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Culture & religion for a sustainable future

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Activity 4
  • Reflection


Culture shapes the way we see the world. It therefore has the capacity to bring about the change of attitudes needed to ensure peace and sustainable development which, we know, form the only possible way forward for life on planet Earth. Today, that goal is still a long way off. A global crisis faces humanity at the dawn of the 21st century, marked by increasing poverty in our asymmetrical world, environmental degradation and short-sightedness in policy-making. Culture is a crucial key to solving this crisis.

Source: Preface, World Culture Report, UNESCO Publishing, Paris, 1999.

Our cultural values, which often include particular religious beliefs, shape our way of living and acting in the world.

Module 11 on Indigenous Knowledge and Sustainability explores the importance of indigenous values and spirituality in providing guidance for sustainable living. Such principles and values encourage a spirit of harmony between people, their natural environments and their spiritual identities.

The principles for living sustainably that flow from these and other cultural and religious beliefs vary between groups and countries. They have also changed over time as circumstances demand. Despite this diversity, many principles for living sustainably are shared, not only among indigenous peoples, but also between different religious traditions.

This module explores the role of culture and religion in providing guidance on ways of living sustainably. It also provides activities which analyse the place of these themes in the school curriculum.


  • To develop an understanding of the relationship between culture, religion and sustainable living;
  • To explore the principles for sustainable living encouraged in a chosen religion and in a case study from Nepal;
  • To analyse the relevance and applicability of principles of sustainable living in the Nepal case study; and
  • To encourage reflection on the contribution of religious education in Education for Sustainable Development.


  1. Defining religion and culture
  2. Values and principles
  3. A case study: Annapurna, Nepal
  4. Culture and development
  5. Reflection


Bassett, L. (ed) (2000) Earth and Faith: A Book of Reflection for Action, UNEP.

Gardner, G. (2002) Invoking the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in the Quest for a Sustainable World, Worldwatch Paper No.164, Worldwatch Institute.

Robinson, M. and Picard, D. (2006) Tourism, Culture and Sustainable Development, Division of Cultural Policies and Intercultural Dialogue, UNESCO.

Schech, S. and Haggis, J. (2000) Culture and development: a critical introduction, Wiley-Blackwell.

Throsby, D. (2008) Culture in Sustainable Development: Insights for the future implementation of Article 13 (Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diveristy of Cultural Expressions), UNESCO.

UNESCO (2000) World Culture Report, UNESCO Publishing, Paris.

UNESCO (2009) UNESCO World Report 2: Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue, UNESCO Publishing.

World Commission on Culture and Development (1995) Our Creative Diversity, UNESCO Publishing, Paris.

World Religions and Ecology Series by Harvard University Press. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, series editors.

  • Buddhism – Tucker, M.E. and Williams, D.R. (eds) (1997)
  • Christianity – Hessel, D. and Ruether, R.R. (eds) (2000)
  • Confucianism – Tucker, M.E. and Berthrong, J. (eds) (1998)
  • Daoism – Girardot, N.J., Xiaogan, L. and Miller, J. (eds) (2001)
  • Hinduism – Chapple, C.K. and Tucker, M.E. (eds) (2000)
  • Indigenous Traditions – Grim, J. (ed) (2001)
  • Islam – Foltz, R., Denny, F. and Baharuddin, A. (eds) (2003)
  • Jainism – Chapple, C.K. (ed) (2002)
  • Judaism – Tirosh-Samuelson, H. (ed) (2002)
  • Shinto – Bernard, R. (ed) (2004)


This module was written for UNESCO by John Fien using materials and activities developed by Hilary Macleod and Hum Gurung in Teaching for a Sustainable World (UNESCO – UNEP International Environmental Education Programme).

Defining religion and culture

Religion, Values, Culture and Sustainable Development

The World Commission on Culture and Development defined culture as ‘ways of living together’ and argued that this made culture a core element of sustainable development.

Almost all of the grave threats confronting human and planetary survival originate in human actions. However, much narrow thinking on sustainable development has focused almost exclusively on the relationships of people to the natural environment – without considering the people-to-people relationships that lie at the core of a sustainable society.

Fulfilling today’s human needs while preserving and protecting the natural environment for future generations requires equitable and harmonious interactions between individuals and communities.

Developing cultural values that support these people-to-people and people-to-nature values has traditionally been the role of religion in most societies.

