Amanda Baugh is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at CSU Northridge. She is author of The God and Green Divide: Religious Environmentalism in Black and White (University of California Press 2016).
hile people often think of environmentalism as a secular social movement that is completely unrelated to religion, environmental values often derive from religious worlds. Environmental studies instructors may already be familiar with some examples of the intersections of religion and environmental values, such as the well-documentedclimate change denialism prevalent among many groups of white evangelicals, or Pope Francis’ encyclical (official teaching document) on climate change and the environment. But religion can also play a subtler role in the climate crisis because, as climate scientist Mike Hulme notes, the climate crisis is much more than a physical reality. The idea of climate, he writes, “exists as much in the human mind and in the matricies of cultural practices as it exists as an independent and objective physical category” (Hulme 2009, 28). In order to teach students about the cultural aspects of the climate crisis, including human responses and interpretations, it’s important to address the role of religion.
Some scholars have documented environmental activism among groups who participate in institutional religion (Baugh 2016, Taylor 2007, McDuff 2012), while others argue that religion, on balance, mostly detracts from environmental engagement (Taylor 2016, Taylor, Van Wieren, and Zaleha 2016). Evan Berry and Mark Stoll both trace specific ways that Protestant Christianity directly influenced the development of American environmentalism (Berry 2015, Stoll 2015); a body of scholarship on “nature religion” suggests that deep engagement with environmental activism itself constitutes a form of religion (Taylor 2010, Gould 2005, Sanford 2007, Snyder 2007).
Religious attitudes and behaviors can also shape relationships with the natural world among communities who do not identify as environmentalists. For example, in my research among Latinx churchgoing Catholics who do see themselves as environmentalists, I have identified a widespread ethic of living lightly on the earth, expressed through home-based conservation measures such as cultivating backyard vegetable gardens and reusing old yogurt containers instead of purchasing Tupperware (Baugh 2019, Baugh Forthcoming). My informants explain these practices as expressions of poverty, but also as part of a culture of moderation and respect that is related to their Catholic and indigenous worldviews.
Because religious outlooks, values, and priorities have shaped human understandings of and responses to the climate crisis, classes focusing on the cultural elements of the climate crisis must attend to the role of religion. This page contains teaching resources on religion and the environment for instructors who do not specialize in Religious Studies. It offers lesson plans for discussing religion and climate change/the environment in two class meetings, in addition to a bibliography for those wishing to learn more. While climate change and religion can be studied from a variety of disciplinary and geographic perspectives, to keep this brief introduction manageable I have chosen to focus primarily on social scientific perspectives on the United States context.
When teaching about the ways religion shapes cultural responses to climate change, it is important to emphasize that religions do not speak in a unified voice. Religion is always embedded in culture, and the same religion can support both climate action and climate inaction. For example, while Engaged Buddhists in the West often prioritize environmental issues, this is not always the case among Buddhists across Asia (Jenkins, Berry, and Kreider 2018, 90). Likewise, evangelical Christians are largely perceived as climate change deniers, but there are also evangelicals who believe their faith is compatible with climate action.
The lesson plan below is intended to convey that set of complications. On Day 1, students read popular media articles discussing the intersections of religion and environmentalism/climate action, and engage in a debate on whether and how religion can support environmental values and actions. On Day 2, students critically interrogate what counts as “environmentalism” in debates about religion and climate change/the environment.
While the two days of assignments will ideally be assigned together, the lesson plan for Day 1 can stand on its own without using the lesson plan for Day 2.
These references review extant literature on climate change and religion:
Jenkins, Willis, Evan Berry, and Luke Beck Kreider. 2018. “Religion and Climate Change.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 43:85. doi: 10.1146/annurev-environ-102017-025855.
Berry, Evan. 2016. “Social Science Perspectives on Religion and Climate Change.” Religious Studies Review 42 (2):77-85.
These references deal with questions of race, ethnicity, and class in religious environmental movements:
Baugh, Amanda. 2016. God and the Green Divide: Religious Environmentalism in Black and White. Oakland: The University of California Press.
Baugh, Amanda. Forthcoming. “Nepantla Environmentalism: Challenging Dominant Frameworks for Green Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
Baugh, Amanda J. 2019. “Explicit and Embedded Environmentalism: Challenging Normativities in the Greening of Religion.” Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture & Ecology 23 (2).
