The Moral Environment

There's far too much mercury in fish; emissions of smog precursor chemicals are up; and the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations is accelerating. Russia just ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but the Bush administration, long opposed to serious action on climate change, reportedly tried to keep any action steps out of a recent eight-nation report on the rapid warming of the Arctic.

You wouldn't have known it from the U.S. election campaigns, but the world still has environmental problems (the list above is just recent headline-makers). The need for action is more urgent than ever. In the United States, though, the ballooning deficit, rising military spending, and entitlement obligations will make new environmental initiatives difficult, and in any case the president prefers to ignore the environment. Barring a Nixon-goes-to-China epiphany, he will presumably be disinclined to spend any of his "capital" to address tough environmental questions.

Environmentalists continue to face an uphill struggle. We cannot afford to ignore any potential ally, including the religious conservatives that the early post-election conventional wisdom credited for President Bush's victory. Though clearly that's not the whole story, he was re-elected in part by people who voted on the basis of "morals"-usually taken as code for opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

But this representation of religious conservatives' views is almost certainly false. Here is some good news: first, religious conservatives, long thought to reject political engagement as too much "of the world," clearly can be mobilized to vote. Second, religious conservatives and even evangelicals are hardly monolithic. Their moral universe includes many issues. In fact, surveys show that concern for the environment actually unites religious groups more than it divides them, and that support for the environment is strong across nearly all religious groups, including those among the religious right. Many religious people regard nature as God's handiwork; not only is it not to be defiled, humans have an obligation to exercise responsible stewardship. And religious conservatives have clout: the Evangelical Environment Network (EEN) helped thwart efforts in Congress to gut the Endangered Species Act in 1996, for instance.

Our challenge, then, is the same with respect to religious conservatives as it is with other audiences: find the particular messages and methods that reach them. As noted, the EEN seems to be on to something here. Other groups, such as the Eco-Justice Ministries, are also successfully working these fields. Here at Worldwatch, we published Director of Research Gary Gardner's paper "Invoking the Spirit" in 2002; Gary is now working on a related book due for release in the summer of 2005. We also hope to explore these matters in future issues of World Watch.

The methods and messages can be developed. We need not despair, just-if you'll forgive the expression-keep the faith.

Thomas Prugh, Editor