The engagement of religions at COP 15 was rather considerable. One could be pardoned for assuming we are witnessing an explosion of religion in public sphere, as Casanova opined was the case in the 80s. Indeed, the list of participants in what arguably could be labeled one of the most important summits of our time – with 119 heads of state and government, including nine vice presidents (certainly the world's largest summit ever) – is long and worth listing at least in part:
- There is much representation from religious bodies such as the World Council of Churches, the Parliament for World Religions, and CIDSE (Coopération Internationale pour le Développement Socio-Economique, an alliance of 15 Catholic international development agencies from Europe and North America) and Caritas Internationalis (whom together form the world's largest development alliance).
- The list includes notable religious leaders such as Rev. Richard Cizik, Vice President for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, Jim Ball, head of the Evangelical Environmental Network, Rabbi Michael Kagan, co-founder of the Jewish Climate Initiative (JCI), Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk and activist, Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell one of the founders of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Sister Joan Chittister, Co-Chair of The Global Peace Initiative of Women, Sraddhalu Ranade, scientist, educator and one of the leading scholars on the teachings of the late Indian sage, Sri Aurobindo, and Sufi Rehman Muhaiyadeen, director of the Green Living Association in Pakistan.
- Even those recognized as being ‘heavy hitters’, such as South African Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Benedict XVI, (the last two not having attended themselves), weighed in giving speeches or sending missives to the world leaders in Copenhagen to ‘do the right thing’.
All this doesn’t seem even to scratch the surface of engagement, as blogs, letters and statements from religious leaders and activists from afar seem to have found their way into the Copenhagen discourse.
The intended role for these religious individuals and bodies could best be summed up by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who, at an earlier conference in the UK, encouraged the religious leaders to lobby governments to “set high targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions,” adding, “You can – and do – inspire people to change.”
This inspiration perhaps reached its loudest clamour with the ringing of church bells 350 times – so to underline the need to limit carbon emissions to 350 parts per million – in Copenhagen and around the world on the first Sunday of the summit. As adeptly put by religion and environment professor, Stephen Scharper – who, incidentally, also travelled to Copenhagen – the gesture of inspiration can be considered, “a further example of how religious traditions are reinventing and reshaping older ritual forms to deal with our present ecological challenge.”
I think it’s safe to conclude from the above – secularization theories not withstanding – that religion, along with the legitimization it brings, remains (or at the very least is seeking to remain – as obviously their calls were not heeded by the state leaders) a powerful medium through which an environmental agenda is being put forth at a global level.
However, if we were to leave the analysis there, I feel, we would be overlooking the presence of something new in regards to religion in the public sphere. Without downplaying the attention the environment is (finally) getting from the more traditional religions, I wish to bring our attention to the actions and sentiments of a small group of climate change activists who, since November 6, have been on a hunger strike to change values at every level of society.
Anna Keenan, the most outspoken of this group called Climate Justice Fast! says, (taken from interviews found on the web), she felt no choice [but to fast] as other options did not seem to be working. Thus, she undertook “a higher and more moral level of activism…” Keenan notes, “We stand in absolute solidarity with the poorest and most vulnerable countries” adding – and here’s the clincher – “We're committed to the climate change movement with our lives and it's what we want to do with our lives, to work until climate change is solved…”
Keenan does not claim any religious affiliation, though she admits she was inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King in her decision. And having lost, as of day 40, thirty-five percent of her body mass, she could be well on the way to becoming a martyr. Paul Connor, another participant fasting with Climate Justice Fast! – but doing so in Canberra, Australia – sent a message to all the abstaining activists throughout the world. It reads like an epistle from Paul:
So our task is urgent, and monumental. We have to bring about this change as fast as we possibly can. We have to continue shining the light of our truth into every city, every street, and every home until it is heard. And when people are not ready, or when they do not want to listen, we must have faith in the power of this truth, and just keep going.
It will not be easy. No human struggle has ever been easy. Creating real change in human society is the hardest thing one can possibly attempt. History shows us this. Social movements demand real sacrifice from us.
But history also shows that when you [are] armed with the truth, and you care enough, and you are ready for those sacrifices, you can win.
And so, my friends, as we fast together on this day, unified by our love for this planet, its people and its animals, and by our deep and shared concern over its future, I want to say thank you for your effort, and express my love for, and solidarity with every one of you.
And I want to say that yes, it's an exciting time to be alive.
Long live the revolution. (see http://climatejusticefast.com/)
The question I think we need to ask is this: is this not religion active in the public sphere too? Keenan and her group, though small in numbers, seem to represent a larger body of activists, that group of civil society’ (100,000 strong) present at COP 15. In video interviews of activists on the street, some activists claimed their voyage to Copenhagen was a “pilgrimage”.
Although it would be difficult to deny that there is a resonance between Keenan et al’s environmentalism and religion (no matter how we define it), the verdict, at least for me, is still out as to whether this form of environmentalism can indeed be considered religion. Yet, environment scholar and author of Dark Green Religion, Bron Taylor – perhaps less circumspect on this issue than me – argues that this form of environmentalism can indeed be labeled as religion, only one that is distinct from mainstream, older religions.
So what is it we are dealing with here? I’m curious to find out. Dietrich Bonheoffer once spoke of the ‘non-religious’ understanding of God. Perhaps we are witnessing a non-religious understanding of religion. Whatever the case, ascribing the term religion to environmentalists certainly challenges us to look at our assumptions about religion and dig deeper with our analyses. Let’s see what unfolds at COP 16.