Religion and the Environment

Religion and the Environment: A Campaign to Raise Awareness of the Environment and Discover Common Ground in the Judeo-Christian and Buddhist Communities

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Mission Statement and Action Plan

Mission Statement

The primary goal of our project “Be-Leaf” in the course Environmental Literature, Ethics, and Action (ELEA) is to examine Buddhist, Jewish and Christian theology (or philosophy) and determine what it teaches us about human/environment interaction. Additionally we will examine efforts by Buddhists, Jews, and Christians who are working to protect the environment and evaluate how they integrate their faith into their efforts. At the end of the term our project will produce three pamphlets, one on each faith, describing how this tradition views the environment. The action component of our project is education, and we hope to educate the community by distributing our pamphlets to faith centers and religious schools in our neighborhood. We will also write a thirty page paper and present our project to the class with a PowerPoint presentation.

The ELEAblog is an integral part of our project. Because the pamphlets only allow limited space to present our findings we will use the blog to go into more detail on each tradition’s approach to environmental issues. Additionally the pamphlets will primarily highlight the positive aspects of each faith’s approach to environmental issues, and in our blog entries we will be able to examine the intersection of faith and the environment more critically. The blog will also provide a forum to list useful websites, articles, and books on religion and the environment. The blog address will be listed on our pamphlets and our hope is that when people read the pamphlet they will also look at the blog and comment on our entries.

The final component of our project is our collaboration with the Garrison Institute. The Institute “was founded in 2002 to apply the transformative wisdom of the world’s contemplative traditions to systemic challenges facing the human and natural environment.” During our first visit to the Institute, Patricia Ackerman provided us with resources on each tradition in addition to offering assistance with designing our brochures. The Garrison Institute will have the finished brochures available at their conversation series, “The Hudson River Project: Caring for Creation and the Common Good.” Because of our close collaboration with the Garrison Institute their mission has become part of our mission. Their Core Propositions are listed below.

1. All people have the innate capacity to grow and transform to higher orders of consciousness
2. Higher-order consciousness perceives the essential interdependence of all forms of life and between life and the inanimate environment
3. A worldwide community of individuals is emerging whose primary identification is as global citizens and whose primary allegiance is to the good of the planet as a whole
4. A genuine, rigorous, and fruitful intercourse between Western science and contemplative wisdom is now both possible and necessary
5. Contemplative practice empowers effective social engagement
6. The active ingredient in contemplative practice is direct personal experience that encompasses more than just rational, logical, or conceptual content
7. Self-care is the gateway to effective other-care
8. Each of the different social, environmental, and spiritual disciplines remains self-limiting until it has surrendered its claims to absoluteness, embraced its own incompleteness, and located itself within a continuously unfolding and interpenetrating spectrum of disciplines
9. Likewise for the various professional stances: respectful, committed, ongoing collaboration among leaders, activists, care providers, scientists and researchers is essential to the creation of wholesome culture

Action Plan

I. Passion
To say that our current environmental situation is a crisis is not an exaggeration, in fact crisis might be too mild a word. The world is plagued by the interrelated problems of pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, urban sprawl, and global warming, to name a few. Each book we read this semester calls for dramatic and immediate action if we hope to rescue ourselves from the catastrophe humans have created. To make real progress a comprehensive environmental movement must emerge that encompasses people from all races, classes, religions, and most importantly people who might not label themselves as environmentalists. Throughout American history religious groups have been a powerful force for social change. In the nineteenth century evangelical reformers fought for abolition and suffrage. More recently Christian ministers were leaders in the Civil Rights Movement with extensive help and support from the Jewish community. We believe religious communities should once again use their power to assist an important social cause—protecting the environment.
The destruction of the natural world is unethical and immoral. For many people their system of ethics and worldview are heavily influenced by their faith background. This makes religious centers an especially important place for changing people’s view of the environment. Unfortunately the Judeo-Christian worldview is often credited with creating our unhealthy relationship with our environment. In Genesis there are two creation accounts: one which gives man dominion over the natural world, and one which casts man as protector of the earth. Modern society is clearly based on the former view. We believe these three important faith traditions can help humans become protectors of our natural world.

