Can religion save us from a global environmental crisis?
Despite mounting evidence of climate change, religious people remain divided. Some question man’s involvement while others are driven by their faith to protect the planet.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles by the Deseret News about stewardship of the earth. These stories highlight the efforts of religious people around the world to preserve the environmental conditions that sustain life.
SALT LAKE CITY —
In the jungle of northern Thailand, where elephants roam and waterfalls pour over ancient cliffs, Buddhist monks gather regularly to pay their respects to nature. Villagers are invited to bring offerings of rice and coconut while the monks chant and meditate beneath the forest canopy.
When finished, they take lengths of saffron-colored cloth, bright against the greenery, and wrap the trees in a sacred ceremony, ordaining them as monks. The goal is to protect the trees against encroaching deforestation and teach people that trees are to be revered, just like the Buddhist leaders who don the same fabric.
Most major religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, have doctrine that points to the sanctity of earth. And yet, humanity’s reckless abuse of our planet’s resources has led to a global environmental crisis.
In the last century, the global average surface temperature has increased by more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The heat is melting glaciers and threatening coastal communities as sea levels rise 0.13 inches a year, according to NASA. Shifting precipitation patterns have caused flooding in some places and severe droughts in others, and millions of people are facing shortages of food and water. Insect-borne illnesses like Lyme disease and West Nile virus are on the rise, and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent.
Still, the term “climate change” is taboo in some circles. While the scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that the human-induced release of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere is responsible for changing climate conditions, debate rages in our communities.
Some religious people question scientific evidence that humans are to blame because they believe these changes are God’s will and part of a natural cycle. Others are driven to protect the planet by a belief that God created the earth and gave humans a sacred responsibility to care for it.
International, national and local bodies have sought to find solutions to environmental challenges such as wildfires, water scarcity and extreme weather. In 2018, the Utah Legislature passed a concurrent resolution on environmental and economic stewardship that called on state leaders to work together to reduce emissions.
But governments have struggled to balance environmental goals with economic and political concerns. Attendees at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Japan this year, including Adventist Development and Relief Association president Jonathan Duffy, said people of faith must band together across borders and stand as “a moral compass to the world.”
Because religious values shape people’s actions and give purpose to their lives in a way secular incentives often cannot, faith leaders — from the Rev. Mitchell Hescox with the Evangelical Environmental Network in Pennsylvania, to Phra Sangkom Thanapanyo Khunsiri, a Buddhist monk in Thailand — have sought to galvanize religious groups in defense of the earth.
“If national self-interest dictates policy, the common good fails,” said Bishop Gunnar Stalsett, Lutheran bishop emeritus of Oslo at the Japan conference. “We can bring about, through religious forces, that which politicians cannot alone do.”
Bringing up children to love nature
Sevim Kalyoncu in Washington D.C.
When Sevim Kalyoncu, 44, was growing up, she and her family members were the only Muslims living in Cottondale, Alabama, a suburb of Tuscaloosa. There was no mosque, no gathering place for Friday prayers, no Eid celebrations. Instead, the forest near her home was her place of worship.
She would spend hours under pine trees and broad-leafed elephant magnolias, catching toads and Carolina anoles with skin that turned from brown to green. She collected katydids and praying mantises, charmed by their beauty, and observed the mallards that floated on a nearby lake.
The wilderness was the one place Kalyoncu was able to connect with God. But more than that, it was proof to her that God existed.
The Quran describes how humankind is meant to care for plants and animals and learn about God through them. For Kalyoncu, the responsibility to tend the earth is not diminished by belief in an afterlife. One saying of Muhammad, reads, “Even if the end of time is upon you and you have a seedling in your hand, plant it.”
But for many members of the faith, caring for the environment is simply not a priority, Kalyoncu said.
“Paying attention to things like what products you’re using, whether they’re really recyclable and whether you could be wasting less — these have typically not been at the top of the list for American Muslims,” said Kalyoncu. “Because there are so many other challenges associated with being Muslim in the U.S. these days.”
