Nature, Faith, and Global Thinking: Faith-Based Organizations Speak to the UNEP

August 27, 2020

By: Blair Nelsen

Executive Director, Waterspirit

UN-NGO Representative for the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace

Science alone will not create behavioral change. Lasting change — particularly change that flies in the face of the harmful systems in which we have been raised — comes from a different place. The values-driven narratives we craft using scientific data are what can lead to policies and lifestyles that will result in a healthy, thriving planet. Faith-based organizations (FBOs) are gifted at mobilizing at this level of morals and values.

On Thursday, August 27 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) convened a meeting of over 100 representatives from global FBOs in order to solicit their feedback surrounding three questions:

1. What changes do you see necessary to enable transformational shifts towards more sustainable outcomes? Please think global and long-term.

2. What would you expect from an organization like UNEP to contribute to that shift?

3. How could your organization work with UNEP to contribute to that shift?

The feedback solicited is intended to inform the UNEP’s Mid-Term Strategy 2022–2025.

As a grassroots representative of a FBO, when I am invited to such meetings I know that I will occupy the unstable position between praise and skepticism of such UN proceedings. I knew I would praise the UNEP for seeking out the perspectives of FBOs. (The invitation was difficult enough to track down, but it so easily could have not existed at all.) At the same time, I would play the role of watchdog, which is the role so readily proffered to grassroots groups of all kinds. Our role at so many UN bodies is to offer warnings and feedback before and after proceedings, performing a kind of vaguely foreboding moralistic cloud that may or may not show up on radar. (I think this skepticism and wariness is best displayed by the “watchful eye” wall of the Church Center of the United Nations, facing the New York headquarters directly and permanently.)

The window-wall of the Church Center for the United Nations, a metaphorical watchful eye.
The “watchful eye” of the Church Center for the United Nations. Photo by author.

I have been skeptical of the UN’s increasing idolatry of scientific data and wooing of business interests, and the UNEP’s midterm strategy is not exempt from these concerns. I worry that exclusive reliance on a hegemonic, Western way of knowing will necessarily visit epistemic injustice upon traditional and indigenous peoples worldwide, effectively silencing voices that could provide the kind of thinking around the harmful systems in which we are trapped (unless rapid action occurs). I fear that the wooing of predatory capitalistic business interests will not provide the level of systemic change needed to address the climate emergency — and even a superficial analysis of any recent COP meeting lends credence to these fears.

During the August 27 conference proceedings, we were invited into breakout groups in which we had three minutes to address the three questions posed to us. One minute to lay out a plan for global societal and policy change is terrifically fast — but again, better than nothing — and there was no room for group discussion or development of ideas. I watched as my carefully-crafted points were funneled into the watered-down summary. Of the quickfire, punchy points I made about a global green recovery, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, immediate and rapid emissions reductions with investment in green energy, protections for climate migrants and refugees, the elevation of indigenous knowledge, promotion of the Rise Up for the Ocean framework, and assertion of the human right to clean air, water, and food, the final summary only captured my first point: a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Again, too little, but better than nothing.

That said, I was heartened to be in the presence of other faith groups with similar environmental commitments. It was moving to witness so many groups who see in nature (including humanity) an expression of their faith. Change must be personal and policy-driven simultaneously, rooted in multiple earth-honoring ways of being. I remain grateful to have spent this time in the presence of these global FBOs’ witness. Waterspirit remains an important vehicle through which this global-to-grassroots connection is drawn, as we advocate for sustainable local and national policies informed by the Sustainable Development Goals, and as we bring our local environmental knowledge to the table at these UN proceedings.

A center of ecology and spirituality inspiring all people to deepen their consciousness of the sacredness and interdependence of all creation

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