There is a small box-shaped hedge at the front of the house where I live in the southeast of England. It’s adjacent to the main front door and measures about a couple of cubic metres. It’s the last thing I see when I leave home to go out to work, and the first thing I see when I return. The hedge has a reassuring quality about it: it’s an immovable, dependable, ever-watchful biological gatekeeper.  

Three days before finishing this essay introducing the climate issue of Critical Muslim, I glanced at the hedge as I usually do when leaving the house. In spite of intermittent rains, it seemed unusually off-colour. On closer inspection I realised that the leaves, which were formerly green, had now turned a greyish-brown, and were joined together in a haze of webbing. I peered more closely and could see that every twig was infested with a species of caterpillar. There were in fact hundreds of caterpillars, moving and rolling very, very slowly, as if at the end of a particularly heavy Iftar or Christmas dinner. This was the box tree caterpillar and, as I later discovered, it is on a mission to defoliate gardens up and down the British Isles. The box tree caterpillar is remarkably efficient: it does its job in forty-eight hours. That’s forty-eight hours to destroy the leaves on a hedge that, I am reliably told by elderly neighbours, has stood in its place for at least fifty years.

The box tree caterpillar is thought to have journeyed to the UK from east Asia twelve years ago. Its mode of arrival might have been via the beak of a migratory bird, or, perhaps the checked baggage of an unwitting air traveller. So far, there’s no targeted remedy. The august Royal Horticultural Society says the safest method of control is to remove the caterpillars by hand. But as this is not very practical, most gardeners I suspect are doing as I did and resorting to some variety of insecticide. But in taking this one, infinitesimally small step for mankind, I simultaneously took a giant leap towards the coming mass extinction.

Yes, a mass extinction, as in extinction of human, animal and plant life on a mass scale is coming. That’s the bad news. The better news is that it won’t happen in our own lifetimes; nor in our children’s, nor in their children’s lifetimes; and nor indeed for several more generations to come. A mass extinction is, thankfully, a long way off, except that the signs are unmistakable and the majority of humanity is singularly unprepared for it. 

We know there’s a mass extinction coming because conservation biologists have been repeating for at least the past two decades that the rate at which species are becoming extinct is higher now than at any time since the last (fifth) mass extinction. This is when plant and animal life was practically wiped out around 65 million (ish) years ago. Whereas the previous mass extinction was out of our hands – the leading cause is understood to have been a meteorite hitting Earth – the next one will be entirely of our own doing. 

Extinction is natural – not all species can survive or move to new environments if their survival is at stake. At the same time, not all extinction is bad, and some extinction – like, I would argue, the box tree caterpillar for example – is desirable. More seriously, no one wants polio or smallpox hanging around. We all want to see eradication, or at least better control, of the mosquito that causes malaria. But our current extinction rates are way more than what we might expect them to be – 100 times the background – maybe more. And they are showing no sign of going backwards. So we may be the last human species – at least for a while. 

But let’s suppose we survive the coming mass extinction. Or imagine for a moment that all those biologists will need to tweak their extinction projections, most likely from errors in their estimates of time scales. It could be that humanity will still be around for another million years or so. Even so, there’s another existential threat coming down the slipway, and that is climate change. Thanks to our addiction to carbon, to coal and to natural gas, global average temperatures are climbing, and the effects are already being felt in the form of more weather extremes. Dry regions are getting drier; wet regions are wetter. Melting ice at the poles is adding to sea level rise, which in turn is threatening the survival of small islands, especially those in the southern hemisphere nearer the Antarctic. Farmers are slowly losing land that they once used for crops and for pasture. The consensus of those researchers who belong to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body that advises the United Nations on climate science, is that we could have less than fifteen years to turn things around.

The likelihood of such a turnaround is an open question. We’re talking about fifteen years for electric vehicles to replace every single petrol and diesel scooter, car and truck; fifteen years for solar, wind and wave energy to replace coal-fired power plants. Could it happen? The optimist in me says, yes it’s possible, but the realist says it’s a very, very big ask – and perhaps too big.

There are at least FIVE big problems to making an appreciable dent on both species loss and on climate change. Let’s deal with each in turn.

