Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A. Grim
This issue of Dædalus brings together for the first time diverse perspectives
from the world’s religious traditions regarding attitudes toward nature with reflections
from the fields of science, public policy, and ethics. The scholars of religion
in this volume identify symbolic, scriptural, and ethical dimensions within particular
religions in their relations with the natural world. They examine these dimensions
both historically and in response to contemporary environmental problems.
Our Dædalus planning conference in October of 1999 focused on climate
change as a planetary environmental concern.1 As Bill McKibben alerted us more than a decade ago, global
warming may well be signaling “the end of nature” as we have come to know it.2 It may prove to be
one of our most challenging issues in the century ahead, certainly one that will
need the involvement of the world’s religions in addressing its causes and alleviating
its symptoms. The State of the World 2000 report cites climate change (along
with population) as the critical challenge of the new century. It notes that in
solving this problem, “all of society’s institutions—from organized religion to
corporations—have a role to play.”3 That religions have a role to play along with other institutions
and academic disciplines is also the premise of this issue of Dædalus.
The call for the involvement of religion begins with the lead essays by a scientist,
a policy expert, and an ethicist. Michael McElroy, chairman of the Harvard University
department of earth and planetary sciences, outlines the history of the earth’s
evolution, thus providing a comprehensive context for understanding the current
impact of humans on global climate change. As McElroy observes, while the earth’s
evolution has occurred over some 4.6 billion years, Homo sapiens sapiens appeared
only some 150,000 years ago. Moreover, in the last few hundred years of the industrial
revolution, humans have radically altered the nature of the planet—warming its climate,
depleting its resources, polluting its soil, water, and air. He cites the cultural
historian Thomas Berry and his perspective on the evolutionary story of the emergence
of life as providing “our primary revelatory experience of the divine.” McElroy
observes that to change the global environment irreversibly without concern for
the consequences to present or future generations creates a fundamental challenge
for the moral principles of the world’s religions. Public-policy expert Donald Brown
elaborates further on the nature of contemporary climate change and the human impact
on this process. He echoes McElroy’s call for the ethical involvement of the world’s
religions in mitigating the human causes and planetary effects of climate change.
Environmental ethicist J. Baird Callicott proposes a method to bring together the
larger scientific story of evolution outlined in McElroy’s essay with the diversity
of the world’s religions. He describes this as an “orchestral approach” embracing
the varied ethical positions of the world’s religions in an emerging global environmental
No definitive attempt is made in this issue to articulate a comprehensive environmental
ethics. However, the essays that follow, written by scholars of religion, suggest
manifold ways of creatively rethinking human-Earth relations and of activating informed
environmental concern from the varied perspectives of the world’s religions. The
objective here is to present a prismatic view of the potential and actual resources
embedded in the world’s religions for supporting sustainable practices toward the
environment. An underlying assumption is that most religious traditions have developed
attitudes of respect, reverence, and care for the natural world that brings forth
life in its diverse forms. Furthermore, it is assumed that issues of social justice
and environmental integrity need to be intricately linked for creating the conditions
for a sustainable future.
Several qualifications regarding the various roles of religion should be mentioned
at the outset. First, we do not wish to suggest here that any one religious tradition
has a privileged ecological perspective. Rather, multiple perspectives may be the
most helpful in identifying the contributions of the world’s religions to the flourishing
of life for future generations. This is an interreligious project.
Second, while we assume that religions are necessary partners in the current ecological
movement, they are not sufficient without the indispensable contributions of science,
economics, education, and policy to the varied challenges of current environmental
problems. Therefore, this is an interdisciplinary effort in which religions can
play a part.
Third, we acknowledge that there is frequently a disjunction between principles
and practices: ecologically sensitive ideas in religions are not always evident
in environmental practices in particular civilizations. Many civilizations have
overused their environments, with or without religious sanction.
Finally, we are keenly aware that religions have all too frequently contributed
to tensions and conflict among ethnic groups, both historically and at present.
Dogmatic rigidity, inflexible claims of truth, and misuse of institutional and communal
power by religions have led to tragic consequences in various parts of the globe.
Nonetheless, while religions have often preserved traditional ways, they have also
provoked social change. They can be limiting but also liberating in their outlooks.
In the twentieth century, for example, religious leaders and theologians helped
to give birth to progressive movements such as civil rights for minorities, social
justice for the poor, and liberation for women. More recently, religious groups
were instrumental in launching a movement called Jubilee 2000 for debt reduction
for poor nations.4
Although the world’s religions have been slow to respond to our current environmental
crises, their moral authority and their institutional power may help effect a change
in attitudes, practices, and public policies.