Becoming a mother was a “wakeup call,” for Kalyoncu, who realized that as global temperatures increase and clean air and water become more scarce, children face the highest health risks. Around 88 percent of the global disease burden of climate change falls on children under 5 years old, according to the American Public Health Association.
As the executive director of Green Muslims, a national nonprofit that began in 2007, Kalyoncu leads interfaith educational programs that help children understand how their individual choices affect God’s creation. Activities include going on hikes, learning about the local watershed, removing invasive species and creating artwork that explores different faith traditions. Kalyoncu also speaks regularly at Sunday schools and mosques about the sacred responsibility to care for the earth.
“If you bring children up with a love of nature, they will grow up to be environmental stewards,” said Kalyoncu. “They will love the earth, they will learn about it, and they will want to take care of it.”
Rev. Sally Bingham in San Francisco, California
The Rev. Sally Bingham, 78, says everyone who believes in God is an environmentalist, they just might not know it yet.
The Rev. Bingham faithfully attended an Episcopal church since childhood, but her journey to become a priest and environmentalist didn’t start until 1984. That’s when she said she started learning about the environmental degradation that was going on around the world: overfishing, deforestation, and the contamination of food, air and water sources. At her church, the congregation would pray for reverence of the earth, but no one was doing anything to stop the damage. She started to feel like Christians were hypocrites.
“If we love our neighbors, why are we polluting our neighbors’ air and water?” she asked.
As the Rev. Bingham became more concerned about the hypocrisy she saw, the priest at her church encouraged her to go to seminary to study the disconnect. But the Rev. Bingham, a mother of three, had never gone to college. So at age 45, she enrolled as a freshman at the University of San Francisco. After graduating, she enrolled in seminary, and then at age 55, she was ordained a priest.
The Rev. Bingham set off on a mission to deepen the connection between ecology and faith. During her decade of education, pioneer activists began discussing something called global warming. They warned about what would happen if humans didn’t curb CO2 emissions. The Rev. Bingham felt inspired to found a non-profit called the Regeneration Project, which is known as Interfaith Power and Light. It promotes renewable energy, waste reduction and the sustainable sourcing of food and materials.
Today the project involves 23,000 religious groups in 40 states — including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh congregations, the Rev. Bingham said.
“Every religion has the call to care for the earth. It’s only in the past 20 years that it became a major concern,” said the Rev. Bingham, who currently serves as the Reverend Canon for the Environment for the Diocese of California and does liturgical work at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
She believes religious leaders should lead the way in fighting climate change.
“Every major cultural change has been led by moral voices from religion, whether it’s the abolition of slavery, women’s rights or civil rights,” said the Rev. Bingham. “Religious leaders bring a moral authority to the conversation. Scientists can come in with the facts, but what religious leaders can come in with is doing the right thing, the moral obligation you have to be a steward of creation.”
Protecting the sanctity of nature
Nanditha Krishna in Chennai, India
Every morning as the sun rises on Chennai, India, Nanditha Krishna, 68, goes to worship at a sacred fig tree. She walks around the tree and offers a prayer from her heart. Snake stones and a thousand-year-old statue of Ganesha — the Hindu God with an elephant head known as the remover of obstacles — rest at its base.
The sacred fig tree, with a winding trunk and heart-shaped leaves, is the same kind of tree Buddha was sitting under when he attained enlightenment. It is unique because unlike other plants that produce oxygen during the day and release carbon dioxide at night, the sacred fig tree releases oxygen 24 hours a day.
Krishna was inspired by the sanctity of nature to become an environmental advocate. A professor of ancient Indian culture affiliated with the University of Madras, Krishna has written books like “Hinduism and Nature,” “Sacred Plants of India,” and “Sacred Animals of India.”
Since 1991, she has led a team of conservationists in restoring 53 sacred groves — between 10 and 100 acres each — across the country. For centuries, forests dedicated to the mother goddess have been protected by local communities as a matter of faith. But during the colonial period, many sacred lands were forcibly taken and destroyed.
