That All May Flourish

Comparative Religious Environmental Ethics

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Editor(s): 
Laura Hartman
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     2018.
     344 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190456030.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Laura M. Hartman’s That All May Flourish: Comparative Religious Environmental Ethics is both a substantive work of comparative ethics, and a meaningful contribution to the emerging field of environmental humanities. Its separate chapters are wide ranging, yet create a cohesive overall collection—a challenging feat in an edited work. Because of its comparative focus, and because each chapter is ultimately self-contained, it could teach well in a classroom context; some chapters are more technical, but many chapters would be accessible at undergraduate levels, and the cross-cultural chapters in particular would spark fruitful classroom discussions.

There are two particularly praiseworthy aspects of the design of the volume as a whole. First, the volume’s contributions cover a wide span of religious traditions, while nevertheless avoiding simple tradition-tokenism. For instance, the book includes chapters on both African indigenous and African Islamic contexts, in addition to a chapter on the eco-halal movement. Moreover, in offering a wide span of traditions, it is commendable that the chapter’s less globally dominant traditions are not forced to bend their remarks entirely to Euro-American or Christian concerns and categories.

With the exception of the first chapter (where the volume’s only analysis of Buddhism vies for space with extended discussions of Aristotle and Darwin), the chapters analyzing non-Christian and non-Euro-American traditions effectively center the ideas, texts, practices, and/or lived experiences of the traditions they write about, allowing the book to achieve a meaningfully diverse and substantively comparative perspective.

The second impressive aspect of the volume’s overall design is its innovative inclusion of “dialogues.” The body chapters are all sorted into pairs; each pairing is given a section, comprised of the two chapters themselves and then some kind of conversation between the authors of the two chapters. These range from transcripts of actual conversations to coauthored analyses of the chapters’ common themes.

Through this structure, the volume is able to perform better comparative work: rather than simply put essays side by side and allow the reader to make connections, the volume presents the authors synthesizing ideas and challenging each other. The book thus captures some of the social/collaborative/collective thinking which is critical to academic work but is usually relegated to conferences or personal emails and scrubbed from published volumes.

In addition to the strong design of the book, there are also a number of individual chapters that merit special mention. Dianna Bell’s chapter (“Islam, Ritual, and Climate Change in Mali, West Africa”) presents a beautifully nuanced ethnographic account of villagers observing changes to their local ecologies, and striving to interpret and respond to those changes through vernacular Muslim theologies and rituals. Rebecca Epstein-Levi’s chapter (“Genetic Engineering, Jewish Ethics, and Rabbinic Text”) offers a surprising and unusual argument that DNA can be meaningfully compared to sacred text, and thus Jewish traditions of textual interpretation can be meaningfully used to understand the workings and manipulation of DNA. Christopher Patrick Miller’s chapter (“Yoga Bodies and Bodies of Water”) bypasses the trope of timeless spiritual India in favor of a sharply engaged and theoretically sophisticated analysis of contemporary Indian politics and religion under Narendra Modi. Michael Hannis and Sian Sullivan’s chapter on ||Khao-a Dama traditions (“Relationality, Reciprocity, and Flourishing in an African Landscape”) provides intriguing examples of agency and moral relationship being extended to certain plants and to rain.

There are some ways the book could have been constructed better. There are a few chapters that retread ground already familiar from other publications (most notably the discussion of Laudato Si in chapter 11), where the editor could usefully have challenged authors to push further away from the existing debates and discussions of eco-theology. Also, the chapters that I personally found most engaging and challenging were placed a bit late in the volume; it is possible that the editor wanted to walk readers gradually into the most unfamiliar or radical of the comparative contributions, but since I found these the highlight of the book, I would have been happy to see them showcased earlier.

Most importantly, the pairings of chapters and themes could have been fine-tuned. Significantly, chapters 2 and 5 are about the ethics of eating (one from a Christian theological perspective, one from an Islamic eco-halal activist perspective)—yet they are not paired with each other. Instead they are linked with far less thematically related chapters, and classed under the more vague categories “Flourishing and Its Costs” and “Animals and Care.” Chapters 7 and 8, by contrast, are paired with each other while being closely related through a very specific theme (each analyzing human relationships to rivers)—but the coherence of their section is muted by the vague title, “Climate and Culture.” If the volume had been organized around slightly more narrowly delimited themes, and if a few of the chapter pairings had been reorganized, it is likely that a more interesting overall structure could have emerged, and that the innovative strategy of including author dialogues would have more consistently reached surprising and novel insight.

Overall, though, this book is challenging and impressive in scope, and it is far more successful than most edited volumes at creating insight and interest across its different discussions. The editor and the contributors are to be commended on their collective work on this project.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anne Mocko is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Laura M. Hartman blends her passions for religion and the environment in her work on consumption, climate engineering, ecological restoration, feminism, virtue, and other topics. She is author of The Christian Consumer: Living Faithfully in a Fragile World and editor of That All May Flourish: Comparative Religious Environmental Ethics.

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