Home Page

Faith in Nature

Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as a Religious Quest
Thomas R. Dunlap, University of Washington Press, 2004.

This book is a fascinating and very readable journey through the environmental movement in America, tracing its growth and evolution as America has grown and evolved. Thomas Dunlap is a History Professor at Texas A & M University. He relates the environmental movement to the intellectual background of the Enlightenment, and to political economic and cultural developments in the emergent United States of America. Dunlap understands environmentalism as a living, evolving religion.

This theme runs right through his book, from the first quote from William James –

“At bottom, the whole concern of religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe” – to his comment near the end –

“Environmentalism addresses the alienation in modern society in a modern context, finding the sacred in a material world, and a way of personal engagement with the world on the basis of objective knowledge. Grounded in science but also in romanticism, refusing to choose between intellect and emotion, environmentalism moves – more easily than either scientific materialism or established supernatural religions – across the borders between faith and knowledge, ignorance and mystery, offering material explanations, but looking beyond facts towards meaning.” (p.149)

He begins by describing “Newton’s Disciples,” developing a comfortable faith in endless progress through the conquest of nature. He traces the empire’s westward movement, led by the buckskin pioneer, then the railway locomotive. Against this background, he describes the Romanticism of Emerson, Thoreau, and later John Muir, who went on to develop science as a way of understanding nature in the wilder high Sierras. Muir preached the Emersonian Gospel of nature as “ultimate reality, refuge from society, place of pilgrimage”. Then as that wilderness rapidly diminished, environmentalism was to challenge the deeply held faith that economic growth fuelled by individual free activity brought social prosperity. New forms arose, to challenge destructive activity, and to preserve what was left of the wilderness.

Dunlap explores the many often contradictory meanings of terms like “nature”, and “wilderness”, and the ways people have responded to environmental threat, particularly since Rachel Carson wrote her seminal book Silent Spring. Bioregionalism, Green Consumerism, Deep Ecology, and others, often in tension with the society from which they emerge, are described. He has a wonderful turn of phrase:

“Just as the Puritans supposedly spent Sundays contemplating the goodness of God and the damnation of infants, defenders of the status quo gaze in rapture on the goodness of the market and the gross domestic product, which distributes benefits to all who strive – for they are the virtuous. They look on the market as the Hand of God, endless economic growth as the path to earthly Paradise, and the conquest of nature, human destiny.” (p.165)

In forty years environmentalism has changed, but not transformed, American society. Dunlap points out that its established methods can not do much more. A religious impulse is vital to its – and the planet’s – future. In his concluding chapter, he gives some thoughtful pointers to this process, drawing from the tactics of established religions over the centuries to build new meanings and mythology. He believes the movement must learn to work with those religious groups that are developing an environmental concern.

Much in this book is relevant to the New Zealand situation, with the steadily growing human imprint on its delicate island ecology. An informative and thought provoking read!

Ian Crumpton, Christchurch