Once the groves are restored and rededicated, no one can touch them. Over time, local wildlife including birds, crocodiles, leopards, jackals, rabbits and hedgehogs, return and thrive, Krishna said.
Her team has also helped restore eight bodies of water. As India experiences unreliable rainfall, cities like Chennai have grown desperate with thirst. Years of flooding have been followed by years of drought. Farmers are unable to maintain crops, and four times a day, thousands of people line up with colorful plastic pots in big queues along the road to collect water that is brought to the city by train.
Whereas Chennai used to have 2,500 bodies of water, now it only has four, Krishna said. Development has displaced water sources and rivers and lakes have been filled with garbage and sewage.
But the campus of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, where Krishna works, is totally self-sufficient. A rainwater harvesting system ensures that everyone has enough to drink. All the waste is composted and all the plastic is recycled.
“Nature is sacred in Hinduism. When you remind people of that, it strikes a chord,” said Krishna. “I’m hoping to tap into that religiosity because I feel that is the only hope for the future.”
Caring for “the least of these”
Rev. Mitchell Hescox in York, Pennsylvania
Among Christians in America, white evangelical Protestants are the least likely to say global warming is caused by human activity, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, which found only 28 percent of evangelicals held this view.
He says honoring God’s creation is fundamental to Christianity, but the term climate change has become politicized. In the beginning, evangelicals saw it as a” big liberal idea that Al Gore was in charge of,” he said.
“Evangelicals who are socially and politically conservative heard things that went against their values — big government, demand and control,” said the Rev. Hescox. “It started an ethos that you couldn’t be conservative and believe in climate change because it was all about polar bears and restricting freedom.”
In reality, combating the global climate crisis is about helping the poor and vulnerable, or “the least of these,” as Jesus commands in Matthew 25, said the Rev. Hescox.
Three out of four people living in poverty rely on agriculture and natural resources to survive, according to Mercy Corps. Natural disasters and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns disproportionately threaten these populations. By 2030, 126 million more people are expected to live in extreme poverty due to climate change, National Geographic reported.
“Climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our time. It impacts every single child of God on this planet,” said the Rev. Hescox.
The Rev. Hescox grew up in the coal mining town of Blandburg, Pennsylvania, where he used to play in red and orange pools of water filled with mine drainage and genetically mutated tadpoles. When he went away to college at the University of Arizona, he felt himself drifting from his evangelical upbringing. But an encounter in nature brought him back to the faith.
One day, while hiking in the Sonoran Desert, he was faced with a giant Saguaro cactus with two symmetrical arms. Behind it, a bright red setting sun touched the horizon. The Rev. Hescox took it to be a symbol of the cross and the s-o-n of God.
“It was my call back to Jesus,” he said.
After serving as a pastor at a local church in York for 20 years, the Rev. Hescox felt inspired to leave that position to focus on his faith-driven environmental work.
“We will never get everyone to agree on climate change,” he said. “Everyone has to come to environmental action using their individual value systems — held up by their own communities, their own faith and their own dreams.”
Combining science and religion
Fachruddin Majeri Mangunjaya in Jakarta, Indonesia
The son of an Imam, Fachruddin Majeri Mangunjaya, 54, was born in Borneo, a rugged island in Southeast Asia. The cultivation of palm oil trees dominates the island and much of its natural forests have been slashed and burned to make way for the crop — in high demand by overseas corporations that produce everything from makeup to snack foods.
In the mid-2000s, the United States led the way in encouraging the use of palm oil for the creation of biofuels — an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from gasoline. But the initiative had the opposite of its intended effect, according to The New York Times. In 2017, NASA researchers said rapid deforestation in Borneo contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, catapulting Indonesia to become the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions.
Mangunjaya, an environmentalist, author and chairman of the Centre for Islamic Studies at Universitas Nasional in Jakarta, has helped train more than 1,000 clerics in delivering sermons that connect Islam with environmental science.
