World Environment Day 2017

World Environment Day (WED), spearheaded by the United Nations Environment Program, is commemorated annually on the 5th of June to raise global awareness to take positive environmental action to protect the environment. The theme for World Environment Day 2017 is “Connecting People to Nature”. On the surface this appears to be an interchange between two variables namely people and nature, however we are acutely aware of the complex woven inter-connectivity of the world around us which in turn detracts from the apparent simplicity of World Environment Day’s theme. However, in effect, the WED theme requires deep reflection and challenges us as Muslims to interrogate our own role in narrowing the gap between civic responsibility and environmental protection and promotion but in ways that requires not only an overhaul of counter-productive environmental attitudes but a critique of ourselves and our communities engagements with connectivity and dis-connectivity in nature on a number of levels.
It is significant that the WED theme utilizes the word “connecting”. The word connecting is significant because by its use there is a profound reference to interaction and humanities connection or disconnection to self, God, each other and the environment. In effect, the Holy Quran in Surah Az Zalzala describes this powerful, yet intimate inter-connectivity between the human being and the earth. Surah Az Zalzala describes the convulsions of the earth and the parallel convulsions of human beings as each casts outs its burdens on the day the debts are due. It describes a day when the earth will narrate whatever happened to her, when the earth is shaken with utmost shaking, casting out her burdens from within and relating whatever happened to her. The Surah ends with a powerful description when groups will be shown their deeds and whoever has done an atom’s weight of good or its converse seeing it. As a reflection, it is a significant reminder that the goodness or evil of the human being in obedience or disobedience to God, in connection or disconnection to God, the Creator of Connectedness, impacts our ability for environmental protection and promotion.
Therefore at a fundamental level, in this interdependent universe, we need to critically reflect on where the pressure points of disconnection by Muslims related to the environment are and how we can act as catalysts for change. Diagnosing the problem is always a good point of departure. We have become accustomed to binary thinking in terms of the lines of separation between us and the environment, however we are inextricably part of the environment in the air we breathe, the earth we till, the water we bathe in and the earth we build our lives on. It is apparent that the significant degradation by human beings of our environment is linked to a symptom of the intrapersonal disconnection to GodWe are all too familiar with Hadith Qudsi – Hadith of Jibrael – where Ihsan is defined as to worship God as though you see Him, and if you cannot see Him, then indeed He sees you” (Al-Bukhari and Al-Muslim). Hence, the need for introspection in terms of how we as Muslims can claim Ihsaan yet continue to play our role in the depletion of water resources, the destruction of ecosystems, habitat destruction, pollution and the resultant extinction of our wildlife. As a sign of our times, even our bees are disappearing with the Bumble Bee on the endangered list and contributing factors for colony collapse being named as toxins, pesticides and fungicides, changing weather conditions and even possibly wi-fi. It is ironic, that it is then in the very Surah of the Bees (Surah Al-Nahl: 90) where God demands of us higher levels of behavior which in English may mean, “Allah commands justice, (Ihsan) the doing of good, and liberality to kith and kin, and He forbids all shameful deeds, and injustice and rebellion: He instructs you, that you may receive admonition”. From this verse, it is clear that Islam is clear in its requirement for goodness and harmony in the land. In fact, the Holy Quran is rich in descriptions of the beauty of God’s creations, His majestic artistry, oaths involving nature, not to mention guidelines for how to live off the land in a balanced way, with water as a life giving theme. The longest oath (kasm) in the Holy Quran is in Surah Ash-Shams where God calls on us to reflect on His splendid creations where just as the sun and moon, day and night, earth and sky are different from each other in results and effects, so too are good and evil different from each other and their effects. It is only through our connection with God that we are able to distinguish between good and evil, and our pursuit of Tazkiyyah where the one who purified His or Her soul leads to eternal success. 
The second part of the diagnosis in terms of our lackluster civic responsibility in environmental protection and promotion, is waning interpersonal disconnection to each otherOne could easily argue that as a global community we have never been more connected however the phenomenon of interpersonal disconnection is proliferating despite technology that allows us to transcend spatial geographic and temporal limitations. The gains of technological inter-connectivity comes at a human cost like impaired attention, distraction, preoccupation and chronic fatigue, that amplifies our individuality and the propensity towards me-myself-and I, losing sight of the impact of the collective. In the context of the move towards technologically driven “transactional” relationships through applications such as Whatsapp, Facebook and hours spent in front of the flat-screen or computer etc., high tech de-personalization can become a reality. De-personalization, a social disease, can result in a disconnect from others and from the environment – seeing relationships and the environment as a commodities to be expended. Furthermore, in our disconnectedness from the impact of the collective “if everyone on earth did what I did”, it is easier to not engage in reusing and recycling, avoiding transport conservation by not using the least damaging option or being lax with energy conservation by leaving lights and equipment on when not in use and to lose mindfulness in buying locally produced food – the cumulative effects of which are significant. Interpersonal disconnection impacts the health of the Ummah and in the South African context is counter-intuitive to ubuntu. Ubuntu is a South African Nguni proverb that is translated as “a person is a person through other persons” or as Archbishop Desmond Tutu described as ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours”. Ubuntu emphasizes the collective, not unlike the Islamic concept of Ummah which is distinguished by a monotheistic connection to God, built on tawhidic epistemology which serves as the foundation of interactions and connections in the world. Interpersonal disconnection does not only have adverse effects on the environment, but comes at a significant health cost. The World Health Organization indicates that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and we know that depression is as a result of complex interactions between social, psychological and biological factors. Suffice to say, the latest estimates from WHO, indicates that more than 300 million people are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015 with close to 800 000 people dying due to suicide annually with the leading cause of death in 15-29 year olds
In conclusion, the theme for World Environment Day 2017 is “Connecting People to Nature” is compelling if we as Muslims are able to step up to the challenge for personal and communal renewals of our faith. So while it may be easy to make the superficial, all too familiar suggestions to save water when making wudu, to recycle, to not litter etc., we need to examine the root cause of why these behavioral changes do not last long. The key audit is based on our intrapersonal connections to God and our interpersonal relations to His creation; which ultimately is a call to reconnection to the Holy Quran and the authentic Sunnah. It is only in our personal and community renewals and transformations, that we will start to see traction in narrowing the gap between civic responsibility and environmental protection and promotion.
By Dr Fatima Hendricks