A Little Religion Gives Environmentalism New Fervor

New Worldwatch study documents how religious and environmental groups are partnering for the planet

Washington, D.C.—Religious institutions around the world are going green and providing a push to the environmental movement, says a new report from the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. Invoking the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in the Quest for a Sustainable World documents how these unconventional alliances are growing in frequency and significance to address issues from deforestation in Thailand to green investing by stockholders in New York.

"This collaboration could change the world, " says author Gary Gardner, Worldwatch Research Director. "These groups have different but complementary strengths. Environmentalists have a strong grounding in science. Religious institutions enjoy moral authority and a grassroots presence that shape the worldviews and lifestyles of billions of people. It’s a powerful combination that until recently remained virtually unexplored."

Gardner says that in learning to work together, the two groups must overcome mutual misperceptions and divergent worldviews, which have historically kept them apart. He writes that secular environmentalists worry about the checkered history of religious involvement in societal affairs. Religious institutions, on the other hand, may have perspectives on the role of women, the nature of truth, and the moral place of human beings in the natural order that sometimes diverge from those of environmentalists.

However, partnerships are successfully happening, and Invoking the Spirit provides examples from around the world where religions are using their influence to promote sustainability. For instance, in the 1990s, "environmentalist monks" in Thailand opposed shrimp farming and dam and pipeline construction and protected mangroves and bird populations. They even preserved trees by "ordaining" them within sacred community forests.

Since 1996, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the symbolic leader of the 250 million-member Orthodox Church, has used the prestige of his office to gather prominent scientists, journalists, and religious leaders for four week-long, shipboard symposia focusing on water-related environmental issues.

And in Sri Lanka, the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, the largest NGO in the country, covering roughly half of the country’s villages, is active in promoting a Buddhist-inspired vision of development that stresses moderate consumption.

Religions are also tapping their extensive grassroots presence and economic resources to engage issues of sustainability. In the United States, 3,500 Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian, and Quaker congregations have committed to purchasing fairly-traded, shade-grown, often organic coffee. Just five years old, the Interfaith Coffee Program now supplies about one percent of the country’s congregations and is the fastest-growing source of revenue for the Equal Exchange Coffee Company, the program’s sponsor.

Meanwhile, Episcopal Power & Light offers its U.S. customers the opportunity to purchase electricity generated from solar, wind, geothermal, and other renewable energy sources, and helps congregations to “green” their houses of worship.

Environmental organizations have also shown greater openness to working with religious groups. In Pakistan, the World Conservation Union (IUCN), working with the government of the country’s North West Province, turned to Islamic clerics to help carry out the province’s environmental action plan. Aware that the region had one mosque for every 70 Pakistanis, IUCN and the government saw the mosques as potentially more effective centers of education than even local schools. In addition, the Worldwide Fund for Nature sponsored the first major interfaith conference on environmental issues, in 1986, and Sierra Club president Carl Pope has called for greater attention to churches as allies in the environmental movement.