Environmental movement examined through the lens of religion

“Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism” by Mark R. Stoll (Oxford University Press, 275 pages, $39.95)

There is a religious trajectory to the environmental movement. From the artists’ canvases of Edenic beauty of 19th-century New England to the 21st-century activists’ stand against man-made pollution and corruption of nature, environmentalism is rooted in religious language and imagery that has neatly tracked the growth and expansion of our nation.

Mark Stoll, associate professor of history and director of Environmental Studies at Texas Tech University, presents a masterful and exhaustive account of the environmental movement using religion as the lens through which to view its birth, its achievements and, he soberly concludes, its “apparent irrelevance.”

Stoll begins his nature journey with an examination of an 1836 landscape painting by Thomas Cole. “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm,” commonly known as The Oxbow, captured the diversity of the New England countryside and inspired a heightened sense of the spiritual value of nature.

A deeply religious man, Cole wanted his paintings to illustrate biblical stories and “elevate the imagination and produce a happy moral effect.” His work, which launched the landscape tradition of art in America, inspired a generation of artists whose roots were grounded in a Calvinist theology of Creator, sin and salvation that found evidence of God’s attributes in the heavens to the smallest blade of grass. The Oxbow and other art by Cole, along with artists’ works with environmental themes from then to more recent times, are beautifully reproduced in Stoll’s book.

With prodigious details, Stoll expounds on the artistic development of early American painting that was less art for art’s sake and more a testimony to the word and will of God. Artists following Cole’s lead expanded on his ideals and began to stress a conservation ideology that focused on three ideas: agricultural improvement, conservation of forests and natural resources, and public parks.

The expansion of towns and the increase of wealth among a privileged few, however, led to a breakdown of the Puritan idea of a well-ordered community that emphasized the common good over the individual. As worries grew over the decline of farming practices and the destruction of forests, others took up the cause of conservation.

Stoll recounts the works of individuals who pressed for public parks, forestry protection, and national and state parks. Each saw a vision inspired by the Puritan social ethic that would result in such achievements as Central Park in New York, Yosemite National Park, parkways along tree-lined streets and “commons” in suburbs. When “America the Beautiful” was penned in 1895, it perfectly expressed the New England Puritan ideal of natural beauty, bountiful land, restraint of selfishness for the common good and a stern pilgrim (Puritan) heritage.

As Puritan ideals diminished, others took up the conservation cause. The philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, an advocate of individualism, led the mid-19th century Transcendentalism movement that asserted the inherent goodness of people and nature and the importance of self-reliance and independence. His views helped unchain environmental concerns from their theological moorings.

Taking up the religious mantle from the Puritans were Scottish-born Presbyterians John Muir and William Keith. Naturalist and artist respectively, the two kindred spirits helped forge a national campaign for conservation. Other Presbyterians who were in the forefront of the movement included such government notables as President Theodore Roosevelt, William O. Douglas (U.S. Supreme Court justice) and President Woodrow Wilson. Alice Hamilton, Jane Jacobs, Annie Dillard and Rachel Carson (with her landmark book “Silent Spring”) were four lapsed Presbyterians who were crucial to modern environmentalism’s forward progress.

“During a century and a half, passionate, committed Presbyterian advocates for nature accomplished an enormous number of achievements and victories,” says Stoll.

And yet with some exceptions, he notes, “the vast majority of major environmental figures headed for the exits of the religions of their parents and forebears and did not return.”

While most major religious groups – African-American Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Mormons and others – are accounted for in Stoll’s history of the environmental movement, few among their leadership played a significant role.

Today, interest in environmental concerns has broadened from a once narrower religious constituency. Contributions by such contemporary luminaries as Ansel Adams, Paul Ehrlich, Michael Pollan, Peter Singer and Barry Commoner lack any religious component or undergirding, Stoll says. The result has been “a loss of moral energy, urgency and focus with which the children of Calvinism had infused the movement.”

“Those who advocate converting everyone to the proper attitude toward the land community, or the earth, or the universe, in hopes of an environmental millennium, evince optimism toward human possibility for which history supplies little supporting evidence,” Stoll says. His bleak assessment is due in part to “the forces of avarice and greed (that) are more powerful and organized than ever before.”

For Stoll, no issue underscores his belief in environmentalism’s ebbing influence more than global warming. “The inability to address the growing crisis of global warming more than anything else demonstrates environmentalism’s apparent irrelevance,” he says. “If it is not dead yet, environmentalism is certainly weak, divided, and wandering in the wilderness.”

Stoll’s book is an insightful though sobering examination of the environmental movement – its genesis in religious communities and beliefs and its diverse advocates – during the past 200 years. While a host of factors help explain the motivations of those committed to environmentalism, he says, “religion turns out to provide extraordinary insights into the environmental movement’s past – and future.”

What is yet to be determined, despite Stoll’s gloomy outlook, is whether the movement’s downward trajectory is truly flaming out or on the cusp of firing up a new hopeful and collaborative spirit.

Tom Schaefer is a former columnist and religion editor for The Eagle. He lives in Wichita.