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Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and Religions

Jaime Tatay, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolic - Fri, Feb 19th 2021


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out in the 2030 Agenda, endorsed by the United Nations in 2015, are the result of a long deliberative process. They reflect a broad international consensus on the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.[1]

It is clear that scientists, economists, engineers, politicians, sociologists, and even militaries have many reasons to care about the SDGs: pollution, altered climate patterns, destruction of the ozonosphere, soil degradation, erosion, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, depletion of renewable and non-renewable resources, imbalance of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. These are just a few of the major planetary problems and constraints reported by the scientific community. They are convincing reasons to mobilize the main powerbrokers of today’s societies.

Water availability, protection against ultraviolet radiation, food security, disease spread, agricultural productivity, public health, financial risk, political stability, natural security and migration flows are all issues vital to the future of civilization. They would seem to be unrelated, but when they were subjected to study and the specialized analyses that led to the formulation of the SDGs, direct or indirect relationships between them were identified.

However, among the interlocutors called upon by the 2030 Agenda, there is a surprising underestimation of some very influential global actors, such as the great religious traditions. For some, this is obvious, since they are convinced that religions should not be involved in a technical debate unrelated to matters of faith.

For others, the exclusion of religion from debates on development and sustainability is unjustified, not only because of the serious moral implications of such issues, but also because it is quite clear that the religious dimension cannot be set aside in a world where the overwhelming majority of the population traces its vision of reality, source of meaning and ethical guidance to a spiritual tradition. Now, in order to justify the entry of religions into the interdisciplinary forum of sustainability, we must first ask ourselves: what motivations would their interest have? What legitimizes their intervention? And, above all, what is their potential contribution?

Excluding any vague syncretism, in this article we propose 10 reasons that justify the involvement of religions in socio-environmental discourse. They offer keys to interpreting the religious statements of recent years, as well as strategies for personal, institutional and social transformation. They reveal a consistent agreement regarding structural characteristics of spiritual experience and “deep traditions” shared among different denominations.[2] These are the dimensions that we will address: prophetic, ascetic, penitential, apocalyptic, sacramental, soteriological, communitarian, mystical, sapiential and eschatological. They traverse the spiritual experience of humanity. The articulation of these 10 elements – which we will name using the terminology of the Christian tradition – allows us to trace the contours of an interreligious environmental ethos.

‘Prophetic’ dimension

The injustice inherent in the degradation of nature has been the main gateway of the great religions into the ecological debate. In the case of biblical religions, the denunciation of the social degradation associated with the deterioration of the environment resonates in the prophetic tradition.[3] If in their time the prophets of Israel raised their voices against the corruption of social, economic, political and religious relations, today this denunciation must extend to the relationship with creation and, in an indirect way, to the relationship with future generations.

After the technological revolution and the accelerated economic and cultural globalization of recent decades, the scope of moral consideration can no longer remain confined to the present and our small local community. Ethics irreversibly overflows from its previous and limited spatiotemporal boundaries. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the danger of a nuclear holocaust in the second half of the 20th century have already shown us, in all its rawness, the radical novelty that the technological age was introducing into debates in the spheres of conventional ethics and politics.

In the era of the Anthropocene[4] – that is, the geological era in which human beings have become the main force of planetary transformation – prophetic denunciation has a crucial role. This is the conclusion reached by Judaism, for example: “We urge those who have been focusing on social justice to address the climate crisis, and those who have been focusing on the climate crisis to address social justice.”[5]

Religious traditions propose an exercise of “double listening” that is complementary to technical analyses: to the Earth and the poor, to the present moment and past history, to the local context and global dynamics, to external signs and internal drives. Thus Francis states in the encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS): “It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (LS 139).

‘Ascetic’ dimension

Alongside the indispensable prophetic contribution, the spiritual experience of humanity possesses other resources of extraordinary value that other actors are unable to propose or develop. For example, the ascetic rules that characterize the historical practice of the great religious and philosophical traditions.[6] These are practices – such as fasting, abstinence, pilgrimage and almsgiving – oriented to purify the relationship with God and neighbor, and in which austerity, detachment and moderation are signs of an integrated spiritual life.

