The Beginnings of a Beautiful Friendship: Religion and Environmentalism

Roger Gottlieb

In 2005 a study of the umbilical cord blood of ten randomly chosen newborns in the United States was tested for toxic chemicals. A total of 287 were found, with the average for each individual infant being 200. Nearly three-quarters of the chemicals were known carcinogens, and the rest were identified as threatening the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems.

The effects of these chemicals on a fetus, individually or collectively, are not known (how exactly would one design an experiment to find this out?), but it is widely accepted that a developing child is much more vulnerable to toxics than an adult.1

Of all progressive political movements, environmentalims may be the one most likely to be sympathetic to religious input.

This is but one of the thousands of environmental horror stories that shape the awareness of environmentalists. The threats to the physical health of the most defenseless are obvious. The threats to any adult’s sense of security, an expectation that safety is possible anywhere on this Earth, are perhaps less blatant but deeply serious as well. The story is yet another confirmation of pioneering environmental ethicist Aldo Leopold’s bleak pronouncement that environmentalists walk “in a world of wounds.”2

What has this got to do with religion? As we have learned, a great deal. For one thing, religious people (most of them at any rate) hope to have healthy children who are not exposed, even before birth, to 190 carcinogens. This would surely be motivation enough for action. Yet the depth of our environmental crisis indicates that we are facing not only a danger to our health and well-being, but a comprehensive challenge to virtually every facet of our civilization. Environmental problems are not simple “mistakes,” no matter how serious, that can be remedied once known. We know this because the wounds have been identified for more than four decades. Though some positive steps have been taken, things are worse than they were when Rachel Carson helped create modern environmentalism when she joined love of nature and critique of industrial agriculture in Silent Spring (1962). To be confronted by widespread pollution of our air, water, land, climate, and children, and not to change our ways, shows that the source of our failings resides not in some easily correctable negligence but deep in our politics, economics, psychology, and moral values.

And in our religion. To begin, no matter how much faith traditions represent themselves as bearers of timeless truths, they must of necessity respond to significant historical changes and events. The rise of democracy, the emerging powers of science, and the growth of socialist parties or feminism all challenged and changed religion’s understanding of itself and the world. Perhaps most relevant, the Holocaust demanded that religions ask themselves about their complicity in both mass murder engendered by ethnic hatred and bureaucratic indifference, their failure to criticize the devastating misuses of technology, and their abdication of moral responsibility in the face of a kind of collective madness. Despite obvious differences the environmental crisis is in some ways a kind of holocaust inflicted on everyone, not just Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals. There is the same collective madness while countless people continue to “just do their jobs.” There is ethnic hatred expressed in the unequal effects of pollution on racial minorities. There is the same abuse of technology and the same desperate need to resist enormously powerful and evil forces.3

Further, when Western religions speak of the Earth as creation, as God’s gift to humanity, they must simultaneously ask themselves how they can be responsible Jews, Christians, or Muslims and still be despoiling that gift. Or when we argue for (or take for granted) the special moral status of human beings, our being uniquely “created in the image of God,” we must now shrink from how that image is reflected in societies that live by excess, cruelty to animals, and a reckless abandon with their own waste. Buddhists who seek to “end the suffering of all sentient beings” now face a level of suffering made infinitely worse by human action. And all religions, implicated by their presence in societies that may be undermining the Earth as a livable home of human beings, must ask themselves: “Why did we not see this sooner? How have we contributed? How must we now change?”

Speaking to the Crisis

The good news is that during the last thirty years or so the world’s religions have indeed been asking — and answering — these questions. Facing the same environmental crisis as their secular counterparts, people of faith have been transforming their basic attitudes toward nature and seeing the moral connections between our treatment of nature and our treatment of people.

Let us look at just a few telling examples.

Pope John Paul II began his reign in 1979 by warning of “threats to man’s natural environment” and criticizing practices that “alienate us from nature.”4 Two decades later, in 2000, he went further — speaking poetically and passionately of trying to return nature to its rightful position as the “sister of humanity.” When one considers that for centuries the Church repressed any indigenous religion that taught the sanctity of nature, we see that this is a profound change.5

In 2001 the Catholic Bishops of the Columbia River Watershed, a 259,000-square-mile region including parts of Washington, Oregon, Montana, and British Columbia, issued a glossy twenty-page booklet advocating an “ecological vision” in which the “common goal” of industry and environmentalists would be the “well-being of the entire community of life”; agriculture would be as organic as possible; mining would not endanger water, fish, air, or land; environmental damage from logging would be paid for by logging companies, not pawned off on the public; and alternative energy sources would be developed.6

In 1998 the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches adopted a long-term program to assess globalization critically, paying special attention to its intertwined economic, ecological, and social effects. By 2004 the Council’s subgroup on environmental justice could sum up some of its most damaging practices:

•  multinational corporations moving outlawed operations to developing countries;

•  the shipping of toxic wastes from industrialized nations to the economic south;

•  free trade agreements that restrict the capacity of national governments to adopt environmental legislation;

•  destruction of Southern Hemispheric rainforests to provide exotic timber for northern consumers;

•  and pressure on poor nations to engage in ecologically destructive agricultural practices to produce cash crops for export in order to service foreign debt payments.7

The world’s Sikhs have committed themselves to a 300-year project of making all their institutions low-impact and energy efficient. Buddhist monks from five different nations have organized against Asian deforestation and water pollution. The Evangelical Lutheran Church has supported Fair Trade Coffee and a ban on the selling of timber from old-growth forests.8

Religion’s tradition of demanding sustained, at times painful, moral reflection is a valuable resource for the secular environmental movement.

