Boris Johnson visited the Husseini Mosque in Northholt during his mayoral campaign in 2008. Photo: Getty
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Should religion ever play a role in policy-making?

As market and utilitarian analyses increasingly dominate our public discourse, religious voices could offer fresh insights.

This week Faith Minister Baroness Warsi resigned from Government. She was a keen advocate for David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative and in particular played an impressive role in encouraging faith communities to be more involved in the policy making process.  These days there is, quite understandably, a surge of interest in religion when those purporting to act in its name do bad things. Much of the criticism of religion’s role in society derives from unfamiliar tenets, the real or imagined divisions it creates in society, and abuses carried out in its name. Indeed, for many it is regarded as an outdated and even dangerous impediment to the advancement of a civilised and mature society, replaced and made redundant by science and a secular humanism.

But this tells only one side of a very complex story, since huge swathes of the world's population hold religious belief as a powerful source of motivation and moral vision, and answers to the basic questions of human existence. Generations have passed on wisdom, justified values, and binded society through religion, creating harmonious and vibrant communities (if politicised variants of religion are avoided).

Indeed, as our public discourse becomes increasingly narrowed by strictly market or utilitarian analysis, it’s worth considering religious voices for fresh insights on the moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions of a wide variety of public issues ranging from climate change and education to poverty and urban violence.

You will find that religious actors are not reticent in coming forward with ideas, resources and proposals aimed at public policy change. Citizens of a religious background not only have a right to participate in the policy-making process but have valuable contributions to make to the common good when they do so. In recent years has been a surge in interfaith policy activism on both sides of the Atlantic across diverse policy domains, influencing visionary decisions by urban policymakers.

In the US, interfaith groups in states including Georgia, Hawaii, and Massachusetts have already made impactful contributions to the policy process. For example, in the most populous Hawaiian island of Oahu, Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE) has worked hard since its creation in 1996 to improve access to public services. FACE, a non-profit interfaith group that includes 38 churches, a Buddhist temple, and two Jewish congregations, helped end discrimination against non-English speakers who were unable to sit the driver's licence exam. The exam is now offered in 12 languages in addition to English, a welcome development that will help counter reduced access to employment and an increase in uninsured drivers.

In Europe, the traditionally Catholic Nordrhein Westfalia region of Germany has seen faith based social service agencies grow into a national advisory council that advises the government on social service policies. Interfaith activists in London have joined with community leaders, social activists and businesses to alleviate poverty by campaigning for a more equitable living wage. Since its inauguration in 2001, the Living Wage Campaign has boosted the wages of tens of thousands of low-income employees by over £210 million.

These examples contradict the view of religious actors as merely promoting forums for bland conversational niceties while ignoring the more difficult aspects civic life. Indeed, the process of arriving at a shared understanding of the common good and the approaches, methods and instruments by which this can be realised may contribute to greater levels of mutual trust and collective action among a diverse citizenry, a vital pre-requisite for a more cohesive, flourishing society.

Interfaith leaders engaged in this process deserve credit for their persistent and results-oriented work in the policy field and their capacity for innovative solutions. In spite of this, engagement with religious actors remains contentious among those who fear the illiberal consequences of a resurgent religion in the public square.

There are conceptual and practical challenges as well. There is no common denominator about the nature of religion and its potentially transformative role in the life of society. Policymakers need to set aside the common assumption that any role for religion in society is a Trojan Horse for conversion. Similarly, religious actors will need to reassure their secular partners that their efforts to contribute to the social good are free from any hidden agenda to coerce their views on others.

If this engagement between religious actors and policy makers can be optimised, the benefit to wider society, particularly in urban and deprived areas, would be enormous. It will require courage and tolerance from all of us.

Muddassar Ahmed is a Patron of the Faiths Forum for London and Kishan Manocha is a Vice-Chair of the Inter Faith for the UK.

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The view from Google Earth is magnificent - but there's a problem

Google Earth is spectacular - but it can give a misleading impression of the planet and the threats we face from climate change. 

 

Google Earth wants you to “get lost” in its updated interactive map. Collaborations with new media partners mean you can now climb Mount Everest, swim with sharks or visit Afghanistan with Zari the purple muppet. No, really:


Source: Google Earth

Yet as Trump slashes support for the science behind satellite imaging, is Google’s emphasis on spectacle leading us down the wrong path?

