The earth and its natural resources are being ravaged by mankind. But why should people care? Are there any practical ways to make a difference? And will people actually bother to change their current lifestyle to protect the environment before it is too late?
Every human being must at some point ask himself or herself, “why does my existence matter?” And the answer to our own purpose in life will directly determine how we see our role with respect to the planet we inhabit. When we see life as a journey to worship the Creator, we are in harmony with the rest of creation engaged in that worship. The Qur’an notes that there is nothing in nature “except that it is engaged in the glorification and praise of God, though you do not understand how it praises Him” (Qur’an 17:44), and that “every star and every tree is in prostration to God” (Qur’an 55:6). Recognizing the earth as a fellow worshipper of God imbues it with inherent sanctity. And even more sanctity is conferred upon it by the Prophet Muhammad’s statement, “The earth has been made a place of worship and source of purification” (Sahih al-Bukhari). In other words, the whole planet is considered one giant terrestrial mosque, to be respected and sanctified.
The Qur’anic account of creation also demonstrate the value of caring for the earth. Human beings are part and parcel of the earth, having been created from its soil (Qur’an 20:55). And during its own creation, the earth was filled with blessings by God (Qur’an 41:10), and therefore one who desecrates the earth commits a violation against God. The Qur’an in fact even explicitly condemns the one “who spreads corruption on the earth and destroys its vegetation and animals, for verily God does not like corruption.” (Qur’an 2:205). Of course, the earth will not remain a silent victim of man’s depraved rampage across its face. The Qur’an informs us that on the Day of Judgement, the earth will undergo a cataclysmic convulsion in which it will empty out all of its burdens (including landfills and the culpable corpses that made them) and it will finally “tell of its stories”, bearing witness to the sins of mankind (Qur’an 99:1-5).
Evidently, Islam establishes the importance of caring for the environment. But more importantly, Islam uniquely provides human beings with the values that will be conducive to the preservation of the environment. Lots of people talk about the environment, but few are compelled to walk the walk. In a 1972 study that interviewed 500 people, 94% acknowledged that picking up litter was a personal responsibility, but only 2% picked up the litter planted by the researcher on the way out.1BICKMAN, L. (1972) “Environmental attitudes and actions.” J. of Social Psychology 87: 323-324. When it comes to climate change, proposals generally try to get human beings to make sacrifices in the present for the sake off bettering the distant future. The problem of course, is that people are not sufficiently motivated by their worldview. If you want people to make drastic behavioural changes, you need very compelling reasons.
Islam provides the individual with the optimal worldview to appreciate the gravity of his role as a custodian of the natural world and his culpability before God if he fails to uphold that trust. Viewing life as a meaningful spiritual endeavour compels one to look at one’s actions and lifestyle critically. On the other hand, a person who views life without a higher purpose or ultimate objective could be free to maximize personal profit and pleasure, even if it be at the expense of the environment and future generations who will inherit it. In addition to such personal nihilism, the destruction of the environment is also accelerated by ideologies we have inherited, which are tied to our notions of scientific industrialism and capitalism. The values of modern civilization draw heavily from the 17th century Enlightenment in Europe, which preached the triumph of science and technology in bettering mankind. Inventing new machines are paradoxically seen to liberate man, even as their emissions may likely eliminate him. A world that champions industrial progress and technological development as the pinnacle of all good may find it very difficult to swallow human responsibility for the present environmental crisis. And a consumerist society propelled by constant advertising to greedily accumulate the latest products is the key ingredient in rendering our planet inhospitable for life, as Naomi Klein argues in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.
The scope of the problem
The fact that pollution is devastating the environment is no secret. What has emerged in recent years however, is a scientific consensus on the urgency of correcting the problem in the wake of new climate change predictions. As a result of burning fossil fuels, by 2012 there was 42% more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than before the industrial era.2Refer to the Global Carbon Project. That build-up in the atmosphere has accelerated global warming to such an extent, that arctic sea has reduced by as much as half in comparison to 50 years ago, and the polar ice caps may be completely melted by 2020.3Refer to Webster, M. A., I. G. Rigor, S. V. Nghiem, N. T. Kurtz, S. L. Farrell, D. K. Perovich, and M. Sturm (2014), Interdecadal changes in snow depth on Arctic sea ice, J. Geophys. Res. Oceans, 119, 5395–5406. The Earth is rapidly looking like a mirror image of our inhospitable neighbour, Venus, which seems to have been Divinely placed next door as a deliberate forewarning.