Religion is a major influence in the world today. It seems that people in all cultures have a set of beliefs that go beyond both the self and the natural world. We use these beliefs to help explain reasons for human existence and to guide personal relationships and behaviour.

Part of the great diversity of humankind is the many different religions and belief systems we have developed – Animism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Taoism, and many more.

Religious beliefs have a strong influence on the culture of a community. Indeed, for many people around the world, religious beliefs are central to their culture and provide the moral codes by which they live. Even where people in the contemporary world believe that the traditional beliefs of their parents and societies are not so relevant to their everyday lives, underlying religious beliefs about human worth and how to relate to other people and the Earth are still important parts of their lives.

How Does Culture Influence Our Lives?

Many definitions of culture refer to particular values and beliefs. Other meanings refer to the everyday life and behaviour of people that flow from these beliefs. Others are more general and refer to works of art.

Culture is, therefore, an inextricable part of the complex notion of sustainability. It can be seen as an arbiter in the difficult trade-offs between conflicting ends with regard to development goals. As pointed out in the report of the World Commission on Culture and Development set up jointly by UNESCO and the United Nations, culture is not only the “servant of ends but (…) the social basis of the ends themselves”, a factor of development but also the “fountain of our progress and creativity”.

Source: UNESCO (1997) Educating for a Sustainable Future: A Transdisciplinary Vision for Concerted Action, paragraph 112.

All these meanings or aspects of culture influence our worldviews and the ways in which we view our relationships with the Earth and each other. As a result, these aspects of culture affect different meanings of what it might mean to live sustainably.

Culture is an important concept in Education for Sustainable Development. This is because the common cultural models in many societies often do not encourage sustainable development – and what is needed are new, or re-discovered, norms and values that can guide our actions towards sustainable ways of caring for other people and the natural world.

Achieving sustainability … will need to be motivated by a shift in values … Without change of this kind, even the most enlightened legislation, the cleanest technology, the most sophisticated research will not succeed in steering society towards the long-term goal of sustainability. Education in the broadest sense will by necessity play a pivotal role in bringing about the deep change required in both tangible and non-tangible ways.

Source: UNESCO (1997) Educating for a Sustainable Future: A Transdisciplinary Vision for Concerted Action, paragraph 103.

Values and principles

Despite the variety of religions and cultures around the world, all share common beliefs about the need to care for other people and the natural environment. Such beliefs are essential to a sustainable future.

The world’s three major conservation groups – the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) – have identified a range of cross-cultural values that could underlie an ‘ethic for sustainable living’.

These values provide principles that can guide human relationships with each other (social equity, peace and democracy) and with nature (conservation and appropriate development), and include:

Social Justice Values:

People and People

  • Meeting basic human needs
  • Ensuring intergenerational equity
  • Respecting human rights
  • Practising democracy

Conservation Values:

People and Nature

  • Respecting the interdependence of all things
  • Conserving biodiversity
  • Living lightly on the Earth
  • Respecting interspecies equity

Identify the values or meanings underlying these principles.

These values are similar to the principles and ethics in the Earth Charter analysed in Module 2.

These principles reflect values that are common in many religions and cultures. However, it is not the only possible one. For example, the people in The Monk’s Story in Module 21 planned the development of their village in south-west Sri Lanka around six principles for living sustainably that are consistent with their Buddhist religion and their culture. These six principles are:

  • Harmony with nature
  • Variety and diversity
  • Quality of life
  • Small is beautiful
  • Self-reliance
  • Co-operation and peace

People of other cultures emphasise different principles. For example, the Garifuni people in Belize in Central America are guided by the following five principles for living sustainably:

All people are connected to the Earth in a common and interdependent whole.
Every human being has a number of rights, but also mutual obligations and responsibilities.
Related to reciprocity, each individual has responsibilities for his/her brother or sister, just as each brother or sister has responsibilities for him/her.
The importance of Mother Earth
The land is sacred and can not be sold or bought.
Respect for others
People should be tolerant of the views, aspirations, values and beliefs of others. This includes respect for the rights of all species and for the spirit of life.

Religion, Culture and Sustainability

It is not possible to provide information on the beliefs and practices of all the religions and cultures in the world and the ways in which they support principles of living sustainably.

However, the Internet is a wonderful archive of this information. This activity invites you to search the Internet to find out about the link between a religion of your choice and living sustainably.

