Commitments called sustainability and environmental justice (EJ) ethicize the field of environmental studies. Over the past decades, these have also come to represent academic subfields. Like the very idea of the environment, sustainability and environmental justice are also new expressions in English and other languages. In contrast, a much older, post-Christian concept of nature does not represent a formal academic field, except to qualify natural resources. Nevertheless, the idea of nature persists across a range of environmental studies; leveraging an unspoken legacy, it can function as a rhetorical fallback that signals moral ideals as well as unspecified biotic and abiotic phenomena. This perpetuates genealogical inheritances stretching back to the nineteenth century in the United States, and even before that in Europe. In the spirit of the critique of categories in the study of religion as protective strategies, I wonder what nature represents as it relates especially to religion and science in our discussion. What does it protect, and should that be saved for Christian America?
As in my own book, Robin Globus Veldman’s The Gospel of Climate Skepticism does not use a nature concept.1The exception to this is a tangential reference in Veldman’s Introduction (Veldman, page 6) to The New Ecological Paradigm scale from 1978. This well-known and popular instrument developed by Dunlap uses the term for the assessment of “whether humans think they were meant to rule over the rest of nature,” from which a range of sociological inferences may be drawn. The Gospel of Climate Skepticism leaves unproblematized both the implicit Biblicism (as in, The New Ecological Paradigm scale’s reference to “dominion” elsewhere, from the Book of Genesis) as well as the related nature-concept overall. Susannah Crockford’s response to the book, however, does introduce it. Carol Wayne White further builds critically on the conversation in her own essay, “Which politics of nature?,” also enhancing a constructive understanding of the category, nature. I do not tend to render environmental terms from Arabic Islamic material with the English word “nature” in translation (whether from the Quran or another source). Therefore, I am intrigued by how scholars would read “nature” into Veldman’s book (a text in which it is also notably absent).
Amanda Baugh has written that our academic field of religion and ecology (in America) has a “whiteness problem.” Veldman’s book dives deep into a world of whiteness, in a study of the same Christian Right that has been viewed widely as a key political base in American national politics. One of the hallmarks of American white privilege and white fragility (“whiteness problems,” among others) is that systemic white supremacy just goes without saying. Race is not given significant mention in Veldman’s book. It is reasonable to ask, do responses to The Gospel name “nature” to talk around whiteness?
Generative historical criticism is a theme among African American authors on race and the idea of nature within environmental studies, such as Carolyn Finney’s well-known book, Black Faces, White Spaces. For example, in this forum, Carol Wayne White writes, “. . . historical perspectives and developments reveal troubling aspects of American environmental histories, and they contribute to the larger modernist project of ‘racializing nature’ that Black Lives [White’s book] seeks to counter.” Other popular Black writers express deeply the ambivalences of relating past and present through personal accounts. In her essay in Trace called “The Alien Land Ethic,” for example, African American author Lauret Savoy shares the discovery of her father’s autobiographical book, Alien Land. Savoy contrasts this expression of racial injustice and alienation with Aldo Leopold’s writing in A Sand County Almanac. Savoy’s analysis leaves unresolved what is her own stake in Leopold’s claim to belong on the land. Similarly, in The Home Place, J. Drew Lanham takes up the Leopoldian legacy in the context of Black American experience. Lanham’s voice leads with the idea of nature to offer a message of resilience for people of color especially those who are, like himself, Black birders and naturalists.
William Cronon, who once offered a critique of the historical conceptual “trouble with wilderness” in white settler context, had no trouble with the sublime term nature, only criticizing its exclusive placement in a US landscape. Consistent with Cronon, I myself only use the English term in my book, Muslim Environmentalisms, as it appears in Euro-American contexts (which may or may not be white or Christian). The writings of Finney, Savoy and Lanham, Cronon and Baugh, Crockford and White, and Veldman’s book are all about Americans. Nationalist histories, and related US-centrism that circulates in North America as well as in environmental studies worldwide, are where I see trouble starting.
As others here have noted already, the privilege to be an Americanist scholar oriented to Christianities (or their absence, as with secularity) is to have data casually generalized as theory. The response by Veldman in this forum, “Beyond belief?,” is a call to “provincialize environmentalism” (American environmentalism among Christians and post-Christians, it goes without saying) rather than “universalizing the US experience.” America means double trouble in this regard, with respect to concepts of nature as much as environmentalism.
The argument of Veldman’s book is also exactly about the effects of others’ presumptions about white Christian privilege in America, its thesis being that a perceived disruption of a sense of entitlement among a segment of American Protestant Christians has led to resentment, what Veldman calls an “embattled mentality.” In the span of a generation, Veldman shows, this perception has fostered a religious worldview that casts itself intentionally to be out of step with the rest of the world’s attitudes on climate change. This population, whose grievance is allegedly to no longer represent the rightful norm, nevertheless comprises only a smaller group within a group.
Veldman’s analysis has comparative implications beyond a narrow case study, however, and this is where nature runs into some trouble, I think. Her sociological answer to the question (why climate denial?) is that the embattled religious mentality activated by the displacements of secularism have been cast as a matter of anti-science. Such a sweeping view allows for the interpretive elision of terrestrial nature (such as in conservation discourses) on the one hand, and a different order of scientific abstraction, such as with the environmental sciences of climate change, on the other hand. I embrace this rupture; however, Crockford’s and White’s responses here to The Gospel of Climate Skepticism imagine a bridge over troubled environmental territory that preserves nature as a concept.
