Worldwatch's Gardner says shift in values needed to achieve sustainability

The link between religion and sustainability is becoming increasingly prevalent as churches around the country incorporate environmental and sustainability issues into their teachings. During today's OnPoint, Gary Gardner, director of research at the Worldwatch Institute, discusses his new book, "Inspiring Progress: Religions' Contributions to Sustainable Development." Gardner makes the case for why he thinks religion could be successful at helping creating a new value system for a society that is accustomed to excess. He cites specific programs in which religion and sustainability have been linked successfully. Gardner also addresses how current issues with religion may affect the goals and ideas he puts forth in his book.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me is Gary Gardner, author of "Inspiring Progress: Religions' Contributions to Sustainable Development." Gary is also the director of research at the World Watch Institute. Gary thanks for joining me.

Gary Gardner: You're welcome. It's great to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Gary, religion and sustainability are two seemingly very different things. Explain how the two have come to be linked and also why the link is becoming increasingly prevalent.

Gary Gardner: Well, often when we talk about sustainable development we're thinking of new technologies and new policies that are needed. And that's certainly true, but it's also the case, I think, that we need a new set of values, and indeed a new world view that helps us to look at the natural world differently, to understand our relationship to it differently, to understand our relationship to other human beings, and to understand our relationship to an economy. All of those things, I think, are being, all those areas are being tested and questioned these days, and they happen to be values oriented areas. And, therefore, it seems to me areas that are ripe for contributions from religious groups.

Monica Trauzzi: You say that during the 20th century there weren't enough ethical boundaries to sustain progress over the long term. Give us specific examples of what you mean. Do you believe that the world has gotten worse and that it will continually get worse if we maintain our current progress?

Gary Gardner: Well, it's important to state at the outset that the 20th century was an era of great progress. There's no doubt about that, and that's commonly believed and correctly believed. But at the same time it was a century of great problems, problems that present real dangers, I think, for the world. It was the most violent century in human history. It was by far the most environmentally destructive century, and it was an era of great inequality. And any of those three, yes, does have the capacity to do us in, and to unravel all the progress that we saw in the 20th century. I think a good example of that is our capacity to grow food and to provide it cheaply to people everywhere. Now that's a great advance. Hunger has receded greatly in much of the world in the 20th century. But we now see that many people are obese, that our eating habits, the very of availability of this food that was such a great achievement is starting to do us in.

Monica Trauzzi: But if we're talking about making progress in things like hunger, poverty around the world, isn't the quickest, most effective way to get rid of those things to provide economic development to Third World countries?

Gary Gardner: There's no doubt that economic development, if we mean by that the need for economic growth and wealth creation, yes, it's absolutely necessary. And we need more of that, and people in developing countries, in particular, need more of that. But I think where we've gone astray in terms of our economy is in thinking that the sole purpose of an economy is to create wealth. I think we're increasingly understanding that while wealth creation is very important, that well-being is really what an economy should be about. It should be about helping people to achieve their potential, helping them to have basic needs met, to be secure, to be free, to have good health, to be the people that they were born to be. And I think increasingly our economies either cut people out, so that they're not able to achieve those things, or they give us too much of many of these goods that actually keep us from achieving well-being.

Monica Trauzzi: You say that we need stronger ethical norms. What exactly does that mean?

Gary Gardner: I think in general terms it means that we need to rediscover the principle of restraint and to understand that I think our best development, our greatest progress, happens within boundaries that we set. So that, for example, we developed the automobile in the 20th century, it became the Jeep and the tank. The airplane became the fighter and the bomber. If we had set boundaries around those technological advances and said we're not going to use these for warfare, which, admittedly, is idealistic, but it's something that I think religions could say with credibility and with authority. If we had done that kind of thing I think we would have had a different 20th century.

Monica Trauzzi: But in a society filled with excess, how do you take a step back and say, OK, what you've been doing for the last 40 years isn't right, so we're sort of going to go in reverse? How do you do that?

Gary Gardner: It's a very difficult question, there's no doubt about it. You know, some people have said that consumerism is the world's first global religion because it is so powerful. It has such a powerful hold on our psyches, on our imaginations. Many of us may think of it as our, the market, as our God and consumerism as our path to salvation. So it's very difficult. At the same time, I think religions have millennia worth of experience in talking about the dangers of excess attachment to materialism. They have credibility on this issue, and they can point to the ways in which excess is not working in people's lives. The way it's leading to broken families and obesity and depression and all sorts of societal ills that, I think, in one way or another, can be linked to excess.

