Scholars in the 1990s played a hunch and gave rise to a new field of ecology and religion, some focusing on climate change as a moral issue.

No significant academic field of ecology and religion existed in 1995.

Today, more than 260 scholars in the U.S., and a network of 8,000 people around the world, are examining these converging perspectives. For them, understanding exactly how religious traditions revere and respect the natural world may prove key to helping individuals alter their behavior to help address climate challenges and other environmental problems as moral issues.

Efforts to chronicle lessons on religious ecology began when Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim met in 1975 when they were both graduate students in the history of religions program at Fordham University, studying under Thomas Berry.

Mary Evelyn Tucker

Over the years, Tucker and Grim,  married, gathered with other scholars for seminars and discussions on the banks of the Hudson River at Berry’s Riverdale Center for Religious Research. They’ve traveled extensively, much of it in East Asia and American Indian communities. Tucker’s early expertise began with religious traditions in Asia while Grim’s studies first focused on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and then on Asian and indigenous religious traditions.

In the early 1990s, while teaching Asian religions at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Tucker wondered how she, as a religious historian and neither a scientist nor policy maker, could best contribute to discussions on the environment. By then she had lived and traveled throughout Asia and had developed concerns for environmental degradation and impacts on humans around the world. “I realized that the world’s religions might be an entryway,” she said in a recent interview.


What will make people better global citizens? In “Journey of the Universe,” evolutionary philosopher Brian Swimme explores the human connection to Earth and the cosmos, leading viewers on a journey of the origins of the universe, the emergence of life, and the rise of humans. The film, written by Swimme and historian of religions Mary Evelyn Tucker, chronicles the findings of modern science with cultural traditions of the West, China, Africa, India, and indigenous peoples. It offers lessons on how to work toward a more sustainable future.

The “Journey of the Universe” and companion book are the result of the collective inspiration of a 30-year collaboration between evolutionary philosopher Swimme, Tucker, John Grim, and the late Thomas Berry, a historian of world religions and leading environmental thinker.

Between 1996 and 1999, Tucker and Grim convened a series of 10 conferences at Harvard, culminating in 10 edited volumes offering serious reflection on the views of nature and environmental ethics from the different world religions. The volumes are generally considered the genesis of the newly emerging religion/ecology field.

Tucker is a senior lecturer and research scholar at Yale University, where she and Grim, also a senior lecturer and research scholar at Yale, direct the Forum on Religion and Ecology. They teach a joint master’s program in religion and ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Yale Divinity School. (Tucker and Grim are serving as visiting professors at Princeton University for the 2012 fall semester.)

At the Forum on Religion and Ecology, Tucker and Grim have built on the legacy of their teachers — Berry, William Theodore de Bary at Columbia, and Tu Weiming at Harvard — and they lead a comprehensive effort at Yale to bring world religions into environmental issues with a broad sweep. Their work provides ample religious focus on a wide range of environmental issues such as climate change, ecosystems, loss of species, biodiversity, toxicity, water issues, and deforestation, to name a few.

A Moral Issue and Not Solely Scientific, Legal, or Economic

By studying religious ecology, the context for thinking about the environment is not just a scientific issue, or a legal issue, or an economic issue, but a moral issue, Tucker says.

Environmental studies programs are introducing moral and ethical studies into their curricula for the first time. The focus on religion and ecology has become an academic field and a force, one in which religions are involving their congregations.

“We are trying to create a large tent for the various world religions to enter and make their contributions to a variety of issues that are challenging us in the environmental crises we are facing. A great deal of this has to do with climate change, but it also has to do with soil depletion, loss of water, loss of fisheries, and so on,” Tucker says.

Rethink Scriptures … With Realistic Expectations

Tucker and Grim see the need for religious traditions to rethink their scriptures and retrieve, reevaluate, and reconstruct their theologies with consideration of the very challenging environmental problems now facing society. For starters, for example, religious leaders are reflecting on just what it means to have dominion over nature (Genesis 1:26). Religious traditions must be brought into the dialog involving environmental science to help solve these modern problems, Tucker says. But even theologians modifying their definitions of dominion, stewardship, and the natural world may not on their own be sufficient to inspire adequate action.

Strong religious leadership could close the gap, according to ethicist Donald Brown, whose work has focused extensively on climate change.

“They have access to the politicians in a way that the environmental community does not get,” said Brown, who teaches at Widener University School of Law in Harrisburg, Pa. “We are only going to make progress if we can make people see the ethical unacceptability of some of the players in this civilization dialogue.”

Brown says religious leaders have a duty to explain that greenhouse gas emissions in their states and regions are harming people across the world. He says spiritual traditions hold tremendous potential to evoke big social changes.

“Historical studies of smoking cessation, the civil rights movement, and women’s rights show that social change happens when a group says, the rules of your clan are morally unacceptable. Religion can bring that voice to the debates. They could be the tip of the spear. We desperately need a social movement that sees things, especially things that are wasteful, that are generating greenhouse gases, are morally unacceptable,” Brown says. “It is probably the most important thing we could be working on.” (See related Q&A with Don Brown.)

Brown says he is optimistic about change, but he also feels theologians and religious leaders are not sufficiently engaged and not adequately communicating the issues broadly to their congregations.

Christopher Key Chapple, a professor on the religions of India and comparative theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, recalls first meeting Tucker and Grim in 1976 when he too was a Fordham University graduate student studying under Berry. Chapple says he is encouraged that scholarly writing and popular literature on religious ecology have become more of a societal force over the past 15 years.

(Chapple is editor of Worldviews, one of two specialized journals that focuses solely on religion and ecology. The other is The Journal of Religion, Nature and Culture. In addition to major publications, such as the 2005 two-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature edited by Bron Tayler, a group on religion and ecology was established within the American Academy of Religion.)

Religious traditions have been the traditional resource for wisdom throughout world history, Chapple explains. “As people turn to religious leaders for guidance, religious leaders are going to task parishioners and temple goers to ask questions of themselves like, Is there anything that I can do to be part of the solution and not continue to be part of the problem? Those are very important and real developments in the last few years,” he said.

Chapple believes religious interests can constructively lobby and influence legislation and that religious conscience can move people to take direct action. But change won’t happen unless clear messages come from the active influence of religious leaders. Right now, he says, ideas on taking those steps are still forming.

“All change in the world starts with ideas,” said Chapple. “Ideas are sometimes not very tidy. They can be a bit messy. As we educate new generations of students and suggest pathways for really responding once they have all the information, the change will eventually prove effective.”

As illustrated by the full series of faith-based features (see listing below) that have comprised this Yale Forum series, faith-based interests and their religions increasingly are awakening to the size, scale, complexity, and challenge posed by human-caused climate change. Some may feel they have been late in coming to the issues, but they increasingly are a force yet to be reckoned with.

Yale Forum Series on faith-based groups:
Nationwide Climate ‘Preach-In’ To Target Broad Faith-Group Congregations
The Catholic Church and Climate Change
Judaism and Climate Change
Episcopalians Confronting Climate Change
Baptists and Climate Change
The United Church of Christ and Climate Change
‘Green Muslims,’ Eco-Islam and Evolving Climate Change Consciousness
Presbyterians and Climate Change
Preachable Moments: Evangelical Christians and Climate Change
Mormon Silence on Climate Change: Why, and What Might It Mean?

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, SESYNC, in Annapolis, Md. Her writing covers the environment, energy, food security, agriculture,...