Spirituality and the Environment
Hasan Zillur Rahim
I was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion on “Spirituality
and the Environment” by Jerry Schubel, president of the Aquarium of the
Pacific in Long Beach, California (http://www.aquariumofpacific.org/). To
help him organize this public event were his able staff Fahria Qader and Ya
Reverend Larry Ginn, executive director of the Rainbow Community Resource
Center in Los Angeles, Reverend O. Leon Wood Jr., a Baptist preacher, Dolly
Garza, a Native Alaskan of the Haida heritage and Rabbi David Seidenberg,
author and speaker on ecology and Judaism issues, were the other panelists.
Chhean Kong, a Buddhist monk, was unable to attend.
The goal of the discussion was to explore spiritual perspectives on nature,
connection between spirituality and environmental stewardship, and the
influence of spiritual traditions in shaping our ecological viewpoint.
Rev. Larry Ginn introduced the panelists to a packed audience in the
Aquarium auditorium. Highlights of the discussion, moderated by Jerry
Schubel and based on an edited transcript provided by the Aquarium staff,
Jerry Schubel: E. O. Wilson, the famed entomologist and author of “The
Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth,” is one of the 50 most
influential scientists of our time. Along with other scientists, Wilson
thinks we have messed up the earth. There’s a growing urgency to change our
ways. Experts predict that within the next 50 years, we will destroy 20% of
all living species. By the end of the century, we will lose half of all
living species. Global warming and rising sea-level threaten our existence.
However, tonight our interest is spirituality and using it and science to
conserve our earth and protect all living beings. Tolstoy once said that
science does not explain how life is lived. You can’t find any place on
earth where human impact is not felt. The rate of change is simply too
great. We are now going through the sixth greatest extinction. In the
previous five extinctions, it is said to have taken 10 million years for the
earth to recover each time.
Spirituality, stewardship and ethics are the themes of our discussion
tonight. Spirituality is to recognize that we are a part of something bigger
than ourselves. Spirituality differentiates between the beliefs we have and
the way we live as a result of those beliefs. Religion is organized
spirituality. Stewardship is the individual’s responsibility to take care of
the environment and the living beings in it. Ethics is to do what is right.
Environmental ethics goes beyond human concerns to include all living
beings. It includes nurturing the relationship between generations. Aldo
Leopold taught us that a land ethic imposes limitations on the kinds of
things we can do. Human arrogance, ignorance and greed are the main reasons
for the environmental problems we face today.
So my first question to the panelists is this: In your faith or tradition,
what is the connection between humans and the environment?
Leon: I grew up in a rural farm in Bakersfield and learned intuitively from
my tradition that the earth and man are connected. We have a responsibility
to take care of the living beings around us, the animals and so on, and not
be too greedy.
Jerry: Relate to what Wendell Berry said …
Hasan: Berry is a farmer and writer from Kentucky and, in my opinion, one of
our wisest teachers on responsible stewardship. He lives close to the land
with his family and believes that our fidelity to the land and the creatures
in it must be consistent with how we live. A developer has often no clue
that building a road through a habitat can damage acres of farmland and
destroy wild beings. He thinks that is a price we should happily pay for
progress. But that is only an illusion. When I was growing up in Bangladesh,
it was out of necessity that most people, particularly villagers, had to
conserve and live frugally. Everything was recycled. But now people have
become more wasteful. Global warming is a major concern. The entire
Bangladesh is at sea-level. If the Greenland ice sheet melts (630,000 cubic
miles of ice), sea-level would rise by 20 feet and the entire country would
be under water. So would Manhattan and Miami and many other regions of the
world. Millions of people will be displaced. In books like “The Gift of Good
Land,” “The Unsettling of America,” and “A Continuous Harmony,” Wendell
Berry has powerfully and eloquently described how living in harmony with the
land and all its inhabitants is both a moral and a practical imperative.
Dolly: We think we are wiser and more powerful but there is actually very
little we control. Everything changes because of our actions but not in the
way we want. It is easier for native Alaskans to appreciate this because
they live close to the land and have known for generations how an imbalance
in our relationship with nature can destroy us. People need to acknowledge
that they are part of the web of life.
David: I didn’t grow up religious. What I have found is that religions have
tremendous lessons for the untapped environment. Judaism is an indigenous
tradition. Look at the Torah. There’s a lot of wisdom in it on how to
control the effects of farming. Why don’t we hear of that tradition? And how
do we listen to it?
Jerry: Why do you think we haven’t heard it?
David: Mainly because of the profit motive. Most people associate their
efforts only with money, the belief that we have to participate with the
mainstream, that there is no other way. That is a mistake. We are living in
a financial bubble that is eventually bound to pop.
