You have quite an extensive background in environmental advocacy, from working with Green for All, to working with Green City Force, to writing a book on environmentalism and Islam. You’ve also worked at the New York’s Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. Can you tell us a bit more about your role there? What challenges did you face working in city government?
I think the main challenge of working in city government is the way you come to it. I guess it’s the same in any profession. You have to have a mission. You have to have a personal goal and a personal mission, because if you don’t when you come into city government, you will be filled up with the negative things of that environment. So the primary challenge was, despite whatever things would happen, the difficulties and challenges, trying to maintain that focus on what my personal goal was. For me, it was how do we get New York City to be the most sustainable place in the United States. How do we get urbanites to see themselves as leaders in a green movement? And how do we get particularly people of color, people from my communities as leaders of that effort as well.
During your time in office, do you feel like you accomplished your goal?
One of our projects was called Plan YC which was a sustainability blueprint for the city. And one of the goals was to reduce the amount of trash that goes to landfills by 75%. One of the ways we did that was to make composting something that people could do. And one of the challenges of composting was in a city there’s not a lot of space. So getting people to freeze their compost and bring it to drop off locations and making sure these drop-offs were in multiple locations, that connected with people of color and people in neighborhoods in the city that are not like Manhattan, that are more spread out. The people that were leading the effort towards composting and shifting the amount of waste they send to the landfills were people that were further out that seemed disconnected from sustainability efforts, when actually they were more deeply connected.
Among other things, you work at the Frontier Project. Is your role there related to environmental sustainability?
For me, it’s integrating the work that I do. It’s about integrating sustainability. For this context, we’re talking about businesses and how they make decisions about their products. Since trash all starts as a product, as a thing that people buy, my focus is getting people to really think about the full life cycle of their products. So the central question here comes out of a book called Garbology which is, “Why do we know so much about the supply chain, but know so little about the removal chain?” The focus is getting companies to think about that full life cycle, so that you start to create different types of products. Or you connect with your customers in a different way because their values are shifting and changing. The reality is that in the world we have more people that have more money and we have to create more things for them to live off of. More food, with less available land, because more land is becoming desert and more land is becoming poisoned from industrial activities. And we have to do all of which I described while making more for more people with less and we have to do it all more sustainably. So fundamentally on every business challenge there’s a sustainable solution to it.
You’ve also authored the book Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about Protecting the Planet. Do you see a challenge in working across faiths and cultures to achieve environmental goals? Or do you see faiths as a binding force in moving toward environmental change?
I think faith is definitely a binding force. Particularly with the Judaic faiths – Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – when you start to look at the history of the story of Adam and Eve and you start to think about the notion of human beings being created from the clay of the Earth, and then Allah or God blowing his spirit into Adam and Eve. That divine, very exalted beginning is something that connects us intimately with both the Divine and with Earth. So if you think about it, that mixing of divine energy, just think if it was something you could touch or feel, and then you mix that with, in this context, a reddish wet clay or dirt, and in all three stories the Angel Gabriel grabbed clay from all over the Earth, and he mixed it up and got this. What we are. So that core beginning. Then when you start to pull it outside of this just small frame of these three faiths, you think about the mythological stories of people – the Buddhist and Hindu stories, the stories of the Native Americans and Aborigines, and African creation stories – you really start to see some deep connections. All of them relate to water, sky, stars, human beings and their relationships to animals and the natural world. The core theme is that we are all here as a steward. And the steward idea in some ways has meant that we have control or dominion. I think the higher ideal – and here’s a place for more work to happen, and this is where the work does happen – is when the faiths across the board start to say, “We inherit the Earth from the people that come before us. And we inherit it for the people who come after us.” So we have a responsibility to leave the Earth better than we found it. When people recognize that, regardless of their faith, then you don’t have to have a conversation about theology or creed or anything of these higher notions that are almost irrelevant. At the end of the day, we all live here. There’s a Native American – maybe Sioux – word “kea” that means home, but it literally means the land beneath your feet. The idea that our home is literally the land beneath us. In a sense, we’re just travelers on this Earth. This is not ours. And that realization means that we’re all travelling together. We all have a responsibility to maintain it, to support it and maintain the balance. So when there’s that recognition, the conversation is easier. When there’s this notion that, and this is the problem with religious people is we think that, because we have God’s book or revelation – and this is a problem particularly with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – that as a religious people ourselves, we think that we know better. We think that we’ve been given a special book, so now God has already blessed us, or we’re enlightened just because God chose us in some way. So that’s where we come into trouble. That’s where I feel like we’ve had disagreements, difficulty, or trouble in really finding common ground.
In moving toward this environmental sustainability, is the dichotomy between science and religion still an issue? Are you starting to see more cooperative cross-disciplinary work?
Just the other day, I was in a room with a radiologist, and he was showing me the different charts that he looks at and the way that different types of images are sliced and what you’re seeing. So he showed me one of someone’s entire body – and he specializes in cardiology, so he was going deep in. It occurred to me there of him as a deeper knower of this science and the human body. So just as I related how the mixture of the spirit and the earth creates this thing that we have, this intensely, incredibly complex, but beautifully organized system, him knowing that system is a deep form of worship and practice, if he approaches it from a spiritual perspective. So him as a scientist, at the highest level of the science of the human body, if he says to himself “My intention of working on this body and understanding this human is to heal them and my intention is to do it for the sake of or to get closer to God,” there are secrets he may uncover that no scholar of religion will uncover, because they will not have that intimate relationship with the human body. That, and reflecting on the signs. Science is just a reflection on the signs that God has presented before us. If you approach it as a form of worship, “I want to know as much about that plant, because I want to see what God has created and discover the secrets of work God has hidden within those leaves or inside of that plant,” who knows what you can discover from it. If that’s your goal, then your entire approach to science becomes different. What we have done mostly is say that my intention is to create a weapon of war, my intention is to kill people, or extract something so that I can make as much money as possible. That’s where the science becomes evil. Instead of critiquing our own intentions, we critique the results. We’re critiquing the process. The process is the rote thing. This is why we say all actions are by intention. Our intention into it is what creates outcome. So I would argue that science and religion are hand in glove. They could be the most beautiful of companions, if the correct intentions were there.
Thanks to Kate and Ibrahim for sharing the first part of their conversation. Part two will be posted during the week of April 16th, 2013. If you are interested in learning more about Ibrahim’s presentation, click here!