To Robert Rees, a Latter-day Saint writer, editor and green activist in Northern California, the challenges of climate change are enormous and overwhelming.
What, he wondered, could a handful of religious believers do to address them?
Then Rees hit upon a simple idea: He thought about how “fast Sunday” — the practice by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of forgoing two meals monthly and giving the money saved to help those in need — had benefited area residents.
Given that many religions include fasting as part of their own practices, the Latter-day Saint approach could be replicated worldwide, he reasoned. But rather than donating the savings to feed and clothe people, the money would be used to save the planet.
The effort would raise consciousness about the earth’s dire predicament, unite people of faith and engage individuals, not just institutions.
Rees then reached out to British scholar, environmentalist, theologian and interfaith leader Martin Palmer, who pounced on the plan.
In partnership with England’s Prince Philip (who died last year at 99), Palmer has spent more than three decades building a global network of religious figures committed to ecological principles.
And the undertaking is all based on sacred texts and stories, rituals and celebrations.
Intrigued by Rees’ idea, Palmer coined a name — “Fastforward” and, voila, a new global movement began to take form.
For the animated Palmer, a deeply religious scholar and master organizer, it seemed to match everything he knew about faith and what he longed to accomplish.
Why exclude religion?
When Palmer was summoned by Philip to a meeting in 1985, the outspoken advocate had already developed the world’s first multifaith education center in Manchester and headed a World Council of Churches program.
So the prince, who was at the time president of the World Wildlife Fund, knew Palmer was the right person for what he had in mind.
That fund was too focused on economics, Palmer recalled Philip saying, “If the future of the planet has to do with data and information, we’d have changed it by now. We’d be saving the planet. We’re not because we’re not actually touching hearts or minds at all.”
Instead, Philip asked Palmer to co-create the first-ever meeting between leaders of five of the world’s major faiths (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam) and the leading international environmental organizations.
“I told him it was a bad idea,” Palmer said in an interview, while visiting Salt Lake City last month. “The problem is, you’re just not thinking big enough. What we should be looking at is actually creating some kind of ongoing network.”
That is exactly what happened.
The meeting took place in Assisi, Italy, in 1986, with top religious leaders from around the world. All of them wrote a 2,000-word essay about where their faiths stood on the environment.
From then on, an ongoing relationship between Philip and Palmer was born, one that would blossom into the Alliance of Religions and Conservation in 1995.
Until it closed in 2019, Palmer said, the alliance was “the largest conservation effort in the world.”
The case of Buddhist tree monks
In 1987, Buddhist monks in Thailand already were concerned about their precious environment. Several of them decided to go on a three-month retreat to a threatened forest so they could do their religious fasting.
“We discovered … that where these monks went, the forests were protected simply by a kind of numinous ambiance,” Palmer said. “So we started sponsoring the building of tiny Buddhist temples, half the size of a living room, in threatened forests.”
But the monks began to be hunted down, he said, “murdered by … illegal loggers in a horrendous campaign against them.”
So these conservationists turned to the teachings of Buddha, who said that in the process of reincarnation, he could reappear as a woman, a dog or an insect. Why not a tree?
In discussion with the Buddhist monks and the nuns, Palmer explained, the conservationists asked, “Well, if the Buddha could appear as a tree, could trees be monks? And they decided yes.”
Today, there are thousands of trees wrapped with saffron, he said, “which have been ordained as monks who cannot be assassinated, but their presence protects some 360 community forests.”
This is exactly how ancient scriptures can provide, he said, new ways of thinking about complex climate problems.
Fastforward’s lofty goals
Though the fasting initiative hasn’t been formally launched, organizers drafted a document, “Fastforward for the Future of the Planet,” which “seeks to expand in building a whole new dimension of the faiths’ role in protecting the planet and its human and animal creatures.”
The worldwide program asks for “minor sacrifice and modest self-restraint; of options for simpler lifestyles; of giving up or delaying certain pleasures and conveniences, all of which leads to wiser and more prudent use of resources so that others — including other species and future generations — might thrive.”
Fastforward, the document adds, is built upon “one of the oldest social and spiritual practices of self-denial and of caring for those less fortunate — fasting — not only from food … but also ‘fasting’ from actions and behaviors that have a direct negative impact on the environment — by choosing to drive less, use less energy, use less of what we don’t really need, etc.”
If only “1% of the world’s 7.8 billion people participate in the program and make only a modest average donation of $1 for each monthly fast (which would result in a net loss to them of $0 since they would have spent the money on food),” organizers speculate, “it would garner more than $1 billion annually toward addressing climate repair and restoration.”
To that end:
• The plan calls for launching on a specific date — perhaps May Day — which could be seen as “a celebration of possibilities for the renewal of the earth and the return of life and fecundity.”
• Creating a monthly Fast Day (say the most appropriate holy day in the third week of the month, e.g., the Sabbath, Sunday, Friday prayers) during which those who choose would skip one to three meals and donate the savings into a fund for healing the planet.
• Commemorating Fastforward with an annual worldwide “break-the-fast” event to mark the success and accomplishment of the previous year’s fast.
Can anything good come out of Mormonism?
When Palmer first told others about Rees’ Fastforward idea, there was, well, hesitancy among his peers who knew nothing about Latter-day Saints and their religion.
But the Anglican leader soon got over any worries.
Talking to Rees felt like meeting an old friend, Palmer said. “I was intrigued because Bob introduced me to the Mormon church in a completely different way than I’d ever come across before. And I found in it a richness and a depth. I [especially] didn’t know anything about the fasting tradition.”
It tied in well, Palmer said, “with the whole thing of FaithInvest, which Prince Philip and I set up in 2019 to work with the faiths on moving their investments into sustainable and environmental investing.”
And that was before coming to Utah.
One Thursday in July, the two went to the Assembly Hall (“the lovely old public church downtown,” Palmer said) on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, which is mostly closed for renovations.
There they met a couple of Latter-day Saint “sister missionaries” and told the young women they were looking for “nuggets of wisdom” in every faith that would support their green efforts.
One of the women, who plans to study environmental science after her mission, pulled out a copy of the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, and turned to Alma 30:44.
There it says that “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”
Palmer was deeply impressed.
He spent more days meeting with Latter-day Saint groups, as well as representatives from the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, and the environmental committee at St. Mark’s Episcopal Diocese.
After listening to Palmer’s pitch, Rachael Lauritzen, chairperson of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance, proposed and the board unanimously approved a resolution to support Fastforward and a fast “for the planet” on every third Sunday.
“We are rolling this out as an initiative among our members as well as our interfaith allies — and not just giving up food but maybe driving or something else,” Lauritzen said. Fastforward is a “beautiful way to apply faith to environmental efforts, not just giving monetarily but using intentionality to give up something for a bigger cause.”
Others were equally moved.
“It was inspiring,” said George Handley, a Brigham Young University professor who has written about Mormonism and the environment. “I’m talking to Latter-day Saint friends, hoping to put something together to try it out. This is such an opportunity for the church to partner with other religions like Catholicism and feel the gratitude and goodwill of other faith traditions.”
Hope, they all believe, is key.
Environmentalists “are not providing a vocabulary for hope,” Palmer said, “And that’s why the religious dimension of the environmental movement is so crucial.”
And why he finds Rees’ fasting idea both basic and brilliant.
It takes an old practice, gives it new meaning and new depth, Palmer said, and sends it around the globe.
That way adherents, stuck in inertia and angst, can have an action plan that fits their theology, he said, and an optimism that fits their faith.
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