Is God an Environmentalist? Religion’s Role in Sustainability

By Leslie Back

In summer 2009, my small church started a Green Team. We felt a pioneering spirit as non-conforming liberals accepting responsibility for our modern environmental crisis. We were, as corporations and other NGOs have similarly done, positioning ourselves as problem solvers, eager to take on our collective environmental mess. But this venture, new to our congregation, was not new to the world stage or to the world’s faiths. By setting up our team we embraced a long-standing tradition of Earth stewardship, a tradition found at some level in all world religions. Our green team and those at similar congregations are not modern or revolutionary. Indeed, they are the fulfillment of ancient mandates.

All of the Earth’s religions speak of an ethical responsibility to care for the natural world. In Buddhism, the tenets of reincarnation (samsara) and karma, and the acceptance of plants and animals into these modes of salvation lend value to all life, human or otherwise. Man must not harm the plants and animals of the Earth as they, too, are on a karmic journey.

Often referred to as the world’s oldest surviving faith, Hinduism also places great emphasis on care of nature. As Al Gore pointed out in his 1992 book, Earth in Balance, environmentalists regularly cite the ancient Hindu dictum: “The earth is our mother, and we are all her children.”

And, here in the US, we are well acquainted with the Native American tradition and interrelationship between Spirit and care of nature. Indeed, when writing to President Franklin Pierce in 1855, in response to an offer to purchase native land, Chief Seattle eloquently demonstrated the conviction of most Native groups by saying, in part, “The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.”

General thought has been that eastern and native cultures place emphasis on conservation and protection while monotheistic traditions have not. The truth is not that black and white.

As also quoted in Gore’s book, the Prophet Mohammed said, “The world is green and beautiful and God has appointed you His stewards over it.” Drawing from the Qur’an, the first Muslim caliph, Abu-Baker, declared, “Do not cut down a tree…and be always kind and humane to God’s creations…” In Islam, man has been granted stewardship, but nature belongs to God.

Because of misinterpretation of Bible texts and the creation story of Genesis, many Christians have presumed that man is superior to animals and nature, and altogether separate. However, in the Christian tradition, as in Islam, men are stewards of nature. Therefore, Christians are charged with protecting nature as trustees of the Creator. Beyond this, other areas of Biblical text point to the interconnectedness of nature and man, in a way that almost reflects eastern or modern environmental thought. In Ecclesiastes Chapter 3, Verse 19, it is said, “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same, as one dies so dies the other…man has no advantage over the beasts…”

So, we can safely assume from the above (albeit not an all-inclusive list of the world’s religions) that historically faiths have mandated care of Earth in accordance with care of Spirit. As my little church has done, today’s religious leaders, in light of our more recent plight and challenges, have picked up these ancient traditions and have reinforced them with greater vigor.

For instance, as head of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II spoke of a new environmental awareness and called upon believers to protect the Earth from environmental degradation.

And, as quoted in Environmental Guidelines for Karma Kagyu Buddhist Monasteries, Centers and Communities, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has said, “ Our ancestors viewed the earth as rich and bountiful… Many people in the past also saw nature as inexhaustibly sustainable, which we now know is the case only if we care for it…”

So as my church team recycles our bottles and filters our water, we follow in great traditions, and hold ourselves accountable for environmental progress and healing. Solutions will not come from business, government or religion alone. All have contributed to the problem and all must contribute to change.

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Leslie Back is a first-year Sustainable MBA student at Green Mountain College. Study interests include environmental conservation, social responsibility and the power of corporate and non-profit partnerships to bring about positive change. Other areas of interest include social media in sustainable marketing and public policy. She holds an MA in Organizational Management and a BS in Leisure Management. On the rare occasions when she is not studying, she enjoys writing, reading, running, nature walks and yoga. She hopes to use her skills, talents and education to make a positive impact with an environmentally and socially conscious organization.

Leslie is a Sustainable MBA student at Green Mountain College. Study interests include sustainability, social responsibility and the power of corporate and non-profit partnerships to bring about positive change. Other areas of interest include social media, fundraising and public policy. She holds a Certificate in Nonprofit Management and is certified in the Global Reporting initiative for Sustainability Reporting. Additionally, she holds an MA in Organizational Management and a BS in Leisure Management. On the rare occasions when she is not studying, she enjoys writing, reading, running, nature walks and yoga. She hopes to use her skills, talents and education to make a positive impact with an environmentally and socially conscious organization. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.