Problem ONE: climate policies need equity

The challenge of dealing with climate change is not just about combating the scale and the complexity of a question such as how does one get every household on the planet to stop using gas to cook, and to heat their homes. This particular question assumes that every household already has piped natural gas. But many don’t and nor do they have reliable electricity, nor running water. Often, such households live in unstable and insecure accommodation. And when it comes to climate change policy-making, their voice is still largely missing. In the rush to declare climate emergencies all over the world, there are tens of millions of people who have waited for the fruits of economic growth to reach them, and they are at genuine risk of having what is owed to them snatched a the last minute. 

In Muhammad Akbar Notezai’s article, ‘Little London’, we meet Abdur Rehman, a pastoralist in his seventies from Pakistan’s western province of Balochistan. Balochistan is in parts green and in parts arid. Over the years, the green parts have been shrinking, as the arid zones expand and there’s a strong likelihood that this is happening as the effects of climate change start to bite. Average temperatures have risen four degrees in a decade and in that time, probably before, Abdur Rehman has lost his land to drought and watched his goats die, one-by-one because of a shortage of water. 

The paradox is that the situation he finds himself in would have been the same as that of a pastoralist in Europe a century ago. Abdur Rehman’s Victorian forebears also lived off the land; they lacked security in housing and in employment; and they had little if any welfare, nor pensions protection. Industrialisation didn’t only make them better off, but also better prepared them for the effects of climate change. But Instead of preparing for retirement, as his counterparts in Europe are now doing, Abdur Rehman tells our reporter Muhammad Akbar Notezai that he is preparing to die.

While there are still swathes of humanity in the developing countries who have yet to see electricity, or who are waiting patiently to own or travel in motorised transport, they – and their governments – will have little tolerance for any argument that says they must continue to live like it’s still 1719.

The richer countries certainly seem that they are on an unstoppable path to decarbonising, and this is thanks in no small measure to the efforts of schoolchildren led by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg and because of the passionate and honest commitment of Extinction Rebellion members such as James Brooks, who describes his experiences with the organisation in his essay ‘In Love and Rage’. But there is as yet little prospect – and certainly no equity – in expecting the people of poorer countries to follow suit if it means having to forego their right to a path out of poverty. That question of equity is a deep dilemma confronting those advocating tackling climate change, and it will need every milligram of effort, initiative, ideas, inspiration, non-violent direct action and, frankly, a few miracles, if it is to be solved.

Problem TWO:  We need to find a different way to measure growth

In addition to our addiction to fossil energy, humanity is guilty of another addiction too, which – at least in the richer countries – is getting in the way of taking meaningful action on climate change and species loss: this is our addiction to how we measure economic growth.

Governments and businesses have known since at least the late 1960s that there are damaging consequences to injecting soils with synthetic chemicals; and that there are damaging consequences to flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. By the early 1970s, there was enough of an international scientific consensus that we have a problem that needs looking at. In response, a number of world leaders – including India’s then prime minister, Indira Gandhi – gathered for the first UN Conference on Environment and Development in Stockholm. At the end of a week’s tough negotiations the assembled leaders promised to take steps to ensure that their future industrial policies would be more environmentally responsible. This was for its time a superlative achievement as the majority of countries resisted the idea that human activities could be causing irreversible climate change.

In the ensuing five decades, there have been thousands of new laws, rules and regulations that protect human and planetary health. They include myriad measures from regulating pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables, to legislating the size and volume of pollutants spewing forth from diesel engines – not to mention the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change. But as we know all too well, a majority of all the laws and the rules have failed in two respects: they have failed to limit climate change; and they have failed to slow down, never mind halt, species extinction. Indeed, I would argue that this is a failure partly by design. 

How so? Well, as I’ve argued elsewhere in my book The Great Invention, in order to genuinely slow down the rate of climate change, or to slow down species extinction, we have to control the conversion of forest land for agriculture, homes or industry. These are not only difficult goals for countries which still have large populations in poverty, but they are also hard for industrialised economies too. 