To combat compulsive consumerism, “waste” and the “throwaway culture,” religions call for sobriety and self-control: these are choices that are difficult to propose to the scientific community, the business world and the political class.

Francis has emphasized the issue of excessive consumerism: “We have a sort of ‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation” (LS 109).

In the face of this situation, religions develop an alternative discourse resonant with a centuries-old tradition that praises sober living, solidarity and the renunciation of excesses. The ascetic tradition contains great potential, capable of triggering community transformations. The case of the Hindu community is perhaps the most radical, since it goes so far as to recommend the renunciation of meat consumption as a means of preventing climate change: “On a personal basis, we can reduce this suffering by beginning to transform our habits, simplifying our lives and material desires, and not taking more than our reasonable share of resources. Adopting a plant-based diet is one of the single most powerful acts that a person can take in reducing environmental impact.”[7]

We find here one of the most original contributions of spirituality to the contemporary debate on sustainability, because religious communities do not propose a mere voluntary renunciation, but invite us to remain open to the possibility of an experience of spiritual value in the encounter with nature.

‘Penitential’ dimension

The wisdom of the processes of expiation proper to religions, articulated in complex rites of purification, is of great help at a time when human beings are becoming aware of the socio-environmental consequences of their daily choices. Even the theological category of “sin” acquires, in the light of the ideological crisis, considerable importance: “These three vital relationships [with God, with our neighbor, and with creation] have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations” (LS 66).

The rupture of relationships no longer restricts itself to the narrow context of interpersonal relationships, but extends into the future, into the “distant next,” and also includes the whole of the species. In this way, theological ethics develops in a threefold direction: spatial, temporal and cosmic.[8] Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I was the first spiritual leader to use this challenging theological language in relation to environmental degradation: “For humans to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for humans to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands; for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances: These are all sins.”[9]

Islamic leaders have also stated: “We recognize the corruption (fas?d) that human beings have caused on Earth through their relentless pursuit of economic growth and consumption.”[10] And the Hindu community came to a similar conclusion: “Unless we change the way we use energy, the way we exploit the land, cultivate, treat other animals, and use natural resources, we will only increase pain, suffering and violence.”[11]

‘Apocalyptic’ dimension

A catastrophic tone often emerges in the treatment of contemporary ecological issues by the media, literature and the cinema. In recent decades, many novels and films set in post-apocalyptic scenarios have dealt with the possibility of a global collapse of the Earth’s ecosystems, imagining the economic, social and political ruin that would follow.[12]

On the one hand, there are those who warn of the dangers of a strategy that continually fuels unjustified alarmism, emptying the discourse and dampening responsiveness. Pessimism about human progress and the potential of technology would lead to the “death of environmentalism,” reflected in its inability to stimulate profound cultural change.[13] On the other hand, there are those who argue the appropriateness of this kind of discourse for deterrence, to change perceptions, transform imagery and stimulate action: “In Leviticus 26, the Torah warns us that if we refuse to let the Earth rest, it will ‘rest’ anyway, despite us and upon us – through drought and famine and exile that turn an entire people into refugees. This ancient warning heard by one indigenous people in one slender land has now become a crisis of our planet as a whole and of the entire human species.”[14]

In turn, the Buddhist view warns us of the karmic consequences of our actions, inviting the believer to “anticipate the future,” to be aware of one’s present choices, and to act accordingly.

‘Sacramental’ dimension

The perception of the divine in reality is present in all religions. In Hinduism, for example, the ?r?mad Bh?gavatam (11.2.41) states, “The ether, air, fire, water, earth, planets, all creatures, cardinal points, trees and plants, rivers and seas authorities assure.[15]

In accord with the Christian sacramental vision, Pope Francis has stated, “It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet” (LS 9).[16] The sacramental vision goes beyond the scope of the seven sacraments and discovers in the whole creation a proto-sacrament, a visible sign of the divine presence in all creation.

