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Gopal Patel Emphasizes the Role of Faith in the Fight Against Climate Change

Environmental activist and consultant Gopal Patel highlighted in a lecture on Feb. 8 a unique and unlikely asset in the fight against climate change—faith.

“Oftentimes people will ask us … ‘Why do you work with the religious institutions?’” he said. “The answer is why not work with religious institutions because they are so huge. They are so impactful, so powerful, and in many ways are some of the oldest living institutions in the world.”

Patel, who is the co-chair of the United Nations Multi-faith Advisory Council, came to the Heights as a part of Boston College’s lecture series Rewilding Planet Earth. He shared the benefits of tackling environmental issues alongside multi-faith and religious organizations.

Patel began by introducing the issue of the planet’s rapidly dwindling biodiversity, an environmental concern, he explained, that tends not to get as much attention as climate change.

“This is the fabric of life, the web of life as many of us like to call it, and it’s literally unraveling in front of us,” Patel said. “And unfortunately, the main cause of the biodiversity loss and the crisis that we’re facing is due to human behavior.”

According to Patel, the real challenge in addressing the biodiversity crisis is not the actual restoration of the ecosystem, but the need to adjust people’s day-to-day lives so ecosystem restoration can be functional and sustainable.

“If we don’t drastically change how we live and how we consume, then at the rate we’re going the future does not … look very good,” Patel said.

Instead of turning to traditional arguments for saving the planet—namely those of economic, political, or philanthropic motivations—Patel presented a more spiritual and ethical case for why people need to protect the environment, which is where he said the role of religion comes in.

“The starting place has to be getting our own faith-based institutions [and] spiritual organizations living up to the values that I think we can all agree on at the heart of our spiritual traditions, which is to live in harmony and balance in the natural world,” Patel said.

Patel gave this perspective through the lens of Hinduism, referring to Rta—the Hindu principle of the “universal order of balance”—and how the ongoing biodiversity and climate crises are currently threatening that balance.

“Many Hindus will talk about living a dynamic lifestyle, which literally means to sustain and uphold, and that works at an individual level, at a community level, at a global level, and a cosmic level,” Patel said.

In addition to the value of faith itself, Patel argued that the sheer social and economic impact religious organizations and churches have can aid environmental efforts.

“Faith-based organizations, collectively, are the third-largest investing bloc in the world,” Patel said. “And so if we were to encourage religious institutions and organizations to divest from fossil fuels, which many of them are doing, and to start investing in green, renewable technologies and industries that are planet friendly … that’s a significant shift.”

Working with the U.N., Patel collaborated with roughly 60 different religious groups from all over the world in the last six to eight months to “provide a multi-faith response to the current draft of the global biodiversity framework”—a 10-year framework the U.N. drafted to address the Earth’s biodiversity crisis.

“The thinking that pervades all of our major institutions right now [is] that nature is only there as an economic resource,” Patel said. “And so we are saying as a multi-faith community that that framing has to fundamentally shift in this new framework we’re developing.”

Featured Image by Aditya Rao / Heights Staff

February 11, 2022