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Plenary 1 continued - Can Religion Save the Planet?,
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21/10/2009 19:30

Religious leaders were urged today to use their influence to mobilise their flocks in the fight to halt environmental destruction. Delegates were told they had no choice but to harness the power of their appeal for the good of the planet.

“[Religious leaders] do have an obligation to speak out,” said Cardinal Theodore E McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington. There was a 'desperate need' for the Church to act against what was 'primarily a spiritual and moral crisis', he added.

His words were echoed by Dr Richard Chartres, Lord Bishop of London, who acknowledged that many people in the Church were still 'in denial' about the urgency of the threat. But, speaking of the need to build a 'truly transforming community of the future', he said that it was crucial to remain positive.

Lord Bishop of London, Richard Chartres

“It is only too easy to get locked into the competitive auction of doom. I think these problems can be solved,” he said, adding: “The saddest words in any language are: 'It's too late.'”

Staying positive, however, was not something that was easy for those communities at the forefront of climate change, said Patricia Cochran, former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

In a moving speech relating to the changes occurring in her homeland of north-western Alaska, she emphasised the need to pay attention to those with the 'most to lose' from global warming.

“Climate change is an enormous social issue,” she said, calling on delegates to do all they could to 'genuinely empower' indigenous people in order to put an end to the 'cycle of victimhood'.

In order to make its message palatable for the general public, religions needed to show people that they knew they didn't have all the answers, said Roger S Gottlieb of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

“[Humility] is a tough lesson to learn,” he said, adding that the fact that he and others had added to their carbon footprint by flying to the RSE conference showed that the environment movement had its flaws. “We're all part of the problem. That should be enough to make us feel humble,” he said.

According to Bishop Chartres, 'a profound humility' is also a key element in the often uneasy cooperation of religion and science. John Hart, professor of Christian ethics at Boston University's School of Theology, agreed that the two spheres could and should work together to combat the perils of environmental degradation.

Several speakers agreed that another area meriting a re-think was that of the power balance in the relationship between man and nature. To this end, Professor Gottlieb urged delegates to think of themselves 'differently'- as 'animals...connected to life just as every other living thing is'.

“We don't just protect the earth, we do not condescend to it, we commune with it,” he explained.

Bishop Chartres argued that the Christian faith gave the environmental movement a valuable lesson in its rejection of the Cartesian theory that man is the master and possessor of nature.

“It is in the Eucharist that we discover that we are in fact guests, stewards and viceroys [of the natural world],” he said. “We are to till and keep the earth. We are not to refrain from development but we are to keep it in balance.”

In a personal reflection on bible-based Christianity, Dr Margaret Barker used the various linguistic possibilities of the creation story to illustrate how religion could be used to help the environment- focusing in particular on the traditional portrayal of Adam as 'ruler of the earth'.