God and the Green Divide

Religious Environmentalism in Black and White

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Amanda J. Baugh
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , October
     2016.
     205 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520291171.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book has also been reviewed in JAAR by David N. Pellow.

In God and the Green Divide, Amanda Baugh presents a reworked version of the thesis that helped secure her employment as Assistant Professor of Religion and Environment at California State University, Northridge. Her doctoral work involved a multi-year ethnography of Chicago’s most prominent religious environmental organization: Faith in Place. To complete her research, Baugh volunteered with Faith in Place as it transitioned in both location and orientation from a grassroots to a mainstream environmental organization, but one that she arguessuccessfully crossed the racial divide that too often leaves such organizations dominated by Whites.

To describe the present monograph in broad brushstrokes, Baugh maps the work of Faith in Place through its formative period starting in 1999 to the times of transition in which she collected the majority of ethnographic materials (2006-2008), featuring both participant observation and interviews, and then up to the time of the submission of her manuscript ( 2015 ). Baugh began by volunteering and had direct contact with the organization intermittently for five years principally during the summer months. She notes the desire of the White, middle-class founders to move beyond the stereotypical notion of environmentalism as a sphere for upper and middle class Whites focused on wilderness conservation that she associates with figures like Theodore Roosevelt and organizations like the Sierra Club. This desire was manifest in outreach work with Muslim communities via an ethically-sourced halal meat program that earned Faith in Place media attention. Thereafter, a principal focus was on outreach to the black community in Chicago: hence the subtitle of this book.

Baugh illustrates how the resultant focus on grassroots urban environmentalism helped to build up Faith in Place’s legitimacy amongst donors and funders, marking the organization’s difference from secular environmental groups who tended to be more interested in policy work. This legitimacy was further buttressed by office locations in marginalized neighborhoods and was characterized by a staff and core group of volunteers who were mostly women, including an outreach coordinator who was keen to emphasize that a significant portion of Black people in Chicago were middle class, with all the sustainability challenges that accompanied that status. This diversity across racial lines was put on display in both promotional materials and at fundraising events and also reached, at various points, into Chicago’s Latino community. Yet the core group working at Faith and Place’s office mostly came from liberal Protestant traditions.

From this base, other offices were opened up in more rural areas of Illinois, including at the state capital, which was indicative of a shift to policy work. Further mainstreaming occurred. Eventually, the organization’s head office moved to a building that also housed the Sierra Club and was located within the power center of Chicago’s downtown Loop. This had the advantage of good public transit links, augmenting the personal safety of staff and volunteers and facilitating sustainable commuting, but it also removed some of the grassroots luster of the organization, as indicated by one sustainable gardening workshop provider who lamented to Baugh that he wished he had not given the organization a deeply discounted rate after learning of its new offices.

It is important to note that this monograph is no mere descriptive endeavor. Rather, God and the Green Divide is replete with interactions with the literature and theory that informs the academic study of religion in general, and the scholarly treatments of religious environmentalism in particular. In this way, Baugh is able to effectively argue for the originality of her contribution. That contribution, it should be emphasized, is impressive. Baugh engaged in sustained fieldwork to to access etic understandings of Faith in Place’s staff and a number of their constituents, and then brought a strong emic perspective to bear on her analysis. Indeed, she notes the uncomfortable truth that many scholars of religion and ecology are, in a sense, captivated by the ways religious traditions have and could go green in a cogent manner, thus reproducing liberal Protestant assumptions about the nature of faith. As Baugh accurately highlights, another branch of religious studies concerned with the environment is interested in deep green religion characterized by engagement with new religious movements such as neo-paganism. Baugh breaks from these two streams by studying people with traditional religious affiliations who, in the case of Faith in Place, were careful to avoid associations with new religious movements (in part, Baugh explains, because the director who shaped her time at faith in place was a Unitarian Universalist who may already have been deemed outside of the mainstream religious norm). Indeed, Baugh demonstrates that Faith in Place affirmed the value of religious diversity, yet in her framing, projects an implicit view that good religion has Earth stewardship at its core. Here, Baugh raises the possibility that such assumptions are a form of neo-colonialism, reducing religious complexity and difference to a single, implicitly universal ethical system.

As this review has begun to illustrate, there is much to stimulate reflection in Baugh’s work for those concerned with religious environmentalism and faith-inspired organizations. One tension that Baugh herself acknowledges struggling with is the nature of her responsibilities towards the organization she engaged with for so long. This is a perpetual challenge for scholars who undertake embedded research with organizations working on issues that they find both cogent and attractive. Perhaps, in a spirit of academic rigor she has gone too far towards the emic end of the spectrum. Also, at a few points the reporting comes off as interesting but only in a gossip-like manner. That combination may be read as a disservice to those busy people with good intentions who gave her so much of their time and with whom she ultimately agrees in most substantive aspects. Nonetheless, Baugh brings reflexivity to her choice of emphasis, a choice that reflects another aspect of her aforementioned critique: the tendency of those who study religious environmentalism to underplay the proverbial warts of its actors. This adds to the value of God and the Green Divide not only for scholars in areas like religion and ecology who will be given many pauses for thought by Baugh’s work, but also for staff and volunteers of faith-inspired organizations seeking to work across religious and racial divides in the service of a creative common good.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Hrynkow is associate professor in the department of religion and culture, St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan.

Date of Review: 
November 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amanda J. Baugh is assistant professor of religion and environment at California State University, Northridge.

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