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Religious environmentalism: More than theory

By Ian Skoggard ’08 M.Div.

The panel on “ Ideas in Action” at the Feb. 28-March 2 Renewing Hope conference at Yale Divinity School was the “rubber hits the road panel,” as one speaker put it, focusing on the ways in which religious environmentalism is practiced.

MarquandThe first speaker, Clare Butterfield, talked about her initiative, Faith in Place, which was featured in the film Renewal. What began in Chicago nine years ago as a religious dialogue on environmental sustainability, she reported, has became a network of 600 urban and rural congregations involved at various levels in urban gardening and beekeeping, local farmers markets, a meat cooperative, fair trade, and a clergy café.

Sixteen congregations have become wind powered, one solar powered, and 60 have converted to energy-saving light bulbs. How did it all start? Butterfield was inspired by the Solidarity movement in Poland and its slogan, “If you acted as if you were free then you would be free.” She posed the question, “Why should the world we want be any less like the world we have?” Practicing a “lived imagination” kept her and her Corolla going over the first difficult years of organizing, in the end bearing much fruit.

Roger Gottlieb, a professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, spoke on politics. He suggested that religious environmentalism is heir to the civil rights and women’s movements, noting that confrontation with dominant political, social and economic structures is real and requires allies.

“Who are we to walk with?” he asked.  Gottlieb recommended the working class, antiwar movement, and mothers. The playing field encompasses more than just environmental questions, though, he suggested: “Where do we stand on capitalism? The fundamental quality of the system has to change. We have to articulate a vision of the sacredness of life, touch peoples hearts, and then move them.” What the world needs, said Gottlieb, is “a political movement of grace and love such as the world has never seen before.”

John Hart, a professor of theology and ethics at Boston University, argued that religion and science need to be allies in the fight to save the planet. He quoted the biologist E. O. Wilson in his conciliatory overture to the religious community, “Let us meet on the nearside of metaphysics.”  Hart described an effort with which he was involved that successfully brought together Republican ranchers and liberal environmental activists to oppose the construction of a coal-fired power plant in Montana.

Bobbi Patterson, former chaplain and dean of students at Emory University, talked about successful efforts by Emory faculty to bring about change in their immediate environment. The university established a fulltime office of sustainability reporting directly to the university’s vice-president, then critically examined its place and power in the city and state. The 162-acre campus in the middle of the city has a 65-acre park, which the university decided to open to the public, with walkabouts for faculty, staff, and students. Learning about, and respecting the diversity within, the park’s natural environment became a teaching tool for respecting diversity within the campus community.

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