“Finding ways to develop a sustainable relationship with nature requires not only engagement of scientists and political leaders, but also moral leadership that religious institutions are in a position to offer” (Dasgupta and Ramanathan, 2014).

Until the 1970s most religious communities had not yet seriously taken up ecologicalFootnote 1 issues as matters of public concern, other than as part of a wider longstanding commitment to social justice.Footnote 2 For example, in the most important social teaching document emerging from the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, ecological issues are only obliquely hinted at in the context of a discussion of economic distribution (Pope Paul VI, 1966: §69). Since the 1980s, however, such issues have been taken up with increasing intensity and urgency by a growing number of religious leaders and organizations. The development has attracted substantial scholarly interest. For example, the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology has emerged as a major global documentation centre on such developments across all the major world faiths ( Founded in 2006, the Forum built on extensive work done at Harvard University since 1996 including a pioneering ten-volume series on religion and ecology ( Important multi-faith initiatives have also occurred outside the academy. The largest global one is the Alliance of Religions and Conservation that describes itself as “a secular body that helps the world’s major faiths develop environmental programmes based on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices” ( Introducing the Oxford Handbook on Religion and Ecology in 2006, Gottlieb was able to report on two decades of “explosive growth in theological writings, scholarship, institutional commitment, and public action” on ecological issues (Gottlieb, 2006: 16; see Gottlieb, 2004; Bell et al, 2013).

The most recent global intervention confirming this trend was the appearance of the first papal social encyclical devoted exclusively to ecological matters, the widely acclaimed Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis (2015). This builds on and, many would hold, radicalizes, stances long adopted by earlier popes, notably John Paul II and Benedict XVI; it was not unexpected. There have, however, been unexpected interventions elsewhere. For example, in 2006 a coalition of American evangelical leaders produced a distinctly progressive-sounding An Evangelical Declaration on Care for Creation (Evangelical Environmental Network, 2006). This is one of the several initiatives typical of a newly emerging centre-left wing of evangelicalism that is breaking ranks with the right-leaning majority (Pally, 2011). The declaration evoked a pointed rebuttal 3 years later from the conservative evangelical Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which published its own Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming dismissing anxieties about anthropogenic climate change, and is initiating a campaign under the slogan, “forget climate change—energy empowers the poor!” (Cornwall Alliance, 2009). While the 2006 Evangelical Declaration on Care for Creation still only speaks for a minority of the American evangelical movement, it is essentially in line with the 2012 Call to Action on creation care (the “Jamaica Declaration”) issued by the Lausanne Movement, one of the most globally representative evangelical networks, which reflects the preponderant voices of majority-world evangelical communities (Lausanne Movement, 2012; Bell and White, 2016).

In recent years the focus of attention in religious interventions has increasingly concentrated on the specific challenges presented by climate change. In the lead-up to the United Nations Paris Climate Summit (COP21) in December 2015, prominent representatives from the world’s major religions issued statements revealing a striking convergence around the diagnosis and critique of, and the required policy responses to, global warming—this notwithstanding their deep remaining divergences on fundamental issues of metaphysics, doctrine, authority and other areas of ethics. Most of these statements are gathered on the Website of the Yale Forum and they will serve as a primary reference point in what follows (

The formidable challenges presented by ecological crises such as climate change have caught the attention of religious communities because they interpret them as particularly revealing of deeper cultural and societal pathologies long regarded as falling within their theological, pastoral, missionary or prophetic mandates. The main body of this article proceeds to identify seven prominent concerns that seem to be increasingly shared across world religions.

Seven convergences

First, a holistic conception of nature is being re-articulated across several religious traditions. The claim is that nature is not to be construed as an infinitely manipulable and exploitable object existing only for the satisfaction of human desires but rather as reflecting a “divine” ordering of a universe marked by integration, equilibrium, balance and harmony. Pope Francis’s (2015: §48) encyclical repeatedly stresses the interconnectedness and interdependence of all creatures, and of humans within non-human nature, and calls for an “integral ecology” in which environmental and social crises must be analysed and responded to simultaneously. Evoking classic Franciscan imagery for radical purposes, he speaks of threats to biodiversity not merely as ecological or aesthetic loss but as implying that “thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us” (Pope Francis, 2015: §33). In alternative language, the Buddhist Climate Change Statement to World Leaders speaks of “dependent co-arising” among creatures and the importance of recognizing “interbeing”, which will lead to “compassion” between humans and for non-human beings (Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective, 2015).

