In this poignant and inspirational interview with GTUx Connect, Dr. Iyad Abumoghli discusses the ways in which faith-based organizations can be conduits for positive environmental change, humanity’s interconnectedness with the environment, and practical applications of where faith-based organizations can directly impact plastic consumption.
You can join Dr. Iyad Abumoghli and a panel of experts, including Sarah Berg, Acting Director for the Center for Climate Justice and Faith at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, this Friday, June 2nd from 8am-9am PT for a live discussion of the ways in which faith communities are uniquely positioned to combat the climate crisis. Register for this free, online event here.
Explore more from Dr. Iyad Abumoghli and the UNEP on GTUx in the Faith and Sustainable Lifestyles Collection and the following lectures: Changing the Future: Mindfulness for Earth; Changing the Future: Faith, Values and Ethics for Environmental Governance; and Changing the Future: Biodiversity and Ecosystems.
When did you first recognize the connection between the role that faith-based organizations have in reducing the environmental impacts of humans? How has your understanding of this relationship evolved over time?
The first paragraph of the Stockholm Declaration of 1972 on the Human Environment, that established the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), recognizes that humans are both products of the environment and can shape it. It highlights that the environment provides not only physical sustenance but also opportunities for intellectual, moral, social, and spiritual growth. This acknowledgment emphasizes the interconnectedness of humans with the natural world and the significance of the environment for holistic human well-being. UNEP at that time took serious attention to the role of spirituality and religions in shaping the relationship between humans and nature, thus initiated its first religion and environment programme in the 1980s with some faith-based organizations in the US and launched the Environmental Sabbath initiative. In the 1990’s discussions of Agenda 21 started with the inclusion of culture, including religious culture, as a fourth pillar to sustainable development. Intrigued by this, I published a paper in 1999 on Sustainable Development and Islam as means to achieve Agenda 21. In the year 2000, UNEP published the first publication called Earth and Faith, that after 20 years, with the Parliament of World’s Religions, republished a second version in the year 2020 as Faith for Earth: A Call for Action, addressing the current triple Planetary Crisis and new developments in the engagement of faith actors. After the adoption of the sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, UNEP started thinking about how to include the Whole-of-Society in the implementation of the SDGs in fulfilment of Goal 17 on partnerships. Therefore, in 2016, UNEP held the Second International Seminar on Environment, Culture and Religion – Promoting Intercultural Dialogue for Sustainable Development and published a discussion paper on Environment, Religion and Culture in the context of the 2030 Agenda. Understanding the important role religions, spirituality and faith action can have in sustainable development, I was requested by the Executive Director of UNEP in 2017, having done some work previously on the issue, to initiate a comprehensive programme that I called Faith for Earth based on a strategic engagement with faith actors to engage them in policy dialogue. However, to be able to launch such an ambitious initiative, I had to study most of the major religions and their connections to the environment. The more I studied, the more convinced I became of the importance of values and ethics in shaping our practices and lifestyles. The publications that we have issued thereafter and the partnerships we have created with faith-based organizations demonstrated such important role and value.
How can we connect sustainable lifestyles with plastic pollution on the micro and macro level (i.e. the individual and the community)?
To understand this relationship, we need to understand that lifestyles identify our behaviors, choices, and habits influenced by social, economic, religious, and political realms of life. Individuals or communities, contribute with their lifestyle choices to either living in harmony with nature, or contributing to its degradation. The latter, unfortunately, has led us to where we are now in terms of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.
Many of the world’s religions embrace sustainable living and lifestyles. Religions hold high values for the sensible use of natural resources, promoting social justice for all. For example, Buddhism reflects on the interconnectedness of humans to nature and thus the impact of behaviors on the environment. In Islam, the middle way is a lifestyle that requires Muslims to be moderate in their lifestyles to ensure justice but also to conserve natural resources.
