Mark Coleman, author of The Sustainability Generation, explains the link link between sustainability and spirituality.
By Mark C. Coleman
A roadmap to a more sustainable world is being shaped by business, government, and not-for-profit organizations. As the concept and practice of sustainability takes root it will also be necessary for citizens and individuals to stake their claim in how they embrace it in their daily lives. Sustainability is not something that can be mandated, legislated, or regulated. At its core, sustainability is about how humans interface with each other and the natural world, and in a manner that has us consider not only our needs today, but it also challenges us think beyond ourselves toward the needs of future generations.
Being able to think beyond ourselves requires patience, humility, a strong capacity for listening and learning, and an ability to separate ego from our true “self”. Sustainability then, is very much tied to spirituality, and how we choose to embrace, or not, our journey of self-discovery, enlightenment, and sense of purpose. Understanding that spirituality goes beyond the practice of religion, and that we all are part of a generation living within a context of time and fate which is requiring more accountability from each of us, is a perspective toward how people can begin to embrace sustainability from personal point of view.
Questioning Faith in the Face of Change
I am embarrassed to admit this, but it is true. In the past five years my faith in religion has been challenged, questioned, and to a certain extent, eroded. Within the past three years my wife had a miscarriage, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when our second son was born by cesarean, and most recently was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) which has affected her eyesight. These events also align with the first four years of our first son’s life, and where since his birth we have been diligently (at times desperately) getting a handle his severe food allergies and his challenges with eczema and asthma. Our plate has been full, yet we have persevered and made the most of our life challenges. But like many people that may be faced with disease, medical challenges, or other issues, looking for answers has been a general response to changes in our life. We have asked ourselves: Why us? Why now? We have felt a great deal of anxiety, confusion, and at times anger in the past few years. But in the face of our challenges we have begun to embrace our “life context”, accept who we are, and move forward to live as positive, productive, and purposeful a life we can.
Converging Global Issues Exacerbate Uncertainty
Aside from personal life challenges we all experience, the world has been witness to a convergence of contemporary issues impacting modern society. Terrorism, natural disasters, over consumption, and peoples disillusion with political and business institutions represent a sample of the spattering that makes our daily news cycle. Any one of these issues is challenging enough, however, the intensity and severity of these issues seems to be increasing, and happening simultaneously. With all of this complexity, anxiety on the future is growing among people throughout the world. As a result, one would think that this is high time for embracing spirituality and God. However, religion has not been without its own challenges in the past decade. As droves of people have seemingly also lost their faith, many religions struggle to remain relevant. Seven billion people now inhabit earth, competing for a finite supply of natural resources. The fate of humans resides in large part, in the doing of our own hands, decisions, and capacity to respect and learn from one another.
Practicing religion and having faith in God has been the traditional outlet for addressing life’s tougher questions. But in recent years, amid many unethical and outright scandalous dealings within religion, many people have found themselves morally, spiritually, and socially at odds with continuing to practice their faith. We know, in our hearts and minds that our faith and spirituality should rise above the indiscretions of Priests and lack of transparency in the church. However, this has been difficult. The past decade barraged society with scandal after scandal. Many large corporations, political, business, religious, and other “leaders” fell from grace in the past decade, leaving behind them a wake of loss, despair, and in some cases, life. The church seemed to be the last beacon of hope, yet the reputation of the institution that seemed to be protected by God also lost its appeal among millions of people who have questioned whether any institution can truly be morally responsible.
The fall of Enron, the greed of financial investors like Bernie Madoff, the corruption of politicians like former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the ungraceful and unfortunate death of Michael Jackson, are each reflections of the human condition being played out in greater society. These are more extreme and higher profile examples of a general detachment among humans with our inner-self, our relationship with God and one another, and ultimately our closeness to nature. We have become disillusioned with business, politics, government, religion, and most regrettably, faith in ourselves. The underlying power of humanity is that we are resilient and can adapt to change. But in the act of being resilient we rely on spirituality, being caring, and finding connections among one another and the world that foster sense of self, resourcefulness, and community.
The Answers to Spirituality and Sustainability Lie within Ourselves
There are no quick answers to the challenges before our generation. However one thing is certain: the sustainability of our generation, and the earth, are intrinsically tied to our capacity to delve individually and collectively into spirituality. Individuals have the power within themselves to be the stewards of their behaviors, to set the standard for accountability within society, and represent a generation of enlightened individuals that can not only be resilient, but be a force for creating a better world. The generation living here and now is the Sustainability Generation. This generation will be measured not on its ability to wage war, land on the moon, or build financial wealth. Rather, the Sustainability Generation will be the first generation required to balance the quickening pace of converging and conflicting issues before it. As this generation assesses the trade-offs between clean energy and clean water, healthcare and daycare, religion and human rights, making money or making memories, it will need to make difficult decisions. From here on out the Sustainability Generation will seek out harmonizing its relationships with nature, among one another, and with God.
People are the stewards of the earth. Yet our behaviors and relationships with our natural resources, and with each other, might not appear as such. Transitioning society out of unsustainable practices through personal and generational accountability is very challenging. Being accountable by being present and in the right frame of mind for sound decision-making is essential for (1) recognizing our behavior; (2) understanding the impact of our behavior on economy, environment, and society; and, (3) being able to take action through personal accountability to modify behavior to effect change.
