How do we challenge our own deeply-held values, beliefs and culture, if they are preventing us from taking stronger action to protect the environment? This provocative question is explored in a new research paper via the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham by Christopher D. Ives, Clark Buys, Charles Ogunbode, Matilda Palmer, Aneira Rose and Ruth Valerio.
The paper, entitled Activating faith: Pro-environmental responses to a Christian text on sustainability, explores how something as simple as engaging with an inspiring publication can result in measurable changes in outlook and behaviour regarding environmental sustainability. This research was built around the environmentally-themed text Saying Yes to Life (SYTL) authored by Dr Ruth Valerio and published as the Lent Book 2020 of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
'There remains little research on religion and sustainability transformations.' – Ives et al
There is no denying that environmental degradation is worsening across the planet, and this has give rise to what is being called a 'transformative agenda': that is, a recognition that deep, systemic changes are now required to tackle this enormous problem. The need for social transformation is discussed widely in literature about sustainability.
Yet there is a smaller, but growing, literature which is beginning to explore the importance of 'inner transformations' within hearts and minds to bring about the massive external transformations that are required.
In order to do this, it requires the activation of 'deep leverage points' which could result in these transformative outcomes. However, it is not easy or comfortable for a person to challenge, let alone change, their 'inner world', for example, their beliefs, values, worldviews and so on.
The researchers were interested to find out of if it was possible to stimulate, observe and document the process of such an inner transformation in the general population. They chose to use the text Saying Yes to Life to engage with people of faith to see if activating internal values such as compassion, love and moral responsibility would lead to their taking stronger action for the environment.
'Most environmental messaging to date has been techno-scientific – focussing on scientific explanations for climate breakdown and ecosystem collapse and the technological solutions – and secular – ignoring religious values, beliefs and worldviews...' – Ives et al
The research was designed to track different categories of behaviours, from environmental activism to shopping, recycling and spirituality. To create a baseline and to measure the outcomes, the research was conducted as a pre- and post-engagement questionnaire, together with focus groups, to obtain both quantitative and qualitative data. The researchers wanted answers to the following questions:
Would engaging with religiously-framed literature on environmental sustainability change any behaviours and, if so, which?
Would it be possible to document any internal changes in beliefs, values, or attitudes? If so, how could these be associated, if at all, with any resulting behaviour change?
The publication Say Yes to Life uses the creation story from the Christian Bible, together with theological themes such as stewardship ethics, to explore environmental issues like land degradation, air pollution, water scarcity and so on. The text is designed to stimulate responses to these themes by also including stories from the Global South, together with discussion points and spiritual reflection pieces.
'Approximately 80% of respondents felt that SYTL had either reinforced or changed the way they intended to live.' – Ives et al
The results of the research were astonishing. There was a measurable difference in sustainability behaviours, with around 80% of respondents saying that Say Yes to Life had either reinforced their existing positive behaviours around sustainability, or actually changed the way they intended to live.
'Data revealed significant increases in environmental behavioural intentions after completing the book, especially for energy use, food and recycling.' – Ives et al
The research points to the possibility that If this is true then there is huge potential for, as the title of the paper suggests, 'activating faith' to mobilise pro-environmental actors and actions for sustainability. There is enough evidence from the science and the secular world knows what to do. Activating faith suggests one way to tap into deeper moral motivations for sustainability.
'Intentional engagement with religion may facilitate transformative change for sustainability.' – Ives et al
This was exploratory research which took place within a Church of England context in the UK during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020-2021, and the authors recommend that there is further research to examine whether their conclusions hold true across a wider range of cultural and belief systems.
The publication Saying Yes to Life (the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book 2020) is available to purchase from various online book stores. The research paper Activating faith: Pro-environmental responses to a Christian text on sustainability is available to download here. One of the authors of the paper, Matilda Palmer, was a member of the Faith Plans team until June this year.