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Environmentalism in Religion

Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department, Central Library,
Ansel Adams, 1941 (National Archives)

The origins of the environmental movement in the United States began in response to increasing levels of smoke and air pollution during the Industrial Revolution. However, the U.S movement did not really take off until the latter half of the 20th century as people began to recognize the costs of environmental negligence, disease, and widespread air and water pollution through several environmental disasters that occurred post-World War II. A surge in environmental awareness occurred in the 1970s as public awareness, environmental sciences, and technology advanced to tackle issues like ozone depletion, global climate change, and acid rain. Furthermore, The US passed many pieces of environmental legislation in the 1970s, such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, which remain to this day the foundations for environmental standards.

In more recent years, impetuses for environmental awareness and sustainability have arisen from tenets of faith. In monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, underlying reasons for environmental protection include the idea of stewardship and respecting God’s creation. Verses in the Bible highlight this concept:

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
(Genesis 2:15, KJV)

The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.
(Leviticus 25:23, NIV)

Green Christians point out that the biblical emphasis is on stewardship, not ownership—that the earth belongs to God and that human inhabitants are merely here to manage its resources. Similarly, in Jewish law, the mitzvah, or commandment, of Bal Tashchit (“Do not destroy or waste”) prohibits wasteful consumption. It is based on a passage from the Torah:

When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you? However, a tree you know is not a food tree, you may destroy and cut down, and you shall build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until its submission.
(Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

Most rabbis understand these verses to be a general principle beyond war and fruit trees. If Jews must not cut down fruit trees in wartime when destruction is the norm, how much more so this principle should apply to everyday life. This law was expanded in later Jewish legal sources to include the prohibition of the wanton destruction of household goods, clothes, buildings, food or the wasteful consumption of anything. The underlying idea of this law is the recognition that everything we own belongs to God. When people consume in a wasteful manner, they damage Creation and violate their mandate to use Creation only for their legitimate benefit.

Finally, Muslims also share the belief that humans are trustees of Allah’s, or God’s, world. In the Qur’an, Muslims are instructed to look after the environment and not to damage it:

Devote thyself single-mindedly to the Faith, and thus follow the nature designed by Allah, the nature according to which He has fashioned mankind. There is no altering the creation of Allah.
(Surah 30:30)

For the Muslim, mankind's role on earth is that of a khalifah, a “vicegerent” or “trustee” of Allah. People are not seen as masters or owners of Earth. Rather, Allah has entrusted humans with its safekeeping. The khalifah is answerable for his actions. Ultimately, the khalifah will return to Allah for Judgment and will have to render an account of how he handled his trust on the Day of Reckoning.

In contrast, Eastern religions approach environmentalism from a different outlook. For example, Buddhism does not make a distinction between nature and human beings. Buddhists believe that humans are not set apart from nature, but that we are part of it. The doctrine of rebirth put the whole of human life in the context of an endless series of cycles, which mirror those that occur in the natural world (e.g. the water and food cycles). Furthermore, karma teaches that nature is not a boundless ocean of resources but that the actions we perform have an effect on the world around us. If humans strip the earth of its resources and pollute it, we will in term experience repercussions.

Similarly, Hinduism also employs the concept of karma in the call to environmentalism. Karma teaches that resources in the world become scarce because people use them for their own ends. People should use the world unselfishly in order to maintain the natural balance and to repay God for the gifts he has given:

Being satisfied by your performance of sacrifices, the demigods will bestow unto you all the necessities of life. But one who enjoys these gifts without offering them to the demigods is a thief.
(Bhagavad Gita 3:12)

Like Buddhism, Hinduism also believes in the interconnectedness of humans and earth. The five elements (space, air, fire, water and earth) are believed to be the foundation of life and connect all life forms together. They mirror the five senses and bond humans to the natural world. Moreover, the Hindi interpretation of Dharma, or “sacred duty,” stresses humans’ religious and moral obligations. With regards to environmentalism, it is believed to be our responsibility to respect and protect the earth, which is seen as a manifestation of the Goddess.

Whether it’s from the perspective of stewardship or interconnectedness, most major world religions now are addressing the issue of sustainability and environmental awareness and even helping to enact political and social change. To learn more about the perspectives of different faith systems on this topic, visit us in the Social Sciences Department or check out the titles below:

210 G686 A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future by Roger S. Gottlieb

210 M111 Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World by Wangari Maathai

210 M817 Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical hope and Ecological Crisis by Jonathan A. Moo

210 T238 Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future by Bron Taylor

210 W192-1 Green Christianity: Five Ways to a Sustainable Future by Mark I. Wallace

290 P1285 Pagan Visions for a Sustainable Future

294.3 M978 2014 Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis by Susan Murphy

294.3378 D5335 Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism

296.38 T6765 Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought

297.5 A136 Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet by Ibrahim Abdul-Matin