Faith and Sustainable Development: Exploring Practice, Progress and Challenges among Faith Communities and Institutions
Much has been written about the theoretical, spiritual and ethical foundations underpinning the role of faith institutions and communities, and especially of the Christian churches, in sustainable development, and much hope has been invested in the potential of religious institutions as a channel for and exemplar of sustainable practices and values. There are sound reasons for the interest in faiths and sustainability. Religion has been the dominant framework for values, cooperation and social control in most of human history. SD and environmentalism have largely evolved as secular movements in the West; but we live in a largely religious world. It is estimated that over 80% of the global population are adherents, in varying degrees, of a faith tradition. Given the scale, reach and importance of religion as a social reality, engagement with and by people in faith communities and institutions is inescapable and vital for the prospects for sustainable development both now and in a near future where population growth will be concentrated in countries permeated by faith traditions and new ones that have developed.
For secular actors, religions offer a major channel for communication and mobilisers of personal and community action. Religions can also be significant and trusted providers of social and other services. The early 1960s saw the publication of the Church in the Modern World, an outcome of the second Vatican Council, and a pioneering text in the development of Catholic Social Thought (CST), perhaps the body of theory and practical doctrine that has, so far, had most to say about the core concerns of sustainability. In June 2015, the Papal Encyclical Laudato Si on humanity and the Earth was published—this is the first encyclical on climate action, environment and SD from a pope (Pope Francis I). It introduces the concept of ‘Integral Ecology’, defined as a synthesis of ecological ethics with CST’s teachings on the just economy, dignity of individuals, social solidarity, subsidiarity and the common good. The encyclical called for new processes of dialogue across sectors, faiths, frontiers and disciplines for a radical rethinking of policy priorities and values.
While the emergence of such guidance and its basis in spirituality has been explored in a multitude of papers and books, what has been far less explored is the experience so far of faith institutions and communities in translating theological and moral commitments to sustainable development into action. What are the challenges faced by Church-based organisations when trying to turn the theory of faith-infused sustainability into practice? After all, there are often conflicts between and within religions that can result in a loss of cohesion, distraction and a loss of credibility with potential allies and partners in secular communities. Such conflicts can become magnified by economic, ecological and social pressures. But in addition to these, there are the challenges of having effective institutions and personnel at grassroots levels, and this can manifest in a multitude of ways. There is a need for funding, but this raises issues of sourcing the finance for sustainability initiatives and having to follow the necessary rules to account for expenditures and incomes. In addition, of course, there are always requirements to show that the money that has been spent has had an impact. Having the most appropriate personnel, be they secular or religious, and institutional framework within which they can work is also of importance as, indeed, is succession planning and management when people leave positions and need to be replaced. This, in turn, raises issues of education and training as well as inducements. All of these mean that faith-based organisations operating at the frontier of SD face much the same challenges as do secular agencies. In addition, there may be dangers of instrumentalism: the temptation for secular advocates of sustainability to fall into using faith-based groups as vehicles for SD without real understanding and partnership. It leads to the central question at the heart of this Topic—how effectively can faith organisations and leaders ‘mobilise’ people for SD?
This Topic welcomes papers on the theme of the challenges of ‘making SD happen’ at grassroots levels, and examples from across the world are welcome. We are interested in perspectives from and on the major world faiths and their local denominational expressions. We are especially interested in papers that explore how challenges have been conceptualised and addressed in addition to case studies of faith-based sustainability initiatives in practice.
Stephen Morse holds the Chair in Systems Analysis for Sustainability in the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, University of Surrey. Before becoming an academic, Steve was based in Nigeria and worked for the World Bank and international aid agencies (both government and non-government) in rural development, with an especial focus on improving food security and provision of micro-finance for resource-poor households. Much of his work was with Catholic Church agencies. Steve has a background in applied ecology and the environment, and his research and teaching interests are broad spanning both the natural and social sciences. These interests include methods for the assessment of sustainability (e.g., the development and use of indicators and indices, life cycle sustainability assessment) in order to help guide intervention and the development and use of participatory methodologies for sustainability assessment, including Triple Task. He has been involved in research and sustainable development projects across Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa, Central/Latin America and Asia.
Jim Lynch is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Society of Biology, the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Society of Arts, and is a Chartered Chemist, Biologist, Scientist and Environmentalist. He has worked at research institutes, universities as visiting professor (Oxford, Reading, Kings College London, Imperial College, Washington State, Oregon State and Helsinki), and companies as non-executive director or advisor. He was Dean of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Surrey, Chief Executive of the Forestry Commission Research Agency, Chairman of the Biology Division of the International Union of Soil Sciences, Coordinator of the OECD Research Programme on Biological Resource Management, Board Member of the European Forest Institute, Chair of Governors University of Chichester, and is Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences Emeritus at the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, University of Surrey. He was awarded the UNESCO Prize in Microbiology and Einstein Medal, Distinguished Scientist of the US Department of Agriculture, the Japanese Government Research Award for Foreign Specialists, and Officer of the Order of the British Empire and Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
Ian Christie (lead editor) is senior lecturer (associate professor) in social science and ethics of sustainable development at the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, University of Surrey. His career includes senior roles outside academic life in UK local and central government, business and think-tanks. He is an associate of the UK religion and public life think-tank Theos and has, for over a decade, been an advisor to the Church of England on climate and environmental challenges. He is currently an advisor to the dioceses of Guildford and Southwark, covering south London and the county of Surrey. He has published and taught on the links between sustainable development and Catholic Social Teaching and pioneered the coverage of religion in relation to sustainability and environment in his Master's-level teaching at Surrey.
Prof. Dr. Stephen Morse
Prof. Dr. Jim Lynch
- education and communication within faith communities
- effective partnerships across faiths and with secular actors
- finance and investment; leadership and management
- planning for institutional sustainability
- development of action plans for climate and biodiversity goals
- food and water security
- land use issues
- action to implement the UN SDGs
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