Climate Change, Religion, and Our Bodily Future
Series: Studies in Body and Religion
- ISBN: 9781498534550
- Published By: Lexington Books
- Published: July 2021
Climate change is an existential threat that has garnered significant scholarly interest, yet few have wrestled with its implications for religion. Toward this end, Todd LeVasseur’s Climate Change, Religion, and Our Bodily Future explores the ways in which humans’ sacred rituals will have lasting consequence for the earth and, at the same time, how these emerging environmental changes are shaping even the most ancient faith traditions.
The book juggles three titular themes—global warming, religion, and the body—and is motivated by the academy’s inability to respond to the current climate crisis in a robust way. To explore the intersection of these topics, LeVasseur organizes his work into two parts: a theoretical overview and applied case studies. The chapters on theory (along with the preface and introduction) offer an impressively wide range of methodologies and interlocutors—including material feminism, queer epistemology, decolonialism, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, and Bruno Latour, to name a few. And though the first part is not rigorously structured, two recurring themes emerge that become important for understanding LeVasseur’s project. The first is that the author’s approach to religious studies may be characterized by biological determinism, convinced that “our bodies operate within evolutionary parameters at the cellular and individual levels . . . as well as at the level of ecosystems and planet,” and thus he denies any sort of anthropic telos and emphasizes a naturalistic understanding of religion (8). The second theme lies between the cellular and the environmental, in the middle level of human existence: culture. At that meso-level, though hybrid and contextualized by place, humans find their greatest agency as they construct meta-narratives and perform their faith. Brought together, these themes recognize the bio-physical nature of humanity and people’s embeddedness in their ecosystems.
Having demonstrated the cultural, biological, and ecological components of religion, LeVasseur moves in part 2 to a series of religious and ecological encounters. Chapter 4 follows camps outside the Standing Rock Sioux reservation that protested a pipeline threatening the sacred waters of the Missouri River. In this example, all three major themes of the book—religion, our bodily or performative acts, and the mechanisms of climate change—come together. The next chapter widens its gaze to similar issues on a global scale, looking at both the effects of planetary warming for Hindu pilgrimages to Himalayan glaciers as well as the climate consequences of the hajj to Mecca. Chapter 6 returns to the Himalayas in the Ladakh region, highlighting the complex intermixing of religious and secular sustainability efforts, and the final chapter reflects on less traditional forms of religion, such as the spirituality of surfing and sex-ecology movements—these final examples sketching the connection between ecologically-minded behavior and spiritual views of nature as sacred. Although the reader is often reminded that any changes described in the book are less likely to thwart climate change than describe necessary adaptations, it is all a part of generating “new religious modes of meaning” and entering into new or “posthuman” ways of experiencing nature (147).
LeVasseur is undoubtedly dealing with one of the most pressing issues of our day, and he is right to emphasize its importance for the academy. Moreover, in exposing the multifaceted ways in which humans’ religious lives are shaping and being shaped by their context in the natural world, the author brings necessary attention to the primordial force of ritual and faith traditions, which are often neglected in conversations over global warming in the shadow of economic and political realities.
The book forgoes what may be obvious examples for a Western audience (Christianity is hardly mentioned) in favor of a variety of spiritualities mapping onto a number of environmental concerns. The colorful case studies parallel one of the loveliest cover arts (by Nikki Scioscia) I’ve seen in some time as well as a handful of black and white photos that remind readers that the content of the book is more than theory. The author’s intended audience is academic, but the book’s tone can best be described as prophetic as it draws on a number of external voices to call for renewed attention to the climate crisis.
This prophetic posture warrants further reflection, however—what does LeVasseur expect to be the upshot of his work? In the penultimate chapter, he points to research that certain beliefs and dispositions (namely, viewing nature as sacred) are more likely to produce sustainable behaviors, and then goes on to describe religious practitioners that focus on embodiment, posthumanity, queering, eroticism, and the like to bring awareness to our changing world. But it must be asked: is this likely to convince anyone who does not already agree? I am skeptical. Still, this may not be a problem for LeVasseur as he frequently reminds his readers of the inevitability of climate change and its irreversible effects. In this his propheticism mixes with a voice of resignation and orientation toward adaptation. Many readers will likely be left wondering if more can be done, or if they ought to look to political and technological answers rather than to ritual performances.
I make these comments less as a critique and more in line with a recommendation—LeVasseur’s project works by its own criteria, to simply understand global warming’s effects on religious bodies, and to do so in particular ways. However, the methods used may not seem relevant to some readers, and something more confessional or more practical may be desired. Yet for those with a similar starting point, LeVasseur offers a complex and insightful analysis of the subject.
Daniel Crouch is a PhD student in theological studies at Baylor University.Daniel CrouchDate Of Review:January 26, 2023