In the years spanning the twentieth through twenty-first centuries, global climate change and environmental degradation have steadily worsened due to human activity. Fracking, emissions, industries, modern agriculture, and poorly managed waste are just some of the many devastating ways that the human community has contributed to Earth's environmental decline. Evidence of climate change cited by NASA include the following: the rise of sea levels, the rise of global temperature, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, declining arctic sea ice, glacial retreat, extreme weather events, ocean acidification, and decreased snow cover ("Climate Change Evidence").
These multitudes of scientific evidence support the phenomenon of global warming, making it an unequivocal occurrence that severely impacts the health of the Earth and, in turn, the well being of the global human community in its survival on planet Earth. Despite the mass amounts of evidence for climate change and environmental degradation, there still exist populations that deny the validity of global warming on the basis of personal or religious belief.
Whatever the reason for disbelief may be, the issue of global climate and environmental change does not fundamentally involve belief, but rather is a matter of scientific fact. The drastic change in the Earth's environment is a phenomenon without borders and has induced worldwide concern. Unless more awareness is raised and greater environmental action is taken, the Earth's environmental condition will only continue to worsen. Thus, global climate change and environmental pollution are part of an ongoing, grave, and pressing issue that demands the collective action of the international community, regardless of differing religious or ethical outlooks.
That is not to say that religion cannot have a role in motivating people in taking environmental action because some religious teachings certainly do emphasize the importance of environmental ethics. Western religions teach that humans are to reflect the same care that the Creator has for them. For instance, the biblical teaching of mutual care for people, "love your neighbor as yourself," and the idea of sacraments, or Christian expressions of divine love, can be geared towards care for the environment.
Although religious thoughts and beliefs can influence environmental ethics, its fundamental guide must be scientific. In other words, even though religion can posit reasons for environmental action, science provides the more correct reasons and therefore, should act as the key motivator. Unlike religion, science provides universally undeniable evidence for the fragile reality of the Earth and this evidence should be the true elicitor for morally correct action in the environmental movement, demanding participation from the global community as a whole, regardless of individual moral or religious principles. Therefore, the need for environmental ethics and action owes more to the fact that it is essential for human survival than to a matter of choice or moral obligation guided by religious thought.
One of the major opponents to enacting widespread and effective environmental action is social disposition, politics and legislation. Because religion is regarded with bias and controversy in the mainstream media, and thus society, it would not be substantial or appropriate as the main proponent for environmental ethics. Debate over what is right or wrong and what one religion teaches better than another would inhibit proper environmental progress. One scientific writing that did cause major social change through raising public awareness and, in turn, political action is the book, Silent spring, by Rachel Carson. In her book, Carson discusses the deadly effects of the pesticide, DDT, on the environment. She meticulously and scientifically described the process of DDT entering the food chain and building up in the fatty tissues of animals, humans included, and causing cancer and genetic damage. Expecting major reactions from chemical companies producing DDT, Carson collected a mass amount of evidence supporting her writing that led to government investigation and ultimately the ban of DDT. One of the major legacies of Carson and Silent Spring is a new level of public awareness regarding environmentalism. With knowledge and this new awareness, everyone now had the potential to enact major social change. In chapter 17 of Carson's book, she states the following: "We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth” (Carson 114).
Here Carson argues that, with the knowledge and awareness to act, society now needs to decide to take the appropriate action. Having the right to know, the knowledge that is needed to act, and the full ability to act are the parts of a successful formula for enacting mass environmental change. By writing Silent Spring, Carson provides the middle part of the formula, thereby changing the course of environmental activism for the better.
The current environmental situation is similar to the DDT situation in that society has all the evidence it needs to act and, indeed, has made great strides in mediating the global climate change crisis. Therefore, following Rachel Carson's model of using science to increase public awareness, modern environmental ethics has no necessity for religious guidance since morality right or wrong does not depend on religion, and science can provide the middle part of the discussed formula to enact social change. That is not to say that environmental ethics cannot be at least partially influenced by religious teachings, as this would not interfere with environmental action on a grand scale.
