Mary Evelyn Tucker of Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology delivers a Nov. 9 address at the University of St. Michael’s College. Photo by Michael Swan

Religion, science must unite to save environment

  • November 18, 2012

TORONTO - The difference between right and wrong could be the difference between life and extinction as Earth’s climate continues to spiral out of control, a Yale University professor of forestry and religious studies told a Toronto audience Nov. 9.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is the director of Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology and was a frequent collaborator with the late Passionist father of ecotheology Fr. Thomas Berry. Speaking on “Future Generations and the Ethics of Climate Change” at the invitation of the University of St. Michael’s College’s Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology, Tucker made the case for an alliance between the worlds of religion and science.

While science is more comfortable with descriptive than prescriptive words about nature and cautious scientists have been reluctant to tell politicians what to do, religion has only very recently begun to address the environmental crisis and ecotheology is still rarely spoken of in seminaries. However, the state of the world’s natural systems demands the best thinking of both religion and science, said Tucker.

“We have to say continually that religion is necessary but not sufficient. We have to develop partners in science, in law, in policy,” she said.

“We need humility. We don’t have all the answers because we were late in coming to this.”

Even if there has been a widening gap between science and religion in the modern era, the world now needs the “deep spiritual resources” of world religions that have dedicated millennia to thinking about right, wrong and the common good. Religion has the ability to teach humanity to value nature as the source of life, rather than a collection of resources to be fed into the gross domestic product of nations, she said.

“We have to see environmental degradation as an ethical issue,” she said. “Until now degradation has been seen as the inevitable cost of economic growth.”

The beginnings of an ethics that addresses climate change would be a serious look at distributive justice, according to Tucker. There are already winners and losers around the globe as sea levels rise, droughts devastate farm land and more violent storms create climate refugees from New Jersey to Bangladesh. But distributive justice should also mean extending the reach of human rights to future generations who will have to live in the environment this generation leaves them.

While an ethic of rights might set minimum standards, drawing lines which must not be crossed, a true environmental ethic would concern itself with much more than the minimum. As nature always seeks flourishing, so should our ethics.

Our ethics should be based on a clear-eyed view of human beings as a “small but indispensable part of a 14-billion-year evolution,” she said. “We need an ethic that is culturally aware but also universally compelling.”

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