This invocation of holistic, organic or relational images of the world is associated with a strikingly “counter-modern” vision of a good social order—that is, a vision that challenges some of the core cultural commitments of modernity without renouncing all of its achievements. In this vision priority is attached to a series of priorities seen to have been systematically eroded under secular modernity, for example, relationality over individuality and autonomy; cooperation over competition; equality over meritocracy; empowerment via decentralized responsibility over the supposed efficiencies deriving from economies of scale; communal stability over labour mobility; “place” over “space”; local community and indigenous cultures over nation-state. In many of the documents being reviewed here, the first item in the binary pairings is explicitly championed over its opposite.

Second, there is emerging a revived aspiration to construe ecological questions in the light of religiously informed notions of a “stewardship” or “trusteeship” of nature, grounded in an appeal to human accountability to some higher or deeper spiritual authority for the use of scarce natural resources and fragile ecosystems. Humans, it is being argued, do not “own” the earth but hold it on “trust”. On such a view land, non-human species or ecosystems cannot be treated straightforwardly as objects of property to be consumed or disposed of for the mere satisfaction of human desire.

Statements from monotheistic faiths such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam reflect these traditions’ construal of human accountability for nature in relation to a distinct transcendent divinity generating and ordering the world and requiring human obedience. They understand the human relationship to nature as a protective, custodial one, presupposing a strong commitment to human uniqueness over against the non-human realm. Jewish and Christian thinks are invoking again the creation accounts found in the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis Chapters 1 and 2), where humans are depicted as entitled to exercise “dominion” over the earth. This, however, is understood not in terms of conquest or exploitation but rather via the metaphor of a primordial moral injunction to “till and keep” the garden of Eden (Gen. 2: 15), where such a “garden” stands for the whole earth (Halpert, 2012). In comparable terms, the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change asserts: “We human beings are created to serve the Lord of all beings, to work the greatest good we can for all the species, individuals, and generations of God’s creatures” and poses the stark question, “How will we face our Lord and Creator?” (Islamic International Climate Change Symposium, 2015).

In the statements of several eastern faiths, by contrast, such accountability is framed against the background of a reverential or sacralized notion of “nature” or “mother earth” in which humans are seen rather as one species among many, perhaps even ontologically continuous with or ethically equivalent to non-human nature. Thus Bumi Devi Yai Kah! A Hindu Declaration on Climate Change asserts that all elements of reality are “organs of God’s body … The Divine is all and all life is to be treated with reverence and respect … The entire universe is to be looked upon as the energy of the Lord” (Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies/Bhumi Project, 2015). Such sentiments, from certain Western perspectives, have sometimes been thought to feed a posture of cultural passivity in the face of threats to human life such as ecological crises. On the contrary, however, they seem to be associated with appeals to active human agency comparable to those found in Western religions’ statements. Thus the Buddhist Climate Change Statement to World Leaders asserts a robust emphasis on human ecological responsibility: “we have a dharmic duty for each of us to do our part in ensuring that we have a functioning, abundant, and bountiful planet” (Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective, 2015).

In some of these statements, and more fully in recent scholarly contributions, these concerns are being located against a more comprehensive historical framing in which humanity under modernity is charged with having aspired to a reckless domination of nature at the expense of a religious mandate to manifest respect for non-human nature as bearer of inherent ethical value (Northcott, 2013). Both Christian and Islamic thinkers are embracing the notion that we are now entering an “Anthropocene” (an “age of humans”) in which the vaunted pride of human irresponsibility towards the environment is plain for all to see. Hence the Islamic Declaration cites the Qu’ran thus: “Do not strut arrogantly upon the earth. You will never split the earth apart, nor will you ever rival the mountain’s stature” (Islamic International Climate Change Symposium, 2015).

