Across the faith spectrum, religious communities have become a positive force in stewardship of the Earth. It is an understandable fit: "The Bible and ecology both teach humility, modesty, kindness to all beings, a reverence for life, and concern for future generations," Ellen Bernstein writes in her new book, The Splendor of Creation.
Although the Bible has been teaching these lessons for thousands of years, it has been only relatively recently that religious communities have added their voice to the environmental movement. That momentum has been building since 1990, when 34 eminent scientists--including the late astronomer Carl Sagan--issued an "Open Letter to, the Religious Community" at a conference in Moscow. It decried the state of the global ecosystem, urging that "problems of such magnitude and solutions demanding so broad a perspective must be recognized from the outset as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension."
It's a good bet that religious communities will take their place among the strategic and targeted interventions hoped for by the recently released Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a document drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over a period of four years. The Millennium Assessment reports that humans have changed most ecosystems beyond recognition over the past 50 years, an unsustainable rush for natural resources driven by a burgeoning world population after WWII. The result has been habitat and climate change, invasive species, exploitation of resources, and pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus.
Religious communities are moving to the forefront of those actively seeking to improve our footprint on the Earth. Some practice inclusion, getting inner-city, underserved minorities involved through their churches; others preach a moral responsibility to care for God's Earth; still others reflect on energy and land use on their own property.
These are all efforts by those of faith, regardless of their religion, to care for something--the Earth--that they consider sacred. Bernstein believes we need to "fix" mainstream society's attitude toward nature, to help people see it not as a resource to be manipulated but more as those who consider themselves spiritual do. "In the end," she writes in The Splendor of Creation, "the earth will become whole as we become whole, when we see nature as integral to our identities and stewardship as an extension of our everyday lives."
"Churches are now more aware that human health is fully dependent upon healthy ecosystems," says Mike Schut, development director/program co-director of the Seattle-based Earth Ministry organization. Founded in 1992 as a Christian, ecumenical, environmental nonprofit, its three main tenets are practicing simplified living, environmental stewardship, and seeking justice for all God's creation.
"Some groups like ours have been working to connect faith with care and justice for Earth for over a decade," he adds. "Some of the groundwork has been laid, so that congregations are not as likely to be skeptical when approached with the idea that care for all God's creation is integral to our call as people of faith."
FAITH AND JUSTICE
For many congregations, there is a sad correlation between caring for the downtrodden and caring for a damaged earth. That's because environmental degradation most deeply affects the poor, with toxic waste incinerators and dumps situated where low-income African American, Latino, and indigenous peoples live in inner-city and rural areas.
In South Central Los Angeles, for example, a study by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches organization (LAM) revealed 132 toxic waste sites--three of them Superfund sites--within walking distance of schools. In fact, South Central has more "brownfield" sites than anywhere in the country.