“It’s an Islamic principle that everything in life is also a sign of God,” said Mangunjaya. “God is not just in the text of the Quran, but in the context of the world we live in.”
A scientist by training, Mangunjaya has a bachelor’s degree in biology, a master’s degree in conservation, and a doctorate in environmental management. But in his work as a conservationist, he felt like something was missing. As a devout Muslim who prays five times a day, Mangunjaya believes religion cannot be separated from daily life, or the decisions we make.
“To me, the ecological crisis is the result of a moral crisis,” he said.
He refocused his attention and began working with Muslim leaders to protect forests and wildlife. He spearheaded initiatives to promote the greening of masjids, or Muslim places of worship, and the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
One of his major accomplishments was working with the Indonesian Council of Ulama to issue a fatwa (or ruling on a point of Islamic law) that prohibits the burning of land and forest. In the past four years, the number of hotspots has successfully declined as a result of the edict and government initiatives, Mangunjaya said.
“There is no gap between biology and religion,” said Mangunjaya. “When you study biology, you are studying God’s creation, you are studying the glory of God.”
Mobilizing people of faith with a call to action
Rabbi Warren Stone in Washington, D.C.
Rabbi Warren Stone, 69, lifted the shofar, a Jewish instrument made from a ram’s horn, and blew several long, prayerful notes into the ocean mist. It was 2009, and the rabbi was on a boat off the coast of Copenhagen, Denmark with 100 delegates attending the U.N. conference on climate change.
Twenty colossal wind turbines — a clean energy source for the city — protruded from the water, towering above a layer of fog.
The crowd instinctively responded to the visceral cry of the shofar with reverence, and Rabbi Stone explained that it was a symbol of awakening. Traditionally sounded to signify the start of the war, today the shofar is blown in synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur. It is a symbolic call to action, and Rabbi Stone used it to urge international delegates to move forward on climate treaties and legislation.
The first U.N. climate conference Rabbi Stone attended was in Kyoto in 1997. That meeting resulted in the creation of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which the United States never ratified.
“It’s been very frustrating to see how little the United States has actually done,” said Rabbi Stone. “Other countries have really moved ahead while we have devoted time to people who have debased climate as an issue.”
With less than 5% of the world’s population, the United States is responsible for 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions, according to Our World in Data.
For the past 30 years as a rabbi in Washington, D.C., Stone has led delegations on climate change to Congress and the White House and participated in numerous environmental initiatives. Recently, as part of the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care, he helped draft an interfaith declaration on climate change that calls for a rapid transition to clean energy, carbon pricing and an end to logging in national forests.
“Decades of delay have made small corrective measures and incremental approaches useless,” the statement reads. “The harsh and often deadly impacts of climate change increasingly weigh upon the human spirit.”
According to Rabbi Stone, religious leaders have an important role to play, alongside scientists and politicians, in solving the climate crisis. In 2011, he joined other religious leaders in pairing up with members of the Union of Concerned Scientists to visit members of Congress.
“Ultimately, the largest constituency in Congress are people of faith. It transcends Democrats and Republicans,” said Rabbi Stone. “Thinking about climate change as a faith issue opens them up. They can say, I go to church, I go to synagogue, maybe this is part of who I am.”
Replacing greed with compassion
Phra Sangkom Thanapanyo Khunsiri in Chonburi, Thailand
This year, Thailand has seen record low precipitation. Total rice production is projected to fall 30% in the next two decades due to extreme drought conditions along the Chao Phraya river basin, according to the Thai Development Research Institute. And the Climate Vulnerability Monitor estimates the net economic cost of climate change for the country at $180 billion a year.
Phra Sangkom Thanapanyo Khunsiri, a 54-year-old Buddhist monk who currently lives in Chonburi, has a plan to save his countrymen from starvation and restore balance to the environment.
