Throughout history and to this very day, differences in religion have been the source of significant conflict in the world. The intersection of religion and environment has also been laden with discord, particularly in the last half of the 20th century. In the oft-cited 1967 paper “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” which appeared in the journal Science, medieval historian Lynn White, Jr. went as far as to argue that the Christian influence in the Middle Ages, with it’s “exploitative” attitude toward nature, was at the root of the ecological crisis.

Yet despite this conflict-wrought history, there are signs that organized religion may be emerging as a potentially powerful source of hope and collaboration. In past issues of Leaf Litter (focused on Traditional Ecosystem Knowledge and Rights of Nature, to name two), we have touched upon the care and reverence for nature that is ingrained in the lives of many of the world’s indigenous cultures, who hold a deep, spiritual connection to the land. But more recently, particularly in the months leading up to the United Nation’s COP 21 Paris climate talks, we are seeing these same themes emerging in other world religions.

This spring, Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ not only helped direct worldwide attention to environmental degradation; it declared misuse of Earth a “sin,” and the care and healing of “Our Common Home” as a moral obligation for all people, regardless of faith.

The Catholic Church has not been the only religious community to release this kind of powerful statement. The Hindu community presented it’s global Declaration on Climate Change at the 2009 meeting of the Parliament of World Religions. The Dalai Lama has spoken out on climate change for decades, and in 2009 he and other Buddhist leaders collaborated on a primer for the development of pan-Buddhist policy for a safe-climate future. This year, the Dalai Lama was the first to sign a pan-Buddhist statement “The Time to Act is Now: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change.” At the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium this past August, Muslim leaders and academics adopted the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, which calls not only upon Muslims, but all COP21 participants, wealthy and oil-producing states, national leaders, and all people to do their part to reduce greenhouse gasses. As of last month, 425 rabbis from around the world have signed the Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, which calls for vigorous action to improve the environment and eco-social justice. All of these declarations include an element of environmental justice and care for the disenfranchised, and all, in their own way, acknowledge humans as being an interconnected part—albeit a powerful part—of a larger community of life.

You need not go to Paris or read formal declarations to see faith communities in action on behalf of the planet. Chances are, you can find religious environmentalism happening in your own neighborhood. Here in Baltimore, for example, the Blue Water Congregations program, co-implemented by Blue Water Baltimore and Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, is working to reduce stormwater runoff from places of worship. Since its inception in 2014, the program has already engaged 72 religious institutions. A mere 20-minute drive from our office is the Pearlstone Center, a Jewish retreat center and sustainable farm that fully integrates environmental stewardship into its operations and educational programming.

Could this swell of religious environmentalism on the local and global scale be a game changer when it comes to healing the planet? Could the common threads of awe, compassion, and responsibility found in so many world religions be strong enough to unify and inspire people for the good of the planet? These are the questions we had in mind when we chose to explore the topic of Religion and Environmental Stewardship in the 2015 Winter Solstice issue of Leaf Litter.

It would be impossible to examine every religion, let alone every denomination or sect, but we hope that this issue will pique your interest in a growing movement that may somehow connect with the work that you do, and the communities you engage.

We begin by asking scholars and activists of five major world religions the same six questions about these faith community’s connections to nature and motivation for stewardship. We also share a bulletin on the actions of religious communities at the 2015 COP21 Climate Conference in Paris, France. In our Expert Q&A, we chat with Elizabeth Allison, who has been at the forefront of the integration of religion and ecology in education and scholarship. We review the film RENEWAL, the first feature-length documentary to capture the vitality and diversity of today’s religious environmentalist activists. For many people, religion is profoundly important to their understanding of the environment, their role in caring for it, and their career choice. Such is the case with Biohabitats’ Great Lakes Bioregion leader Tom Denbow and water resources engineer Meghan Gloyd, who share personal reflections on their faith and work.

Leaf Litter’s Non-Profit Spotlight shines upon GreenFaith an interfaith coalition that bills itself as a “one-stop shop” for the resources and tools religious institutions need to engage environmental issues and become religious-environmental leaders. From materials written by our featured scholars to web sites, recent news items, and further literature, we share resources on the topic of religion and environmental stewardship. We also update you on Biohabitats projects, places, and people.

We hope you enjoy this issue and accept our heartfelt wishes for a peaceful New Year.

Further Reading

Meet Landscape Designer Emma Podietz
Get to Know Ecologist Caroline Hildebrand
Get to know Water Resources Engineer Nate Wadley
Biohabitats Senior Engineer & Practice Leader, Erin English, on the Rewilding Earth Podcast
Meet Integrated Water Resources Engineer Helen Little

More From This Author

Get to know Brooke Marshall, Proposal Coordinator
Donating Time to Support and Advance Ecosystem Restoration
Thoughts On Adaptive Management
Get to know Sarah Emrich, Water Resources Engineer
Rescuing Polluted Waters: Part 2