The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow closed in November 2021 with some encouraging signs of hope but also much disappointment at the negotiations table. However, while diplomats and negotiators seem to be so slow at taking concrete global political action, many are already fuelling real change in their communities and beyond.
Martin Palmer, former Secretary General of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and current CEO of FaithInvest helps us unpack the potential that faith communities have in leading climate change and the role that Focolare can play in this context. Martin Palmer is an international specialist on all major faiths and religious traditions and cultures and author of more than 20 books on religious and environmental topics. He is a regular contributor to the BBC and is a lay preacher in the Church of England.
You have pioneered, together with the late Duke of Edinburgh HRH Prince Philip, extraordinary environmental work bringing a spiritual dimension into the ecological discourse. What is the specific role of faith communities in the face of an unprecedented ecological crisis and why does it matter so much?
You speak of a spiritual dimension and of course the great faiths (and ARC and now FaithInvest and Faith Plans work with hundreds of different traditions in all twelve major faiths) have deep wisdom about how to live in balance. But perhaps to focus on a spiritual dimension is to accidentally miss the more important element in terms of change. Namely, that the great faiths are not just powerhouses of ancient spiritual wisdom with millennia of experience of guiding humanity through profound crises. They are also amongst the most significant stakeholders on the planet. Without the educational, medical, welfare and compassion work of the faiths through schools, hospitals, youth work, welfare agencies etc, civil society would collapse within weeks. Yet, for some reason, we faiths seem to have forgotten this – that we run 50% of all schools (64% in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to UNICEF); we manage around 8% of the landmass of the planet including 5% of commercial forests; we are collectively one of the largest investment groups with literally trillions of dollars invested. Yet we seem not to remember this.
So, while the spiritual aspect is vital because this gives us the wider perspective of time, space and meaning, if we ignore the stakeholder role, we go down a bit of a rabbit hole. If we think we are standing on the side-lines shouting and hoping someone will hear us, this ignores the fact that we have the stakeholder role. For example, the Catholic Church has more schools than both America and Canada combined. If, as we know from all major research reports, around 80-85% of people belong to a major faith then we need to accept that we are part of the problem as well as potentially the change makers!
You kindly mentioned HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh with whom I worked for 36 years, right up to his death in April. In the ‘80-‘90’s he was the International President of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). It was he who put his finger on why the secular – indeed even at times anti-religious – conservation/ecology worlds needed to work with the faiths. He said in 1985 that if it was data that would change the world for the better, we would have achieved this by now as the scientific information was already available. But, he pointed out, the great failure of the conservation/environmental movements was that they were not touching hearts and minds. He went on to say that only two forces had ever done that successfully – the Arts and Religion and that for much of history these had been one and the same thing. From this and, inspired by a schoolbook I had written on how different belief systems viewed the natural world based on their stories of creation/evolution, he proposed that WWF for its 25th anniversary in 1986 invite the major faiths and the major conservation/environmental groups to a meeting to see how they could work together. This led to the historic first ever such meeting held in Assisi in September 1986.
At the time there were just three faith environment projects in the world: The school textbook project in the UK and across Europe; the ARocha Centre in Portugal – a Protestant group focused on bird conservation; and a Buddhist project in HK, Thailand and India on Buddhist teachings and conservation. What we were able to launch in Assisi in 1986 is now according to the UN the largest single civil society movement on the environment in the world.
This was dramatically visible in COP26 in Glasgow where the faiths were the major players in everything from the marches, demonstrations and sending-in of petitions through to the Multi-Faith Statement issued by the Pope and religious leaders of every major faith. Also the role of the faiths in helping create new partnerships to move investments into environmental and sustainable investing, and lastly, the role of the Arts and Education helping people come to an understanding of the scale of the challenges and the resources faiths can bring to these.
As my colleague Lorna Gold has put it: COP26 was the ‘Tale of Two COPs’ and in the civil society, the faiths are right there in the midst.
It is so important what you say about taking an active role as faith communities in leading the change. Have you noticed a change of attitude in the last few years in this respect?
I see a huge shift. Faiths are now seen as essential to any possible successful venture by the media, investments, education, moral and spiritual leadership, and practical projects with communities etc. For the first time every major faith environment group such as GreenFaith; Eco-Sikh; Daoist Ecological Temple Network, Hazon – the largest Jewish environmental group and of course now the Vatican through the Laudato Si’ Movement and Focolare – are working together, side by side bringing the wonderful pluralism of different beliefs, values, and networks together especially through the Faith Plans programme. We faiths are now more sought after by the secular world than ever before. The danger is that we are expected to be the silver bullet that solves everything, so some humility is required by the faiths – but that we are now considered essential partners for any manageable and liveable future is beyond doubt. Huge possibilities; huge responsibilities; vast networks working side by side – and a series of giant challenges. Time for some optimism.
Last October, on the feast of St Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis and other religious leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, issued a pre-COP26 appeal on climate change and a public commitment to create plans for the environment. What is the importance of making a plan?
The Pope’s statement, endorsed by all major faiths, marks a turning point. For the first time the faiths committed themselves to making plans to change the impact of their faith on the environment. For example, there is a specific commitment to invest in line with their beliefs. To invest, in other words, in a sustainable, just, and environmental future. This is unique, and this commitment is what is now driving the Faith Plans through the Laudato Si’ Action Platform for the Catholics and through the Faith Plans platform for all other major Christian and other faith organisations.
For faiths to really be effective, we need not just the wonderful words and wisdom drawn from the spiritual well of the great faiths, but we also need to know where they could be change makers. This means knowing how extensive their role in education is in each place or country; how many clinics and hospitals they have; where their investments are; how much land they own; what range of professional skills there are in the faith community and so forth.
What do you think is the specific contribution of Focolare in bringing about change in the context of our ecological conversion?
Focolare is unique. Not only are you a major laity lead organisation in one of the most hierarchical faiths in the world, but you are an inspiration far beyond just your members. For decades you have worked through things such as the Economy of Communion on the lived and work reality of faith in practice in the marketplace. Creating new models and ventures seems to come as second nature to you and your quiet success stories are an inspiration.
And you have decades of multi-faith work of a depth and integrity which is not easily found in the often-superficial inter-faith world. Your links to other faiths shows a delight in pluralism that is not often found in religious organisations of the scale and impact of Focolare.
Finally, you seem to have already involved some of the most charismatic, highly motivated, skilful, thoughtful people in the world who are already out there doing this and who, now can say, that the Focolare is part of the reason they do what they do.