This list could be extended indefinitely, and includes profound changes in theology, broad institutional commitment, and thousands of contributions to real-world environmental struggles.9 But alongside these details it is important to stress that this new-found religious environmentalism comprises more than people of faith simply joining the Sierra Club or Greenpeace. Religions have some distinct, indeed unique, gifts that they bring to the secular environmental community. Here are four.

Fishing and Faith

Most important perhaps is the fact that religious institutions and teachings retain authority throughout the world as a primary source for ethical values. Environmental admonitions coming from an imam or priest, reinforced by pronouncements of an ayatollah or bishop, may have far more impact than those of politicians or scientists alone. In one telling instance, Tanzanian fishermen who used dynamite to guarantee their catch were taking in a lot of fish but also depleting fish stocks and destroying the sheltering coral reef. These fisherman paid zero attention first to government pamphlets, then to stringent laws, and finally to advice from Western ecologists. What led them to stop, and to undertake plans for long-term sustainable fishing practices, was the Koran. In 2000 local sheiks were brought together by the U.K.-based Alliance for Religions and Conservation, the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science, and the World Wildlife Fund. The sheiks ruled that dynamiting transgressed Koranic injunctions against wasting God’s creation — and the practice was ended.

Half a world away, under the influence of Chinese religions  rather than Islam, researchers  at the world-renowned Beijing School of Traditional Chinese Medicine are trying to protect endangered species by changing traditional prescriptions that called for ingredients like tiger penis, bear gal, and rhinoceros horn. The high price of these ingredients leads poachers to violate international bans on their trade, but the researchers have argued that the use of endangered species goes against Buddhist and Taoist principles of balance in nature, and thus are bad for both the environment and the soul.10

Religion, the Sleeping Giant

It is of course true that most religious people do not take the moral imperatives of their religion as seriously as they might. (When was the last time you saw anyone loving their enemies?) Therefore nothing is guaranteed by joining environmental concern to religion’s moral teaching. Yet adding even a fraction of the force of the world’s religions will surely add momentum to a global struggle for ecological sanity — a struggle that desperately needs all the help it can get.

Second, religion’s tradition of demanding sustained, at times painful, moral reflection is an intensely valuable spiritual resource for the secular environmental movement. Though critics of religion like Marx have always (correctly) complained of religion’s escapist tendencies — a future eternity of bliss in heaven, individual enlightenment based in detachment from the world’s woes — there are also religious practices that require a fierce and unflinching engagement with pain, death, and one’s own moral failings. Every Jewish prayer service ends with the prayer for the dead — not only to let mourners mark their loss, but to remind everyone else of the brute reality of our mortality. The Catholic tradition of confession requires the faithful to take a hard look at their own ethical limitations. Buddhists have forms of meditation in which they sit in graveyards, or contemplate what their own bodies will look like in a hundred years.

Such resources can be of great help in overcoming the single largest environmental problem — avoidance and denial. Arrogance, greed, and the lust for power may be a close second, but it is our collective inability to comprehend and acknowledge what we have done that most prevents us from responding to it. This inability is, I believe, firmly rooted in our fear, shame, and guilt. Insofar as religious traditions have taught us to face our greatest anxieties, and to confront the reasons for our shame and guilt, they can play a profound role in the shift to a sustainable culture.

Third, religion is by far the most widespread source for values that run counter to consumerism, the unending accumulation of stuff, that profoundly anti-sustainable form of life — before which all human purposes pale. If religions sometimes join in with consumerism (megachurches celebrating their wealth, spiritual leaders becoming celebrities), they also teach that community, morality, piety, and pleasures that cost nothing are the only true foundations for happiness. Secular environmentalists who critique consumerism often (sadly) come off like shrill spoilsports. “Don’t,” after all, is not much of a basis for a political movement. Religious environmentalists, on the other hand, can offer satisfactions that don’t play into the addictive tendencies of always wanting more. The delights of a quiet Sabbath, the peace of a long-term practice of meditation, the joys of celebrating creation in a community of people you know — these cannot be bought or sold, but surely promise more real satisfaction than another trip to the mall.

Global Warming and Burnout

Finally, religions offer a distinct, non-utilitarian way of assessing the value of political action. To the secular political mind, for the most part, political action is purely instrumental. We have a goal — overthrow the state, increase fuel-efficiency standards, outlaw carcinogenic pesticides, save the Earth — and we will evaluate each bit of political activism in terms of how well it leads us toward that goal. Yet in confronting a global environmental crisis, a crisis sustained by government, the military, transnational corporations, and popular culture, many (if not most) of our actions will not succeed. There will be steps forward and steps back, campaigns won and campaigns lost, and years where the progress we’ve made is undone. If we administer the standard political utilitarian calculus, how will we avoid desperation, burnout, or despair?