As key repositories of enduring civilizational values and as indispensable motivators
in moral transformation, religions have an important role to play in projecting
persuasive visions of a more sustainable future. This is especially true because
our attitudes toward nature have been consciously and unconsciously conditioned
by our religious worldviews. Over thirty years ago the historian Lynn White observed
this when he noted: “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think
about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned
by beliefs about our nature and destiny—that is, by religion.”5 White’s article signaled
the beginning of contemporary reflection on how environmental attitudes are shaped
by religious worldviews. It is only in recent years, however, that this topic has
been more fully explored, especially in the ten conferences on world religions and
ecology held at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity
School from 1996–1998.6
Awareness of this reality has led to the identification, in the published conference
volumes, of religious perspectives especially rich in resources for defining principles
that may help us preserve nature and protect the earth community.7
In soliciting essays for this issue of Dædalus, we asked scholars of
various religions to address a few key questions: 1) What cosmological dimensions
in this tradition help relate humans to nature? 2) How do this tradition and its
sacred texts support or challenge the idea of nature as simply a utilitarian resource?
3) What are the core values from this tradition that can lead to the creation of
an effective environmental ethics? 4) From within this religious tradition, can
we identify responsible human practices toward natural systems, sustainable communities,
and future generations? It was considered important that the religion scholars reflect
on these broad questions in order to identify those attitudes, values, and practices
that might be most appropriate in addressing contemporary environmental problems,
especially climate change.
THE CHALLENGE OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS
The environmental crisis has been well documented as a plural reality in its various
interconnected aspects of resource depletion and species extinction, pollution growth
and climate change, population explosion and overconsumption. Thus, while we are
using the term “environmental crisis” in a singular form, we recognize the diverse
nature of the interrelated problems. These problems have been subject to extensive
analysis and scrutiny by the scientific and policy communities and, although comprehensive
solutions remain elusive, there is an emerging consensus that the environmental
crisis is both global in scope and local in impact. The Worldwatch Institute has
been monitoring the global deterioration of the environment over the last two decades
in their annual State of the World report. In the 2001 report, the concluding
article observes: “Despite abundant information about our environmental impact,
human activities continue to scalp whole forests, drain rivers dry, prune the Tree
of Evolution, raise the level of the seven seas, and reshape climate patterns. And
the toll on people and the natural environment and social systems feed on each other.”8
There is also a dawning realization that the changes we are currently making to
planetary systems are comparable to the changes of a major geological era. Indeed,
some have said we are closing down life systems on the planet and causing species
extinction at such a rate as to mark the end of the Cenozoic era.9 Others compare the
current rate of extinction to earlier geological periods such as the Jurassic (138
million years before the present) and the Permian (245 mybp). While this stark picture
of the state of the environment has created pessimism among many and denial among
others, it is also increasingly evident that human decisions will be crucial for
the survival of many life forms on Earth. The long-term health of both people and
the planet is in the balance. As ecosystems deteriorate, as global warming increases,
as economic growth proceeds without restraint, technical solutions alone will be
insufficient to stem the unraveling of the web of life. Some would say pessimistically,
“If current trends continue, we will not.”10 Peter Ravens of the Missouri Botanical Garden puts it more
starkly in an article entitled “We Are Killing Our World.” He writes, “The world
that provides our evolutionary and ecological context is in serious trouble, trouble
of a kind that demands our urgent attention. By formulating adequate plans for dealing
with these large-scale problems, we will be laying the foundation for peace and
prosperity in the future; by ignoring them, drifting passively while attending to
what may seem more urgent personal priorities, we are courting disaster.”
The scientist Brian Swimme has indicated that we are making macrophase changes to
the planet with microphase wisdom. As Michael McElroy observes, the deleterious
consequences of the last two hundred years of the industrial revolution have been
monumental for the life systems of the planet. In short, our intervention in ecological
systems can now be regarded as a primary determining factor in the future of evolutionary
processes. Whether our interventions will ultimately be beneficial or detrimental
remains to be seen as we are poised at a critical juncture in the unfolding journey
of the earth community. We need to reexamine the nature of progress and development
and ask at what cost we continue to destroy the earth’s complex ecosystems. A central
question before us is what are appropriate roles for humans in relation to present
and future life on Earth? As Donald Brown asks, what are the responsibilities of
the rich to the poor as ecological conditions deteriorate due to climate change?
What does it mean to develop ethical sensibilities to people and species at a distance?
What will it mean if twenty-three island nations disappear due to climate change
or if Bangladesh, with one hundred million people, is flooded? Do we in fact have
obligations to future generations that may transcend our contemporary concerns?
