A Greener Faith book cover

In Review

Green Religion Needs to Get Greener

By David G. Hallman

I have a problem with Roger Gottlieb’s new book, A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future. The book itself is great. The problem is my reaction to it.

You see, I’m supposed to be something of a poster boy for “religious environmentalists,” as Gottlieb calls us. I’ve been at it for a very long time—running seminars in church basements, addressing UN conferences, writing books on ecotheology, admonishing oil industry executives, organizing petition campaigns. Gottlieb says that it is good work and that we’re making a difference: “Religions have become part of the all-too-scarce good news on the environmental front.”

I hope that he is right. I fear he may be wrong. Are we really making a difference? Fast enough? Where it counts?

Gottlieb’s book is an accessible overview of the evolution of ecotheology, environmental insights from various faiths, the relevance of religious environmental activism, and the potency of ecological spirituality and ritual. I enjoyed reading it. As someone who is a history-hoarder by instinct, I value this compendium of developments over the last few decades, when communities of faith have woken to the seriousness of the environmental crisis and have begun responding in the myriad ways documented by Gottlieb.

But having read Gottlieb’s book, I sense that something is awry—in the book, in my life, in our collective efforts. Maybe we haven’t gone deeply enough, to the root causes of the ecological crisis, both those related to religious factors and those that are not. Or perhaps we are missing out on making some important linkages between thought and deed. Might it be that the conversion/transformation required is too threatening for us and our societies?

First, who is speaking and who is listening in the religious ecological dialogue that Gottlieb describes? Second, what is being said and done? Third, why are things still getting worse?

Gottlieb acknowledges that “certainly the vast majority of people who read this book, as citizens of the United States or some other highly developed economy, will be participants in causing environmental problems even if they also wish to solve them.” In the religious ecological dialogue, most of the people talking (or, more accurately, being published) and most of the people listening (or rather, having access to the dialogue) are in the wealthier societies. Gottlieb’s references provide ample evidence.

After the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, I was invited to lecture at two seminaries in the global south, one in San José, Costa Rica, and the other in Bangalore, India. Both were distressing experiences, because I encountered such a richness of theological, ecological, economic, and social insight among the faculty and students that we weren’t hearing in the north. From them and other contacts, I put together Eco-theology: Voices From South and North to help broaden the dialogue. Specifically, I was, and remain, convinced that we in North Ameri-can faith communities are so implicated in the Western development model based on unlimited production and consumption, as well as on socioeconomic inequity, that we don’t have the intellectual distance to fully comprehend the root causes of the ecological crisis and global poverty or our role in sustaining them. We need to hear and be confronted by those from other cultures and contexts. Gottlieb knows of what I speak. He challenges the excesses of eco-nomic globalization and says that “effective environmental change requires a change in the living standards of the middle and upper classes in the developed world.” But by and large we are still talking among ourselves—the chattering Western classes.

Well, let’s look at the message and see if there is some hope there. What is it that we religious environmentalists are saying and doing to address the ecological crisis? One of Gottlieb’s chapters in A Greener Faith profiles five people who are deeply committed to and actively engaged in efforts to tackle the ecological crisis. Their witness and many other examples throughout the book illustrate key messages and actions, including thinking differently theologically, grounding oneself in the sacred mystery of creation, drawing on nurturing rituals, modeling lifestyles based on simplicity and moderation, challenging powerful political and economic actors. There is hope here. Gottlieb is right to celebrate and make known the depth and breadth of what spiritually grounded people are saying and doing.

This brings me to the third of my questions, the key one: so why are things still get-ting worse? Let’s take climate change—the biggest of the big problems that we’ve produced. If you haven’t already, go see Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth. I’ve spent most of the last 20 years in this area and I can tell you that Gore’s film tells it like it is. Emission levels are rising, dramatically. The climate change consequences are already occurring, with the most vulnerable suffering the greatest impacts.

