The following is a guest essay from Roger S. Gottlieb, Professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His books include A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and our Planet’s Future and This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment.


If you’re not depressed, a friend of mine has been saying, it’s only because you haven’t been reading the newspaper. And indeed we live in a frightening time of fundamentalist violence, aggressive wars, ethnic conflict, starvation amid plenty, and pervasive environmental problems.

Yet the tradition-changing creativity, passionate commitment to social activism, and spiritual openness of the astonishing new movement of religious environmentalism should cheer us all up a bit. A profound new respect, even love, for the natural world can be found in definitive statements by the Pope and institutional commitments by the world’s Sikhs, in interpretations of the Koran that forbid dynamite fishing in Tanzania and of the Torah that question whether or not low-mileage cars are kosher, in the way the World Council of Churches challenges the "prevailing economic paradigm" and the way Buddhist monks have organized against Asian deforestation. These and literally thousands of more examples show that the oldest of human institutions can face the demands of the present; and that human beings from around the world can see beyond what divides us to what we share.

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Religious environmentalism includes vital new theologies which have reinterpreted scripture and demanded that, as theologian Larry Rasmussen puts it, we think about God "from the standpoint of earth community." Institutional commitment has been expressed in powerful declarations about global warming, pollution, and species extinction from leadership councils of virtually every faith in the world. And environmental action is now considered an essential component of the social justice commitments which are essential to the way people of faith express God’s teaching in their everyday lives.

This bold new movement arose for a number of reasons. Like other people, those of faith value clean air, healthy water, and the aesthetic value of oceans and forests. From the 1970s on, therefore, religious environmentalism has grown for the same reasons as secular environmentalism. More particularly, people of faith have seen the use of nature as a sign or symbol of the divine put into serious question. When the heavens, which according the psalm 19 "declare the glory of God," are instead obscured by debilitating smog which makes it necessary for children and the aged not to go outside, a key element of faith is rendered doubtful. Indeed, even the most basic of religious rituals can be called into question by the environmental crisis. How are we to take the communion wafer or bless the Sabbath wine if both may be riddled with cancer causing pesticide residues?

As religions become greener a number of other things happen as well. First, the global nature of environmental problems helps bridge the gap between different names for God, spiritual truth, or simple human goodness. As a result effective interfaith coalitions become increasingly more commonplace. The Interfaith Global Climate Change Network, for instance, has chapters in eighteen states and includes Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Native Americans in its membership.

Alliances reach beyond the world of faith as well. Well publicized statements signed by religious and scientific leaders have challenged the environmental consequences of America’s energy policy, and the Sierra Club and the National Council of Churches cooperated on a television ad in defense of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Indeed, the Sierra Club now spends over $100,000 a year to partner with religious groups on local issues of pollution and conservation.

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Finally, religious environmentalists have had to develop a comprehensive social and ecological vision of the interconnection of all of 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 like to suffer from pollution. In short, they believe that we cannot heal injustice without transforming our relations to nature — and vice versa.

Interestingly, religions have not only adopted the environmental justice perspective, they helped create it. The United Church of Christ commissioned the first comprehensive study of environmental racism in the U.S. and organized the 1991 conference of people of color environmental activists which formulated the Principles of Environmental Justice. These actions have had profound effects on all the leading environmental organizations and even on the federal government: President Bill Clinton ordered that environmental justice be taken into account in all national policy decisions.

This comprehensive perspective of eco-justice offers hope for a new kind of politics that will transcend both blind faith in the "market" and a moribund liberalism of separate and competing interest groups. We have seen that in Sri Lanka and Mongolia, for example, religious leaders and grass-roots organizations emphasize Buddhist values in their commitment to human centered, ecologically sound economic development.

While it would be a good thing for people of faith to join secular environmental organizations, religions also have some distinct resources to offer the global environmental movement. For one thing, religious environmentalism offers the secular environmental community a language in which to express the depth of its anguish. When we read, for instance, that the placental blood of newborns contains on average one hundred and ninety toxic chemicals, it will not do simply to say that this is unhealthy, inconvenient, or a damn shame. This violation of what should be a human being’s safest place calls forth a more powerful, more visceral, response. In this context most people would find even a language of rights inadequate, and one of "consumer preferences" patently absurd. And thus we might turn to Bartholomew, head of the 300 million strong Eastern Orthodox Church, who stated flatly that "To pollute the environment is a sin."

Of course the language of sin may be alienating to many, especially since it seems to come so easily from the mouths of religious conservatives eager to cast the first stone. Yet along with a complete commitment to democracy and human rights another characteristic of religious environmentalism is a refreshingly critical stance about religion’s own moral record. Catholic priest and leading ecotheologian Thomas Berry states bluntly: "After dealing with suicide, homicide, and genocide, our Western Christian moral code collapses completely: it cannot deal with biocide…. Nor have church authorities made any sustained protest against the violence being done to the planet."

Religions also offer a spirited alternative to the way secular environmentalists sound when they rail at out-of-control consumerism. Instead of coming off like shrill spoilsports religious people can appeal to the simple (and comparatively non-polluting) pleasures of religious community as alternatives. The joys of Sabbath rest, or the emotional comfort of a familiar congregation, provide alternatives to the mall and Of course one need not be religious to appreciate the nurturing aspects of friendship and rest. Yet these values are perhaps most familiar to us as presented by the culture of religion — one which, as Bill McKibben puts it, offers something other than accumulation as the highest goal of life.

No one can know what the future of religious environmentalism — indeed of any environmentalism whatsoever — will be. It faces the economic juggernaut of globalization, which sees the natural world only as potential commodities, and human beings only as consumers. It must separate itself from violent, repressive fundamentalisms which are too concerned with making sure everyone has the "right" beliefs to worry about the dwindling rainforests or the polluted rivers. Finally, it must prove to its erstwhile allies in the secular environmental community that religion can function responsibly in politics.

Happily, such proof is not hard to find. Heir to a host of important spiritual social action movements from Gandhi and King to ministers who were leading Abolitionists or who were integral to the peace movement, so today’s religious environmentalists are expressing devotion to God in the pursuit of justice and care for the earth and all who dwell upon it.