07 Dec 2011: Interview

Exploring Humanity's Place
In the Journey of the Universe

Mary Evelyn Tucker has been one of the innovators in the study of the connections between ecology and religion. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, she talks about her work and about a new film she co-produced that points to the spiritual dimension of responding to the world’s environmental challenges.

As a pioneer in the field of religion and ecology, Mary Evelyn Tucker has long believed that science and policy alone are not enough to deal with the Earth’s most pressing environmental challenges. What’s also needed, she says, is a spiritual or religious framework for valuing the natural world, a sense that “there is something here that’s larger than us, something that’s given birth to all life forms and sustains us.” That is the essence of a new hour-long film she co-produced, Journey of the Universe, which is premiering on PBS television stations this month, and a companion book she co-authored with evolutionary philosopher Brian Swimme.

Mary Evelyn Tucker Yale
Mary Evelyn Tucker
Tucker, a religious historian who teaches at Yale University, has focused her work on exploring the ways that various faiths define the relationship of humans to nature. With her husband, John Grim, she founded the Forum on Religion and Ecology, which grew out of a series of conferences they sponsored on the outlook of the world's religions — including Confucianism, Hinduism, and Islam — and which now involves 10,000 people worldwide.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 editor Roger Cohn, Tucker describes the evolution of her work and how it is brought together in Journey of the Universe. The film and book project, she explained, seek “to give a sense of how late we humans arrived, and yet how, in a relatively short period of time, our impact has been enormous.” While the film does not include any overt religious references, it does seek to evoke a sense of what she calls “wonder and awe.” Says Tucker, “There is a broad spiritual sensibility, which many environmentalists share, but often don’t talk about or want to name.”

Yale Environment 360: I was struck by the fact that your film, Journey of the Universe, ultimately is a celebration, unlike a lot of environmental-related literature and film that’s filled with a heavy dose of doom and gloom. This film is optimistic and even celebratory in many ways. Why did you choose that approach?

Mary Evelyn Tucker: We decided that so many people are aware of the huge and complex environmental problems we’re facing — ranging from climate change to toxicities to species extinction and so on — that people are so overwhelmed that they go into paralysis and despair. We didn’t want to take people there. We wanted to engage their sense of awe and wonder, because humans are moved fundamentally by either wonder or by disaster. We wanted to draw out the wonder.

So in this film, we put the consequences of humanity’s planetary presence — our burgeoning population, our overwhelming resource use, all the consequences of having exploded in one century from 2 billion people to 7 billion people — and we put that in the last 10 minutes of the film, where we do speak about humanity’s impact and our current environmental crisis. We felt it was more effective there, because first you need to get a sense of the unfolding of a universe that is 14 billion years old, the evolution of our planet, and life emerging out of this tremendous journey. We wanted to give a sense of how late we humans arrived, and yet, how in a relatively short period of time, our impact has been enormous.

e360: You mentioned some of the environmental challenges the world is facing. How do you see the response to those challenges as fitting into the whole idea of religion and its connection to ecology, which has been the focus of your work?

Tucker:What we’re trying to say in the religion and ecology work is that scientific facts are critical and necessary, and policy papers and legislation are indispensable. But they may not be sufficient when it comes to dealing with an environmental crisis. That may require other disciplines and other
There’s starting to be a sense that there’s a moral issue about degradation of the environment.”
ways of looking at the world, including religion. For instance, on the issue of climate change, many of the world’s religions have come out with statements about the urgency of climate change because of its effects on the poor and on those most vulnerable — for instance, in Bangladesh and in small island nations like Tuvalu, where people are already being evacuated [because of rising sea levels]. So this is not just an issue that involves science — it is an issue that involves ethics and religion.

e360: One could make the case that the influence of religion, particularly Western religions and the Judeo-Christian sense of humans having dominion over the Earth, has helped to create many of the environmental crises we now face.

Tucker: A lot of people would say that modern capitalism is what created this overconsumption, this excessive use of resources, this growth without limits. Of course, religions have both their problems and their promise. Religions have been somewhat late in coming to environmental issues, but they can be crucial partners with science and policy and economics.

e360: You are really one of the pioneers in this area of exploring the relationship between religion and ecology and ecological thinking. How did you develop an interest in this topic?

Tucker: Well, [my husband] John [Grim] and I had been studying the religions of Asia and the West in graduate school [in the 1970s] and became interested in the environment through our teacher, Thomas Berry [a cultural historian and Roman Catholic priest]. And we said to ourselves, “We’re not scientists or policy people or lawyers or economists. What contribution can we make to environmental studies?”

e360: Do you see any signs that people are becoming more aware of the spiritual or religious dimensions to environmental issues?

