Discovering different views about sustainability
What is sustainability and why is there so much talk about it now?
To help you explore this question, UNESCO has developed many resources that develop the concept of sustainability and why it is a significant issue in the contemporary world. The UNESCO site, Teaching and Learning for A Sustainable Future, offers a comprehensive, interactive curriculum and professional learning resources for understanding the complexity of sustainability.
Who thinks what about sustainability?
Most discussions about sustainability inevitably reveal the diversity with which the issue is viewed in the community. There are various views concerning the science underpinning the call to more sustainable lifestyles. In addition, there are various belief and value systems that underlie people’s attitudes to how they choose to live.
Before you discover the different views, think about your own stance…
- What comes to mind when you think of sustainable living?
- What assumptions or beliefs do you bring to the issue?
- What most influences what you think about sustainability?
- The article Stewardship of Earth offers a good primer on this topic.
Now consider some other views …
Vanessa Morris is an Australian woman who draws on both the Australian and the global contexts to make her case that human activity, particularly our use of energy, affects our global ecological systems.
The Edmund Rice Centre argues that leading world scientists agree that climate change is a pressing global issue. They present their case by ‘debunking myths’ about climate change.
View John Hardy talking about his own personal values and beliefs about sustainability that prompted the building of his green school in Bali, Indonesia.
Alternatively, there are others who challenge the view that our lifestyles affect the climate and the world’s ecosystems.
Delving deeper into the local issues
To take yourself and your learners deeper into the issues of sustainable living, it might be an idea to draw on some of the many online resources available.
Situated on the Merri Creek in East Brunswick, Melbourne, CERES (Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies) is a sustainability centre and urban farm. The Ceres Sustainability Hub, within the broader Ceres website, offers schools resources and learning opportunities in topics such as waste, energy, biodiversity and water.
For both primary and secondary students and their teachers in Australian schools, Cool Australia offers learning and teaching resources that focus on sustainability and the environment at a global level.
Are your students wondering why solar panels are going on rooftops in their suburb? Or, if a carbon footprint refers to their ever-growing shoe size?
NASA’s Global Climate Change site offers primary students interactive resources to delve into some of the big issues behind these questions. It examines: what does global climate change mean? What is the greenhouse effect? What’s the big deal with carbon? How do we know the climate is changing? The site explores sustainable living choices, such as using renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines.
The Habitat Heroes site provides primary students with a virtual world that invites them to learn about environmental challenges such as animal extinction, water and land rejuvenation, recycling, and global warming.
For secondary students and teachers, the UNESCO site, Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future offer a wide-ranging curriculum and teacher professional learning resources. Likewise, the YouthXchange website by UNESCO and UNEP provides secondary teachers and students, particularly in urban settings, with comprehensive curricula to consider the notions of sustainable consumption and development. Many topics around sustainable living are examined in-depth, including the consumption of energy, food and fashion products. The site also invites investigation into the impacts of our lifestyle choices on the land and on people.
Discovering biblical views on sustainability
Historically, each of the major religions of the world has developed ways of understanding the relationship of human beings to the earth and its creatures. In recent decades, religious leaders, theologians and laypeople have returned to their sacred texts and traditions to ponder their significance for the ecological issues that confront us in the 21st century. Keith Douglass Warner OFM and David DeCosse from Santa Clara University offer a brief, accessible overview of the recent developments in religious environmental ethics. They mainly describe a Christian perspective but briefly refer to other world religions too. This is an excellent resource to prompt your thinking and planning!
Stewardship or domination? Is Christianity partly to blame for the crisis we are in?
These were the questions posed by Prof. Lyn White AM in the late 1960s. She argued that the worldwide destruction of the earth was partially a result of Christianity’s view of the relationship between humans and creation, expressed in the Bible, in Genesis.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. Gen 1.27- 28
God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, all everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are delivered. Gen 9.1 – 2.
According to White, the worldview promoted in Genesis is human-centred or anthropocentric, placing human beings at the centre of creation, thus encouraging humans to have dominion over, or to dominate, the earth and exploit its resources.
Take time for you and your learners to think about your own responses to the idea that Christianity is partly to blame for the ecological crisis we are in.
- What do you believe?
- What do you see, feel or know from your own experience that supports your belief?
