John Grim: Nature
January 26, 2017
John Allen Grim is a lecturer at Yale Law School, as well as a Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Scholar at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. He is the codirector with Mary Evelyn Tucker of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. He and Tucker directed a threeyear conference series at Harvard on World Religions and Ecology and were editors for the resulting ten volumes. They also wrote Ecology and Religion (Island Press, 2013), and are executive producers of the Emmy award-winning PBS film Journey of the Universe, which includes a book (Yale, 2011) and conversations. * The joint program in religion and ecology is between Yale School of Divinity and Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Mary Evelyn Tucker and Grim also have appointments at the Religious Studies department as historians of religion, rather than as theologians.
1 Why is your work relevant to a broader audience outside of your specific discipline?
As academics we have had a sense of the need for a field of study, but we also saw that on the ground there was a need for engagement—what we call a “force.” Some might say: that’s activism or that’s advocacy—and, actually, I think they’re right on target. Thinking about these distinctions are important issues today. These questions and insights regarding “field” and “force” could be said to be the driving thesis behind our work. Most important, is the link of religion and ecology with story. All religions have many stories that transmit ontologies—ways of thinking about reality—and cosmologies—ways of talking about the observable universe. We’re interested in what is our contemporary story about reality and ourselves. Consider the connections—evident to historians of religion—between religion and indigenous peoples, or, for example, cosmology and ecology within the Confucian tradition. Within these diverse traditions there are profound efforts to tell a story of reality and how we humans fit into it. For example, we get Confucian scholars from Confucius himself into the Neo-Confucian tradition in the 10th to 11th century focusing on the roles of heaven, earth, and human. The Confucian tradition locates the human in a microcosm of a much larger universe, or Heaven, T’ien. Within the human dimensions, there are a set of nested dimensions, like the Russian dolls: family, friendships, society, natural world, and cosmos. The Confucian tradition recommends cultivating an authentic self or personhood in the context of all of these relationships. You can find different but similar microcosm and macrocosm relationships in any other religious tradition; for example, in my office I have yarn paintings from the Huichol people of Northern Mexico. These yarn paintings are filled with stories about the beginnings of the world and all the spiritual beings involved in sustaining the world. Notice that the human being is not at the center of the story. Certainly the human is there, but for the Huichol the human is placed in the context of a macrocosm of beings. Actually, that placement is typical of many religious traditions. Thinking about this microcosm and macrocosm relationship, it’s fair to ask: do people in the street talk this way? We all know they don’t. And yet, the cosmological values embedded in these stories have been transmitted over the years in these traditions. These values about relationships embedded in reality have been transmitted in everyday practices and in special ritual occasions. Cosmologies are stories within traditions, carrying values, and these stories have been very effective in orienting, grounding, nurturing, and transforming the human family for millennia.
2 What are the “commons” that your specific work fights to preserve, protect, contest, or share?
So the two wings of our work are a religion and ecology wing and a Journey of the Universe wing. In the religion and ecology project we can locate a “commons” in the sacred places or sacred spaces of the religions, such as Jerusalem, Mecca, Benares, Kyoto, or Cuzco. There are also sacred buildings, or architecture that is invested with cosmological values. So what does it mean? Actually, about five years ago a visiting architect from Canada had a project that she brought to the School of Architecture and it was about a fish weir site of ancient indigenous peoples—probably Anisinabe—not far from Toronto. These wooden staves, or fish weirs, directed fish into shallow waters where they could be caught for food. They had been discovered in the rivers and were dated at an incredibly early period. Two, three, four thousand years ago I’m not sure—but they’re quite significant in the North American context as evidence of human activity. Local and federal Canadian governments joined with local indigenous peoples in initiating an architectural project honoring these ancient peoples and their technology. When this architect brought this project to Yale, she had a most difficult time raising the question of sacred space. Alex Felson invited me to come speak to this student group, and I even came at the end of the year to observe the students’ presentations of their designs. This was a very interesting exchange with students who, like yourselves, raise questions about the meaning of these fish weirs as something that could be quantified, managed, or designed. The words malleability, manipulation, and management all came to the students’ mind as ways of understanding the sacred. But the sense of the sacred is, for me, something different. Here is an entryway into this question about a “commons.” In religious traditions, quite often place or space is designated as sacred. The easy take is, as we have mentioned, church buildings such as synagogues or mosques. But the example that I gave of the fish weir is a more interesting and unusual example. It’s a striking example of the religion and ecology dimension; namely, an example of how a religion interacts with the natural world. Sometimes a church, a synagogue, or a mosque as a sacred building doesn’t bring the ecological dimension as closely to the surface for discussion. Yet, if you have someone who’s familiar with the design and the theology or the cosmological thought behind that building, suddenly the values begin to be apparent. In all of these religious traditions, these kinds of connections between individuals and communities with the natural world becomes very interesting. Generally, we can say that religions are filled with ecological values and perspectives that are meaningful for people. These often hidden or suppressed perspectives tell clearly why this place, why these animals, or why a particular location is meaningful, emotionally charged, and historically remembered as culturally significant. So the commons in the religion and ecology project takes many forms, but in summary “commons” are a kind of place-based thinking by specific communities.
