by James A. Bacon
Is religion a positive force for solving environmental challenges? That was the topic of a friendly debate last night between Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, a former sustainability advisor to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Scott Wayne, a former British diplomat and now founder of the Frontier Project creativity consulting firm.
The debate, which was moderated by Roberta Oster Sachs, a CBS producer, took place in the Frontier Project’s office in Shockoe Bottom. It was an intimate gathering. Wine and cheese was served before, during and after the debate. Every one of the 30 or so members of the audience had a chance, if they wanted, to make comments and ask questions.
Abdul-Matin, author of “The Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about Protecting the Planet,” took the position that religion is a positive force. The major threats to the environment are driven by excessive consumption, a vice that the spiritual values taught by major religions act to temper.
Wayne countered that the biggest threat to the environment wasn’t consumption per se but the extraordinary growth in the number of consumers worldwide. What the world needs is fewer people, which can be accomplished by more widespread practice of birth control. But some of the world’s religions, most notably the Catholic Church, are hostile to birth control.
OK, that’s a gross oversimplification of their viewpoints, but it conveys the tenor of the discussion. What was remarkable about the session was not that it took place between world-renowned religious scholars or literary figures but that it took place between two ordinary Richmonders. Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say “ordinary.” Abdul-Matin and Wayne are far more accomplished than the average Joe. Indeed, Abdul-Matin has written a book that broaches the topic. Yet neither of them enjoys any great celebrity.
What struck me is that nothing like this ever took place in Richmond when I first moved here some 25 years ago. The Richmond region is far more intellectually vibrant today than it once was. The love of ideas is no longer confined to the campuses of the region’s three universities, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond University and Virginia Union University. The thirst for intellectual stimulation is ubiquitous.
Richmonders have always prided themselves as patrons of the arts and culture. We have a symphony. We have a ballet. We have one of the finest art museums in the country. We have a lecture series, the Richmond Forum, that brings in luminaries from around the world. But that’s old-school patronage of the arts. You go to the event, you sit, you listen, and then maybe you talk about it with your spouse on the drive home.
People today aren’t content to simply sit and listen. They want to be engaged. They want to participate in the interchange of ideas. Events like the Frontier Project’s discussion series appeal to this craving.
There’s a larger lesson here for readers of Bacon’s Rebellion and others who share our passion for building more prosperous, livable and sustainable communities. I have written extensively about the importance of the so-called “creative class” to driving artistic, scientific and entrepreneurial innovation in a region. Creative-class people are doers, not watchers. They don’t gravitate to communities that support what economic geographer Richard Florida calls the SOBs — symphony, opera and ballet. They gravitate to communities where they can get engaged.
Thus, to members of the creative class (as opposed to the corporate class), the coolest things about Richmond bubble from the bottom up. The French Film Festival. The James River Writers Festival. The Folk Festival. The First Fridays art walk. The C3 speaker series on innovation. To that list, perhaps, we can add the Frontier Project discussion series.
(In a similar vein, while Richmond may be one of the biggest cities in the United States lacking a pro-sports franchise, it has a active and impassioned amateur sports community. Rather than watch someone else play sports, Richmond’s creatives prefer to go mountain biking, do open-water swimming in the James River or join Seal Team outdoor fitness training on Belle Isle.)
There is no metric that I know of to measure the intellectual vitality of a region. The average level of education in Richmond may have increased somewhat during the years that I have lived here but that doesn’t begin to account for the quantum leap in curiosity, excitement and engagement that I have witnessed. I love this town, and with each passing year I know I made the right decision to make it my home.