  • Choose a religion that you would like to explore.
  • Identify three questions about the links between religion, religious beliefs, cultural values and ways of living sustainably that you would like to find out about this religion.
  • Identify key words in your questions to use in an Internet search.
  • Open an Internet search engine of your choice. Type the name of your religion plus (+) some of the key words from your questions in the ‘SEARCH’ space, e.g., “islam+ecology”, or “christianity+social justice”, or “hinduism+peace”, or “buddhism+economics”, etc. Then click ‘SEARCH’ and visit the listed sites.
  • Continue this process until you are satisfied with the answers you have to your three questions.
  • Keep these written answers beside you as they will be used in the next activity.

A case study: Annapurna, Nepal

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

The Annapurna Conservation Area Project

This activity provides a case study of the influence of culture and religion in a successful sustainable development project, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) in Nepal.

Q1: Use the following three questions to guide your analysis of cultural and environmental issues in the Annapurna region of Nepal.

  • What are the main cultural and environmental issues facing Nepal and the Annapurna region?
  • What is the difference between the philosophy of the establishment of the Annapurna Conservation Area and other National Parks?
  • Why was the Annapurna region selected for the conservation programme known as ACAP?

Q2: Use the following three questions to guide your analysis of the objectives and principles of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project.

  • What is ACAP’s relationship with tourism?
  • Why is the concept of ‘lami’ so important to ACAP?
  • Why does Prince Gyandra Bir Bakran Shah say that conservation is for the people?

Q3: Identify how the key activities conducted by the Annapurna Conservation Area Project contribute to a sustainable future in the region.

  • Resource conservation
  • Tourism management
  • Community development
  • Conservation education and extension

Interviews with ACAP Community Leaders

Read the transcripts of interviews with two community leaders in the Annapurna region.

As you read the interviews make a note of the principles of sustainable living the two people describe. This information will be used in the next part of this activity.

Use your knowledge of this region, and ACAP principles and strategies to identify nine principles for sustainable living that are embedded in the religion and culture of the people of the Annapurna region.

In the Internet search, in Activity 2, you investigated three questions about the relationship between beliefs and principles of sustainable living in a religion of your choice. Use your knowledge of this religion and the Annapurna case study to examine how relevant the nine Annapurna principles for sustainable living are to the religion you investigated in Activity 2.

Culture and development

Cultural diversity has emerged as a key concern at the turn of a new century. Some predict that globalisation and the liberalisation of the goods and services market will lead to cultural standardisation, reinforcing existing imbalances between cultures. Others claim that the end of the bipolar world of the Cold War and the eclipse of political ideologies will result in new religious, cultural and even ethnic fault lines, preluding a possible ‘clash of civilizations’. Scientists warn of the threats to the Earth’s environment posed by human activity, drawing parallels between the erosion of biodiversity and the disappearance of traditional modes of life as a result of a scarcity of resources and the spread of modern lifestyles.

Source: Introduction, UNESCO (2009) UNESCO World Report 2: Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue, UNESCO Publishing.

While cultural issues are gaining in public attention everywhere, they often have low priority in the development policies of many countries. Stressing the importance of considering culture in development projects, James D. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, stated:

In this time of globalisation … the poor are the most vulnerable to having their traditions, relationships, and knowledge and skills ignored and denigrated … Their culture … can be among their most potent assets, and among the most ignored and devastated by development programmes.

Source: Culture Counts, Conference on Financing, Resources and the Economics of Culture in Sustainable Development, Florence, Italy, 4-7 October, 1999.

Culture is important in the processes of social and economic development. Socially, it provides for the continuity of ways of life that people in a region or country see as significant to personal and group identity. Economically, various forms of cultural expression such as music, dance, literature, sport and theatre provide employment as well as enjoyment for many people. These contribute increasingly large amounts of money to the economies of most countries every year.

Employment is also generated through the restoration and presentation of cultural heritage centres and sites – both for education and tourism.

Our Creative Diversity

An independent World Commission on Culture and Development (WCCD) was established jointly by UNESCO and the United Nations in December 1992 to report on the interactions between culture and development. Chaired by Mr Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1982 to 1991, the Commission, presented its report, Our Creative Diversity, in 1995.