Tucker:I think like many social changes, shifting people’s perceptions about the environment is going to take a long time. Sometimes these changes move along at an incremental pace until people realize that there is a moral issue here. That’s what happened with civil rights. There was something deeply wrong about living in an apartheid society in the U.S. in
Each religion is developing its own language around this ethical responsibility.”
the 1950s and ‘60s. And there’s starting to be a sense now that there’s a moral issue about degradation of the environment, that there is something here that’s larger than us, something that’s given birth to all life forms and sustains us. And if we degrade that, it’s to the degradation of future generations. So there’s an inter-generational ethic here. And there’s a new emerging ethic of responsibility to people in other parts of the world who are suffering from our actions with things like climate change, which is affecting people along coastal waters.

So where is the moral force going to come from for inter-generational ethics or ethical responsibility for people in other parts of the world? It’s going to come from longer-range thinking, and that’s what the religions can contribute. Every major religion around the world now has a comprehensive statement on the environment and the need for care for creation or for the common good, as well as some very powerful statements on specific issues like climate change.

e360: And the focus has been on the ethical dimension of environmental issues?

Tucker: Right. Over the last 15 to 20 years, religion and ecology has grown as an academic field, but also as a force in the larger society. So many colleges across the country now have courses in religion and ecology, certainly in environmental ethics and so on. And the religious communities — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — are moving forward as well. Each religion is developing its own language around this ethical responsibility — stewardship for the Earth is more in the Jewish and Christian traditions, trusteeship for the Earth in the Islamic tradition. Care for creation is what the evangelicals like to use.

e360: The evangelicals are one of the more interesting developments because generally the religious leaders and groups that have gotten involved and interested in environmental issues have been the more liberal elements of various religions. But there is now this green element among evangelicals. What do you make of that?

Tucker: “Creation care” they call it. And it’s a different language than might be used by another Christian tradition. But what’s very interesting in terms of the climate issue is that when a group of [U.S.] evangelicals were taken to Oxford [University] they went to hear two of the world’s leading climate scientists, Gillian Prance and John Houghton, both of whom have been part of the [UN] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but are also evangelical Christians. And that was a real conversion moment for those American evangelicals, most of whom had been very skeptical [about climate change] up to that point. But hearing about it from scientists who also happened to be evangelicals had a profound effect on them.

e360: And what about other religious groups and leaders?

Tucker: Well, one of the international leaders in this whole movement has been the Dalai Lama as a Buddhist, and Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Church, has been a leader. Even this pope, the present Pope Benedict, has made some very good statements on this issue.

But the Greek Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomewhas been without doubt the spokesperson for environment as a sacred entity. For the last 15 years, he’s had water conferences throughout Europe, in Greenland, at the
If life emerged over billions of years, what is our responsibility for its continuity?”
Amazon, and on the Mississippi, and he has convened [environmental summits with] very high-level people from the UN, from the EU, ministers of environment, and high-level scientists from around the world. And [in 2002], he issued a joint statement with Pope John Paul II about the shared Christian responsibility to safeguard the environment and spoke about what was happening as crimes against creation...

So there are some hopeful signs.

e360: The book you’ve written and the film, Journey of the Universe, are not about religion and ecology — at least not directly. What are the key themes in the book and the film, and how do they tie into your life-long work on religion and ecology?

Tucker: Well, many people will approach an environmental concern through the religion door, if you will. But many people will not come through that door — they’ll be drawn in by a larger sense of the beauty and complexity of the natural world, the integrity of ecosystems, and this vast evolutionary journey that the world is a part of. So Journey of the Universe is an invitation to all of us, really, to reflect on the significance of deep time. And it’s saying that if we have come out of the star burst of a super nova, if we see ourselves as emerging from these self-organizing dynamics of universe and Earth, and if life emerged over these billions of years, what is our responsibility for its continuity?

The language in Journey of the Universe is something that is deeply dependent on scientific discoveries. It’s not using any kind of overt religious language. But it is suggesting, what are the grounds for environmental concern and ethics and action? We are not naming it from any particular perspective — it’s an evocation more than a preachment.

e360: Spiritual rather than religious.

Tucker: Right, exactly. There is a broad spiritual sensibility, which many environmentalists share, but often don’t talk about or want to name. And that’s the point here, to a very large degree, in various religions and culture, humans share a spiritual connection to nature and that’s tied in with a moral and ethical dimension as well.


Living in the Anthropocene:
Toward a New Global Ethos

Living in the Anthropocene: Toward a New Global Ethos
A decade ago, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen first suggested we were living in the “Anthropocene,” a new geological epoch in which humans had altered the planet. In an article for Yale Environment 360, Crutzen and Christian Schwägerl explain why adopting this term could help transform the perception of our role as stewards of the Earth.
e360: Certainly, when it comes to the issue of climate change, there’s an ethical dimension, isn’t there? We’re talking about future generations that might be impacted, and we’re talking about people in other parts of the world, including some of the world’s poorest, who would be most affected.

