How faith could become a shining light in sustainability leadership

Pope Francis called for an end to populism, modern slavery, and pollution last month, in a public letter sent to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. Titled Fratelli Tutti, the encyclical built on his much-referenced Laudato Si in 2015, which called on over 1.2 billion Catholics to take strong action on climate change. This latest encyclical (and follow up TED Talk) draws extensively on conversations with the Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyeb. Faith drives a sense of community and collective purpose, which can be harnessed to create positive and sustainable change. This is something we have been trying to garner energy around for years. Could the characteristics of faith-based organisations mean they are well-positioned to become leaders in sustainability?

Sustainability requires both science and ethics. We call for action on climate change because of scientific evidence and we demand climate justice because climate change most affects vulnerable communities. In a world dominated by polarised conversations, science and faith can seem at odds with one another, but this is an oversimplification and it misses the point on ethics completely.

I’ve always been interested in theology and the ways in which we can learn from all religions. At Edge, we’ve been given the opportunity to explore what sustainability means for faith-based organisations across a number of projects.

Our work with faith-based organisations has been bold, with one client stating it would be “crazy” not to set ambitious targets when you’re planning five years ahead – a refreshing attitude in the world of five-year strategies! All our faith-based clients recognise that environmental issues are inherently linked to social issues and we have a responsibility to care as custodians and stewards of the planet.

But what exactly are the values and characteristics that make faith-based organisations so successful in empowering people to work towards a collective vision?

Abundance

Everything you need is here.

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

How often are we reminded that we have all the technology we need to meet the Paris Agreement? How often do we turn to leading examples overseas to demonstrate that our ideas work in practice? And how many times have we been reminded that one hour of sunlight hitting the Earth has enough energy to power our planet for a year? There is an abundance of knowledge, technology, experience, and energy available to solve these problems.

For one of our faith-based clients, this concept of abundance was demonstrated by its community members, who donated 80,000 hours of volunteer time in one year. Generosity, intimately related to abundance, is a core feature of this organisation’s faith, where the Creator provides abundant love and compassion and the resources needed to care – think Christianity’s miracle of the loaves and fishes, or Islam’s third pillar of charity.

In our experience working with the faith-based community, this abundance mindset has brought the creativity and ambition needed to address both our social and planetary needs.

Stewardship

A responsibility to care for the planet, which is seen as a gift, is strong within faith-based organisations. For example, in Hinduism, the concepts of karma and dharma affirm the intimate relationship between all beings on earth. Therefore, protecting the environment can lead to a good future life.

Science has shown us that we cannot manufacture a self-sustaining ecosystem. Our attempts to do so have resulted in heated debates among the ethics board at best and catastrophic failures at worst. We know our understanding of the interactions between systems is limited and we continue to stand in awe of the complexity and chaos of the planet, even as we make new discoveries. We know that we are fortunate to be here in the Goldilocks zone and we need to take care of this system that creates the conditions conducive to life. We are all stewards of this world.

Collective Action

Dirty hands. An interesting analogy raised through our work that has rung in my mind since a client explained it. We have a responsibility to get our hands dirty as citizens of this planet. It is not good enough to sit around and wait for a technological, scientific, or religious fix. Faith based organisations are made up of communities that are motivated to take action.

Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti is just one example of the letters that all varieties of faith groups are publishing to engage their communities in addition to interfaith declarations. These are calls to action. They call on leaders and the faith community to do something. And they are specific about what they want. Pollution, water, climate, modern slavery, education, transparency. These themes arise time and time again through these faith-based declarations. Look at any materiality matrix or the Sustainable Development Goals and you will find these clearly aligned.

We need better conversations

Faith, science, and ethics can all work together. The nuances between our conversations are where real opportunities lie. We have seen that faith-based organisations mobilise quickly around a common purpose, give generously to achieve it, and easily understand the idea that sustainability is more than just protecting the environment. All these elements give faith-based organisations a leg up to becoming leaders in sustainability.

As we all continue to work towards a future that is just, regenerative, and conducive to life, these conversations will become more important. We need to work together to find common ground and build the foundations of our shared future.

Authors: Max Van Biene and Sarah Sannen.

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