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Foundations for a Sustainable Common Future

On Participating in the Design of a Sustainable World
As if People, the Earth and the Spirit Really Mattered

submitted by Earthcare Interfaith Network

to Global Tomorrow Coalition
for the National Public Hearings on Our Common Future
at the Globescope Pacific Assembly, Los Angeles, November 1-2, 1989


The global crisis calls for a holistic approach, involving consideration of all the dimensions of sustainability -- environmental, economic, cultural, social, political, community, personal and spiritual. We need a deeper understanding of what a holistic approach means.

The values guiding development need to reflect a sustainable consensus of the highest values of our relationships with each other and with the earth. We need to look to the spirit, and to our common spiritual heritage, as we search for that consensus.

Our individual actions need to embody these values, and we need to join those actions with others -- locally, regionally, nationally and globally, integrating local and global concerns.

As we work with others, we need a process that embodies an ethic of inclusion, and that listens attentively and respectfully to dissent.

We need to support the United Nations in moderating the course of sustainable development, and to work towards the establishment of a U.N. Earth Stewardship Council.


The nature of the recommendations presented here are broad, and the opportunities for their implementation are many. While there is value in developing an approach that coordinates the implementation of the recommendations, in many respects it is at least as important that they are implemented in many different contexts and forms by individuals within their own faith communities. Further, the synergy that can emerge from networking is most evident when it is based on bringing together many independent sources of energy and activity.

There are growing indications of an awakening within the faith communities of a concern with our relationship with nature. For example, in 1986, the Declarations of Assisi, from Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Moslems, and Sikhs emerged from a conference convened by the World Wildlife Fund. The Environmental Sabbath has been established through the United Nations Environment Programme as a time for faith communities to observe a day of rest for the earth. And there are many individuals who have long harbored within themselves a deep sense of the importance of the spiritual dimension of our relationship with the earth.

The emergence of a "movement" based on a recognition of that importance is providing -- for many of these individuals -- empowering opportunities to express that inner sense beyond a few close friends, and to discover many other who share their perspective on the natural world.

This renewed sense of legitimacy for the spiritual dimension of our relationship with the earth is being juxtaposed with the sharply increasing focus on the need to address environment and development issues. This juxtaposition means that a sensitivity that had generally been considered otherworldly is being seen by more and more people as containing within it vital keys to coming to terms with the very concrete question of how we can develop the basis for sustainable life of earth.

"Until recently, the planet was a large world in which human activities and their effects were neatly compartmentalized within nations, within sectors (energy, agriculture, trade) and within broad areas of concern (environmental, economic, social). These compartments have begun to dissolve. This applies particularly to the various global crises that have seized public concern, particularly over the past decade. These are not separate crises: an environmental crisis, a development crisis, an energy crisis. They are all one."
Our Common Future, p. 4

Global concerns: developing a holistic approach

As the boundaries between sectors and compartments are dissolving, the realization is growing that life on earth needs to be looked at as an interlocking system. Just as we can not address issues of development without issues of environment, so when we look at the sustainability of development, we need to consider the sustainability of the social and political environment accompanying the development. For social and political environments to be sustainable, they must be supportive of sustainable individual, family, and community environments. At the heart of sustaining individuals, families, and communities is sustaining of the spiritual element of our lives.

    The nature of holistic approach
    While there is much talk of the need for holistic approaches, much less tends to be said by way of description of the nature and characteristics of a holistic approach. A holistic approach goes beyond a recognition of the connectedness of the various elements of our world: it involves an appreciation of process as well as of structure, of right-brained and of left-brained approaches to the world, of body as well as of mind. And, as the whole knows no boundaries, a holistic approach opens a doorway to acknowledgement of the role of the spirit -- in human behavior, in nature, and in our relationship with nature.

    Holistic approach and healing
    Often not noted is that "holistic" stems from the same root as "heal", and a holistic approach is one that goes beyond analysis and embodies a commitment to make whole, to heal. In the context of sustainable development, a holistic approach must embody a commitment to a process of healing the earth and of healing our selves.

    Learning a holistic approach
    There is a need for a concerted effort to come to terms with the meaning and scope of a holistic approach, in theory and in practice, and to seek systematic ways to introduce principles of holistic methodology into the ways we think and act, for example through curricula at all levels of our educational system.

