Book Review of
Religion and Sustainability:
Social Movements and the Politics of the Environment
Lucas F. Johnston
Acumen Publishing, 31 January 2013
LINK TO THE BOOK
Most people are willing to engage in small talk. Some are willing to discuss political issues. Few are willing to discuss religious issues. Perhaps this is because talking about the weather and other inconsequential matters is seldom controversial, while politics is often controversial and religion almost always is, especially with the current worldwide resurgence of religious fundamentalism. Most people being averse to controversy, bringing up political and religious topics is often considered to be inopportune, if not insensitive.
Religion and Sustainability: Social Movement and the Politics of the Environment, by Lucas F. Johnston, is a refreshing and very instructive contribution to all who are interested in the things that really matter for the pursuit of solidarity, sustainability, and integral human development. This is the information given in the book's website:
"Sustainability is now key to international and national policy, manufacture and consumption. It is also central to many individuals who try to lead environmentally ethical lives. Historically, religion has been a significant part of many visions of sustainability. Pragmatically, the inclusion of religious values in conservation and development efforts has facilitated relationships between people with different value structures. Despite this, little attention has been paid to the interdependence of sustainability and religion, with no significant comparisons of religious and secular sustainability advocacy. Religion and Sustainability presents the first broad analysis of the spiritual dimensions of sustainability-oriented social movements. Exploring the similarities and differences between the conceptions of sustainability held by religious, interfaith and secular organizations, the book analyses how religious practice and discourse have impacted on political ideology and process."
Structure of the Book
The book is divided into three parts. Part I is a review of the meanings attributed to the terms "religion" and "sustainability" by various scholars and practitioners from various secular and religious traditions. Part II analyzes the origins and current evolutionary trends of social "sustainability" movements and the influence of religious values in the unfolding dynamics of such movements. Part III presents the ethnographic data captured during interviews with both secular and religious leaders. These data constitute the empirical foundation for the entire book, and common threads emerge which strongly suggest that "core values are an important consideration for any definition of sustainability" and, in fact, an important factor in determining how people act in the global sustainable development drama. There are ten chapters, as follows:
PART I: DEFINING RELIGION AND SUSTAINABILITY, AND WHY IT MATTERS
Chapter 1. The stakes and sustainability and its religious dimension
Chapter 2. Defining the terms: religion and sustainability
Chapter 3. Sustainability as a contagious meme
PART II: THE EMERGENCE AND DEVELOPMENT OF SUSTAINABILITY
Chapter 4. The genesis and globalization of sustainability
Chapter 5. The religious dimension of sustainability and the nexus of civil society and international politics
Chapter 6. The contribution of natural and social sciences to the religious dimension of sustainability
PART III: THE ETHNOGRAPHIC DATA AND SUSTAINABILITY CASES
Chapter 7. Walking together separately: evangelical creation care
Chapter 8. Stories of partnership: interfaith efforts toward sustainability
Chapter 9. The religious dimensions of secular sustainability
Chapter 10. Manufacturing or cultivating common ground
A very useful "reader's guide" is provided at the beginning, and very comprehensive notes, bibliography, and index are provided at the end of this well written book of 273 pages. From beginning to end, an impressive feature of the work is the plurality and diversity of inputs from the full range of stakeholder perspectives. Also from beginning to end, the author is successful in showing that most paradoxes of the sustainable development process cannot be understood, either at the global or local levels, unless the core spiritual/religious values that lead people to act (or not to act) are taken into account. The implications for politics (the "art of the possible") are pointed out, thereby shedding light on the root cause for much of the current disarray in policy-making.
Definitions of Religion and Sustainability
Various definitions of the terms "religion" and "sustainability" are reviewed and analyzed. Rather than offering a dictionary-style definition of either term, the author opts for defining them in relation to each other. Thus religion is broadly considered as the set of core moral values that inform conscience and influence human behavior, individually and collectively; while sustainability is understood as "a strategy of cultural adaptation to the limitations imposed by the dynamic interplay of ecological and social systems, couched in large-scale stories that illustrate how to persist [endure?] within habitats in a manner that provides genuine affective fulfillment now, and for the foreseeable future."
Much has been written about the "three E's" (equity, ecology, economy) as well as the "three P's" (people, planet, profit) of sustainability. The author abundantly makes the case that there is a "fourth dimension" that must be taken into account: religion. Some would argue that there is a fifth dimension that transcends human concern for the divine (religion) and entails divine concern for humans and the human habitat (spirituality). Be that as it may be, the fact is that each human person has a conscience, and communities have a collective conscience, that can evolve in response to ecological issues and utterly transcend material concerns and the pursuit of absurdities such as infinite production and consumption growth in a finite planet.
Interplay Between Religion and Sustainability
As the author points out, it is not a matter of religion always making people act for or against the common good, including sustainability. However, religious beliefs, or deeply held core values, do inform and influence patterns of human behavior as well as both the clarity of "signals" and the intensity of "noise" in the communication channels that are crucial for the political process to unfold. That this applies to the politics of sustainability and "sustainable development" is made clear by many paradoxical situations in today's world: world population and human consumption continue to increase even as the primacy of integral human development is recognized, technological innovation
is driven by financial and power objectives irrespective of impacts on human life and the integrity of the human habitat, and scientific probabilities about climate change are distorted by both fossil fuel lobbies and environmentalist alarmism, to name just a few. In every case, religion is part of the problem and must be part of the solution.
Continued growth in the product of human population and human consumption is a good case example. It is self-evident that unlimited growth in production and consumption of goods and services is a physical impossibility. Efficiency technologies to reduce waste merely delay the inevitable and prolong the agony, for what really matters is the net aggregate amount of consumption and the consequent waste byproducts, which can never be reduced to zero. It doesn't take rocket science to understand that population growth, or consumption growth, or both, must be reversed if future generations are to inherit a life-supporting planet. Yet some religions continue to exhibit patriarchal practices and preach the virtue of having as many children as possible rather than the virtue of reproductive responsibility, including the unpopular but authentically pro-life and very effective option of abstinence. And, while millions are dying of hunger, they continue to build huge air-conditioned temples and related buildings, contrary to the teaching and good example of founders like Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha. Indeed, religion cannot force anyone (including religious leaders) to act for the common good, but the perpetuation of pseudo-doctrines and bad practices, for the sake of continuity with patriarchal traditions, is not helpful to the cause of human solidarity and ecological sustainability.
This is but one example, but religious patriarchy, and the attitudes of domination and control that it engenders, are pervasive in all human institutions, at all levels, worldwide. No human action is 100% pure (either 100% "good" or 100% "bad"), and the actions of organized religion are no exception. Perhaps wisely, Johnston's book steers clear of evaluating specific impacts of religious "signals" and "noise" on the process toward overcoming the patriarchal culture that has prevailed since time immemorial. Such assessment would be a good topic for another book!
Principle of Solidarity
Solidarity is generally defined as "a feeling of unity between people who have the same interests, goals, etc." This requires an existential sharing of core moral values that most often are rooted in the religious/spiritual fabric of human communities. Solidarity is a basic requirement for the pursuit of social and ecological justice. It is a prerequisite for sustainability. For more on the principle of solidarity, click here and here. While sustainability as a justice issue is discussed in many places, and the Golden Rule is explicitly mentioned as the most famous religious principle that can be invoked in seeking sustainability, the book would have been enriched by also mentioning some specific solidarity initiatives such as the Polish labor union and the Palestinian solidarity movement.
Principle of Subsidiarity
Subsidiarity is "an organizing principle of decentralization, stating that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority capable of addressing that matter effectively." The book correctly points out that core religious values are different, or at least are understood and articulated in different ways, in different regional and local cultures. Thus, in terms of the interplay between religion and sustainability, it would seem that subsidiarity is a good concept to keep in mind when considering boundaries of global versus local governance with regards to issues such as climate change. Again, it would have been appropriate to mention subsidiarity somewhere in the book. For more on this principle, click here and here.
Integral Human Development
In the ultimate analysis, what really matters is integral human development. The term "integral" refers to the harmonious integration of all dimensions of human development (physical, intellectual, relational, psychological, ethical, spiritual) for each and every person, which of course is impossible in the absence of a well-cared-for human habitat (the "garden" of Genesis 2:15). For more on integral human development, click here and here. This subject matter is beyond the scope of the book, but the author still manages to mention many key aspects, such as the biblical understanding of humans as imago Dei, the importance of a human-centered ethos that nevertheless recognizes the strong
interdependence with the rest of creation, the humanism inherent in the 1987 Bruntland Commission report, the fact that humans tend to protect what they love, and the need for inter-faith dialogue for cross-cultural fostering of sustainable behavior, while staying focused on the basic archetypal mandalas of social sustainability movements and the unfolding environmental politics.
