Campus & Community

Protecting nature religiously

6 min read

The Environmental Protection Agency even has a global warming Web site. Today’s debate isn’t over whether the globe will warm, it’s over how much and what in God’s name we can do about it. At Harvard Divinity School, some people are trying to find out.

A number of theologians and environmental activists believe that it is time for mainstream religions to take up environmental causes. Religion is a natural fit, they say, because modern, industrialized culture is what is driving the global warming engine.

And, as standards of living in developing nations rise, as hundreds of millions of new consumers embrace Western materialism, that engine will burn hotter.

“Our religious institutions are the only institutions that are not completely implicated in the culture of materialism and growth,” said Bill McKibben, an environmental activist and a fellow at the Divinity School’s Center for the Study of Values in Public Life. “The church can posit some other reason for human existence than the accumulation of material goods.”

Minimizing the impact of global warming will take a moral crusade on a par with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, McKibben said. Though that crusade can’t halt global warming, the difference it can make, McKibben said, will be well worth the effort.

The one degree increase in global temperature seen over the past hundred years has already been felt. Winter comes on average a week later in the Northern Hemisphere than it did 30 years ago. It leaves a week earlier.

Warm air can hold more water than cold air. That means when it rains, it rains harder, resulting in more flooding from more severe storms. And where there is no rain, the warmer temperatures means droughts are even more severe.

Effects are being felt far from human population centers. Ice caps are thinning so much that polar bears that were hunted and trapped weigh an average of 200 pounds less than they did 20 years ago, McKibben said. Scientists think the weight loss is a result of the bears having less ice from which to hunt seals.

All that from a single degree difference. Scientists agree today that the world will warm somewhere between one degree and four degrees Celsius – roughly two to seven degrees Fahrenheit – by the end of the century.

“We’re not fighting for perfection of any kind,” McKibben said. “Two degrees (Celsius) would be miserable and cause lots of problems for those in the poorest parts of the world and cause considerable problems for the rest of the world. Four degrees would be considerably worse.”

To keep the change at the low end of the scale will mean overhauling how we live, McKibben said. That means promoting alternate energy sources. That means riding bikes and buses, not ever-larger sport utility vehicles. That means reversing the trend of fewer people living in larger houses. That means rethinking how we do virtually everything – and, in some cases, why.

“We have to be able to amuse ourselves without consumption,” McKibben said. “That requires an inner change. That’s a job for religion.”

Nature and the environment aren’t new topics for organized religion, according to Timothy Weiskel, director of the Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values. The idea of nature as a holy part of creation is pretty common. Catholicism’s St. Francis of Assisi, who died in 1226, is the patron saint of animals. He prayed for restoration of the “beautiful relationship” humanity once had with nature.

“It is basically a sub-theme, a thread of Christian thought from the get-go,” Weiskel said. “It goes back to St. Francis and before that it goes back to the divinity of nature and nature as God’s handiwork.

Judiasm, Islam, and other world religions also embrace the notion of the holiness of the earth, and man’s need for stewardship over it.

“The central, ruling insight of any tradition is to announce, ‘Look humans, you’re not the center of the universe.’”

Though honoring nature is an old thought, Weiskel said different traditions are still waking up to what honoring the environment means in today’s context. Conservation movements exist in various churches, but they are largely grassroots movements. Most schools of theology today, he said, focus their training on religious tradition and practice, leaving individual ministers to educate themselves on issues such as the environment.

“We are seeing that (an increased environmental awareness in churches) but it’s not coming from divinity schools, there’s a pew-based revolt,” Weiskel said. “The pew is saying to the pulpit to get with it.”

Environmental awareness is nothing new at Harvard. Many schools have in-depth programs on the environment, from Harvard College’s undergraduate concentration in environmental science and public policy to the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s concentration in the environment and natural resources. To coordinate the University’s environmental efforts, Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine created a University Committee on the Environment in 1991.

The Divinity School’s Center for the Study of Values in Public Life named McKibben a fellow for this academic year partly to meet a desire among Divinity School faculty and students for a conversation on the environment, according to Center Administrator Nancy Nienhuis. McKibben, the author of several books, including “The End of Nature” in 1989, is meeting students and others in the Harvard community during a series of lunchtime forums, called “The North Pole is Melting.”

“The fellows program allows us to bring in people who are doing work of interest to people at the school, but for which we don’t have an official concentration or program,” Nienhuis said. “We have a lot of students interested in the intersection of the environment and theology.”

Some Divinity School students are taking their interest a step further, and have organized Harvard Divinity Students for Environmental Justice, adding a new name to the half-dozen or so existing student groups on the topic. Christopher Fox, a third-year master’s degree student, said they’re calling for a commitment at the Divinity School to an environmental curriculum, so that future ministers and religious leaders from Harvard can educate people on the subject.

Religious leaders, Fox said, can reach across political and ideological lines to unite people who might otherwise never speak to each other.

“This is a good way to reach people and get them to think deeply about materialism and consumption,” Fox said. “I think there’s been an incredible awakening over the last 10 years.”