Conference: Religion joins with science to address environment issues

September 17, 2009
Peter G. Brown of McGill University discusses building a whole earth economy based on a "right relationship" between humans and their environment. He addressed the annual conference of the Association for Baha'i Studies on 14 August 2009 in Washington. (Photos by Evan Wilder)

WASHINGTON, United States — People’s spiritual beliefs affect their attitude toward climate change, with religious groups increasingly helping to frame humanity’s response to environmental issues.

That was one of the messages from a session at the 33rd annual conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies, held in mid-August in Washington, D.C. The gathering drew nearly 1,000 participants from some 20 countries.

The theme of the conference was “Environments,” and one of the plenary speakers was Peter G. Brown, a geography professor at McGill University in Montreal who has participated in the Moral Economy Project of the Quaker Institute for the Future.

Dr. Brown said the current economic paradigm is bringing mayhem to the planet and that people need to learn to think of themselves as citizens, not consumers.

“We need a different image of ourselves,” he said − an image that sees humanity as part of a long “co-evolutionary” process. Rather than asking how to better exploit the earth's resources, humanity should be asking how to live with an ethic of respect and reciprocity for all life, he said.

Society’s concept of morality is too limited, he continued, suggesting that a moral framework must be applied to systems, not just to individuals.

“We have not been able to connect our scientific knowledge with our moral systems,” he noted.

Artist Otto Don Rogers of Canada delivers the Balyuzi Memorial Lecture, focusing on the arts as a spiritual endeavor. He spoke on 15 August 2009 in Washington. Slideshow
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Artist Otto Don Rogers of Canada delivers the Balyuzi Memorial Lecture, focusing on the arts as a spiritual endeavor. He spoke on 15 August 2009 in Washington.

A Baha'i speaker, Peter Adriance, described how religious groups and faith communities are increasingly collaborating with the environmental movement. He quoted Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-founder of the Forum on Religion and Ecology, as saying that “no other group of institutions can wield the particular moral authority of the religions.”

Mr. Adriance listed a dozen initiatives by various groups that focus on spiritual or moral aspects of creating a sustainable environment. Among those that he mentioned were:

-- A first-of-its-type report from the Sierra Club titled "Faith in Action: Communities of Faith Bring Hope for the Planet."

-- Programs sponsored by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

-- A paper from the Worldwatch Institute titled “Engaging Religion in the Quest for a Sustainable World”; part of the text was included in the 2003 State of the World report.

-- The Green Sanctuary program initiated by the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth.

He quoted Gus Speth from the 2007 Yale Conference Report: “Religions played key roles in ending slavery, in the civil rights movement, and in overcoming apartheid in South Africa, and they are now turning attention with increasing strength to the environment.”

Mr. Adriance also quoted from a 1991 statement by the Baha’i International Community calling for a spiritual response to address global problems: “The changes required to reorient the world toward a sustainable future imply degrees of sacrifice, social integration, selfless action, and unity of purpose rarely achieved in human history. These qualities have reached their highest degree of development through the power of religion.”

This year’s conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies (North American chapter) was held from 13-16 August, concurrently with the annual meeting of the International Environmental Forum, a Baha’i-inspired organization addressing the environment and sustainable development.

Arthur Dahl gave the opening address and said that the conference theme of “Environments” would explore the relationship “between our outer and inner environments, between the planet and our souls, between science and spirituality.”

“We still look at economic issues separately from social or environment questions despite all the efforts to integrate them,” said Dr. Dahl, who is president of the International Environment Forum and a former official with the United Nations Environment Program.

Speaking to an audience that included many scientists, he warned of the “spiritual danger in the pride to think that we can know everything through science.”

Science uncovers facts, he noted, and he gave the example of science proving that smoking causes lung cancer. But science is powerless to change behavior − what changes behavior is spiritual and cultural transformation, he said.

Balyuzi lecture

A highlight of the conference was the Balyuzi Memorial Lecture by Canadian artist Otto Don Rogers, said Kim Naqvi, one of the organizers of the gathering. Works by Mr. Rogers hang in a number of museums – among them the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

“He challenged the community to consider the arts as both an intellectual and spiritual endeavor,” said Dr. Naqvi.

Mr. Rogers explored the concept of space and said even scientists do not understand it very well; in the past it was sometimes referred to as the “ether.”

Cezanne, he noted, was one of the first painters to leave gaps − spaces − in his paintings, making it possible for the mind to move into his works. “Space is not simply a curtain that hangs behind everything, physicists have found, but it has an intelligence and form,” he said.

“Recent research on brain function has revealed interesting insights,” he continued. “Physicists had thought that the brain’s some two billion neurons are connected in one long string. Yet now, with the development of high-powered microscopes, they have discovered that each neuron is bonded by its own memory. One cluster of neurons is bound to another by some type of memory, but they do not touch.”

He said scientists have concluded that the synapses between cells are the secret sites of communication. Likewise, he said, a painting is about the space between things, the way the dark relates to the light, the fast to the slow, stillness to motion, and all happening simultaneously.

He arranged for images of eight of his most recent works to be projected on huge screens during the address, and he encouraged the audience to “appreciate the static.”

“We artists wonder,” he said, “at viewers who read the title of a work, spend a few seconds, and then move on.”

More information about the conference is available from the Canadian Baha’i News Service and from the International Environmental Forum.

(Julia Berger, Sandra Blaine, and Parvin Rowhani contributed to this article.)