What in the world does religion and spirituality have to do with sustainability? I have come to believe there is a strong relationship between the three that needs to be explained, if we are to understand the requirements for humanity’s future. Sustainability basically requires a life style that is in balance with the limited carrying-capacity of planet Earth. To understand the concept of sustainability, requires an in-depth knowledge of the evolutionary creation of this majestic planet. A planet upon which we have discovered nearly 10 million different species of plants and animals, and to this day probably have found less than 20% of all living organisms that exist. The creation of Earth is truly a magical story, which becomes more complex as more knowledge is uncovered. Science has learned much, but as more is discovered the more we realize our limited ability to comprehend the mysterious concept of life.
It was the inquisitive mind of the human species that led to the introduction of religion. The quest to understand our planet and life systems triggered the belief in the super-natural and scared things. Efforts to define religion have resulted in a variety of definitions. Generally, it is defined as a belief in, and worship of, a superhuman controlling power, and includes a unified system of beliefs or practices relative to sacred things. Religion has provided the satisfying explanation for the understanding of life for thousands of years. As our scientific knowledge expanded, a split between the concept of intelligent design and an accidental cosmic happening has developed. Some continue to search for the link that proves intelligent design. The more detail of the creation process we uncover, the more difficult it becomes for me to accept this was an accidental happening.
The religious belief in intelligent design set the stage for a spiritual relationship between nature and our indigenous cultures and societies of the past. They saw Earth as a gift from the Great Creator. It was the sustenance of life, therefore sacred and requiring a caring, stewardship relationship between humanity and Mother Earth. During the early hunter-gather period, early humans attempted to recognized the necessity of sharing with other non-human species and the need to avoid over utilization in order to protect their future requirements. 12,000 years ago, when humans transitioned to an agriculturally based life style, they became dependent upon the productivity of the land. This major adjustment further strengthened the spiritual relationship humanity shared with the natural world. Stemming from our religious beliefs, this spiritual relationship with the natural world lasted for many thousands of years, resulting in the development of an appreciation for the necessity of living in balance with their environment.
To better understand the current relationship between science and religion, I examined the United Methodist Book of Discipline and their position on the natural world. It states, “All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it. God has granted us stewardship of creation. We should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect. …….. Therefore, let us recognize the responsibility of the church and its members to place a high priority on ……. supporting a more ecological equitable and sustainable world leading to a higher quality of life for all of God’s creation”. They go on to explain, “We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is science. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology”.
Advanced knowledge of the detail and complexity of creation, has brought us closer together and provided a deeper appreciation for the limited carrying capacity of this fragile planet. Religion established a spiritual relationship between humans and Mother Earth, the sustenance of life.
Spirituality is often defined as the spiritual practices of living out a person’s act of faith. It is actually experiencing one’s religious beliefs. A contemporary movement seeks to focus on the lived experiences of spirituality over historical dogmatic claims, and accepts that spiritual experiences are psychologically and neutrally real and useful.
Today, we face a problem of humanity’s alienation from the natural world, which has destroyed our spiritual connection to our natural environment. This dis-connect was initiated by the introduction of the “Industrial Revolution” in the mid 1800’s. Modern science and advanced technology has strengthened our belief that Earth belonged to us, and we can dominate, manipulate, change, control and make better, everything about this planet.
Today, as we are approaching the limits of available resources required to support our rapidly expanding worldwide population, our focus has shifted to sustainability. The question is, sustainability of what? Are we concerned about a sustainable flow of resources and products, a sustainable supply of elements provided only by our remaining natural world, or possibly providing for the sustenance of human life itself? It is a complex problem that requires a focus on the total not individual parts, and is further complicated by the necessity of having to change our social values developed over the last 200 years.
My interest is sustainable forest management. I have read a large number of the catalogs from the forestry schools throughout the United States, and found they typically define their program as teaching the students to manage the renewable natural resources from the forests. Forest land owners and managers usually define their goals as providing a sustainable flow of products from the forests. Forests represent a large portion of our remaining natural world and consequently require management principles that assure their ability to provide the elements necessary for future life on planet Earth! This means forest management must focus on the health, vitality and diversity of our remaining forest cover as its primary goal, with forest products becoming a by-product of good management. I was encouraged to find a definition of sustainable forest management by the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe.
“The stewardship and use of forests and forest lands in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfill, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions, at local, national and global levels, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems”.
I still have difficulty accepting the continued insistence on economics and forest product dependent-communities as a measure of sustainability. Local communities must be depended upon to provide the energy to implement the much-needed management actions required to achieve the health, vitality and diversity desperately needed by the unique individual forest communities. It is simply re-defining jobs from what we take from the forests to what the forests require. Religious institutions need to energize the people to redeem their stewardship responsibility’s and rekindle our spiritual relationship with the land. Forest scientists must develop a comprehensive appreciation for the complexity of creation, a deep understanding of the essential elements our remaining forest communities provide which sustains life systems and provide the leadership required for a sustainable future for humanity! Sustainability must focus on a sustainable environment where our remaining natural world maintains its ability to provide the required elements that allow life to exist on Earth! Sustainable forest management requires a religious and scientific appreciation for the story of creation, a spiritual relationship with the natural world, an in-depth knowledge of the relationships life systems depend upon from our remaining forested lands and a recognition that forest communities are far more complex than the simple application of agricultural or economic concepts.
Sustainability must focus on living in balance with Mother Earth!