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Religious studies important to sustainability, says professor

Religious communities can play an important role in moving a culture toward greater sustainability -- but religious ideology can also contribute to a disregard for sustainable practices, says Jane Marie Law, who spoke at the Dec. 6 Topical Lunch sponsored by Cornell's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

Religious traditions with an end-of-world focus can result in "sloppy" environmental discourse, Law maintains. "If you believe that the end of the world is nigh, it doesn't matter if you use up the environment, because you're not going to be around to worry about it: The world's going to be destroyed before then," she explains.

Such views can actually be comforting when contemplating environmental degradation, Law adds, allowing people to pursue the political expediency of job growth, expansion and development without the need to radically change the structure of their daily lives. In Law's view, religious systems often are co-dependent with this kind of expediency.

Law, associate professor of Japanese religion and former director of the Religious Studies Program, feels strongly that religious studies as a discipline has an important role to play in the environmental debate. She points out, for example, that the conversation about environmental degradation "is always through the lens of crisis, and religious systems produce a matrix for making sense of that kind of dislocation and crisis."

Law, who has focused on such topics since the 1980s, teaches a 400-level seminar on religion and sustainability in which she helps students learn how to read religious systems as ideologies that also structure views of the environment and the human-natural world interface.

The purpose of the course is to look at narratives that convey that religion is really good for the environment and then to see who votes for mandates for climate change and who deals with whaling and the oceans and coastal development, she says. For example, she points out that Buddhism, one of the most powerful environmental cosmologies in the world, has not always translated into effective environmental activism in Buddhist countries.

"Religious systems can be used to 'greenwash' just as often to motivate people in environmental practice," Law says.

In addition to field trips to such places as the local "green" cemetery, the class examines case studies of small religious communities that actively form around sustainability practices, such as the group of Catholic nuns in the Midwest who try to get people to convert to organic farming by making references to the Virgin Mary, as well as cases where religious ideologies are directly harmful to the environment.

"Students want to feel they can make a difference," says Law. "And what makes a difference is not just what you materially do for people but also what you do for people's deep sense of meaning in the world."

A centerpiece of the class this spring will be a visit by Mahesh Haribhai Mehta, winner of the Padma Shri Award, India's highest civilian honor, for his work on agricultural sustainability. His visit will be co-sponsored by the Atkinson Center.

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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