Report of our Science Festival Event

Eco-Congregation presented a discussion on the role religious faith has in defining our values and helping us to change behaviour as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

The event, promoted by ACTS and  ECS and  chaired by Leslie Riddoch brought together four leading speakers on the theme of behaviour change  and the environment. The room was packed with an audience of 63 interested people.

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Here are some of the things said by the speakers and points that came out of the discussion:

Prof Stephen Reicher, St Andrews University
All human beings are creatures of faith rather than rational economic beings.  Self interest is not necessarily an individual characteristic, but is better understood as a group characteristic.  We define ourselves  in relation to family, friends and other groups we identify with rather than as individuals.   Similarly there is more to the idea of a ‘good’ than just money although lack of money may result to us feeling excluded.  A ‘good’ can accrue to our family or friends or a group that we value as much as to ourselves.  How we define ourselves can be a subject of debate and can change. The conversation can change our definition of ourselves. 

Morag Watson, WWF
WWF is the world’s largest conservation organisation but is also active in political campaigning. While there have been some global conservation successes the loss of species and habitats continues. WWF has joined with other groups to examine the human values that lead to these  problems. Consumer values, for example, tend to suppress concern for others or the environment. Common cause Is a project that addresses these issues. It has identified leadership as a crucial issue and in this context passion and commitment is as important as science.  The Natural Change project takes forward these ideas to embed sustainability into organisations across Scotland, particularly education organisations.

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield, Scottish Government
The Scottish Government behaviour change programme addresses some of these issues.  It has identified 10 key behaviours relating to homes, transport, food and consumption and suggests actions that could reduce carbon footprints. Government has some influence over behaviour through taxation, legislation but is also aware of the importance of the three elements of behaviour change: individual, social and material.  This involves making it easier for people to make the sustainable choice.  Examples of successful behaviour change include the increase in recycling in Scotland or the uptake of the ‘Boris’ bike scheme in London.  Churches can activate intrinsic values, promoting social norms top bring about behaviour change.

Professor Michael Northcott, Edinburgh University.
Our impact on the earth is now profound, and our current age has thus been called the anthopocene.  Natural science dominates our understanding of the weather, and this has distanced us from nature and supresses  our spiritual understanding of nature.  Can we recover this spiritual understanding of our relationship with the earth?  Energy companies have a destructive role in exploiting natural resources without any concern and we have allowed this to continue.  Coal is being extracted at a rate that is increasing, and decisions about coal use are largely beyond our control. The teaching of Christ is that we will be judged  on our work to reduce the sufferings of others and climate change is one of the key causes of human suffering on which we will be judged.

How can personal behaviour affect change when the international carbon economy continues to grow?  Businesses have great power to manufacture demand and the consumer sense of self, but people working in corporations are trapped in a system of maximising shareholder value.  Measuring development in terms of GDP is inadequate.
Inequality in Scotland remains a major problem.  Why is it not addressed in the same terms as slavery was?  We are not helpless and we can stand up to toxic authority. Global inequality remains an issue that cannot be ignored in responding to climate change. We are approaching a crisis and eco-congregations should be protesting.  Collective action can make difference.  We need to redefine what is meant as a ‘good’ and we can do this in Christian terms.