From walking by the weekly farmer’s market on Cox Bridge to using the new waste disposal system, students are constantly confronted with “sustainability,” the buzzword of Emory’s campus. High-ranking sustainability experts frequently explain their field in terms of sustainable development, which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” according to the precedent-setting 1987 Brundtland Report. This definition immediately brings to mind issues like climate change, resource availability and foreign development aid; but with the 2015 adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), worldwide leaders have agreed that sustainability extends into all matters of economic, environmental and social consideration.
More specifically, representatives from 193 countries adopted 17 expansive goals that extend from ending poverty to safeguarding gender equality, and also include promoting economic growth and making cities more sustainable. World leaders’ decision to abide by these broad sustainability goals is important, as no discipline should be excluded from the conversation.
A typical sustainability panel may include experts from environmental science, anthropology, sociology, economics and a wide variety of other fields, but often missing are religion and spirituality scholars. Indeed, the sustainability movement has the potential to accelerate local and global change at an exceptional level by combining the efforts of the public, private and NGO sectors. And yet it may never reach its full potential if religion and spirituality are excluded from the discourse.
Last April, I held a “Spirituality and Sustainability” event to confront this issue head-on and promote the diverse perspectives of the many religious student organizations on our campus. The event, funded by the IDEAS Fellowship, brought together Chabad at Emory, the Muslim Students Association, Emory Hillel and the Catholic Student Union, along with independent students from other religious backgrounds. Participants shared their faith’s perspective on sustainability. Each organization drew inspiration from holy texts and the words of their religious leaders to justify a spiritual obligation to respect the earth, address social failures and become beacons for a world which fundamentally dignifies others.
The conversation between participants was intricate and interesting: while different themes, such as religious law and textual symbolism about the earth, were addressed during the event’s community discussion portion, a recurring comment was the urgent desire to dispel the myth that religion and science oppose one another. A false belief that religion and science fundamentally oppose one another harms the sustainability movement, as the sustainable development discipline is rooted in the inclusivity of ideas, which should include religious perspectives.
As a nationally recognized leader in sustainability initiatives, the Emory community should not shy away from including religious student organizations in the analysis, planning and implementation of student and faculty-led solutions. The leaders of Emory’s student religious groups agree that they should incorporate more sustainability programming in their mission and work, such as by dedicating resources to a garden for their members or creating sustainability positions on their boards. Yet the inclusion of both scientific and spiritual principles in the sustainability conversation also depends on the willingness of the Emory student body to engage with those of different faiths. I hope the “Spirituality and Sustainability” event held last spring is only the beginning of reinvigorated efforts for partnership between religious student organizations and marks the start of a campus-wide effort to include spirituality in the ever-important sustainability conversation.
Sienna Nordquist is a College junior from Barrington, Ill.