grand British edifice to host green faith events recently. On October 29th, for example, the country’s Anglican, Catholic and Jewish leaders gathered at Lambeth Palace, the home of Anglicanism, to promote their eco-theological wares with Ed Miliband, the climate-change minister; hours earlier Christians, Jews and Muslims had conferred at Marlborough House, a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.

Not everybody likes the new concordat between environmentalism and religion. When Lord May, the former chief scientist of Britain, said in September that religion might be needed to secure humanity’s future, he was denounced by fellow secularists as a traitor. Such talk would open the way for theocrats to terrorise humanity anew with divine wrath, his critics said.

Meanwhile America’s evangelicals remain split between those who endorse the ideal of “creation care” and others who see concern with nature as pagan. And some secularists share the view of the late American writer Michael Crichton that environmentalism is a religion, with its own creed and its own versions of paradise and hell.

At its best, says Mary Evelyn Tucker of Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology, environmental theology goes deep inside the metaphysical ideas that underpin ancient faiths while also celebrating what believers actually do, from tending forests to limiting their food intake. Much eco-theology errs on one side or the other; it is either so philosophical as to leave most people baffled, or so down-to-earth (new bulbs for vicarages, for example) as to sound a bit banal.

But the connection between faith and greenery got a backhanded boost from a British employment tribunal this week. An ex-employee of a property firm said he was sacked for his ideas on climate change; the firm denied any such motive. The tribunal said his appeal could proceed under a law which bars discrimination on grounds of “religion, religious belief or philosophical belief.”

 

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