On the very day that millions of Muslims started fasting for the month of Ramadan, the Vatican published Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, particularly related to the challenge of climate change. Had the latter been a Muslim, one would have said that the message suited the occasion perfectly. In both cases, consumerism could have been identified as the devil.
Pope Francis highlighted a number of issues in his address recalling his predecessors’ warning that people could “see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption” or that “misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves”. He stated that “to blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”.
Pope Francis highlighted also that a “consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy, has a leveling effect on cultures, diminishing the immense variety which is the heritage of all humanity”. Furthermore, he added “since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals”.
On the same day as the Pope’s communication was released, the sun would have observed from its rising to its setting on planet Earth millions of men and women abstaining from all eating, drinking and from satisfying their natural desires. They do so allegedly to free themselves of the worship of all that exists, except for the Creator. And one of the modern idols they should refuse to submit to is indeed the material god called “consumerism”. This is the evil that drives all excesses under the false pretense of so-called growth of capital, profits and economy. All is done for the interests of very few at the expense of the most vulnerable among the creation, humans and his environment alike. This spoiling of mother Earth is responsible for climate change.
The challenge of global climate change requires a radical transformation in our understanding of environmental issues, for its causes are linked to our dominant development model and its impacts significant at the grass-root level, particular for the weakest. Addressing energy production and consumption remains at the heart of any feasible solution. But despite endless conferences, increasing scientific evidence, some business interest, apparent political support, and growing sensitization, there is still no global agreement on greenhouse gas emissions reductions. The deadline is now postponed to 2015 in Paris for a craftily named “climate agreement,” although the communiqué at the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Meeting in Warsaw in November 2013 could not even agree to a clear reference to carbon dioxide emission reductions. In the absence of a “carbon dioxide agreement” that would entail a firm commitment from industrial powers to reduce emissions, the only soft “agreement” reached thus far refers to the risks posed to the global climate. Yet attacking energy production and consumption, the head priest of the consumerist cult, remains at the heart of any feasible solution.
If some consider Aldo Leopold as the father of environmental ethics, we know that the East has its own, and often deeper and stronger, foundations in terms of environmental ethics. Leopold’s vision goes a long way toward the status given to nature in Eastern philosophies. Contrary to dominant Western thought, he reduces humanity from the master to a fellow member of a community that includes nature. In the West, the economic aspect has historically preceded and indeed shaped the environmental aspect. Many further relate environmental exploitation to the practice of usury, despite its condemnation in the Scriptures and the teachings of Aristotle, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. One cannot deny that environmental impacts are limitless if money can breed more money without any effort, for this means that no value has to be attributed to nature and only a little to human beings. Islam prohibits the practice of interest.
Some link the birth of the phenomenon of modern capitalism to the Reformation, while others attribute it to the early Enlightenment. Others refer to the Enlightenment Beta Version as the source of industrial modernization and its capitalist outlook. Developmental stewardship, as understood by some religious groups, clearly emphasizes humanity over nature. In fact, Adam Smith’s supposed “invisible hand” has not only failed to self-regulate the economy so that it will serve social good, but it has also become a political and cultural mantra, not to say a pseudo-religious one, with a dire impact on the environment. Savage capitalism, to borrow a term used by Pope Francis, can only lead to savage development.
Most ideological and intellectual transformations have been gradual and not provoked mainly by religious zeal. Some American Jews have presented similar discourses to Christians, in some cases forming joint coalitions, focusing on how environmental issues affect nature, intergenerational equity, and implications for the poor. These are similar to the generic ethical arguments found in secular discourses. We are a long way from any moral obligation imposed on these communities in the universal sense employed by Kant, far from any return of the moral in the face of an imminent threat. Unlike concerns related to famine, climate change or energy issues have supposedly not been very visible in religious circles. Both established and new religions have something to say on such issues, but their impact has been marginal. Furthermore, they rarely differ from the mainstream secular discourse, even calling for “unity of thought and action.” Yet they seldom question the economic paradigm dominated by the “cult of money,” even when, in terms of philosophy, nature may be deified like in Hinduism.
Muslims who fast during Ramadan should understand and convey that it means much more that not eating, drinking and not succumbing to their desires. It is indeed an effort, literally “a jihad”, to come closer to the Creator by refusing to be a worshipper of all created things. It is in the same line as the crusade against consumerist deviation called for by Pope Francis.
The contemporary world is facing a three-fold unprecedented challenge in terms of environmental ethics related to climate change: the threat is global, it requires urgent action, the problem just as its solution is the responsibility of everyone.
The Qur’an evokes the role of animals and plants, from the smallest to the largest, in maintaining sustainability in nature by calling upon human beings time and again to reflect on and respect these signs of God. These creatures are also referred to as “muslim”, for they are submitted in peace to God’s will and glorify Him permanently.
The Messenger of God (peace be upon him) once came upon some people who were sitting on their mounts and talking to one another. He said to them: “Ride them safely then leave them safely. Do no use them as chairs for you to have conversations in the streets and marketplaces, because the one that is ridden may be better than the one who rides it, and may remember God more than he does.”