Carter, Christopher. 2018. “Blood in the Soil: The Racial, Racist, and Religious Dimensions of Environmentalism.” In The Bloomsbury Handbook of Religion and Nature: The Elements, edited by Laura Hobgood and Whitney Bauman, 45-62. New York: Bloomsbury.
Clay, Elonda. 2018. “Backyard Gardens as Sacred Spaces: An Ecowomanist Spiritual Ecology.” In The Bloomsbury Handbook of Religion and Nature: The Elements, edited by Laura Hobgood and Whitney Bauman, 11-24. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Kyle, Veronica, and Laurel Kearns. 2018. “The Bitter and the Sweet of Nature: Weaving a Tapestry of Migration Stories.” In Grassroots to Global, 41-64. Cornell University Press.
These references discuss the role of Protestant Christianity in the making of American environmentalism:
Berry, Evan. 2015. Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Stoll, Mark. 2015. Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism. Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
These references largely challenge the idea that religion can support environmental efforts:
Taylor, Bron. 2016. “The Greening of Religion Hypothesis (Part One): From Lynn White, Jr and Claims That Religions Can Promote Environmentally Destructive Attitudes and Behaviors to Assertions They Are Becoming Environmentally Friendly.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture 10 (3):268-305. doi: 10.1558/jsrnc.v10i3.29010.
Taylor, Bron, Gretel Van Wieren, and Bernard Zaleha. 2016. “The Greening of Religion Hypothesis (Part Two): Assessing the Data from Lynn White, Jr, to Pope Francis.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture 10 (3):306-378. doi: 10.1558/jsrnc.v10i3.29011.
These references document various forms of “nature religion”:
Gould, Rebecca Kneale. 2005. At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sanford, A. Whitney. 2007. “Pinned on Karma Rock: Whitewater Kayaking as Religious Experience.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75 (4):875-895. doi: 10.1093/jaarel/lfm062.
Snyder, Samuel. 2007. “New Streams of Religion: Fly Fishing as a Lived, Religion of Nature.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75 (4):896-922. doi: 10.1093/jaarel/lfm063.
Taylor, Bron. 2010. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: University of California Press.
These references analyze the intersection of religion and environmentalism among groups involved with institutional religion:
McDuff, Mallory. 2012. Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate. British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers.
Taylor, Sarah McFarland. 2007. Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Veldman, Robiln Globus. 2019. The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change. Oakland: University of California Press.
Veldman, Robin Globus, Andrew Szasz, and Randolph Haluza-DeLay. 2014. How the World’s Religions are Responding to Climate Change: Social Scientific Investigations. 1 [edition]. ed. New York: Routledge.
FEATURED MEDIA RESOURCES
God and the Green Divide: Religious Environmentalism in Black and White
by Amanda Baugh, University of California Press, 2016
“Baugh demonstrates the power of first-rate ethnography…. [she] navigate[s] Chicago’s turbulent terrain of race relations with great skill and produce[s] an important study that significantly advances our understanding of religious environmentalism.”
— Journal of the American Academy of Religion
“Through participant observation and ethnographic interviews, Baugh is able to make a meaningful intervention into discussions of religion and ecology by reflecting on the role of earth stewardship in the context of lived experience.”
— Journal of American Culture
“Baugh convincingly argues that scholars have ignored how theology and ethics on earth stewardship play out in people’s lives by sensitively mapping the various ways in which dynamics of race, class, and religion are expressed on the urban streets of Chicago. A long overdue and welcome addition that seeks to shift the discussion to grassroots expressions of environmentalism in urban contexts.”
— Sarah M. Pike, author of Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community
“God and the Green Divide is a major contribution that explains the racial dynamics of religious environmentalism by focusing on a specific Chicago organization. The result is an insightful analysis that unearths the intersection of religion, race, and environmentalism.”
— Sylvester Johnson, author of African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom
While news coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has focused largely on stories of suffering, death, and economic disaster, some have also noted the pandemic’s silver lining for the environment. Social distancing measures have led to halts in air travel and factory production, resulting in decreased pollution and carbon emissions. A widely circulated video posted by the Guardian showed a herd of goats roaming the abandoned streets of north Wales. In a segment asking whether the coronavirus could help save the planet, the German-based channel DW News reported that tourist hotspots such as Venice are “enjoying some respite” from the usual bustling crowds, and Germany might actually meet its climate goals for the year.
