Not Just For Hippies

In A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet's Future, Roger Gottlieb documents an important piece of the broadening environmental movement: the religious community. In recent years, support for environmental causes in the religious circles has grown considerably, and today it is limited by neither geography nor religious affiliation. Through such groups as the National Religious Partnership on the Environment, movement leaders seek to bring a new moral dimension to environmental issues: if the earth is God's creation, they say, then the implications of befouling it go beyond science into ethical and religious realms.

How do you respond (or how would a religious environmentalist respond) to those who argue that justifications for public policy should be entirely secular, so that they can be justifiable by all members of a pluralistic society?

I think that this idea is a lovely except for one thing: it doesn't work. The simple fact is that as a large modern society there are many things we do collectively, like make laws and policies, educate our children, and organize the economy. We have to guide those activities not only by individual rights, but by some basic, comprehensive view of what really matters. For example, one value orientation is that nature has no value in and of itself, only in how it serves human interests. Another is that nature is to be treasured as sacred and that it's our job to be a part of it, not its master. At bottom, neither of these orientations can be justified in some final, conclusively rational way.

Different comprehensive views might be derived from the Bible or Marx, Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman. But there's no objective justification for them. All any of us can do -- religious and secular alike -- is explain our perspective as fully as possible, tell each other what society would look like if our views prevailed -- and then vote.

Also, it strikes me as amusing when orthodox secularists speak out against religion in public life … and then celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Who do they think Martin Luther King was?

Have you come across any overlap between the people who are active in the religious environmental movement and those who advocate on issues like abortion and gay marriage?

This definitely exists. A lot of the people who are part of religious environmentalism have been active on issues like social justice, racism, war and women's rights. The organization Sisters of Earth is a good example. It's a loose network of Catholic nuns who practice community supported organic agriculture, teach Earth literacy courses, and challenge corporate polluters. Many of these people had been in the anti-war movement, and many consider themselves feminists.

Most of the religious people I talked to do their environmental work from an eco-justice standpoint, joining concern with nature with concern for people. The World Council of Churches (WCC), for instance, advocates “contraction and convergence,” a decrease in U.S. per capita production of greenhouse emissions to that of India—rather than just letting us buy our way into being the biggest polluters around. Also, a surprising and common theme is that many religious environmentalists raise serious criticisms of capitalism, or at least of corporate power. If you take environmentalism seriously, this is almost inevitable.

Ultimately, I don't think a religion's politics are determined by religion itself, but by historical context and the personal choices of its adherents. Throughout history, you see a tremendous variation in the political interpretations of any given religion. Almost always fundamental religious teachings are either too vague, or too old, or too contradicted by other fundamental teachings from the same faith, to be definitive on contemporary political issues. The idea that someone will think a certain way just because they are religious is like saying you can derive someone's politics from the fact that they're secular. Neither idea makes much sense.

How did a desire for environmental protection get left off the so-called “culture-of-life” agenda of the religious right?

Well, it may have been left off that of the religious right, but not that of the religious thinker who developed the idea: Pope Jean Paul II. He addressed environmental issues in many of his writings, along with capitalism, abortion, social justice, and other matters. The central idea in much of his work is that modern advanced society is really a culture of death.

I personally would disagree with him on the abortion question, but much of what he says outside of abortion would make good sense to a lot of people on the left. In 2000, he wrote that unspoiled nature can return to being “the sister of humanity,” That is a radical change from the history of Christianity, which often expressed contempt for people who viewed the earth as in any way sacred. But environmentalism moves religions to much greater ecumenism, as well as to the left politically.

You should remember that the entire environmental justice movement owes much to the United Church of Christ, which published the landmark study Toxic Wastes in the United States, organized the first national meeting on environmental racism, and thus helped bridge the gap between conservationists and people interested in more familiar social justice issues. The whole idea of environmental racism and environmental justice permeates global environmentalism now. President Clinton even passed an executive order requiring the federal government to take the issue seriously in policy decisions.
This is just one of the ways in which religious groups have furthered environmentalism.

Of course, many on the right think environmentalists are a bunch of liberals or radicals. And for the most part they're right! Yet since the environmental crisis threatens everyone, some people who are otherwise conservative are coming around. While you've got guys like [Focus on the Family head] James Dobson who oppose the idea of global warming, 87 other evangelical leaders recently came out in a full-page N.Y. Times ad saying we all have to “take this very seriously”—and then founded the Evangelical Climate Initiative to pursue the issue.

One criticism of this movement is that it seems to resemble some sort of new-agey, subjective and loosely structured “spirituality” of the sort exhibited by certain religious liberals. Is that what we're dealing with here? If not, how does it differ?