3 What is at stake in your work?
You can also sense a participatory ethics in these places or “commons.” Within the religion and ecology wing of our work we attend to these traditions as having something to say about local bio-regions. That is, there are historical case studies that a student can retrieve, reevaluate; perhaps these traditions choose to reconstruct themselves based on these encounters with their ecological past. Most importantly, we are called to an environmental ethics. This call is not simply abstract or academic, but a call to a participatory ethics. Moreover, these ethics will be different in different locations. For example, in East Asia now we’re beginning to hear [the phrase] “ecological civilization.” The phrase suggests that it is not simply the work of one individual changing his or her activities, but a need for the larger community and civilization. Consider the recent activities at the Lakota People’s Reservation, Standing Rock in North Dakota. Here Lakota Native Americans have reacted to a proposed pipeline going under the Missouri River, the source of their drinking water. In this activity they use the word protectors: specifically, Water Protectors. They did not use the words resistors, or protesters in their resistance to the pipeline. I think that is very interesting. They went into their tradition to find the Lakota values that support their nonviolent activity and insist that prayer and ceremonial attend this activity of protecting a member of their community that gives to them, namely, water. To me, that’s a participatory environmental ethics; they are groping towards a new understanding of themselves amidst real challenges to their place, their people, their culture, the beings with whom they live in relationships.
4 What are the physical spaces that potentially perpetuate or exacerbate the issues your work seeks to redress?
Environmental ethics, then, will be different among different cultures. We can think of this as an expression of “environmental humanities”: namely, the search to understand how human communities interact with the world that sustains them. In this sense we can take up another inquiry that you raise in your interview questions: namely, what are the physical spaces and structures that exacerbate or continue the problems addressed your work? In our contemporary American society, we obviously have an infrastructure that is heavily committed to fossil fuel: we use it to grow our food, make our clothing, enable transportation. When you think about the importance of fossil fuels in medicine, for example, the lines for delivering medicine into our bodies—much of it is fossil fuel plastics. In these fields and others, fossil fuels dominate the human condition today. Can we say that these ways of extracting and using fossil fuels exacerbate our environmental and climate problems? I think so. We’re caught in a fossil fuel bubble right now. We’re trying to find a way out of it by focusing on new ways of sourcing energy. We now have this incredible attention around the planet to turn toward alternative energy, away from fossil fuels because we realize the energy put into acquiring fossil fuels and what they lead to—their long life in terms of atmospheric heat trapping of gases— it’s not successful anymore. So what has not been communicated well to the large public is that this transition needs to happen quickly within fifty, hundred years but the longer the wait, the shorter that transformation, that period of change. This requires a new human energy also. Our work in religion and ecology as well as the Journey of the Universe project can be described as ways to explore new sources of human energy to make the transitions needed for the human to flourish simultaneously with flourishing life on planet Earth. So, yes, obstacles stand in our way; namely, ways of thinking that are based on ancient values embedded in the quality of our accustomed life. That quality of life is seen as dependent upon the extraction of fossil fuels, industrial processes, and transforming that fossil fuel of a range of supportive activities. We considered several links and we can include your architectural field: steel-making, building materials, design. In all these areas this field of religion and ecology seeks to engage the questions: what is the story of the human? What is the relationship of the human to the earth community? and how can we flourish all of this community rather than simply ourselves?