The last few years have witnessed a virtual explosion of new intiatives for the environment within many different spheres, and the religious sphere is no exception. One of the newest organizations is quickly becoming one of the most significant: the North American Conference on Religion and Ecology (NACRE), formed in 1989, is working in partnership with UNEP and other international groups to mobilize the faith communities towards environmental action. President Donald Conroy discusses NACRE’s new role and plans for the future; for information on their upcoming conference on "Caring for Creation," contact him at 5 Thomas Circle NW, Washington, DC 20005, Tel. (202) 462-2591.
Alan: How did you get interested in environmental issues?
Don: I was working on research sociology and religious questions, especially in the area of family, and in the early 1980s I started the National Institute for Families. But as I got deeper into the nature of change in family, I got into the wider question of socioeconomic factors beyond the family’s control – and the deeper question of the nature of change itself. I read people like Thomas Berry, Teilhard De Chardin and others who observed things on a macro or long-term level.
Then I was asked by the World Bank Environmental Division to go on a trip to South America – I was the ethical consultant. We went out in the mountains for a four-day symposium, and I came back from that deeply convinced that we’re in a major epoch of change right now. We have to come up with global solutions for many complex problems. The bottom line, I realized, was the environmental situation. As Tom Berry said to me once, below the fiscal bottom line are the social and environmental costs that we don’t factor in.
So I believe we must figure out how to educate people and woo them over to this perspective. It’s not just about cleaning the oil off the shore in Alaska. It has to be more than that. It has to be a long-term, ethical commitment that will take root in our lives and in our neighborhoods.
Alan: We need to make a faith-based decision to car-pool.
Don: Yes! Then we do it out of a deeper motivation than saying, "Well, I guess I’d better." I constantly come across people who say, "All these years I’ve been a closet environmentalist to my faith community, and a closet faith believer to my environmental community." People don’t mix the two worlds.
Alan: Separation of church and …
Don: Mind. It’s our good Western tradition: nature’s out there, spirit’s someplace else, and never the twain shall meet.
Alan: So your organization, NACRE, is involved in ecologizing the religious community, rather than vice versa?
Don: That’s our main focus. And the environmental community is much more interested in this than we had ever thought. Financially, we’re still pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but I trust that it will somehow work out. It’s like going through the desert – you hope the oasis will appear when you need the water, and the manna will fall. It has to be a journey of faith.
Alan: What is the NACRE planning for the immediate future?
Don: Well, we have an agreement with WWF – the World Wide Fund for Nature in Geneva, or World Wildlife Fund as it’s called in the U.S. – to co-sponsor an international conference on religion and ecology. I’ve also gotten the cooperation of the Washington National Cathedral.
That’s an amazing building. They’re finally going to complete it after years of construction. It fulfills the dream of George Washington, who had the idea for a national house of prayer for people of all faiths and backgrounds. It’s not a typical medieval cathedral with the Last Judgment on the facade. Instead there is a creation theme, and in May we’re going to dedicate it with an interfaith celebration, a festival of creation. The Cathedral sits on a 60-acre tract of land in northwest Washington, DC, so it’s not just the building – we’re going to celebrate the woods and the whole context.
Three days before, we’re going to have what we now call the Intercontinental Conference on Caring for the Creation. It will have what I call an "eco-three" structure: ecologists, economists and ecumenists. The root word of all three "ecos" is the Greek word, "oikos," meaning "the household" – so it refers to the household of nature, the human household, and the household of faith.
We’ll be trying to get 30 bioregional groups to come out with a task force for really looking at the situation in each of the various bioregions of North America. What is their area environmentally? What are the problems, the potentials? And what is their area economically? Who’s in charge, what are the power structures, who represents them politically? And who was originally there? Who were the aboriginal people, and what do they think?
I don’t think the "planning and action," of most modern technology is enough. You have to make it a five-step process, a regeneration process, starting with discovery, exploration, and integration. You have to work in terms of celebration and the total mind-body-spirit as well as analytically.
You have to enter into a dialogue with your own bioregion before you tell the world how to change. We want to think globally, act locally – but we also want to think locally and act globally, too. It’s important to do that flip-flop, because the history of industrialization is about taking our huge, industrial solutions and technologies, imposing them upon a people, and in the process destroying the people and their land, their air, their food, their health, and their way of life. We do it in the name of "progress," but it’s really "digress," or a digression from what we really want – healthy individuals, healthy families, and a healthy cultural life.
Alan: How are you going to bring in other, non-Christian religious groups?
Don: We’ve worked with UNEP to form an Interfaith Advisory Council, and we’re reaching out through Interfaith Councils in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. We’re making an honest attempt to be truly interfaith. Christianity is the predominant form of religion in North America, so NACRE will probably have more Christians. But we want to make people very aware of the Native American religions, Hebrew scriptures about the creation, and the whole wisdom literature, which is full of information on how to live in harmony with nature.
Alan: What about the Eastern religions, the old Earth-based religions like Wicca, and emerging Goddess-based groups? Most Christians find relating to them very problematic.
Don: But I think they can. We’re saying get into your own tradition, then find out what other traditions are in your bioregion and how they connect with these values. You’ll notice you probably have things in common with other Christians and Jews, and you’ll also start to hear what these other traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American spirituality – have to bring. The Druid and Wicca religions are the religions of aboriginal Europe, after all, and they influenced early Christianity.
You see, in the U.S. we think something’s historical if it’s twenty years old. Twenty years or twenty thousand is pretty much the same in our consciousness – it’s just old. We have no perception, as a lot of other cultures do, of the millennia of development. The Chinese have had a civilization for 5,000-6,000 years. We have a country that’s scarcely been together for 200 years, and so we tend to think we’re ahistorical. But if we don’t have a story that started anywhere, we have a story that goes nowhere. That’s why it’s important, if we really are so-called modern people and want to go into the future, to know our roots.
So with NACRE we’re working on the future, with our feet solidly planted in the present and with an awareness of what’s behind our backs. The real history of religion that is now coming to light, in almost every major tradition, includes many instances of conservative backlash and the fear of change, especially in times of crisis. Understanding that history helps us see that science, religion and economics can interrelate in a genuinely more benign way. If they don’t, it will be destabilizing. It doesn’t help for scientists to deny economists because they have no "scientific" basis, nor to deny the religionists as if religion is just a pipe dream. Reality contains the whole mix.