By Anthony Blaize
This moment in human history is unprecedented. Industrial economies as currently constructed impact our planet so extensively that geologists are considering designating a new geological epoch named for humans, the Anthropocene. For people of belief, this possibility calls for deep reflection on humanity’s place in Creation. What other species can impact its nest so massively, in such a geologically short period of time?
The sustainability crisis consists of dozens of interconnected environmental, social, and economic issues. Ecological Footprint (EF) analysis demonstrates that industrial development, characterized by use of fossil energy and high levels of waste, is not viable in the long term. It shows that humanity’s demand for nature’s goods and services is much greater than nature can supply—about 70 percent greater, in fact. The excess demand is met by drawing down nature’s reserves: using groundwater, forests, and topsoil, for example, faster than they can be regenerated. These practices cannot continue indefinitely, because reserves are finite. Overuse of resources in now evident across a number of environmental sectors:
Climate change Our planet is warming at unnatural rates. Sea levels are rising, storms are more frequent and intense, and oceans are increasingly acidic as they absorb more carbon dioxide. The world’s nations agreed in 2015 to limit global emissions and cap global average temperature at no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with 1.5 degrees a much-preferred target. This could require that emissions peak by 2020, then be cut in half each decade thereafter.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 90 percent of people worldwide breathe air containing high levels of pollutants, and that around 7 million people worldwide die each year from polluted outdoor and indoor air.”
Because societies have been slow to cut emissions, some scientists and interest groups now call for using climate engineering to limit temperature rise. The strategies proposed involve risks that could be monumental for the planet. The question is whether the human family will finally commit to the hard work of emissions reductions or take the risk of convenient but risky geoengineering options.
Air pollution The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 90 percent of people worldwide breathe air containing high levels of pollutants, and that around 7 million people worldwide die each year from polluted outdoor and indoor air. The problem varies by development level: in low- and middle-income countries 97 percent of cities of 100,000 people or more do not meet WHO air quality guidelines, compared to 49 percent in wealthy countries.
Water scarcity Water supply is fixed, but demand grows with expanding populations and economies, and supplies are disrupted by a changing climate. Some 36 percent of the world’s population lives in water-scarce regions, and the share could reach 50 percent by 2050. Meanwhile, 20 percent of the world’s groundwater deposits are pumped faster than they can be recharged by rainfall, meaning that groundwater levels are falling. Loss of irrigation—the controlled application of water to crops—could mean large losses of food: irrigation is used on only 16 percent of arable land worldwide, but it delivers 44 percent of global crop production.
One out of 9 of the human family is chronically hungry today, and hunger at the global level is increasing. Yet demand for food is forecast to increase by 50 percent between 2013 and 2050.”
Deforestation Deforestation is a serious problem in some regions, although the global rate of forest loss is slowing. The 2015 forestry assessment from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that an area the size of Peru was deforested globally between 1990 and 2015.
Soil degradation Soil health is declining on all continents, which affects a wide range of associated issues, from food supply to water availability to climate change. Studies in the 1990s and 2000s suggested that some 15 to 24 percent of land globally has suffered physical damage (e.g., erosion) or chemical damage (salt loading) at levels that reduce productivity. Soil degradation unfolds even as the demand for food continues to increase. One out of 9 of the human family is chronically hungry today, and hunger at the global level is increasing. Yet demand for food is forecast to increase by 50 percent between 2013 and 2050.
Biodiversity loss Many biologists assert that a mass extinction is underway, the sixth in the history of Earth, and the first caused by humans. Species are disappearing at many times the natural rate: the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports that 25 percent of mammal species; 13 percent of bird species, and 41 percent of amphibian species are threatened with extinction. The number of threatened mammals, birds, and amphibian species is up by double-digit percentages since 1996/1998.
Ocean degradation The world’s oceans are over exploited and degraded at levels not seen in millions of years. Some 33 percent of marine fisheries are fished beyond sustainable levels, up from 10 percent in 1974. Oceans are acidifying and coral reefs, rich in biodiversity, are in serious decline.
A RELIGIOUS-SPIRITUAL RESPONSE
People of faith possess a broad set of spiritual, financial, infrastructural, political, and social assets that could, conceivably, help create sustainable communities and economies. These include a large number of adherents who meet regularly and form deep relational ties; physical assets such as land and buildings; meaningful amounts of investment capital; and most powerfully, moral teaching and spiritual tools such as prayer, song, and liturgical practices. Of course, religious and spiritual traditions exist for reasons deeper than creating societal change. But the interests of people of belief and advocates of sustainability arguably align closely on a range of issues. For this reason, believers in many traditions are exploring how sustainable policies, practices, and lifestyles might fit comfortably within their tradition.
To maximize effectiveness and societal impact, faith and spiritual traditions can tap their existing local, regional, national, and global structures. These structures can increase impact by organizing to operate efficiently, in two ways. First, they can coordinate their units at various hierarchical levels to operate effectively. Actions loop around and through each of the levels in ways that are reciprocal and reinforcing. In this way, the various levels learn from one another and avoid duplication of effort. Second, each tradition can act in concert with communities of other traditions, eliminating duplicated effort. Multi-religious cooperation softens discord among faith or spiritual traditions and highlights complementary strengths.
Religious and spiritual traditions can form partnerships with other, often non-religious, entities to drive social change. Engaging with a diverse set of partners increases effectiveness, broadens one’s perspective, and strengthens the web of enduring civic relationships.”
In addition, religious and spiritual traditions can form partnerships with other, often non-religious, entities to drive social change. Engaging with a diverse set of partners increases effectiveness, broadens one’s perspective, and strengthens the web of enduring civic relationships. For the modern environmental sustainability movement, potential partners for faith and spirituality communities are usually easy to identify. Local- and national-level environmental, conservation, animal advocacy, and sustainability groups often welcome collaboration with people of belief, offering entrée to existing programs. For their part, communities of believers bring to partnerships any of the wide range of assets identified earlier, as well as intangible strengths such as commitment and credibility. The effort to build sustainable economies requires a massive shift in economies worldwide. This is a task of civil society, as well as government and business. Faith and spiritual traditions have unique and powerful contributions to make to this effort. Their clear and committed voices are urgently needed.