Scientists Join Forces With Clergy In Addressing Environmental Issues

'Concerned Scientists' organization fosters a coalition determined to promote awareness of global perils In an unusual alliance, a group of prominent scientists has teamed up with several major religious denominations to address what they see as urgent environmental problems. The group aims to educate Americans about such global concerns as deteriorating marine life, loss of important species, and food shortages. It is being led by Henry Kendall, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Ins

Edward Silverman
Dec 12, 1993

'Concerned Scientists' organization fosters a coalition determined to promote awareness of global perils
In an unusual alliance, a group of prominent scientists has teamed up with several major religious denominations to address what they see as urgent environmental problems.

The group aims to educate Americans about such global concerns as deteriorating marine life, loss of important species, and food shortages. It is being led by Henry Kendall, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, both in Cambridge, Mass.

Called the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, the recently formed nonprofit organization hopes to tap into the American consciousness by building grass-roots support at the spiritual level.

"The global environment situation is harsher than most people realize," says Kendall. "The severe troubles are coming down the pike. There's a lot riding on this outreach.

"And none of us in the scientific community have anything approaching this kind of access," he says, referring to the widespread following of major Christian and Jewish denominations.

Setting Aside Differences Reasonable minds may disagree about the Earth's beginnings, says Paul Gorman, executive director of the New York-based partnership, but the organization wants to set aside creation debates and remind everyone that improving the environment requires a mix of ecological vigilance and faith.

"The science and religious communities are two groups that have long been distant or estranged," says Gorman, who previously worked as a vice president of advocacy at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

"They may not agree about creation. But look at it this way. God said, `Let there be water.' Well, what's the state of our water now? " he says. "And God created animals. But half of those species may be extinct within 50 years. The bottom line is that we don't have to agree on how or when the Earth was made in order to agree on how to preserve it."

"These are human problems, and require a new ethic of dealing with ecosystems," says Kendall. "But the solutions can't rest with the scientific community."

To get its message out, the partnership plans to distribute informational booklets to 53,000 congregations--Catholic, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, and Reform and Conservative Jewish, among many others--representing as many as 100 million Americans, on Earth Day, next April 22. The specific content of the booklets has yet to be determined.

Simple Goals As Gorman describes it, the goals of the organization are simple: to broaden the base of support for environmental action in mainstream communities, deepen the level of commitment to collective action, and underscore the moral imperative of leaving a healthier planet for future generations.

To make that happen, the partnership will try to help religious leaders integrate environmental issues in their preaching, teaching, and worship. Emphasis will also be placed on helping them build bridges to community organizations in order to participate in public policy.

"When the religious community gets together, they can make a lot of things happen," says Gorman, noting, for example, that the effort will reach every Catholic parish in the United States. "There hasn't been a partnership of this breadth on a single issue before," Gorman says.

"We bring the authority of the scientific community, which understands threats to the environment, the nature of damage being done, and how to assess it," says Kendall.

Scientists Took Initiative The partnership got its start in January 1990, when 34 prominent scientists--including Kendall; Hans Bethe, John Wendell Anderson Professor of Physics at Cornell University; Freeman Dyson, a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.; Jerome Wiesner, president, emeritus, and Institute Professor, emeritus, at MIT; Stephen Jay Gould, a professor of zoology at Harvard University; and Carl Sagan, David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of planetary studies at Cornell--sent a letter to the heads of several major religious denominations, urging their involvement in solving environmental problems.

That letter got the ball rolling. Subsequent conversations led to meetings, including one breakfast with several congressional leaders, which resulted in the formation of working groups. These groups, in turn, hammered out the fine points needed to make scientific notions palatable to religious leaders and their followers.

"Each group has to embrace the issues within their own religious framework," Gorman acknowledges. "They needed this relationship with the scientific community so there could be an informed response."

The partnership coalesced in May of last year, backed by the U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches in Christ, the Consultation on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit organization devoted to influencing public policy, will supply a staff member and make its nationwide network of scientific contacts available to religious congregations. A three-year commitment to be involved in the project has been made by UCS, the religious groups, and the scientist volunteers; pledges for $4.5 million in funding from various external sources have been received.

"If this program is a success, it should have an important effect on what it means to be religious," says Gorman. "In fact, environmental stewardship should become a significant aspect of what it means to be religious."

For information, contact the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, 1047 Amersterdam Ave., New York, N.Y. 10025; (212) 316-7441.

Edward R. Silverman is a freelance writer based in Millburn, N.J.