Value as foundations of development

Just as recognition of spirit has been missing in much public dialogue on the affairs of the world, so has been an examination of the role of values in an economy. We need to recognize that the economy, and economic development, are systems for the definition and transmission of values. Yet the nature of the values that are transmitted by development are rarely questioned, nor is much consideration given to specific ways that the mechanisms of the economy, and the structure of laws and regulations that govern these mechanisms serve as a powerful vehicle for the transmission of values.

    Economic values and constraints
    The basic values that guide our economic systems reflect conditions before there was any substantial awareness -- other than in the writings of Malthus -- of the nature of constraints to economic growth, whether from depletion of the earth's resources or from the effects of the accumulation of toxics and waste in our ecosystem. And, with the exception of Marxist economic theory, economic analysis has paid scant attention to the social and political ramifications of the economy and of economic development.

    Re-examining economic values
    We need a fundamental re-examination of the values that are represented by the workings of our economic system, and we need to subject to rigorous scrutiny the question of the extent to which those values, and our own individual behavior, are compatible with a sustainable economy. We need that scrutiny to extend to an examination of the social and political implications of our economic systems.

The role of the faith communities

Over the span of human history on earth, the faith communities have played an instrumental role in the development of culture, knowledge, the social order, and of the economy. While it is commonly recognized how religious leadership has frequently resulted in widespread abuses "in the name of God", at times that realization has turned us away from an acknowledgement of the positive contribution of spiritual leadings and of religions to the quality of life on earth.

    Spiritual responsibility for the earth
    As the evidence has been accumulating on the extent to which human activity is jeopardizing life on earth, as we know it, there has been emerging within faith communities a growing recognition of our spiritual responsibility for the earth.

    Basis for common ground among faiths
    This recognition has been accompanied by a growing recognition of a basis for common ground among religions, and to an emerging dialogue among those of different faiths. It has also led to an exploration of ways in which less widely known spiritual teachings -- for example from Native American traditions, or from the Tao -- speak to us as we seek to rediscover what our own faith teaches us of our relationship with the natural world.

    Interfaith dialogue and common values
    This opening to a dialogue between faiths on a shared concern for developing a spiritual ethic for our relationship with the natural and material world represents an unprecedented opportunity to bring together the richest traditions of value in human history. The opportunity to engage in a process of inquiry and exploration of the common ground among faiths concerning our relationship to the earth naturally opens a door to exploring a broader basis of common ground. This process could provide a remarkable foundation from which it may be possible to move gently towards discerning a consensus as to a set of the highest shared values of our relationship to the earth and to each other.

    Interfaith dialogue or religious wars
    Given the history of wars that have been -- and still are being -- fought between representatives of different faiths, any process of dialogue among faiths will at times not be an easy one. Yet, we need to undertake it, not only to engage into a deeper search for sustainable values, but also to answer the very real and direct challenge to sustainable development posed by the tensions between those of different faiths -- tensions perhaps most evident right now in the Middle East. For, no matter how sound a strategy of development may be in other respects, it can swiftly be undone by war.

    Uniting justice, peace and environmental concerns
    Just as there has been a growing dialogue between different faiths on our relationship with the earth, so, within the World Council of Churches is a movement that offers another vital challenge for the faith communities that is intimately related to the issues involved in environment and development. For this movement -- known as Justice Peace and the Integrity of Creation -- involves an exploration of Biblical teachings, as well as those from other faiths, of the relationships between issues of justice, peace and the environment, and a commitment to address those concerns.

Integrating faith and practice

The search for religious values compatible with sustainable life on earth will have little meaning without a parallel commitment to have those values guide our words and actions into tangible steps to address the issues.

    Within our faith community
    We need to examine our own individual and corporate lifestyles within our faith community, and to become clear as to the effect of our lives on the earth and the earth's resources. We need to share our concerns with others within our faith communities, and work to have our faith community unite in support of these concerns.

    Our words and actions in the world
    To the extent that we are able, we need to become actively involved in secular planning processes -- locally regionally, nationally and globally -- that address concerns for our common future. Whether a recycling or tree planting program in our neighborhood, city or county; economic development plans for our region; or state or federal pollution legislation, we have the opportunity to support appropriate action, as well as to seek for ways of establishing links in practice and in consciousness with the global context, and with its spiritual dimension.