If one destroys nature, one suppresses privileged mediations of the supernatural life. In this sense, the practice of contemplative prayer can be interpreted as an exercise of restoration, re-ligion from re-ligare or re-conciliation, that is, an aid to re-discover the mediations that sustain life, showing how the vestigia Creatoris are present in all created reality. “Contemplation is useless; it is part of a dimension of life that cannot be given a precise utilitarian value. In fact, at a deeper level, it is opposed to a forced insertion into those categories. At the same time it is necessary and important (i.e., useful) for the task of renewing human culture and healing a fragmented and degraded natural world.”[17]

In short, in the face of pantheism that divinizes nature, materialism that reduces every value of the natural world to instrumental use, and rationalism that idolizes technical-scientific reason, the vision that Christianity defines as “sacramental” recognizes a sacred dimension in creation, but without divinizing it.

‘Soteriological’ dimension

In one of its many meanings, the term “religion” means re-ligare, that is, to “restore” or “re-establish” broken relationships. The soteriological dimension – from the Greek soteria, “salvation,” and logos, “word” – of spiritual experience is central to religions, since it allows for the healing of personal and communal disorder in relationships with God, with others, with oneself and with creation.

The environmental movement, from its origins to the present day, has also emphasized this theme. “Wild” or poorly transformed landscapes have been perceived as restorative and healing spaces, as new places of pilgrimage where one can find rest and restore physical and emotional health. Natural spaces declared protected – separated from the rest of the humanized and transformed land – reflect the therapeutic function that the new ecological sensibility attributes to nature.[18]

However, most traditions insist on the importance of going beyond the merely therapeutic perspective to conceive together the health of nature and that of the human being. The Buddhist community has expressed it this way: “We need to wake up and realize that the Earth is our mother as well as our home—and in this case the umbilical cord binding us to her cannot be severed. When the Earth becomes sick, we become sick, because we are part of her.”[19]

Related to this dimension, there is another aspect that is very important for religious traditions: the communitarian character. Contrary to individualistic positions, religions affirm that salvation is a collective task and leads to a relational vision of society, in which the believer lives as a member of a “sublime fraternity with all creation” (LS 221). In other words, we will be saved together, and we will only save creation from destruction if we do so together.

‘Community’ dimension

In the face of proposals that seek to place the consumer at the front and center, to educate the citizen, and mobilize the voter, faith traditions argue that in order to provide concrete responses to the challenges we face, we cannot underestimate community action. This is for a variety of reasons.

The first is practical. The modern individual is overwhelmed by the complexity and number of decisions he or she must make; however informed and well-meaning a person may be, he or she  needs to lean on wider networks to keep commitments: “Self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing the world today” (LS 219).

The second reason is spiritual: the conviction that we constitute – together with all other forms of life – a community, “a sublime communion” (LS 89).[20] Islamic leaders affirm: “God, whom we know as Allah, created a universe with all its diversity, richness and vitality: the stars, the sun and the moon, the earth and all its communities of living beings.”[21]

Third, knowing oneself and feeling part of a network of relationships requires a pedagogical effort. Although ecological science has amply demonstrated to us that we are “interdependent and ecodependent,”[22] this awareness does not always translate into a shift in consciousness and personal transformation. We have yet to internalize what it means to be part of a complex interdependent network.

Finally, a fundamental concept in the history of Christian social thought and in other religions and philosophies has great weight in this debate, namely, the “common good.” In a context of mismanagement and accelerated degradation of the “global commons” (LS 174), it is more timely than ever to recover these.

‘Mystical’ dimension

Defining what is mysticism is by no means easy. It becomes easier if we approach the writings and lives of the mystics in order to outline the traits of a type of spiritual experience that is not the exclusive prerogative of a few.

This also seems to be Francis’ strategy when he compiles an “ecological list,” which outlines the elements of a Christian-inspired “ecological mysticism.” He gives a place of primary importance to the Franciscan and Benedictine traditions, and proposes as inspirational models of a life reconciled with God, humanity and creation the figures of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bonaventure, St. Benedict of Norcia, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross, and Blessed Charles de Foucauld.