One might well ask, if we are not able to encourage the flourishing of life on the
planet, are we not then calling into question the very nature of what it is to be
human? Or, as Thomas Berry puts it, is it we ourselves who are becoming an endangered
species? He notes that while we have developed ethics for homicide, suicide, and
genocide, we have yet to articulate a comprehensive ethics for biocide or geocide.
In response to these kinds of questions, the authors in this issue reflect on how
we might reconceive our role in light of the world’s religions to foster mutually
enhancing human-Earth relations.
SIXTH EXTINCTION AND TRANSFORMATIVE BOUNDARIES
We are entering the twenty-first century with a new sense of humility at what humans
have wrought as well as with a renewed sense of hope at what we might still achieve.
A plaque in the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History in
New York City suggests that we are in the midst of a sixth extinction period for
which human activities are largely responsible. Yet it also notes that, depending
on our choices, we are still capable of stemming this massive destruction of life
forms. It is this critical juncture we are facing between pursuing unbridled “progress”
and reconfiguring the relation of economy and ecology for a sustainable future.
This constitutes the potential for new transformative boundaries. A major question
we confront is: What are the appropriate boundaries for the protection and use of
nature? The choices will not be easy as we begin to reassess our sense of rights
and responsibilities to present and future generations, and to reevaluate appropriate
needs and overextended greed regarding natural resources.
This reevaluation of transformative boundaries has been set in motion by a number
of key sectors ranging from grassroots and nongovernmental organizations to national
governments and the United Nations. The convergence of efforts fostered by civil
society, the nation-states, and international organizations is noteworthy. Business,
too, is beginning to play an important role in developing principles and practices
for environmentally sensitive cost accounting.11 For the first time in human history remarkable new initiatives
are emerging that struggle to restrain our overextended presence on the planet.
The results of these initiatives will be difficult to evaluate immediately, but
their cumulative effect will be indispensable in redirecting our current destructive
course. Indeed, some have suggested that we are in a new phase of cultural evolution
now surpassing biological evolution where human decisions will shape the course
of planetary history as was never before possible.12 This movement toward sustainable human-Earth relations
is being led by individuals and organizations who are developing and implementing
alternative energy sources, environmentally compatible technologies and designs,
green economic and business systems, sustainable agriculture and fishing initiatives,
and environmental education programs.13 These creative movements are not simply technologically
driven but are guided by an understanding of identifying principles and practices
that promote the flourishing of the earth community as a whole.
Further evidence of this movement toward a sustainable future has emerged over the
last decade with the wide range of international and national conferences that are
being held, research that is being published, and policies that are being implemented.
Indeed, in the decades since the United Nations Conference on the Environment was
held in Stockholm in 1972 and the UN Conference on Environment and Development (also
known as the Earth Summit) was convened in Rio in 1992, the United Nations has repeatedly
identified the environmental crisis as a critical global challenge. This international
political body has highlighted “sustainable development” as a central goal of the
earth community. The 1987 Bruntland Commission report, Our Common Future,
outlined key strategies toward that end. Since the Rio Earth Summit, the United
Nations has held various other major international conferences to analyze our global
situation and devise strategies for ensuring a sustainable future. These include
conferences on social development, habitat, women, population, and food. These UN
conferences have been supplemented by the work of literally thousands of nongovernmental
and environmental organizations around the world toward formulating more sustainable
and just policies and programs for civil society.
Sustainable development has been critiqued by some environmental, labor, and human-rights
organizations as often leading toward rampant globalization of capital and the homogenization
of cultures. The unintended consequences of globalization in the loss of habitat,
species, and cultures make it clear that new forms of equitable distribution of
wealth and resources need to be implemented. Indeed, the growing inequities of North
and South that are exacerbated by environmental deterioration and climate change
remain a leading challenge to the global community. One significant effort to address
this growing inequality around issues of sustainable development is the Earth Charter,
which arose out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.14 The charter was commissioned by the Earth Council, which
was established in Costa Rica to carry out the directives of the Earth Summit. The
Earth Charter consists of sixteen key principles under four headings: respect and
care for the community of life; ecological integrity; social and economic justice;
and democracy, nonviolence, and peace. The charter was drafted over a three-year
period and subject to intensive review from grassroots organizations and NGOs, international
business groups and religious communities. The charter was formally presented to
the international community at the Peace Palace in the Hague on June 29, 2000. The
intention of the Earth Charter Initiative is to bring the charter to the United
Nations General Assembly for endorsement in the year 2002, the tenth anniversary
of the Rio Earth Summit.
