Do Religion and Environmentalism Mix?

I’m in Ohio this week for the biennial “Kallah” of ALEPH, the organizational home of the Jewish Renewal movement.  This has led to an interesting question about the relation of religion and environmentalism.

I’m taking a class given by Arthur Waskow on what he calls “eco-Judaism,” which is a pretty self-explanatory phrase: Waskow believes that Jewish theology in general (and Biblical theology in particular) strongly tilts in favor of ecological consciousness.

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.

Second, it concerns me to sugges that one cannot be a good Jew/Christian/Muslim/anything else and have a particular position on the environment.  The environment is a political issue, and it should be.  But that begins to move us toward a political test of religious commitment.

That said, I don’t want to reject the notion entirely because it also seems to me that there are good counter-arguments:

1)  A lot of the argument about the costs and benefits of environmental policy concerns issues of intergenerational justice.  Nowhere does this arise more, of course, than in the discussion of climate change: if you set a high discount rate, that is tantamount to saying that we shouldn’t worry about our grandchildrens’ environment because they will be so rich that they can handle it.  But that means making certain kinds of decisions for them, perhaps on the basis of incommensurable things (i.e. we won’t spend money now to save Venice, Italy, or Glacier National Park so that our grandchildren can have more money), as well as taking risks with their lives that may turn out to be wrong.  That IS the sort of issue that religious thought can deal with productively.

2)  Similarly, a lot of environmental policy does deal with lifestyle issues that are amenable to religious analysis.  Put another way, economic analysis takes for granted that maximization of consumer preferences is good.  Religion doesn’t.  That’s a good thing.  Not only does religion provide a way to change people’s preferences, but it also serves as a critique of those preferences regardless of whether some economist says that it “maximized welfare” for people to drive humongous SUVs.

3)  Like any good liberal, I’m trained to think reflexively that “religion and politics” don’t mix, but I’m not sure that that’s true as an empirical matter.  Both politics and religion are about values: you can’t say that because politics deals with certain values, religion can’t get involved.  If, at the end of the day, I conclude that you can’t be a good Jew and be a Republican, that may be uncomfortable, but it might not be any worse (and perhaps a lot better) than saying that if you can’t be a good Jew and a good Republican, then I need to redefine what I mean by Judaism.

So I’m looking forward to hearing what Waskow has to say.  He’s a major figure in both religion and politics, and I will be intrigued to see how he deals with these any other subtle issues.

Reader Comments

9 Replies to “Do Religion and Environmentalism Mix?”

  1. I had taken a course called “Jewish Environmental Ethic”, I was thinking along the same lines as you when taking the class (It was a major requirement). What I took out of the class was more so the “moral” objections from religion on being bad stewards of the environment. The notion of abusing the environment is more so the idea that it is the moral absolute of “This is bad, don’t do it.” I hope you enjoy the course, if you have a chance; Sand County Almanac is a good read.

  2. Whether or not religion and environmentalism mix well, they are mixing. There were just as many religious and faith-based organizations at the Venice Ecofest on Saturday as there were environmental and community groups.

    …and the Sand County Almanac is apparently back in print, I discovered this weekend.

  3. This article totally disregards an entire field dedicated to precisely such issues: enivronmental ethics. For more check out Martin Schonfeld’s blog at http://blisteredorb.blogspot.com/ . I took his course at USF and he is at the leading edge of a the movement in environmental ethics movement in formal philosophy. I appreciate that most people don’t stay abreast of philosophical goings on, but to suggest that the work is not taking place is nonsense. Deep ecology has its roots in religious thinkers from a generation ago and there are numerous texts devoted to this topic. Erich Fromm’s text, “To Have or to Be?”, is a particularly important book that I highly recommend. Keep an open mind and remember that all good movements start as the wild fascinations of a previous generation!

  4. This article totally disregards an entire field dedicated to precisely such issues: enivronmental ethics. For more check out Martin Schonfeld’s blog at http://blisteredorb.blogspot.com/ . I took his course at USF and he is at the leading edge of the environmental ethics movement in formal philosophy. I appreciate that most people don’t stay abreast of philosophical goings on, but to suggest that the work is not taking place is nonsense. Deep ecology has its roots in religious thinkers from a generation ago and there are numerous texts devoted to this topic. Erich Fromm’s text, “To Have or to Be?”, is a particularly important book that I highly recommend. Keep an open mind and remember that all good movements start as the wild fascinations of a previous generation!

    **sorry fixed the typos**

  5. Environmentalism and religion can mix; it’s just the attitude that (I’m doing this from a Christian perspective) most conservatives hold that we don’t need to care about the environment. It kind of boggles me as a Christian to see people saying “Love your neighbor as yourself” when they support policies that throw crap down the drains and burn toxic fuels. (Your actions affects others!) Instead this somehow all got swept away under of the context of this being a “liberal/hippie/taxes/etc.” movement/thing, when really being a steward of the environment is part of how a Christian should live his or her life.

  6. Religion is the only force that explain why we should care about nature.

    From a capital S Science perspective there is no such thing as nature. It is simply the aggregate of extant phenomena. It has no meaning, no value whatsoever.

    You need something beyond science.

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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