New Environmental Ethics: 20 Years of The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology

As the F&ES-based Forum on Religion and Ecology celebrates 20 years, we sit down with co-founder Mary Evelyn Tucker, who describes the growing global awareness of the relationship between the world’s religious and spiritual traditions and it can help humankind solve its environmental challenges.

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

Twenty years ago, Yale’s Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim founded the Forum on Religion and Ecology, an ambitious initiative that has helped create a new academic field which explores the relationship between the world’s religious and spiritual traditions and the environmental challenges we face.

Two decades later, the field is taught in universities across the world, similar forums have emerged in Canada, Europe, and Australia, and a force of religious environmentalism is growing in churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques globally.

In recognition of this anniversary, I spoke with Mary Evelyn Tucker, a senior lecturer and research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, in her New Haven office. As an F&ES student keenly interested in the nexus of religion and ecology, I find the work of Tucker and Grim tremendously inspiring.  

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. The founding occurred at a conference you and John Grim organized at the United Nations. What was driving you at that time?

Mary Evelyn Tucker: As a scholar of Asian religions, I was especially motivated by a concern for what would happen in China and India as these countries began to modernize. Clearly the environment would suffer as over two billion people began to seek the fruits of modernity. This is now happening in those countries as air, water, and soil are being severely polluted. Twenty years ago I felt we should seek environmental ethics that were culturally diverse, which meant we had to investigate how religious traditions shape the way nature is viewed and valued.
mary evelyn tucker yale school forestry Mary Evelyn Tucker
Our vision with the Forum, then, was to create a field of religion and ecology in academia and a moral force in the larger society. From the beginning, we laid out our plans regarding research, education, and outreach. The research was to make sure this new field was taken seriously in the heart of academia. It is clear that that we’ve got good environmental science, policy, law, technology and economics, but we need to include values and ethics from the world’s religions.
We began this research with three years of conferences at Harvard (1995-1998) after which we published 10 edited volumes with Harvard on the world’s religions and ecology. Since that time we have been creating classes and workshops to reflect on how we teach this new field. The outreach has been very exciting over the years with public conferences bringing together religious scholars, scientists and grassroots activists. We send a monthly e-newsletter out to about 12,000 people.
The Forum website is also a major outreach tool with its attention to all the world’s religions, including statements and annotated bibliographies. There is a special section on the Pope’s 2015 encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si, which has made a significant contribution to formulating an integral ecology for the flourishing of the planet.

Over the last 20 years, the Forum has organized more than 30 conferences and taught numerous students here at Yale and around the world. There’s also the sister project Journey of the Universe , through which you’ve created a feature-length film, book, conversations, and MOOCs reaching some 23,000 people around the world. What are you most proud of?

Tucker: Well, I hope these various projects will make different contributions. All of this work has been much inspired by our teacher, the cultural historian, Thomas Berry. Next spring John and I will be publishing a biography of Thomas Berry. In writing his biography these last few years I have been even more inspired by how he studied these traditions when few people were and, particularly, how he understood their spiritual dynamics. He was an intellectual, but he could appreciate religious practices and the care for nature. Berry had this vision that we need a new story that can bring us together as an Earth community — a multi-form planetary civilization. His ideas infuse what we do with both the Forum and the Journey project. The Forum is focused on drawing forth and evoking from the world’s religions their teachings, their traditions, their practices for an environmental ethics. We want people to understand that 85 percent of the world’s population are religious, with a billion Muslims, a billion Hindus, a billion Confucians, two billion Christians. We would do well to understand their stories and cultures and worldviews.
Journey of the Universe is a complementary effort that suggests that whether or not you’re part of the world’s religions, you have a place in this unfolding universe. Journey of the Universe is a scientifically and ecologically grounded telling of our evolutionary story. It’s trying to appeal to people, especially young people, all over the world, who may not be attached to a religion, but are inspired by the complexity and beauty of nature. We were very fortunate that it was broadcast on PBS for three years and won an Emmy. We have just launched a new website and will be drawing more people into the discussion of the film and book in the online classes.

Last year, I was honored to attend the Hinduism and Ecology Conference, held at Govardhan Eco Village in India. That conference was nearly 20 years after the first Hinduism and Ecology Conference you organized at Harvard in 1998. I was struck by how far the dialogue must have come in the religion and ecology field.

