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Non-Christian Religion and the Environment

This blog has previously addressed “creation care,” a primarily Christian (and evangelical) movement to incorporate religious responsibility into environmental protection. Western religions have been plagued with the accusations of Lynn White Jr. of their abandonment of stewardship. Other religions, however, have not had to reclaim a focus on the environment or experience eco-rebirth. Faiths such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, and paganism include tenets about the environment and have long been active in the environmental movement.

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One of the tenets of Buddhism is to minimize dukkha or suffering caused by ignorance. Buddhism treats all elements of the natural world as connected: humans, animals, and the environment are equals and should be treated as such. Buddhist monks practice nonviolence towards all animals and humans, including practicing  vegetarianism. The Dalai Lama has spoken out repeatedly in favor of acting on the environment. He noted that climate change is “adversely affecting not only human beings but also other living species.”

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It is against the teachings of the Qur’an to allow for “corruption on land and sea.” Countries with many Islamic adherents are already facing many conflicts over resources due to environmental changes. Conflicts “having to do with the decrease of agricultural yields, the expansion of the desert into pastoral and agricultural areas, and water shortages caused by climate change” are becoming prominent in areas of Africa. With a scarcity of resources there is an opportunity for the exploitation of them by radical and terrorist organizations. This can lead to instability and even war that cannot be contained by government (see: Climate Wars or Global Environmental Change and Human Security).

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Judaism incorporates nature and trees in the teachings and rituals of the Halakha. The environmental focus of the faith became formalized in the creation of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, which was started in 1993, the same year as the Evangelical Environmental Network. In their mission statement, the COEJL highlights the importance of “shalom (peace or wholeness), which is at the very core of Jewish aspirations, is in its full sense harmony in all creation” in being stewards of the environment.

Scholars in the United States have a tendency to preference Western, Christian faiths in their study of religion and the environment. It is important, however, to note the important work that other faiths are performing in service of the environment, with common goals, and success in local communities. Respecting the tenets of all faiths helps illuminate the similarities between moral mandates that drive environmentalism.

2014 Midterm Election Outcomes for the Environment

The 2014 midterm election results prompt some thought about the future of environmental policy in Congress. Republicans are less likely to advocate for environmental protection than Democrats. With decisions such as the Keystone Pipeline on the horizon, the make-up of congressional committees and leaders are increasingly important. With a firm Republican majority in the House and the Senate, there are expected changes in the leaders of committees.


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Of particular importance to the environmental is the potential placement of Senator James Inhofe to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe is a known climate denier who published a book titled, “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens your Future.” Selecting him for the Environment and Public Works Committee would send a clear message that the Republican Party is not willing to accept the scientific evidence for climate change, let alone pass policies to mitigate it. In the past, funding for scientific research into climate change has been cut by misunderstanding climate science. The assignment of Inhofe indicates that there may be more cuts to come. Specifically, funds for contributions to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (of which the US already gives very little to) may be at risk.


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Also alarming is the likelihood that Senator McConnell is now in a position to carry out his plans “promising to end the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on carbon pollution from power plants.” As the newly elected Majority Leader of the 114th Congress, McConnell’s plans may come to fruition.

Barack Obama, Xi Jinping

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It’s not all bad news. Obama recently made a deal with China to reduce carbon emissions by 2030. Despite Republicans declaring the deal a “war on coal,” climate scientists are resoundingly optimistic about its potential effects. This policy will undoubtedly be difficult to meet if resistance arises in the Senate and the House. It is certainly uplifting that Obama is finally addressing climate change with more than just (a few) words and enacting some real, marked change in his last two years in office. With a Republican majority, however, an environmental legacy may be difficult to establish.

Addressing “Manufacturing Denial” at the Strassler Center

This post was previously published on by Emma Frances Bloomfield, an ESCI member. Its relationship to climate denial illuminates important points of concern for environmental scholars.

Denialism Studies and Re-claiming History

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Last weekend, I attended a conference called, “Manufacturing Denial” at the Strassler Center. At the conference, I gave a paper on the similar argument patterns and rhetorical strategies in Holocaust-denial, climate change denial, and evolution denial. The three forms appeal to a unifying framework of conspiracy that allows them to construct enemies, discredit evidence, and shift the burden of proof onto historians and scientists. The article that served as the launching point for this larger piece can be read here. Summarizing comments from the conference can be read here by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, who I had the pleasure to meet and discuss evolution with at the conference.