The problem is in how we measure and how we celebrate economic growth. Growth is measured using the measurement known as Gross Domestic Product (or GDP). Every quarter, when a country’s finance ministry announces economic growth rates of 2 or 4 or 6 per cent, it’s like a celebration: a celebration of more government spending and a sign that more of us are spending more time buying things in the shops. But in a world where energy is powered by carbon, higher economic growth also means more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and continued loss of species on the ground. And that is why GDP is so problematic for efforts to tackle climate change and species loss. It’s kind of chicken-and-egg: our governments are locked into measuring the worth of their economies through GDP – and that means GDP always needs to rise. But GDP’s continued rise relies on carbon-based development. So if we cannot quickly change the carbon-based trajectory of our economies, we can at least find a more inclusive measure.

Problem THREE: How to stop Big Oil’s addiction to money

I used to think there was some great mysterious art to the kinds of eye-watering profits that large corporations are able to make, but that was before I started looking more closely at the extractive industries. One of the many reasons why the great powers were in an unseemly haste to profit from the discovery of some of the earliest oilfields at Dammam in Saudi Arabia at the start of the twentieth century, is because oil is an astonishingly profitable investment. The biggest requirement is capital, but once that’s secured, the path to riches is pretty much guaranteed. And if you happen to be a member of one of the ruling families of the Middle Eastern economies, it means you need to do little more than sit back and watch the creation of dollars out of thin air – what the economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University in New York famously coined the ‘Resource Curse’.

When countries and companies find a surefire way to profits, what tends to happen is that they don’t like to give it up easily. Not only that, but there’s lots of evidence that they will play dirty tricks against anyone – not only competitors – who might want to interfere with the tap from which flows the liquid gold. That fundamentally lies at the heart of the approach taken by members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and their partners in the oil and gas industries, against those arguing that extracting carbon from the soils and then pumping it into the atmosphere isn’t a good thing for the climate. 

For a few years in the mid-to-late 1990s, it was my job to report from international climate change conferences. This was the period running up to the 1997 Kyoto Climate Protocol, the first legally-binding agreement in which the richest countries agreed to make modest cuts to their greenhouse gas emissions. The protocol was agreed two years after an international team of scientists working for the IPCC had established beyond doubt that human activities such as burning fossil fuels, are warming the planet. 

Even today, international climate change meetings take place in cavernous conference centres, or in very large hotels because of the need to accommodate sometimes thousands of delegates. They include the representatives from individual countries, but their numbers are often far exceeded by special interest groups, such as environmental organisations like Greenpeace, by scientists, and also representatives from industry. By industry, I mostly mean the oil and gas giants including Shell and Exxon Mobil, which for many years were members of a lobby group that went by the unlikely name of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC).

The actual climate negotiations, the talks themselves, happen at the level of governments, in that government representatives meet with each other in a parliament or UN-style seating arrangement. Ideas are proposed, debated, rejected or agreed upon by a consensus of those present. Lobby groups can in some instances observe what is happening, and can of course meet government delegates outside of the main meetings, but they are not supposed to interfere with proceedings. This, however, is not how the GCC chose to operate. Its representatives were openly advising OPEC countries on the wording of proposed climate agreements, and, time after time, GCC staff made no secret of their attempts to water down language that attributed climate change to human activities. 

Paradoxically, this was one of those rare occasions where the delegates from Saudi Arabia were pally with their colleagues from Iran; and the delegates from Iran could be seen sharing jokes with delegates from the US as well as with oil company representatives. It’s not difficult to see why this was happening: each had a shared objective, and that was to obstruct at all costs any effort or activity that would interfere with oil and gas production.

Problem FOUR: The uses and abuses of religion

Once, during one such international climate change conference I had the pleasure of interviewing Saudi Arabia’s chief climate negotiator and I remember asking him something to the effect that, ‘if you come from an Islamic state, wouldn’t you agree that God wants us all to protect nature?’ He paused before replying: ‘That is religion. This is politics’. 

