Environmental protection is a moral duty

Environmental protection is a moral duty

Ibrahim Thiaw*
Protecting the environment is not a modern concept. It is an idea enshrined in spiritual beliefs around the world. Major religious and spiritual movements have historically placed an emphasis on themes that have now been adapted by environmentalists seeking to protect the earth’s ecosystem.

Religious communities across the world routinely view the earth - and each mountain, river and creature within it - as a divine creation, a precious gift. And when it is viewed as a divine creation, they draw strength from its beauty - the Hindu religion accepting the presence of the divine within nature and the Talmud asserting that simply seeing the creatures of the world causes humans to seek out God. 

In Islam, Allah’s wisdom has ordained stewardship – khilafa - of the earth on human beings. Despite such teachings, science tells us that we have not been living up to such responsibilities. However, in this pivotal year, when the international community will take key decisions on how to bring about sustainable development and tackle climate change, it is heartening to see growing consensus among faiths that humanity’s development trajectory needs to be fundamentally altered in line with our moral and spiritual values.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis released a historic encyclical “Laudato Si.” In this encyclical he unequivocally stated that environmental conservation is a religious duty. This alignment between religious thought and environmental thinking is being further strengthened by International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul, which seeks to recognize not only that climate change is one of the greatest moral, social and environmental issues facing humanity today, but also that it disproportionately affects the poorest countries. 

Such interventions come not a moment too soon as the world seeks to change course. The declaration to be made by Muslim leaders, calling on the world’s estimated 1.6 billion adherents to Islam to tackle climate change as an inherent part of their religious duty, will, hopefully, bring increased momentum to efforts to address the greatest challenge facing humanity today.

A consistent theme in environmentalism is to use what we have in a sustainable manner. If just a quarter of food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would feed 870 million hungry people. This is a direct parallel with passages in the Quran saying wasters are not loved by Allah. And it would be a hard challenge to find a community, of any background, that celebrated waste in a time of want. 

The massive diversity of the world is still not fully documented; species we have not even yet discovered may be being destroyed by actions taken thousands of kilometers away. At a moment in the earth’s history when the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List estimates that more than 22,000 species are at risk of extinction, millions read the Quran, which counsels against the unnecessary destruction of creatures, warning that even a single sparrow, killed for no reason, has the right to justice, while Jewish and Christian texts argue against taking all the family of any animal in a single day and Hindu’s see other species in the context of reincarnation.

Environmental action also urges positive actions, a view of the entire earth as our family, a need to act together, to be generous, compassionate and to see others welfare as part of our responsibility. 

Human communities, from the earliest times, have always praised those who take care of the sick or poor, and encourage members to give a portion of income, time or resources to those less fortunate.

Yet it is the poor who are most affected by the destruction of the world’s ecosystems. Close to 1.6 billion people – more than 25 percent of the world’s population – rely on forest resources for their livelihoods and most of them use trees on farms to generate food and cash. Many developing countries draw on wood to meet as much as 90 percent of energy requirements. Afforestation cuts directly into the needs of the poor. 

More than anything the environmental movement and religious thought are most aligned when we speak, as one, of the need to think as a community, about what benefits the whole. 

To quote the Secretary-General of the United Nations, we are the first generation that can end poverty, the last that can end climate change. The people, communities and nations engaged in the sustainable development and climate change processes are the ones that will determine the future not only of our own species but of all the creatures on the earth.

Our world is our unique home, a home that cannot be remade, a gift we only hold for a short time. At the end of each of our lives we hand it on to others, to our children, our family and to strangers, scattered around the world. In seeking to pass it on as protected and beautiful as we can, we are, surely, honoring the sacred.

* Ibrahim Thiaw is the Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program