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Can religion and environmentalism find common ground in the 21st century?

Day 4: Friday, Sept 8th

  From Stuart Pimm

Dear Richard and Ed:

I’m sure that someone writing about our exchanges is going to quip — with a total lack of originality — that we’re preaching to the choir. Audubon readers don’t need to be told to be environmental activists, nor Richard’s flock how to pray. Are we preaching to each other’s choirs? 

I examine religious attitudes to environmental stewardship as part of my teaching at Duke. Conservation science is mission-driven, so it would be intellectually irresponsible not to examine the foundations of that mission in classes. I’ve been helped enormously by a superb young colleague, Dr. Kyle van Houtan, whose work with me on Christian attitudes is one of the readings suggested on this website. As for scientists, in our experiences, most simply assume there’s ome ethical reason to care for nature and leave it at that.  As I wrote in my first letter to you, it’s more complicated than that! What do we get from the class? A graduate student in a khimar tells us of her understanding of the Quran. Another in western dress explains Zoroastrian beliefs.

Many of my colleagues, Richard, could well benefit from the leadership you provide in ensuring that our political leaders understand their views. Too many scientists are reluctant to share their science beyond their small group of specialist colleagues. Talk to the media? Horror! Talk to politicians?  Perish the thought! And what about talking at a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple? Ed is an extraordinary icon for a new generation of scientists precisely because he’s one of very best scientists of our age and because he’s spoken out to wide audiences about the issues that matter. Yet, I’ll spend part of next week, helping a class of scientists with the basics of working with the media — “return their phone calls, they’re on deadlines” — and visiting Congress —“yes, they’ll listen to your science, and, yes, they’re proud of the university in their district!” Clearly, we scientists have a long way to go in explaining what we do. It’s our job. If others don’t get the message, we must share part of the blame. 

I’ve lectured all over the world, but the toughest audience ever came from Father Ron Johnson’s invitation lecture on the environment this Lent. Just because we say “peace” to each other, every week provided no protection from fellow parishioners — for me or Father Ron! Yes, my friends and neighbors in the Florida Keys wanted the details of global warming and forest loss. (I work in the Keys and the Everglades in the spring, on endangered species.) More importantly, they wanted to know what they could do. All Audubon magazine readers know the basics. In the fish-centered world of the Keys, those wallet-sized cards that tell what are the best fish choices resonate with an audience who knows that grouper are becoming scarce. And yes, our new church is only a few feet above sea level and, on a bad day in fall one could look straight out at the new generation of super hurricanes global warming has created. 

Oh, yes, we do have a lot to each other’s choirs.

My best wishes,

  From Richard Cizik

Dear Ed and Stuart:
Yes, Ed, the Bible makes clear that God does not approve of wanton destruction of species or human life. In fact, the Apostle John in the Revelation [11:18] writes of judgment: "The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small — and for destroying those who destroy the earth." No matter one's interpretation of this verse, I'd want to err on the side of caution and not experience judgment for the sins of things done [commission] or left undone [omission]. Each of us needs to consider our own ecological footprint.
You ask whether "we may think of conservation as the ultimate pro-life position?" Yes, and for those conservatives who have lost the art of conserving, a conversion is necessary. One of my mentors, Calvin DeWitt, a University of Wisconsin biology professor, states that "pro-life means life in the Arctic, the life of the atmosphere, and the life of all the people under the influence of climate change." My fellow evangelicals should continue to lobby for the unborn as a "pro-life" issue, but also add to their definition these other concerns.
Our lobbying on issues of creation care (not yet accepted by some leaders within the religious right), like our advocacy on genocide in Darfur or sexual trafficking, strengthens our witness to the Gospel, and addresses the anger that exists among secularists who once (and may still in some circles) consider us, as Nicholas Kristof the Pulitizer Prize–winning journalist of The New York Times has put it, "pious hypocrites who just want to engage in culture wars and peer down at gays and single fathers." (Kristof lauded evangelicals in a 2004 column "The New Internationalists" for our work on genocide, religious freedom, and sexual trafficking.)  
For conservative Christians to take on climate change and environmental issues like mercury poisioning of our rivers and lakes and species extinction, however, is a sea change (pardon the pun) or a threshold of change. It is rolling the waters.    
In 2002, at the Oxford Climate Conference, I was confronted with the evidence of climate change and made a U-turn, which is what conversion is about. It means to go another moral direction. Moreover, it doesn't take an electron microscope or a space telescope to see what's happening. The naked eye is sufficient to the task. Indeed, Ed, there is a problem of "exemptionalism" among religious people who believe that "we are in the hands of God" and develop what I call a "blind spot" on creation care. It's a dangerous form of denial.      
For example, at a recent focus group commissioned by the Evangelical Environmental Network I witnessed, along with Rev. Jim Ball, a clergywoman (with 16 grandchildren) deny the reality of mercury poisoning from coal-burning utility plants, a toxic threat that impacts one in six unborn babies in America — a total of 600,000 children annually. Only when a fellow participant in the focus group said, "Lady, it's not only real, but I work for the local power plant" did she awake to the reality of pollution's impact.  
You write that "because wild natural ecosystems are in plain sight, it is also easy to take for granted the environmental services they provide." Thus, we "need to listen to nature ( "God, if you prefer, Pastor"). because "She speaks to us; now let us listen."  
As scientists, both of you are helping evangelicals to "listen" to the evidence, namely that "Earth has never experienced anything like the contemporary human juggernaut" with the global species extinction rate now exceeding the global species birthrate at least a hundredfold, and soon to increase to 10 times that much ... with the original level of biodiversity not likely to be regained in any period of time that has any meaning for the human mind" (Creation, page 84). "Science is an ally in helping us understand what creation is telling us about itself and indirectly about its maker," according to noted Christian environmentalist Loren Wilkinson.
Will we as evangelicals accept your offer for a dialogue? I do, and challenge my fellow Bible-believing Christians to join the conversation with scientists and expand it to include our nation's political leaders. Yesterday, I had an hourlong chat with a senior Republican leader in Congress who is a leader on matters of "faith and science." He wants to do the right thing, as do we all. But it will take courage for him, and all of us who are conservatives, to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies in the GOP.
The Republican Party (and yes, some leaders of the Democratic Party) has been far too beholding to special interests that not only deny our biblical values but hold politicians captive by their big bucks and hardball tactics. This is not a partisan pitch for either party, just a fact that needs facing up to. Yes, there will be costs, but I agree with Ed that "conserving biodiversity is the best economic deal humanity has ever had placed before it since the invention of agriculture" (page 99).  
Ed and Stuart, we need to explain these political and economic realities to our movement as much as we do the scientific facts. No social or religious group is better positioned than evangelicals to alter the current political landscape in which industry literally writes a hefty portion of our energy and environmental policies. Thus, we're launching a new website in late September called "Revision" (to be found at that will address the theological, scientific, and political imperatives for our evangelical leaders.  As you yourself have written:  "Creation — living Nature — is in deep trouble" and "Pastor, we need your help."   Amen, and amen.
Richard Cizik
National Association of Evangelicals       





Day 1, Tuesday September 5th

Day 2, Wednesday September 6th

Day 3, Thursday September 7th

Day 4, Friday September 8th

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