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Continued: Conservationists can learn a lot from religion

  • Article by: GREG BREINING
  • Last update: May 19, 2012 - 5:27 PM

The Republican presidential nomination contest revealed the divide separating religion and conservative politics on one side and conservation values on the other.

Mitt Romney turned from an advocate of reducing greenhouse gas emission to a complete agnostic on the subject of global warming. Newt Gingrich killed the chapter on climate change, the signature environmental concern of our age, in his upcoming book on environmental problems.

And Rick Santorum pronounced, "The Earth is not the objective; man is the objective" -- as though one had nothing to do with the other, and the solution to surviving a compromised Earth is to wait until the afterlife. Or flee to Gingrich's moon colony.

In short, the gulf between Republican politics and an informed discussion of environmental issues grows wider by the day. And given the entwining of conservative politics and religion, secular conservationists have pretty much discounted anything religion has to say about the environment.

It's part of the larger alienation between religion and science. Yet into this divide strides Martin Palmer, Anglican minister and occasional BBC-TV personality.

Palmer preaches that conservation has a lot to learn from religion. Faiths, compared with the environmental movement, have a much better grasp of the human condition. And for that reason, religion has a better claim to sustainability.

"We talk all the time about sustainability," Palmer declared in a recent speech to the World Wildlife Fund. "But the most sustainable organizations in the world we as conservationists have largely ignored -- and that's the religions. They've been around longer than any other human structure that is still functioning. ... If we want to understand something about sustainability, why don't we look at the communities that have been going for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years?"

Palmer (who will speak at the University of Minnesota on Wednesday evening) is the secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation in Great Britain, a secular group founded by Prince Philip to encourage the world's major religions to develop their own environmental programs. He is a bit of a Renaissance man, a Chinese scholar who has translated the I Ching, among other works, into English.

His Christianity, he says, is informed by Daoism and Judaism. His life's mission, he says, springs from his mother's involvement in the early environmental movement, and from his father's "inspiring simple faith. He knew the world was made in love."

Palmer makes the point that conservation leaders are mainly secular liberals and religious leaders, well, aren't. As a result, even though many religious movements around the world have tremendous influence, conservation leaders don't realize it, much less acknowledge it.

Palmer tells a story about how "fundamentalists" derail cooperation between religion and conservation.

"Yes," he notes, "they are an absolute pain in the ass. Because they are so convinced that if only you will do as they say, believe what they believe, follow exactly their prescriptions ... then everything will be OK. And if you don't, then you are a pariah, you are cast out into darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. And annual reports.

"And you know, some of the religions are almost as bad."

The lesson: Rigid thinkers are found on both sides. Most of all, perhaps, among conservationists. As a result, Palmer says, conservationists and religions organizations "are passing each other in the night." Which is a shame, because they have a lot to gain from one another.

For one thing, says Palmer, "faiths would have access to even better environmental knowledge. To stronger partnerships. They would gain hugely from the knowledge and understanding of the outer world, the external work that the environmental groups have. They would then be enhanced in their capacity, were they to be engaged by major conservation groups."

And while the environmental movement is "superb at the external world," with data, studies, photos, and films, it "is appalling" -- Palmer says this with a British accent that gives the word acute emphasis -- "ap-PAUL-ling at the inner world. It has no concept of psychology. It has no concept of how people change. It has virtually no concept of how communities evolve and move forward."

What conservation might learn from religion is "timescale," says Palmer. "What the religions know is that for any serious change to take place, it takes time. Think of the parable of the sower in which Jesus talks about the seeds that are sown and then spring up rapidly -- like so many environmental groups, environmental activists. But the roots aren't there, and they wither and they perish. But ones that put down roots first and then emerge above the ground firmly rooted, they are the ones that survive."

With sense of time, says Palmer, comes the realization that change is inevitable.

