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. In the years spanning the twentieth through twenty-first centuries, global climate change and environmental degradation have steadily worsened due to human activity. Pollution on the ground, in the air, and throughout the oceans has been deteriorating the environment, our home, at an alarming rate and will continue to do so under the current state of human activities. The rise of greenhouse gases from human pollution has caused Earth's outgoing heat to be trapped within the planet's atmosphere and thus lead to an increase in global temperature. 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. (cite nasa)
These multitudes of scientific evidence fully support the phenomenon of global warming, making climate change due to pollution an unequivocal phenomenon 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 may eventually become an uninhabitable place for human beings. 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.
Although religious thoughts and beliefs can influence environmental ethics, its fundamental guide must be scientific. Science provides universally undeniable evidence for the fragile reality of the Earth and this evidence demands action from the global community as a whole in the environmental movement, regardless of individual moral or religious principles. That is, the need for environmental ethics and action owes more to the fact that it is scientifically essential for human survival than to a matter of choice or moral obligation guided by religious thought.
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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 dialogued 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 profund 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 neurological framework for which morality can function. In other words, the fundamental scientific truths are fully compatible with spiritual truths, as defined by Nadeau.
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. However, having a common spiritual awareness 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. Nadeau's religious environmentalism argument, which is heavy on spirituality, can also encounter the 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. (Gallup poll) 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.
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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 argument 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 and 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 and 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 "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. (Freimiller 152) The author of the article argues that a multicultural survey of environmental ethics is a step in the right direction instead of formulating a new, postmodern environmental ethic, as the book suggests. 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.
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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 be a poor 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, now with the knowledge and awareness to act, society now needs to decide to act accordingly. 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.
Some may argue that religion should be the magisterium guiding environmental ethics, as it has been part of religious teachings from early on. However, without scientific evidence, there would be not enough awareness or knowledge of the reality of the current environmental state. Thus, science is a necessary part of environmental ethics while religion can act as a possible 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 mass social change that science alone can cause, as proven by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, it can be concluded that science provides universally undeniable evidence for the fragile reality of the Earth and this evidence demands action from the global community as a whole in the environmental movement, regardless of individual moral or religious principles.
- Rebirth of the sacred
- Gallup poll
- Warner and DeCosse
- Jane Freimiller
- Rachel Carson