II. Problem
Our project aims to demonstrate that “the environment” is not an abstract concept but an integral part of our everyday lives. By using religious texts which already play an important role in peoples’ lives we hope to draw connections between an individual’s faith and their environment. The Judeo-Christian worldview is often credited with the environmental destruction we are experiencing today. In the section of the paper on Christianity we will explore this criticism. We will examine the views of scholars who disagree with this assertion, in addition to Christians who agree and see their efforts as beginning a new chapter in Christianity’s relationship with the environment.

III. Point-of-View
We will be examining the environment from the point-of-view of Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism. Recognizing the immense variety of beliefs within each tradition we will attempt to avoid generalizations, but also create a product which would be acceptable at a wide range of churches, synagogues, and temples.

IV. Perspective
There has been an extensive amount of literature produced on the environment and how various faith traditions respond to protecting it since the 1960s. A useful resource is the proceedings from the 1998 Harvard University conference on world religions and ecology. We have partnered with the Garrison Institute for our project. The Institute uses the world’s major contemplative traditions to address social issues. One of their focuses is the environment—and more specifically the Hudson River. Currently the Institute is conducting a series of public conversations which aim to unite faith communities along the Hudson to protect the common good. This project is partly inspired by a similar effort by Catholic bishops living in the Columbia River watershed in the Pacific Northwest. Evangelical Christians are becoming involved in protecting the environment as well. Several years ago liberal evangelicals sponsored a “What Would Jesus Drive” campaign to encourage more fuel efficient vehicles, and more notably a coalition of evangelicals released a statement in early 2006 encouraging government to address the global warming problem. Many people already use their church or synagogue as an avenue for charitable work so we believe doing outreach to these locations is good way to encourage taking action for the environment.

V. Purpose
It can be very difficult to encourage and motivate people to become active and aware about our environment. Yet, there are ways to grab their attention and educate them about the importance of preserving nature. When focusing on ways to reach out to the public, we had to think of a way to do so in which all people could be included. We realized that a driving force that influences and sometimes dictates people’s lives is religion. Most people around the world believe in some type of religion. While they do not share the same ideologies, they do set rules and provide enlightening ways of perceiving the world around them. By utilizing the beliefs of three world religions we believe we can make people of faith more aware of the environmental crisis. Over the course of the semester we have learned how each religion perceives nature and the importance of the environment within their teachings. We are in the process of creating pamphlets containing this information that will be distributed to schools, churches, synagogues, temples, and the Garrison Institute. Our hope is that people of faith will become inspired by the words of their own religion and then understand the importance of preserving the environment.

VI. Plan
Over the semester, our project transformed from an idea to an actuality. In the first few weeks we interviewed different professionals with backgrounds in the three faiths we chose to study (see people section for more detail). Additionally, using the resources at the Columbia, Union Theological Seminary, and Jewish Theological Seminary libraries, we will be able to attain many texts regarding our topic. Since the information we release through the pamphlets is limited, the ELEAblog allowed us to provide more detailed and complex information to those desiring to learn more. Pam studied Judaism, Jessie studied Christianity, and we collaborated on Buddhism. This provided a learning opportunity for both team members because each has an extensive knowledge about the religion there are researching and will be able to teach the other about the theories, ideologies and histories of their area of expertise.
A visit to the Garrison Institute during Spring Break solidified our collaboration with them. They will help with pamphlet design and will distribute them during their conversation series. On April 20th, Diane and Jessie attend the conversation, “The River Community and Global Ecosystems” and witnessed their effort to create an interfaith coalition to protect the Hudson.