- What questions does your belief raise for you? What can’t you explain?
As the ecological crisis is comparatively recent while the Genesis texts date from some 2,500 years ago other scholars question whether the Biblical texts really are responsible for it.
Other interpretations of ‘dominion’…
White’s perspective prompted Christians to re-examine their sacred texts and traditions in light of issues concerning sustainable living. In recent times, scholars have provided an alternative interpretation of the biblical view of creation and the role of human beings in it. Broadly speaking, the notion of ‘dominion’ is now understood in terms of stewardship. The earth is the Lord’s, not ours. We are its stewards, not its owners. This is an important notion for Catholics wondering about sustainable, urban living. Rather than understanding the conferring of dominion over the earth in Genesis 1.27-28 as giving human beings the right to exploit, many theologians today consider this command as conferring stewardship. A steward is a faithful trustee who respects the owner’s rights and intentions and manages what is entrusted to him or her carefully. Human beings therefore ought to respect God’s creation and carefully manage its resources. For a contemporary approach to understanding these scripture verses in light of the notion of stewardship, page 9 of Gail O’Day and David Petersen’s theological commentary is helpful while the Exeter University site for secondary students has an excellent section entitled ‘Is Christianity to blame?’ which provides good brief questions to clarify discussion.
Creation as an expression of God’s goodness and beauty
The biblical call to stewardship is not only to protect the earth and its creatures. It is also a call to recognise creation as an expression of God. This call is heard throughout the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament. For example in Psalm 104, Psalm 8 and Psalm 148. The psalmists were clearly struck by traces of God in their own physical environments!
You and your learners might consider the following questions (from the Harvard Thinking Routines) to deepen your understanding of stewardship through the lens of the psalmists:
- What things does the psalmist perceive?
- What might the psalmist know about or believe?
- What might the psalmist seem to care about?
- What does the psalm make you wonder?
- If you were to create a psalm about city ecologies, what might you speak about? How might you best express your psalm through art, music, movement, the spoken word or through contemporary modes of communication?
Ecological Conversion – What is it?
Ecological conversion is an expression conveying the need for people and nations to change their ideas about the use of the earth and its resources so that the earth and all of its inhabitants and life forms have a chance to survive and flourish. Pope John Paul II drew on texts from the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, including Genesis 1.28 and Psalm 148, to develop the notion of ecological conversion. His General Audience of January, 2001, might be insightful for primary and secondary teachers and for secondary students.
To support your thinking about the Pope’s notion of ecological conversion,
- What interests you about the notion of ecological conversion?
- What do you find worrisome about this idea?
- What else do you need to know or find out about it? What additional information would help you?
- What is your current view on the idea of ecological conversion? What steps might you take to increase your understanding of the idea?
Marty Haugen’s Song at the Centre celebrates the Christian sense of the holiness of the created world as does his setting of St Francis’s Canticle of the Sun. Students have prepared and loaded on Youtube their own reflections on what ecological conversion asks of us. You could do this too especially in relation to sustainable living in cities.
What people of various convictions think
A perspective from the Australian Catholic Church
An ecological vision of sustainability and stewardship is articulated by Catholic Earthcare Australia in their statement, ‘On Holy Ground’. Drawing on various perspectives from the Catholic tradition, including Scripture, Catholic Social teaching and a sacramental view of life, it clearly outlines the Catholic context for sustainability. This is a clear, accessible ‘must read’ for teachers in Catholic schools!
A social justice perspective
CAFOD, the Catholic aid agency for England and Wales, has developed an engaging visual presentation of the notions of stewardship and creation in relation to climate change from a Roman Catholic perspective for secondary school students. Their view is teased out with texts from Catholic Social Teaching and the Old and New Testaments. While aimed at secondary students, it could also be used with senior primary students. The entire site contains a plethora of rich, accessible resources and activities for both students and teachers inquiring into the issues of sustainability from a Catholic perspective.
An indigenous Australian perspective
The spirituality of indigenous Australians is derived from the land. This spirituality is expressed through a great reverence for the sacredness of the land as the source of all life.
The Wurundjeri are the indigenous Australians who occupy an area of Victoria that includes what we, today, call Melbourne.
