The Environment as Sacred Ground: Interactions between Environmental and Religious Groups Are Increasing in Frequency and Importance. (Religion)

By Gardner, Gary | USA TODAY, May 2003 | Go to article overview

The Environment as Sacred Ground: Interactions between Environmental and Religious Groups Are Increasing in Frequency and Importance. (Religion)


Gardner, Gary, USA TODAY


A LONGTIME SOURCE of societal change, religion has the potential to affect fundamentally how humans relate to the natural environment. Ritual was central in regulating the use of trees, rivers, and other resources by indigenous peoples and could conceivably be adapted to other cultures. More broadly, the values that mold' our perspective of nature "come primarily from religious worldviews and ethical practices," according to Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Harvard University's Center for the Environment.

Given the power of religion to shape our views of nature, religious teachings about the natural world in this era could influence how quickly or easily the world makes the transition to sustainable economies. Growing religious interest in environmentally friendly ethics and practices suggests that religions are beginning to use some of their assets to advance this teaching role.

Since the mid 1980s, the Dalai Lama has made environmental protection the theme of a number of them--including several speeches at the Earth Summit in 1992--and environmental protection is one of the five points of his peace plan for Tibet. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, symbolic leader of the 250,000,000-member Orthodox Church, has led in bringing people together to study water-related environmental issues. Pope John Paul II issued major environmental proclamations in 1990 and 2001, and a joint statement with Patriarch Bartholomew in June, 2002.

Patriarch Bartholomew, in particular, has effectively leveraged moral authority and church resources for environmental and social ends. Elected by the Holy Synod in 1992, he has made environmental awareness and ecumenical dialogue an important pursuit of his patriarchate. In addition to regular environmental statements, he established Religion, Science and the Environment (RSE) in 1994, an organization that has invited religious and political leaders, scientists, journalists, and theologians for symposia and training. In the process, he has raised the profile of environmental issues in the Aegean, Black, and Adriatic seas as well as down the Danube River.

Perhaps the most influential of the RSE initiatives have been the biennial shipboard symposia hosted by the Patriarch that focus on water-related environmental issues. The 2002 Adriatic Sea symposium included a special consultant to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the former head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the head of the UN Development Programme, two Roman Catholic cardinals, the Primate of the Church of Sweden, imams from Egypt and Syria, a sheikh from Albania, the grand imam of Bosnia Herzegovina, several ambassadors, heads of environmental and development-oriented nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the president of the UN Foundation, and about 40 journalists. Sharing meals and living quarters, lectures, and field trips, these high-profile participants and other attendees learn and network with each other, to impressive effect. The Adriatic symposium ended in Venice with the Ecumenical Patriarch and Pope John Paul II signing a joint declaration on environmental protection.

The gatherings focus on bodies of water in trouble, such as the Black Sea, now the most-degraded marine area in Europe. Described as "catastrophic," damage to the sea in the past three decades has resulted from coastal development, invasion of exotic species, damming of rivers feeding the sea, and the growing burden of fertilizer runoff and other pollutants. The 1997 symposium visited ports in six nations, sponsored field trips to degraded areas, and offered more than 30 lectures. Beyond building relationships among scientists and religious leaders and raising public awareness through the hundreds of news reports generated by participating journalists, the trip inspired concrete initiatives on behalf of the environment. It gave rise to the Halki Ecological Institute, a two-week-long program in 1999 to introduce Orthodox priests, seminary students, and journalists to the environmental ills of the Black Sea. …

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