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Lessons for making progress for change

FaithInvest CEO Martin Palmer reflects on how lessons from the past can help us shape the future

I sometimes get a sense of déjà vu! The reason is I feel I have sort of been here before.

In 1985 HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at that time the International president of WWF, asked me to help him launch a new movement. He wanted us to challenge, provoke, assis and encourage the major faiths to take seriously the threats to our living planet.

In 1986 we hosted, through WWF International, the first ever meeting of all the major environmental groups and five of the major faiths. The meeting took place in Assisi, Italy, birthplace of the Catholic saint of ecology, Francis.

At that time, the idea that religions had anything to do with the environment was unheard of and seen by many as frankly pointless, if not ridiculous. Prince Philip set me the task of finding out, before the 1986 meeting, what was actually happening in terms of practical faith action on the environment internationally.

There were a few pioneer individuals but only three officially faith-based initiatives; one Buddhist; one evangelical Christian and one multi-faith and in the sphere of education. But, nothing if not hopeful, Prince Philip and I staged a huge dramatic launch of what we boldly called “the new partnership between the faiths and the environment”.

Today there isn’t a significant faith group which hasn’t issued a statement or declaration about why they consider, as faithful people, that care of people and planet is fundamental to their faith. There are literally hundreds of different statements reflecting the vast array of traditions within each faith as well as a common sense that this is now crucial to faithful life.

Worldwide, in parishes, synagogues, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and at sacred sites, holy rivers, pilgrimage routes and other places of spiritual power, there are millions of projects, ranging from energy efficiency programmes to huge reforesting schemes; from educational programmes throughout faith schools to, now, investments by faiths in sustainable and environmental businesses and activities.

It has created what the UN described in 2009 as the “largest civil society movement on the environment”. But it took time and leadership and ultimately demand from the faithful.

What can we learn?

So as I look at what is happening on the whole topic of the faiths as stakeholders, especially in the sustainable use of their assets, land, building and investments, I feel a sense of déjà vu. So what can we learn from the 1986 success of a whole new way of being faithful?

  • First, it takes time. I cannot tell you how many 18-month or even three -year grand schemes to “save the rainforest” or to “protect the Yangzi river” or to ”stop the illegal wildlife trade” I have seen come and go, leaving at best a ripple on the surface as they sank from sight!

  • Secondly, it always starts relatively small. But in 1986, by highlighting the pioneers taking the first steps, we made it seem as if the whole religious world was getting involved – so others started to do so too, in order not to be left behind.

  • Thirdly, while religious leaders are useful sometimes, they are not the real drivers of change. They can hold it up or they can bless it but they don’t actually know much about how their faith works on the ground. Therefore we always worked with the land managers, the directors of education, the buildings supervisors and so forth – ie, with the people whose involvement is essential if change will really take place. Hence FaithInvest works with the fund managers of the different faiths but also with the leadership trainers; the educators and the faith media.

  • Finally the greatest engine for change is the laity. The people who belong to the faith. When they started to ask “so what exactly is our faith tradition doing about the environment?” the pressure was on for the faith structures to respond.

In the past few years we have been reminded in FaithInvest of how central lay involvement is to making something like faith-consistent investing something they assume their faith tradition is already doing. And in asking for details of how this is going, they help – possibly embarrass – and certainly motivate the faith structures to get going!


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