Patrick Dodson, a national indigenous Australian leader, has written an accessible piece that provides an indigenous perspective on climate change within a larger document which indicates the emergence of a common line of thought on the environment among different faith traditions. Interesting reading for upper primary, and secondary students and their teachers, Dodson’s contribution highlights how indigenous culture can inform all peoples’ understanding’ of the ecological issues we face.
In the full document, leaders from many faiths and denominations within Australia provide brief responses to climate change. This is an important read for teachers who have students and families of other faiths in their school and for those who know little about how other faiths in Australia view the issue. Reading others’ perspectives broadens and clarifies our own!
A Jewish perspective
A Jewish perspective on sustainability and the environment is provided by Rabbi David Rosen. He draws on Scripture and the teachings of Jewish sages and scholars to offer an interesting and very accessible Jewish perspective to learners from all religious traditions (and from none). You can access the article on Rabbi Rosen’s webpage. Scroll down to Judaism and click on the hyperlinks to either, ‘Sustainable Development- A Jewish Perspective’ or ‘Religions and the Environment- A Jewish Perspective’.
The biblical tradition of a Sabbath year, or shmitah, was traditionally intended to ensure that the land and human relationships could be continually cared for and sustained. Some Jews are rethinking this tradition in light of the ecological issues of the 21st century.
Consumerism or connection? 21st century choices
Beige, camel, cream, off white, mocha, cappuccino, fawn, brown, latte, charcoal, milk, ivory, ice, malt, wheat, taupe, granite, neutral, pearl, stone, clay – which shade of shoe looks best?
Adventure, fun and partying, cultural, ‘off the beaten track’, romance, study, gourmet, relaxation or pampering – which style of travel suits you best?
Designer, cheap, made in China, India or Bangladesh, fair trade, bargain basement, handmade, Australian made, local or imported, online, local markets, bricks and mortar, organic or genetically modified – how do you buy your clothes and food?
If you live in the developed world, you are regularly confronted with hundreds of lifestyle choices! Many choices means many opportunities to purchase and consume. However, many of us know how quickly ideas change, seemingly leaving us with few options but to rethink our choices and consume again! This might be stimulating for those of us who have the means to purchase continually but what are the possible dangers of consumer culture for:
- the environment?
- for our relationships with each other?
- for the lifestyles of all peoples?
- a person’s sense of relationship with God?
- what happens to people who do not have the capacity to purchase?
In other words, how sustainable is a lifestyle driven by consumption?
In delving deeper into the big issues and worldviews about sustainable living (hyperlink) there are resources for looking at the effects of consumerism on the ecology from such perspectives as science, health, social studies, economics and technology. Theology also provides another perspective. The Catholic Church’s teaching on stewardship (hyperlink to this part of the site) provides an alternative way for Catholics to think about sustainable, urban lifestyles and the dangers of consumerism. But there are other perspectives from the Catholic tradition that are also worthy of examination by learners in relation to questions about living sustainably in a consumerist culture.
Different views of ‘the good life’.
A biblical perspective on consumerism
Societies of the developed world value materialism and a consumer lifestyle. In one way or another, these values influence how each of us chooses to live in our own world. In the biblical tradition we find various perspectives that challenge what, today, we would call consumerism. An example of this is Matthew 6: 28-34.
- What strikes you in the text?
- What do you think about that?
- What does it make you wonder?
For today’s reader, the text might challenge the notion that huge amounts of material possessions bring happiness and a sense of connectedness to God and others. It might also affirm those who choose a simpler lifestyle, and in that simplicity find beauty, satisfaction, justice and, for some, a path to God.
The text opens up possibilities for students to consider important questions such as:
- How do I know when I have enough?
- How much is ‘enough’? Is my ‘enough’, really more than enough?
- Could I live with less and still be satisfied? What is good about the ’good life’?
To deepen students’ thinking around these questions, Warren Carter has an excellent short commentary that would support a teacher’s understanding of the Matthean text. Scroll down to page 176 for his interpretation in Matthew and the Margins.
An artist’s perspective
The contemporary Australian artist, Vicki Luke, draws on the biblical image of Eden in her exploration of the notions of environmental damage, paradise and interconnectedness in her exhibition, Edenhouse. She submitted a piece entitled Paradise Lost, from this series, for the Blake Prize. To gain a deeper insight into Luke’s thinking for this project, learners might find an online article from the Albury-Wodonga News Weekly illuminating.
