Faith In Sustainability

Karen Hamilton on how faith communities have helped move the discussion around sustainability forward.

By: /
4 February, 2013
By: Karen Hamilton
General Secretary of The Canadian Council of Churches

The faith communities of the world are, in many cases, communities of long standing. People have lived in, and as a part of, the various world religions for years, centuries, and eons. Faith communities, with their blurry and permeable edges, almost always an integral part of their wider society, have changed, grown, diminished, and been engaged in conflict externally and internally. They have, in their best and most faithful articulations, struggled to talk and walk in ways that lead to sustainable life for all the people of the planet. Contrary to a recent popular perception in the West, the engagement of the majority of the world’s people in one or another faith tradition is not diminishing, but, rather, is on the rise. That makes this discussion both a pertinent and a pressing one.

In their best and most faithful articulations, faith communities care deeply about sustainable development. The words and phrases by which they state this may differ from the words and phrases by which economists, politicians, business people, international lawyers, and development experts state it, but it lies at the core of the beliefs of the world’s religions. People should, and must, have what they need for life to flourish – enough food, housing, health care, and education. People should, and must, be able to live in dignity and self-determination in a framework of human rights, justice, and peace that includes the integrity of the Earth. Moving from such stirring but general statements to the specific, most helpful ways that such sustainability is to be achieved is always the challenge for faith communities and all people engaged in this conversation. Even defining the terms of the conversation is challenging!

In recent years, the world’s faith communities have engaged this challenging trajectory towards sustainable development with energy, consistency, persistency, and creativity. They have engaged it in a new way.

Beginning in 2005, senior leaders of the world’s religions of the G8 countries, and, in subsequent years, some of the G20 countries, have been holding parallel summits to the G8 and G20 political summits. The purpose of the Interfaith Leaders summits has been to challenge and inspire the G8/G20 political leaders on such issues as the fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), climate change, and peace and security issues, particularly nuclear weapons and small arms trade. Conversations have been held between faith leaders and political leaders, and the faith leaders have committed themselves and their communities to renewed efforts to ensure progress on the MDGs and to combating climate change, nuclear weapons, and the devastation wrought by small arms. Consensus amongst the faith leaders has been reached on these, and other, issues of profound concern to the global community, and each summit since 2005 has agreed upon, written, and promulgated to politicians, media, and their own faith communities a joint statement.

These statements – available on the website – articulate the world’s religions’ deeply held commitment to sustainability for theological reasons, and also some of the essential, expert data.

For example, the 2010 Interfaith Leaders Statement, which was agreed upon by the faith leaders gathering in Winnipeg just prior to the political G8/G20 meetings, speaks in the following way about some of the data around climate change:

Wealthier countries must come to a more profound understanding of the interdependence of life and take courageous steps needed to care for the planet. In the realm of climate change, concrete plans must be implemented to ensure global average temperatures do not exceed a 2 [degree] Centigrade increase from pre-industrial levels.

In developing countries, the challenge is complex since growth, poverty reduction and environmental stewardship must journey together. This requires innovative leadership in these countries along with increased collaboration between rich and poor countries to protect agricultural lands from tourism and industrial developments, and support climate change adaptation and mitigation.

One could hear – and I have indeed heard – such statements at any and many meetings and conferences on climate issues. What is different in the way that faith groups approach such numbers and reasoning is the grounding that they bring with them. Leaders of aboriginal, Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, and Sikh religious traditions all agreed in Winnipeg to a preface to those statements above:

All our faith traditions call us to careful stewardship of the Earth. Climate change has become an urgent manifestation of our collective abuse of the very environment that sustains the fullness of life … The Earth, our home, is a gift from the Creator. Our faith traditions call us to relationships of mutual care and nurture between people and ecosystems. Faith communities see the environment through a lens of life on the planet as a unified whole, not unlike the cells of a body, infinitely differentiated in form and function yet deeply interdependent. … The roots of this crisis are spiritual and moral … As faith communities, we must move to action-oriented results, networking, and building morally sustainable communities.

The world’s faith communities have always been influential in, and influenced by, the societies of the globe, but have also often been synonymous with them. Words and actions that should have been spoken and acted for the sake of the globe and its people have been omitted, and words and actions that should not have been spoken and acted for the sake of the globe and its people have been committed, as is the case with most of the societies and communities that have existed, and do exist.

What we are seeing, though, is a remembering of the long history of the world’s religions – a long history of belief that we have been called to participate in the careful stewardship of the Earth. Faith traditions have great capacity for persistency and consistency through years and eons, and that, combined with the understanding of the Earth as a gift, can bring a strength and ability to engage in climate issues for the long term.

What we are also seeing in a western context that has, in recent years, sometimes thought that the role of faith would continually diminish in people’s lives, is a renewed understanding of its central role in the world – not just an understanding of the importance of such things as ritual and prayer in the quest to discern meaning, but also an understanding that the roots of the crises of climate and extreme poverty (to name but two of the world’s crises) can, and must, be seen through a spiritual and moral lens.

In November 2012, I was the only faith leader amongst the 30 leaders of civil society who was invited to speak with the United Nations High-level Panel on the Millennium Development Goals. The members of the panel have called for a higher moral and ethical bar to be set as a new development framework for post-2015 is determined. They have firmly called on all parts of civil society, secular and faith-based, to work together in a way that has not been happening in recent years. The panel challenged us to avoid the tendency to remain in our own “silos” when the imperative need is for broad collaboration.

What the faith communities can, and must, bring to such a broad collaboration is well captured by the closing paragraph of the 2010 Interfaith Leaders Statement:

As people of faith and as concerned global inhabitants, we urge our communities to do our part to end poverty, care for the Earth and invest in peace, including building a movement of political participation that makes seemingly impossible change possible. In a spirit of positive collaboration, acknowledging that both political leaders and faith leaders carry tremendous responsibility for setting the parameters for our common life, we will monitor the decisions our government leaders take … We expect follow-through on past promises. We expect bold new actions … If we fail in these goals, we fail our children who look to us to secure a viable future for them …

For Such A Time As This…

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