Linking Sustainability, Spirituality, and Peacebuilding

May 7, 2006

A friend of mine, Sarah Talcott, recently wrote the Global Youth Cooperation Circle about an interfaith youth exchange she is planning in Cyprus. In that message she asked,

I would love to get your thoughts and ideas about how you see peacebuilding and sustainability education linked. How do the two influence and / or impact the other? How do you see these links in the work you are doing in the world? It would be nice to be able to integrate the ideas and input from this global network of young people into the exchange, as well as to take the findings and insights of the exchange back to you all.

I happened to be thinking of these very issues as I pulled dandelions up from my front yard this afternoon, so when I came inside and read her message, I felt called to respond by rapidly composing the following, which is thought-through but admittedly makes a few leaps in logic (to do otherwise would require a far larger tome!).

Dear Sarah & the Global Youth CC,

As we so often see, conflict (that thing for which we need peacebuilding) is rooted in direct competition for scarce resources — land, water, fuel. jobs. And often time that very scarcity is due to environmental impacts natural and man-made... and competition and exploitation often make them worse. So we have cycles of ecological destruction, cycles of poverty, cycles of war.

Issues of environmental degradation, empowerment of women, armed conflict, poor water quality, AIDS, etc., etc. are so intertwined as to be inseparable, as implied in the Millennium Development Goals. We must on the one hand treat the symptoms — a society won't survive when all of its school teachers are dying of AIDS, and ecological rehabilitation is meaningless of the landscape is torn apart by war. What this all points to is that thinking in terms of sustainability -- which pulls conservation and economic development into a loving embrace — is a potent means for addressing problems of scarcity and unequal rights. And thus for building peace between peoples.

522951_99619427.jpg This link between sustainability and peace was acknowledged in 2004 when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. The Green Belt Movement worked to plant trees in deforested areas. In short, this helped to provide easy-access to firewood (which women often travel miles and miles every day to collect), as well as fruit, and thus allowed these women to remain closer to home caring for their families. Further, forests have been shown to play key roles in terms of ecosystem services: aside from the direct resources provided, they help anchor and rejuvenate soils, thus keeping flooding down and helping an area retain water; they soak up the CO2 that is causing warming across many part of the globe; and some research has even shown that they affect the atmosphere to such an extent as to bring more rain to an area. This effort has done much to improve the lives of people and the ecosystems their children will inherit. Thus there is, quite simply, less cause for violence and conflict in the future.

Of course in the interfaith movement we also recognize the need for spirituality. I believe that neither peace nor sustainability education will succeed, in the long term, if we ignore people's spiritual needs and inclinations. Not only are the religions of the world a potent channel for education, but further development of individual spirituality — which tempers humanity's "animal nature" — is absolutely essential for peace and sustainability. So-called religious people have been involved in conflict throughout the history of homo sapiens. But surely a well-developed sense of spirituality, one that recognizes the essential oneness of humanity, and of humanity with the world around it, is key to any real progress. And again the Green Belt Movement is a fabulous example: by helping mothers stay near home, there is more time for moral and spiritual development in the family.

Peace is more than an end to warfare; it is the united advancement of societies in an atmosphere that embraces all and provides material and spiritual opportunities for all. Sustainable development is a requisite element for providing opportunities for spiritual development and for reducing the ecological impacts of scarcity. In many cases, well-designed efforts towards sustainability may also address local issues of health, women's rights, stable food supplies, and so forth. Sustainability, spirituality, and peacebuilding are intrinsically linked agents for creating feedback mechanisms that uplift people instead of trodding them down.