Invite learners to interpret the image of Paradise Lost for themselves, supported by the following thinking routine:
- What do you see?
- What do you think about that?
- What does it make you wonder about sustainability and interconnectedness?
- How are these ideas connected to what you already knew about sustainability?
What new ideas did you get that extended or pushed your thinking in new directions?
What is still challenging or confusing for you to get your mind around? What questions, wonderings or puzzles do you now have about sustainability?
If you were to create a visual artwork about urban sustainability that takes its inspiration from the biblical image of the garden of Eden , what might you want to explore? Which ideas, themes, actions and questions would you like to communicate to others through your art? What might be the best medium?
For a contemporary approach to understanding the value of creation in the book of Genesis in the Bible, check out The Earth Story in Genesis, edited by Norman Habel and Shirley Wurst. This is scholarly, but nonetheless accessible, reading for primary and secondary teachers who want to really deepen their understanding of a biblical approach to ecojustice. Many of the scholars who write in the series are Australian.
Voices from the past on a present reality
Urban sustainability and interconnectedness
What could an Italian holy man or a German holy woman from the 12th century have to do with how you live in urban, consumerist culture in the 21st century?
If we’re speaking about St Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen, then the answer might be, ‘a lot’!
St Francis of Assisi
The life of Francis reveals a man who, recognising that accumulating material possessions could not satisfy him, gave up the power and wealth of his family to live among the poor and marginalised of his time. However, his desire to be connected to others went beyond human beings. It extended to being connected to all of creation. In the same way he cared for the health and well-being of people he also cared for the fragile earth and its resources.
Francis saw the creation, of which human beings form a part, as an integral, interconnected whole. Rather than stewardship, Francis talked about a relationship of fellowship. Thinking about a relationship with God and creation in terms of fellowship or a family provides a very different perspective to that which says the earth is given by God for humans to use to satisfy their own needs.
A stirring video interpretation of the canticle might stimulate primary and secondary learners to interpret Francis’ poem for themselves. The following thinking routines could scaffold their interpreting activity!
- To stimulate learners’ curiosity and support thoughtful interpretation of the canticle, use the routine,
I See, Think and Wonder.
- To support learners in reflecting critically on their own views in light of the thinking of St Francis, you might pose the following questions based on the Connect, Extend, Challenge routine:
Does St Francis’ canticle connect with what you already believe about living sustainably in the city today?
What new ideas or beliefs does the Canticle of the Sun stir in you?
What is still challenging or confusing for you to get your mind around? What questions, wonderings or puzzles do you now have?
The Canticle of the Sun forms the basis of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference 2002 social justice statement, A New Earth, The Environmental Challenge. The canticle provides a framework for confronting the issues of polluted water and air, the degradation of the land and issues of sanitation and waste in Australia. The bishops outline some ways in which the abuse of the environment affects already fragile human ecologies in Australia.
Another brief account of St Francis’ life and information on why he was named the patron saint of ecology by Pope John Paul II may be helpful.
Hildegard of Bingen
How is the universe like an egg in the womb of God?
How might you live differently today if you viewed the universe as an egg in the womb of God?
These questions were explored by Hildegard of Bingen, a German theologian, composer, artist, herbalist, physician, leader and mystic of the twelfth century! Her works provide a way of thinking about the universe which, for Christians, contrasts with the consumerist view of the contemporary world in which we gobble up the earth and all its resources. She promoted a view based on what some today might call, interconnectedness.
Hildegard used the metaphors of the human body and of motherhood to describe how she understood God’s relationship to the universe. In a vision, illustrated in Scivias, Hildegard imaged the universe as a cosmic egg where God, humanity and the physical environment exist in an interrelated, interdependent life. Hildegard also spoke of the human body as a microcosm of the universe. Both express great beauty and are finely balanced. When either falls into a state of imbalance, they are besieged by illness and destruction. Expanding these metaphors, Hildegard developed the concept of viriditas or fecundity which describes the creative, life-giving, loving power of God that emanates from the womb of God.
Longer written quotes can also be found on the Friends of Silence website. Hildegard’s image of the earth as a mother, matching Francis’ perception of ‘dear Mother Earth’ may be worth learners contemplating.