Tucker:Govardhan Eco Village was a remarkable setting for that conference and it was fantastic to have young people there — scholars and practitioners — as well as people from other institutions, such as Oxford. It was great to see Radhanath Swami’s charismatic leadership and this partnership with academics, which doesn’t always happen. We always try to have our conferences be intergenerational and this was very pronounced at that event. We are quite focused on how we get the next generation to carry on this work, whether as a field in academia or as a force in the larger society. The Eco Village is a remarkable place that embodies an inclusive vision — something that many of us hope for — growing organic food; making earthen brick buildings; running a school for orphans; assisting indigenous peoples in the region; reaching out to women, and helping rural community stability. This range of concerns is fully in accord with our concerns as well. If we say “religion and ecology” it might sound narrow, but the opposite was on display at Govardhan Eco Village. It involved working creatively within a whole ecosystem — of local people and local bioregion. This eco-community has emerged over many years and despite great challenges. Twenty years after the founding of the Forum on Religion and Ecology, it was inspiring to see this.

Are there changes you’ve observed in the academic field of religion and ecology over the last 20 years?

Tucker: We were brought to F&ES by former Dean Gus Speth, who, after 40 years of doing environmental work, felt that science is necessary but not sufficient. After graduating from Yale Law School he founded the National Resource Defense Council and World Resources Institute, yet ultimately realized that even law and policy are not enough. He felt we needed other approaches, namely from religion, philosophy, art, and culture. He perceived this lacuna, this lack, in the environmental field. That’s what’s exciting now — the opening for religion and ecology within academia, especially in a school like F&ES, is getting stronger. Students are very interested because they understand why culture matters in Asia, Latin America, and Africa and why religion needs to be part of the solution for our social and environmental problems. There are also an increasing number of academic jobs in this area, which is very exciting. This is because environmental humanities are growing — history, literature, art, philosophy, and religion are contributing to environmental studies, especially here at Yale.

We’re seeing that here at Yale with the interdisciplinary program in religion and ecology between F&ES and the Divinity School.

Tucker: Yes, exactly, with the new M.A.R. [Master of Arts in Religion] at the Divinity School and the existing joint degree between the two schools. That’s real progress.

You attended the San Francisco Global Climate Action Summit in September. What was your impression of the Summit?

Tucker: What was evident was that the force of religion and ecology is definitely growing. At the Global Climate Summit, there were major events at Grace Cathedral which included all the world’s religions, an interfaith service, and a whole day of workshops. We showed our film, Journey of the Universe, there. And a few years prior, there was the Climate March in New York in 2014 with 10,000 religious leaders and laity participating among 400,000 marchers.
The strong voice of Native Americans was so striking in San Francisco. They were saying, “climate capitalism is insufficient. This is not about monetizing nature but valuing it intrinsically as the source of life, not just a resource for humans to use without restraint.” That critique is coming from indigenous people and others. They were also saying human health is at stake with fracking and oil spills and other negative impacts of drilling. Even apart from the Summit, Native American activists have been creating new alliances with ranchers and farmers in the West, the Pacific Northwest, and Canada. The water protectors at Standing Rock in North Dakota was another remarkable example of alliances that went across generations and tribes. Native young people are really the ones who started that protest. It was one of the largest gatherings of indigenous peoples ever to occur on the continent. And inclusive of everyone. It’s an extraordinary movement that has spread across North America.
Diverse and younger voices are coming up, new leadership is emerging, and I’m so thrilled about all of this.

Often the religious or interfaith presence at these events can be somewhat sidelined. Outside of Grace Cathedral — outside of just the ‘interfaith event’ — were connections happening at the Climate Summit between religious folks and people in science, technology, and business?

Tucker: That’s a great question. I’m not entirely sure. The Summit was, as you said, very much driven by science, economics, and technology. It was an important political effort launched by Governor Jerry Brown to illustrate that “we are still in” regarding the goals of the Paris Agreement. The moral force and religious concerns are not exactly marginalized, but they’re still a bit on the sidelines in their own sphere. There’s a lot of excitement about new technologies and financing and green funds and all of which is necessary. Certainly the religious communities can’t do this alone. At the COP conferences, the annual conferences held by the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, there’s been a bit more connection, but we’re just now getting to this point where religions are no longer left out at the door — they’re on the doorstep, they’re moving into the hallway, they’re beginning to engage in more dialogue. The Parliament of World Religions in Toronto in early November had many sessions on climate change and the environment. Some 8,000 people attended this from all over the world.

You have just returned from Norway where you were speaking at the 2018 Arne Naess Symposium on the future of humankind. What are your views on our collective future?