Of course, the pollution is not merely destroying our planet, it has clear harmful effects on our health as well. In medicine, the harms of in-door air pollution and inhalation of toxins have been well-known, but recent data provides striking evidence on the harmful effects of outdoor pollution. The European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects (ESCAPE) project studied the health of 900 000 subjects across Europe and correlated with the amount of outdoor air pollution. It was found that exposure to air pollutants and traffic increased the risk of lung cancer, 4Raaschou-Nielsen, Ole et al. Air pollution and lung cancer incidence in 17 European cohorts: prospective analyses from the European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects (ESCAPE).The Lancet Oncology , Volume 14 , Issue 9 , 813-822., stroke5Stafoggia M, Cesaroni G, Peters A, et al. Long-Term Exposure to Ambient Air Pollution and Incidence of Cerebrovascular Events: Results from 11 European Cohorts within the ESCAPE Project. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2014;122(9):919-925. doi:10.1289/ehp.1307301. and exposure during pregnancy was associated with restricted fetal growth resulting in low birth weight infants6Pedersen, Marie et al. Ambient air pollution and low birthweight: a European cohort study (ESCAPE) The Lancet Respiratory Medicine , Volume 1 , Issue 9 , 695 – 704. – among numerous other detrimental health effects. Living in a dense urban area results in breathing in significantly more particulate matter and toxins, and the study revealed that this has an association with lung cancer, stroke, and even pregnant women giving birth to low birth weight infants. One may be particularly alarmed to note then, that on a scale of 0 to 500 (which the WHO considers twenty times greater than what is safe), a city like Beijing receives a whopping score of 755. And in the United States, 3 million tons of toxic chemicals are released into the air annually. According to a study conducted at Cornell University, 40% of human deaths worldwide are attributable to the effects of air, soil, and water pollution. As the Qur’an advises, “Don’t kill yourselves! God has been Ever-Merciful to you.” (Qur’an 4:29)
Pollution includes not only the corruption of the air, but the corruption of land and sea as well. “Corruption has emerged on land and at sea as a consequence of mankind’s actions, that God may give them a taste of their actions in order that they may return” (Qur’an 30:41). The sheer quantity of garbage that is produced is unfathomable. For instance each year, Americans generate approximately 250 million tons of trash which is largely buried underground in landfills. These landfills inevitably leak contaminants into the surrounding terrain and in some cases, contaminate groundwater as well. In addition, landfills contribute to the production of harmful methane gas which adds to the buildup in the atmosphere described earlier.
The Earth also has a limited and finite quantity of natural resources. All human beings rely on the natural sources of food, clean drinking water, and energy, however these resources are being disproportionately consumed in a reckless and unsustainable manner. 1.3 billion people in the world do not have access to clean drinking water, contributing to a tremendous increased incidence of disease, and yet a deplorable amount of water is wasted daily. The average Canadian uses almost double the amount of water used by the average Japanese, for instance. Food should not be wasted either when 1.2 billion suffer from hunger, and 9 million die of starvation annually (majority of whom are children). And yet, in the United Kingdom, “30-40% of all food is never eaten”, according to BBC radio. Sustainable development also entails reducing energy consumption and using renewable sources of energy. The dependence on oil consumption to drive our greedy corporate empires has been a prime incentive in countless wars (e.g.Jones 2012) and installing brutal dictators in oil rich countries who will ensure the continued exploitation of the natural resources to foreign powers.
What are simple steps to protect the environment?
Any common sense approach to protecting the natural world must take into account two key considerations: reducing pollution and avoiding overconsumption of resources. Human destructive tendencies with respect to the environment invariably fall into either wastefully consuming its beneficial resources, or filling it with harmful pollutants and garbage. Interestingly, the Qur’an targets these two essential considerations in its guidance, prohibiting man from wasteful overconsumption (laa tusrifu –7:31) and prohibiting spreading pollution and corruption (laa tufsidu – 7:56).
