MARTIN PALMER: What would it take for faith communities to become leaders in solving global environmental challenges?

Martin Palmer

What would it take for faith communities to become leaders in solving global environmental challenges?

The issue lies on the conservation side. They need to actually invite the faith side to the table and stop pretending that no one other than environmental organizations has done any work in this area. I had meeting with one of the biggest conservation groups in the United States. They said, we want to get the churches active on climate change. I said, how long have you had a climate change unit? They said, eight years. I said, the National Council of Churches in the United States has had a climate change unit for 20 years. So, who is needing whom?

The Sikhs, for example, have planted 25 million trees in the Punjab in the last 11 years. So the faiths are there. They’re doing it. The problem has been that the environmental movement as a whole has not asked them to the table.

Why the wall between the environmental movement and religious community?

Most of the language about the environmental crisis is entirely Judeo-Christian and rooted in the Book of Revelation. Virtually all the language of the environmental movement is quasi-Biblical and apocalyptic. It’s predicated on fear, guilt and sin. Sadly they forget we also do celebrations and parties and whoopee. And most people get quite bored by it.

The American experience is very different from the European one. The European reason for excluding religion is that religion had quite a bad track record in terms of, for example, the Thirty Years’ War where Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other across Europe. The whole tenor of European intellectual enlightenment is anti-religious.

The American experience is utterly different. And it’s based upon a fable—that somehow science and religion are ideologically opposed around the issue of creation. The creation debate only really started in any seriousness at the beginning of the 20th century. The sense has grown up on both sides that if you venture into these taboo areas, you will be polluted and you will be cast out of the tribe. I see brave people who voyage across these gaps, E. O. Wilson being a very good example. And I’ve seen evangelicals doing the same on their side—people like Ken Wilson. But they’re like pioneers.

You have made the point that the most sustainable—that is, enduring—of human institutions have been religions. What can conservation organizations learn from religion about sustainability?

First and foremost—time scale. Faiths think in generations. That’s why they’re sustainable. What the religions know is that for any serious change to take place, it takes time. Think of the parable of the sower, in which Jesus talks about the seeds that are sown and then spring up rapidly like so many environmental groups, but the roots aren’t there, and they wither and they perish. But ones that put down roots first and then emerge above the ground firmly rooted, they are the ones that survive.

The environmental world is superb at the external world. We have fabulous pictures and films. We have extraordinary data about the physical world. It is appalling at the inner world. It has no concept of psychology. It has no concept of how people change. It has virtually no concept of how communities evolve and move forward. About what we perceive to be ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves. So these two groups are passing each other in the night.

Another thing, the conservation movement is always trying to stop things. It is trying to stop change. The oldest religious text in the world still in constant use, the Chinese book of I-Ching, means the Book of Changes. Religions know that nothing is permanent. Conservation is terrified that everything is changing. That’s not sustainable. You cannot sustain stasis. You can only sustain change.

Talk about some of the more recent projects in which the Alliance of Religions and Conservation has been involved.

The first one is a program we launched four years ago with the United Nations Development Programme. This was the first time we got a secular organization seriously on the time scale of faiths. We launched the program in 2008 to ask the faiths to draw up long-term plans for generational change to protect the living planet.

The second initiative is this green pilgrimage network. We estimate 150 million people go on pilgrimage each year, and the figure is growing. Now, when you go on pilgrimage, you’re much more susceptible to new teachings and models and ideas. You’re prepared to be encountered by the divine in a way that you would be in your normal weekly life. And therefore we launched a program in Assisi this year with initially 12 cities in China through to Norway of the major faiths that will ‘green’ the experience of the pilgrimage in each city.

Are you religious?

Yes, I am. I am an Anglican, a member of the Church of England. I’m licensed to preach, and to do baptisms and do blessings for weddings. But I’m not a conventional Christian. My Christianity is deeply shaped by Daoism, because I’m a China scholar as well, and also by my explorations of Judaism. The reason I love my church is we have a long tradition of being a broad church. You can believe pretty much whatever you want as long as you respect the fact that the quest is worthwhile.


The relationship between faith and environmentalism is a complex one. While it’s easy to focus on dissimilarities and points of disagreement, in reality faith groups worldwide have long been involved in advancing environmental protection. Here Martin Palmer, secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), explores how religion and science can work together toward common aims.

Momentum Event

Join us in Minneapolis May 23 as Martin Palmer shares his perspectives on faith and the environment as part of the Momentum 2012 event series.

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Event Series

  • Momentum 2011
    The Momentum event series brings today’s leading environmental visionaries to the Twin Cities to deliver thought-provoking presentations.