Presenting on my panel at the Strassler Center at Clark University. Photo credit to Khatchig Mouradian.
The series of panels addressed many instances of denial, such as the genocide during World War II, the Armenian genocide, genocide in Rwanda and Cambodia, climate change, evolution, health effects of tobacco, autism vaccines, GMOs, political myths, and others. The variety of opinions ranged between questioning the worth of focusing and responding to denial to trumpeting the great work of exposing denial in its various forms. Some even went as far as to advocate for criminalizing denialism, as some European countries have done with the Holocaust, in all of its forms. They argued that not only are the memories of victims tarnished and ‘the truth’ being re-written, but also the mental and emotional well-being of descendants and citizens are affected by denialism.
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In the case of climate change, scholars argued that denialism promotes gridlock in the political system and stymies preventative action. Denialism, thus, is paramount to leading to thousands (and even millions) of preventable deaths. One scholar argued that the genocide of both humans and nature may have more casualties than any genocides in the past. Though I appreciate the candor of these scholars and respect that they are elevating issues such as climate change to the level of genocide in its consequences, criminalization is not the answer. It is quite easy for denialists to take advantage of criminalization as silencing the truth. The University of Utah Press, who came under fire repeatedly for published books that denied the Armenian genocide, has recently published a book by Lewy called “Outlawing Genocide Denial: The Dilemmas of Official Historical Truth” about the dangers of outlawing. Any type of law against denialism must somehow avoid issues of freedom of speech, specifically in America, and that everyone has opinions, however seemingly irrational or misguided they are.  In fact, a common theme at the conference was the likelihood that being faced with opposing information may encourage a backfire effect that heightens the original belief. War and violence conquers; it does not convince.
One common theme that came up among the panelists and my own paper were that although literal and blatant denial is often most studied by academics and heard about by the public, denial in its implicit and subtle forms can be the most insidious. In the Q&A, an audience member asked if scholars were not misplacing their time and efforts by trying to combat denialists instead of working on other research. To not address important points of deception and denial is to remain passive and allow for evil to flourish. One of my co-panelists argued that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Scholarship, in part, is based off of the very values that we are decrying: skepticism. Scholars look critically at the state of reality, question norms, and expose constructed and often subtle workings of power. Denialists occupy an extreme version of this healthy skepticism to where even basic evidence, consensus of truth, and facts are discounted, seen as fabricated, and are questioned. How do we negotiate and foster healthy skepticism and critical analysis without invoking cynicism and isolation?

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At the conference, the Armenian genocide and the Turkish government’s attempt to rename the genocide as “the events of 1915” and paint the Armenian victims as insurgents speaks to a national, government-supported policy to change the past and rewrite history. It is not easy to oppose the government and challenge people in positions of authority that are purposefully disseminating misinformation. It is certainly much easier for many of us as scholars to turn the other cheek and focus on other issues. But when denial of facts and the subsequent gridlock and inaction occurs that threatens knowledge, public deliberation, and the future stability of the world, how can we not act?

Demographics and Climate Change

A recent report links one’s geography to a belief in climate change. Unsurprisingly, people who live closer to the coast are more likely to believe in climate change than people who live elsewhere. The study attributes this to the ability to observe the effects of climate change and also the concern about how they will be affected as the sea level rises. Fortunately, this is not an issue for people in North Carolina who have passed a law that one cannot devalue property based on potential sea level changes. Observing the effects of climate change can be a motivating factor not only in belief but in taking action to mitigate climate change’s effects. The experience of true consequences, however, may be a sign that we have acted too late. In other words, many people must be convinced that climate change is serious in the future before experiencing the direct, severe effects if it is to be stopped. There are some important points illuminated in this study about demographics and belief in climate change.

Beach project that shows the new coastline. Retrieved from this site.

First, media continue to label climate change as a “belief” where people do or not believe in it, as if climate change were Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Climate change is still not considered “fact” by many and denialists and non-believers are prominent voices in the conversation. To call climate change a belief is in part to give it religious, farcical qualities instead of presenting it as empirical, scientifically-observed reality. This type of language reinforces that taking action is a choice based on one’s belief, absolves people of responsibility, and paints climate advocates in a negative light.