Adopting lifestyles based on religious values can contribute to reducing plastic pollution in several ways, for example, by embracing the principle of sacredness of nature, individuals may become more mindful of their consumption patterns and the impact of plastic waste on the environment, especially the single-use plastics that can be replaced using sustainable alternatives. Adopting the principles of simple living, advocated by all religions, individuals may minimize their reliance on plastic products and packaging, especially during faith festivals and occasions, opting for reusable and eco-friendly alternatives. Stewardship and Responsibility are other religious principles that can shape our lifestyles that minimize plastic pollution, such as using reusable bags, bottles, and containers, avoiding disposable plastic items, and properly disposing of waste.
Religious communities provide platforms for collective action by organizing programs that are focused on reducing plastic pollution. These can vary from launching educational campaigns, clean-up events, as well as advocacy and awareness campaigns. Participating in policy dialogue is also another avenue that faith organizations can substantively contribute to make a change, as during the United Nations Environment Assembly where religious organizations submitted appeals to decision makers to adopt a global binding resolution on reducing the use of plastics.
What role does World Environment Day play in your organization? How do you utilize this moment to galvanize others?
The World Environment Day celebrated on the 5th of June of every year is actually the date of birth of UNEP that was established in 1972. This year is the 50th anniversary of the World Environment Day. In commemoration of this day, UNEP selects an environmental theme that represents an environmental significance to the people and the planet. This year, we are focusing attention to the issue of plastic pollution, especially after the adoption of UNEA Resolution to establish the International Negotiating Committee (INC) on plastics. Every year millions of people engage in activities around the thematic issue and major advancements are realized in addressing it. We have developed some general guidelines on how people, governments, communities and organizations can contribute to solutions to the plastic pollution with specific guidelines for faith actors.
What is the Triple Planetary Crisis and why do you use this terminology? How does the term more accurately portray your mission?
The “Triple Planetary Crisis” is a term that we use to describe the interlinkages of root causes and impact of the three major environmental issues we are facing today of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Climate change is the most profound environmental catastrophe of our times impacting the rich and the poor, developed and developing nations and men and women and people of different backgrounds. We need to recognize here that the unprivileged sectors of the communities are the ones impacted more than others due to their inability to access adaptation measure, early warning systems and simply coping mechanisms. We are facing the risk of the extinction of one million biodiversity species. This is all compounded by the waste and pollution challenge that is affecting our lands and waters. Climate change affects our agricultural and rainfall patterns. This is evidenced by science that human activities, behavior, and consumption patterns are the main causes of climate change. Pollution in terms of releasing carbon dioxide, water pollution and plastic pollution render our ability to produce healthy food and affects the very health of the people.
UNEP aims to convey the urgency and magnitude of the environmental challenges we face when connecting these environmental challenges. Therefore, we look for solutions that are integrated as anyone of them cannot be solved without addressing the others. This approach recognizes that achieving sustainability requires a balanced and interconnected response that simultaneously addresses climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. UNEP is the highest authority within the UN system responsible for the environmental component of sustainable development, thus our mission is to provide and advocate for coherent and coordinated environmental action at the global level. UNEP encourages cooperation of the whole-of-society, whether governments or stakeholders, civil society, faith actors, academia, farmers, women and youth organizations, businesses, and individuals, to work together towards a sustainable and resilient future.
Are there any additional resources you would like to share with the GTUx community?
I would like to invite individuals and organizations to explore the vast scientific resources developed by UNEP, and many other organizations, on climate change, biodiversity and pollution and ways and means they can contribute to solving these issues. While reading documents and publications can be very useful such as the IPCC reports, the public would prefer more simple and entertaining resources that can describe the severity of the issues we are facing and can provide some inspiration for solutions. The documentaries “The Story of Plastics” and the “The Plastic Ocean” might be of an interest to viewers. The Faith for Earth Coalition has published several publications and launched some free online courses to provide simple and easy to understanding of the relationship between religions and environmental issues with some guidelines for planting trees or greening houses of worship, among others.
Dr. Iyad Abumoghli is the founder and director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Faith for Earth Initiative. He has more than 35 years of experience with international organizations, the private sector, and scientific institutions. Dr. Abu Moghli’s expertise focus on strategic planning, sustainable development, natural resources management, knowledge and innovation, and interfaith collaboration. Before joining UNEP, he served for 14 years in the United Nations Development Programme.