The fierce urgency of NOW – why faith, spiritual and indigenous leaders are pivotal for restoration.
A priest. A Sikh. A Rabbi. An Indigenous Leader. A Singer. A Neuroscientist. A Reverend. A UN Diplomat. A Poet. A Muslim leader. A Buddhist Monk. A Youth. A woman. A man. Humanity.
There are times in life when an invite from a dear old friend and colleague to participate in an event/meeting such as the one I am about to write on needs its own story. I was invited to participate in the launch of the Loka Initiative by Dekila Chungyalpa, a sister friend of mine of Indian origin, whom I met in the early 2000’s while working at WWF International in Switzerland. We were both working for this fantastic conservation organization that in many ways did stimulate a lot of our thinking and gave birth to many ideas by the time we had both left it.
Fast forward nearly 20 years later, we reconnect and she reaches out to me, having seen my tweets, and other social media posts on the UN Decade. In a nutshell – all she said in an email was: Sister – I really would love to see you at the launch of the Loka Initiative which I have set up and we are doing some exciting work. I read up. I was totally blown away and went back to those days in WWF. Dekila was a house on fire, an incredible mind and thought leader – way ahead of her time honestly.
So Loka: "Loka" (लोकः), an ancient Sanskrit term, has many meanings but usually refers to “our world” as the basis for all life. The mission of this initiative is to support faith-led environmental and climate efforts locally and around the world by helping build capacity of faith leaders and culture keepers of indigenous traditions, and by creating new opportunities for projects, partnerships, and public outreach.
As I walked into the launch event on the evening of 28th May in Madison, Wisconsin, having just arrived into the United States of America that afternoon from Kenya, I was in awe. Initial hellos, and random chats with various people in the room I had never met nor interacted with – Dekila was our common denominator. This magnet of a woman through her universal energy, humility, love and kindness attracted us all to this one place: Madison, Wisconsin.
The two-day discussions that ensued opened up not so new but also new world to me. And I shall elaborate this. The theme of the Loka Symposium was: Faith in action for a flourishing planet. Convening a select group of experts, faith and spiritual leaders, the room had an energy about it that filled the air with the need for change. Quite electric in fact.
Structured in mini-panel discussions that focused on defined topics, each panel had a mix of members from the audience ranging from experts, faith, youth or spiritual leaders. Each panel discussion was followed by deep dives with further in-depth discussions in small groups. Perhaps to paint the picture a little clearer, the first panel brought together Father Josh Kureethadam, a priest and cosmologist from the Vatican; Prof. Diana Liverman, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) lead author and professor at University of Arizona and Prof. Mary Evelyn Tucker from Yale University. The discussions for this panel focused on the topic “Flourishing People, Flourishing Planet” interrogating how human flourishing is defined as a state of self-actualization and fulfilment for all people with an individual right to freedom, happiness and dignity and within the context of holistic well-being of the surrounding family and community.
Community!! REAL interpersonal, human interactions. This important word was prominent in our discussions with some stimulating questions coming from many participants such as: How are we interacting within our communities to discuss the challenge of climate change? How are we addressing the issue of our collective trauma at such pivotal time in human history? What does it necessitate from an ethical and communal point of view, for mankind to have flourishing spirit and body? How do we understand the intersection between religion and ecology?
Building on community, another panel explored the issue of “The role of religious and indigenous leaders at a time of ecological and climate crisis”. An amazing meeting of minds that brought together Mr. Gary Besaw an indigenous leader from the Menominee Nation (an American Indigenous community close to Lake Michigan) talking about the sacred connection between people and our planet. Mr. Paul Robbins from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin, brought in a whole twist of all creatures great and small, highlighting our responsibility as caretakers to earths biodiversity and ecosystems. Wrapping up the discussion was Reverend Sally Bingham, founder of InterFaith Power and Light from San Francisco, on lessons from InterFaith power and the role of “us” as caretakers of earth.
A discussion on panel on “Finding courage to build tomorrow” further stimulated the group into thinking through issues that related to how communities of faith often engage in social activities, some of which are religious and some secular in nature. Some of the critical questions discussed through this panel asked: how do we find courage to establish or reinforce a shared view of how faith-led environmental activities can emphasize the interconnection between individuals within a group and reinforce positive relationships through environmental and climate action? Can we get a better understanding of why people reject environmental and climate action on an individual level and lack of political will on a policy scale?
The final panel brought together myself (UN Environment – the only UN agency present at this meeting), Prof. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin and Mingur Rinpoche - a Tibetan teacher and master of the Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, Ecocenter founder. We reflected on the role of resilience in building a flourishing planet – from concept to implementation. The wisdom of the Tibetan Monk, Rinpoche, permeated through the group with him sharing insight on concrete ways to build spiritual and faith community – through breathing. It was priceless. Dr. Richard Davidson doing a deep dive as a neuroscientist, reflected on how inner, community and planetary resilience were related and what we could learn from them. He further flagged something that caught my attention on how the role of green spaces in urban spaces have a close correlation to mental health status. I further took the group through the journey of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021 – 2030), how it came about, its passing on 1st March by the UN General Assembly as a resolution and accentuating this with my own personal experiences from my home country Zambia. I flagged why this decade would be the most immersive of UN Decades that brought together everyone on the planet to do something about both conserving non-degraded spaces and restoring those that were degraded. This Decade is also aligned with the last 10 years of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It was actually quite telling as everyone in their interventions prior to mine spoke a lot about restoration and its relevance for Human Wellbeing and why it mattered so much. As the saying goes: There is no stopping an idea whose time has come!!
Quoting Margate Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
This was indeed an amazing moment in our history and a meeting of MINDS!!!
And so, with the Decade, herein lies some hope for humanity and the power of collective action not only for our sake but also for the other species and life forms we share this planet with. This decade also demonstrates the holistic nature of ecosystems within a landscape. And as such a clear opportunity for even further synergistic work across world. To quote the late Dr Martin Luther King Jnr – this UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration seriously merits “The Urgency of Now!” in terms of action.
May the CHANGE begin.