In other religious traditions we discover, in the lives of their founders, mystical experiences in the midst of nature. Moses is given the tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai, near the burning bush; the Buddha’s enlightenment takes place in an isolated place, under a fig tree; the archangel Gabriel dictates the Koran to Mohammed in the solitude of a cave.

The mystical experience leads to perceive the connection and harmony between the Creator and creation – its “fascinating” aspect – but also its overwhelming and threatening dimension – its “tremendous” aspect – highlighting the limited character of our existence and the need to accept a code of ethics (the Torah, the commandment of love or the Koran) or a process of personal transformation (the Buddhist Eightfold Path).

Vietnamese monk Thích Nh?t H?nh also referred to the need to live in a more mindful, compassionate and engaged way. He pointed to a series of “Mindfulness Practices” that, by bringing Buddhist monastic spirituality into dialogue with pressing contemporary socio-environmental issues, could help us live in a more balanced and respectful way toward nature.[23]

Constant meditation can lead to a particular kind of “enlightenment,” that is, a lucid acceptance of the fact that we live in a home that has limited resources, where our narcissistic drives for consumption, prestige and accumulation collide with a finite world and the needs of our poorer brothers and sisters.

‘Sapiential’ dimension

Greek philosophy distinguished different types of knowledge: techn? (technical knowledge), phron?sis (practical wisdom), epist?m? (theoretical knowledge), sophia (wisdom). Recognizing these different dimensions of human knowledge has become urgent in our time, in the face of academic fragmentation and specialization, information saturation, the difficulty of reaching political agreements, and cultural inertia that hinders the development of new behaviors.

We ask ourselves: can religions become agents of cultural transformation, channels of dialogue and subjects capable of generating interdisciplinary spaces capable of resolving conflicts, finding consensus and orienting collective action? The answer is not obvious, because it should be preceded by an exercise in mutual recognition. On the one hand, religions would have to renounce their claim to absolute truth, humbly assuming their epistemological limits, accepting the conclusions of science and delimiting the scope of their authority. On the other hand, academia, the ecological movement and the political class, in order to raise awareness and reorient social behavior, need to recognize the partial scope of their analyses, admit the relevance of the religious subject, and take into account all sapiential traditions.

The pedagogical task prompted by socio-environmental issues can find a strategic ally in religious wisdom. As Jewish authorities have pointed out, “Here we turn from inherited wisdom to action in our present and our future.”[24]

Throughout history, religious traditions have offered worldviews capable of strengthening society, characterizing traditions, customs and ethical codes. Today this vision is based on the natural sciences, but it fails to offer a synthesis capable of harmonizing the social order and directing collective action.

In the 21st century, religious communities are called to reread their sacred texts and theological sources for inspiration and comfort, to sensitize their followers to their ecological responsibility, and to promote transformative practices. They can also become hybrid sites of deep listening and sincere dialogue, sapiential settings in which an interreligious and intercultural environmental ethos can germinate.

‘Eschatological’ dimension

One criticism of religion is that it is overly reliant on a future heavenly salvation in the “hereafter,” to the detriment of a commitment to the present, to the earth, to the “now.” Indeed, hope in the future can weaken commitment to temporal issues and diminish the importance of what happens here and now. Not surprisingly, ultra-Orthodox groups of various religions are distinguished by their skepticism or open denialism of environmental problems.

The danger of religious evasion is real, and perhaps for this reason Francis reminds us that “in expectation, we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast” (LS 244). The believer is called to operate “in expectation,” to live the tension between future hope and present task; to “take charge” of the common home, knowing that, ultimately, the future of the world is not in our hands.

Hope, for most religions, is a building block and a foothold in the face of life’s inevitable difficulties. It is also one of the deepest motivations and the foundation of their ethical commitment. In their pre-COP21 statement, Hindu leaders called for responsibility for the future and consistency with the received tradition: “Through this combination of meaningful action, personal transformation, and service done selflessly and as an act of worship we will be able to make the sort of inner and outer transitions that addressing climate change requires. In doing this we are acting in a deeply dharmic way, true to our Hindu ethos, philosophy, and tradition.”[25]

Aware of the accelerating deterioration of the biosphere and the dangers we have created, we cannot divert our attention or ignore the seriousness of the situation, or even lessen our responsibility. On the contrary, the hope that springs from faith leads us to find new ways of salvation.


