Hopeful Signs in an Uncommon Alliance

Mary Evelyn Tucker

Amid all the alarming environmental news of our time we need cause for rejoicing, for renewing hope. And there is cause. The work of engaged scholars and theologians along with the emerging force of religious environmentalists is a large part of this tapestry of hope.

Religions have been late in responding to environmental issues, yet they are now clearly gaining traction. The reason is they have the ability to change from within and to spark change beyond their doors. These are not static institutions. History has shown how religions have inspired social change – in the 19th century with the abolitionist movement, in the 20th century with civil rights, labor rights, and women’s rights. In each case, religions pressed the moral dimension of a social issue, and shifts in political attitudes and individual behavior occurred.

Projects in Every Direction

This is happening today in the environmental movement as it becomes clearer that human values are essential to creating pathways toward a sustainable future. Every major religion has made statements on the environment, eco-justice offices have been set up, both clergy and laity are becoming active, ecotheologians are publishing widely, the greening of seminaries is now a subject of planning and action, and a new field of study and teaching is appearing in colleges and universities.

Other religious organizations are turning attention to climate change. Interfaith Power and Light has sparked hundreds of congregations to change their light bulbs and reduce their carbon footprint. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has organized international symposia to highlight water issues. The pope has written an important encyclical, Laudato si’, that brings together ecology, economy, equity, and ethics. His call for an “integral ecology” for the wellbeing of people and the planet is being heralded around the world. The United Nations along with the Norwegian government launched an unprecedented Interfaith Rainforest Initiative in 2017, with the aim of making the protection of rainforests an ethical priority for the world’s faiths. The key spokespersons in this effort are the Indigenous peoples who live in these forests.

Religious environmentalism elsewhere ranges from river cleanup and tree planting to embracing clean energy and reducing waste. Participants endeavor to embody sustainability in their own lives, build eco-justice in communities, and link humans to the planet in mutually enhancing ways. Such projects are unfolding in all the world’s religions.

Eco-religious Infusions

Perhaps even more striking is the news that scientists and policy-makers are calling for the involvement of religious communities in environmental issues. Indeed, this has directly affected the field of study of religion and ecology. It was in this spirit that my husband, John Grim, and I were invited in 2006 by Gus Speth, then Dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, to come to Yale to teach in the joint degree program between F&ES and the Divinity School. After 40 years of experience in environmental law and policy, Dean Speth felt that new approaches were needed, especially an infusion of moral voices from the world’s religions. YDS later initiated a master’s degree in religion and ecology, the first seminary to do so. There is a realization at Yale and beyond that religious values and scientific knowledge are indispensable partners in finding environmental solutions.

The academic field of religion and ecology is helping religious traditions reformulate their teachings and ethics to embrace human-Earth relations. For example, the biblical notion of human “dominion” over the planet is being reexamined by Jewish and Christian theologians so that stewardship becomes a central concept for environmental action. At YDS Willie Jennings is noting the absence of a doctrine of creation in Christian theology; Clifton Granby is calling for a move from an “ethic of owning” to an “ethic of belonging.” Christian theologians are contributing understandings of incarnation as the Logos of the entire universe, of sacraments as vessels of sacred elements of nature, of ritual as a reflection of the great seasonal cycles, and of ethics as an embrace of eco-justice. Such formulations are expanding traditions and grounding practice. Creative rethinking is leading to environmental change.

A Journey Commences

Coming to Yale is part of a longer personal journey into the conjunction of religion and ecology. For me it began some 45 years ago when I taught at a university in Japan. There I fell in love with Asia’s varied cultural traditions and art – Zen gardens and flower arrangement, the spectacular beauty of the countryside, the agricultural cycles of rice growing, also the ancient city of Kyoto.

When I arrived in Japan in 1973, a few years after the first Earth Day, environmental problems were at the periphery of public awareness. In the US the liberation movements of the 1960s for civil rights and women’s rights were still progressing. Vietnam bitterly divided the country. The Watergate scandal cast a long shadow over domestic politics. I needed distance from the upheavals of the war, having spent my college years in Washington, DC. For nearly two years I was immersed in a Japanese university in a southern provincial city that had very little exposure to foreigners. It changed my life forever as I tried to understand the worldviews and values of Japanese society, culture, and religions, so different from the West.

On my way back to the US, I traveled through Southeast Asia and India. I stopped in Saigon to visit a friend who was working in an orphanage. This was my first encounter with the environmental effects of war: The devastation of Agent Orange was evident across the countryside, with its subsequent effect on people. The impact of seeing this war-ravaged country a few months before South Vietnam fell was almost too much to bear. This was only the beginning.

