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.

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?

There’s starting to be a sense that there’s a moral issue about degradation of the environment.”

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 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?

“Each religion is developing its own language around this ethical responsibility.”

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 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.

“If life emerged over billions of years, what is our responsibility for its continuity?”

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 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.

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.