To the religious mind, by contrast, every ethical act has its own cosmic value no matter what its observable, practical effect. Bearing witness against injustice, cruelty, or human folly is a work of love, and all such work has immeasurable worth. How is that worth calculated or guaranteed? We do not really know. It is among the most mysterious of religious truths. But attachment to this truth is essential to the faith of the spiritual social activist, a basic part of whatever more particular image of God or Spiritual Truth he or she possesses.

Finally, it should be noted that of all progressive political movements, environmentalism may be the one most likely to be sympathetic to religious input. Other movements of the past three centuries — for democracy, women’s rights, racial equality, national independence — had a somewhat restricted, somewhat partial reference group. Now that the connections between our treatment of nature and our treatment of each other have been made in the perspective of eco-justice, most secular environmentalists (and their religious counterparts) take as their essential reference “all of life.” Surely this is an analogue of the biblical idea that all humans (and not just the group I’m fighting for) were made in God’s image, or the idea (from Mahayana Buddhism) that the true religious goal is to end the suffering of all sentient beings.

This natural harmony is borne out not only in the concrete fact of such joint work as that between the Sierra Club and the National Council of Churches, but also by the intensely spiritual cast of most ostensibly secular environmentalism. From conservationists of the nineteenth century like Thoreau and Muir to the most hard-nosed environmental groups of today, environmentalists have talked about the sacredness of nature, wilderness as a temple, and the way in which encounters with the natural world help us transcend the limitations of the individual, competitive, grasping ego.

“Upon entering those groves a spirit of awe and reverence came over me…. In the stillness of these mighty woods, man is made aware of the divine,” wrote Richard St. Barbe Baker, the pioneering international advocate of ecological tree planting for conservation, on first seeing redwoods.11

As Christopher Childs, public spokesman for Greenpeace USA, said quite clearly, “There is broad acceptance among Greenpeace staff that the work is quintessentially spiritual, though definitions of what is meant by the term vary.”12

Professional foresters in Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics talk of passing the forests “with reverence from generation to generation.”13

And the widely quoted Principles of Environmental Justice begin: “Environmental justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.”14

Goals of sustainability, cooperation with rather than domination over nature, recognition of the special value of every part of the miracle of life on Earth — all these environmental aspirations resonate with learning to serve God, love our neighbors, live nonviolently. They all resonate, that is, with goals that religions have been preaching for thousands of years.

In historical time, the alliance of religion and environmentalism has just begun. If so much of our human and nonhuman future looks dark, this is one bright spot on the horizon. In the old and hopeful phrase, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Roger S. Gottlieb, Professor of Philosophy at Worcester (Mass.) Polytechnic Institute, is a contributing editor at Tikkun magazine and the author of Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change; A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future; and The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology.


1    See the Body burden website:

2    Aldo Leopold, Foreword, “ in Companion to A Sand County Almanac: Interpretive and Critical Essays, ed. J. Baird Calicot. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), 286.

3    In short, despite important dissimilarities — such as the lack of central planning and the fact that most critics of the environmental crisis are at least in some ways unwilling agents of it — the Holocaust provides some lessons as to how to understand our ecological problems. This theme is developed at some length in chapters 3 and 5 of Roger S. Gottlieb, A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).

4   Papal statements are easily found at the Vatican website. For Redemptor: holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp- ii_enc_04031979_redemptor-hominis_en.html.

5    John Paul II, General Audience January 26, 2000, quoted at the Catholic Conservation website: http://

6   For web reference on the Columbia River Projects of the Bishops of the area:

7    World Council of Churches website: www.wcc-coe. org/wcc/what/jpc/economy.html.

8    See Martin Palmer, Faith in Conservation: New Approaches to Religions and the Environment (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2003).

9   Indeed far beyond my own knowledge. There was a time, in the early 1990s, when I could claim (accurately or not) to know pretty much everything that was going on. Now I wouldn’t even dream of pretending to. For readers who want to know more of what I do know, here are three of my contributions. In This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, 2nd edition (New York: Routledge, 2003) I put together representative selections of religious environmentalism’s scripture, theology, liturgy, and activism. In A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) I’ve surveyed the field and tried to say what I think it means. In The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) I gathered together state-of-the-art new essays by twenty-five leading scholars who focus on different aspects of the subject. All of these books have extensive references to other resources.

10  The U.K.-based Alliance for Religions and Conservation has a wealth of information on these two instances and many others (in some of which it played an instrumental role). Its website:

11  Karen Gridley, Man of the Trees: Selected Writings of Richard S. Barbe Baker (Willis, CA: Ecology Action, 1989),  71.

12  Christopher Childs, The Spirit’s Terrain: Creativity, Activism, and Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999),  50.

13  Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics website: My emphasis.

14  Proceedings of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, ed. Charles Lee, United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice New York: UCC, 1992). The principles were written and adopted at this summit meeting.