Many of us who set out to study the environmentalism of religious people in real, lived contexts have struggled with the inadequacy of the term “environmentalism.” Merriam-Webster defines environmentalism as “advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment, especiallythe movement to control pollution.” Let us for the moment accept this provisional definition. How would we know environmentalism when we see it? In the course of fieldwork for my book, I spent time with US conservative Protestants, some of whom cared deeply for the land, and who engaged with it intimately through practices such as hunting and gardening. But was that environmentalism? It felt environmental—related to the environment—but did not feel like environmentalism. For one, many of the people I met opposed advocacy, which they saw as socially disruptive. Hence, their attitudes toward the environment tended to violate what Merriam-Webster takes to be a defining feature of environmentalism.

A related issue in the context of studies of religious environmentalism has to do with the slipperiness of religion. When and where is “religion” happening, exactly? To be a religious environmentalist, that is, do you need to be doing your environmental activism while at church, during worship, or while in some way explicitly performing your religion? How should we interpret religion’s role in cases where religious people say their environmental activism has nothing to do with their religion? Or in cases where people would not describe their motivations and actions as religious, but scholars might? (I am thinking here of Bron Taylor’s dark green religion.) It appears that both terms of interest in our field are ill-defined—we do not know what environmentalism is, nor do we know when and where religion happens.

In refining the definition of environmentalism, scholars seem to have adopted two strategies. The first entails expanding the definition of environmentalism so that it encompasses the full spectrum of attitudes toward the natural world: your environmentalism is whatever your attitudes toward the environment are. This approach can be seen in geographer Jim Proctor’s EcoTypes Initiative; it has also existed implicitly for decades among environmental anthropologists, from Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff to Jerry Jacka, who have explored how religious cosmologies and practices shape human relationships with the natural world.

An alternative (and compatible) solution is to relabel the “environmentalism” that most scholars of religion and the environment have written about over the past several decades to make its narrow social origin and location more evident. Some refer to “mainstream” or “normative” environmentalism. I like the acronym WEAPPE (pronounced “weepy”) for White, Euro-American, Post-Protestant Environmentalism. Delimiting environmentalism more precisely in this manner might give us a better perch from which to destabilize its hegemonic status.

One of the many strengths of Anna Gade’s book Muslim Environmentalisms is that it adeptly employs both of these approaches, broadening our understanding of what should count as environmentalism, while also critiquing how scholars have uncritically accepted European and Christian framings of the environmental crisis. As she points out, the belief that the environmental crisis is at root a moral problem best addressed “by cultivating the signature moral sentiment of environmentalism, concern” is not the only way to look at things, but rather a frame that generations of US-based environmental thinkers developed and deployed, often drawing heavily on their Protestant heritage. (Gade explores this idea in more detail in a fascinating chapter in Feeling Religion.) Rather than understanding environmental ideas as indebted to prominent environmentalists’ imperial position and Protestant heritage, however, scholars in the environmental humanities have uncritically accepted the “universalization of European and Christian norms for all humanity.” Further distorting scholars’ understanding of Muslim environmentalism, specifically, a textualist, cosmological bias has resulted in a generation of scholars selectively highlighting only those examples of Muslim environmentalism that fit comfortably within a “standard interfaith menu.” As Gade makes clear throughout the book, those aspects of Muslim environmental engagement that do not fit pre-existing, normatively European/Christian conceptions of what environmentalism should look like are consistently ignored. Thus, a great deal of Muslim environmentalism has remained “illegible.” To take one striking example, she highlights how Muslim environmentalists have reminded believers that if they contribute to the destruction and corruption of the earth, they will suffer greater torment at the time of Judgment.

Could we adopt a similar strategy that Gade employs for studying religious environmentalisms in the United States? This seems to be what Amanda Baugh has urged in her work distinguishing “explicit” from “embedded” forms of religious environmentalism. In Baugh’s view, the environmentalism that gets recognized in studies of religious environmentalism tends to focus almost exclusively on examples of political activism, which she calls “explicit” environmentalism. This strategy ignores subtle but important forms of environmentalism, such as the “sense of connection with and appreciation for the earth” that other Americans, often those outside the WEAPPE mainstream (such as her Latinx informants), uphold.

Part of the reason that Gade, Baugh, and I have all critiqued normative definitions of environmentalism must surely have to do with our shared method of ethnography. All three of us have examined a “lived environmentalism” that exists outside the sphere of self-defined environmental activism. Accordingly, we see the folly (and perhaps, the arrogance) of assuming that only self-declared environmentalists can be said to practice environmentalism.