I notice that in each of their responses, both Crockford and White rewrite nature back into Veldman’s book right when ideology needs clarification, just as an old question from historical Christian studies comes up once again: what naturalizes the opposition of religion and science? In words on which White also comments, Crockford inserts nature into the core of Veldman’s thesis at this juncture. She writes, “Perhaps this misalignment between traditionalist evangelicalism and climate science arises from the contested conceptual terrain from which the term ‘nature’ arises.” Crockford reintroduces Cronon-ly nature in her response, essentially reframing the main question of Veldman’s ethical book to be, when did a (presumedly good, moral) nature-love go bad? However, in the next paragraph, Crockford switches gears in her analysis of American white evangelicals of the Christian Right, and all of “us.” “Veldman,” she writes, “compels us to cast off our naïve apolitical notions of nature and confront how religion and politics infuse ideologies of the natural world and its proper management.” With this second observation of Crockford’s, we need to troubleshoot next, why indeed did we ever need a nature-concept here to begin with? If a straightforward introduction to political ecology is in fact the explanatory matter at hand, then the task would be to clear away the debris so we can really get down to the matter of Marx.
Crockford points out how climate denial is big business, mentioning the work of Naomi Oreskes. The impacts of such an industry’s targeting of Christians affects a far more widespread cluster of commitments, such as how the outreach of this “gospel” occupies the same space as an influential campaign of hate-filled Islamophobia. In The Gospel of Climate Skepticism, however, what Veldman calls the “climate denial machine” is nevertheless presented as something like an epiphenomenon, and is not explained until halfway through the text (specifically, Chapter 8). Like the work of R. Marie Griffith, Veldman’s fine book instead explores in-depth the reception and dispositional shaping of attitudes among church communities, and on balance not so much the structural, historical, or material forces behind it.
The trouble I see with nature surfacing here is not that it functions to signal any particular political or confessional stance (although Crockford’s response implies that it might), but rather that reintroducing nature mystifies more than one paradox of The Gospel. The first of these is that the role of theology remains the central question in a book that otherwise would challenge the purported significance of belief (a distinctive Christian concern about marking group identity since the patristic age). Restated, despite the critique of doctrine as determinative (what Veldman terms “the end-time apathy hypothesis,” a Weberian stereotyping of the soteriological as “otherworldly”), both Veldman’s book and forum responses here maintain ideology as the principal question of identity and group belonging.
The book claims that in the past decades climate skepticism has become for the Christian Right in the United States both a norm and a new “normal”: as “skepticism” and “belief” (i.e., religion) in the face of “secularism” (i.e., science). I see nature here stepping into the conversation as an ethical language to protect a second, hidden paradox. It serves to occlude the persistence of a dialectic of religion/science within a post-Christian frame that would not otherwise justify its naturalization. Nature comfortably smooths over the false dichotomy, operating as an overlapping term within an implied, expanded formulation: religion-nature-science.
Starting with the Quran in Islam, religion and science are mutually supportive, not oppositionally productive; the same could be said of academic study in interdisciplinary environmental studies. Rather than nature, I seek to develop the idea of the environment as the academic norm for a decolonized field, as does Veldman, I think, because she identifies herself in her own book as an “environmental studies scholar.” Veldman also writes about environmentalism in both of her responses in this forum. When I define environmentalism as an ethical commitment, this includes propaganda and identity and ideology, even what Veldman would likely consider anti-doctrine from the viewpoint of her analysis; for example, my perspective would label the “hot millenialist,” even a committed apathist, as being different sorts of environmentalists. This affords more of a scope to the term environmentalism than even Veldman’s “hell, no” calls for, I realize. Such an expanded perspective also affords a post-colonial perspective on the global instrumentalization of environmental ideas, such as with international development critique. This theme is what Veldman’s book is so brilliantly about, albeit within a more limited social and cultural frame. “De-provincialized,” this could include a nonperipheral consideration of worldwide impacts of the uniquely American “climate denial machine.”
Notions like sustainability and EJ, furthermore, show that ethics need not be offloaded onto a suffix of environmentalism, nor cast like a spell onto nature. The idea of the environment is already ethical. In the field of multidisciplinary environmental studies, moreover, the environment need not be an empty signifier, merely the tautological object of environmental studies, but it may function as a constructive as well as a critical concept.
The presumed Christianity of religion, the whiteness of English-language nature-ideas, and the exceptionally Americanness of environmentalism do not in themselves cause trouble in regard to The Gospel of Climate Skepticism. Veldman’s superb book does happen to be about white American Christians, using English. It is how the reproduction of nature may function as a linchpin for preserving the “religion-science” split that spells trouble for me, with the apparent protection of European Christian investments that have by now been considered critically by each one of us here. To amplify a romantic idea of nature, whether on or off-planet, may not be worth the trouble. For me, the environment expresses the political and ethical norms for the new environmental normal of conditions like climate change.