Double Helix: The Environment Is the Economy

When will scientists and religious communities start working together in America? There is no collaboration with more promise, none more likely to save earth, or at least the humans on it. While the two communities (with some notable exceptions) spend a great deal of energy yelling at each other over issues like creation v. evolution and global warming, time’s awastin’, as June Carter used to sing. This week, as I lugged buckets of water left over from my kids’ bath outside to water my trees (Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s main water reservoir, is 17 feet below normal for October, so outdoor watering is mostly illegal) and waited in line at Quick Trip to get gas at one of the few open service stations in the city, I saw another staggering failure of science and religion to work together.  

In a new survey, the intriguing results of which are buried in the back pages behind stories of a collapsing global economy, vice presidential ‘debates’, and more wars, the Barna Group found this encouraging information: half of Americans have recently made lifestyle changes due to environmental impact awareness, including half of evangelicals. The bad news is, the glass is still half empty at best: “while the environment is on Americans’ radar, few consider it one of the top challenges facing the nation… a majority of Americans believe it is important to increase our investment in protecting the environment.” Yet, this concern lags far behind our concerns for the economy, fuel costs, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and health care. Here’s where us scientists and our religious community friends have failed.  

The environment is all about the economy, fuel costs, war in Iraq, and health. The environment is the air we breathe, the water we drink, the cars we drive, the energy we use, and all of these drive our health. All these factors are so profoundly interdependent as to be part of the same whole. We’re missing the connections. Our education system fails to engage ethics and societal context in the teaching of science, and science in the teaching of ethics. We learn about science as a collection of facts in an ethical void and learn about ethics in church without science. Time to change things.  

We have failed by separating out ‘the environment’ to mean saving trees and whales, by making environmental issues (or letting them be made) into liberal political causes, instead of working together to ensure they are societal—scientific and religious—foundational causes. We have failed by not working together to develop local, integrated approaches to making our neighborhoods and communities better places to live.  

Instead, the great majority of science research dollars go into ‘pill design’: it’s already screwed up, so let’s design a pill to cure it. And scientists rail against ‘those people’ who want to teach creationism in schools and ‘who don’t know what good data are when they see them!’   

Instead, evangelicals speak out against the teaching of evolution and rail against ‘those people’, those scientists who are doing work antithetical to the Lord’s.  

Mine are not (I hope) the naïve ravings of a lone scientist. I have experienced the power and possibilities of the religious, educational, and scientific communities. There is a growing awareness among all three of our planet’s deteriorating environment, and that we can do something about it. This is an economic, ecological, health, and spiritual issue.  

Small but important steps are being taken by those who realize saving souls and saving whales can (and should) happen together: Look at what the Georgia Interfaith Power and Light group is doing: inspecting places of worship for energy-use effectiveness and then awarding grant monies to make improvements; the Evangelical Environmental Network and the evolving concept of creation care; a synagogue in Evanston, Illinois awarded the highest level of certification by the US Green Building Council.  

Would I still be lugging water out of the bathtub and waiting on line for gas if we had gotten to work on these things sooner? If, when we learned the water cycle in fourth grade, we had learned about its economic and ethical implications in our everyday lives? If classes or sermons in church about how to best live life included how to use water and other natural resources responsibly? If scientific and religious leaders had lobbied together with their constituents for funding renewable energy sources instead of wars about non-renewable ones? What do you think?

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