The essays in this forum set out to understand the normative principles and ethical guidelines that human communities derive from nature, based on recent books written by Carol Wayne White, Robin Globus Veldman, and Anna M. Gade. The essays effectively situate the books within broader academic questions in the study of religion, nature, and the environment, showing how the three works offer new insights into nature and normativity through their examinations of African American religious naturalism, white American evangelicals, and Indonesian Muslims, respectively. The respondents also emphasize how these books interrogate inherited constructs of environmentalism itself, underscoring the need to critically examine the normative discourses within our own scholarship on religion and the environment. This conclusion builds on that discussion by naming a normative sentiment that shapes the conversations in this forum: the sense of urgency that we need to understand how people think and feel about the environmental crisis because we so desperately need to solve it. While it is tempting to seek solutions to the environmental crisis through scholarship on religion and the environment, religious studies scholars must be wary of uncritically advancing our own normative ideologies of religious environmentalism.
The study of religion and the environment has engaged in its own version of the theology versus religious studies debate, and some scholars have resisted confessional or constructive scholarship that is seemingly less objective. Yet scholars of religion and the environment clearly do bring environmental concerns to their work. If Anna Gade is correct, those normative concerns are baked into the very foundation of our field. “A moral order underlies all facets of the [interdisciplinary environmental studies] field,” Gade has written, “including but not limited to the human commitments to ‘solve problems.’”
In keeping with that commitment, an underlying sense of urgency to solve (or at least address) environmental problems seems to frame many of the essays in this forum. Lisa Sideris observes in her introduction that “reflecting on humans’ habitual turn to nature for normative insights feels especially pertinent in the midst of megafires, heatwaves, hurricanes, shrinking glaciers, and, above all, a rampaging virus.” This is a time when “the academy cannot afford to treat environmental issues as peripheral,” she writes. Jonathon Kahn emotively describes the significance of Carol Wayne White’s Black Lives and Sacred Humanity in relation to BLM’s “confrontation with the ways that anti-Blackness saturates and deforms Black existence in this country” (emphasis added). Susannah Crockford begins her essay by remarking on a widespread sentiment “that we are in troubled, uncertain, and unusual times,” and she concludes with the foreboding admonition that “a house divided cannot stand.”
Several authors in this forum seem to support the idea that scholarship on religion and ecology can, or perhaps even should, provide normative guidance for responding to the environmental crisis. Both Kahn and Mary Keller focus largely on the contributions of White’s book for thinking about the intersection of racial and environmental injustice in BLM protests that erupted in summer 2020. And White confirms that she set out in her book “to honor a relational ontology within nature that helps us make better sense of intersectional analyses in approaching” all forms of injustice. While Veldman and Gade approach their scholarship with descriptive-analytical lenses rather than constructive ones—and Gade clarifies from the outset of her reply to Elizabeth Hennessy and James Bourk Hoesterey that “Muslim Environmentalisms is a book about Islamic environmental ethics, not a book of environmental ethics”—the respondents see ethical implications in their works as well. Crockford notes that “what is at stake [in Veldman’s scholarship] is not simply an academic debate over different worldviews,” because “disbelief in the imminent, existential threat of climate change” will not protect anyone from its material consequences. Hennessy describes Gade’s work as “a welcome guide for building ethical relationships both within the academy and in our wider communities.”
Yet even as the authors in this forum convey a sense of urgency that scholarship on human-nature entanglements should contribute to addressing the environmental crisis, some remain unconvinced that our scholarship actually does make any material difference in the world. “Epistemological musings won’t make global warming go away,” Evan Berry writes, “nor are they especially helpful in understanding how the realities of climate change are refracted through social institutions.” Crockford wonders whether understanding the beliefs of climate deniers can really make a difference in addressing the “existential crisis” that we collectively face. Veldman doubts that environmental humanities scholarship can have any direct implications for political strategy, yet she does find it important for scholars “to create work that both serves and guards the public interest.”
These works make essential contributions by questioning the Anglocentric frameworks that have constrained environmental discourses both in the academy and beyond. Narrow conceptions of environmentalism have negative consequences for scholarship in religion and the environment because they prevent scholars from seeing the full spectrum of the phenomena that we are seeking to understand. For example, in The Gospel of Climate Skepticism, Veldman shows how a narrow focus on the “end times hypothesis” has obscured the complex behaviors and values through which white American evangelicals have related to the environment. In Muslim Environmentalisms, Gade shows how the limiting assumptions of “keywords” approaches to religion and the environment neglect the lived practices of actual Muslims.
