Science, Religion Panel Seeks Breakthrough in Ecological Awareness

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998 | Go to article overview

Science, Religion Panel Seeks Breakthrough in Ecological Awareness


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


No speaker pinpointed precisely when the earth might pass its ecological point of no return. But the scientific fact repeatedly presented was that the planet cannot survive another century of accelerating environmental degradation and ecological destruction like this past one.

Yet panelists and promoters of the now concluding three-year-long Harvard Project on Religion and Ecology had not gathered as doomsayers. They were present at their United Nations conference Oct. 20 and 21 as religionists and scientists jointly seeking signs of hope -- or at least a breakthrough in public awareness.

None disagreed with Maurice Strong's statement that "we need to reinvent civilization" to combat the materialistic ethos that has supplanted human values. No one disputed the assertion by Strong, senior environmental adviser to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, that without such a resurgence focused on saving and serving the earth, "I do not believe civilization will make it through the next century."

All speakers shared atmospheric scientist Michael McElroy's view that the forum had much to do with the need for "public intellectuals to be sensitively engaged" in explaining to people what it really means, earth-wise, to be human in the world today.

McElroy, in a subsequent NCR interview, also described what he sees as a major difficulty encountered by environmentalists when trying to inform the public. Said McElroy, "A hundred scientists speak out on a serious environmental problem. The media listens and then goes out and finds someone with an opposing view to get `balance.' The story comes out looking like a 50-50 argument, a 50-50 proposition, but it isn't. And the public comes away thinking it has a 50-50 choice. And it hasn't."

The challenge, said Timothy Wirth, president of the Ted Turner-funded United Nations Foundation, "is to prove to people there is something profoundly wrong."

The religions, as the scientists see it, not only have earth-caring traditions to draw on, but have the means for disseminating the message.

Maria Becket, religion, science and the environment coordinator for the Greek Orthodox church, described the mutual awakening of religionists and scientists at ecological symposiums called by the Greek Orthodox ecumenical patriarch, who has condemned environmental degradation as a sin. Though the meetings opened in a mood of mutual suspicion, said London-based Becket, they ended with the "priests saying we can't do a thing without the scientists, and the scientists, realizing that unless the scientific discoveries and teachings become part of the cultural consciousness, they will not have that much effect or influence."

What Harvard undertook in 1996 was "the first geological survey of the world's religions," Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director with John Grim of the 10 Harvard conferences on religions of the world and ecology, told the, U.N. gathering. The result is a step into a new era of collaboration.

The main outcome, say organizers, was that participants discovered how world religious practice and belief regarding nature is more "rich, diverse and sophisticated than previously realized." For some religions, this already translates into actual programs: reforestation, river cleanups, recycling and energy efficiency work. Meanwhile, the organizers conclude, "the world's indigenous traditions still transmit sophisticated environmental knowledge of local ecosystems."

Wangari Maathi, Kenya's first woman PhD and coordinator of that nation's Greenbelt Movement, described what can happen when those traditions collide with some branches of Christianity.

Maathi said she was invited to make some comments at a Pentecostal memorial service in Africa for a friend and gave her people's traditional African wish, that the friend rest where there is "much rain -- for there is green and beauty where there is rain. It is environmentally comfortable. …

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