The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Is Religious Environmentalism Sustainable?

Faith-based organisations (FBOs) are increasingly acknowledged as important partners in implementing policies and initiatives at the community level.  Such community-based policies or initiatives have to date, covered a range of themes including social problems (eg. crime and drug abuse), meeting basic developmental needs (eg. healthcare, education and livelihood options) and more recently,  disaster management and environmental issues. As a follow-up to a previous blog post on the role of FBOs in disaster preparedness, this blog post will focus on FBOs participation in environmental protection.

There are two primary ways in which FBOs play a significant role in addressing environmental issues. First, religious leaders serve as important mediums in highlighting environmental principles from a religious perspective, and thereby, influence their congregations. Secondly, FBOs are important mobilisers, through which their members participate in environmental activities and also serve to further disseminate information to wider society.

Effective FBO participation in environmental issues, however, faces several challenges. One main challenge is the lack of buy-in or opposition from within some sections of the religious communities themselves, which is contributed by various factors. First, there are theological debates in some religious communities on the extent to which environmental protection is espoused in the religion. In Christianity, for instance, there has been vigorous debate over religious text that emphasise man’s responsibility towards nature versus man’s dominance over nature. A second factor contributing to the lack of buy-in is  the limited emphasis of environmental principles in conventional religious education, where the emphasis on rituals over-rides a more holistic understanding of human’s relationship with God that incorporates nature. As such, many religious environmental initiatives have yet to gain a substantial level of institutional praxis, whereby environmental principles are mainstreamed into the religious communities’ operations and processes.

A second challenge would be the lack of financial and organisational capacities in FBOs. Long-term financial capacity is a major concern, as many of these initiatives are ad-hoc projects that depend on short-term donor funding. In addition to this, effective leadership and management of these environmental initiatives is crucial. Such limitations have also been cited in existing non-religious environmental initiatives.

This issue of lack of funds is also linked to a third challenge, which is the fact that has not been fully examined in current discourses on religious environmentalism is the extent to which economic/material motivations are significant in facilitating these environmental activities. An example of this would be the increasing utilisation of wakaf land (i.e. endowments made under Islamic law) in Indonesia for tree-planting activities, as a means of supporting reforestation efforts. What is particularly interesting is the fact that the type of trees chosen to be planted are highly commercially-valued trees such as teak, which after 5 to 7 years, would be chopped down to be sold.

On the one hand, some degree of economic incentive is needed to finance and sustain these tree-planting activities. On the other hand, there may be the possibility that such material motivations outweigh the spiritual motivations for environmental protection. Should the latter occur, it would potentially reflect a case of green washing, but this time in the name of God. Not only would such an outcome demonstrate the lack of effective environmental education, but also affect the credibility of religious institutions.

This blog post has been written by Sofiah JamilSofiah is an Adjunct Research Associate at the RSIS Centre for Non—Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, and a PhD candidate at the Australian National University.

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