Faith and the Environment
Earth Day and the Faith Community
December 20, 2023
Earth Day was born at a time in the United States when our rivers were on fire, our skies were dark with pollution and many of our waters were unsafe to drink. Originally conceived of as an environmental teach-in by Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day expanded into a massive movement that, on April 22, 1970, brought 20 million Americans from all walks of life out on to the streets to demand change from our leaders.
Fast forward to 2023. The world faces a new set of complex environmental challenges: species loss, climate change, and explosion in plastic pollution and concerns about the health implications of microplastics and more. To take on these global issues, Earth Day has grown into an international movement and is celebrated by up to a billion people in 192 countries around the world. The mission of EARTHDAY.ORG (EDO), the global organizer of Earth Day, is to diversify, educate, and activate the environmental movement worldwide.
To achieve our mission, EDO works with over 150,000 partners around the globe. Since the very first Earth Day, the faith community – religious and spiritual leaders, congregations, and individuals of faith – have been active and dedicated partners in the movement. The National Council of Churches, for example, encouraged church leadership to devote the Sunday before Earth Day to the environment. Our partnerships now include multiple faith traditions from the Black Baptists to the Sikhs to the Evangelicals and the scope of our work together includes a wide variety of activities to drive environmental change.
In India our EDO team worked with the authorities at the Golden Temple (the foremost spiritual site of the Sikh religion) about considering becoming plastic free and within days faith leaders there had banned single use plastic use within the precincts of the Golden Temple. The same EDO team also produced guidance on how to celebrate the major Hindu festival of Diwali without using polluting firecrackers. The air can be thick with smog afterwards – causing asthma attacks, bronchitis, allergy symptoms and additional negative impacts on human health and wildlife. Promoting a ‘Green Diwali’ was a way to offer solutions.
EDO leadership has met on several occasions with His Holiness Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, and other representatives of the Vatican. Earth Day messages from Pope Francis have been shared at Earth Day on the National Mall and our virtual Earth Day reaching millions around the world. In 2015 when Pope Francis visited Washington to address Congress on Capitol Hill, EDO helped coordinate the Moral Action on Climate Rally to show support for the Pope’s call for urgent action on climate, economic and immigrant justice. The event featured many prominent faith leaders including Reverend William Barber II, representatives of the Young Evangelicals for Climate, and more.
Also, in 2015 Interfaith Power & Light (IFPL), a non-profit representing 18,000 congregations in 40 states around the country, announced a 100,000-ton carbon reduction commitment in support of EARTHDAY.ORG’s Billion Acts of Green Campaign. IFPL called on congregations and individuals across the US to commit to reducing their carbon pollution 50 percent by 2030 and going carbon neutral by 2050.
In 2020 EDO partnered with the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation to host a global dialogue, “Honoring Tradition Keepers & Change Agents as Earth Day Turns 50”. The digital dialogue reached over 350 participants and included speakers from the World Council of Churches and the United Nations Environment Programme, among others.
In 2020 the first ever Faith Call to Climate Justice Web Summit was hosted with lead organizations the Alabama People’s Justice Council, Greenfaith, and the Parliament of the World’s Religions along with environmental justice leaders, students, and grassroots organizers, to successfully offer three days of climate justice programming from a faith perspective to thousands of viewers.
The EDO team has been a long-time participant in, and supporter of the National Prayer Breakfasts and White House and Congressional briefings organized by the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care, including hosting Earth Day on the Hill in 2007.
Our theme for Earth Day 2024 is Planet v. Plastics and EDO is once again looking to partner with the faith community because we know partnering with this community gets results. Plans for the following activities with the faith community are already underway:
Global Earth Day Prayer event: For Earth Day 2023, EDO organized a global prayer event with faith organizations around the world holding Earth Day ceremonies at sunrise in their community. Key activations included: indigenous E Ala Ē ceremonies on the shores of every Hawaiian island plus two volcanoes, approximately 140 locations within the Brahma Kumaris movement, a ceremony atop Machu Picchu, and events at spiritual centers across India. For Earth Day 2024, we are organizing a similar global prayer event, with options for events at different times of the day.
Great Global Cleanup: We invite faith communities to participate in the Great Global Cleanup which EDO organizes all year around, but which builds around Earth Day itself on April 22nd. It’s a great way to bring like-minded communities together to get hands on and pick up trash in towns, rivers, playgrounds – wherever it is – EDO wants to get it picked up!
EDO also has several online resources available to help support Earth Day activities on our website at EARTHDAY.ORG from signing the Plastic Treaty Petition to and joining our Social Squad. There are loads of trips and tricks on how to live a greener life. Congregations can access our toolkits, for free, which teach members of the public how to organize impactful volunteer events such as the EDO cleanups, marches/rallies/protests, and more. For those interested in preparing Earth Day sermons, EDO has resources too that help identify the connections between scripture and environmentalism. We will also be developing additional resources for congregations to improve sustainability in their houses of worship, highlighting plastic reduction measures.