COMMENTARY: Religious Environmentalism:

Some Good News for a Change

There are few easier ways to fish—in the (very) short run, of course—than using dynamite. However the long-term results—depletion of fish stocks, destruction of the sheltering coral reef—made the government of Tanzania forbid the practice. But local fisherman continued dynamiting, ignoring government pamphlets, stringent laws and advice from western ecologists. What finally led them to stop and undertake plans for long-term sustainable fishing practices was the Koran. In 2000, local sheiks were brought together by the U.K.-based Alliance for Religions and Conservation, the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science, the World Wildlife Fund and CARE. The sheiks ruled that exploding ecosystems violated Koranic injunctions against wasting God’s creation—and the dynamiting days were over.

Half a world away, following the tenets of Chinese religion rather than Islam, researchers at the world-renowned Beijing School of Traditional Chinese Medicine are trying to protect endangered species by changing traditional prescriptions which call for ingredients like tiger penis, bear gal and rhinoceros horn. The high price of these ingredients leads poachers to violate international bans on their trade, but the researchers have argued that the use of endangered species violates Buddhist and Taoist principle of balance in nature, and thus are bad for both the environment and the soul.

In 2004 the sixth annual meeting of Sisters of Earth, a loose network of American nuns, mingled presentations on sustainability, eco-spirituality, earth literacy and bioregionalism with religious celebration. The participants—from Texas and Massachusetts, New Jersey and Colorado—run organic farms, educate their local communities about the virtues of local food movement, and protest destructive World Bank practices. They seek, as one of them puts it, to "live lightly on the earth," and, as another says, "to bring to awareness the dangerous loss of biodiversity and the usurpation of seed lines" by multinational corporations. The women embrace both Catholicism and all people of goodwill. While they believe in the Trinity, they see the Father, Son and Holy Spirit permeating all life.

These localized movements reflect a much larger, historically unprecedented and enormously hopeful global movement of religious environmentalism. Facing the same environmental crisis that their secular counterparts do, people of faith have been changing their basic attitudes towards nature and seeing the moral connections between our treatment of nature and our treatment of people.

Pope John Paul II, for example, began his reign as pontiff by warning of "threats to man’s natural environment" and criticizing practices that "alienate us from nature." Two decades later, in 2000, he went farther—speaking poetically and passionately of trying to return nature to its rightful position as the "sister of humanity." When one considers that for centuries the Church repressed any indigenous religion which taught the sanctity of nature, we see that this is a profound change.

The Pope’s words have been matched by other members of the Church becoming actively involved in local environmental concerns. The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops mailed a series of packets of theological and practical environmental sources to every single parish in the country. In 2001 Bishops of the Columbia River Watershed, a 259,000-square-mile region including parts of Washington, Oregon, Montana and British Columbia, issued a glossy 20 page booklet advocating an "ecological vision" in which the "common goal" of industry and the environmental movement would be the "well-being of the entire community of life"; agriculture would be as organic as possible; mining would not endanger water, fish, air or land; environmental damage from logging would be paid for by logging companies, not pawned off on the public; and alternative energy sources would be developed. Years before, in 1988, bishops of the Philippines authored the heartfelt "What is Happening to Our Beautiful Land?"—a remarkable document that confronted that nation’s severe environmental problems.

Kalama River in the Columbia River Watershed.

The list goes on and on. The world’s Sikhs have committed themselves to a 300-year project of making all their institutions low-impact and energy efficient. Buddhist monks from five different nations have organized against Asian deforestation and water pollution. The American Evangelical Lutheran Church has supported Fair Trade Coffee and a ban on the sale of timber from old growth forests.

These and literally thousands of other examples reveal some remarkable, and remarkably hopeful, patterns. For one thing, in a time when many of us wonder if religion should be limited to something done by consenting adults in private, religious environmentalism is an example of people of faith engaging in politics in ways that are humane, respectful of democracy, and in the best interests of humanity, indeed of life, as a whole. The movement is marked by intense civic concern, not bolstering the beliefs of one group against everyone else.

Religious environmentalism also often tends to be deeply ecumenical. Jews and Buddhists sign common calls to action with Hindus and Baptists; Christian statements honor the wisdom of indigenous people. Starting in the early 1990s, in fact, there has been highly visible, public joint work between religious leaders and scientists. Acknowledging one another’s expertise and differences, Nobel Prize winners and Episcopal bishops, rabbis and physicists, have issued calls for critical changes in the way we produce, consume and manage our common affairs.

To the surprise of many, religious environmentalism is a rising force not only among the "usual suspects" of mild-mannered Buddhists, liberal Protestants and Reform Jews, but among some of the more socially, politically and religiously conservative. A split in the Evangelical community resulting from environmental attitudes has been emerging for some time. In January some Evangelical Christian leaders held a joint press conference with Harvard scientists calling for action on global warming. A year before, 87 Evangelical leaders had taken out a full-page ad in the New York Times on the issue, publicly disassociating themselves from other Evangelical leaders who distance themselves from environmental concerns. In 2002 the Evangelical Environmental Network sponsored the "What Would Jesus Drive?" Campaign, which challenged Detroit automakers, proceeded in a cavalcade through the south and ended at the nation’s largest Christian rock festival. "Making transportation choices that threaten million of human beings," the leaders proclaimed, "violates Jesus" basic commandments, "Love your neighbor as yourself" and "Do unto others as you would have them do to you.""

