WASHINGTON - September 26 - The world's religious and spiritual traditions could accelerate advancement towards a better world by weighing in on what constitutes "progress," according to a new book from the Worldwatch Institute. Inspiring Progress: Religions' Contributions to Sustainable Development  by Gary Gardner, Director of Research at the Institute, claims that stronger ethical norms are needed to help guide civilization in this new century, and people of faith can make important contributions to this effort.
"Better policies and greener technologies alone will not make sustainable societies," says Gardner. "We need a change in our very understanding of progress."
The technological gains and massive accumulation of wealth that characterized the 20th century overshadowed the darker signs of a progress unbounded by ethics: the century set records for organized violence, mass poverty, and environmental decline. At the end of the last century, some 1.1 billion people (more than 1 in 6 worldwide) did not have access to safe drinking water, while 842 million (nearly 1 in 7) were classified by the United Nations as "chronically hungry". At the same time, people in wealthy countries enjoyed cornucopian consumer choices, with consumption in wealthy countries creating disproportionate claims on the world's resources.
"These shortcomings are not just cranky footnotes to an otherwise stunning story of human achievement. Instead, they are major failures that threaten to unravel many of the great advances of the century," writes Garner.
But growing awareness of major global concerns--from water shortages to collapsing ecosystems to unstable climate--may mean that human readiness to accept major changes in societal course is likely also growing, says Gardner.
The book calls for a new, values-based vision of progress in which economies work in harmony with the natural environment, and in which well-being, not just wealth, is the end goal of societies. The ethical and moral teachings of the world's great religions are well equipped to articulate that vision.
Many religious communities have already made significant contributions towards this new vision of progress, from the efforts of Interfaith Power and Light in the U.S. to "green" congregations, to the efforts of Buddhist monks to protect forests by "ordaining" trees, to the work of the World Council of Churches in helping island nations adapt to climate change. But more can be done: people of faith need to take seriously the power of their own teachings and acknowledge their value in the realization of a better world, asserts Gardner. "Religious leaders and communities of faith need to bring their social voice to the public square on these issues," he says.