But there is a problem here, and it is one that cannot be fixed by simply expanding our definition of environmentalism. There are some serious questions to be raised about environmentalisms that do not fit the WEAPPE model. For example, Baugh’s “embedded” environmentalism would seem to have limited potential to address environmental problems that exceed personal behavior, i.e., most of them. A second disconnect has to do with goals. By the definition given at the outset, the goal of WEAPPE is to preserve, restore, and improve the natural environment. The goals of non-WEAPPE forms of religious environmentalism, however, can be quite different. For Gade’s Muslim environmentalists, it was to obey the Creator. For my evangelical informants, it was to be assured of a place in heaven. It is not clear that these various environmentalisms always end up in the same place (indeed, in the case of my informants, they mostly do not). It is also not clear that the people involved in environmentalisms will always understand each other well enough to be yoked comfortably together, pulling in the same direction. This is especially the case for environmentalisms that work within the transcendent rather than the immanent frame. What are normative environmentalists, with their heavy reliance on science and empiricism, to make of claims about the afterlife, the apocalypse? It is no wonder such environmentalisms have remained illegible.

Baugh and Gade are surely right that WEAPPE’s hegemonic status has blinded us to subtler forms of environmentalism, and Gade is wise to detect a colonial shadow in that framing. But in groping for a less compromised construct of environmentalism, some might ask, are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater? After all, to accept that everyone is an environmentalist of some sort is to group Exxon Mobile executives in the same analytical category with #NoDAPL protestors. So, in broadening the definition, do we risk washing out its meaning? Must we, in the end, make peace with WEAPPE?

I have not seen this question directly addressed elsewhere, so I will hazard an answer: no. In fact, hell no. The idea that advocating for the preservation of the natural environment is a universally accessible behavior is a fallacy. Not everyone can be the same kind of environmentalist because not everyone is presented with the same options, the same privileges. Material conditions—from political, economic, and racial paradigms to biophysical processes—constrain our choices. These conditions not only affect individuals in different ways, but, as post-colonial scholarship makes clear, also societies. Our cultures (including religious cultures) can provide us with “toolkits” to navigate these choices, but they cannot enable us to magically transcend our circumstances. Hence, environmentalism is perhaps best identified as existing where material conditions and environmental values intersect. It does contain a normative dimension—Exxon Mobile executives are out. But it does not and should not be limited to political activism, to the signature moral sentiment of “concern,” or to activism that assumes the immanent frame. Such a definition is simply WEAPPE chauvinism in action.

As for when the “religion” in religious environmentalism happens, Muslim Environmentalisms provides a helpful model in that it is relatively untroubled by the question of what constitutes specifically “religious” environmentalism in the first place. Gade rejects the idea that the Quran is to be seen as “a predictor of Muslim attitudes” (a view still widely, and problematically, upheld in the US-based literature on evangelicals and the environment). She instead shows how text, tradition, and other factors intersect to produce various Muslim environmentalisms among her informants. At no point do we hear her informants questioning whether their environmentalism is specifically Muslim. By contrast, many of my US evangelical informants rejected the notion that their environmental values, such as they were, had to do with their religion, seeing environmental conservation instead as a matter of common sense. In Baugh’s research among Unitarian Universalists (UU) and Latinx Catholics, her UU informants strongly identified as environmentalists. Yet, like my informants, they did not see this as part of their religious practice. (Her Latinx Catholic informants did not see themselves as environmentalists because of its WEAPPE overtones.) Contrasting Baugh’s and my work in the United States with Gade’s in Indonesia reveals an interesting cleavage: people in the United States seem to have an oddly narrow understanding of what counts as “religion” in religious environmentalism. Might this have to do with the history of the term?

As Talal Asad has pointed out, the definition of religion we hold today is not neutral, but rather emerged from a specifically European historical experience. It was during the Reformation, and as a result of the political-religious transformation that it wrought, that Europeans came to understand religion as something that belonged to the individual’s private experience and resulted from a personal choice, rather than being experienced as a public and political/territorial identity. This history is why US and European informants today can understand themselves as having “religious selves,” which are separate from their secular selves. This history is why they can—and why they do—distinguish between environmental actions performed for religious reasons and those performed for secular reasons.

When contemporary informants in the United States say that their environmental activism is not part of their religion, they are not so much stating an incontrovertible fact as relying on a “folk definition” of religion that has sifted out of this history. Importantly, this folk definition of religion has a distinctly Christian, Protestant quality, distilling religion’s essence as “belief in God” (hence, in good Protestant form, it identifies monotheistic belief, rather than ritual, etc., as the essence of religion). It is this folk definition, which is exceedingly narrow, that makes it difficult for informants to identify their environmental activism as religious. As a case in point, Baugh’s UU informants strongly identified as environmentalists, believed their faith taught them they had to respect the earth, and in some cases shared that they joined the tradition in the first place because of its embrace of environmentalism. And yet they still said there was only a weak connection between their environmental commitments and their religion!

Considering a Southeast Asian perspective may help remind us that such mental divisions of the self are not universal, but rather emerge from a particular cultural and historical experience. As Asad reminds us, in the past (and of course, outside the West) there have been “different selves that [religious power] shaped and responded to, and different categories of knowledge which it authorized and made available.” Recognizing this—setting universal claims about religion and environmentalism aside, and instead unearthing the power of specific contexts to generate unique religious environmental forms—is the fertile territory toward which Gade’s work guides us.