Ecology, environmentalism, and religion: A nexus in flux
Religion and ecology have a fraught relationship because of multiple well-publicized misconceptions (e.g., creation vs. evolution, the reification of the balance of nature). However if ecology provides a scientific foundation for environmental management, and if religion is one potential motivation for environmentalism, then society would benefit from a détente between religion and ecology. To have integrity and lasting influence, however, a relationship must be based on mutual understanding and respect (and not only on instrumental motivations). I summarize some of the historical tension points between science and Christianity in the US, and identify opportunities for increased intellectual understanding and application. In particular, I ask “What can environmental ethics be based on if the ‘balance of nature’ does not exist?”
Lynn White (1967) was incorrect in blaming medieval Christianity for our “ecologic crisis;” one can be a Christian and a scientist and an environmentalist. However the “balance of nature”—even if it existed--cannot logically be the basis of environmental ethics; nature is not normative. The fact that nature is in constant flux (especially under human influence) makes more obvious that humans must choose what states of nature are desirable; such choices may be informed by science and by religion. Although US ecology, including the Ecological Society of America, emerged from an intellectual tradition shaped by Christian desires for harmonious relationships among humans, ESA eschewed applied science for the majority of its existence. The creation of The Nature Conservancy in the late 1940s was in part a result of the emphasis in ESA on establishing ecology’s credibility and sophistication as a pure science. Thus we still wrestle with the tension between ecology as a science and environmentalism as an expression of a particular prescription for nature. Recognizing that nature is in flux rather than in balance displaces scientific expertise from a central role in environmental management because the societal question changes from “what is the balanced state of nature that we must restore or maintain” to “what state of nature do we want and why?” Thus the need for ecology to intersect with other sources of authority in the public square—including religion—becomes more obvious and more important. Conceptual frameworks including ecosystem services, creation care, and earth stewardship are ways to recognize this need for collaboration in policy decisions.