Imagine you are busy planting a tree, and someone rushes up to say that the Messiah has come and the end of the world is nigh. What do you do? The advice given by the rabbis in a traditional Jewish story is that you first finish planting the tree, and only then do you go and see whether the news is true. The Islamic tradition has a similar story, which reminds followers that if they happen to be carrying a palm cutting in their hand when the Day of Judgment takes place, they should not forget to plant the cutting.1
There is a tension in the environmental world between those who wish to tell us that the end is nigh and those who want to encourage us to plant trees for the future. In 1992, for example, we were all told, in any number of press statements before the event, that the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro was “the world’s last chance to save itself.”2 And indeed many major reports emerging from environmental bodies paint a picture of terrifying, impending destruction—in a sincere desire to shock people into action.3
Year after year, these groups have been gathering information that shows beyond reasonable doubt that parts of our living planet are slowly but surely being diminished, polluted, fished out, hunted to the edge, built over, cut down, erased, or—as it is most chillingly expressed— simply “lost.” It is increasingly clear, and still shocking, that human activity has assisted (if not created) the increase in global warming; the
1. The story is from the Al-Musnad of Ahmad ibn Muhammad Ibn Hanbal, written in 1313 and reprinted in 1895 in Cairo. Quoted in M. Izzi Dien, The Environmental Dimensions of Islam (Cambridge, U.K.: Lutterworth Press, 2000), 104.
2. The statement was made on a number of occasions by Maurice Strong, secretary general of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992.
3. Organizations that have produced such reports include the Club of Rome and Worldwatch Institute, among others.