Narrow conceptions of environmentalism also have negative consequences for society, because they undermine particular communities’ sense of agency and their ability to see the vitality of their own voices for addressing environmental problems. For example, in my research on environmental values among Spanish-speaking Catholics in contemporary Los Angeles, the young adult leaders of a Spanish-language faith and ecology group have told me time and again that they are just at the beginning of their eco-journeys; that they are doing things “little by little” and they have a long way to go. While many of their families live in dense urban housing and participate in ecofriendly practices such as recycling, using public transit, and cultivating backyard vegetable gardens—and they have inherited cultural values that support loving and respecting the earth—the leaders of this group have often looked earnestly to me for advice. I am white, middle class, highly educated, and urban, and they aspire to be the kind of environmentalist that they perceive me to be. As these young adults endeavor to align themselves with Anglocentric frameworks that they perceive as universal environmental principles, they cannot imagine that their search for eco-role models might begin in their own homes, with the abuelita knowledge of family members who grew up in small agricultural communities and embraced the value of thrift. The books in this forum are important because they disrupt the power structures that have conveyed to these faith and ecology leaders that their communities’ environmental knowledge is not important.
If there is something distinct (if not unique) about the study of religion and the environment that leads people to read normative implications into our scholarship, then it is essential to acknowledge and interrogate that normativity. We need to engage in continual dialogue and self-reflection about what those normative implications are, and remain attentive to the ways that our scholarship can become complicit in the very same structures that we claim to be overriding. That is precisely what Gade, White, and Veldman have done in their final responses to this forum. Gade calls out environmental studies scholarship for being too US-centric, and White urges scholars to remain attentive to the reality that “a politics of nature infuses all of our discourses on nature.” Veldman observes that the universalization of WEAPPE (White, Euro-American, Post-Protestant Environmentalism) frameworks has prevented scholars from seeing other nondominant perspectives.
But in the very process of trying to displace WEAPPE’s dominance, Veldman illustrates the difficulty of the task at hand, because WEAPPE ideals remain at the normative center of the questions she raises. Those ideals are present in her assertion that “WEAPPE’s hegemonic status has blinded us to subtler forms of environmentalism” (emphasis added), because “subtler” in this case is another way of saying “non-WEAPPE.” They are there in her avowal that different expressions of religious environmentalism do not always “end up in the same place” as WEAPPE’s preservation ideals, because that implies that various forms of environmentalism should end up in the same place. And WEAPPE ideals even inform her recognition that “not everyone can be the same kind of environmentalist because not everyone is presented with the same options, the same privileges.” While making room for the possibility that different forms of environmentalism might emerge in different communities, that observation ultimately implies that given the same material conditions everyone should want to be the same kind of (WEAPPE) environmentalist.
My initial impulse was to respond to Veldman’s points by trying to show how diverse expressions of environmentalism matter, even if they do not take the forms we would expect based on mainstream environmental frameworks. Veldman’s view that some expressions have limited potential beyond individual acts is one that I have heard before, in pushback that small actions do not matter and we need sweeping policy change. This is the direction Crockford points toward in this forum, when she wonders whether beliefs about climate change ultimately matter given the vast scale of change needed to address the climate crisis. But reading Gade’s second contribution in this forum, “Nature as protective strategy: The environment and a new normal,” made me realize that my approach to these questions was misguided. Environmentalism by Gade’s definition is an ethical commitment, Gade avers, and “this includes propaganda and identity and ideology, even what Veldman would likely consider anti-doctrine from the viewpoint of her analysis.”
I think Gade is urging us to treat the category of environmentalism in the same way that scholars of religion treat the normative category of religion. Just as religious studies scholars tend not to engage in debates about who is or is not a “true” Catholic, but instead might analyze the implications of people claiming, rejecting, or being excluded from that identity, Gade suggests that religion and ecology scholars should not worry themselves with debates about who is or is not a “true” environmentalist. Instead, a more fruitful conversation could take place by asking who gets to claim the label of environmentalist, who is excluded from the category, why some people assert that identity when their actions and priorities seem to point toward opposite goals, and the power structures that support these classifications.
Asking these types of questions can lead to more robust scholarly conversations, and they might even contribute to solving problems. But the normative ideals we espouse when we enter the problem-solving mode need to be identified and clearly understood.
I am grateful to the Brilliant Lady Scholars—Michal Raucher, Kate Dugan, and Tina Howe—for reading through several different drafts of this piece, pushing me to refine some ideas and discard other ones. Thanks also to Elaine Nogueira-Godsey for responding to my last-minute plea for help with citations, and to Jane Caputi for introducing me to the concept of abuelita knowledge and sharing relevant sources. My observations about the difficulty of displacing WEAPPE ideals builds on the insightful commentary Tyson-Lord Gray has made about my own claims in God and the Green Divide.