Now, nearly twenty-five years after that encounter, and with the Global Climate Coalition consigned to history, the OPEC countries are falling over themselves to show that they, too, are looking to a post-carbon future – and some are displaying their new-found environmentalism with an explicitly Islamic badge. A decade ago, the rulers of Abu Dhabi planned to create an entirely zero-carbon city, called Masdar. Qatar, in contrast, created a more modest ‘Qur’anic Botanic Garden’. This combines architectural elements of Islamic-era gardens such as fountains and walkways, with plants that are mentioned in the Qur’an and hadith. Not to be outdone, Dubai has its own version, and bigger, as you would expect, which opened in March 2019.

At the global level, there are initiatives such as the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, which call on those in power to ‘tackle habits, mindsets, and the root causes of climate change, environmental degradation, and the loss of biodiversity in their particular spheres of influence, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and bring about a resolution to the challenges that now face us.’ And nationally, there’s a growing movement of religions in the service of combating climate, such as Faith for the Climate Network.

In theory, it ought not be difficult to be an Islamic environmentalist, because Islam has an established stewardship ethic. In common with many, I, too, was taught from an early age to regard my presence on Earth as a temporary trusteeship, to be handed on to the next generation. This I understood to mean that humans need to tread lightly, to use resources carefully and to consider public interest, equity and the needs of future generations when allocating resources. 

Perhaps another reason why Islamic environmentalism has theoretically less road to travel is the absence of a strong tradition of anthropocentrism – although Islam is not entirely free from this phenomenon. 

Classical Islamic-era astronomers, for example, had no problem in accepting that there could be a Sun-centred Universe. The eleventh-century Spanish Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi developed an idea that he called the Unity of Existence or Unity of Being in which he suggested that God and creation share many of the same characteristics. The historian of Sufism Mark Sedgwick has argued that Sufism could have been Islam’s response to the profligacy of the second and subsequent generations of Caliphs, that it was a reaction to the ostentatious lifestyles of the rich, a reaction to despotism, as well as waste.

In contrast, as Giles Goddard notes in ‘Too Close to the Sun’, five decades ago, Lynn White Jr., an American historian of the Middle Ages, attempted an explanation of the relationship between Christianity and the environment in an essay in the journal Science. The essay was called: ‘The historical roots of our ecological crisis’ and in it, White Jr. explained how a strand within Christianity believes that humans are permitted to benefit from the natural world because they occupy creation’s number-one spot. Evidence for what has come to be known as the Dominion hypothesis, including this from Genesis 1: 28:

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind, in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.

White’s paper caused something of a firestorm at the time, but much has changed since its publication in 1967. There has been an emergence – a re-emergence – of a strong tradition of Christian environmentalism, which also draws on scripture, but to argue the opposite case: that humans are God’s stewards – that we do not own nature, but are guardians, trustees, even tenants.

One of the first among all of the faith groups to support the scientific consensus on global warming was the World Council of Churches, and they have had an official presence at UN climate talks from the 1980s. Moreover, prominent scientists such as John Houghton, a former head of the UK Met Office and a leading member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have also played their part in organising conferences on both sides of the Atlantic to persuade more sceptical US evangelical communities to take climate change more seriously.

In contrast, and rhetoric aside, Islam’s environmentalists have further to travel. The stewardship ethic exemplified in the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and the Sufi ideal of self-denial and asceticism is light years from the environmental record of today’s Muslim world. Yale University in the US produces a list of every country, ranked according to what it calls an Environmental Performance Index. Countries are scored by a number of indicators such as air quality, water resources, biodiversity and habitat protection and the development of clean and sustainable energy sources. Each of these scores is then compressed into a single number–an index. The top score being 100 and the lowest being zero.

In the tables for 2018, the best performing Islamic country is Qatar which is thirty-second overall in the world. There are no Muslim-majority countries in the global top ten. Or the top twenty. Only Qatar is in the top fifty. Around half of all countries in the Organisation of Islamic Countries network are ranked 100 or below. Iran is eightieth; Saudi Arabia is eighty-sixth; Indonesia is ranked 133rd. Many of these countries are below where they were on the index a decade ago.