Gender Dimension Missing
Going back to the biblical story of creation, it is significant that the most universal and nefarious consequence of abusing the "garden" is the corruption of the original unity of man and woman, as recorded in Genesis 3:16 using (surprise!) patriarchally biased language. This leads to other forms of inter-personal violence (Genesis 4:8) as well as ecological violence that corrupted the entire "garden" (Genesis 6:11). It seems that the patriarchal pretension of control and domination is the root of all social and ecological violence. The same rebellion that corrupted human-divine communion also corrupted the original communion between humans and the communion between humans and the entire community of creation.
There are many forms of gender violence and many other forms of violence; and
religion lurks underneath most of them. It is by no means suggested that religion causes violence. The problem is that the patriarchal ethos of domination corrupts religion to the point of tricking many to believe that violence can be at the service of God. This is the tragedy! Now, sustainability requires solidarity, which requires non-violence. Given that patriarchy is the most universal form of gender violence (50% of humanity versus the other 50%, "male" humanity versus "female" nature), it seems unavoidable to think that sustainability will remain a fantasy as long as patriarchy remains normative in society and, even more so, in religion.
Just as we are now aware that slavery and racism are moral evils, we must become aware that gender discrimination is a moral evil that must be eradicated if solidarity and sustainability are to be attained. The need to reform patriarchal structures applies to both secular and religious institutions. Overcoming patriarchy is a "sign of the times" to the extent that it fosters authentic gender solidarity and nonviolence for the good of humanity and the glory of God. Given the enormous influence of religious traditions, it is especially critical for religious institutions to extirpate any semblance of male hegemony in matters of doctrine and religious practices.
With so many other angles of the religion-sustainability linkage so well covered in this book, it must be noted that the gender dimension is never mentioned. Granted that this is a controversial topic, it seems to be so critical and so pervasive that it deserves attention by scholars and practitioners of sustainability and sustainable development. As long as gender solidarity issues are not resolved, most sustainability initiatives are "dead on arrival." For more on fostering gender balance in society and religion, click here, here, and here.
Scholarly Societies and Forthcoming Events
Religious associations and institutions are increasingly convening meetings to discuss the interplay between religion and the natural environment. However, most religious initiatives focus on preaching mercy and social justice, and the moral obligation of religious people to inform their conscience and act accordingly, but fail to consider the collective patriarchal mindset that constitutes the root cause of the problem. Likewise, many universities offer programs in ecology and sustainability but fail to consider the link between religion and ecological issues, one notable exception being the program in Religion and Nature at the University of Florida. Other significant resources are the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture and the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. But the linkage between solidarity-sustainability issues and religious patriarchy (with only males in roles of religious authority) remains mostly unexplored; not surprisingly, since most religious institutions are visibly patriarchal, thus making gender-related issues highly controversial for both the leadership and the faithful. For example, consider the following forthcoming events:
The following statement is in the announcement for the May 2014 meeting at the Vatican: "There should be no question that Humanity needs urgently to redirect our relationship with Nature so as to promote a sustainable pattern of economic and social development." Indeed, but what is the root cause of the current pattern of exploitation of nature by humans? Isn't it the same patriarchal mindset of dominion that is wrongfully attributed to God by a literalist reading of Genesis 1:28 while conveniently ignoring the mandate "to take care of it" in Genesis 2:15? Isn't it the same patriarchal mindset of dominion that transpires in Genesis 3:16, thereby corrupting the original unity of man and woman? With regard to nature's limited ability to meet the human needs for basics such as food, health, and energy, can such limits be equitably managed within the context of a patriarchal religious milieu? This is clearly beyond the scope of Johnston's book, but it would be well for these questions to be considered during forthcoming meetings of scholarly associations and institutions.
This book belongs at the top of the reading list for anyone who is interested in both the spiritual and ecological dimensions of human life. Religion is, beyond any shadow of doubt, the "fourth dimension of sustainability." Just by exposing the invisible but very real linkages between these two dimensions, the book is a significant contribution to both. For religion cannot be isolated from nature any more than humans, as body-persons, can be isolated from the rest of creation. The book is also a good resource for inter-faith and/or cross-cultural dialogue in the context of sustainability issues.
Authentic religion, liberated from exclusivist patriarchal scaffoldings, is also an essential ingredient for humanity to grow in solidarity. Each and every human being is a God-created treasure in an earthen vessel (2 Corinthians 4:7). Defending human dignity, while at the same time perpetuating religious archetypes -- no matter how ancient -- that foster gender violence and usurp the originally intended unity of humanity, is a disservice to humanity, a disservice to God, and a grave obstacle to integral human development. Now that we have reached the Anthropocene, this book shows that fostering a responsible evolution toward a new collective conscience of solidarity and sustainability is not only a practical necessity but a religious imperative.
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