Erik Assadourian (Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute and involved with the annual State of the World reports) has written an interesting piece on the new Milllennium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere (MAHB) blog. Entitled Time for a New Environmentalism it reflects on the success of religious missionary groups, who some decades ago realised that just telling people about their religion wasn’t enough: they needed to help them in practical ways too, because there were needs to be met, to help build community and to demonstrate in practical ways how religious belief could be a benefit.
Missionary religions have rooted themselves across a variety of geographies, eras, and cultures, and today have billions of adherents. Religious philosophies offer something fundamental that the environmental movement has so far failed to provide: a way to understand the world and humans’ place in it, as well as how to behave in that world. Just as important, religious movements build committed communities of adherents — helping each other in times of need and celebrating and mourning together — and draw their resources and power directly from these communities.
Why haven’t environmentalists done the same?
Assadourian thinks they should, in two key respects: firstly to provide real help to those in need and to help with the skills required for a future more sustainable world. But secondly to devise and spread a new philosophy or philosophies, based on the principles of care for the environment, that the Earth is sacred and sufficient to answer issues of meaning and suffering, but ‘who cannot accept the otherworldly orientation of existing missionary philosophies’.
In many respects this project has a similar goal to the one that people like me are aiming for: a set of beliefs that include a faith to live by and a responsibility for the environment and future generations. One of the projects I’m working on is editing a book for the Lausanne Movement which fundamentally is aimed at making the point that care for creation has to be an integral part of our mission as Christians.
It also has some similarities to Transition, which again has something of a missionary and community focus, and (in some places at least) seeks to link in with people’s spirituality and philosophies. But this isn’t enough for Assadourian.
He argues that Transition isn’t philosophical enough, and isn’t laying down roots that will enable it to stay intact through the forthcoming crisis and collapse to a time when a new human civilisation emerges and needs something to keep it from the same growth-obsession that plagues us. Here I fear he’s being too ambitious. Transition seeks to be open and to evolve in response to local and global circumstances and community wishes. If it has successfully built communities of sustainably-minded individuals, it seems far more likely to derive organically the new principles needed to take us forward post-collapse than trying to do it now. The lesson of Christian theological history at least is that creativity and new thinking comes about best when previous theology is applied to new circumstances. The rich strand of post-exilic thinking that we find in the later Old Testament could only emerge as the people of God reflected on and regrouped after the disaster of the fall of Jerusalem.
The other challenge is to derive some philosophies that both gain broad agreement and provide a rationale for people to believe them. Assadourian may not appreciate the otherworldly, but uniting under the banner of a particular divinity or pantheon lies behind most of the world’s successful religions.
So we can appreciate the need being pointed out, and the passion to do something about it, but is it a feasible project? We’ll see.