People are reacting to a tremendous crisis, and they are doing some theological innovation to cope with that. But since many of them are highly active politically—lobbying, organizing demonstrations, and even doing civil disobedience—it would be wrong to think of them as flakey.

It's true that these people tend not to be orthodox religious fundamentalists. But there are certainly religiously orthodox environmentalists out there, people who are committed Christians or Jews or Muslims. You've got Buddhist leaders like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, or the Buddhist president of Mongolia, speaking out on the issue. You have the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the head of the National Council of Churches, the head of global Eastern Orthodox Christianity (that's only 300 million members) and on and on. This is not a bunch of hippies, I assure you.

One major schism in the religious community seems to center on differing interpretations of the Bible verse proclaiming that man shall “have dominion” over the Earth. How do you reach those who see this clause as a license to exploit the Earth to our maximal benefit?

Anybody who wants to hang a political position on one verse in the Bible is not reading it seriously. You have to take a more inclusive view of the text. It's clear from the Bible that the Earth belongs to God, not Exxon. It's clear that vast accumulation of wealth is not what religions are supposed to be about. Certain psalms portray nature as having spiritual subjectivity. The second creation story, where Adam is put in the garden to tend and serve, could be viewed as a model of stewardship. Religious environmentalists tend to read these texts in a new way, one that portrays people as God's representatives on Earth and which sees the many ways in which God is described as valuing the Earth and says that's what we should be doing as well.

Keep in mind that religion is always a product of somebody's selection and interpretation. If you read the Torah, you do find the verse about humans having dominion over the Earth, but you also find verses about the importance of not wasting, about how Noah was instructed to save all the animals, not just the useful and pretty ones, about how wild animals can eat from the fields during the sabbatical year and owners of the land cannot. And many more. It's a very mixed bag.

Generally, is there anything that you think religion can offer social movements that secular motivations and convictions cannot? What separates the religious component of environmentalism from the secular component?

Well, do keep in mind that for everything positive I say about religion, the opposite can be said as well.

But first, I think it can bring an element of universal concern, through the conviction that all people are made in the image of God or that all beings deserve compassion. There can be a kind of real inclusiveness here, while in the history of the political left groups sometimes pursue their own goals and ignore those of others. Second, much religious activism can be welcoming and respectful, without unnecessary anger or violence. Virulent anger is often a self-defeating way to do politics, because it alienates the people who aren't sure where they stand. The secular left of the 1960s was often contemptuous of people who didn't agree. We alienated lots of potential allies—and found ourselves self-righteous, terribly correct, and very marginalized. Political groups should be the nicest people around, but we often seem so uptight and nasty! Third, to be an environmentalist today is to feel tremendous grief. As Aldo Leopold put it, it is “to walk alone in a world of wounds.” Religious practice, rituals, community, and celebration can help us cope with the emotional pain that every environmentalist is familiar with.

Public debates over environmental issues are often framed in terms of the environment versus jobs. What do you think religious environmentalism can bring to this particular debate?

In the sense of inclusiveness that religion offers, it suggests policies like those that a good socialist might advocate. You have to reach out to the loggers and others in environmentally destructive professions. If a given profession is damaging to the environment, you don't stop the profession cold, you institute job-retraining programs, and you phase out that form of life. And you've got to challenge the discourse in which jobs and environmentalist are in conflict, and find the real reasons why jobs are disappearing (it's often not the environmental policies).

Also, religion can say that there is something more to life than continued increases in your paycheck. Take the idea of a Sabbath, where the endless consumerism stops for a day and you rest, read, connect to your family, watch the trees, and make love instead. How refreshing!

Religion can also help us ask: how many addictions do we have to experience, how much suffering of our young people, right down to elementary school, losing their mental health from a form of life keyed to techno-toys and endless buying, and a lack of peace and quiet? How long until we realize that there is something fundamentally wrong here? That a culture of consumerism just won't make us happy?

Where do you see this movement going in the future, and what are the implications of an increasingly globalized world for the religious environmental movement?

Globalization poses a basic question: are people only consumers, and is the Earth only a cache of resources to be consumed? Religious values say no, we aren't and it isn't! And I think religious environmentalism helps people wonder whether things like subsistence labor or local production can sometimes be may be more rational than the dominant commodity export model, better for the well being of humans and the planet as a whole. It's clear that the current globalization benefits a relatively small percentage of people, and it's clear that another world is possible. But whether we can make it happen, well … God alone knows.

And I think that people of different faiths as well as secularists will find basic agreements in environmentalism, and in the anti-globalization movement. Most environmentalists have a sense of reverence about the Earth, a sense that something here is priceless. That kind of response gives us all some common ground.

Nelson Harvey is a Prospect intern.