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Faith-based Environmental Work Makes Inroads at the U.N.

By Grove Harris


The relationship of the United Nations and faith-based organizations has warmed considerably in recent years. Witness last February's celebration of the World Interfaith Harmony Week, held in the General Assembly hall, with the use of all the flags of the countries of the world in a peace ceremony. It was cosponsored by six missions and supported by five others, as well as the NGO community. United for a Culture of Peace’s website links to the webcast and more. The event included a statement by H.E. Mr. Vuk Jeremic, President of the 67th Sessionof the United Nations General Assembly, as well as a message from the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Open Working Group (OWG) meeting about sustainable global development.

Open Working Group (OWG) meeting about sustainable global development.

Last July I reported on the U.N.’s Rio +20 conference. Since then considerable work has focused on drafting sustainable development goals. On May 30, the High Level Panel released its report, which is feeding into the Open Working Group (OWG), which will submit a proposal to the General Assembly in the fall of 2013. The World We Want website is an online discussion platform for civic participation regarding development activities.

While crowd sourcing and online social media tools are now being used, this still privileges an elite, and the question of the power of this input remains unanswered. There is the potential for the member states to hear more clearly the voices of their own citizens through this process, but the politics of U.N. negotiations among the member states may well remain ‘business as usual,’ despite clarity that ‘business as usual’ is destroying our ecological life support systems.

Faith-based efforts towards peace, social justice, and eradication of hunger and poverty are directly in line with U.N. objectives and are clearly linked to the U.N.’s sustainable development work, where environmental concerns loom large. Such efforts generally use the language of human rights and the rights of nature, in line with U.N. discourse. In my opinion, the U.N. needs religious groups to increase their activity and apply more pressure.

Above my desk is Margaret Mead’s famous quote – “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” I think it applies to huge problems and organizations like the U.N. also.

Recently I joined the Mining Working Group (MWG), a new, small gathering of mostly religious people representing much larger faith-based constituencies raising issues at the U.N. around surface mining, strip mining, mountaintop removal, and hydraulic fracturing. (See Eileen Flanagan’s article on mountain-top removal mining in this issue of TIO.) At the latest OWG session on water, the MWG brought up the devastation from mining that would otherwise have gone unmentioned. The desired outcome: zero tolerance for mining in sensitive aquifer areas.

MWG member Kathleen Stone, the new executive secretary of Environmental and Economic Justice of United Methodist Women, recently traveled to Nebraska to listen to farmers with grave concerns about the Keystone XL Pipeline, creating a video to bring their voices to a larger audience. Bringing the perspectives of those closest to the problems, those with intimate knowledge of the impacts, into the U.N. arena is a key part of the work. Environmental activity has the potential to bridge political and religious divides, if we can listen to each other about these profound common concerns.

What gives me hope is the interplay of civic activism outside of the U.N. with activism inside the U.N. The fossil fuel divestment campaign is now calling on religious institutions to follow the lead of students and move to divest their resources from fossil fuel companies. This pressure from civil society can have a ripple effect, prodding companies, showing government what people want, which will strengthen the efforts of those working inside the U.N. as well. GreenFaith has announced their new Divest and Reinvest program with additional resources for religious communities; the movement is primed to grow. (See Katherine Bagley’s article in this issue of TIO.)

Congregations Join the Cause

First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, Cambridge, Massachusetts Photo: Wikipedia

First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, Cambridge, Massachusetts Photo: Wikipedia

“On Sunday, June 2nd,” 350ma.org reports, “First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist, voted unanimously at its semi-annual members meeting to divest its holdings in fossil fuel stocks over the next five years. With this vote First Parish Cambridge joined a growing nationwide movement of colleges, religious organizations, and town and state governments that are working to fight global warming by removing the stocks of fossil fuel companies from their portfolios.

“We have a moral obligation to leave our children a livable planet,” said Senior Minister Fred Small. “We’re just one congregation, but we’re part of a growing movement calling the fossil fuel industry to account for the destruction wreaked by global warming.”

The ability of the U.N. to call industry to account is limited, as is the impact of any one church’s efforts, but they can multiply each other. There are many ways to join in the efforts at the U.N., and information about getting involved is available on the website of the Interfaith Consortium for Ecological Civilization (ICEC). Bringing stories of local actions and demands for change is a way to insist that the U.N.’s larger frameworks take into account the realities and urgency of the moment. ICEC’s website highlights environmental statements of interfaith and religious groups which bring moral authority to the table.

Interfaith prayers were offered at the U.N. General Assembly hall on World Harmony Day this year.

Interfaith prayers were offered at the U.N. General Assembly hall on World Harmony Day this year.

There are other inspiring threads of environmental work at the U.N. based on ethical approaches which welcome faith-based participation. Linda Sheehan of the Earth Law Center recently spoke at the U.N. as part of the Interactive Dialogue on Harmony with Nature commemorating Mother Earth Day. She talked about necessary economic changes and local communities enacting them. UNEP’s collaborative Think. Eat. Save. Reduce your Foodprint campaign is another inspiring project with great potential.

Now is the time for all of us to take next steps locally at the same time as we work on the larger frameworks for development.