Should individuals continue to pollute oceans and clear forests for the convenience of humanity? Is it morally right to use gasoline if the technology to create no-emission vehicles exists? Does the environment hold intrinsic value or does its value lie in its utility to humans?
These are among the questions at the forefront of environmental ethics, a burgeoning branch of environmentalism at the intersection of religion, philosophy and ecology, which is making waves at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
F&ES granted five-year appointments to two eminent environmental ethicists — Mary Tucker and John Grim, who founded the national Forum on Religion and Ecology — to develop a program of study related to religion and ecology at the University. The pair will coordinate the school’s activities with the Center for Bioethics, the Divinity School, the Department of Religious Studies and the Institution for Social Policy.
Grim’s and Tucker’s appointments at F&ES reflect the growing role of religion and ethics in environmental debates at Yale and around the country, F&ES Dean Gus Speth said.
“There is a significant role for religion, values and ethics in the response to the environmental crises we humans, as well as members of all other species, will increasingly face in the years ahead,” he said.
Recruiting new faculty is not the first step Yale has taken towards bridging these fields, Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said. F&ES has offered a joint master’s degree with the Divinity School in environment and ethics for several years, and the Divinity School appointed Willis Jenkins as assistant professor of social and environmental ethics last year, he said.
The question of the role of ethics in ecology only entered the academic world in the last decade, Tucker said. She said Yale is among the first schools in the nation to make a commitment of this level towards expanding the interdisciplinary field.
“Ten years ago, scientists wouldn’t have imagined a role for religion in environmentalism,” she said. “Humans have developed a code of ethics for human-human interactions — for homicide, suicide and genocide — but we’re just starting to develop a code of ethics for human-nature interactions — eco-cide.”
She said religions — many of which have been traditionally anthropocentric in their philosophies — are now entering what she called “an ecological phase,” increasingly turning their attention to the interdependent relationship between humans and their natural environments.
In addition to its traditional religious worth, Tucker said many individuals commonly attribute a deeper intrinsic value to objects in nature, which invites environmentalists to consider the larger spiritual significance of environmental issues.
David Smith, director of the Center for Biostudies at Yale, said another important element of the interaction between religion and environmentalism is its ability to inspire action.
“The connection between ethics and the environment is a socially and politically useful one,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there who are religious, and if you can mobilize them around environmental issues, you’ve got a surprisingly powerful social engine.”
But Grim said religion alone is not sufficient to bring about change. It must engage both science and policy every step of the way, he said.
“Religious institutions and leaders really need to activate a dialogue between economics, policy-makers and scientists,” he said. “When religions see themselves as offering explanations for everything in the world or as completely self-sufficient, they lose touch with the reality.”
While a large proportion of scientists and environmentalists see religion as a positive force in the field, not all are equally on board, Tucker said.
F&ES Director of Doctoral Studies Xuhui Lee said religion is simply not relevant to some issues.
“It really depends on what type of problem you are looking at,” he said. “Many localized, political issues, such as local sources of pollution, are purely economic and social, not religious.”
But in addition to its academic component, Tucker said the movement also has a grassroots component — eco-justice — which involves global efforts to reverse pollution. In this way, Grim said, religion can help activate “the intersection between theory and reality.”
Some scholars said they fear bringing religion into ecological discussions may incite strong emotional responses and result in conflict.
Associate Research Scholar at F&ES Redi Lifset said the inclusion of religion may foster a blind value-judgment approach to environmental issues.
“Using religion, we can make judgments about environment that may not be open to debate,” he said. “There are lots of issues in environmental policy that need to be argued and shouldn’t come down to simple declarations of value.”
While the picture may not be entirely “rosy,” Tucker said environmental ethics is not limited to organized religion. Grim said the challenge for environmental ethicists is to show that the movement equally embraces non-secular forms of spirituality — such as biophila, the love of nature — as it does secular religion.
A symposium on environmental ethics, “Renewing Hope: Pathways of Religious Environmentalism,” organized by Tucker and Grim and sponsored jointly by the Divinity School, FES, the Center for Bioethics and the Forum on Religion and Ecology, will be held at Yale the first weekend of March.