Our Creative Diversity highlighted culture as the ‘last frontier’ of development. Development not only involves improved access to goods and services, but also provides “the opportunity for people to choose a full, satisfying, valuable and valued way of living together, thus encouraging the flourishing of human existence in all its forms and as a whole”.

Read a summary of Our Creative Diversity.

One of the recommendations of Our Creative Diversity to UNESCO was to publish regular reports on culture and development.

The first World Culture Report (1998) described culture as “both the context for development as well as the missing factor in policies for development”. It also questioned many of the cultural assumptions in the development models being used to guide economic, social, political and conservation policies worldwide .

It asked the question, “Can we say that the range of development models has progressively narrowed over time?”, and concluded that:

  • Western cultures have customarily been employed as the basis of thinking about development: “Western culture has held an iron grip on development thinking and practice”.
  • This model equates development with modernisation and modernisation with Westernisation, and this is a cause of great concern in many countries.
  • Increasingly, it is being recognised that there are several alternative strategies of development.
  • A paradox of globalisation is that local cultures are being stressed more than before, at least in ways that reflect local cultural interpretations of the diverse cultural and economic processes that are part of globalisation. While cultural pluralism is increasingly becoming a feature of most societies, people are turning more and more to culture as a means of self-definition and mobilisation.

Cultural diversity

Cultural diversity is an important human right. It is a cornerstone of citizenship in any society. However, historical pressures and domestic political trends have limited the right to cultural autonomy and expression of some citizens. As a result, many minority peoples have been marginalised from the development processes in their own countries. This is tragic both for the marginalised groups and for development trajectory of the wider society. As a result, the 1998 World Cultural Report stated that:

… considerable imagination is needed to build the participatory institutional spaces where diverse voices can express themselves, whether in the management of local environmental issues, the organization of local urban life, or the operation of political institutions of functioning democracies.

Source: World Culture Report, UNESCO Publishing, Paris, 1998.

The same principle holds at the global scale. More and more, countries (especially in the South) are arguing that societies differ in their particular paths of development; that each society has its own history, political and social structures and cultural values; that development policies should respond to the needs and requirements of each society; and therefore that what is appropriate to one society may not be appropriate to another.

Just as no development strategy can be said to be culturally neutral, a culturally sensitive approach to development is the key to addressing the interlinked social, economic and environmental problems confronting the planet as a whole. Cultural diversity — which emphasizes the dynamic interactions between cultures and sensitivity to cultural contexts — thus becomes a key lever for ensuring sustainable, holistic development strategies.

Source: Chapter 7, UNESCO (2009) UNESCO World Report 2: Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue, UNESCO Publishing.

This issue has been a major concern of the UNESCO African Itinerant College for Culture and Development (AICDD). AICDD is a regional coordinating body for discussion and debate on the cultural dimensions of development.

Research by AICDD indicates that development efforts in Africa have not yielded the expected results, and argues that there are three culturally-related reasons for this:

  • The unsuitability to the African context of development models and methods taken from industrial societies.
  • The institutional, geographic, social and cultural gap between people living and working locally and government decision-makers and authorities.
  • A lack of the institutional knowledge and skills to plan development policies and projects that are consistent with the cultural context.

Consequently, there are increasing challenges to the dominant western approach to economic development and modernisation – not only from the South but in the North as well. The demonstrations each year in major cities every time meetings are held by the World Trade Organisation and other international political and financial institutions (that are perceived as promoting a uniform model of development) are evidence of this.

Finding space for these alternative models of development will not be an easy task – this is the downside of globalisation and the domination of the world economic system by major transnational corporations.

As a result, discussions about culture and development tend to be framed in terms of several key issues that relate to the social, economic, political and conservation dimensions of sustainable development, including:

  • Culture and economic development
  • Cultural diversity, conflict and pluralism
  • Cultural rights and indigenous peoples
  • Globalisation and cultural diversity
  • Culture and sustainability
  • Culture and poverty
  • Culture and democracy
  • The economics of cultural heritage
  • Culture, freedom and independence
  • Heritage conservation and values
  • Global creativity and the arts.
  • Indicators of culture and development.

Research these issues in the UNESCO World Report 2: Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue.


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.

Q4: How important is religious education to the curriculum in your school?

Q5: To what extent are students encouraged to relate religious education lessons to principles for living sustainably?

Q6: Are there ways in which the Annapurna case study could be integrated into religious education lessons or other subjects in your school curriculum?