Google Earth's new look all starts well enough. Opening the new site on your browser takes you to an image of a blue earth floating through the blackness of space. Back in the 1970s, similar images taken from the Apollo space missions helped kickstart the modern environmental movement. As the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle put it: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”


Source: GETTY and Google Earth

And it gets better. Enter a destination in the search bar and you are greeted with the option to link directly out to the Wikipedia page: nerds of the world, rejoice! 

A guided tour from NASAearth is also on hand for anyone whose nerdery is in need of a prompt: “Geostationary satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Greenhouse gases and global warming. Glaciers... going, going, gone,” says the Bob Dylan-esque entry on its "ABCs from Space".

You can then choose to orbit your landmark of choice in 3D. And let’s face it - who doesn’t want to glide around the top of Mont Blanc, pretending to be an eagle? It’s almost as good as the BBC’s actual eagle-cam

But then it hits you. This is no soaring eagle, buffeted by wind currents and having to constantly adjust its flightpath in the face of real-world obstacles. This is a world surveyed at a safe and sanitising distance. Tourism for the Trump age – focused on providing “a consumption experience”. Certainly it is the opposite of “getting lost”.

In fact if anything has been lost or downplayed, it is the principles of scientific enquiry. The program is littered with human choices. Local versions of Google Maps, for instance, have shown different national borders depending on where in the world you log in. And while new, open-data imagery from America's Landsat 8 program is helping bring many regions up to date, other high-resolution imagery comes from commercial providers, such as Digital Globe. And as this Google 'help' page implies, there are issues of time-lag to face. 

You can’t even be sure what you’re looking at still exists. In 2015, Bolivia’s second largest lake vanished - a combination of climate change, El Nino, and irrigation withdrawal caused 2,700 square kilometres of water to evaporate into a dry salt pan. (It has not recovered, and seems unlikely to do so.) Yet on the new version of Google Earth the lake is still a healthy green:


Source: GoogleEarth

The much lauded film clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth II are similarly short on context. As I've argued before, David Attenborough's latest TV series did little to explain the stories behind the spectacle – there was no mention, for instance, of the arctic anthrax outbreak which caused thousands of reindeer to be culled, nor the role of climate change in worsening locust swarms. 

Finally, the new update actually shows you less of the world than it did before. Gone is the “Historical Imagery” tool that allowed you to see how a place had changed through time. Now, the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria is only visible as a bombed-out ruin. A surreal street-view reveals two women cheerily taking a selfie – with debris all around and their legs spliced out of shot:


Source: GoogleEarth

So why do these omissions matter? Because they take users further away from the evidence-based approach of earth science. It turns out that satellite images on their own are of limited use when it comes to quantifying change. Instead researchers must turn the raw pixels into numbers, which can then variously represent everything from forests to cities, glaciers and farms.

As Dr France Gerard at the UK’s Centre for Hydrology and Ecology explains, this process enables us to live in a better managed environment – be that by measuring air pollution or the impact of fertiliser on soil. The centre's landcover map, for instance, has been mapping British land use since 1990. Similar methods allow Sam Lavender’s company to provide Ugandans with a Drought and Flood Mitigation service, as part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme.

Sadly, the need for public engagement has never been more urgent. Brexit and austerity have cast doubt over important projects in the UK. While in Donald Trump’s America, funds for earth monitoring are set to be slashed. Two missions already under the knife are PACE, a spacecraft set to track global ocean health, and CLARREO, which would have produced highly accurate climate records. Trump has also called for the earth-viewing instruments on the DSCOVR satellite to be turned off. Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama, describes this decision as “baffling”.

So what can be done to reverse this trend? Experts I spoke to believe that collaboration is key. With government programs being squeezed, the earth monitoring industry may come to rely increasingly on the trend towards smaller, commercial satellites. These are great for increasing the quantity of data available but their accuracy needs to be constantly checked against the data from the larger and more reliable state-launched equipment.

There’s also still more data out there to share. As Bronwyn Agrios from Astro Digital points out, many countries have been gathering region-specific data – which could, in future, be made open source. “The neat thing about space is that there’s no border,” she concludes.

To help this process, Google Earth could do far more to raise public awareness of the science behind its special effects. Yet at least in one way it is already on the right path: its own new range of collaborations is impressively large. As well as the BBC, you can take interactive tours with The Ocean Agency, the Wildscreen Arkive, and the Jane Goodall Institute – all of whom put conservation up front. The Goodall journey to Tanzania’s Gombe National Park even describes the use of satellite imagery to measure conservation success.

 

More links with other citizen science projects around the world could turn the program into something truly ground-breaking. If it can incorporate these, then desktop-tourism may yet save the planet from Trump. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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