"One of the problems of the conservation movement is that it is always trying to stop things. The oldest religious text in the world still in constant use is the Chinese book of I Ching, which means the book of changes. Religions know that nothing is permanent. Conservation is terrified that everything is changing. That's not sustainable. You cannot sustain stasis. You can only sustain change."

The divide between conservation and religion had different origins in the United States and Europe, says Palmer. With a long history of sectarian warfare, "the whole tenor of European intellectual enlightenment is antireligious." In the United States, alienation arises from the 20th-century "fable" that the creation story and evolution are incompatible.

"The sense has grown up on both sides that if you venture into these taboo areas, you will be polluted and you will be cast out of the tribe," says Palmer. "I see brave people who voyage across these gaps -- E. O. Wilson being a very good example. And I've seen evangelicals doing the same on their side -- people like [pastor and author] Ken Wilson. But they're like pioneers."

Despite this alienation, says Palmer, "most of the language about the environmental crisis is entirely Judeo-Christian and rooted in the Book of Revelation. Virtually all the language of the environmental movement is quasi-Biblical and apocalyptic. It's predicated on fear, guilt and sin. Sadly they forget we also do celebrations and parties and whoopee. And most people get quite bored by it."

An enviable strength of religions, in conservation or any other endeavor, is sheer scale. "The environmental movement assumes that the only real role the faiths can play is to preach," says Palmer. "Yes, of course, there's enormous wisdom, there are insights, there are teachings. But also the faiths are major businesses."

Religious organizations, Palmer says, own 8 percent of the earth's land, including 5 percent of its commercial forests. As much as 15 percent of the world's forestland is considered sacred, where religions have sway over its use.

Religions run half the world's schools. They produce more weekly newspapers and magazines than does the European Union. "In other words, they're not just preachers. They're doers," says Palmer.

"The Sikhs, for example, have planted 25 million trees in the Punjab in the last 11 years. So the faiths are there. They're doing it. The problem has been that the environmental movement as a whole has not asked them to the table."

Palmer's Alliance of Religions and Conservation has issued the invitation. In a program launched four years ago with the United Nations Development Program, ARC asked several large religious organizations to draw up long-term plans to protect the living planet. "These are fascinating programs," Palmer says. "The Daoists, with 26,000 temples in China -- all of those temples will be solar-powered by 2016. The Lutherans of northern Tanzania committed to plant 8.5 million trees around the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. And they are well on target for that."

A second ARC initiative: to "green" religious pilgrimages in 12 cities, from China to Norway, by saving energy, reducing plastic trash, and bringing environmental lessons home.

"I think the green pilgrimage network is really going to unlock the potential of faiths in a way that even we are astonished by," says Palmer. "Because we are catching people at a moment when they are open to being more faithful and wish to live a more holy life. It doesn't mean it necessarily lasts really long, but I think it stands more chance than at any other time."

Do I buy the good news Palmer is spreading? I can think of plenty of examples of religion fighting change at every turn. Plenty preach a gospel of doom and fear. And as for "timescale," what some religions say happened in a mere 6,000 years scientists know required billions.

But perhaps Palmer's sunny example can lead conservationists and religionists alike to talk despite the risk of being "cast out of the tribe." At the least, such optimism is an antidote to the delusional and cynical views toward the environment among current Republican candidates, and a reminder that religion is not inherently hostile to conservation.

Whether you believe that humans are the stewards of a God-given world, or that the tumult of life and the scale of the natural world are of themselves miraculous, Martin Palmer gives a reason to hope that secular and religious conservationists can work together to protect our natural heritage.

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Greg Breining, of St. Paul, writes about science, nature and travel. He is the author of "Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico Wilderness" and "Wild Shore: Exploring Lake Superior by Kayak."

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  • INTO THE MIX


    Martin Palmer will be the final speaker in the Momentum 2012 event series sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment:


    When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

    Where: Ted Mann Concert Hall, Minneapolis.

    Tickets/information: Northrop Box Office, (612) 624-2345 or environment.umn.edu/momentum/eventseriescheck this website.

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