Religious leaders have not been afraid to confront the basic structural problems responsible for the environmental crisis. An umbrella organization representing some 400 million Christians, The World Council of Churches, has been a frequent presence at international meetings on climate change. Embodying an awareness of the relation between "socioeconomic justice and environmental sustainability" it has called for a fundamentally "new economic paradigm" in which long-term environmental health takes precedence over compulsive economic growth.

All this action has been acc

ompanied by serious rethinking of some of religion’s guiding principles. Jews and Christians wrestle with biblical passages which say that only human beings are "made in the image of God" and are given "dominion over the earth." A whole new generation of "eco-theologians"—thinkers who, in Protestant Larry Rasmussen’s phrase, do theology from the "standpoint of earth community"—have taken a new look at some very old scriptures. "Made in the image of God" is now read as "be God’s representatives on Earth"; and "dominion" is read as "responsible care" rather than reckless greed. These eco-theologians emphasize dozens of passages in the Bible which form the basis of a solid environmental ethic. They focus on injunctions in which God forbids taking the mother bird with her eggs and cutting down fruit trees in a siege. The ox cannot be muzzled as he threshes the grain and you must help your enemy’s donkey if he is crushed under his load. In the sabbatical year when no food is planted that which grows spontaneously is to be left for the widows, the poor and "wild animals."

For many, the importance of religious environmentalism goes beyond local church members joining the Sierra Club or starting a recycling center. Ecotheologians argue that a religious vision brings something distinct and very valuable to the secular environmental movement. For one thing, when secular environmentalists rail at out-of-control unsus-tainable consumerism they often come off sounding like shrill spoilsports. "Buy less," may be a good idea, but it is not, in and of itself, all that appealing. Religious leaders can point to the simple (and comparatively non-polluting) pleasures of religious community as alternatives to consumerism. The joys of Sabbath rest, or the emotional comfort of a familiar congregation, provide replacements for the mall and Amazon.com. Of course one need not be religious to appreciate the nurturing aspects of community and rest. Yet these values are perhaps most familiar to us as presented by a culture of religion which, as writer Bill McKibben puts it, offers something other than accumulation as the highest goal of life.

There is also a deep seriousness in religious language, a seriousness which, for many environmentalists, speaks to the depth of the environmental crisis at hand. When we learn, for instance, that the placental blood of newborns contains 287 toxic chemicals, many are not comfortable just saying that this is unhealthy, inconvenient or a damn shame. The violation of what should be a human being’s safest place calls forth a more powerful, more visceral, response. In this context most people find a language of rights inadequate, and one of "consumer preferences" patently absurd. And thus there is something appealing, even to many secular people, when Bartholomew, head of the 300 million strong Eastern Orthodox Church, states flatly that "To pollute the environment is a sin."

The natural alliance between religious and secular environmentalists is happening in thousands of local contexts where secularists and people of faith work together to resist climate change, toxic waste disposal and destructive economic "development." On a public level there has been some institutional cooperation as well. The Sierra Club and the National Council of Churches sponsored a joint television ad in defense of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. While "God" was left out of the ad, "creation"—after some lively debate—was kept in. The heads of both the Sierra Club and the NCC reported nearly unanimous positive feedback. Since then, the Sierra Club has set up several liaisons with the religious community, devoting more than $100,000 a year to joint work.

Finally, religious environmentalists have had to develop a comprehensive social and ecological vision of the interconnection of all life. The "eco-justice" task forces of several major denominations assert that every kind of political oppression has a role in ecological degradation; and that social inequality makes groups more likely to suffer from pollution. In short, they believe that we cannot heal injustice without transforming our relationship to nature—and vice versa. This comprehensive perspective offers hope for a political movement that will transcend a moribund liberalism of separate and competing interest groups. In Sri Lanka and Mongolia, for example, religious leaders and grassroots organizations emphasize Buddhist values in their commitment to human centered, ecologically sound economic development.

As new as it is, no one can know what the future of religious environmentalism will be. All attempts to deal with the environmental crisis are hampered by economic globalization, addictive consumerism and widespread political passivity. Yet as a crucial institution of civil society, poised between government and the family, religion can play a potent role in any social struggle. For many people in the U.S. and throughout the world, religion is source of inspiration and a beacon of moral authority.

Of course most religious people are not environmentalists. But, many could argue, not that many secular people are either—at least in the sense of working hard to save the planet. And religious environmentalism has already made a real difference. If nothing else, says Hadar Suskind, Washington representative of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, "People don’t wonder what the environment has to do with being Jewish any more." In similar terms Walt Grazer, director of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops eco-justice task force, says: "We’ve helped people realize that caring for the environment is part of your religious faith as a believer
a way to say "yes," to say "thank you," to God."

Roger S. Gottlieb‘s books include A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and our Planet’s Future and This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment. He is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute: gottlieb@wpi.edu.

CONTACTS: Forum on Religion and Ecology; National Religious Partnership for the Environment