Problem FIVE: Big powers like technology

Industrialisation began centuries before the industrial revolution: it began when the first farmers discovered they could grow crops by planting seeds. This was as big for its time as the invention much later of electricity, wireless telecoms, and then the Internet. Instead of roaming the landscape in search of food, the discovery of agriculture meant that human populations could settle in one place and start to build communities. They could grow their own food, but also sell any surplus. Farming was in that sense a step up, a means to a higher standard of living, a path to the aspirational middle class, and agriculture soon spread throughout the world. 

For most of those 12,000 years, crops were grown using largely natural methods, and on a relatively low scale in that the majority of farmers would grow food to feed themselves and their families, and then sell any surplus at the local market. What changed farming irrevocably is the introduction of industrial-scale technologies, which, in turn, seeded the birth of agri-businesses. The combine harvester did away with employing slow and expensive humans at harvest time. Modern chemistry leant a helping hand as agrochemicals killed pests and weeds, and were used as fertilisers and preservatives. All of this allowed crops to be grown at scale and shipped to markets thousands of miles from where they were grown. 

There is of course much more to industrialisation than farming. Two of the greatest discoveries that have brought prosperity to billions are electricity and the internal combustion engine and centuries after their discovery, they remain a valuable and sought-after commodity. Every nation – and perhaps every citizen in every nation – wants and needs power and motorised transport access to these and other technologies. Electricity extends daylight hours well beyond sunset. It keeps us warm in the winter and cool in summer. Electricity powered to engines allows us to travel greater distances for work and increasingly for leisure too. And now electricity allows us to communicate in previously unimaginable ways.

Much of the science and technology that we take for granted today emerged during the age of Europe’s great empires: and that includes electricity, navigation, the steam engine, telecommunications. The second voyage of HMS Beagle, which had on board one Charles Darwin, would not have happened without the financial clout and military protection from a serious naval power as Britain was at the time. James Cook, the naval captain who claimed the ‘discovery’” of Australia two centuries ago was charting a more explicitly scientific voyage on behalf of Britain’s elite science academy, the Royal Society.  

One of my favourite non-fiction reads is sociologist Zaheer Baber’s Science of Empire. Baber tells the story of how Britain brought modern science to India. Nearly a quarter century after it was first published, I still find myself dipping into tales of how Britain’s scientific elite sought to replicate the knowledge institutions of Britain – some of which were themselves quite new – in India. Peppered through his accounts of the creation of botanical gardens, professional scientific societies and official scientific advisory boards are some gems of the English language, which provides flashes of insight into the motivations of those involved in the colonial project, such as this from Sir Charles Trevelyan:

The peculiar wonder of the Hindu system is not that it contains so much or so little of true knowledge, but that it has been so skilfully contrived to arrest the progress of the human mind. Our duty is not to teach, but to unteach.

Islam’s empires similarly gave rise to advanced science and technologies including irrigation, mapping, surgery and medical instrumentation, along with basic science, philosophy and the mathematics that underpins so much technology – notably algebra. Some rulers, notably the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mamun (r. 813–833), approached belief in a similar way to how they approached science – through argument, evidence, experiment, and, yes, through cruelty and despotism, just as Europe’s colonists would a century later. Mamun was famously an arch-rationalist and wanted desperately for all in his kingdom to be rationalist too. Fortunately for Mamun he had the power to implement his will. Less fortunate were those who had no wish to bend to Mamun’s world-view, and who suffered greatly as a result. 

Technology allied to a (somewhat smaller degree) of despotism remains a characteristic of today’s big powers too, and for all the noise about going carbon neutral, there is little prospect of the three big powers – the United States, China and the European Union – deliberately cutting back on industrial technology, if it means a diminution of their global status as superpowers. 

The development and subsequent desire for modern technologies and our yearning for modern ways of living are of course not the only causes of the present crisis in global warming and species loss, but they are a very significant contributory factor. It is undeniable that our current malaise can be attributed in parts to unchecked industrial growth, to science and technology in the service of empires, and to leaders with a highly instrumentalist approach to governance and to belief. 

All things considered, this is ultimately what makes the task of pulling humanity from the brink of the abyss so very, very difficult. That said, we have to live in hope, but it is not much more than a faint flicker of a shard of hope, that humanity can pull itself out of the deep hole we have dug for ourselves.

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: