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Religion and the Environment (Lorentzen)

Course Title

Religion and the Environment


Lois Ann Lorentzen
Professor of Social Ethics
University of San Francisco




Religion; Environmental Studies

Pedagogical Level



Fall 1996


University of San Francisco

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.
—Aldo Leopold
Description This course explores religious underpinnings of contemporary attitudes and practices concerning the environment and the human/nature relationship. The course focuses on how religious beliefs concerning the environment have been articulated in both theory and practice. The course is introductory, covering a wide range of perspectives, and is designed to give you an overview of major players in current debates concerning the environment.
Course Goals

By the end of the course a student should be able to:

  1. Be conversant with major religious perspectives, both historical and contemporary, on the human/nature relationship.
  2. Be able to identify religious or ethical underpinnings of factions within the contemporary environmental movement.
  3. Critically analyze current environmental issues.

No special format listed


None listed


Class Attendance and Participation
Active and informed participation is required of all course participants. Informed means that you enter the classroom prepared to discuss the readings or to engage guest lecturers and each other. If you are painfully shy, talk to me outside of class or come to my office hours. The point is, you MUST talk.

Critical Reflection Papers on the Readings

Critical reflection papers on selected readings will be due frequently. Due dates for papers are noted in the syllabus and questions to guide your papers are at the end of the syllabus. The papers will be marked with a + or - rather than with a grade. If all reading reflections are received and marked +, your grade for this requirement is an A. One missing is a B. Two missing is a C. Three missing is a D, and the rest should be obvious.

Midterm and Final Examinations
The midterm and final examinations are both essay examinations. You will receive a study guide roughly one week before the examination and we will hold a brief study session before each examination. The midterm examination is Thursday, October 10. The final examination is Tuesday, December 17 at 12 pm.

In-Class Presentation

Each student will present a group research project to the class. Presentations will be made in groups of four students. Presentations should run 30–40 minutes, or one-half of a class period. The last two weeks of the semester will be devoted to group presentations. Guidelines for group projects are attached to this syllabus. Groups must be formed and topic submitted to me on Thursday, September 26.

Research Paper
Each student will write an 8–10 page typed paper based on your group research project. The topic must be approved by the instructor. Topic proposals (no more than a paragraph) are due September 26. The research paper is due when your group presents.

A one-page, typed, double-spaced self-assessment is due the last day of class. You assign yourself a grade and justify your grade assignment. The self-assessment is due December 10, the last day of class.

Questions for Critical Reflection Papers

Sept 12
According to Limerick, the settlers themselves claim that they are innocent victims. In what ways? How did indigenous peoples and settlers disagree concerning the human/nature relationship?

Sept 19
Who is Lynn White? Is it possible to make generalizations about Christian perspectives on the environment? What case can be made for a negative impact? A positive impact?

Oct 3
How would you describe a Buddhist view of nature? An Islamic view? Do these perspectives have an impact in the “real” world?

Oct 24
How are deep ecology and Earth First! religious? What do you think of the possibilities of both deep ecology and Earth First! for changing perceptions of the human/nature relationship?

Nov 14
For what reasons do both ecofeminists and “Third World” critics like Ramachandra Guha criticize deep ecology and radical environmentalism? Do you agree or disagree with the criticisms and why?

Group Presentations
Your group of four will be responsible for educating the class concerning the religious/ethical nature of a particular environmental topic, group, or religion. Your presentation will be 35–40 minutes long (one-half of a class period). You will be graded as a group for your project and as an individual for your research paper. Although this is a group presentation, individuals will become “experts” on different aspects of your topic.

The project must include:

  • Historical, economic, social, political aspects
  • How religious symbolism is utilized
  • Evidence of fieldwork

Groups must do the following:

  • Provide the class with an article at least one week before your presentation.
  • Your research MUST include more than library research. In other words, you must as part of your research, interview someone directly involved with your topic, view a film, visit an organization related to the topic, etc. If you have trouble figuring out how to do this, talk to me. You will be given two class periods off during the semester to give you time for your fieldwork.

Each student must:

Write an 8–10 page paper based on your group research project. The papers SHOULD NOT be identical, although topics may overlap.

Possible Research Topics

  • environmental racism
  • genetic engineering cases
  • water wars in the western United States (Mono Lake controversy, Hetch Hetchy, etc.)
  • Siberian forest destruction
  • whaling controversies
  • alternative development models
  • analyze a particular group/movement (the Green political party, Sea Shepherd Society, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, etc.)
  • analyze the Rio Summit
  • old growth controversy in the northwest United States
  • ecobusiness?
  • ecotourism?
  • militarism and the environment
  • population issues
  • the GAIA hypothesis
  • animal rights
  • nature in religious traditions we haven’t studied (Hinduism, Judaism, etc.)
  • the goddess movement and nature
  • grassroots environmental movements like Chipko in India
  • etc., etc., etc.
Class Attendance and Participation
Reading Response Papers
Midterm Examination
Final Examination
In-Class Group Presentations
Research Paper

Required Texts

Elder, John C., and Steven C. Rockefeller. Spirit and Nature: Why the Environment is a Religious Issue. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Gottlieb, Roger S., ed. This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Course Reader: Religion and Environment Course Reader

Foreman, Dave. “Putting the Earth First.”

Guha, Ramachandra. “Radical Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique.”

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. “The Persistence of Natives.”

Lorentzen, Lois. “‘Earth First!’ The Ecofeminist/Deep Ecology Debate in a New Environmental Movement.”

Naess, Arne. “The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects.”

Shiva, Vandana. “The Seed and the Earth: Biotechnology and the Colonisation of Regeneration.”

Course Reader can also be found on reserve.
Additional readings will be distributed throughout the semester.

Aug 29


Sept 2

Native American Perspectives
Assigned Reading

  • Fanetores, This Sacred Earth, “The Creation.”
  • Aztec, This Sacred Earth, “The Five Suns.”
  • Kioni Dudley, This Sacred Earth, “Traditional Native Hawaiian Environmental Philosophy.”
  • Black Elk, This Sacred Earth, “Wiwanyag Wachipi: The Sun Dance.”
  • Shenandoah, Spirit and Nature, “A Tradition of Thanksgiving.”
Sept 9

Nature, Natives, and the West
Assigned Reading

  • Limerick, Course Reader, “The Persistence of Natives.”
Sept 12

Response Papers Due

Sept 16

Christianity and the Environment
Assigned Reading

  • White, This Sacred Earth, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.”
  • Kinsley, This Sacred Earth, “Christianity as Ecologically Harmful.”
  • Kinsley, This Sacred Earth, “Christianity as Ecologically Responsible.”
Sept 23

Buddhist Perspectives
Assigned Reading

  • Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Spirit and Nature, “A Tibetan Buddhist Perspective on Spirit in Nature.”
  • Chatsumarn Kabilisingh, This Sacred Earth, “Early Buddhist Views on Nature.”
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, This Sacred Earth, “Earth Gathas.”
  • Kraft, This Sacred Earth, “The Greening of Buddhist Practice.”
Sept 26

Research Paper and Group Presentation Proposals Due

Sept 30

Islam and the Environment
Assigned Reading

  • Nasr, Spirit and Nature, “Islam and the Environmental Crisis.”
  • Mawil Y. Izzi Deen, This Sacred Earth, “Islamic Environmental Ethics: Law and Society.”
Oct 3

Response Papers Due

Oct 8

Midterm Review

Oct 10

Midterm Examination


Contemporary Environmental Movement

Oct 14

Deep Ecology
Assigned Reading

  • Naess, Course Reader, “The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects.”
  • Seed, This Sacred Earth, “Invocation.”
  • Seed and Fleming, This Sacred Earth, “Evolutionary Remembering.”
Oct 21

Radical Environmantalism/Earth First!
Assigned Reading

  • Foreman, Course Reader, “Putting the Earth First.”
  • Taylor, This Sacred Earth, “Earth First!: From Primal Spirituality to Ecological Resistance.”
Oct 24

Response Papers Due

Oct 28

“Third World” Response to Deep Ecology
Assigned Reading

  • Ramachandra Guha, Course Reader, “Radical Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique.”
Nov 4

Assigned Reading

  • Griffin, This Sacred Earth, from Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her.
  • Lorentzen, Course Reader, “Earth First!: The Ecofeminist/Deep Ecology Debate in a New Environmental Movement.”
Nov 7

No Class

Nov 11

“Third World” Ecofeminism
Assigned Reading

  • Shiva, This Sacred Earth, from Staying Alive.
  • Shiva, Course Reader, “The Seed and the Earth: Biotechnology and the Colonisation of Regeneration.”
Nov 14

Response Papers Due

Nov 18

Begin Class Presentations

Nov 25

No Class

Dec 2

Student Presentations

Dec 9

Student Presentations

Dec 10

Self-Assessments Due



Copyright © 1999 Lois Ann Lorentzen.
Reprinted with permission.
The author retains all copyrights for all syllabi materials.
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