Hasan: The Quran has over 6000 verses, out of which about 750 verses,
one-eighth of the book, talks about humankind’s relationship with nature and
responsible stewardship. But most of us, including Muslim scholars, rarely
talk about these verses other than in a superficial way. Why do we ignore
1/8th of our holy book?
Leon: I read the Book of Genesis. I remember reading the first part and
recognizing that we have a responsibility for living in harmony with nature.
I don’t know why we don’t start teaching love of the earth starting in
Dolly: I have been a part of a process in Alaska, trying to create more
Alaskan native scientists and transferring their knowledge to science. We
send our children to elementary school and if we are not completely sure as
to what they are learning, then we are giving over children to the “system”
completely. Students “learn” only at school and they learn nothing at home.
They do not understand that they must also learn from their families.
Suddenly they are sent off to boarding schools and they are lost. They
should know that if your father has been a fisherman for 40 years, he will
know more than what you acquire through books. My small effort in Alaska is
to bring back local knowledge to schools, so that a kid can say: Yes, this
is my uncle, he is a fisherman and he knows something. The knowledge that
resides in people who live close to their environment, their ecological
knowledge, is vital for the continuity of a community and we have to find
ways of bringing that knowledge back into our homes, schools, culture. What
we see now is an erosion of respect for ecological traditions.
David: Staying connected to indigenous knowledge is not the same as living
it. We can’t all of a sudden become indigenous by clicking our fingers. We
have to find other ways of becoming rooted in our cultures. Here is an
analogy from the natural world. Weeds are fugitive species and they grow
fast. They are not rooted in the normal sense but are as important to the
biosphere as anything else. Weeds grow in lawns because lawns are
continuously disrupted through mowing. We’re not even supposed to have green
lawns here. This is an analogy for religion being rooted in only one place.
There is wisdom in being rooted, but there is also beauty and wisdom in not
being rooted. Every religion has serious problems with nature. Interpreting
sacred text and assigning a world to that text can be a challenge.
Leon: Justice should figure prominently in our relationship with nature. To
protect the environment is justice and to respect and protect the rights of
others in their native environment is also justice.
David: I think there are ways to make a land or a region beautiful that are
also sustainable. Are we going to develop an ethical outlook that can also
coexist with justice? The question is whether we’re going to get there
through freedom or fear.
Hasan: We have to remain focused on the real issues and not be distracted by
media-driven slogans. Sure, planting trees is a good idea but the real issue
is to cut down on the emission of greenhouse gases such as Carbon dioxide
and methane. We cannot possibly plant enough trees to neutralize greenhouse
gases that cause global warming. Ultimately, we must recognize that
everything is connected. For me to say that my life isn’t connected to
yours is to suggest that your end of the boat is sinking.
Jerry: An earth ethics is a combination of spirituality and the environment.
Spirituality is a key factor in changing humankind’s interaction with the
environment. We have over 1.4 million visitors a year and of these, two
hundred thousand are school kids. We are ethnically very diverse. What
recommendations do you have for the aquarium to make it more affective in
making a spiritual connection with the environment?
Leon: By giving a positive image to all ethnic groups, people from a variety
of cultures and religions. People need to become curious and ask questions.
I am an African-American but there are many more ethnic groups who need to
feel at home here.
Jerry: We try to do the best we can. We celebrate all kinds of ethnic
Dolly: By 5th grade, children have an idea of what they want to be. I think
it’s important to help children develop a relationship with the environment
as early as possible.
Hasan: As Thoreau said: We need the tonic of wildness. The kids need to see
wilderness where it exists, outside the aquarium. The trips that the
aquarium organizes to the ocean and to the woods are an excellent idea.
David: In the context of zoos and aquariums, the biggest challenge is that
we can take an idea of what the world looks like and reduce it to an
exhibit. Representing the ocean and its complexity in an aquarium is quite a
Dolly: Legend says that man was born from God’s tears. In many larger
societies, we don’t see ourselves as part of the environment, unlike small
communities, because we don’t have that tactile relationship. We need to
connect through sight, smell and touch. Then perhaps we will have respect
for the land and live with values that reflect our fidelity to the land.
Leon: We tend to forget that we are all God’s creation. Most of us are
concerned with “my” life, “my” concerns, and “my” livelihood, yet when we
think about the environment, we think about broader issues that reflect our
recognition that everything is connected to everything else. Why can’t this
type of thinking also animate our other thoughts? If it did, we would make
enormous progress in reducing poverty and enhancing justice.
Hasan: To return to Thoreau again: “In wildness is the preservation of the
world.” Without areas of wilderness around us, as Thoreau understood over a
hundred and fifty years ago, the human spirit will decay. That is why it is
important to shed our hubris of ‘mastery over nature’ and recognize that
human need cannot justify transgressing the rights of other living beings.
As there is now growing convergence between science and spirituality, there
is also growing convergence between conservation and spirituality.
Jerry: These are hopeful signs and we must continue to build on them.