SIGNS on the earth islam, modernity and the climate crisis
by Fazlun Khalid
On its maiden voyage more than a hundred years ago, when the Titanic collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic the passengers hardly felt it. Less than three hours later the great ship lay at the bottom of the ocean and of the 2,240 passengers and crew more than 1,500 perished. The rest were able to escape into the cold ocean in lifeboats, but if the lookout hadn't warned of the iceberg ahead there would have been a head-on collision, not a glancing blow as it so happened, and the ship would have sunk far quicker, resulting in more fatalities. Given the information we already have of the voyage of good ship Earth, it is no exaggeration to say that it has already hit the iceberg. For now it looks like a glancing blow and the lookouts, in our case scientists and academics, voice their concerns using the kind of emotive language we normally associate with less informed people: uncertain futures; collapsing ecosystems; the end of nature; a tipping point; the end of civilization; a doomsday scenario; the end of humankind, collapse or extinction, and so on. But our responses so far have been akin to repositioning deckchairs on the Titanic, and even if we have lifeboats there is nowhere else we could go. The point is we still have time to change, even if it is only a small window of opportunity.
The good ship Earth has been voyaging for millennia through storms and squalls, fog and mist and thick and thin and has managed to keep afloat. Then, in more recent times, it changed course and steered in the direction we now call modernity, although nobody knew where it was heading. Where then are we heading? What is modernity? Is it about leading comfortable lives filled with luxury, leisure, holidays, consumerism, push-button civilization, cars, high-speed travel, literature, arts, music and the theatre? Or is it about economics, progress, development and prosperity? Or secularism, liberalism, and individualism? Or is it about science, technology, social media, artificial intelligence or robotics? Or changing values, favoring the new over the old, denying the authority of the past, looking at tradition irreverently as old, obsolete, antiquated, as something that should be abandoned and replaced? The philosopher John Gray observes:
At bottom the modern world is a jumble of things engendered by the accelerating advance of knowledge. The spread of literacy and the growth of cities, the expansion of trade and the spread of industry all these trends are by-products of expanding scientific knowledge. None works to promote any particular values.
So values are not the concern of modernity but outcomes are, and they are quantifiable. It is about being bigger and better and reveals itself in GDP, GNP, economic growth, the development index, the happiness index, per capita incomes, national debt, bank balances, interest rates, stock market indices, tall buildings, highways stretching to the horizon, mega dams, and traffic jams. It is also about grandeur, the insatiable ego, the display of power and ostentation, getting as close to the top of the pile as one can get, and bigger and better is there to show for it. As modernity advanced the divine and the sacred receded from our lives. As the world became increasingly secular, faith receded into ritual, an occasional anchor in difficult times. Modernity has also given some of us comfort, good health, education and a greater understanding of the world we live in, but where is all this taking us? The Qur'an observes:
As for the Earth We have spread it out wide And set upon it firmly embedded mountains And made everything grow there in balance. And We have provided means of sustenance for you And for all those creatures who do not depend on you. There is not a thing whose storehouses are not with Us And We only send it down in appropriate measure. We send forth pollinating winds And bring down water from the sky for you to drink And you do not control its sources. (15: 19-22)
The natural world is now a resource to be exploited not an entity to be cherished; a theatre for our follies. So how do we overcome insurmountable odds in dealing with the environmental debacle we have created? An optimistic climate control agreement was reached in Paris in 2015 but the US, the world's greatest polluter, has chosen to withdraw from it. A successful agreement on Sustainable Development was concluded by the international community the same year, but nation states continue with programs of unsustainable economic growth. There is very little evidence that environmentalists and economists are talking to each other about these overarching global issues. The World Bank and IMF encourage economic growth whilst United Nations agencies worry about depleting rain forests, over fishing, species extinction and a plethora of environmental concerns. An assessment of the environmental impact of global conflict, civil war and the refugee pandemic is conspicuous by its absence. The arms industry thrives, profiting from peddling death. Then there is the nuclear stockpile which can unleash Armageddon at any moment. We also have globalization, and Joseph Stiglitz, the one-time chief economist of the World Bank, observes:
... the benefits of globalization have been less than its advocates claim, the price paid has been greater, as the environment has been destroyed, as political processes have been corrupted, and as the rapid pace of change has not allowed countries time for cultural adaptation. The crises that have brought in their wake massive unemployment have, in turn, being followed by longer-term problems of social dissolution ...
There is a manifest lack of an integrated narrative as the UN is reduced to a showcase for jingoism.
