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Energy Conservation Through the Lens of Faith

An ecumenical effort to combine spirituality and sustainability adds solar panels and wind turbines to the pantheon of religious symbols.
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Advocates of green living are often eager to support their cause by referencing benefits of an eco-friendly life style. The rewards for conserving energy in the home or driving a hybrid car include lower energy bills, fewer trips to the gas pumps and knowing that the air is a bit less toxic.

In recent years, however, voices within progressive religion have elevated the cause to a higher plateau. Within the three monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, an effort grounded in a shared theology has spawned Interfaith Power and Light, a national organization that preaches energy conservation and sustainability from a religious perspective.

Coming to this point has been a recent development for organized religion, and even today, advocates for the environment (clergy and the laity alike) are often viewed as out of the religious mainstream. In the book Love God, Heal Earth, a compilation of essays presenting 21 religious voices advocating environmental stewardship, the Rev. Richard Cizik explains how conservative Christianity has eschewed concerns over the temporal world due largely to its theological heritage.

In his essay “What If,” he writes, “The early Church fathers substituted a platonic vision that emphasized the spiritual over the material for proper stewardship of Creation. Reformers in the 17th and 18th centuries viewed the earth as nothing more than a stage for the contest over man’s soul.” He cites the late Rev. Jerry Falwell as claiming concerns over the environment and global warming to be “the devil’s diversion.”

This rejection of the idea, and certainly the action, of stewardship is common enough for some to despair. “There is reason to believe that religion is a significant and negative variable contributing to the degradation of ecosystems globally,” Bron Taylor, editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Florida, told Miller-McCune’s Tom Jacobs in 2009. “I’m as yet unconvinced that these traditions can be changed enough, and rapidly enough, to ameliorate the current rapid decline in the genetic and species variety of the planet.”

A newer, more scriptural model however, arrives at a different conclusion. In his essay “Creation Care in a Carbon Constrained World,” the Rev. Charles Morris cites passages from Genesis to illustrate man’s oneness with creation, which was severed by the fall of man (in the Garden of Eden, no less). Later, the prophet Isaiah calls for reconciliation from this transgression, the urgency for which is admonished in the Book of Revelation, which threatens to destroy those who deface the Earth.

The Islamic tradition also places a high regard for the environment. Imam Achmat Salie of the Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., explains that this is found in the Quran, the Muslim scripture, and in the Hadith, the written and oral teachings collected about the prophet Muhammad. In his contextual view involving both of these sources, freedom is the most fundamental meaning of the Quran. In his essay “Anecdotes from an Eco-Jihadist,” Salie says, “The Prophet was a feminist, social justice activist, environmentalist, and a human rights activist. And what of Jihad? ‘Is that not a violent thing?’ some might ask. The oft-misunderstood concept of Jihad really means the support of religious activism to improve the lives of others.” This concern, which the Prophet had for all of creation, provides the foundation for his identity as a Muslim environmentalist.

The growing popularity of creation stewardship motivated the Rev. Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest, in 1994 to establish the Regeneration Project in San Francisco. TRP served as the umbrella for Episcopal Power and Light, an effort simultaneously launched in California and Massachusetts two years later. The goal was to convince as many Episcopal churches as possible to purchase electricity produced from clean sources (i.e., wind turbines, solar panels, etc.).

Shortly after, Bingham was in Midwest where she met Morris, who had already constructed solar panels and a wind turbine on the roof of St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Wyandotte, Mich. They soon combined their efforts, with Bingham renaming her group Interfaith Power and Light as it took on an ecumenical nature (and to which the Michigan group became an affiliate, Michigan Interfaith Power and Light). The movement spread, and today there are associated organizations in 38 states and the District of Columbia.

The programs through which both organizations fulfill their missions have steadily evolved. While the national organization is largely concerned with issues such as global warming and sustainability, the Michigan group promotes conservation by offering its members energy audits, materials for educational programs (“green” sermons and the like) plus an incentive plan through major retailers.

This initiative offers a discount on the purchase of major appliances and light bulbs carrying the Energy Star rating for efficiency. Members of each congregation are recognized as affiliates of MiPL and can access these benefits for home use.

These efforts have produced measurable results both in terms of energy conservation and environmental sustainability. In the period 2004 to 2007, MiPL initiatives on the part of the member congregations have collectively reduced their emissions of CO2 (carbon dioxide, or greenhouse gases) by an estimated 5,000 tons, NOx (nitrous oxide) emissions by 7.3 tons, SO2 (sulfur dioxide) by 27.2 tons and mercury emissions by 0.28 pounds.

MiPL also continues to develop innovative ways to help its member congregations. Recognizing that buildings consume much more energy than do cars, MiPL worked with the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor to set up a bank of photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of its facility and an 80-foot-high wind turbine in the parking lot.

“Combined, the two devices can produce 10.8 kilowatts of electricity. The existing panels are fixed mounted. Future plans call for installing track mounted panels over another portion of the roof,” explains contractor Dave Friedrichs, also a congregant. Track mounted panels are capable of pivoting throughout the day in the direction of the sun, increasing their efficiency by 50 percent. Data cards continuously monitor the panels’ energy production, which is streamed to the church’s website for anyone to view.

All this energy is more than enough to supply the church facility, with the extra amount being put into the local power grid in exchange for credits issued by Detroit Edison, the local utility. These credits can be redeemed for cash, which is used to offset the cost of the project.

The beauty of all these endeavors is their ability to be duplicated virtually anywhere. When more faith communities reflect on their love for creation and respond with their collective expertise, ecclesial efforts aimed at achieving sustainability may move from being the exception to the norm — and perhaps serve as an example to all of society.

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