Political and economic loyalties despite rising evidence of climate change. Retrieved from this site.

Second, it is strange how well demographics predict one’s “belief” in climate change. There are statistics that link church attendance and conservativism with a distrust of science. Liberals are more likely to care for the material world, one’s situation and circumstances, and look at the larger picture. Females and youth are more likely to advocate for the environment. But why is it not simply a matter of education? We learn about the facts, we listen to the experts, we interpret the information and immediately are drawn to act to protect, communicate about, and care for the environment, right? For many, it is not simply a matter of education, understanding the science, or knowledge about the risks. Many people are aware of the science behind climate change and evolution, but choose not to believe. This can be attributed to the valuing of political or religious loyalties over what science may say is true, or a simple distrust of science as a whole. If people do not trust the source, why would they trust what they say? Education is not the cure-all for apathy and denialism; a re-structuring of how people identify with their faith and political party at the expense of the environment.

Energy Darwinism

Concerns over climate change has pushed the delicate relationship between short term benefits and long term risks and economic and environmental balance. Recent reports published by Citi (and subsequent national commentary on them) have focused on the idea of “Energy Darwinism.” This post will explicate this term, relate it to evolution and natural selection as the metaphor implies, and what this says about moral and religious obligations to the environment. Implicit in this discussion which will be addressed in a later post is the intricate relationship between money and morality, the economy and ethics, and patrons and politicians.

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As a brief point of introduction, natural selection, or “Darwinism” is the basic mechanism of evolution. From the assemblage of single-celled organisms to humanity, genetic variations accumulate over time and create branches of descendants and all of the life on earth today. The basic tenets of natural selection is that mutations occur in DNA to produce variations which are then competitively selected by the environment, mating preferences, and predator/prey relationships. Interpretations of evolution often forgo the opportunity for supernatural or divine intervention, making it a materialist theory of origins. Thus, evolutionary theory has often been opposed by religious adherents who regard it as immoral and too largely focused on the environment as a guiding force. Alternative narratives often find a role for a deity such as creationism or intelligent design. Labeling evolution “Darwinism” is in part a rhetorical strategy to reduce the explanatory power of evolution to the worship of an individual.

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Although natural selection was not meant to be applied to other areas of life, especially not human life, many people have demonized the competitive spirit of natural selection as damaging to humanity. Social Darwinism is an attempt to label philosophies of human competition with evolutionary characteristics. Energy Darwinism is a new application of evolutionary theories to industry reactions to environmental protection. The concept refers to the economic benefits of businesses becoming more eco-friendly. As carbon becomes more expensive as demand remains (or increases) and supply decreases, businesses themselves will move towards alternative sources in order to remain competitive. There is an irony in professing that Darwinism, which is often levied as a negative descriptor of human competition, aggression, and exploitation is used as industry competition that may drive down prices, encourage innovation for selfish needs for profit/money. Energy Darwinism may seem a simple, logical concept, but there are sinister implications and consequences for such thinking.

If the changing economic environment will change naturally to encourage better business practices, this removes the responsibility of industry to be purposeful actors and the government from intervening in environmental protection. There would be no need for regulations, national laws, and international agreements about reducing carbon and encouraging change because industries will naturally adjust to environmental pressures. Industries are reduced to the world of motion (such as the basic functions of animals), incapable of rational and symbolic action (such as the functioning of humans) that would require thoughtful reflection and intervention. Furthermore, the discussion of environmental protection is reduced to economic benefits, arguably the reason why the environment has been harmed to such extent. Energy Darwinism removes economic structures from culpability and instead worships it as the source of salvation. The system will correct itself, so there is no need for activism or change.

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A better motivation for environmental protection perhaps lies in moral arguments instead of economic ones. Though Energy Darwinism provides hope that businesses might be motivated to act, economic motivations are certainly questionable for immediate actions. Especially considering the Key Stone Pipeline and other important changes happening now, it seems that waiting for industries to succumb to pressures in the economic system will be too little, too late. Religious arguments, however, often propose moral obligations to protect the Earth for future generations and appeals to charity to help those in less developed countries accommodate environmental change. These arguments are certainly more appealing on a basic level of caring for fellow humanity, but it is perhaps overly optimistic to think that creation care arguments might ever have the persuasive power of dollar signs.

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