An economics text book I was reading in the early 1960s, during my pre-university studies, had something very strange to say about banking and money, and it was this: If I asked my bank for a loan and it was approved I would be able to withdraw money from the bank up to the value of my loan, although the bank did not have any money to give. This had me puzzled, if only for a while, and it didn't take long for this piece of information to subside to the bottom recesses of my mind as life's mundane urgencies distracted me. This conundrum resurfaced again in the mid-1980s, when I attended a workshop on the subject of currency and banking set up by a group of European converts to Islam. I had by this time become politicized, not a difficult transition for an ex-colonial like myself, helped along by a busy interlude as a trade unionist and a twenty-three-year stint with the Race Relations Board and the Commission for Racial Equality, the predecessor bodies of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I had also developed a more than passing interest in so called 'Third World' issues concerning hunger and debt during this period and found them morphing into a global movement addressing environmental concerns during the 1960s and 70s. These activities led me to the discovery of a fundamental connection between the nature of the money that feeds our current civilization and its ultimate expression, which is responsible for the environmental debacle that is advancing upon us, and predicted to get a lot worse. It is the greatest confidence trick of all time, resulting in a consensus amongst the scientific community that the human species has now changed the course of nature.
The global banking crisis that culminated in 2008 let the cat out of the bag. It not only exposed the fragility of the system, it also demonstrated the depths to which banks would descend to shore up their profits. In the end the banks were bailed out by taxpayers and as Mervin King, the ex-Governor of the Bank of England, observed, ‘For the banks, it was ...heads I win, tails you – the taxpayer – lose. ... All banks, and large ones in particular, benefited from an implicit taxpayer guarantee.’ The Qur'an is quite trenchant about the usury/interest (the difference is merely academic) the banking system thrives on, and it warns, ‘forego any outstanding dues from usury (interest) ... if you do not then be warned of war from Allah and His Messenger' (2: 278-279). The financial crisis forced governments of the so-called developed world to print money worth trillions of dollars to keep their economies moving. This activity was euphemistically described as 'quantitative easing' (QE).
Rapid population and economic growth are taxing an overloaded, over heated planet that is being brought to its knees by an economic model that conjures money out of thin air. New thinking requires that we re-examine what we have wrought in the name of progress and development, and we redefine the idea of prosperity bearing in mind the finite nature of planet Earth. As the planet degrades, the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens. Inter-generational justice calls urgently for a shift away from the political economic model that has caused so much destruction to one that ensures the natural world remains in balance, so that it can continue to work for us in the manner that it has always done. If we are to continue to benefit from the gifts of the natural world we need to establish a political economy that recognizes Earth's finite resources, ensures distributive justice and re-establishes organic social structures compatible with natural planetary systems: a paradigm shift more in tune with the rhythms of the natural world, not a society based on the profit margins of big corporations and stock market share indices.
This book is an attempt to discover the relationship between modernity and Islam in the context of the environmental concerns which now engage our attention. It looks at how modernity has imposed its stamp not only on the Islamic world but also on all other traditions and ways of life. It examines how this has unfolded in the times in which we live and has succeeded in corrupting all natural systems that support life, while holding out a promise of progress towards a better future.
The ethos of Islam is that it integrates belief with a code of conduct which pays heed to the essence of the natural world:
It has often been observed that Islam cannot ordinarily be described as a religion and that it prescribes a way of life that goes beyond the performance of rituals ... It provides a holistic approach to existence, it does not differentiate between the sacred and the secular and neither does it place a distinction between the world of humankind and the world of nature ... 'The creation of the heavens and the earth is far greater than the creation of humankind. But most of humankind do not know it' (40: 57).
In exploring how Islam can contribute to the task of restoring the natural world to a state of equilibrium I also recognize that other traditions will also have a say in the matter. This affair can only be resolved by recognizing our collective responsibility for creating the problem in the first place. People of faith and non-faith traditions are already working together on these issues, and a concerted effort to further strengthen this partnership is essential if we are to leave an Earth which future generations will find inheriting worthwhile.
Fazlun Khalidis of Sri Lankan origin. He traces his ancestry to the Hadramut in Yemen and is a descendent of the intrepid sailors who pioneered the spice routes to the Far East in times gone by. Fazlun Khalid has a worldwide reputation as an advocate of environmental protection rooted in religious traditions and is now recognized as one of fifteen leading eco-theologians in the world. He appeared on the Independent on Sunday list of the top 100 environmentalists in the UK in 2008 and is also listed amongst the “500 Most Influential Muslims in the World” by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre of Jordan. He founded the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES) which is now established as the world’s leading Islamic environmental NGO.