Uncommon Alliance: Connecting Faith and Environmentalism

Christopher Glenn Sawyer

Excerpts from a 2006 address delivered to leaders of the Yale Divinity School and Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

As the person who sits on both the Divinity School Advisory Board and the Leadership Council of the Forestry School, I find connections between the two worlds. And I am eager for others to see them too.

The faith community and the environmental community have much to say to each other — a remarkable potential partnership that society profoundly needs them to seize and realize.

I have found, of course, that not everyone on both sides shares this sense of opportunity — perhaps especially on the environmental side. Raising the religious dimension sometimes causes eyes to roll and attention to wander.

Given this experience, let me cite columnist David Brooks. Despairing recently over how anyone could possibly receive a real education at Harvard today — an ageless question in this forum — Brooks identified several things in his New York Times column that a Harvard student could nevertheless do to as- sure an education even there. The first requirement, he said, was to read the work of my fellow Divinity School graduate Reinhold Niebuhr. By doing so,

The devout would learn that public piety corrupts private faith and that faith must play a prophetic role in society. The atheists would learn that some people who believe in God are really, really smart. All of them would learn that good and evil really do exist — and that it is never as easy as it seems to know which is which. And none of them, so long as they absorbed what they were reading, could believe that the best way to divide opinion is between liberals on the one hand and conservatives on the other.

I quote this to remind us of the broad thoughtful core of the faith community — a core of millions upon millions of people in the United States and billions throughout the world.

Those in the environmental community who ignore the faith community, or dismiss it by assuming that the fringe faith groups and their leaders represent the whole, have cost themselves and their work an important partner.

A different but also important dimension of this issue is this: for whatever reason, a good number of us in the environmental movement are unable to use the G-word in public. There are sincere reasons that guide our conduct here — reasons relating to a sense of privacy, humility, or respect, as well as perhaps political correctness. But our inability to shape some of our conversation from this perspective of belief in God has clearly cost us.

When we refuse, or are unable, to talk about God and matters of faith when we talk about the environment, we alienate those who clearly see and live the connection, and we forfeit the clarity, passion, and courage that springs from one’s faithful convictions. It is just this type of courage and clarity that we need to build upon in the environmental movement. Think of faith’s impact upon the civil rights movement.

Consider how these important connections apply to the land conservation movement in the U.S.

There is no question that we have had some remarkable successes, especially given the limited number of people working on the issues. It is also clear that the vast majority of the people in the U.S. approves of land conservation and understands its importance to our future. Whether the poll is done by Yale, the Trust for Public Land (TPL), or The Nature Conservancy (TNC), they all report that 75 percent-plus of our nation mostly view themselves as environmentalists. This is a huge building block for us and reflects real success in our education of the public.

Ominously Slow Progress

I could cite a long list of conservation accomplishments, but let me instead report several things that worry me greatly.

The first is, despite successes on the ground, they are neither on a scale nor on a pace necessary to protect America’s natural infrastructure. During my seven years as chair of TPL, we hovered at the top of the conservation class in terms of the value of land protected — around $2 billion of land protected.  Given that we are an organization of just 400 or so employees, we are justly proud of this achievement.

The problem, of course, is that I can look out my office window in Atlanta and see, without trying very hard, much more than $2 billion of real estate.

And when you add up the value of all the land conserved during that seven-year period by TPL, TNC, and the 1,300 or so other land trusts, the total value will still barely equal the real estate value that I see out my office window.

So, what we are accomplishing is significant from the vantage point of a particular backyard, but not against the needs of this nation’s natural infrastructure. Think of the seemingly inevitable megatropolis from Birmingham to Boston, the loss of habitat for the Yellowstone ecosystem, the scarcity of our water supply, the incredible density of Southern California, Florida, and the mid-Atlantic, the loss of our coast and farm lands — all issues of land conservation.

Think too of the population wave that is still quite before us: 100 million more throughout the nation in just the next forty years or so, and think what that will do to exacerbate these challenges.

