Fazlun Khalid, founder of UK-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences and the author of Signs on the Earth – Islam Modernity and the Climate Crisis, shares this thought piece on the origins of our environmental and climate crisis
As the post-colonial world emerged in the middle of the last century, it left in its wake a host of dismembered traditional societies which for millennia had faith as their anchor and embraced the natural world as the source of life.
The transition to the new world order was in a sense seamless as the ruling powers offloaded their territories creating secular nation-states in their own image. The emerging states were left with institutions defined by the departing powers, the most important of which was the central bank whose ability to create money out of thin air sustained the model with debt.
Thus, was created the umbilical cord that tethered each new state to the departing power and ultimately to the evolving global system.
It had taken a mere 500 years, a minuscule amount of time measured against the evolution of the human story, to destroy what faith communities and traditional societies had nurtured for millennia.
The mid-20th century world was unrecognisable from the world Iberian sailors opened up in the closing years of the 15th century. This period witnessed the unfolding of one of the major episodic events in human history resulting in the emergence of a new paradigm in which faith communities no longer held sway.
It had taken a mere 500 years, a minuscule amount of time measured against the evolution of the human story, to destroy what faith communities and traditional societies had nurtured for millennia. This left them all adrift and as one thinker pronounced, caused a psychological shift in allegiance in this period from the divine to the human. This process objectified nature to the extent that the sources of life were turned into resources for plunder.
We worry about the decline of biological diversity but it is easy to see now that the root of this was the destruction of the cultural diversity that protected the sources of life, flora and fauna, in their own spaces and in their own time. This is not to say that past societies were always benevolent towards nature and the fact remains that when they inevitably collapsed, the sands covered their traces and the forests grew over them: they were biodegradable.
A new reality
But not so the civilisation we live in today. It is conceivable that archaeologists of the future may not only have to contend with ubiquitous plastic and poisonous chemicals but may need to wear radiation suits in order to explore the debris we have left behind. As we struggle to make sense of the numerous enormities we have foisted on mother Earth, it is becoming evident that they are, in fact, direct consequences of processes emerging from the evolution of modernity.
As we chase after progress and development, not only are we destroying Earth’s systems but in the process harming ourselves by ingesting toxic chemicals into our bodily systems that did not exist at the time of our grandparents. This adds up to a new reality – that we now live in a global village viewing existence as a linear continuum of economic progress going right against the grain of the natural world.
Geologists say we now live in the Anthropocene – the age of the human, reflecting the fact that we are now a force of nature. It is suggested by some that this epoch began in the mid- 20th century with the emergence of nuclear energy, disposable plastics and the human population boom.
Others point their fingers at the industrial revolution. In my view, however, it began with the creation of the Bank of England in 1694. It institutionalised the processes of creating money out of thin air and lending it for a fee (usury/interest) a practice that is strictly forbidden in Islamic teachings.
The idea of abundance for all
This provides the convenient illusion that there is more wealth to be had than actually exists in the natural world, a proposition reducing the money we use today to the nature of a virus. This is called 'capitalism', projecting the idea of abundance for all seen by many as a serious diversion from reality.
The global footprint network informs us that Earth Overshoot Day 2021 fell on July 29. We are, thus, living in borrowed time and for the rest of 2021 will be helping ourselves to the depleting stocks of Earth’s resources, the lion's share being sucked up by the richest countries of the world.
Sustainable development needs to be rethought because in order for the less well-off to meet their needs without a consequent negative impact on Earth systems, those who already have more than enough should accept considerably less.
This reminds us quite clearly what the Club of Rome demonstrated to us in its publication Limits to Growth way back in 1972. Looked at from this perspective, sustainable development needs to be rethought because in order for the less well-off to meet their needs without a consequent negative impact on Earth systems, those who already have more than enough should accept considerably less. There is some balancing to be done here which is to remind the well-off of their obligations, so policy makers please note. Or is Wall Street too hot to handle?
Predictably there were serious divisions in the COP26 process which recently concluded in Glasgow. The term 'game changer' on the one hand was used by a politician to proclaim success and on the other by a scientist to pronounce failure.
While numerous NGOs and FBOs (faith-based organisations) were demonstrating palpable enthusiasm for change, the oil lobby and big business kept quietly working away at the delegates to keep things as they are. The picture this conjures up in my mind is that of an ever enlarging hole being dug out by huge bulldozers driven by the banks and big business whilst a host of people try to fill it up with little buckets.
Traditional and indigenous communities lived in a manner that was integral to nature and in the absence of scripture the natural world itself was the text. Eastern traditions also had a close affinity with nature, and it was looked upon as a gift from the Creator by all three Abrahamic faiths. All spiritual traditions teach us mindfulness, caring and sharing.
However, in today's world greed has been institutionalised and it is now known as consumerism. Our rituals are incomplete without going shopping. We are now seamlessly becoming green consumers, hooked into social media and trapped by the mobile phone heralding the consolidation of techno civilisation much to the delight of big business.
Hitting the buffers of biodiversity
This is where we hit the buffers of biodiversity. Where will we continue to find the rare earth, the cobalt and the lithium that are going to give us high efficiency batteries that will drive our civilisation? And where are we going to dump these batteries by the ton when they are exhausted?
It is time now to elevate our level of consciousness to another level of reality. There is a space between optimism and pessimism which we need to populate. This is called “realism” and in a sense it reflects the thoughts of Prophet Muhammed when he told his followers to plant the seeds in their hands even if they thought the world was coming to an end the next day.
What and where are the seeds of hope we must plant today? How can we create a green civilisation and avoid falling into the trap of green consumerism?
How can faith communities trigger changes in a system which is dominant and all perversive and not of their own making? Their belated re-entry into the affairs of the world was heralded by the Assisi Declaration – Messages on Humanity and Nature from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, which came out in 1986 (see below to download the document).
This was the brainchild of the late Prince Philip when he was president of WWF international. It triggered many faith-based initiatives while the next major event in this area of concern was Pope Francis’ encyclical which emerged in 2015 (see below to download the document).
Currently Muslims scholars are putting together Al Mizan - A Covenant for the Earth which is an encapsulation of Islamic perspectives on the environment which is projected to be published in 2022. There are Hindu and Buddhist Versions to follow, thanks to the initiatives taken by the Faith for Earth division at UNEP.
Whilst science figured prominently in the COP26 negotiations, the underlying agenda in the give and take process was economics. All the participating nations had their own individual economic agendas which invariably involved growth and which they were hardly likely to give up.
What we need is a strong lobby that would inject the idea of degrowth into future COP processes... so will faith-based organisations lead the way before our present trajectory brings planet Earth to its knees?
And growth actually means taxing Earth resources which goes contrary to any collective agreement COP26 ultimately conjures. There are lessons to learn for all of us from this and what we need is a strong lobby that would inject the idea of degrowth into future COP processes.
It is still not too late to take this fork in the road – so will faith-based organisations lead the way before our present trajectory brings planet Earth to its knees?