Faith Communities and Environmental Activism

Conference: 18-20th May 2017

Economic neoliberalism and the cult of consumerism are in increasingly open conflict with climate and ecological science, and with the civil society movement of environmentalism in the twenty-first century. Mother Earth reveals growing signs of stress and even breakdown. The human costs of air climate pollution are revealed in extensive intercontinental mass migration, growing levels of bronchial and diet-related diseases and cancers, and deaths from heat stroke and flood events. So extreme are the changes in the Earth that summer ice is predicted to disappear from the Arctic within thirty years, and there will be more weight of plastic than fish in the sea within fifty years, while agribusiness plantations will have replaced the vast majority of tropical forest ecosystems within fifty years. In the early history of environmentalism it was citizens in faith-based and local communities, not scholars, who first advocated for Mother Earth against the ecologically destructive tendencies of industrialism, consumerism and the economics of limitless growth.

Environmental activism has a more recent twentieth century history, becoming prominent as a mass movement particularly since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and the rise of concern in continental Europe at the effects of acid rain on forests. The culture that nurtured these active citizens was a combination of natural science and nature romanticism, both of which have significant roots in Protestant Christian theology. It was also majority Protestant Christian countries – the UK, the United States, Germany, Sweden, Norway - that passed the first environmental laws protecting open spaces, or ‘wilderness’, and later air, water, endangered species, and so on. Since the 1960s a range of faith traditions, and new ‘nature religions’ such as deep ecology, have been mobilized in the defense of Mother Earth. But the relationship between faith communities and environmental activism is still poorly understood and insufficiently informed by empirical investigation.

In this three-day symposium we will bring together faith-based environmentalists and scholars around a sustained interdisciplinary dialogue on the beliefs, cultures and traditions that inform and undergird environmental activism. Through plenary addresses, panel discussions, field visits and workshops we will consider the respective and overlapping roles of environmental activists and networks, faith communities and conservation organisations in mitigating climate change, challenging entrenched neoliberal policy agendas, and forming hybrid alliances.

This event is hosted by the Finding Common Ground research project in the School of Divinity. We are grateful to supporting funding for this event from the UK AHRC and the Knowledge Exchange Fund of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in the University of Edinburgh. The conference is co-sponsored by the European Forum for the Study of Religion and the Environment and the European Churches Environmental Network.

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