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Science, religion panel seeks breakthrough in ecological awareness

NCR Staff
New York

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.”

The Pentecostal minister challenged Maathi, that she was talking from a traditional African religion viewpoint that had no reference in Christianity.

“When we die we go to a much happier place,” the minister countered.

“With that view, by focusing on the next world,” Maathi told the U.N. gathering, “you lose the significance and beauty of this place.” Thereafter, when conducting Greenbelt Movement seminars in Kenya, she was aware of the tradition-religion differences.

She took the hymn sung at many funerals, of being “blissfully happy when I get to that land that I long for,” and asked the participants to describe that world, that land.

“They used the terms of this world -- beautiful rivers, trees, birds -- surprising me with descriptions in terms of the world in which we live,” she said. And she used that as her entry point to find common ground “between what we are told about that world and what we see in this world.”

“So, when planting trees, working to prevent soil erosion or saving forests, I would ask: How high do you have to go to be in heaven? There is a need to protect this planet. I cannot say it is more important than the other world, but equally important. And it may be that when you get to that world you will be judged by how well you took care of this world,” she said.

The problem of ecological understanding in the developing world, Maathi said, is the enormous gap between the many believing, uninformed, unexposed and simple people at the bottom and the few at the top who know and understand. An authority on Hinduism, Vasudha Narayanan said it was too easy to blame only the West for the materialistic ethos. “We have enough motivation in India of our own to follow money and power.”

She contrasted that drive in a “country 50 years young” with its culture 5,000 years old. For more than five centuries Hindu writings taught of the fines against people who cut down trees, punishments that were carried out -- “and now we have depleted forests, soil erosion is rampant and the rivers that purify the land so [polluted with organic material] you would not send a dog into them.”

India venerated nature, the rivers and mountains, “and personified earth as a goddess,” she said, “and somewhere along the line we went wrong.”

Narayanan recalled attending an earth goddess festival last year where the neon light outline of the goddess also carried the line, “Pepsi-Cola sponsored this festival.”

“Consumerism and population growth have eliminated any progress we might make,” said Narayanan.

There are a billion Hindus around the world today, she said, and all believe in reincarnation. “And when we come back 100 years or so from now, we better hope earth has been improved on that front.”

The three-year Harvard Project has now become a continuing Forum on Religion and Ecology to foster “a religious voice in public policy formulation, educational curricula, economic planning, and scientific and social research related to the environment.”

McElroy, chairman of Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and the university’s Committee on the Environment, shrank the earth’s 5 billion-year-old existence into a single year to make his environmental point. Five billion years of the planet, 4 billion years of life, 150,000 years of humanity boil down to man making his appearance only the final half hour of the year, and his environmental depredations encompassing only the year’s final few seconds.

And if the developing world follows the Western model, said McElroy -- who had just returned from two weeks in China -- it will be like running the Industrial Revolution on fast-forward.

“The Industrial Revolution took 250 years; China is 30 years old, following the same course.” There is still an opportunity for China, he said, because the country wants to feed itself. China, he said, understands the competition between its small amount of arable land per capita and the consequences of industrial pollution, more highways, more infrastructure and more automobiles. “China has to make choices,” McElroy said.

So does the rest of the world.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998