1. REDUCING GARBAGE (laa tufsidu)
It is easy for the average person to be more conscientious about the amount of garbage he or she produces, and engage in recycling paper and plastic products and composting organic waste. Studies looking at the effectiveness of recycling programs have found that the more convenient recycling is made, the more likely people are to do it (eg. Mueller 2013). Recalling the fact that the Prophet Muhammad said, “Removing a harmful thing from the path is an act of charity” (Sahih al-Bukhari), it becomes a moral responsibility to work to reduce the massive accumulation of garbage being deposited in this earth. In the United States, recycling efforts divert 60 million tons of garbage from landfills annually, reducing garbage by 32% (US Environmental Protection Agency), and similar effectiveness has been noted in the UK.
2. AVOIDING WASTAGE (laa tusrifu)
There is much room for improvement when one reflects on the amount of overconsumption and wastage of food and water that one commits on a daily basis. The Qur’an states, “It is He who has produced beautiful gardens, some trellised and some untrellised, and date-palms and crops of different varieties. Eat of its produce during the season and pay the dues to the poor on the day of harvest. And waste not by extravagance – verily, God does not like the extravagant” (Qur’an 6:141). Recognizing that we are all part of a global community, we must demonstrate compassion towards the poor and needy. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Whoever goes to sleep full while his neighbour is hungry is not a believer” (Mu’jam al-Tabarani).
Amazingly, the Prophet Muhammad singled out the wastage of water as a particular focus of concern fourteen hundreed years ago. When his companion Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas was performing ablution with lots of water, the Prophet told him, “Do not commit wastage.” Surprised, Sa’d asked, “Is there such thing as wasting water for ablution?” The Prophet replied, “Of course, even if you are standing at a flowing river” (Musnad Ahmad). Today, it is well known that water is the most precious resource and that the wastage of water directly contributes to the ongoing scarcity of clean drinking water which confronts 4 billion people in the world. An astounding amount of water is wasted needlessly in showering/bathing, leaving the tap running, toilet flushing, car washing, and so on (read more about water conservation here). It is incredible to note that the hadith tradition has preserved the fact that the Prophet used only 1 mudd (750 ml) of water for ablution and only 1 saa’ (3 litres) for bathing (Sahih al-Bukhari).
Unfortunately, not everyone is alike when it comes to caring about the environment. According to the intriguing results of the 2012 Greendex survey, people in poorer countries have a smaller negative impact on the environment but feel guiltier than those in wealthy nations. As George Monbiot comments, “The richer we are and the more we consume, the more self-centred and careless of the lives of others we appear to become.” The Qur’an informs us that on the Day of Judgement, humankind will be answerable for the slightest blessings enjoyed in this life (Qur’an 102:8). The Prophet mentioned that man will be asked by God concerning the water he was provided with and the health he was blessed with (Sunan al-Tirmidhi).
Indeed the task of taking care of the environment and reversing man’s destructive impact seems like a monumental task. A person may feel discouraged and wonder, “What can I do to make a difference? I’m just one person!” But Islam provides an incredibly optimistic and empowering viewpoint – each individual has an important role to play, and no amount of good is too trivial to matter. The Prophet said, “Even if the Day of Resurrection is about to commence, and you’re holding a sapling in your hand – plant it!” (Musnad Ahmad).
|↑1||BICKMAN, L. (1972) “Environmental attitudes and actions.” J. of Social Psychology 87: 323-324.|
|↑2||Refer to the Global Carbon Project.|
|↑3||Refer to Webster, M. A., I. G. Rigor, S. V. Nghiem, N. T. Kurtz, S. L. Farrell, D. K. Perovich, and M. Sturm (2014), Interdecadal changes in snow depth on Arctic sea ice, J. Geophys. Res. Oceans, 119, 5395–5406.|
|↑4||Raaschou-Nielsen, Ole et al. Air pollution and lung cancer incidence in 17 European cohorts: prospective analyses from the European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects (ESCAPE).The Lancet Oncology , Volume 14 , Issue 9 , 813-822.|
|↑5||Stafoggia M, Cesaroni G, Peters A, et al. Long-Term Exposure to Ambient Air Pollution and Incidence of Cerebrovascular Events: Results from 11 European Cohorts within the ESCAPE Project. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2014;122(9):919-925. doi:10.1289/ehp.1307301.|
|↑6||Pedersen, Marie et al. Ambient air pollution and low birthweight: a European cohort study (ESCAPE) The Lancet Respiratory Medicine , Volume 1 , Issue 9 , 695 – 704.|