The field of religion and nature—or religion and ecology, as some refer to it—has been emerging over the past two decades or so and has increasingly made its mark in academia. During this time, specialized journals have been established, a few academic centers dedicated, conferences held, and many books published. A growing number of institutions have begun to offer undergraduate courses in the area, as have a few graduate programs. There have been some attempts to tie this emerging scholarship to the real-world efforts of religious organizations and environmental NGOs, although with limited success. It is one thing to mine religious or cultural traditions for material that can be used to construct an environmentalist/sustainability ethic but quite another to persuade people to adopt it, especially when such powerful counterforces as poverty, political short-sightedness, corruption, corporate greed, and consumerism militate so aggressively in the opposite direction. It is hard not to read material such as one finds in this (and similar books) as consisting largely of sermons to the converted.
Certainly, in addition to the kinds of extended works of research and analysis that are generating ongoing discussions among scholars interested in how cultural values affect our behavior and decisions related to the natural environment, there is a need for materials that can be used in teaching the kinds of courses mentioned above. The book under review could be considered for adoption in such a context but given its rather unusual thematic approach it may not meet the needs of every instructor. Previous textbook readers such as Roger Gottlieb’s This Sacred Earth (Routledge, 1995, 2003), Richard Foltz’s Worldviews, Religion and the Environment (Cengage Learning, 2003), or more recently Willis J. Jenkins, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim’s Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology (Routledge, 2018) have taken a largely taxonomic approach based on different religious traditions and/or philosophical approaches (e.g., deep ecology or ecofeminism). Here, Laura Hobgood and Whitney Bauman have opted instead to divide their readings thematically according to the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. The articles are authored mostly by Western academics following Western academic approaches. Though there are a few new faces, reflecting the fact that religion and nature scholarship has now entered its second generation, many are familiar names appearing again and again at conferences and in the various edited volumes that have been published over the past two decades. One admires these scholars’ ongoing commitment to maintaining a discussion that, sadly, appears to have had little impact over this period in terms of changing actual human behaviors and social policies around the world despite increasingly alarming reports from the scientific community regarding the ever-intensifying threats of climate change.
Academic publishers have taken of late to producing all manner of “handbooks” on almost every subject imaginable. What is a “handbook,” exactly, and what is it meant to do? Few of those that bear the title could actually fulfill the role of providing a basis of essential knowledge in the subject they address. They cannot and should not be considered as reference works—as opposed to, say, Bron Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (Bloomsbury, 2005), which genuinely seeks to fill this niche and, notably, takes a balanced critical approach in contrast to the largely apologetic works being produced by most scholars working in the religion and nature field.
There is no doubt that the environmental crisis is the most severe threat facing humanity today or indeed at any point in history. Nor is there any reason to question the value or validity of using the classroom for discussing the role of culturally-generated values in addressing or failing to address this crisis. On the other hand, the scale of the emergency shows more than ever before the potential impotence of ivory tower deliberations in the face of looming disaster. It can hardly escape notice that the United States—the country where religion and nature scholars have been most active and where a strong majority of the population claims to be religious—stubbornly persists in its unrepentant role as the world’s worst environmental criminal and least cooperative global citizen. Tragically, and despite the noblest intentions and the best efforts of many thoughtful and committed minds (well represented in the collection under review), an effective translation of academically-generated pro-environment value systems to policy-makers and the general public continues to elude us.
Richard Foltz is Professor in the Department of Religions and Cultures at Concordia University in Montréal, Canada.
Date Of Review:
October 2, 2018
Laura Hobgoodis Professor and holder of the Paden Chair in Religion and Environmental Studies at Southwestern University. She teaches and lectures on animals and religion, religion and nature, the Anthropocene and ecofeminism.
Whitney Bauman is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University. He teaches and lectures on science and religion, religion and nature, and religion and queer theory.
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