Although religion should not provide the basis for environmental ethics, it certainly does have its merits in that it can motivate individuals enact positive environmental change under the moral guidance of their religions. In a lecture on religious environmental ethics by Keith Douglass Warner and David DeCosse at Santa Clara University, Warner and DeCosse discuss the environmental morals that are inherent in religious teachings. They argue that due to modernization of societies, the traditional religious attitudes toward nature have mostly disappeared. The lecture presented various writings on the issue of religious environmentalism and ultimately draws the conclusion that environmental action is an essential part of religion. Warner and DeCosse posit that western religious institutions had failed to lay out a “religious rationale for environmental protection," but have since posited that the ecological crisis is a moral obligations for all human beings. They also put forth the claim that environmental action is a sacrament, or "expression of divine love" since the creation of the whole world has religious significance for the religious community (Warner & DeCosse). The position that is mainly argued is that the environmental ethics part of religion is something that is ancient and lost, but needs a revival to solve environmental issues in our modern world. Warner and DeCosse argue that the incorporation of environmental activism into religious teaching is a phenomenon occurring in almost every religion, but drawing general conclusions is difficult to do. This is due to the variety of religions on the planet and the fact that many religious environmental teachings and ethical practice are of a local scale while climate change is a matter of a global scale (Warner & DeCosse). Thus, as this Santa Clara lecture explains, environmental ethics is an aspect of religion that has significant history. However, due to the diversity and locality of these teachings, it is difficult to draw a generalized and unified approach to solving environmental issues using religion alone.
This idea of having a multitude of religious ideas within the broad spectrum of environmental ethics is explored in the article written by Jane Freimiller in the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism about the book Earth’s Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback by J. Baird Callicott. This article discusses the main points of the book: the cataloging of religious systems of thought, the provision of theoretical justification for doing so, and the report on the environmental movements that had religious backings. The article characterizes the book as a survey of world beliefs from the perspective of environmental ethics. In the discussion of the various perspectives on environmental ethics, the idea of the "shopping mall” dilemma arises, where one belief system out of the many varied beliefs in the world is picked over another in the grand goal of religious environmentalism. The solution proposed by the book is to integrate all elements of the world's religions and harmonize it with modern science (Callicott 152). The author of the article argues that a multicultural survey of environmental ethics, one that accounts for the differing views of several cultures regarding environmentalism, is a step in the right direction instead of formulating a new, integrated environmental ethic, as the book suggests (Freimiller).
Therefore, Freimiller's argument is convincing, as religion is so multifaceted that it is hard to unify the environmental movement under religion. Instead, a survey of world beliefs regarding environmental ethics seems like an appropriate part of the environmental solution that can incorporate religious thought, but is fundamentally scientific, as science is straightforward and universal. As demonstrated from the discussion of the two sources above, although religion can positively influence environmental ethics, it is too varied across the globe to form a consensus on environmental ethics. Thus, science would form the better basis for environmentalism as it is uniform and its proof is undeniable.
The relationship between science and religion in the sphere of environmental ethics is one that carries great significance in the environmental movement. In Rebith of the Sacred: Science, Religion, and the New Environmental Ethos by Robert L. Nadeau, the author argues that to resolve the environmental crisis, it is essential that society changes its political and economic institutions as well as adapt to new standards for moral and ethical behavior. Nadeau proposes that the solution can be found if sufficient numbers of environmentally concerned people participate in the dialogue between the truths of science and religion. The truth of science, according to Nadeau is that it provides a link between the spirituality of religion and the human mind. That is, science can account for evolutionarily produced cognitive faculties that gives humans"…the capacity to engage in spontaneous moral behavior and to experience the other as oneself” (Nadeau 143). Thus, Nadeau argues that moral behavior is inherently derived from nature not nurture. In regards to the truth of religion, the author states that despite "differences in the narratives of the major religious traditions of the world, the most profound religious and moral truths are virtually identically" (Nadeau 145). Thus, Nadeau believes that all of the world's diverse religions are interconnected and unified by the same thread of spiritual awareness. The author cited scientific research to align with this idea of common spiritual awareness when he stated the following: "Since the brain scans of the Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns were virtually identical, this strongly suggests that they were in very similar states of profound spiritual awareness." Together, the truth of science and the truth of religion can be incorporated in Nadeau's "New Environmental Ethos," which is the combination of a "spiritual and physical reality". Those who embrace this ethos, according to Nadeau, will view human pollution as immoral and see that neuroscience can explain emotional and unconscious processes that influence human behavior (Nadeau 146). Thus, Nadeau argues, science is in accordance with religious or spiritual morality as science provides the biological explanation for the neurology from which moral thoughts stem. In other words, the fundamental scientific truths are fully compatible with spiritual truths, as defined by Nadeau.