Third, there is, however, a widespread embrace of what modern science is telling us about ecological crisis—an example of how a “counter-modern” cultural critique can go hand in hand with a welcome embrace of many of the achievements of modernity. There is, for example, a ready acceptance of the predominant scientific consensus on the causes, scale and consequences of global warming: that it is largely anthropogenic, that it is the outcome of unrestrained exploitation of finite planetary resources, notably fossil fuels, and that this is driven by the pursuit of unlimited economic growth on a neo-liberal model of globalized capitalism. The only significant dissenting voices on this diagnosis of the ecological crisis seem to be found on the more conservative wings of American evangelicalism and Catholicism, as represented by the Cornwall Alliance.

Fourth, this acceptance of the global climate consensus then leads many religious voices to line up behind the strategic policy stance of seeking drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through an urgent phasing out of fossil fuel-based energy supplies and a substantial shift towards renewables. Such a commitment is voiced forcefully in several statements, such as Laudato Si’ and the Buddhist Climate Change Statement to World Leaders (Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective, 2015).

Fifth—on the “demand side” of the economy, so to speak—it is being widely asserted that ecological challenges such as global warming or humanly induced loss of biodiversity disclose embedded societal values (such as unquestioning faith in the prospects for limitless economic growth, or addictive forms of “consumerism”) that support unsustainable practices and obstruct needed steps toward the mitigation or repair of ecological damage. The common complaint is that the pursuit of limitless increases in material prosperity is now producing not only ecological damage but also a debilitating spiritual and moral poverty. Thus the Islamic Declaration calls for a “fresh model of wellbeing” (Islamic International Climate Change Symposium, 2015), and Buddhist thinkers are invoking the notion of “right livelihood”, understood as mandating “human development in an ecologically sustainable environment” (Zholnai, 2013: 86, 89).Footnote 3

Sixth, there is a common attempt to situate ecological questions within a broader commitment to global social justice. Thus several documents (notably Laudato Si’) line up strongly behind the view that the major historical emitting nations must bear an equitable burden of the costs of the transition to renewable energy, including the costs of mitigation and adaptation that will fall on poorer and ecologically more vulnerable nations. Such claims typically appeal to an implicit or explicit needs-based conception of justice rather than a right-based or utilitarian one. Most interventions on climate change, for example, appeal to broad, religiously informed principles of solidarity with the poor. It is worth noting that for Islamic thinkers this emphasis is grounded in a distinctive diagnosis of modern capitalism as corrupted by the systematic use of “usury”. The “real economy” has been thoroughly distorted by a globalized financial system premised on massive structural indebtedness (Khalid, 2013; Izzi Dien, 2013).Footnote 4 While most Christian economists do not reject the use of interest or debt per se, many do tend to support such a critique of the excessive domination of the modern economy by finance (Northcott, 2013; Pettifor, 2013; Pope Francis, 2015).

Seventh—on the “supply side” of the economy—there are, especially in Christian and Islamic articulations where institutional analysis is much better developed, calls for a much wider distribution of economic power, especially in the energy sector. There are robust assaults on corporate, fossil-fuel oligopolies and strong support for decentralized, localized means of supply employing renewables. These stances invoke a broader argument that the exercise of human ecological responsibility must be channelled through a balanced diversity of complementary and mutually limiting agencies in order that excessive concentrations of power in any one agency, especially corporations and states, or in carbon markets, be preempted. One might call this an appeal to “environmental subsidiarity”. For example, Halpert (2012) quotes Arthur Waskow, Director of the Jewish Shalom Center, as asserting that today, “the Pharaohs are giant corporations: big coal, big oil, and big natural gas …. The only way to deal with a modern-day Pharaoh is to organize the people”.

