I’ve been reading around environmental theology for a few years now, seeing as how my dissertation aims at creating an ecological way of thinking about philosophy, religion, and ecology, and am very dissatisfied with almost all of it. The primary reason for that dissatisfaction is the all too facile nature of a lot of the literature. One almost knows what the book will say without actually reading it (though, sadly, I’ve had to discover that by reading them!). For instance, in the seminal book by Michael S. Northcott The Environment & Christian Ethics we get the usual declension narrative (which I talked about before), some very dark and alarming discussion of the state of the environment, a review of some of the debates going on, and a few chapters where Northcott offers his own view, i.e. that natural law ethics, of a particularly Anglo-Thomist variety, i.e. “it’s the parish, stupid!”, is the way to think about the environment ethically from a Christian perspective. You have a similar structure, with a very different outcome, in Rosemary Radford Ruether’s God and Gaia, so it isn’t just the kind of conservative approach that I’m finding dissatisfying.
So what is it, though, that is the cause? I’m still not sure, but my gut reaction is that I’m just not finding ecology to be all that challenging to the initial theology. All the thinker’s seem to have an unshakeable faith in the theologizablity of environmental problems. Is it surprising that Ruether thinks a kind of feminist theology is the way to think through these problems? Or that Northcott thinks the same with the natural law tradition? No, because that’s the kind of theology the already believe in, so it is natural that they would then deploy that theology to understand certain environmental problems. Biblical environmental ecology is perhaps the worst, in my mind, since it doesn’t examine in any way the underlying presuppositions of its field. It just seems to think that, for some reason, there is something massively ecologically important about the creation myth in the bible or, at best, that there is some kind of massively interesting debate to be had over this claim. I wouldn’t deny a kind of academic validity to the question, the sort of strange interest many of us may have in a variety of subjects (like my recent obsession with the idea of Islam in French theory), but to elevate this to something that is vitally important in the political issue of environmentalism is bizarre and telling of a real misunderstanding of scale. You get similar problems in all the religious literature, from Islam to Buddhism, near as I can tell.
It is perhaps somewhat comforting that this problem isn’t just restricted to the religious. EO Wilson’s latest book also has this kind of cheap amalgamation of the religious ethical stance and environmental ethics, making a somewhat cynical appeal to the believers whose beliefs aren’t all that appealing to him (from what I can gather from his other writings, many of which are great).
This is all a problem for me as, ostensibly, this is a research area of mine and because I’ll be teaching a course on this next year as well. It doesn’t mean the course will suffer for it, since the current course I teach, theology through film, is also a field whose literature I find deeply, deeply flawed. It does mean I have my work cut out for me though in terms of the teaching, since I’ll have to spend some of the course giving the students a primer to scientific ecology and another part of the course going through the literature before I then say something like “I find all of this dissatisfying”. If any reader’s are knowledgeable about this area I am open to suggestions as I plan to work up the syllabus over the summer after I finish this year’s marking.