CALL FOR THE PARTICIPATION OF RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES
Many organizations and individuals have been calling for greater participation by
various religious communities in meeting the growing environmental crisis by reorienting
humans to show more respect, restraint, and responsibility toward the earth community.
Consider, for example, a statement by scientists, “Preserving and Cherishing the
Earth: An Appeal for Joint Commitment in Science and Religion,” issued at a Global
Forum meeting in Moscow in January of 1990. It suggests that the human community
is committing “crimes against creation” and notes that “problems of such magnitude,
and solutions demanding so broad a perspective, must be recognized from the outset
as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension. Mindful of our common responsibility,
we scientists—many of us long engaged in combating the environmental crisis—urgently
appeal to the world religious community to commit, in word and deed, and as boldly
as is required, to preserve the environment of the Earth.” It goes on to declare
that “the environmental crisis requires radical changes not only in public policy,
but in individual behavior. The historical record makes clear that religious teaching,
example, and leadership are powerfully able to influence personal conduct and commitment.
As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before
the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be
treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded. Efforts
to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the
A second important document, “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” was produced
by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1992 and was signed by more than two thousand
scientists, including more than two hundred Nobel Laureates. This document also
suggests that the planet is facing a severe environmental crisis: “Human beings
and the natural world are on a collision course. . . . Human activities inflict
harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources.
If not checked, many of our current practices put at risk the future that we wish
for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living
world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental
changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring
These changes will require the special assistance and commitment of those in the
religious community. Indeed, the document calls for the cooperation of natural and
social scientists, business and industrial leaders—and also religious leaders. It
concludes with a call for environmentally sensitive attitudes and behaviors, which
religious communities can help to articulate: “A new ethic is required—a new attitude
towards discharging our responsibilities for caring for ourselves and for the earth.
We must recognize the earth’s limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognize
its fragility. We must no longer allow it to be ravaged. This ethic must motivate
a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant
peoples themselves to effect the needed changes.”16
RESPONSES FROM THE WORLD’S RELIGIONS
Although the responses of religions to the global environmental crisis were slow
at first, they have been steadily growing over the last twenty-five years. Several
years after the first UN Conference on Environment and Development in Stockholm
in 1972, some Christian churches began to address growing environmental and social
challenges. At the fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Nairobi
in 1975, there was a call to establish the conditions for a “just, participatory,
and sustainable [global] society.” In 1979, a follow-up WCC conference was held
at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on “Faith, Science, and the Future.”17 The 1983 Vancouver
Assembly of the WCC revised the theme of the Nairobi conference to include “Justice,
Peace, and the Integrity of Creation.” The 1991 WCC Canberra conference expanded
on these ideas with the theme of the “Holy Spirit Renewing the Whole of Creation.”
After Canberra, the WCC theme for mission in society became “Theology of Life.”
This has brought theological reflection to bear on environmental destruction and
social inequities resulting from economic globalization. In 1992, at the time of
the UN Earth Summit in Rio, the WCC facilitated a gathering of Christian leaders
that issued a “Letter to the Churches,” calling for attention to pressing eco-justice
concerns: solidarity with other people and all creatures; ecological sustainability;
sufficiency as a standard of distributive justice; and socially just participation
in decisions for the common good.18
In addition to major conferences held by the Christian churches, several interreligious
meetings have been held, and various religious movements have emerged concerning
the environment. Some of these include the interreligious gatherings on the environment
in Assisi in 1984 under the sponsorship of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and under
the auspices of the Vatican in 1986. Moreover, the United Nations Environment Programme
(UNEP) has established an Interfaith Partnership for the Environment (IPE) that
has distributed thousands of packets of materials for use in local congregations
and religious communities for more than fifteen years.19
The two most recent Parliaments of World Religions—held in Chicago in 1993, and
in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999—both issued major statements on global ethics,
stressing environmental issues as well as human rights. The Global Forum of Spiritual
and Parliamentary Leaders held international meetings in Oxford in 1988, Moscow
in 1990, Rio in 1992, and Kyoto in 1993—and each time devoted significant attention
to environmental issues. Since 1995 a critical Alliance of Religion and Conservation
(ARC) has been active in England, while the National Religious Partnership for the
Environment (NRPE) has organized Jewish and Christian groups around this issue in
the United States. Two member groups of NRPE, the Coalition on Environment and Jewish
Life (COEJL) and the National Council of Churches, are helping to mobilize the American
Jewish and Christian communities regarding environmental issues, especially global
warming. Religious groups have also contributed over the last five years to the
drafting of the Earth Charter. And the World Bank has developed a World Faiths Development
Dialogue on poverty and development issues with a select group of international
Religious leaders and laypersons are increasingly speaking out for protection of
the environment. The Dalai Lama has made numerous statements on the importance of
environmental protection and has proposed that Tibet should be designated a zone
of special ecological integrity. Rabbi Ishmar Schorsch of the Jewish Theological
Seminary in New York has frequently spoken on the critical state of the environment.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew has sponsored several seminars to highlight
environmental destruction in the Black Sea and along the Danube River,21 calling such examples
of negligence “ecological sin.” From the Islamic perspective, Seyyed Hossein Nasr
has written and spoken widely on the sacred nature of the environment for more than
three decades. In the Christian world, along with the efforts of the Protestant
community, the Catholic Church has issued several important pastoral letters over
the last decade. Pope John Paul II wrote a message for the World Day of Peace, on
January 1, 1990, entitled “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility.” More
recently, John Paul II has spoken of the need for ecological conversion, namely,
a deep turning to the needs of the larger community of life.22 In August of 2000, at a historic gathering of more than
one thousand religious leaders at the UN for the Millennium World Peace Summit of
Religious and Spiritual Leaders, the environment was a major topic of discussion.