Becoming part of a network

As we engage in an active process to work with others to move towards a sustainable common future, we will find many with whom we can discover a deeply held set of common values, and with whom we can join in enthusiastic endeavors. We may become increasingly aware of being part of a network of people who share our concerns.

    Developing networking skills
    Addressing the seemingly immense tasks of being part of a fundamental transformation in the way the world works, we need to continue to find ways of being more effective in our words and actions. As we become part of a network of committed people, opportunities will continue to present themselves for us to deepen our understanding and practice of ways we work with others -- ways of sharing skills, information, resources, and support for each other.

    Developing communication skills
    Hand in hand with networking skills we need to strengthen our skills of communication, learning ways to speak and write more clearly, ways to share our messages -- and those of others -- more deeply and more widely. We need to be sensitive to the words we use, and to the meanings they evoke in others. We can move from the spoken word to print, and as way opens, we can explore the power and effectiveness of computers and electronic communications networks that can open doorways to near instantaneous communications around the planet.

Attention to process: listening to others

While we can expect to encounter many friends and supporters on our journeys, as we become involved in some of the more challenging arenas, we will surely encounter those whose opinions and interests appear to run counter to those we hold. Even, and especially, when convinced of the rightness of our ideas, we need to listen attentively to those who differ from us, to hear the truth in what they say. We need to be careful not to possess any idea too firmly, knowing that another may draw us closer to truth.

    Proceeding deliberately
    While it is easy to sense an urgency to implement efforts to provide a basis for sustainable development, we must be wary not to be rushed into precipitate actions. While at times it may take significantly longer to reach a point where decisions can be made that are agreeable to all, and while it may be tempting to ride roughshod over objections, there is a very special quality and power to actions that grow out of a true consensus, and that embody respect for all the parties who are involved.

    Sensitivity to other cultures
    Throughout the process of dialogue on environment and development, we are likely to encounter people from different cultures -- whether they are from distant countries, or represent different cultures and values from within our own society. In order for the dialogue to move towards resolution of differences in perspective, we need to maintain a sensitivity to cultures different from our own, and to be slow to pass judgment.

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development

The U.N. International Conference scheduled for 1992 represents a unique opportunity to channel the concern and energy for sustainable development into an agenda and process for setting global policy, and for building mechanisms for addressing global environmental concerns.

    U.N. Earth Stewardship Council
    Laying the groundwork for the establishment of an Earth Stewardship Council, to become one of the six major components of the United Nations, has been advocated by some as one of the goals for the 1992 U.N. Conference. The Earth Stewardship Council would fill a gap that is being created by the completion of the tasks of the U.N. Trusteeship Council, which had the responsibility for supporting the passage to independence of territories that were in a trusteeship status at the time the U.N. was established. The creation of an Earth Stewardship Council would be an acknowledgement that the task of caring for the survival of the earth should be a primary responsibility of the United Nations.

    Environmental Sabbath
    An Environmental Sabbath, observed during the first weekend in June, has been established through the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as a time to observe a day of rest for the earth, and to examine the teachings of one's own and other faiths on our relationship with the earth. Organizing interfaith events around national and local observations of the Environmental Sabbath can be a powerful means of involving faith communities in that issue, as well as of drawing specific attention to environment and development, and the 1992 United Nations Conference.

    Non-government participation
    In what is unusual language for a United Nations Conference, the Governing Council of UNEP is calling for systematic efforts to involve non-government organizations in the planning and preparation for the 1992 Conference. This call is an acknowledgement of the vital grassroots leadership role in environmental movements everywhere, and represents a wonderful opportunity for grassroots participation in setting a global agenda and in developing global policies.


The faith communities are faced with an opportunity to play a vital role in speaking to a fundamental aspect of the challenge of sustainable development -- the spiritual dimension of our relationship with the earth -- that to date has received little attention. Exploration of this spiritual dimension opens a doorway to an interfaith dialogue, a dialogue whose importance goes beyond issues of environment and development to a search for a common ground among all faiths, a common ground based on a shared commitment to the relationship that each of us has with nature and with an earth which has provided spiritual and material sustenance since the dawn of human history.

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