Three-Year Harvard Project Calls on Religions to Help Solve Environmental Crisis

United Nations Environment Programme
October 20, 1998

Harvard Project on Religion and Ecology finds need to assist scientists, economists, educators and public policy makers in protecting the planet from ecological destruction.


NEW YORK, October 20, 1998 – An urgent call for greater participation of the world’s religions in helping to solve the global ecological crisis is among the key findings of the three-year Harvard Project on Religion and Ecology, the largest ever interreligious dialogue on the environment. Results of the project were announced today at a news conference at the United Nations.

The project, a wide-ranging series of conferences begun in 1996, explored the relationship between 10 of the world’s major religious traditions and the natural environment and investigated the potential role of these religions in helping to solve environmental problems. It brought together more than a thousand scholars, practitioners and activists from around the globe. The series, hosted by the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, was conceived and coordinated by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, professors of religion at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, in collaboration with Lawrence Sullivan, the Center’s director.

At the news conference, the project’s organizers outlined plans to bring the intellectual, textual, ritual and symbolic resources of ten major religions to those who directly address environmental concerns, particularly scientists, economists, educators and public policy makers. Specifically, organizers announced the creation of an ongoing Forum on Religion and Ecology to integrate the goals of the project on a theoretical and practical level.

Joining Tucker, Grim and Sullivan at today’s news conference were Maurice Strong, Senior Advisor to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Timothy Wirth, President of the United Nations Foundation, Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Tu Weiming, Director of The Harvard-Yenching Institute, and Michael McElroy, Chair of the Harvard University Committee on the Environment.

The forum’s main objective will be to foster a religious voice in public policy formulation, educational curricula, economic planning, and scientific and social research related to the environment. Planning for the forum will be based at the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions, with assistance from the Harvard-Yenching Institute, the Center for Respect of Life and Environment in Washington, D.C., and Bucknell University’s Religion Department. The forum planning process will be led by a steering committee and an advisory board consisting of specialists in the ten religious traditions involved in the series – Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Indigenous Traditions, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, and Taoism, with other religious traditions added whenever possible.


To more effectively implement the project’s goals, more than 60 organizations and individuals in religion, economics, education, science and public policy have already announced their willingness to affiliate with the forum, including:

Religion – The National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRP), a coalition of Jewish and Christian groups under executive director Paul Gorman, which this August announced its grass-roots campaign for the approval of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming;

Economics – The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), led by executive director Robert Massie;

Education – University Leaders for a Sustainable Future at the Center for Respect of Life and Environment; the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation at Columbia University; and Second Nature, a not-for-profit organization which provides environmental education curricula to colleges and universities;

Science – Harvard entomologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson; American Museum of Natural History paleontologist and curator Niles Eldredge; Washington University microbiologist and author Ursula Goodenough; biologist Robert Pollack of Columbia University; and Mary Barber of the Ecological Society of America;

Public Policy – The Institute on Public Policy, Ethics, and Science, led by Donald Brown at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection; the Global Development and Environmental Institute led by William Moomaw at Tufts University; and the Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values, chaired by Timothy Weiskel.

The project has sparked future initiatives including conferences on “World Religions and Animals,” scheduled at Harvard in May 1999, and on the “Epic of Evolution and the World’s Religions” at the Whidbey Institute in Washington in July 1999. Other plans include fellowships for doctoral and post doctoral research in religion and ecology as well as a lectureship in honour of Thomas Berry, one of the leading spokespersons in this field of study.

To disseminate the findings of the conference series, the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions will publish 11 books, one for the conference proceedings of each religious tradition and a synthesizing volume highlighting the findings of the entire ten-part series. Harvard University Press is distributing the volumes. Two volumes, Buddhism and Ecology and Confucianism and Ecology, have already been published to critical acclaim. For educators, materials will be developed emphasizing the role of religion in environmental issues for secondary schools and college level classes, with summer workshops for teachers on how to integrate religion into environmental education. The Harvard Center is developing a website for the forum to provide a global network for religion scholars and activists to post publications, news, curricula, and announcements of related conferences, roundtables, lectures, and other events.

Tucker and Grim credit a number of appeals to religion for greater participation in environmental issues – such as the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” issued in 1992 by the Union of Concerned Scientists and signed by 1,575 scientists (including 99 Nobel laureates) from 69 countries, which called for religions to embrace environmental concerns – for inspiring the creation of the conference series and establishment of the forum.

According to organizers, the project is an important step in transcending differences among religions and allowing them to act in concert to broaden a view of nature that goes beyond simple economic ends. Religious values are critical in establishing a new balance of human-earth relations, they note, one that acknowledges human need for resources, but restrains human greed.

During the project’s conference series, participants reported discovering how the beliefs and practices of the world’s religions regarding nature are more rich, diverse and sophisticated than previously realized. Moreover, it became clear that many religions are already drawing on these resources to meet some environmental challenges. For example, the world’s indigenous traditions still transmit sophisticated environmental knowledge of local ecosystems.

Other tangible examples include religious bodies involved in reforestation projects, river clean-ups, and recycling and energy efficiency programs.

Organizers point to the generosity and diversity of its funders – including the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Association of Shinto Shrines, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Dharam Hinduja Indic Research Center at Columbia University, Germeshausen Foundation, Harvard Buddhist Studies Forum, Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard Divinity School Center for the Study of Values in Public Life, Jain Academic Foundation of North America, the Albert and Vera List Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Laurance Rockefeller, Sacharuna Foundation, Surdna Foundation, Theological Education to Meet the Environmental Challenge, and the Winslow Foundation – as clear evidence of the interest in the issues raised by the project. Organizers say that the amount of the funding, in excess of one million dollars, is significant for a newly-emerging field of study.

The Harvard Religions of the World and Ecology Conference Series began in May 1996 with a conference on Buddhism and Ecology, followed by nine more conferences at Harvard and at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, MA. The last of the series took place in July of this year. A four-day culminating conference at the Academy in September brought area specialists from each of the ten religions to meet with scientists, economists, educators, and public policy makers to establish goals and implementations of the ongoing forum.

Today’s news conference will be followed by a conference this afternoon at the United Nations where project leaders and advisers will report their findings to the United Nations community and non-government organizations. On Wednesday, October 21, an all-day public conference will be held at New York’s American Museum of Natural History where leading representatives from science, education, economics and policy will speak, and featuring a roundtable discussion among religious representatives led by television journalist Bill Moyers.