The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, called for a new ethic of global stewardship,
recognizing the urgent situation posed by current unsustainable trends.23
RELIGIONS OF THE WORLD AND ECOLOGY PROJECT
It was in light of these various initiatives that a three-year intensive conference
series, entitled “Religions of the World and Ecology,” was organized at the Center
for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School to examine the varied
ways in which human-Earth relations have been conceived in the world’s religious
traditions. From 1996–1998 the series of ten conferences examined the traditions
of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism,
Shinto, and indigenous religions. The conferences, organized by Mary Evelyn Tucker
and John Grim in collaboration with a team of area specialists, brought together
over seven hundred international scholars of the world’s religions as well as environmental
activists and grassroots leaders. Recognizing that religions are key shapers of
people’s worldviews and formulators of their most cherished values, this broad research
project informs many of the essays gathered in this issue of Dædalus.
Since 1998, an ongoing Forum on Religion and Ecology has been organized to continue
the research, education, and outreach begun at these earlier conferences. A primary
goal of the forum is to help to establish a field of study in religion and ecology
that has implications for public policy. The forum is involved in holding scholarly
conferences as well as initiating workshops for high-school teachers, distributing
curricular resources for college courses, supporting a journal on religion and ecology,24
and creating a comprehensive web site (http://environment.harvard.edu/religion).
Just as religions played an important role in creating sociopolitical changes in
the twentieth century (e.g., human and civil rights), so now religions are poised
in the twenty-first century to contribute to the emergence of a broader environmental
ethics based on diverse sensibilities regarding the sacred dimensions of the natural
DEFINING TERMS: RELIGION AND ECOLOGY
Religion is more than simply a belief in a transcendent deity or a means to an afterlife.
It is, rather, an orientation to the cosmos and our role in it. We understand religion
in its broadest sense as a means whereby humans, recognizing the limitations of
phenomenal reality, undertake specific practices to effect self-transformation and
community cohesion within a cosmological context. Religion thus refers to those
cosmological stories, symbol systems, ritual practices, ethical norms, historical
processes, and institutional structures that transmit a view of the human as embedded
in a world of meaning and responsibility, transformation and celebration. Religion
connects humans with a divine or numinous presence, with the human community, and
with the broader earth community. It links humans to the larger matrix of mystery
in which life arises, unfolds, and flourishes.
In this light nature is a revelatory context for orienting humans to abiding religious
questions regarding the cosmological origins of the universe, the meaning of the
emergence of life, and the responsible role of humans in relation to life processes.
Religion thus situates humans in relation to both the natural and human worlds with
regard to meaning and responsibility. At the same time, religion becomes a means
of experiencing a sustaining creative force in the natural and human worlds and
beyond. For some traditions this is a creator deity; for others it is a numinous
presence in nature; for others it is the source of flourishing life.
This experience of a creative force gives rise to a human desire to enter into processes
of transformation and celebration that link self, society, and cosmos. The individual
is connected to the larger human community and to the macrocosm of the universe
itself. The transformative impulse seeks relationality, intimacy, and communion
with this numinous power. Individual and communal transformations are expressed
through rituals and ceremonies of celebration. More specifically, these transformations
have the capacity to embrace the celebration of natural seasonal cycles as well
as various cultural rites of passage. Religion thus links humanity to the rhythms
of nature through the use of symbols and rituals that help to establish moral relationships
and patterns for social exchange.
The issues discussed here are complex and involve various peoples, cultures, worldviews,
and academic disciplines. Therefore, it is important to be clear about our terms.