And then look at Washington. For land conservation, we are now coming out of an especially miserable four-year period of poor policy and ever- declining dollars for conservation. How can this happen when the need is urgent and 75 percent of our population in survey after survey feels strongly about the importance of this work?

We could list all sorts of answers to this question, but the most important answer to weigh here is that we apparently do not know how to reach and motivate that 75 percent of America that purportedly supports what we are trying to do.

In fact, an argument can be made that we have plateaued with about three million to four million active environmentalists in this country, citizens who join our organizations and support our work. If this is correct, think of how wide the gap is between that three or four million and the 75 percent who declare their support in national polls. Think how powerful, if really activated, that additional community could be for us, whether the issue is land conservation, global warming, or energy policy.  But how do we reach it and motivate it?

The question is urgent. To protect our natural infrastructure, we need an ambitious land effort for America in the next twenty-five years. If I am correctly interpreting what I read about global warming, we need a dramatically different course now that makes significant progress over that same twenty- five years. Whatever the answer might be, business as usual is not it.

As we think about that for a moment, let me report to my Divinity School friends that, in my fifteen years of land conservation work across the country, until very recently I have seen little if any involvement from the organized faith community. This has especially frustrated me.

If anyone should own the environmental issue, should it not be people of faith?  We are talking about the gift of life and how we care for it: Is this not close to the core of faith and the responsibility of faith? How do we sustain a relationship with a Creator God while we, by acquiescence or complicity, abuse its creation?

These questions also clearly involve issues of social equity, justice, poverty, development, health, resource allocation — all central to the struggles of faith and ethics.

And from the Christian perspective of our Divinity School, we have a necessary emphasis on the revealed word of God as found in the Bible.  Most of that was, of course, revealed and recorded some

2,000 years ago when the global population was about 300 million, making the Earth at that time a relative Garden of Eden compared to the stresses of our six billion today. What would the word of God, discerned today, say about our situation?

I believe that a significant portion would relate to our relationship with Creation and our responsibilities of care.

I also think we would recognize new prophetic voices, such as that heard in Gus Speth’s Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment or Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

What is a Jew’s, a Christian’s, a Muslim’s duty in the face of that Word? What is our responsibility as leaders of these two great Schools?

The hopeful news is this: in recent months, the broad faith community’s agenda has begun to move to a much sharper focus on the environment, for many of the reasons I have cited.

Surely the recent letter from eighty or so evangelical leaders calling for a stronger focus on global warming, and even some evangelical leaders’ endorsement of significant land conservation legislation, are emblematic of a powerful trend. They are, after all, writing to forty-fifty million followers.

And the environmental community is beginning to appreciate this moment too. I have been with the presidents of three of our national environmental organizations in recent weeks and each independently wondered, how do we access the faith community, how do we understand its agendas and get it to understand ours?

So a door is opening across the land that is of enormous importance to all of us here.

The faith community, as it increasingly turns to environmental issues, needs the best thinking, the best science, engineering, and design, and the best practices and policies from the environmental com- munity to inform and inspire its work. Only through the use of these tools and this knowledge will people of faith realize their best dreams for Creation.

Likewise, the environmental community needs to recognize that we do not have the time to build our political base and support internally.  We must reach out to other rationally aligned organizations of people and encourage them to leverage and deploy our intellectual capital.  Given the time at hand, this is the only way that we shall ultimately succeed. And there is no larger, stronger, or more rationally aligned group of people for us than the faith community. It is also a community with the potential to make us stronger morally, culturally, and strategically.

So I suggest that we have the responsibility to use the respected and singular pulpit of Yale and our two Schools to help bring these two national com- munities together. Perhaps more so than any other institution, we have the platform, the reputation, the resources, and the intellectual capital on both sides to credential and inspire this opportunity and help leverage it to the world’s great benefit.

Christopher Glenn Sawyer, a 1975 Yale Divinity School graduate, is an partner with Alston & Bird in Atlanta, former chair of the Trust for Public Land, current chair of the Divinity School’s Advisory Board, and a member of the Leadership Council of Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.