We began these reflections by asking ourselves what the role of religions might be in the pressing socio-environmental debate. Avoiding syncretistic or gnostic forms, this question led us to identify 10 structural dimensions of religious experience that are relevant in the contemporary forum of sustainability. To define them, we have resorted to the theological concepts of Christianity: prophetic, ascetic, penitential, apocalyptic, sacramental, soteriological, communitarian, mystical, sapiential and eschatological.

Religions alone will not solve the complex challenge of sustainability. And yet, if religious input is not taken into account, coming to terms with it will be equally impossible.

Over the last 50 years, religious traditions have entered a relatively new field, that of sustainability, engaging in a fruitful dialogue with civil society, the scientific community and the business world. It is a dialogue with a marked ecumenical and interreligious character, in which their voices are being heard with increasing interest.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 3 art. 1, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.0321.1

[1].    This article is based on my book: J. Tatay, Creer en la sostenibilidad. Las religiones ante el reto ambiental, Barcelona, Cristianisme i Justícia, 2019.

[2].    Cf. L. L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith. Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York, Oxford University Press, 2013.

[3].    Cf. H. Marlow, Biblical Prophets. Contemporary Environmental Ethics, ibid., 2009.

[4].    See P. J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind”, in Nature, No. 415, 2002, 23.

[5].    A Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, October 29, 2015. Cf. D. Howard, “Una dichiarazione islamica sul cambiamento climatico”, in Civ. Catt. 2015 IV 44-53.

[6].    Cf. R. Read – S. Alexander – J. Garrett, “Voluntary Simplicity Strongly Backed by All Three Main Normative-Ethical Traditions”, in Ethical Perspectives 25 (2018) 87-116.

[7].    “Bhumi Devi Ki Jai!”. A Hindu Declaration on Climate Change, November 23, 2015.

[8].    Cf. D. P. Scheid, The Cosmic Common Good: Religious Grounds for Ecological Ethics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016.

[9]. Bartholomew I, Address of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Environmental Symposium, Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, Santa Barbara, California, November 8, 1997. Cf. E. Theokritoff, “Green Patriarch, Green Patristics: Reclaiming the Deep Ecology of Christian Tradition”, in Religions 8 (2017) 16.

[10].   Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, August 18, 2015.

[11].   “Bhumi Devi Ki Jai!”, op. cit.

[12]. Good examples of this trend are The Road (2009) and Code Genesis (2010). The theme also appears among the leitmotifs of films that have been very successful, such as Avatar (2009) and The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003). The “revelatory,” apocalyptic character of the environmental crisis has been highlighted by C. Godin, La haine de la nature, Ceyzérieu, Champ Vallon, 2012.

[13].   Cf. M. Schellenberger – T. Nordhaus, Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, Oakland, Breakthrough Institute, 2011.

[14].   A Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, op. cit.

[15].   Cf. “Bhumi Devi Ki Jai!”, op. cit.

[16].   Cf. J. Hart, Sacramental Commons. Christian Ecological Ethics, Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

[17].   D. E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind. Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, New York, Oxford University Press, 2013, 325.

[18].   Cf. H. Clinebell, Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1996.

[19].   The Time to Act is Now: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change, May 14, 2015.

[20].   Cf. D. Edwards, “‘Sublime Communion’: The Theology of the Natural World in ‘Laudato Si’”, in Theological Studies 77 (2016) 377-391.

[21].   Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, op. cit.

[22].   Cf. J. Riechmann, Interdependientes y ecodependientes. Ensayos desde la ética ecológica (y hacia ella), Barcelona, Proteus, 2012.

[23].   Cf. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Only World We Have. A Buddhist approach to peace and ecology, Parallax Press, 2004.

[24].   A Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, op. cit.

[25].   “Bhumi Devi Ki Jai!”, op.cit.

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