If we are tempted to see the large-scale, rapid responses to the current pandemic as a model for responding to the climate emergency, this moment also demands that we acknowledge the vast disparities in the ways that both the crisis, and our human responses to it, have played out for different human communities. Enacting what Elaine Nogueira-Godsey calls decological praxis, conversations about using this as a model must include reflections on the ways that our choices “enable [some] people to survive at the expense of others.”
Celebrations of the pandemic’s positive outcomes for the environment come from a position of ecocentrism, a viewpoint that all lifeforms have inherent value and the earth transcends the importance of any one species. But the COVID-19 pandemic is placing in stark relief the reality that environmental justice activists have warned about for decades: Vulnerable communities suffer from environmental problems on a massively disproportionate scale. Disparities of wealth, opportunity, and power are playing out predictably when it comes to coronavirus illnesses and deaths. COVID-19 is not an equal opportunity killer, as Charles Blow points out, because social distancing is a privilege. Discussions about any potential environmental benefits of the pandemic must acknowledge the specific human lives that are being sacrificed to enable some of us to protect the environment, and ourselves, by sheltering in place.
Just as we can think about the positive environmental outcomes of the pandemic most readily from positions of privilege, scholarship on religious ethics and the environment in the United States has also relied on the perspectives of a relatively privileged set of activists. Dominant understandings of religion and the environment in the United States have relied primarily on what I call explicit environmentalism, a political movement that involves concerted, intentional measures to protect the earth. This approach derives from the predominately white, affluent social movement that emerged from the conservation and preservation efforts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and “came of age” with the political, modern environmental movement of the 1960s. Explicit environmentalism maintains a classed moral valence requiring environmental actions to be directly motivated by concerns for the earth. Recycling for the good of the planet is easily identified as environmentalism within an explicit environmental framework, whereas recycling motivated by monetary reward is not.
The problem with this outlook is that environmental actions are always motivated by a variety of factors, including for those who claim that their values are ecocentric. In God and the Green Divide, I examined the environmental values and activism of religious communities involved with an interfaith environmental organization in Chicago. The organization, Faith in Place, was one of numerous religious environmental nonprofits across the United States advancing the idea that taking care of the earth is a religious mandate: All religious traditions have teachings that require their followers to be good stewards of the earth.
In my research, I found that religious environmental activists often drew from ecological theologies, religious teachings, and environmental ethics to support their work. But they also brought other priorities and concerns to their “green” projects and behaviors. Some pastors saw environmental programming as a way to breathe life into their dying churches, while some Muslims cited their mosque’s solar panels as evidence that their mosque was not “fundamentalist-controlled.” Discourse among African-American churches focused on not getting “left behind” from the green economy, and many white participants’ involvement was related to feelings of white shame. While these communities engaged in activities that had positive outcomes for the environment, such as installing solar panels, planting gardens, and lobbying for environmentally friendly policies, their actions were rarely driven by ecocentric concern for the earth.
In my current research among Latinx churchgoing Catholics in Los Angeles, I’ve identified a widespread ethic of living lightly on the earth that is expressed through home-based conservation measures, such as reusing old yogurt containers instead of purchasing Tupperware, boiling pasta in the same water that was used to rinse out the jar of sauce, and wearing hand-me-down clothing that was donated to the church. Many of the Latinx Catholics I’ve met are avid backyard gardeners and feel an especially close connection with trees. My informants’ practices and values align with efforts to mitigate climate change and protect the earth, yet they are seldom recognized as responses to the climate crisis because they are assumed to be expressions of culture or poverty, not concern for the environment.
While explicit environmental values and ecocentric ethics have supported the work of many activists leading the fight against climate change, this framework fails to appreciate the perspectives and contributions of diverse communities—especially immigrants, communities of color, and the poor—for whom protecting the environment can be motivated by human concerns, or is a mundane aspect of daily life. Assuming that an ecocentric perspective is the most effective orientation for addressing the environmental crisis, moreover, perpetuates the colonial mindset that has long plagued dominant modes of environmental thinking. Decolonial scholars of religion and the environment, such as Tyson-Lord Gray, Elaine Nogueira-Godsey, and Melanie Harris, have argued that there are numerous perspectives and orientations for addressing the environmental crisis that cannot be captured by—and in fact are at odds with—the limited framework of ecocentrism.
If we want to understand how religious ethics can inform approaches to global health and the environment, especially in light of the current pandemic, surely we must be open to learning from those multiple perspectives.