What has happened to the environment in Asia in the last four decades is almost inconceivable. The Asia I traveled through in the 1970s was worlds apart from where it is today. The cities of Taipei and Bangkok, Seoul and Delhi, while poor, were livable then, before rapid and relentless modernization hit like a great tidal wave, engulfing everything in its path. In many cities like Beijing and Bangalore the tsunami of modernization has wiped away whole sections of the metropolis, and the hasty reconstruction and increase in cars have unleashed relentless air pollution. The search for economic progress has dammed the Yangtze River in southern China and the Narmada River in western India in some of the largest engineering projects the world has ever seen – submerging ancient archaeological sites and uprooting millions of people. This “progress” has exacted a price on people and on the planet.

A Balancing Act

This trauma of industrialization in India and China is putting enormous pressure on ecosystems everywhere. Two billion people living in poverty in these countries have struggled to gain the fruits of modernity and the promise of progress. Should not they too have electricity and cars, clean water and computers? How can one balance economic development and environmental protection under these circumstances? This is one of the most difficult issues of our crisis.

With a concern for both environmental degradation and its consequences for human flourishing, I asked myself, “How can I contribute to the discussions on the environment not being a scientist or a policy-maker but a historian of religions?” I realized the world’s religions might be an entryway: Religious traditions that shape human-Earth relations could play a role in solving environmental problems. Moreover, it is clear that environmental ethics have a religious and cultural basis and will be formulated differently in Asia than in the US, differently in Africa than in Latin America, and certainly in China than in India.

This was the origin of the Harvard Conference Series on World Religions and Ecology from 1996- 1998 that John Grim and I organized. We were especially fortunate to have studied with scholars who were deeply concerned with reformulating traditional religious values in modern contexts – Thomas Berry at Fordham, Theodore de Bary at Columbia, and Tu Weiming at Harvard.

Slow Dawning

When we initially invited scholars of Confucianism and Buddhism to Harvard to explore the intersection of religion and ecology in the mid-1990s, this was a new idea. It took some lengthy phone conversations to bring people on board and overcome skepticism. After all, they were scholars of complex historical traditions, translators of ancient texts, and decoders of centuries-old commentaries. What could these specialized studies have to do with environmental problems in Asia where industrialization was beginning to erode ecosystems?

But the response was remarkable. Within a short period we had a full cadre of participants committed from both North America and Asia. However, there was a hitch – no foundations were interested in giving grants. It was a novel idea to them that religions might actually have an environmental role to play. Fortunately, with some persuasion, a few key foundations eventually supported the conference series and the ongoing work in this field.

With the collaboration of some 800 scholars of religion and environmentalists, the 10 conferences and volumes were completed from 1996 to 2004. In 1998 John and I founded the Forum on Religion and Ecology, which was brought to Yale in 2006. In addition, scholars have established vigorous groups in the American Academy of Religion on religion and ecology and on religion and animals.

I tell this story of the beginnings of religion and ecology to illustrate several things. First, support for this work has endured and expanded despite great odds and endless uncertainty. Second, collaboration between science and religion has been central from the start. Third, the alliance of academics and activists has proved synergistic beyond expectation, sparking new forms of scholarship and action.

Where does this leave us? With a sense of renewed hope. The alliance of religion and ecology is both a field and a force – a field growing within academia and a force of empowerment for religious leaders and laity alike. Some have called for an ecological reformation of religious traditions. This is already underway, but it will take time. Yet there is hope that our century’s eco-justice needs will call us to ignite an even broader renaissance that will truly renew the face of the Earth.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is a senior lecturer and research scholar at Yale, where she teaches in the joint master’s degree program between YDS and F&ES. She directs the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale with her husband, John Grim, a Yale senior lecturer and research scholar at YDS, F&ES, and the Department of Religious Studies. The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale is an international project that sponsors conferences, publications, and a website (fore.yale.edu), all exploring religious worldviews, texts, and ethics in order to broaden understanding of contemporary environmental concerns. In 2011 they released a multi-media project called Journey of the Universe with evolutionary philosopher Brian Swimme, drawing on the work of historian of religions Thomas Berry. Journey of the Universe includes a book from Yale University Press, an Emmy-award winning film available on Netflix, and a series of 20 interviews with scientists, historians, and environmentalists. See info about upcoming events and online courses at journeyoftheuniverse.org.


  • Thomas Berry: A Biography by Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, and Andrew Angyal (Columbia, 2019)
  • The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry (Sierra Club, 1988; reprinted, Counterpoint, 2016)
  • The Great Work by Thomas Berry (Bell Tower, 1999)
  • Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology edited by Willis Jenkins, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim (Routledge, 2016)
  • Ecology and Religion by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (Island Press, 2014)
  • The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (Orbis, 2009)
  • The Sacred Universe edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker (Columbia, 2009)
  • Journey of the Universe by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker (Yale, 2011)
  • Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter their Ecological Phase by Mary Evelyn Tucker (Open Court, 2003)