VII. Product
The product of the project is one pamphlet about each religious tradition. Each is an eight panel brochure designed with the assistance of the Garrison Institute. One panel features quotes and passages from each traditions scripture and teachings. The two center panels have a basic summery of that religion’s outlook on the environment and how to preserve it. The front of the pamphlet features an image, the title, and an inspirational quote. One panel gives a brief summary of current actions by that religious tradition for the environment and another has useful web and print resources. Finally, one panel offers suggestions of “What You Can Do,” and the back gives information about ELEA, the blog, and the Garrison Institute. When the pamphlets are completed we hope to post them in PDF format on the ELEAblog.

VIII. People
The role of outside individuals was very important during the weeks when we collected data for out project. Pam conducted interviews with two professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, one in the bible department (Dr. Sharon Keller) and another in the area of philosophy (Rabbi Neil Gillman). With their insight, Pam was able to collect many viewpoints from different texts and philosophers to create her pamphlet on Judaism. Patricia Ackerman at the Garrison Institute provided guidance on resources and the production of the pamphlets. James Kowalski Dean of Cathedral of St. John the Divine provided an excellent mainline Protestant perspective on the role religion can play in the environmental crisis.

IX. Partnerships
Our primary partnership was with the Garrison Institute, a partnership which will hopefully continue within the environmental science department. They provided invaluable help in locating resources, designing our pamphlet, and most importantly providing a location to distribute our pamphlet where there are people interested in the intersection of religion and the environment. Other partnerships were formed with the people we interviewed (see above section) and the Museum of Art and Design where Jessie attended an open house. Additional locations where we will distribute the brochures include: Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, Columbia/Barnard Hillel, and Earl Hall. Additionally we hope to locate a Buddhist center on the Upper West Side to display the pamphlet.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Spiritual Environmentalism

While reading "The Death of Environmentalism" I was intrigued by the suggestion that environmentalists need to focus less on legislation and more on ideology. The authors argue that a problem as enormous as climate change requires a dramatic solution - reducing carbon emissions 70% - and that this can only occur with a large shift in our the American collective conscious. This alternative paradigm for environmentalism is even more overwhelming than the thought of trying to pass meaningful environmental legislation under our current administration. Despite the enormous scale of changes the authors suggest, I was persuaded and encouraged by their argument because they offered the work of conservatives over the past 40 years as proof that dramatically shifting the national mindset is possible.

The authors encourage environmentalists to focus less on specific initiatives (like fuel efficiency standards) and more on a "set of core beliefs, principles, or values." (32) In an attempt to articulate an environmental American dream the authors joined with progressive and labor organizations to create the Apollo Alliance. In their conclusion they write, "Environmentalists need to tap into the creative world of myth-making, even religion, figure out who we are and who we need to be." (34) I found their use of the phrase "even religion" to be reflective of the general discomfort of progressives when discussing religion. Despite setting up an argument throughout their paper that demonstrates that a successful environmental movement will focus broadly on principles and values, the authors are somewhat reluctant to suggest the involvement of religion. Many people's value systems are rooted in their faith, so from my perspective it seems like a natural alliance--not something that needs to be approached reluctantly.

I visited the Apollo Alliance website and while I found their plan innovative and inspirational, I was discouraged that their list of community partners that supposedly included faith centers, did not in fact, have a single faith center listed. I do not know if this is because they were unable to find a national religious partner or because they did not pursue this avenue strongly enough. After doing research on religion and the environment I am inclined to think the later, because there seems to be a lot of interest among religious communities to work on environmental causes.

After reading George Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant" I am more convinced than ever that for progressives to win national victories they need to embrace religion. Of course I am not advocating an alliance with a specific religious tradition, as the Republicans have formed with conservative Christians, but simply more comfort discussing the values which transcend tradition. Many of us are moved by the facts describing our current environmental crisis; to reach an audience beyond those who consider themselves environmentalists, however, we need to focus on the moral catastrophe in addition to statistics on carbon emissions.

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