He is working to promote sustainable farming practices that guard against drought and empower local communities. As development increases in Thailand, forests are being cleared for the mass monocropping of plants like corn and sugarcane. Habitats are destroyed and soil is eroded, causing flooding during the rainy season. In 2011, Thailand experienced its worst ever flood event on record, resulting in 680 deaths.
“It makes me very sad,” said Khunsiri. “Because it’s not just environmental disaster, but humans in my community, my Thai people are suffering as well.”
He believes selfishness is the root cause.
“We take advantage of the mother earth, we consume too much. When you are only looking to increase the GDP, you end up causing a lot of harm,” said Khunsiri.
In 2008, Khunsiri helped found an alternative school in Chiang Mai that teaches Buddhist principles, like the middle way, and “sufficiency economy,” a theory developed by late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The central ideas are moderation and sustainability. In 2013, Khunsiri was invited by Thailand’s deputy minister of agriculture to open a second school in Chonburi. The two schools, funded by donations, serve about 85 full-time students of all ages.
Students learn how to manage soil nutrients by planting a diversity of crops and avoiding chemicals and fertilizers. They learn how to plant trees and stop bushfires, how make their own soap and cosmetics without chemicals, and how to raise fish and poultry.
Man-made ponds, rice fields, herbs and trees are integrated on one piece of land. The innovative method increases the carbon content of the soil and plant productivity. And because water is collected and stored on the property, the model is drought-resistant.
“Protecting mother earth, preventing global warming, solving hunger and poverty — we cannot achieve these goals if the people are always greedy and do not believe in religious teachings,” said Khunsiri. “If you are Christian, you need to believe in Jesus, love people as you want to be loved. If you are Muslim, you must believe in Allah. The Buddhists believe in Buddha. Practicing love and kindness is the only way to restore harmony in the world.”
Walking the walk
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba in Cape Town, South Africa
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, 58, is the Anglican archbishop responsible for serving the southern part of the African continent — from Namibia where vegetation and wildlife are dying off as fertile land turns to desert, to Swaziland where drought has caused the loss of crops and cattle, to Mozambique where cyclones have leveled entire towns.
When Archbishop Makgoba visited the coastal city of Beira, Mozambique earlier this year to deliver food and assistance, he said it was like “walking through the valley of the shadow of death,” quoting from the book of Psalms.
Cyclone Idai in March, followed by Cyclone Kenneth in April, destroyed homes, schools, clinics and churches. Gardens were drowned in water. Roads vanished. More than 1,000 people died, and the survivors were left to shelter in makeshift homes built from grass thatch.
“I call on those who don’t think climate change is a reality to please come see. When you walk alongside those impacted, you will know the devastation,” Archbishop Makgoba said.
In the past, when Archbishop Makgoba would meet with bishops from Polynesia who complained that islands were disappearing and farms were being contaminated with salt water due to rising sea levels, he would respond with “we will pray for you.”
But as the realities of climate change’s effects came into focus for Archbishop Makgoba, and he noticed the weather becoming more erratic in his home country of South Africa as well, he decided to not just “talk the talk,” but “walk the walk.”
In 2009, he revived the Anglican Communion Environmental Network, transforming it from an organization that was mainly theological and academic, to one of action. He started an initiative called Eco-bishops, which encourages Anglican bishops to advocate for climate change action among church members and government leaders in the countries where they serve.
Recognizing that people who produce the least carbon emissions are suffering the most from climate change because they lack the means to negate its effects, Archbishop Makgoba says climate issues are really a matter of justice. He has as called for polices that assist environmental and climate refugees and ensure their human rights, safety and resettlement.
“We depend on this beautiful web of life God created,” said Archbishop Makgoba. “The challenge now is for us to become healers. Because we have failed to be stewards.”
Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated quotes from Bishop Gunnar Stalsett and Jonathan Duffy were shared at the 2018 G20 Interfaith Forum in Argentina. The comments were made at the 2019 G20 Interfaith Forum in Japan.