Standing In Defense of Inclusive Environmentalism
Issue   |   Wed, 12/07/2011 - 02:21

I completely agree with Ophelia Hu ’12 about one of her major propositions: the Bible should inspire Christians to be environmentally-minded.

However, I equally disagree with her other proposition that moral absolutism exists and should inform environmentalism.
Indeed, if there were moral absolutism — if we as a society did not change our ideas about “right” and “wrong,” however slowly­­­ — slavery would still exist in government-sanctioned forms. We would still consider women as the inferior sex, and of course, Ophelia and I would not be students at Amherst College today!

Amherst College was founded as a Christian-oriented school for men. Students were required to attend religious chapel daily. Today, of course, the College accepts the religious differences among us and accepts women and minorities who were excluded from the initial classes.

As it turns out, morals do change.

Looking for eternal truth, in fact, may slow us down and even distract us from discovering what is right for us now and in the future, as opposed to the past. Our constantly evolving priorities, approaches and beliefs can create tension between groups that make it difficult for the contemporary environmental movement to achieve its goal.

However, I believe that this tension only improves our ability to solve environmental problems. I support a more inclusive form of environmentalism, one that embraces all perspectives and does not follow only a moral absolute.

Many people find it problematic that people are only willing to become involved in fighting environmental injustice when the issue becomes personally relevant. However, I think that if each person advocates on behalf of the issues he or she find personally compelling, we can use the unique concerns of each person to work towards greater environmental change.

Because this cause is so important, it’s going to take everyone fighting for the issues they care about in order to effect change.

I believe that it shouldn’t matter if passion for the environment comes from a Christian, Islamic or any other religion’s teachings, or from an a-religious desire to make the world a better place.

It’s the recycling, the renewable energy research and the conservation of ecosystems that matter, not the principles that lead to environmental mindfulness.

In order to make this process more effective and productive, we will need to encourage cooperation and discussion across environmental interests, perspectives and geographic regions. We will need to encourage these differences of opinion that would not exist if we all believed in a singular set of moral values because through these differences, we will reach compromises that will more completely reflect the people and places facing the major environmental issues of our time.

I, too, am frustrated with the pace of progress in the American environmental movement. It seems clear to me, as a student and a citizen that these problems deserve our utmost attention and dedication, but we still need to change the way we interact with the environment through policy, patterns of consumption and allocation of resources.

I recognize that inviting every person to participate in this project will not make it take less time, or make our decisions as a society any easier. Bringing lots of interests to the table can result in endless discussions that do not develop into concrete actions.

But I like this option better than the alternative.

Throughout history, leaders have used moral absolutes to justify destructive and terrifying acts. From Stalin’s Great Purges to the Christian Crusades, many people have died as a result of forms of moral righteousness that quash alternative viewpoints and our access to basic civil liberties.

The environment needs us now, perhaps more than ever. And the last thing we want to do, as environmentalists and concerned citizens, is drive away potential allies with a moralizing message that does not accept each person’s unique concerns and ethics.

As Ophelia notes, environmentalists often possess a “sly elitism” that discourages people with less extreme or merely dissimilar viewpoints from becoming involved in environmental work. She suggests that a Christian perspective that works “through God” would alleviate this problem, but I fear that inextricably linking a particular brand of Christianity with environmentalism would alienate politicians, policy makers and citizens from the movement even further.

Luckily, in my opinion, we don’t need to look to religion for the answers. We can use science to help us bridge our differences and work towards positive environmental change.

Science always comes with uncertainty and a degree of human error. But good science, pursued freely and debated publically, can provide us with objective data that demystifies the world around us.

Like science, the democratic process is both imperfect and intentionally slow. But when these processes work properly, they enfranchise more people than one moral code ever could because they call upon individuals to use their unique passions to create coalitions and compromises.

While these solutions are not easily obtained, the diversity of the Amherst College community itself demonstrates the beauty and power that come from creating inclusive communities.