Gary Gardner.

“It’s because I’m a religious person that I’m an environmentalist,” says Gary Gardner, director of research at the Worldwatch Institute. An expert on nuclear proliferation, population, and world hunger, Gardner returns to a subject close to his heart with his latest book: Inspiring Progress: Religions’ Contributions to Sustainable Development.

I caught Gardner by phone in his office at Worldwatch, where he spoke with careful precision and understated passion about the power of religious faith to curb consumption and inspire a greener, saner world.


 

What brought you to this subject?

This issue has been around for quite a while, even back through the mid-’80s, when there was a meeting held in Cecil, Italy, between five major world faith groups to talk about environmental issues. There was a huge academic program at Harvard University in the ’90s that produced something called the Forum on Religion and Ecology and nine volumes of books that deal with religion and ecology. There are all sorts of organizations, from the Alliance of Religions and Conservation in the U.K. to the National Religious Partnership for the Environment in the United States, which brings together Catholics, mainline Protestants, evangelical Protestants, and Jews, and puts all their different activities under one umbrella. There’s just been all sorts of movement.

Ironically, evangelicals are getting a lot of attention, but they’ve been the latest comers to this topic. They were involved in the ’90s in helping to save the Endangered Species Act. They called it the Noah’s Ark of our day, and said that Congress was trying to sink it. They were very effective there. But that was just a small splinter wing of evangelicals who were environmentally oriented. It’s only in the last year or two that we’ve seen that grow into a more mainstream evangelical movement dealing primarily with climate-change issues.

We had the What Would Jesus Drive? movement in 2002, and then this year we’ve seen evangelical leaders signing a document in February calling for action on climate change. Rich Cizik at the National Association of Evangelicals is just barnstorming the country trying to get evangelicals fired up about this.

My interest in this is long-standing. When I think about the whole suite of sustainability issues, typically we’re talking about policies and technologies that need to change. But the challenge is more fundamental than that. It’s a question of values that need to change. We need to reassess our relationship to the planet that supports us, and reassess the way we deal with each other, with human beings. Sustainability really is a values problem, and religions have a lot to do with helping us to shape our values, and could be very helpful in helping us to achieve a sustainable world.

It’s almost tautological to say that a community that large would be helpful for the environmental movement, purely in the sense of having bodies, and having influence. What do you think religious groups in particular bring to environmentalism?

Religions add values, not just votes, to the effort to build a sustainable world.

An example of that is consumption. Consumption is the one issue on the sustainability agenda where we seem to be making very little progress. Yet it’s an issue that religion has a long history of experience with, in terms of warning people of the dangers of excessive attachment to the corporeal world. When an environmentalist talks about consumption, he or she could make a strong case for the impact of our consumption habits on the natural world. A religious person could make the same case, but could take it further and say that consumption is bad for us as human beings, for the human spirit and for community — that excessive consumption can be a corrosive influence in our lives.

A lot of committed, secular people might take exception to the notion that values must come from religion.

I’m not saying that at all. We can get our ethics from many different quarters. But the fact is that we just don’t hear the ethical arguments made very often from secular quarters. It’s often a question of policies and technologies, without digging deeper and saying, “Why? Why do we need these? What is the ethical case? What is the moral case?” It’s not that it’s not made. It’s just not made as strongly as I think it could be.

Religions have long experience in making ethical and moral arguments, and have particular credibility, at least sometimes, when they make them. It’s not that religions have a corner on the market in terms of ethics. But they can do it particularly well when they put their mind to it.

Playing devil’s advocate (literally, I guess): Some might say that religions contain certain features that have contributed to the state we find ourselves in, and that a better focus might be to work on developing and enhancing a secular morality. Why revert to traditions that have yielded the world we’re so concerned about?

I look at this from a global perspective. I don’t think you could make that argument at all for indigenous traditions, for example, which have tremendous respect for the planet and our relationship to the environment we depend on. It’s far more complex than you’re suggesting.

I hardly think the entire environmental situation in which we find ourselves can be laid at the feet of religious people. There may be, in some religious traditions, some blame to be laid. But one of the things religions have shown over time is a tremendous capacity to adapt to the times. We see this happening in Christianity right now, where there’s a lot of reassessment, a lot of evaluation of the way religious traditions may have contributed to environmental degradation, a lot of reassessment of scriptural traditions. That’s a very common process within religions.

