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Religion And Ecology, Not Always A Natural Marriage

Muslims are supposed to save water, Christians and Jews energy. In the past, we blamed those ideologies for ecological crises.

Statue in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City
Statue in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City
Matthias Drobinski and Elisa Rheinheimer-Chabbi

MUNICH — The Vatican document that Pope Francis published last summer made headlines around the world. Humans are exploiting the Earth's resources, he declared in his encyclical on the environment. Particularly in wealthy countries, we are altering the conditions of our planet with a lifestyle that is dangerous, and perhaps even suicidal.

The pontiff's words could not have been clearer: Climate change is man-made, and now it's our duty to save what's left of God's creation.

Though conservative Christians in the United States were shocked (Now even the pope believes the climate-warming-lie!), most religious leaders joined in the praise of the pope's encyclical Laudato si" , named after Saint Francis' "Canticle of the Sun."

In today's world, religion tends to find itself on the side of those fighting for ecological preservation. But it hasn't always been that way.

In 1967, the U.S. historian Lynn Townsend White, Jr. published a provocative essay, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." He argued that the worldview of monotheistic religions is at the origin of the modern threat to the environment: Christianity, Judaism and Islam all consider mankind the pride — and master of — creation.

In ancient times, the notion of the neverending circle of life was what largely shaped the understanding of history. Monotheistic religions on the other hand see history as a linear, target-oriented process. This has led to a naïve belief in progress, reducing nature to a simple object of exploitation.

White hit a sore spot: Man-as-builder has always been at the center of, especially, Christian and Jewish anthropologies. This eventually leads to him flying to the moon and mastering nuclear power, all for the purposes of humanity. The idea of man being just part of a bigger picture, a larger creation, in which all creatures have the same right to life, was considered out of step with the times.

White's essay is considered the moment when the modern theological discussion of religion and ecology was born. Ever since, the number of environmentally active Christians has grown steadily. Today it is considered theological common knowledge that humans are supposed to preserve nature and cultivate the land of an Earth that is part of a wider creation. It's not the quantitative, but the qualitative progress that is considered as ethically unproblematic, leading to more justice, peace and protection of the environment. In the most basic but visible signs, you are increasingly likely inside Christian communities to find recycled paper in church pews and solar panels on the roofs.

Green kosher food, Muslim water

Judaism and Christianism have experienced a similar evolution — even if especially in Israel, environmental activists had to fight an uphill battle. Only recently, 333 rabbis in Israel signed a letter for the protection of the environment, calling on believers to avoid further investment in oil, carbon and gas, and commit instead to wind, water and solar power.

In Israel there are seminars for ecological kosher food, tree-planting activities and fair trade kippas. "Judaism and ecological awareness go hand-in-hand," says the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Israeli theologian Jeremy Bernstein explains that "Halacha, Jewish law, has rich knowledge of how we influence nature."

An Islamic call for saving water

Even in Islam — considered by some as the least eco-friendly major religion — you can see a new environmental consciousness, coming mostly from the Muslim communities in Europe. Already in the 1980s, Muslims in Britain founded the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences.

In Germany the group Nour-Energy was founded five years ago, campaigning for more environmental awareness among Muslims. In August, Muslim scientists from around the world published an "Islamic declaration of climate change." The prophet Muhammad called on his followers to save water, and the Koran exhorts: "Don't do mischief on Earth!"

Over the course of just one generation, Christians', Jews' and Muslims' attitude towards nature has changed drastically, from the idea of mankind mastering nature, to a theology of creation.

Experts note that this is a major step in the fight against global warming: Christians, Jews and Muslims not only make up the majority of the world population, but also the political, economic and cultural elites around the planet. Prayers aside, it will take a change in people's behavior to fix the environment — and that requires the kind of raising of consciousness that religions do so well.

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Dmytro Kuleba, Foreign Minister of Ukraine attends the summit of foreign ministers of the G7 group of leading democratic economic powers.

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