However, having a common spiritual awareness across different religions may not translate to taking environmental action in the same fashion. Thus, discord can arise from differences in approaches to environmental action. This is supported by the fact that the Buddhists in the study mentioned by Nadeau sees a different spiritual being than the nuns. This may mean that the ways they worship and what they worship may differ and thus, the approach they take in environmentalism may differ. For instance, one may take direct action while the other takes on advocacy. What is essential for the health of the environment and the human population is not differing routes of environmental activism that may result in inefficiency but rather a unified, well-backed, and efficient approach that can lead to a common solution. Although Nadeau's “New Environmental Ethos" does not necessarily conflict with the discord in differing religious views that lead to different environmental action, his thesis treats science and religion as equally important components in environmental ethics, which they are not, and is not completely holistic.
In his book, Nadeau states that moral reasoning is not the same as proactive moral behavior (Nadeau 147). In this sense, if science is assumed to be the basis for moral behavior, then the basis for environmental action can be mostly scientific. Then, the spiritual aspect of the "New Environmental Ethos” is simply an extraneous factor that can act as a motivator for environmental action. Nadeau's religious environmentalism argument, which is heavy on spirituality, can also encounter a potential conflict with the atheist community. Since environmental change is a global issue, then a global solution encompassing all people must be devised. Nadeau's "new environmental ethos" disregards atheists, which equates to disregarding the atheist community. This community makes up 11% of citizens that participated in the 2015 Gallup pole regarding religion ("Losing our religion?"). Therefore, the “New Environmental Ethos” proposed by Nadeau is not a holistic solution in that a necessitated global environmentalist approach needs to include all people, not just those who are religious or spiritual.
While science is undeniably the basis of environmentalism, some may argue that religion can have a role of equal or greater importance in guiding environmental ethics. As mentioned before, various religions across the globe have long stressed environmental action and taking care of nature through religious teachings, texts, and the previously mentioned idea of "sacraments." In Warner and DeCosse's lecture, they also discuss a global, trans-religious phenomenon called "the Greening of Religion” in which many of the world's religions are stressing environmental action as a moral obligation (Warner & DeCosse). This similarity of environmental teaching among religions support the argument that religion does indeed have a role that is as or more important as science in guiding environmental ethics. In regards to the scientific side of the objection argument, some may say that science cannot account for morals and thus cannot account for environmental ethics. The same people may also posit that the purpose of religion is to impart moral values and thus influence environmental ethics in that fashion. That is, religious teachings influence moral values and what is right or wrong when it comes to environmentalism.
In response to this argument, it is important to note that global warming is a scientific process. Without scientific evidence, there would be not enough awareness of global warming in the first place for the religious institution to call for environmental action. Though, with this scientific knowledge, religion is not necessarily essential to enact social change, as demonstrated by the impacts of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Science therefore can account for ethics and religion is not the only proponent of morality in regards to environmentalism. Thus, science is the only necessitated part of environmental ethics while religion can act as a possible secondary motivator in enacting environmental action.
Through the holistic analysis of religion, the relationship between science and religion as they relate to environmental ethics, and the unified, mass social change that science alone is capable of initiating, as proven by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, it can be concluded that the fundamental guide to environmental ethics is science. Without the multiplicity of differing views and approaches that exists within religion, science can provide a clear and unified basis for environmental action for global community as a whole, regardless of individual moral or religious principles.