Monica Trauzzi: So why can't we rely on government to create these new ethical ways of approaching progress? Why turn to religion? What's the difference between the two? Why will religion be more successful?

Gary Gardner: Government will have its place, there's no doubt about it. But to get the popular support that may be needed for government policies that could help in these areas we need a popular base of support. And that can come through religious exhortations to the public, it seems to me. You know, more than 75 percent of the people in this world subscribe to one faith tradition or another. And the United States is a very religious society, as people describe themselves. So there's a possibility there. There's an opening there. There's a lever there that I think we're not taking advantage of that could help government to achieve some of these goals.

Monica Trauzzi: You talk about the success of certain programs in which religion is trying to make an impact on the environment. And one of those programs you mention is Interfaith Power and Light in San Francisco. What have they done to make their program so successful?

Gary Gardner: Well, they've gone to congregations of all kinds around the country and they've said, look, there's an energy problem, there's a climate problem. We, as people of faith, as stewards of the earth, have something, there are things that we can contribute to the solution of this problem. And they've been able to do energy audits in churches and synagogues and mosques around the country. They've been able to put, say, solar panels on the roofs of many churches or synagogues. And in that way, I think, both to educate congregations and to help congregations feel as though they're making a contribution to building a more sustainable world. There's been an infectiousness to their work that has helped it to spread to churches around the country.

Monica Trauzzi: Many of the examples that you talk about in the book are based on smaller scale implementation, so can these programs live in the larger society? Can they survive and exist?

Gary Gardner: I think they can and they must. And what's really ...

Monica Trauzzi: How? How do we do that?

Gary Gardner: Well, what's really impressive right now, I think, is that market forces, government policy, values as expounded by religion, all of those are coming together it seems to me. We see that on climate change and energy in particular, where the public and business and government and now religion are all in accord about the importance of this problem, the need to do something about it, the need to take action now. So I think the historic opportunity is tremendous right now for us to be able to take these other steps. And religion can provide the moral arguments for it, and can also help provide some of the political base for it.

Monica Trauzzi: In the book you say, "With each passing year it becomes less and less likely that enlightened policies and greener technologies alone will be enough to build sustainable societies." Explain what you mean by this, because I think a lot of people believe that if they implement new technologies, they alter their lifestyles, that we will ultimately become more sustainable and have a better way of living. So what exactly do you mean when you say that?

Gary Gardner: Well, if they alter their lifestyles, yes, that will help. But I think what I was saying there is that technologies and policies alone will not do it. I mean if we think, for example, about the reductions in carbon emissions that many scientists now say that we need to achieve, it will be very difficult to do that just with technology and policy, it seems to me. We need to look at the way we live and ask ourselves, not just from a climate perspective, but from the perspective of being a human being, is the excess use of fossil fuels really helping us to achieve our potential as human beings?

Monica Trauzzi: You've been speaking about religion in a very positive way, but religion is coming under attack these days. There's controversy within the Catholic Church, the Muslim religion is facing challenges as well. We're seeing extremism across the board. Don't we have enough problems with religion already? Is a commitment within religion going to cause more problems?

Gary Gardner: Religion may seem problematic because people believe very deeply in their faith tenants, and that can have, that energy can be very positive. You know it leads to the debt forgiveness, for example, in developing worlds. It has led to the Nestle's boycott. It led to the civil rights movement in this country. And on other occasions it can lead in a different direction. So, yes, there is that disadvantage, but it's just part and parcel of being a religious person. A religious person, somebody who takes their faith seriously, is a passionate person.

Monica Trauzzi: You're very open in saying, in the book, that a lot of the thoughts that you are presenting are idealistic, but you also say that they could be realistic. As an example you raise the question can we see ourselves less as owners of real estate and more as inhabitants of a bioregion? Do you really think that could become a reality, based on what our current society looks like?

Gary Gardner: The thing that gives me hope is that historically religions have been able to turn population's values around. And, also, many of the things that I write about are actually happening. They're not just ideas. There is a wonderful thing called Charity Bank in England that provides capital for charities around the country, capital to organizations that otherwise couldn't get a hold of it. And they get their capital, Charity Bank does, from investors, savers like you and me, who choose to get a submarket interest rate for their deposits. Now that's happening. That is happening and it's making a difference in England, and there are lots and lots of examples of that. It's a question of scaling those positive examples up.

Monica Trauzzi: We'll have to end it on that note, Gary. Thanks for joining me.

Gary Gardner: Thank you, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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