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Shannon Wianecki

Can Religion Save the Planet?

Unleashing the power of their faith on tough environmental problems, today's "ecovangelists" ask: Can religion save the planet, or will the planet save religion?

In one day, Alexis Williams made two men cry.

It was the autumn of 2010, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was considering new regulations for coal ash—a toxic waste produced by coal-burning plants. Williams, a poised and passionate 26-year-old, and the campaign organizer for the faith-based environmental group Restoring Eden, had spent the summer canvassing the Midwest’s coal belt in support of regulations.

On the morning of the EPA hearings in Chicago, Restoring Eden co-hosted a prayer breakfast. As the faithful sipped their coffee, Williams reminded them that it was OK to hate the sin of coal ash pollution, but not the polluters. “They aren’t our enemies,” she said. “We need to remember to love them throughout the day.”

Later, a conservative-looking gentleman approached Williams. His wife had dragged him down from Wisconsin, he said. She was the tree-hugger—not him. But Williams’s rallying cry brought tears to his eyes. He’d never heard an environmentalist talk about love before.

That evening, Williams discussed coal ash pollution at a press conference organized by the Sierra Club. She was the last speaker—and the only one to invoke God as a motivating force. Afterward, scores thanked her, including an elderly man in a faded jean jacket and a trucker hat who broke down in tears. Between sobs he confessed, “You’ve just said what I’ve been waiting all my life to hear.”

Her message? That saving the earth is divine work, an expression of Christian values of mercy, hope, and humility.

Across the nation—and the globe—religious communities are awakening to their responsibility to tend the earth as carefully as they tend their souls. And as thousand-year-old spiritual traditions swing their weight behind the modern environmental movement, a door opens for redemption: the salvation of both broken souls and broken landscapes.

Love and humility aren’t exactly scientific buzzwords. But they may be crucial to the conversation of how to regulate toxic waste, rehabilitate Superfund sites, and reduce humanity’s heavy footprint. While the modern environmental movement has made strides since emerging in the 1950s and ’60s, it simply hasn’t kept pace with the earth’s destruction. Species are going extinct at a rate unmatched since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Polar ice is melting. Hazardous chemicals persist in drinking water and mothers’ milk. These are anthropogenic problems; human actions caused them, and radical shifts in human behavior are needed to solve them.

The kind of self-sacrifice and personal transformation necessary now is the very wellspring for the world’s great spiritual traditions. But thus far, organized religion has remained largely silent on environmental issues. An ideological rift—real or imagined—has grown to the extent that “Christian environmentalist” is considered an oxymoron by both camps. 

“There’s been some mutual suspicion between organized religion and environmental groups,” says the Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and the executive director of GreenFaith.

He says environmentalists have blamed Christians for trashing natural resources under the aegis of scriptures that give man dominion over earth and promise eternal refuge in heaven. They assume that people of faith reject science, or that they obsess over their inner lives to the detriment of their surroundings.

Christians, in turn, accuse environmentalists of valuing endangered species over human life, and some view land conservation as a tool to protect the recreational dabblings of the wealthy or to extend the reach of government.

So it’s no wonder that Alexis Williams has often been the lone believer among her environmentalist friends, or the sole tree-hugger in prayer circles. But that’s changing, as Restoring Eden and other eco-conscious religious groups grow in scope and influence.

Williams follows in the footsteps of her father, Peter Illyn, an Evangelical pastor with a deep reverence for the wilderness surrounding his Washington state home. In 1989, on a four-month solo trek through the Cascade Mountains, he witnessed hillsides shorn of their trees and logging towns fighting for permission to remove the last stands of old-growth forest—even if it meant the extermination of the spotted owl.

Illyn was appalled. “How can you believe that God created, blessed, and made a covenant with the plants and animals and still drive them to extinction?” he asks. The preacher, reborn as an environmentalist, returned to launch an outdoor ministry. What began as backpacking trips with fellow Christians evolved into Restoring Eden, a nationwide network with the mission of rediscovering the biblical call to love,