What do the faiths teach about the environment?
The East of England Faiths Agency arranged and hosted a half-day conference on ‘What do the Faiths teach about the Environment?’ on Sunday March 5th at the University of Essex. The theme was chosen after a consultation on the Faiths and the Environment with staff from the Environmental Agency, who attended the conference. There were contributions from some of the faiths and philosophies in the region, including Baha’is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, and Sikhs. Margaret Nelson, supported by Michael Imison and Nathan Nelson, offered a Humanist Perspective.
The Humanist Perspective
In the sixties, we used to say, “The personal is political”, so perhaps I should state how I relate to the environment. I compost, recycle, use sustainably generated electricity, conserve water, keep my car use to a minimum (as a disabled person, I need one), feed the birds, plant trees, try to shop ethically, and try to avoid waste. I’m probably not doing enough to minimise my impact on the environment – making my ecological footprint smaller – but I will try harder. We all must.
In the notes I was given about the sort of things we might be expected to talk about today, there were some questions.
How do we grow and prepare our food? Since Humanists observe no rituals of any sort, we have a free choice about this. However, since we know that practically everything that we do has some effect on other people and on the environment, many Humanists try to follow ethical guidelines about what we eat. Some of us try to use our purse power to influence retailers by shopping ethically, by avoiding excess packaging, buying organic food that hasn’t been transported long distances, and, if we eat meat, by checking the welfare standards of the producers. There are so many considerations, if we want to avoid harming the environment, that it can be quite difficult to keep up with developments. For example, how many people know about the damage caused by the production of palm oil, which is used in a wide range of foodstuffs and cleaning products? When it comes to enjoying food, the Greek philosopher Epicurus offered some wise words. He lived a simple life, enjoying the company of friends over good food and wine, and taught that peace of mind requires “moderation in all things”. Of course, two and a half thousand years ago, Epicurus didn’t have to deal with the sort of issues that we do today.
How do we use water and energy? Any Humanist who aims to live ethically will aim for a sustainable approach, avoiding waste and excessive us of fossil fuels.
How do we live our daily lives? As independent individuals.
How do we dispose of our dead? This question is of more interest to me than most, since I conduct Humanist funerals. I’m planning to donate my body to the nearest medical school for dissection by medical students – there’s a serious shortage of cadavers in the teaching hospitals. After they’ve finished with it, it might be consigned to a green burial site or cremated, but there’s no Humanist rule about this either. There’s a new option available in Sweden, where freeze-drying is now possible. A body is frozen in liquid nitrogen and then broken into granules that can be dug into your garden or mixed into your compost heap – I quite like that idea. You might expect me to say that I expect my next of kin to arrange a Humanist ceremony to mark my death, but that’s up to them. I’ll be dead, so I’ll know nothing about it. Not long ago I attended a Quaker funeral for a friend, and I liked that. No fuss, just an opportunity for her friends and family talk spontaneously about her, and no religion.
Humanists are atheists or agnostics who are concerned about ethical issues. We reject religious or supernatural beliefs – they have no relevance to our lives. The Greek philosopher and teacher Protagoras said, “Man is the measure of all things”; in other words, human values are solely derived from human experience and sensibility. American President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that read, “The buck stops here”, derived from the term “to pass the buck”. That’s a Humanist principle, in a nutshell.
There is no Humanist rulebook, no Humanist authority to tell us what we should do. Humanists are freethinkers; we make up our own minds about ethical issues and how to live our lives, but we share common values. One of the members of my Humanist group says she thinks we ought to call ourselves ‘Planetists’, because those who misrepresent us might say that being a Humanist means that we’re only interested in the human race, which isn’t true. We alone are responsible for the future of this planet and everything that lives on it. Only we humans can deal with any mess that we might make, and we must be aware of the consequences of our actions. Our descendants must live with them, so we must think of the future. If we lived on a spaceship and continually fouled our atmosphere so that life became very difficult, we’d expect to have to do something about it. We do live on a spaceship – Spaceship Earth. It took millions of years to build up a store of fossil fuels, and we’re burning it up in a few hundred years. In the mid-1700s the Industrial Revolution started to alter the composition of our atmosphere. In 1885 Gottlieb Daimler constructed the prototype of the modern internal combustion engine, and now most families in the developed world expect to have at least one car, possibly several. In the last few years, cheap flights have become widely available, consuming vast amounts of fossil fuel and adding to air pollution. Carbon dioxide emissions are increasing at an alarming rate. They’ve gone up by over 30% in the last 250 years. To stop the increase, we need to cut emissions by half, but the people of densely populated countries like China and India, envious of our living standards, are increasingly buying cars and throwaway goods as their economies develop. How can we say to them, you can’t have what we have? We can only do that if we can persuade those who live in the developed world to consume less.
I have little interest in religion, which has no relevance to my life. I’m more interested in how people behave than what they believe, and that includes how they behave as members of one race – the human race – and citizens of one planet – Planet Earth. Anything that causes division and conflict, whether it’s nationalism, religion, politics, or any of the other ideologies that people adopt, is a distraction from the urgent business of saving the planet. It’s too important to be left to chance, which is why the failure of some of the world’s worst polluters, particularly the United States, to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – the Kyoto agreement – is so depressing. This failure is the result of arrogance, and it’s a very dangerous form of arrogance.
There have been many Humanist role models who’ve celebrated the beauties of the natural world through their work. One was the West Country poet and novelist Thomas Hardy. His view of life was that there is no God. He wrote, “Man is alone in the Universe, no better and no worse than other creatures who live or have lived for a brief moment on this speck called Earth.” In his poem Transformations, Hardy wrote about what happens to us after we die. It’s really about recycling – human bodies being returned to the earth. Nothing physical ever disappears completely; it’s just reused in other forms. He wrote,
Portion of this yew
Is a man my grandsire knew,
Bosomed here at its foot:
This branch may be his wife,
A ruddy human life
Now turned into a green shoot.
The changes that have taken place since Hardy’s death in 1928 have been rapid. I think that, if he were still alive, Hardy would have been horrified by what’s going on. Sir David Attenborough is deeply concerned. In his book Life on Earth, based on the 1979 TV series, he wrote about the last chapter in the story of evolution,
“This last chapter has been devoted to only one species, ourselves. This may have given the impression that somehow man is the ultimate triumph of evolution, that all these millions of years of development have had no purpose other than to put him on earth. There is no scientific evidence whatever to support such a view and no reason to suppose that our stay here will be any more permanent than that of the dinosaur. The processes of evolution are still going on among plants and birds, insects and mammals. So it is more than likely that if men were to disappear from the face of the earth, for whatever reason, there is a modest, unobtrusive creature somewhere that would develop into a new form and take our place.
“But although denying that we have a special position in the natural world might seem becomingly modest in the eye of eternity, it might also be used as an excuse for evading our responsibilities. The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.”