Spiritual development

Knott sees connection between faith and environmental responsibility


CHARLESTON — John L. Knott Jr. is a walking enigma, and he thinks the Church of Charleston should adopt at least some of his uncommon brand of spirituality. The part of his inner life that lends itself to emulation by the Church is his spirituality of sustainability, “… creating human ecosystems that model natural cycles. …”

Knott is a choice speaker at civic club conventions, business meetings, ecological conferences and even religious gatherings. He spoke at Keeping the Garden, “a conference designed to actively assist persons of faith to care for God’s creation ….” And later this year, he will be the keynote speaker at both the Kiwanis International Annual Conference and the National Wildlife Federation conference and will address executives of the Chambers of Commerce from the Carolinas and Georgia. He is billed at all these talks by the apparently oxymoronic title of environmental developer.

Knott is a successful developer and has been for 30 years. His latest development is Dewees Island offshore of South Carolina, a high-end housing project that he claims is the best example in the nation of a totally sustainable development. Thirty-two feature articles in regional, national and international publications back his claim. Dewees makes a lot of money, yet it is in sync with the environment. Knott thinks that other developers should be working in accord with the environment — and so should parish leaders.

“My basic philosophy is that, as a developer, there are five needs to be considered in the context of the larger community. They are: is the plan functional, economically and socially responsible, spiritual and aesthetic? We are in the business of human habitats,” he said. “But if developers have a responsibility to be respectful of God’s creation, what about religious communities? Talk about liability. We are all ministers and we have an obligation to carry the principles of our faith into our work.”

The developer claims that parishes have a moral responsibility to the environment that plays out in such minor decisions as using ground water polluting chemicals on lawns, cleaning halls and schools with toxic cleaners, and such major ones as designing new parish buildings that do not respect natural forces and altering campus surroundings in ways that have a negative impact on the environment.

“If we are teaching Gospel values and if we are to be good stewards, we can economically and sensibly build, rebuild and renovate in ways that are respectful of God’s creation. And there are product lines fully available that work and are non-toxic,” the developer said. “If any place should be a model of sustainability, it should be the parish and other religious areas.”

Knott claims that ignorance by pastoral leaders is no excuse today for a failure to manage or construct a Catholic facility in an environmentally friendly manner. Experts, such as architects and engineers, know the products and designs that fit in with nature and do not degrade the world we inherited. Pastors and other church leaders must simply set the criteria, he said. According to Knott, modern sustainability techniques are cost-effective in both the short- and long-term; financial concerns are no longer valid. In fact, there are hundreds of foundations that will even help finance the construction of church buildings that respect nature, so-called green building. He cited the 3-M Company as an example of how a concern for the environment that sustains human beings can pay off financially: like all Fortune 500 corporations today, 3-M has a senior executive whose job is to focus on the environment, and that focus has saved 3-M more than $1 billion this decade.

John Knott is an active parishioner at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. He and his wife Diane have three children — and it is the image he holds of his family that energizes his concern for the environment. He keeps photos of his children all over his corporate office, so that he is constantly reminded that what he is doing is not about him: “If we put our children’s face on it, it makes us think (about the future). As Catholics and Christians, the idea is to live our faith in what we do day-to-day. If we put a face on it, we act differently. If we care about human beings, do we have a right to pollute at all?”

Knott the developer believes that non-profit development, such as parish halls and diocesan retreat centers, should be leading the way and setting the example for the developers who make the millions in housing and commercial projects. He admitted that his hardest sell is to other developers, who don’t always want to hear about moral responsibility. His dream is to see LARCUM, the South Carolina consortium of Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic and United Methodist leaders, sponsor a forum focusing on how churches should be respecting planet Earth.

John Knott founded the Harmony Project, “a non-profit foundation promoting the development of sustainable communities through technical assistance, information exchange and cooperation.” He has chaired national and international associations of developers and of preservationists. He even went to the former Soviet Union on a White House commission to help the Russians with city redevelopment and historic preservation. He is a walking enigma, but he may well be the consummate developer — making money as he respects God’s creation.