Religion and Environmental
The controversial arena of environmental rights includes a range of different projects that develop rights-based responses to environmental problems. I organize them here into three kinds of argument: (1) those that specify an environmental condition of the human dignity protected in existing rights protections (e.g., a right to water); (2) those that expand the scope of human dignity to include rights to ecological memberships (e.g., a right of indigenous peoples to cultural biodiversity); and (3) those that recognize rights of other-than-human holders (e.g., rights of animals, species, or nature). Those three categories visibly move from anthropocentric to ecocentric foci. However, in each category there are projects that use rights to achieve environmental protection as well as projects that promote environmental protection for the sake of protecting human dignity.
This chapter can only sketch the related territory, but even an overview illuminates important thresholds in human rights theory and its intersections with religious thought. Because environmental rights strain the capacity of human rights frameworks to address emerging social problems, they pose important test cases for understanding the limits of human rights as moral discourse and as political instrument. Because religious communities and moral cosmologies sometimes impel these projects and sometimes resist them, environmental rights also present an important line of exploration into the shifting relation of religion and rights.
Religion attends environmental rights projects in multiple ways. Sometimes faith communities sponsor rights projects as part of their social mission. Sometimes religious beliefs about nature and humanity cause friction with new proposals. Sometimes the survival of a lived cosmology is the reason for a proposed right. Even when they have no explicit religious content, projects for environmental rights may exhibit a religious scope of inquiry as they renegotiate ideas of humanity and nature. It is important to recognize that rights-based approaches to environmental problems represent just one intersection of religious and ecological thought. The projects and questions described in this chapter have in common their use of rights as a guiding moral metaphor. Other approaches to the nexus of religion and ecology use different moral metaphors, sometimes because they consider rights insufficient for addressing environmental problems.
The Chipko movement of western India illustrates some of the intersections of religion, ecology, and rights—as well as the interpretive ambiguity involved in theorizing those intersections. The Chipko movement attracted worldwide