Tucker: Yes. It’s another dimension of human rights, really. But where is the moral voice here? Where is the ethical voice? I think the religious communities can and will draw this [issue] forward and help awaken the consciences of people. That is a huge hope because we have the science [on climate change] — the IPCC has done a remarkable job, the largest scientific work in human history of a collaborative nature. We’ve got policy papers, and we’ve got all kinds of green technologies emerging, which have to be part of the solution too. But this spark, this moral force, is absolutely essential, and I think it’s emerging.

Watch the trailer: Journey of the Universe

POSTED ON 07 Dec 2011 IN Climate Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health North America 


This is a moving article on the possibilities of collaboration between spirituality and science toward healing the earth and her inhabitants.

I would like to add that the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, a spiritual group serving sustainablity, has been doing this very work. A recent press release describes them and their endeavors by stating, "Originating from all four corners of the world, these 13 wise women elders, shamans and medicine women came together in 2004 at a peace gathering. Moved by their concern for our planet, they formed an alliance for a peaceful and sustainable planet. They have since traveled the world holding council and ceremony."

Finally, I'll leave you with this quote by Grandmother Maria Alice Campos Freire, of the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest: “I am nature, all human beings are nature–but we forget this.” Let us hope that the merging of spirituality and science will help us to awaken to our individual and collective power to make the changes necessary to live sustainably on Earth.

Posted by Victoria Forester Courtland on 07 Dec 2011

"Even the Pope" sounds a bit like a back handed compliment, like we're supposed to be surprised that even a Pope, especially the current Pope, speaks about caring for our environment. Such statements, while very subtle, are offensive to me as a faithful Catholic. Popes, in fact, have been speaking about the environment for many years.

Posted by Jake57 on 07 Dec 2011

Journey of the Universe is one of the biggest examples of Environmental fiction since Al Gores movie. Trying to weave religon and science together in fictional urge for Environmental goals towards another fictional attempt to make Global Warming/Climate Change or whatever current label of fictionalized human induced impact on our 14 million old planets weater is pitful.

Clearly all the Environmentalist are pulling out all stops to push for renewal of the failed Kyoto agreement in 2012. Despite all signature countries failing to reach any of goals since 1989 or that it pushed countries like China/India/Russia into leaders of global pollution with its exemption! Shame on PBS for being duped .... yet again.

Posted by Charlie Randall on 08 Dec 2011

Dear Ms Tucker,

Long time to hear from you; therefore this comment:

Every human institution (religious and scientific, both) of today and those throughout history, regardless of geographical region, culture, tradition or governance is/were based on self calculations, expansion, exploitation and constant growth (population, economy-GDP). That was/were working, sustaining all kinds of different ideas, while its expansion were possible, while We could run ahead not looking back, while there were empty new market (i.e. East and South European, Arabic, etc.), freely available cheap or even free labor (i.e. Asian, African, etc.), and while there was/were an expensive, willing and capable costumer base swallowing up all the basically unneccessary product/services of the profit making machinery created and the brainwashing marketing industry sold (neo-colonial attitude). Simply, that is part of human nature.

But today all this is crashing to a halt, as all the fundations of "free market expansion" have been exhausted, and then We haven't even mentioned the reducing natral resources (biodiversity), and the environmental changes (pollution) We have caused and that are now coming back to hount Us.

Today We are all sitting on the same boat in this closed, interdependen global Social-Ecological System (SES), and We have no other choice but to change the foundamental attitude how We relate to each other and to our surroundings - it is the same side of the story; i.e. spiritualy or scientificaly.

The good news is that We can replace our consumer culture with a culture of sustainability.

Therefore: I'M ASKING ALL OF YOU TO ENDORSE THE EARTH CHARTER (www.earthcharter.org).

Posted by Nijaz Deleut Kemo on 08 Dec 2011

I have taught a class at two churches on the Bible and the Environment which reviews what the Bible instructes about human responsibility to the earth and Creation. My lecture notes are available from my website (www.environmental-law.net) if anyone wants to learn more about this topic.

Posted by Larry Schnapf on 08 Dec 2011

I saw the film on PBS and thought it was magnificently done. Ms. Tucker deserves praise and admiration for her fine work in this field. It all comes back to the fundamental things, doesn't it?

Posted by Alan Freund on 09 Dec 2011

When you talk of mixing religion and "Green" that's funny to me because I look at "Green" as "The New Religion". Teachers (the self appointed Priests of Green) think nothing about pumping "Green" into my daughter's head.

When the Canadian High Priest of Green ,Dr. David Suzuki just got through telling kids that Santa may not be able to come to their house because his workshop is under water at the north pole I felt he stepped over the line.