- To stimulate some critical reflection about Hildegard’s ideas, ask learners to consider what it might mean to say …. “All living creatures are sparks from the radiation of God’s brilliance” …. Or, “God cannot be seen, but is known through creation.”
- Encourage learners to generate and extend their own ideas, suggesting their own hypotheses or raising their own questions, applying their own knowledge and experience to their reflections.
- Invite learners into a critical reflection on Hildegard’s illumination of the cosmic egg, using a thinking routine such as the Looking routine.
For teachers and learning leaders who want to deepen their understanding of Hildegard’s work and its pertinence to the 21st century, Jean Evans rsm has written a stimulating, accessible short essay, ‘Viriditas and Veritas: The Ecological Prophets Hildegard of Bingen and Miriam Therese MacGillis, OP.’ She reads the twelfth century Hildegard in dialogue with the contemporary geologian and Dominican sister, Therese MacGillis, a colleague of the late eco-theologian, monk and priest Thomas Berry and cosmologist Brian Swimme.
Interconnectedness: insights of Thomas Berry and others
‘The universe is a communion of subjects not a collection of objects. If we don’t learn that, nothing is going to work’. Thomas Berry
How sustainable is a lifestyle driven by consumption? What is the future of the universe if humankind continues its trajectory of consumption and destruction? Is there an alternative way to think about humankind’s relationship to the universe?
The late Thomas Berry – eco theologian, Passionist monk and priest – was a founding father of the contemporary ecological movement. He spent much of his life pursuing questions such as these as he grappled with what he perceived as people’s deepening sense of alienation from each other and the earth. He argued for an alternative worldview in which humankind saw itself as dependent upon and in a dynamic relationship with the earth. Mary Evelyn Tucker has composed a short biography of Berry that outlines the context in which Berry’s thinking evolved; his many influences, including Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, as well as believers from other religious and indigenous traditions; and the basis for his view that is enshrined in what is called, The New Story.
A powerful short film that features Berry’s ideas about the interconnectedness of the earth and its peoples is available at Thomas Berry and the Earth Community. The film would be worthy viewing for secondary students and their learning leaders.
A video interview with Berry will also give teachers an insight into Berry’s thinking. It is a short but solid interview. Of particular interest is his observation about the role of religion today as an enabling force for people to understand the revelatory nature of the universe. Equally compelling are his thoughts on the potential danger of children living in urban settings. Berry contemplates the possibility of city children becoming alienated from the earth, leading to what he calls, ‘Nature Deficit Disorder.’
The late evolutionary biologist, Lynn Margulis, wrote in The Symbiotic Planet that ‘the planet takes care of us, and not we of it.’ In other words, human life is a part of a greater whole- the universe. She sees human beings as organisms within the earth’s ecology and notes that human beings are dependent on the earth rather than controllers of it.
Consider this quote from her book: ‘the planet takes care of us, and not we of it.’
- What does this idea mean?
- Is it true? How do you know?
- Is there an alternative way of thinking?
An Australian contribution: Ecology and the Eucharist
How might global change impact celebrations of the Eucharist? How is Eucharistic worship related to ecological actions and sustainable lifestyles? What is the relationship between Eucharist, ecology and a culture driven by consumption?
These are pertinent questions for Catholics in the 21st century. They are explored by the Australian theologian, Denis Edwards, in Eucharist and Ecology. In this article, Denis provides an ecological theology of Eucharist that incorporates implications for Catholic spirituality and lifestyle. This is a stimulating read for teachers and faith leaders who wish to rethink the significance of their celebrations of the Eucharist in light of the ecological issues facing all peoples in the global world.
Sustainability, consumption and interconnectedness:
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI
Both popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have developed powerful statements about sustainability and consumption from a Catholic worldview, beginning with John Paul’s Peace Day message in 1989 and including Benedict’s message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace in 2010, Peace with God the Creator; Peace with all Creation. If you scroll down on the site of Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, you will also find numerous links to Church sites and documents that illustrate how the Church understands the environmental issues of the contemporary world.
The Worldwatch Institute has published a short, stimulating web article that outlines the potential contribution that Pope Benedict XVI and the legacy of John Paul II might contribute to the issue of sustainable communities and consumption. This is interesting background reading for teachers.