Environmentalism and Religion

Thomas Cole, The Garden of Eden (1828)


Jonathan Zasloff, an environmental law professor at UCLA, has an interesting post up at Legal Planet about the role of environmentalism and religion, a topic I’ve touched on here at Switchboard before.  Zasloff is taking a course on Jewish theology and environmental consciousness.  He writes:

But I’m taking the class because at this stage, I am somewhat skeptical of the general notion that religion can add much to environmental policy debates.

First, it seems to me that many of the crucial issues of modern environmentalism are not amenable to broad-based moral reasoning and intuition that religion can provide.  Religious thinking has little to say about, for example, what is the appropriate amount of particulates that should be in the air, or whether climate change should be tackled by cap-and-trade, or a carbon tax, or command-and-control regulation.

So far as it goes, I think this is basically right.  The problem is that Zasloff limits his focus on “policy debates.”   It’s true, of course, that most religions won’t have much useful to say about “the appropriate amount of particulates in the air.”  But that’s true of almost any policy debate.  Religious tradition also won’t tell us much about whether providing the uninsured with health care is best tackled through a government managed single-payer system, the inclusion of a “public option” to compete with private health insurance plans, or competition among purely private plans.  What religious tradition can contribute, however, is a belief about whether or not society should provide access to health care for all it’s citizens.

This is all pretty new for environmentalism--and pretty important.  People steeped in religious tradition generally have well developed views about how their faith calls on them to treat other people.  As a result, we may differ over how much government aide should be directed towards social welfare policies, or exactly what form those policies should take, but providing for the poor and destitute--and, I would argue, the general consensus that society has a moral obligation to do so--is deeply rooted in the “broad-based moral reasoning and intuition that religion can provide.” 

Not so when it comes to our obligation to the natural world.  There are philosophical and ethical values inherent in environmentalism, of course, as well as a rich tradition of environmental thinkers from Thoreau to Leopold, but mainstream religious theology has, until relatively recently, been something of a bit player in its development.  That this is now changing in many religious traditions has the potential to fundamentally alter the nature of environmental debates. 

A great example is Andrew Sullivan.  Just today, when musing about the pro’s and con’s of the Waxman-Markey global warming bill, Sullivan wrote:

In weighing all these issues, I have to say that in the end, the moral question does hang heavy on me. ...We have a responsibility not simply to advance our own material welfare, and weigh costs and benefits, but also to conserve our natural inheritance as much as we can. I reach this from a religious perspective, but it is easy to reach it from other grounds.

In fairness, Zasloff recognizes these points—particularly the role that religion plays in informing our notions of intergenerational justice.  My point is that to also expect religious tradition to provide answers to fine grain policy debates is an unnecessary burden.  The value that religious thought brings to environmental debates is no more, and no less, what it brings to every other debate that encompasses both morality and policy.  What’s novel is that many religions (and thus many of us) are beginning to see environmental questions in this very light.