A minister in Alaska took a break from the demands of his pastoral work to go hunting. In the wilds, he suddenly came upon a bear, and when he raised his gun, it jammed. "Dear God," he prayed, "make him a Christian." The bear, lumbering rapidly toward him, stopped in his tracks, clasped his paws together, looked upward and said, "Lord, thank you for the gift I am about to receive."
The Far Side sensibility of this story - told recently at a conference here on religion, ethics, and the environment - hints at how conventional approaches to religion may fall short in helping solve the problems that confront us, and particularly the crisis in our relation to the natural world.
"If the rest of the world lived as we do [in the United States]," says renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson, "we would need two more planet Earths."
Yet much of the rest of the world wants to live like Americans, who show few signs of living any differently. China, with a quarter of the world's population, has set a goal of matching current US gross domestic product by 2050, says Karim Ahmed, a deputy director at World Resources Institute in Washington. (And the US auto industry, urged on by the Department of Commerce, hopes to fill China's streets with cars, he adds.)
The result of this "progress" is persistent worldwide environmental degradation - "the disruption of habitats, the dismantling of ecosystems, and the extinction of 30,000 species a year," says Niles Eldrege, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
While the planet has faced earlier mass extinctions due to climate change and asteroid impact, today's cosmic force is human beings - and particularly the industrialized world, its methods of production, and its rate of consumption.
How have we come to this predicament, and can the world's faiths help us get out of it? Can they rethink and inspire values that will transform current practices? Those are questions posed by a series of conferences sponsored since 1996 by Harvard University's Center for the Study of World Religions (see story below). Ten conferences exploring each of the major faiths and its ecological views led to a recent four-day interdisciplinary session in which religious scholars discussed the nature of the crisis with scientists, economists, educators, and policymakers.
Our predicament, most agreed, is the result of both individual choices and systemic problems, and the solution lies in re-envisioning and revitalizing spiritual values. Who are we, and what should be our relationship to the natural world? How do choices we make flow from those values? Do we need a new definition of progress, of development, and of "the good life"?
From the standpoint of Taoism, says James Miller of Boston University, "the shriveling, dying, and degradation of the physical world is a result of the shriveling of our own religious imagination."
"Anything we do to nature reflects our inner self," says Tu Weiming, professor of Chinese philosophy at Harvard. "The Western Enlightenment mentality turned nature into raw data, raw materials."
There is a "disconnect between knowledge of the need for change and our inability or unwillingness to change," says Robert Massie of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies. "What will it take for people to act in a new way - individually and collectively? We need to cope with our own hypocrisy."
Individual choices make a definite difference - from the purchase of a sport utility vehicle in the US to slashing and burning a parcel of rain forest in Brazil. And technology won't provide a quick fix. Technological changes have reduced environmental impact, but that is being erased by increased output and consumption, says Juliet Schor, a Harvard economist and author of "The Overspent American."
Larger houses, gas-guzzling vehicles, and more frequent air travel are some of the highly damaging choices Americans now prize. Income distribution is a key factor in fueling the consumer boom, she says, with the increasingly wealthy buying more; other factors are easy credit and exposure to TV's wealthy lifestyles.
Can religious faiths more effectively articulate a "good life" other than consumerism? Some biologists, citing the "parochial nature" of religions, suggest that a new worldview based on evolutionary theory could provide a more universal environmental ethic. But others see the "selfish gene" model as part of the problem, with Darwinian theory a factor in the free-market model responsible for the environmental crisis. "We need to get beyond an economic system based on the selfish gene," one group concluded.
A basic problem, some say, is Enlightenment thinking, which has separated science (including economics) from ethics. Scientists and corporate leaders may have good personal ethics, but they sometimes fail to take responsibility for the consequences of their discoveries or decisions.
Even now, when there is broad consensus on global-warming findings, industry is still hiring scientists to insist we don't have enough evidence to stop what we are doing, says Eric Chivian, director of the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard (and the teller of the bear tale).
"Expert" knowledge is too often driven by the idea that we can attain truth without ethics, says Frederique Apffel-Marglin, professor of anthropology at Smith College. "There is a blind belief research will give us answers," she says, but we are dealing with ethical choices. "We can no longer operate on the basis that we can't act until we have the scientific evidence for certain."
Why have religions as a repository of ethics not been a more powerful force? Some say consumerism and technology have become a religion. Others say religions, apart from indigenous traditions, have been too human-centered and not seen the environment as their moral turf.
"Concepts of God are ecological concepts," says Dr. Eldrege. We need to rethink our concepts. "It's too late for conservation. We need active stewardship."