By Eliza F. Kent
In 1967, the historian Lynn White, Jr., published a ground-breaking essay proposing that values embedded in Christianity had helped to legitimize the despoliation of the earth. Writing three years before the first Earth Day, White argued in “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” that Biblical cosmologies granted moral sanction to our unrestrained exploitation of natural resources by advancing the view that humans exist apart from and above all the rest of creation, whose sole purpose it is to meet the needs of humanity.
As a scholar of the emergence of science and technology in medieval Europe, White’s primary interest was to show how Christian views of humanity’s relation to nature gave rise to Baconian science and technology, which treated nature as an object to be investigated and mastered for human benefit. With a quick dig at Ronald Reagan’s alleged anti-environmentalist quip, “If you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all,” White wrote:
To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.
At a time when many assumed that technological solutions could be found for the mounting problems caused by industrialization, White argued that more technology would not solve anything. What was needed was a fundamental shift in worldview and values.
White’s controversial essay inspired a flurry of response. Some scholars argued against his damning critique of Christianity and described the many expressions of Christianity that foster a less exploitative approach to the environment. Others pursued the hints scattered throughout his essay that non-Western religions might promote more sustainable values in relation to natural resource use. My own research on the sacred groves of India was initially inspired by the hope that these diminutive islands of biodiversity might teach us something about how Hindu values put deliberate limits on consumption, even in a context of enormously pressing material need.
In the forty years since White’s essay was first published, we have learned that the deep values undergirding our actions are remarkably impervious to change. It’s even doubtful that our minds harbor any single, coherent foundation for our actions. Rather, our deeds are more likely motivated by a welter of thoughts, needs, desires, and impulses, many of which are not even under our conscious control.
Consider the discouraging fact that even those of us who espouse values of sustainability live lives of flagrant contradiction. We jet off to far flung lands, wearing clothes from China and eating food from Mexico, quietly oblivious of our carbon footprints ballooning out like the shoes of some perverse circus clown. Once made aware of the effects of our choices, we are able to rationalize them away with ease. If White argued that greater scientific understanding and more sophisticated technological fixes would not reverse the damage of industrialization, our inability to change even the most egregiously destructive behaviors—transcontinental airline travel, eating strawberries in January—suggests that consciousness-raising exercises alone aren’t going to do much either.
Yet, with it’s punchy prose and sweeping argument, White’s article not only inspired the creation of an academic subfield—religion and environmentalism—it also inspired the religious environmentalism movement, a more pragmatic if equally fragmented effort to enlist religion in the service of ecology. Organizations of people of faith such as the Alliance of Religions and Conservation based in the UK, Eco-Friends in India, and the US-based National Religious Partnership for the Environment and Interfaith Power and Light (IPL), among many others, bring people together to educate, advocate, and implement concrete changes in their communities.
These movements demonstrate several crucial aspects about religion that make it a potent force for catalyzing the kind of radical changes that White anticipated, and that we so desperately need today. First, religion is more than just beliefs or ideas. Beyond equipping people with cosmologies that orient them to each other, to the divine, and to the non-human world, religions offer a way for people to act in groups. Privatized responses to the dire environmental threats we face today are largely ineffective. But when they are multiplied by thousands, and by millions, they can have a profound effect. Love it or hate it, religion has an excellent track-record for motivating this kind of collective action.
Second, religious people are motivated by many things besides what we might define as religion. Rural residents of India who preserve (and sometimes cut down) sacred groves are driven by many things: needs for agricultural land, fodder and fuel-wood, aspirations for a better life, desires to conform to new or transformed identities. The same could be said for religious urban dwellers in the United States faced with competing interests, like whether to expand the church’s parking lot or preserve 75-year old maple trees that give shade to a picnic area.
This is not to say that religion acts as a mere ideological cover for materialistic motivations, as when the felling of a sacred grove to build a modern concrete temple, or a maple tree to build a parking lot, is seen as a way to bring in more people and more revenue. Or that people are being simply pious when they enforce the sanctions that protect sacred groves from overuse, or put solar panels on the roof of their churches. Rather, more truthful understandings of how faith, religious practice, community, and natural resource use are intertwined are only possible when we recognize that religious people are also workers, family members, citizens, and residents of places that are precious in manifold ways.
Eliza F. Kent is Associate Professor of Religion at Colgate University and the author of Converting Women: Gender and Protestant Christianity in Colonial South India and Sacred Groves and Local Gods: Religion and Environmentalism in South India.