Environment and the Muslim Heritage

The following short article is based on the notes for a speech presented to the Muslim Heritage Awareness Group held at the Royal Society in London, 14 July 2009. The MHAG is a consulting network to the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC). The theme for this meeting was Environment and Muslim Heritage. The notes were published on Sir Crispin Tickell website.

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By Sir Crispin Tickell*

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Figure 1: Sir Crispin Tickell presenting his lecture during the meeting.

The environment is the heritage of us all, and this has long been recognized in Islam. As has been well understood, notably in China, there is a paramount need to achieve harmony or balance between the human species and the rest of the natural world. Respect for the environment and conservation of natural resources, in particular water, is emphasized throughout the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

The health and harmony of the natural world are our own health. We need sometimes to remember that humans are an infinitesimal part of the living world (0.00007 percent of estimated living species), and that each of us has ten times more bacterial than body cells.

  • The human impact on the Earth has increased exponentially since the industrial revolution began 250 years ago. The main factors are:
    • human proliferation (from less than a billion 250 years ago to 6.8 billion now, and rising at around 80 million a year);
    • consumption of land resources and creation of wastes;
    • water issues, both fresh and salt, and their effects on marine life;
    • extinction of other species without knowing the consequences: we are ignorant of our own ignorance;
    • changes in atmospheric chemistry, leading to global warming and climate destabilization;
    • the results of the ways in which we generate energy;
    • applications of technology: Lord Rees on 50 percent chance of our civilization lasting until the end of the century.
  • The solutions to most of these problems are pretty well known. A lot revolve round:
    • looking again at economics, and replacing consumerism as a goal: we need to measure human welfare rather than mere productivity;
    • limiting emissions of greenhouse gases, including black carbon;
    • working out new ways of generating energy in the short as well as long term: this applies as much to those with diminishing supplies of fossil fuels as to anyone else;
    • changing our systems of agriculture, and establishing greater food security, with a better balance between local self sufficiency and global trade;
    • changing human behaviour, exercizing population restraint, and establishing the moral dimension which looks to future generations as well as our own.
  • These issues, and particularly the combination of them, are now better understood than before, with a major tilt towards the specific problems arising from climate change, and the responsibilities of industrial countries.
    • the Fourth Assessment of the IPCC, and the Stern Review;
    • meetings of the G20, the G8 etc with prospects for Copenhagen (COP 15) in December;
    • growing awareness of business and industry, and the opportunities as well as risks facing the private sector.

    I now turn to the specific vulnerabilities and hazards facing the Islamic world. I believe these were examined at a conference of Islamic scholars in Istanbul last week. Islamic societies as well as others have risen and fallen in the past. There are seven main hazards all with direct impacts on the Islamic world:

    • supplies of fresh water, and dependence on water from aquifers which in many cases is irreplaceable;
    • rising sea levels with effects on coastal states (eg Bangladesh and the Maldives);
    • ocean warming, acidification and the effects on coral reefs and fish populations, and the economies dependent on them;
    • changes in patterns in rain and drought with more storms, hurricanes and cyclones; and risks of desertification in some areas;
    • new patterns of evolution involving all plant and animal species, including humans, with effects on their health;
    • rapidity of change, and identification of tipping points between one system and another;
    • character of cities, and buildings to cope with changing circumstances.
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    Figure 2: Another photo of Sir Crispin Tickell. On his left: Dr Anne-Maria Brennan, co-author of First Ecology: Ecological Principles and Environmental Issues (Oxford University Press, 2004, paperback 2007) and Senior Fellow (FSTC) chairing the MHAG session on "Environment and Muslim Heritage", and on his right, Dr Elizabeth Bell, Head of Policy and External Affairs, The Physiological Society, London.

    Few of these issues are unfamiliar to the Islamic world. Careful management of water resources and the need for conservation are already deeply rooted in Islam. According to Islamic teaching, humans have obligations of stewardship over the environment and the other species within it, and have a duty to look after resources, in particular water, with specific legal attitudes towards ownership, sharing and communal responsibility. There is, I understand, a new initiative, led by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, to look into carbon offsets. Another meeting on the subject is to be held in this country in November. In the recent past the great Islamic traditions of science have not been well maintained, and understanding of the issues is limited within the Islamic world.

    At present international institutions hardly measure up to the scope and implications of environmental problems. This shortcoming will be particularly evident if the Copenhagen conference in December reaches strong practical conclusions. Hence my own interest over the years in promoting the idea of a World Environment Organization to be a partner of other UN bodies, and bring together the many limited and often overlapping international agreements relating to the environment. This would be a world forum in which the particular hazards faced by Islamic communities could be more widely appreciated and action taken to avoid the worst results.

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    Figure 3: View of the audience listening to Sir Crispin Tickell's lecture.

    I end with a quotation from Carl Sagan who once described the Earth as "a pale blue dot" in space:

    "Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us ... The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived here - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

    *Sir Crispin Tickell is the Director of the Policy Foresight Programme at the 21st Century School, Oxford University, since 2006, Chairman of the Trustees of the St Andrew's Prize for the Environment since 1998 and Advisor at Large to the President of Arizona State University since 2004. Sir Crispin Tickell is the author of Climatic Change and World Affairs (Harvard Center for International Affairs, 1977; reedited in a revised and extended edition in Maryland, University Press of America, 1986), one of the first books to highlight the dangers of human-induced global climate change.

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