Potential political impact

On the basis of some or all of these commitments, a growing number of global and local religious leaders are bidding to play a more prominent role in promoting ecologically responsible living among religious adherents and their organizations and in mobilizing them behind progressive ecological causes. Pope Francis’s intentions in this regard are quite explicit in Laudato Si’. The Hindu Declaration also issues a call for both personal transformation and public action pursuant to addressing climate change ( Over 20 years ago, American philosopher Oelschlaeger (1994), long a believer that religion was largely to blame for our environmental crises (a view famously proposed by White, 1967), ventured the striking claim that “There are no solutions for the systemic causes of ecocrisis, at least in democratic societies, apart from religious narrative” (5). In similar vein, Gottlieb suggested in 2006 that “if humanity can somehow learn to live without destroying other species and poisoning itself, religion will have been one of the forces teaching us how to do it and encouraging us to do so” (Gottlieb, 2006: 19).

Such claims will be received by some as excessively optimistic, perhaps presumptuous. Nonetheless, given the convergent commitments of such diverse global religious leaders surveyed above, there is at least a prospect that religious communities might register a significant presence among wider cultural and political movements addressing ecological crises.Footnote 5 The possibility has been canvassed not only by religious organizations themselves but also by prominent voices in the secular academy. In May 2014 eminent economist Partha Dasgupta (University of Cambridge) and climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California) convened a workshop on the issue at the Vatican,Footnote 6 subsequently proposing in an article in Science that “religious leaders can instigate the ‘massive mobilisation of public opinion’ needed to stem the destruction of ecosystems around the world in a way that governments and scientists cannot” (St. John’s College, Cambridge, 2014).

Much work lies ahead to test the prospects of success of such an appeal—to ascertain how far the “prophetic” injunctions of religious elites might actually be heeded on the ground across enormously diverse, and variably “faithful”, local religious communities. One of the most important variables that will affect local reception is the nature of the transmission channels from leadership to local community. These are extremely varied across and within different religious traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is unique in maintaining a globally centralized juridical and doctrinal authority (a “magisterium”) determining official teaching. Yet even magisterial authority on many ethical and public issues is at best only weakly enforceable: this is evidently so on sexual and reproductive issues and it may well turn out to be so on ecological issues. Local take-up is likely to depend critically on local or regional clerical or lay leadership. Yet the Church’s possession of a global network of national, diocesan and parochial infrastructures available, at least in principle, for the dissemination of official teaching and the mobilization of followers lends it a huge advantage over most other religious communities in this regard—a point noted by Dasgupta and Ramanathan (2014). It is worth observing that scholars have argued that Catholicism has played a notable role in democratic transitions in a number of formerly authoritarian but majority Catholic countries, such as the Philippines (Troy, 2009). The possibility that it might exercise some influence on national or even global ecological movements is then perhaps not entirely fanciful.

By contrast, the highly dispersed and fiercely contested nature of religious authority in Islam is widely recognized as a major hindrance to the formation of common global Islamic positions on any public issue. The striking of common positions on ecological questions is likely to prove particularly difficult. The Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change has indeed been endorsed by a range of representative global Islamic leaders and a further meeting is set for late 2016 to take the initiative further. Yet it is being spearheaded by the UK-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, a small organization whose impressive output belies its modest resources ( It will in any case be a significant struggle for Muslim campaigners to raise the profile of ecological issues within Muslim communities while issues of integration, discrimination, security and extremism continue to dominate their agenda. On the other hand, A Common Word between Us and You (2007), the historic open letter on Muslim–Christian relations endorsed by an impressively wide range of prominent Islamic scholars, indicates that broadly based consensus at least among representative elites on key global issues is in principle attainable ( If so, there is some prospect that such leadership might, given conducive conditions, find effective local responses.Footnote 7

A decade ago Gottlieb (2006) reported that “from the United States and Latin America to south Asia and Africa people of faith now make up a vital presence in the global environmental movement …. [T]o a greater extent than at any previous time in history religious people from around the world are active members of a progressively oriented global movement for social change” (18). His examples, however, while telling, were drawn from limited geographical and policy areas. Systematic and comparative research to test this claim across highly diverse particular contexts could make an important contribution to our understanding of at least one element shaping the prospects for the much-needed upsurge of popular support for environmental change noted at the start of this article.

Additional information

How to cite this article: Chaplin J (2016) The global greening of religion. Palgrave Communications. 2:16047 doi: 10.1057/palcomms.2016.47.