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The Role of Religion in Environmentalism

By Rebecca Basu

Sunset on Mount Diablo (Marin Sunset)

Sunset on Mount Diablo (Marin Sunset), William Keith, 1877. Courtesy Stanford Family Collections. Keith, a 19th-century American landscape artist, was active in the early environmental movement.

Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change marked an historic event, but as American University Philosophy and Religion Associate Prof. Evan Berry points out, Christianity's ties with ecology are far from new.

Berry, author of the book, "Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism," makes the case that Americans' understanding of those ties is necessary to solving the problems of climate change. In an edited interview below, Berry discusses how Judeo-Christian theological concepts ignited Americans' early passion for nature, and set the tone for many of the goals of today's environmental movement.  

Q: Can you talk about the central tenant of the book, which hinges on the idea that Americans have forgotten the religious roots of environmentalism?
Berry: The perception that religious faith and environmental concern are at odds began in the 1960s and became widespread in the 1980s. A century ago, as today, religion played a powerful role in shaping ideas about public health, outdoor recreation, healthy lifestyles, etc. Many historians acknowledge this fact, but only rarely do we stop to consider the lasting impact that religious ideas had on American environmental attitudes.

Q: What is one major central religious idea that played a role in establishing American environmentalism?
Berry: If you look at the way many Americans talk about and write about climate change, you can easily identify elements of the Garden of Eden narrative. Human beings once inhabited a perfect and bountiful environment, but acted greedily and brought our innocence to an end. We now find ourselves cast out of the proverbial garden, wishing to return to the abundance and simplicity that preceded our hubris. Ideas like these are applied to climate change today, and have long been part of the way Americans talk about environmental degradation.

Q: Should there be less or more emphasis placed on environmental leaders' religious motivations?
Berry: Rather than getting hung up on whether certain environmental leaders are religiously motivated—for example, on whether and to what degree the prominent climate activist and founder of Bill McKibben is motivated by his Methodist faith—we would do better to think about the different ways that religious ideas about nature are put into practice. Americans spend lots of money on "natural" products, place a great deal of faith in the restorative power of outdoor recreation, and love TV shows about the survival of the fittest. Tracing these kinds of activities back to their roots tells a much more nuanced story about the American devotion to nature.

Q: In the book you discuss how the roots of religious environmentalism have, in part, caused difficulties for major American environmental groups as they try to build a coalition with groups in the Global South, communities of color and others. What words of advice do you have?
Berry: Many of the benefits secured by the environmental movement—ranging from federally protected wilderness areas to urban farmers' markets—are disproportionately enjoyed by wealthier citizens. There is lots of room to create a more inclusive environmentalism. Debates about food security, renewable energy, and climate adaption offer opportunities for environmentalists of all stripes to think about how to forge just, democratic societies in which environmental well-being is equitably shared.

Q: What's the lesson for environmentalists who seek to distance the movement from its religious roots?
Berry: The desire to distance environmentalism from its religious roots seems to be softening, at least from within the movement, where the mounting engagement of faith organizations with climate change is generally seen as a good thing. Many secular environmental NGOs released statements of support of the encyclical, and many groups that two decades ago might have been wary of collaborating with the Vatican were eager to syncopate their climate justice messaging with Rome.

Q: What complicates religious and secular groups' working together to find solutions to environmental problems?
Berry: Despite the celebration of the papal encyclical by many environmental organizations, there do remain a number of ecological issues that complicate collaboration between religious and secular groups. Population and family planning are obvious sticking points, but so too are nuclear energy and genetically modified crops. Much more worrisome, however, are the Christian extremists who continue to deny climate change and characterize environmentalism as "secular cult." As long as such groups find an audience, it will be difficult for religious moderates to facilitate climate compromise in domestic politics.