One feature common to monotheistic religions is a fundamental belief that humanity is the center of creation, given dominion over the rest of creation. Some environmentalists would claim that this notion is the whole root of our ecological problems. Do you think there’s tension there?

It is true that many faith traditions see human beings as having a special place in creation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that human beings need to be arrogant about that position (though it’s worked out that way in practice). They can exercise that special place with great responsibility and a great sense of the need to care for the whole.

This notion that humans have a special place is not confined to religious people; there are all sorts of people who are not religious who would agree.

Some people would say religions reflect, rather than drive, culture. Why believe religions can play a more active shaping role?

I can name any number of ways in which religions have been involved in leading society in a different direction — the U.S. civil-rights movement, for example, or the campaign for divestment in South Africa in the 1980s. The Jubilee 2000 campaign against developing-country debt has a very strong religious component. The Nestle boycott in the 1970s against powdered milk for infants in developing countries. Evangelicals have been vocal about the situation in Darfur. There are many, many examples where religious people, when they get inspired, step up and take leadership positions.

At the same time, I would agree that the problem you’re pointing to is a big one. Many times, religious people do become a part of the culture and become subject to the good and bad in that culture. That’s why one of the messages I have to religious people is, “Return to your roots. Look at your own traditions, look at your own prophets, look at your own founding figures. Look at their original writings.” You find tremendous power in those. You typically find calls for a return to justice. You find calls to a return to valuing spirit as much as we value the material world. Religious traditions have the capacity, and they regularly return to that capacity, to help build a better and more just world. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like it to, or many others would like it to, but it does happen, and there’s tremendous power when it does happen.

Some might see, in the focus on individual spirituality and consumption, a retreat from the political, broadly speaking. Can environmentalism win purely with private, individual changes?

Great question. There’s no reason in principle religious groups could not be involved in advocating for changes to structures as well; on social-justice issues we’ve often seen religions do that kind of thing. There may be proto-efforts along the lines you’re referring to, for example individual congregations that promote things like fair trade. That is a way of trying to support a different kind of structure in terms of consumption.

I agree with you that religion could be much more involved in trying to change the structures of consumption. But I also would return to the individual-level effort. There’s tremendous potential there for reducing consumption and making both our society and individuals better off in the process.

Much of the effort today to try to change consumption habits is about trying to get people to consume in a different way rather than to consume less — things like fair trade and socially responsible investments — trying to steer one’s market power in a direction that helps create a better world. I’m all for that. But I think we also need less consumption in the industrial world. We just need to be buying fewer things. It would be better for us and I think it’d be better for the planet. I don’t know of any institution in society that can make that argument more effectively than religion.

In talking with friends about this issue, their reaction could be paraphrased as follows: “Religious people in the U.S. tend to support the Republican Party, and the Republican Party tends to support environmentally destructive policies. Until that changes, this talk of spiritual reassessment is academic.” Would you care to wade into that arena?

No. [Laughs.]

It’s a tough question. I certainly understand where they’re coming from. I would say that you’re seeing the most active, most vocal people when you point to conservative Christians in this country. But there are all sorts. There are people on both sides of the political aisle who are religious, and who are motivated by their religion to pursue what they pursue. That’s why, for example, the second largest provider of social services in the United States is religious groups — the clinics, the schools, the hospitals, the orphanages. People doing very progressive work, motivated by their faith. The conservative side just gets more attention because they’re particularly vocal.

I don’t care if it’s a Democrat or a Republican who is calling for greater attention to climate change. I don’t care if it’s a conservative or a progressive. It’s all to the good, no matter who’s doing it. That’s how I would approach that question. On the record.

Nobody wants to come out and say it, but politics hovers in the background.

Because religious people are motivated by something they believe passionately in, if you can help them see their tradition in a different light, you see tremendous changes in vision you don’t typically see in the secular world. We’re seeing that with evangelicals and climate change. This is a 180-degree turn we’re seeing in the evangelical community, and it’s possible because they believe so deeply in a created world and a creator who cares about that world. The framework has not changed. But they’re interpreting the reality of the world today, within that framework, in a different way. It’s the very power of religion, the very fundamental place it holds in people’s lives, that gives it the power to help people to see things differently. When they do, they’re able to make tremendous change.

Are you religious?

I’m definitely a religious person. It’s because I’m a religious person that I’m an environmentalist. For me there is no incompatibility there at all.