As it is used here, the term “ecology” locates the human within the horizon of emergent,
interdependent life rather than viewing humanity as the vanguard of evolution, the
exclusive fabricator of technology, or a species apart from nature. “Scientific
ecology” is a term used to indicate the empirical and experimental study of the
relations between living and nonliving organisms within their ecosystems. While
drawing on the scientific understanding of interrelationships in nature, we are
introducing the term “religious ecology” to point toward a cultural awareness of
kinship with and dependence on nature for the continuity of all life. Thus, religious
ecology provides a basis for exploring diverse cultural responses to the varied
earth processes of transformation. In addition, the study of religious ecology can
give us insight into how particular environments have influenced the development
of cultures. Therefore, one can distinguish religious ecology from scientific ecology
just as one can distinguish religious cosmology from scientific cosmology.
This awareness of the interdependence of life in religious ecology finds expression
in the religious traditions as a sacred reality that is often recognized as a creative
manifestation, a pervasive sustaining presence, a vital power in the natural world,
or an emptiness (sunyata) leading to the realization of interbeing.25 For many religions,
the natural world is understood as a source of teaching, guidance, visionary inspiration,
revelation, or power. At the same time, nature is also a source of food, clothing,
and shelter. Thus, religions have developed intricate systems of exchange and thanksgiving
around human dependence on animals and plants, on forests and fields, on rivers
and oceans. These encompass symbolic and ritual exchanges that frequently embody
agricultural processes, ecological knowledge of ecosystems, or hunting practices.26
The study of religion and ecology explores the many ways in which religious communities
ritually articulate relationships with their local landscapes and bioregions. Religious
ecology gives insight into how people and cultures create both symbolic systems
of human-Earth relations and practical means of sustaining and implementing these
METHODOLOGICAL APPROACHES TO THE STUDY OF RELIGION AND ECOLOGY
There is an inevitable disjunction between the examination of historical religious
traditions in all of their diversity and complexity and the application of teachings
or scriptures to contemporary situations. While religions have always been involved
in meeting contemporary challenges over the centuries, it is clear that the global
environmental crisis is larger and more complex than anything in recorded human
history. Thus, a simple application of traditional ideas to contemporary problems
is unlikely to be either possible or adequate. In order to address ecological problems
properly, religious leaders and laypersons have to be in dialogue with environmentalists,
scientists, economists, businesspeople, politicians, and educators.
With these qualifications in mind we can then identify three methodological approaches
that appear in the emerging study of religion and ecology: retrieval, reevaluation,
and reconstruction. Each of these methodological approaches is represented in the
essays included in this volume.
Interpretive retrieval involves the scholarly investigation of cosmological, scriptural,
and legal sources in order to clarify traditional religious teachings regarding
human-Earth relations. This requires that historical and textual studies uncover
resources latent within the tradition. In addition, interpretive retrieval can identify
ethical codes and ritual customs of the tradition in order to discover how these
teachings were put into practice.
In interpretive reevaluation, traditional teachings are evaluated with regard to
their relevance to contemporary circumstances. Can the ideas, teachings, or ethics
present in these traditions be adopted by contemporary scholars or practitioners
who wish to help shape more ecologically sensitive attitudes and sustainable practices?
Reevaluation also questions ideas that may lead to inappropriate environmental practices.
For example, are certain religious tendencies reflective of otherworldly or world-denying
orientations that are not helpful in relation to pressing ecological issues? It
asks as well whether the material world of nature has been devalued by a particular
religion and whether a model of ethics focusing solely on human interaction is adequate
to address environmental problems.
Finally, interpretive reconstruction suggests ways that religious traditions might
adapt their teachings to current circumstances in new and creative ways. This may
result in a new synthesis or in a creative modification of traditional ideas and
practices to suit modern modes of expression. This is the most challenging aspect
of the emerging field of religion and ecology and requires sensitivity to who is
speaking about a tradition in the process of reevaluation and reconstruction. Postcolonial
critics have appropriately highlighted the complex issues surrounding the problem
of who is representing or interpreting a tradition. Nonetheless, practitioners and
leaders of particular traditions may find grounds for creative dialogue with scholars
of religious traditions in these various phases of interpretation.
DIVERSITY AND DIALOGUE OF RELIGIONS
The diversity of the world’s religions may seem self-evident to some, but it is
worth stressing the differences within and between religious traditions. At the
same time, it is possible to posit shared dimensions of religions in light of this
diversity, without arguing that the world’s religions have some single emergent
goal. The world’s religions are inherently distinctive in their expressions, and
these differences are especially significant in regard to the study of religion
Several sets of religious diversity can be identified as being integrally related.
