When in Rome, it’s impossible to avoid the history of the city. At almost every turn is some Roman ruin, a constant reminder of a civilization that once ruled the entire Mediterranean. The Romans were so technologically advanced for their time that they built the aqueducts and underground water system that brought free, fresh and clean water into the heart of the city, where today it still gushes out of pumps that litter the streets. At the very centre of the city is the basilica of St Peter, it’s the largest church in the world, setting in stone the importance of religion to the world. It is an indelible mark on the Earth, left, by the Romans to awe future generations with the story of the power of their civilization.
Just before noon on 28th June we were waiting in St Peter’s square for Pope Francis to appear and deliver a blessing to OurVoices and the people who marched against climate change, I looked up at my banner, which read ‘Energie Infernale’ beneath a picture of a coal-fired power station. I thought about it in comparison to the basilica that towered above us. I wondered – is the inevitable, indelible legacy of our 21st century ‘civilization’ going to be a planet where cities and whole countries fall beneath rising seas?Where acrid smog hangs like a cloud of poisonous gas, above our countries, and where ever increasing frequencies of storms and droughts bring death and destruction worldwide, from the Philippines to Brazil, Somalia to the US?
No, it’s needn’t be, as long as we act now. After the climate march, over a hundred youth leaders from faith communities worldwide, joined together to share experiences, ideas and climate solutions in a three day Convergence workshop. I was privileged to be a part of the Convergence -to hear from Fiji a request for sand, just sand, because it might buy a few more years before the Marshall Islands disappear beneath the waves permanently. From New Mexico the story of how man-made climate change has permanently affected the lives of native Americans, and many more stories of tragedy and hope. By the end, we had gained not just sympathetic friends and a better global perspective, but real actions to real problems. Everyone came up with a project to advance the common goal of ensuring that our planet has a safe, sustainable future, and as we all summarized our projects, it was clear that there is plenty of hope left.
We heard about projects that aimed to educate children, to organize more marches; to persuade politicians that they should take climate change seriously. There were plans to build eco-villages or teach sustainable farming techniques in underdeveloped regions, to bring more religions in an area together on climate issues, and to connect faith groups to scientists to enable them to better understand the underlying causes of climate change. The ideas were as diverse as the people presenting them, plans to change seemingly small things in individual places, all held together by a common thread – a sincere desire to put the words we had spoken into action.
Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, was in many ways what inspired us. The pontiff named himself after the saint renowned for his care of the natural world and now speaks out on the global stage, to say why we should care about climate change. That’s crucial because the pope is such an important and well-respected figure, but in the end his words cannot of themselves make any of the changes needed. That can be done only by people, businesses and governments changing their behaviour for the long-term advantage rather than short-term gain.
Sometimes people ask me why faith is relevant to climate change. The Convergence provided the answer from a multi-faith perspective. The moral teachings of all religions emphasise the significance of unity and of community strength, which is crucial if we are to undergo the significant societal change that is necessary. They also bring forwards ideas of care and compassion. “If the simple fact of being human moves people to care for the environment of which they are a part, Christians in their turn realize that their responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith.” These the Pope’s words, from the encyclical, could equally apply to many other religions; recognising the importance of interfaith dialogue, and using it to motivate us to “be the change we want to see in the world”, as Mahatma Gandhi said.
The wise words of an unexpected but also inspirational character turned up several times during the Convergence: “it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years in which we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till,” says Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, and as usual, he’s absolutely right.
by Francis Newman, OurVoices and HKICN summer Intern
Photo credits: Francis Newman, Neddy Astudillo, Jenna Pollock