In Canada there is a Green political party. I believe there is no reason to mix religion and Politics.

Posted by James on 09 Dec 2011

Expect much more from Yale 360.

What place has religion in science & ecology, other than to place blinder on thought.

Its about human action, positive and negative in a scientific framework, keep fictions and beliefs out of it - cold hard research, not wolly 'thinking'

Posted by Rob Morley on 12 Dec 2011

I believe that readers will enjoy listening to Frei Heitor, a Catholic priest in his 80s who spent 57 years fighting for the Amazon Forest in Acre, Brazil. Listen to him explain that he feels that he is part of the tree. It's priceless...


Maria Alice Campos Freire's statement that we are all nature and that nature embodies spirit was the very basis of Frei Heitor's life work.

Posted by Lou Gold on 13 Dec 2011

Dear Ms Tucker,
I viewed Journey of the Universe and was kind of disappointed in the absence of the growing SCIENTIFIC evidence that we are at or near the center of the observable universe in this documentary.

I'd like to mention that one country recognizes the oncoming plight of our planet by limiting its population growth, but not its waste of resources.

Posted by The Professor on 22 Dec 2011

Thank you e360 for an insightful interview into Dr. Tucker's motivation and vision for this new book, film and lesson series!

I have appreciated many of the valuable articles and interviews on the ethics of climate change and environmentalism and consider them all important contributions to the present and future challenges of sustainability.

Posted by James Stephen Mastaler on 29 Dec 2011

I'm watching this for the second time (March 2912) and I am with Rob Morley (12 Dec 2011): what has this got to do with science? Science and Religion are antithetical (if you don't think so, your definition of one of them has something wrong with it). Carl Sagan was so much more than Swimme is and Cosmos was so much more than JOFU. The film is simplistic and facile ("we have a new way of seeing... insight"? Perleeze). So why is this on Yale360? Because Professor Tucker is at Yale, that is why. However this linkage with religion is a distraction from the rational discussions we should be having about resources, population, ecology, climate, and energy. Yes, there are clearly moral aspects -- but morality is in no way the unique preserve of religion.

This film provides a platform for the sort of nonsense that confuses students (amongst others) by implying there there are supernatural forces or purposes behind natural phenomena. This theme was woven throughout the film -- but no aspect of science supports any of this speculation. This is very dangerous: science is hijacked to support religion! How many more times must we read student papers that include things like "the atmosphere is there to protect us" (it _does protect us -- but of course that is quite different from saying "it _is _there to protect us", since this implies intention or purpose).

In short, this is an horrible and regressive film that paints a gorgeous scientific and factual veneer over an ugly substrate of religiosity to further... what exactly? Are these civilization-changing ideas? Absolutely not. This is in fact damaging for the image of science in America and it does even less for the image of environmentalists. It is quite a big disappointment to me that PBS would show this film when there is so much good science programming available. If you want to be informed and uplifted by nature _without the religo-babble, watch Yann Arthus-Bertrand's HOME, or even the now-dated Cosmos series, on NOVA, or Scientific American Frontiers....

Science and nature are already wonderful enough without any need for made-up fantasies. As Tim Minchin famously said in Storm, his nine-minute beat poem: "Isn't this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable natural world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention or cheap, man-made
myths and monsters?". OK, I feel better for having written this: perhaps I did something useful today after all.

Posted by meltyman on 07 Mar 2012

Like a friend of Charles Darwin (FCD, ) let me remind you all that he was religious (a-teist or a-gnostic), and at the same time leading-revolutionary scientists. That didn't occupy him (wasn't important for him), but only for his wife! Also, Hans Kung do follow this destiney (teology and philosophy). So what? At the end good for both! Many other scientists are religious, and scientists persons, too. Thanks God, also:

"We do know that science is all about establishing cause and effect (experimental - try and error). This is why is a "scientific method" at all." Because it is easy to fool ourselves regarding what causes what to happen in the real-physical world. But, still many problems are not amenable to laboratory investigations. GW can be seen as one of them, who knows? Imagine that we do have hundreds of Earth-like planets nearby so that we could visit them with satellites and probes. Thus, we (scientists for sure) might randomly split them into two equal groups, inject one group with more carbon dioxide, and then monitor them, to see only whether that group of planets climate systems wormed relative to the others. That is so-called "cargo-cult science." Needles to say, thanks God again (or our spirituality) we do not have hundreds of "Pale Blue Dots" - Earth-like (Carl Sagan), to do that dangerous experiments on (so called geo-engineering). Instead, we have only this Mother Earth to study, and to care, and respect all life on it. Establishing causation in such a situation is dicey, at best, even for us homo sapiens - hominids.

Posted by NIJAZ DELEUT KEMO on 15 May 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.



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