First, there is historical and cultural diversity within and between religious traditions
as expressed over time in varied social contexts. For example, we need to be sensitive
to the variations in Judaism between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements,
in Christianity between Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant varieties of the tradition,
and in Islam between Sunni and Shiite positions.
Second, there is dialogical and syncretic diversity within and between religions
traditions, which adds another level of complexity. Dialogue and interaction between
traditions engenders the fusion of religious traditions into one another, often
resulting in new forms of religious expression that can be described as syncretic.
Such syncretism occurred when Christian missionaries evangelized indigenous peoples
in the Americas. In East Asia there is an ongoing dialogue between and among Confucianism,
Daoism, and Buddhism that results in various kinds of syncretism.27
Third, there is ecological and cosmological diversity within and between religions.
Ecological diversity is evident in the varied environmental contexts and bioregions
where religions have developed over time. For example, Jerusalem is the center of
a sacred bioregion where three religious traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have
both shaped and been shaped by the environment. These complex interactions illustrate
that religions are not static in their impacts on ecology. Indeed, throughout history
the relationships between religions and their natural settings have been fluid and
Religious traditions develop unique narratives, symbols, and rituals to express
their relationships with the cosmos as well as with various local landscapes. For
example, the body is a vital metaphor for understanding the Daoist relationship
with the world: as an energetic network of breathings-in and breathings-out, the
body, according to Daoism, expresses the basic pattern of the cosmos. Another example,
from Buddhism, of a distinctive ecological understanding involves Doi Suthep, a
sacred mountain in the Chiang Mai valley of northern Thailand: the ancient Thai
reverence for the mountain is understood as analogous to respect for the Buddhist
reliquary, or stupa.
CONVERGING PERSPECTIVES: COMMON VALUES FOR THE EARTH COMMUNITY
This project of exploring world religions and ecology may lead toward convergence
on several overarching principles. As many of the essays illustrate, the common
values that most of the world’s religions hold in relation to the natural world
might be summarized as reverence, respect, restraint, redistribution, and responsibility.
While there are clearly variations of interpretation within and between religions
regarding these five principles, it may be said that religions are moving toward
an expanded understanding of their cosmological orientations and ethical obligations.
Although these principles have been previously understood primarily with regard
to relations toward other humans, the challenge now is to extend them to the natural
world. As this shift occurs—and there are signs it is already happening—religions
can advocate reverence for the earth and its profound cosmological processes, respect
for the earth’s myriad species, an extension of ethics to include all life forms,
restraint in the use of natural resources combined with support for effective alternative
technologies, equitable redistribution of wealth, and the acknowledgement of human
responsibility in regard to the continuity of life and the ecosystems that support
Just as religious values needed to be identified, so, too, the values embedded in
science, education, economics, and public policy also need to be more carefully
understood. Scientific analysis will be critical to understanding nature’s economy;
education will be indispensable to creating sustainable modes of life; economic
incentives will be central to an equitable distribution of resources; public-policy
recommendations will be invaluable in shaping national and international priorities.
But the ethical values that inform modern science and public policy must not be
uncritically applied. Instead, by carefully evaluating the intellectual resources
both of the world’s religions and of modern science and public policy, our long-term
ecological prospects may emerge. We need to examine the tensions between efficiency
and equity, between profit and preservation, and between the private and public
good. We need to make distinctions between human need and greed, between the use
and abuse of nature, and between the intrinsic value and instrumental value of nature.
We need to move from destructive to constructive modes of production, and from the
accumulation of goods to an appreciation for the common good of the earth community.
As Thomas Berry has observed: “The ethical does not simply apply to human beings
but to the total community of existence as well. The integral economic community
includes not only its human components but also its natural components. To assist
the human by deteriorating the natural cannot lead to a sustainable community. The
only sustainable community is one that fits the human economy into the ever-renewing
ecosystems of the planet.”28
This issue of Dædalus is dedicated, then, to exploring the ways in
which the world’s religions can contribute to ensuring the continuity of the earth
community, especially in light of the challenge of global climate change. It is
intended as a mapping of the contours of possibility that invites further discussion,
1 It is important to note that
the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report noted that
climate change is a serious global problem that requires the efforts of the international
community to mitigate its growing effects. This report has been endorsed by the
National Academies of Sciences of Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean,
China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, New Zealand,
Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. See http://www.ipcc.ch.
2 Bill McKibben,
The End of Nature (New York: Random House, 1989; 2d ed. New York: Anchor
3 Lester R. Brown, “Challenges
of the New Century,” in The Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2000
(New York: Norton, 2000), 20.