Tucker: I was excited to be at the Norway conference and learned a lot. As far as our understanding of human futures, we have lots of perspectives to draw on. I spoke about Journey of the Universe where we are suggesting that humans can find their larger role in being aligned with this vast evolutionary journey. That’s empowering. For me, one of the ways forward is thinking deeply about this sense of evolutionary time and this unfolding universe that we’re a part of. I think it has tremendous possibility for unlocking awe and wonder along with a sense of beauty and connection.
In Europe there’s a strong environmental sensibility, which is profoundly connected to nature. This is especially true in the Nordic countries, The Arne Naess Programme at the University of Oslo is dedicated to continuing this conversation, especially through the lens of “deep ecology,” of which Arne was a great thought leader. He was one of Norway’s most distinguished philosophers who was trying to move beyond anthropocentrism to a sense of our “ecological self.” He lived immersed in the forests and mountains.
You cannot help but realize in a country like Norway how important the forests are. People live close to the forests and and are much engaged with outdoor sports and activities. They are keenly aware of the seasons because of the long darkness of winter. It is striking how much the energy and movement of the rivers and the fjords and the fishing culture is part of the culture. Their adventurous outdoor spirit is evident in their explorations into the Arctic and Antarctic. The Norwegians have been thinking about what it means to live in harsh conditions for a long time. I think they love that and take pride in their resilience. The United Nation Environment Programme and the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment have created the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative that is partnering with the Forum on Religion and Ecology and other Interreligious groups to assist indigenous peoples in the protection of the rainforests.
Why is it that the Scandinavian countries have led environmentalism in its vibrant secular form? In Scandinavia they’ve realized for some time now that people and planet have got to have a new marriage — a fresh relationship. How are we going to do that? I’ve been to conferences in Sweden that are astounding where they are exploring new human-Earth relations in singing and the arts as well as films and sculpture. They have a very rich feeling for nature that includes incisive practical policies, especially about equity and social justice.

For those of us immersed in environmental issues and climate change, it's easy to start to feel negative or despair about the state of our world. What gives you hope?

Tucker: This is on my mind often. At the end of October we held a conference in Virgina at the Oak Spring Garden Foundation with Peter Crane, our previous dean at F&ES. It was titled “Living Earth: New Ways of Being and Knowing.”We brought together a remarkable group of people who are writing about the sensibility that we dwell on a living planet. We had scholars at this gathering who are focused on various forms of non human sentience. This included Eduardo Kohn, who wrote “How Forests Think”; David Haskell, “The Song of Trees”; David Abram, “The Spell of the Sensuous”; Jeanette Armstrong, “Flash”; and so on.
GrimAndTucker 500x574 John Grim, left, and Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-founders of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology
We know that ecosystems, such as forests, are so complex and we’re just beginning to get views of how we live within them. There are people who’ve thought about how such systems have their own self-organizing dynamics. Eduardo Kohn, for example, is talking about biosemiotics, namely the communication that takes place between trees, from the roots up to the leaves. The popular book, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” by a German forester also describes this kind of communication. This work is so intriguing and growing in publications and widespread interest. It is a source of hope for renewing mutually enhancing human-Earth relations.
Migration patterns are also a sign of certain kinds of sentience in the more than human world that includes birds, butterflies, caribou, turtles, and salmon. How do birds, for example, get all the way from Tierra del Fuego at the tip of Latin America to Canada — 6,000 miles away? How do their chicks fly back without the parents and find their way, never having gone before? This is incredible. I think these are topics that many people are keenly interested in. A better understanding of the dynamic, complex systems of nature is something that can generate awe, wonder, and hope, even a possibility that we actually can be aligned with and assist these systems.
Literature on the differentiated sentience of nature is popular right now. Why? Because we don’t want to think of this as a dead world that we can destroy with impunity. Matter is living, changing, and communicating. That’s what’s so amazing.

Some authors have written about the world being in a ‘Great Turning’ or ‘Great Transition.’ With this sort of interest in religion and ecology across various walks of life, do you think we are in a time of transformation as a human community?

Tucker: On my better days, certainly, I think we’re moving towards some sort of deeper understanding of the challenges we are facing. Why would religion and ecology have progressed in such a short period of time? There’s a yearning for participating in something larger, more comprehensive, and more fulfilling. Materialism and consumerism have created a vacuum of meaning. This is what we’re saturated with in the U.S. and what we have exported around the world. Young people say they’re experiencing a spiritual desert. I think it’s inevitable that some kind of transition of consciousness and conscience — of active responsibility is emerging. This can happen as we awaken to a deeper understanding of ecology as relational systems in which we are embedded. Humans are part of a vibrant, dynamic Earth community.
We are imperfect and we’ll make mistakes, but many people are seeking to be aligned with the self-organizing dynamics of nature. That’s part of human creativity. If we build cities in an ecological manner, if we have green buildings — these are expressions of such creativity. Our current energy revolution is an important historical moment of transition from a fossil fuel based economy to a sustainable economy. The physical energies we are looking for are paralleled by a search in the human community for deeper energies of resiliency going forward.
Allegra Lovejoy Wiprud ’20 M.E.M. is a master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.