At the Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California, solar panels fuel the ner tamid, the eternal light that symbolizes the divine in the Jewish tradition. The panels were installed with a little prodding from the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
"On Hanukkah, we celebrate the miracle that a small amount of [oil] burned for eight days. We should take this as an example," says Sharon Bloome, the New York-based coalition's leader. The organization recently mounted a campaign to encourage synagogues to use solar panels, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and other energy-saving technologies.
Bloome's group is not alone in enlisting light to link the divine with an imperative to address our environmental crisis. Light-and how to fuel it-also resides at the heart of our energy crisis. When most of California endured rolling blackouts in the summer of 2001, the San Francisco-based Episcopal Power and Light kept churches illuminated by linking congregations in a power-buying aggregate. The alliance bypasses monopoly energy providers, seeks out clean sources of energy, and provides jobs to local workers.
Such campaigns are examples of recent efforts by religious groups to bring an environmental sensibility to their spiritual worldviews. A profusion of faith communities dedicated to spiritual approaches to environmental activism are becoming so visible a sector of the movement that mainstream environmentalism itself has become increasingly affected by religious and spiritual messages. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, for instance, has enlisted the participation of five thousand clergy and lay members of Catholic, Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and Evangelical and other Protestant communities as environmental leaders.
This stunning mobilization has sprung in part from a challenge from the scientific community, whose representatives sent out an urgent plea for the cooperation of religious leaders at the Moscow Global Forum meeting in 1990: "As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe," wrote the participants, including astrophysicist Carl Sagan. They went on to "urgently appeal to the world religious community ... to preserve the environment of the earth." Religious groups have come to heed this resounding call with increasing boldness.
Knowing the value of each living organism is central to preserving the earth's biodiversity, says Edward O. Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard professor. In his most recent book, The Future of Life, Wilson details the treasures about to be lost forever, describing the environmental importance of even the smallest endangered species such as bacteria and fungi. The biosphere, he has said, has a "spiritual quality in that it represents a collectivity of life that is more complex than anything else we have observed in the universe."
For increasing numbers of religious communities, preserving and restoring that collectivity of life has led to pragmatic and consciousness-changing epiphanies, spurring environmental activism and challenging traditional Western religious worldviews. Religion may be breathing new life into environmentalism, but environmental thinking may yield the unintended side effect of reviving religion itself. "New scientific understandings of the cosmos may totally overturn earlier understandings of the divine," writes Bernard Zaleha of the Boise, Idaho-based Fund for Christian Ecology, in his paper, "Recovering Christian Pantheism as a Lost Gospel of Creation."
As a founder of Regeneration Project, which emphasizes the responsibility implicit in the Christian notion of being a steward of creation, Reverend Sally Bingham, environmental minister at the Episcopalian Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, helped organize the Power and Light campaign that promotes the use of cleaner sources of energy. And the winner of the 2001 Green Pilot Leadership Award-given by the San Francisco-based Center for Resource Solutions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Energy-strives to practice what she preaches.
Religion gets radical
Bingham and twenty-two other religious activists were arrested in May 2001 at a protest in front of the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., speaking out against President George W. Bush's energy policy. Bingham says such activism is necessary, but deeply held environmental convictions can take on other forms.
The San Francisco-based Center for Ecosystem Survival (CES) has transformed parking meters into conservation meters at 112 zoos, aquariums, natural history museums, botanical gardens, conservatories, and nature centers in the United States, Mexico, England, and Canada. Instead of violation flags, hummingbirds pop up in meter windows, while an accompanying chart explains that a twenty-five cent contribution saves, for example, 90 square feet of rainforest. Since 1989, the project has raised $2.2 million to save tropical rainforests and coral reef ecosystems around the world.