4 The movement, which began in
Britain, has had demonstrable influence on the decisions of the World Bank and other
lending organizations to reduce or forgive debts in more than twenty countries.
5 Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical
Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (10 March 1967): 1204.
6 For more information on the
conference series, see
7 Buddhism and Ecology
(1997), Confucianism and Ecology (1998), Hinduism and Ecology (2000),
Christianity and Ecology (2000), Indigenous Traditions and Ecology
(2001), and Daoism and Ecology (2001). Forthcoming are volumes on Judaism,
Islam, Jainism, and Shinto. All are published by the Center for the Study of World
Religions at Harvard Divinity School and distributed by Harvard University Press,
8 The Worldwatch Institute, State
of the World 2001 (New York: Norton, 2001), 190.
9 Thomas Berry, The Great Work
(New York: Bell Towers/Random House, 1999). See also Niles Eldredge, Life in the
Balance: Humanity and the Biodiversity Crisis (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1998), and Marjorie Reaka-Kudla, Don Wilson, and Edward O. Wilson, Biodiversity
II: Understanding and Protecting our Biological Resources (Washington,
D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 1997).
10 See Daniel Maguire,
The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity: Reclaiming the Revolution (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1993), 13.
11 See Robert Massie’s work with the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies
(CERES) and the work of Herman Daly and Robert Costanza on ecological economics.
12 Paul Erhlich, Human
Natures (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2001). See his last chapter on
“Evolution and Human Values.” Gary Gardner, in the concluding article, “Accelerating
the Shift to Sustainability,” in State of the World 2001, writes, “The question
facing this generation is whether the human community will take charge of its own
cultural evolution and implement a rational shift to sustainable economies, or will
instead stand by watching nature impose change as environmental systems break down.”
Gardner, “Accelerating the Shift to Sustainability,” 190.
13 There are numerous
examples of these efforts: Amory and Hunter Lovins for alternative energy, John
and Nancy Todd and William McDonough for ecological technology and design, Herman
Daly and Robert Costanza for ecological economics, Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry
for sustainable agriculture, David Orr and Anthony Cortese for environmental education.
15 “Preserving and Cherishing
the Earth: An Appeal for Joint Commitment in Science and Religion,” 1990.
16 “World Scientists’
Warning to Humanity,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 1992.
17 See preparatory readings
for the conference in Paul Abrecht, ed., Faith, Science, and the Future (Geneva:
World Council of Churches, 1978). For Christian ethical reflections from this period
see Roger Shinn, Forced Options: Social Decisions for the 21st Century (San
Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982).
18 See Wesley Granberg-Michaelson,
Redeeming the Creation: The Rio Earth Summit: Challenges for the Churches
(Geneva: World Council of Churches Publications, 1992). For further background on
the role of the WCC see Dieter Hessel, Theology and Public Policy, vol. 7,
bk. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Churches’ Center for Theology and Public Policy, 1995).
We are indebted to him for his suggestions for this paragraph on the role of the
19 See especially the booklet
Earth and Faith published by UNEP in 2000 and available from email@example.com
or by telephone at (212) 963-8210. In June of 2001, UNEP also organized the Tehran
Seminar with the Islamic Republic of Iran on “Religion, Culture, and the Environment.”
21 See the account of
the extension of this work in John Chryssavgis, “The Halki Ecological Institute:
Religion, Science, and the Environment,” Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion
3 (3) (December 1999): 273–278.
22 In 1988 the Catholic
Bishops of the Philippines issued a letter entitled “What is Happening to Our Beautiful
Land,” and in 1990 the U.S. Catholic Bishops published a statement called “Renewing
the Earth.” In 2000 the Boston Bishops wrote a pastoral letter entitled “And God
Saw That it Was Good,” and in February of 2001 the Bishops of the Pacific Northwest
published “The Columbia Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good.” In
June of 2001 the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a letter called “Global Climate Change:
A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good.”
23 See Kofi Annan, “Sustainable
Development: Humanity’s Biggest Challenge in the New Century” (statement read at
UN International Conference Center, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 14 March 2001).
24 The journal is entitled
Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion and is published by Brill Academic
25 The term “interbeing”
is used in the writings of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
26 See Eugene N. Anderson,
Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, Belief, and the Environment (New
York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) and John A. Grim, ed., Indigenous
Traditions and Ecology: The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community (Cambridge,
Mass.: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, 2001).
27 See Judith A. Berling,
The Syncretic Religion of Lin Chao-en (New York: Columbia University Press,
28 Thomas Berry, “Transforming
Economic Myths,” unpublished manuscript.