The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism

William Keith's Yosemite Valley, painted in 1875.

What do the Mad Max franchise, protests of the Keystone pipeline, and the idolization of Theodore Roosevelt have in common? They all reflect attitudes towards environmentalism that, according to Mark Stoll, are steeped in Christian intellectual history.

Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism
Mark Stoll
Oxford University Press (May 29, 2015)

In Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism, Stoll, a professor at Texas Tech University, explores the religious roots of environmentalist concepts of nature. Doing so, he challenges the preconception that conservationism and religion are inherently hostile towards each other.

Stoll documents the role of Calvinism, Congregationalism, and Presbyterianism in the creation of our national parks, forestry, and conservation efforts. He shows how many of our modern notions of nature are steeped in the morals and traditions of these particular Christian denominations.

The Cubit reached out to Stoll to discuss individualism and spirituality, the recent dystopian fiction trend, and the future of environmentalism.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book works to break down some assumed barriers between religion and environmentalism in America. What surprised you during your research?

A number of things. First of all, I thought that the chapter on New England environmentalism would be easy to write, because I assumed Emerson and Thoreau would be essential. And then I discovered that nobody was reading Emerson! So I began to realize that we read that back into the 19th century from the middle of the 20th century, especially when Thoreau became so popular in the 1960s and 70s.

Lawrence Buell’s book The Environmental Imagination takes the environmental movement as Thoreau’s legacy. I began to realize that is incredibly exaggerated historically. So if there’s no Emerson or Thoreau, I had to ask, “Why are all these New Englanders all over the place? They’re not all Transcendentalists.” And that’s when I discovered the centrality of the New England town as a model for them of something they were trying to save. Out of that idea they got national parks, conservation, and forestry, which was an interesting discovery.

Another surprise was finding just how many people were Presbyterian in the Progressive era. That was completely unexpected. I knew there were a few, and then I found out that the Presidents, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Secretary of Interior were all Presbyterian. So the Presbyterian-ness of the Progressive era overall—not just in conservation—was also surprising. There’s probably a big story there to tell about the influence of Presbyterianism on the Progressive movement as a whole.

And you’re a lapsed Presbyterian environmentalist yourself, right?

[laughing] Yes, that’s right.

Did that background play a role in your exploration of the topic?

Not really. I didn’t set out looking for other people like myself. I just discovered that, my goodness, I’m a type!

You use 19th and 20th century landscape art to highlight the relationships between people’s religious upbringing and their attitude towards nature. What do you make of contemporary pop-culture, which trends towards dystopia and apocalypticism? Does it reflect on modern attitudes towards environmentalism?

I haven’t studied film myself, but of course the popularity of dystopian things does say something—maybe not just environmental, but about our culture as a whole. When we passed the year 2000, it was very different from when we passed the year 1900.

If you look at newspapers and popular culture in 1900, there was a lot of excitement about what the 20th century was going to bring. There was this utopian attitude about the 20th century; they thought, “Oh by 1950 we’ll all be flying around, there will be all these miraculous new things happening.” And in 2000, it wasn’t anything like that. Nobody was looking forward to the 21st century. I think that says something about our civilization—we’ve lost our nerve.

It’s like that sense of hope has been replaced by dread.

Exactly. We’re very conservative now, ever since the Reagan administration came in. The country’s been much more focused on the past. Especially Republicans; they say, “Oh, we’ve got to get back to our old values” or, “We’ve made a wrong turn and we have to get back.” That’s much more retrospective, as if we’re afraid of the future and have to hang onto the past.

So I wonder if the dystopian media has been influenced by that. There’s an environmental angle too, though, like in the Mad Max movies. The earth has been ruined and so on. But a movie is not the same as a painting. You can’t use it to interpret a certain person or even a certain religious culture because they’re produced by a bunch of people, unless it’s based on some particular person’s book or can be traced back to a particular vision.

You also discuss how the environmental movement, which emphasized the community in the days of the Puritans, is now much more individualistic. Recently, though, it seems climate change activism is focused on larger political issues—the Keystone controversy, for example—instead of campaigning for people to buy better light bulbs. Might we be moving back to a more community-focused brand of environmentalism?

I don’t know if we are or not. That’s a good question. Some sort of governmental or international effort has always been a part of the equation. In that sense it’s not really a change.

But even the light bulb movement had a government law component, and now [in many places] you can’t even buy the incandescent bulbs anymore. If we waited around for every individual to see the light, we’d still be waiting. A lot more needs to be done, and I think people realize that some sort of massive response is going to be necessary.

Nature is a major concept in contemporary Western spirituality—I’m thinking of yoga retreats in the mountains, meditation in the forest, eating organic—but as your book documents, this isn’t a new phenomenon. There are 19th century figures in your book who revere nature as sanctuary for spiritual development. Is “spiritual but not religious” the next Transcendentalism, and could it be a catalyst for modern environmentalism?

I’m skeptical. First of all, the percentage of “spiritual” people today is likely the same as 100 or 200 years ago. It’s probably a kind of steady cultural value. I do think that one of the reasons for the decline of the Reformed tradition is people leaving the church like I left, which takes you away from the influence of the church ethic that goes beyond just your personal religious or spiritual needs. If you’re spiritual but not religious, that’s a much more individualistic kind of thing—we’re all on our own individual quest, we’re all seekers.

Communal values are much weakened. It’s not like the community of the New England town where everyone was your neighbor and everyone was in this together. The Puritans were concerned that you not emphasize the self very much. Today, there doesn’t seem to be that kind of brake on the self in society.