But it is not all bad news. Western European countries have a strong commitment to energy efficiency. Large-scale renewable energy projects are in place in India, China, and Brazil. States and municipalities in certain regions of the U.S. have innovative emission control programs. Gottlieb spends many pages in A Greener Faith detailing the positive contributions of faith communities: the energy-saving programs of the Interfaith Power and Light network; the conservation efforts of the African Association of Earthkeeping Churches; the Eco-Justice Task Force of the National Council of Churches; the courage of the United Church of Christ’s Justice and Witness Ministries; the work of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment in organizing climate change campaigns in states whose economies are heavily dependent on coalmining; the 15-year-long engagement of the World Council of Churches in advocacy efforts at the ongoing UN negotiations on climate change; and many others.

Such steps in the right direction in tack-ling climate change make my questions even more poignant for me. Why aren’t we having more impact?

I don’t enjoy asking these questions. I’m a professional optimist giving encouragement to others and supporting networks of engaged people of faith. Asking these questions is very hard, given the amount of my life that has gone into mobilizing faith communities to help solve mega-problems like human-induced climate change. I blame Roger Gottlieb in part. Before reading A Greener Faith, I was deeply entrenched in the struggle, perhaps so much so that I didn’t have the opportunity to see the broader landscape. Gottlieb’s comprehensive overview helps me appreciate the breadth of engagement of faith communities. But it has pushed me into a reflective mode. Gottlieb and all of  us involved as religious environmentalists talk a lot about the potential of religions to make a difference in the ecological crisis. When can we stop talking about the potential and start describing the actual impact?

I may not be Gottlieb’s ideal reader. For one thing, I am a Canadian, which means, according to Fox News, I must be a gay, pot-smoking peacenik. (Well, maybe Fox News isn’t always wrong.) Gottlieb, no doubt, has a broad audience in mind. For many people both within and outside of faith communities, his descriptions of the engagement of religions in addressing environmental concerns might be new information, a source of inspiration and hope, and a motivation for joining the effort. For others who are already involved, A Greener Faith may deepen their commitment as they find spiritual nourishment from his insights and as they experience greater companionship in the struggle through the many illustrations in the book. It is critically important to engage more Americans. The U.S., with 4 percent of the world’s population, emits 25 percent of the greenhouse gases leading to human-induced climate change.

The last chapter in Gottlieb’s book includes his analysis of the principle obstacles that religious environmentalism faces. He identifies three: consumerism, fundamentalism, and globalization. That is a start. They are issues that I have thought and written about and have worked with others to counteract. In Spiritual Values for Earth Community, I argued that the dominant forces currently shaping our lives and our societies are materialistic consumerism, economic globalization, and systemic violence. The critical role for faith communities, I posited, is for us to articulate, model, and advocate for individual and socioeconomic lifestyles based instead on such values as gratitude, humility, sufficiency, justice, love, peace, faith, and hope. In that book, I struggled to understand the dynamics that govern our decision making and behavior as individuals, communities, societies. How can such spiritual values make a difference?

But I’m still left with the mounting evidence of ecological destruction. Why aren’t we having more effect? I don’t think that it’s just a matter of time—that once we reach a critical mass, things will start to change for the better. I suspect that there is something more fundamental at work.

I’m not going to minimize the relevance of my questions and my angst. A theological mentor used to say that too often we respond prematurely when confronted with dilemmas. He maintained that to intentionally discern the spirit’s guidance, we have to be willing to “suffer the questions” for awhile.

Gottlieb concludes by acknowledging that, as religious environmentalists, we are not assured of success. Rather, we are engaged because that is what it means to be faithful. “As religious environmentalists, we want to save the world, but right now we do what we do because we wish to be the kind of person who lives like this: who honors God’s creation, feels and responds to the sacredness of the earth, and tries to love all of our neighbors as ourselves . . . . It is, and for some time it will have to be, enough.”

Well, maybe for some. But not for me. It’s not enough. I believe more and better is required of us—by the earth, by the vulnerable, by future generations, by God. We must not fail them.


A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future, by Roger S. Gottlieb. Oxford University Press, 304 pages, $29.95.

David G. Hallman has worked for more than 30 years on energy and environmental issues for the United Church of Canada. Since 1988, he has also coordinated the climate change program of the World Council of Churches. His writings include A Place in Creation: Ecological Visions in Science, Religion and Economics (United Church Publishing House, 1992), Ecotheology: Voices From South and North (WCC/Orbis Books, 1994), and Spiritual Values for Earth Community (WCC Books, 2000).

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