The Pope Declares the Need to Link Moral Obligation with Spirituality and Sustainability
Pope Benedict XVI has used his influence to begin to create an awareness of a moral obligation to have personal accountability to reduce human-induced impacts on climate change. If the Catholic Church is ringing its bell on climate and sustainability, individual awareness and accountability might just begin to take a stronger hold throughout society.
As one of the oldest institutions, the Catholic Church is struggling with controversy about sexual abuse and a declining base of parishioners in the United States and globally. With history as one of its measures, the Catholic Church is also extremely resilient and influential. Today there are more than one billion people worldwide that identify themselves as Catholics, making them the largest sect of Christianity.
In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI made a request to the world to have a faith and moral obligation to reduce human impacts on global climate change. The Pope’s appeal for more sustainable development throughout the world had a wider message that more sustainable consumption of resources would lead to greater prospects for peace and prosperity in many countries. A large portion of Catholics live in developing nations where poverty, health, and environmental challenges impact the quality of life and basic needs of millions of people. In Brazil alone there are more than 130 million people who identify themselves as Catholic.
In a speech in Northern Italy in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI stated, “God entrusted man with the responsibility of creation.” The Pope suggested that environmental destruction is directly tied to a materialistic society where "God is denied." Pope Benedict stated, “. . . In a world closed in on its materialism … it is easier for the human being to make himself the dictator of all other creatures and of nature."[i]
In separate speeches Pope Benedict commented, " . . . Perhaps reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are also scars which mark the surface of our earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world's mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption." And the Pope has in recent years introduced excessive wealth and the creation of poverty amongst the new seven sins.
In 2011 the Pope took his message and extended it to the broader economy. In August 2011[ii] on a trip to the Catholic Church's World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, Pope Benedict issued the following remarks to reporters onboard the papal plane regarding a need to have greater ethics in economic affairs, " . . . The economy doesn't function with market self-regulation, but needs an ethical rationale to work for mankind . . . Man must be at the center of the economy, and the economy cannot be measured only by maximization of profit but rather according to the common good."
What’s significant is that all major institutions of society—industry, government, religion, and academia—are now talking a similar talk regarding climate change and natural resource degradation—with a self-effacing call for greater ethics, accountability, and reform. What is most interesting about Pope Benedict’s position and direct language on the subject is that he focuses the issue on “people” and our inability to manage our consumptive behaviors, and a need to maximize the “common good” of society, not just the economy. There are also undertones of “entitlement” in the Pope’s remarks suggesting that society has become ambivalent about our relationship with the natural world, choosing to be a “dictator” over nature and reaping the reward of the riches the world has to offer, but unconcerned with the ecological impacts of our behaviors.
With more than one billion Catholics listening to the Pope’s call for a “moral obligation” to curtail our consumptive behaviors and its impacts on climate and the natural world, the Catholic Church’s stance on climate and consciousness of our behavior could be transformational. The Pope is choosing to use his position of power and influence to empower and enlighten those that will listen. As demonstrated through this example of enlightened leadership, the Sustainability Generation is well at work in every facet of society.
Modern Connections, Timeless Advice: The Social Side of Sustainability
It is also interesting to note that in 2011, at the height of the social networking boom, Pope Benedict weighed in on society’s infatuation with social networks, drawing questions of self-constraint, awareness, and the act of the individual being present to others in daily life. In January 2011 the Pope issued comments[iii] under the title, “truth, proclamation and authenticity of life in the digital age,” stating that social networks provide “a great opportunity.” However he noted that “. . . it is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.” The Pope asked “Who is my ‘neighbor’ in this new world?” as a way to have social networkers reflect upon how they spend their time, and whether an overuse of social networks can lead to alienation, self-indulgence, or depersonalization. In his comments prepared for the Catholic Church’s World Day of Communications the Pope issued additional potential warnings about the over-reliance on social networking as a sole platform for communication; the Pope stated, ". . . entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world . . . In the search for sharing, for 'friends,' there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself." In his words the Pope went on to ask social networkers whether they were “less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life.”
So, the challenge is in how we as individuals and as a generation can discover the good in social networking, from its ability to connect, educate, empower and enlighten people for greater advocacy of establishing the Sustainability Generation. The potential and power in social networking can be the ability to connect with and motivate, empower, and enlighten like-minded individuals toward a common purpose.
Allow Spirituality and Sustainability to Converge
As individuals, and as a generation, we do not have to fall victim to negative behaviors and influences within society or events which impact the world. You, me, “we” are the generation living in the here and now that can take action toward a more sustainable world. Discovering who we are as individuals; and being accountable to our role as parents, citizens, friends, neighbors, teachers, and leaders can lead to a more sustainable world. By better understanding our sense of self, and our views of spirituality, we can become better stewards of our behaviors, interactions with each other, and our impact on the earth.
About the Author
Throughout his career Mark C. Coleman has developed a strong focus on the critical areas of energy, environment, and sustainability. His career has spanned strategic and leadership positions in government, applied research, technology development, and management consulting organizations. This rich and diverse experience has enabled Mr. Coleman to have access to, engage, and work with a broad range of regional, national, and international leaders on the subject of sustainability. His first book, “The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Accountability is Essential NOW!” will be published in October 2012.
[i] Source: Mongabay News, http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0807-hance_pope.html.
[ii] Source Winfield, Nicole. August 18, 2011. “Pope demands greater ethics in economic policy.” Associated Press, http://www.ajc.com/news/nation-world/pope-demands-greater-ethics-1119336.html.
[iii] Source: NY Times and Reuters, http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2011/01/24/technology/tech-us-pope-facebook.html?_r=1&hp.