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does environmental science lead to environmental action?

By: James Miller

Green Heart (And the Green Grass Grows All Around, All Around)I have just finished teaching my undergraduate course on religion and the environment. Most of the students are in engineering or environmental science, and the course fulfills a humanities requirement for them. It’s been fascinating teaching scientists about religion, as you can imagine, but it’s also been hard.

One of the most serious problems that I’ve had to deal with among my students is the basic assumption that seems to be taught in environmental science, namely that knowing more about the environment is the best way to generate action on the environment.

This assumption is, from a historical perspective, hard to justify. The development of the modern scientific view of nature has not been accompanied by an enhanced respect for nature. Rather, scientific knowledge of the environment has swept away any traditional sense of nature as sacred or deserving of respect. At the same time it has enabled massive industrial exploitation of natural resources without regard for ecological sustainability.

Now I’m not against science. Far from it. But I am against the simplistic fallacy that knowing about the environment necessarily leads to better adaptation to the environment.

The cultural anthropologist Roy Rappaport long ago made the important distinction between the cognized environment and the operational environment. The cognized environment represents how we see and understand our interactions with nature, whereas the operational environment represents the sum total of how our behaviors in actual fact engage with the natural world.

There is a world of difference between these two, but the goal of environmental science is to bridge the gap between these two worlds–to bring our view of the environment into perfect symmetry with how in fact humans interact with the natural environment.

But Rappaport went on to argue that there is no simple relationship between cognition and adaptation. Understanding our environment does not mean that we will adapt well to it. On the contrary, he argued, a false understanding or imperfectly cognized environment may well entail a good adaptation to the environment.

Some indigenous cultures have learned to adapt very well to their specific environmental contexts without having a deep scientific knowledge. Their cognitive worlds may well involve spirits, ghosts, ancestors and other non-empirical entities. Yet their beliefs–unscientific though they might be–have helped them foster sustainable ecological relationships within their environmental contexts.

We moderns, to the contrary, have a far greater empirical knowledge of nature and environment, but have fostered eminently unsustainable relationships with the environment. Our knowledge has not saved us.

The goal of environmental studies, therefore, should not simply be  increased knowledge about the environment, but rather how to foster behavior that is better adapted to the environment. Similarly those of us who are interested in religion and environment should not be focussed so much on doctrines or ethics, but on rituals and practices–how religions engage the operational environment as much as the cognitive environment.

Where these two fields meet is in the area of social psychology–learning how shared cultural beliefs foster specific types of behavior. Here it is important to understand that there is no simple relationship between belief and behavior. An uneducated peasant may well have a smaller ecological footprint than a PhD. From this perspective, knowledge and education are not necessarily the most desirable things when it comes to the future of the planet.

This is perhaps a rather cynical observation, but I think it’s important to face it. Education, from a sociological perspective, is not about increasing scientific understanding among the people, but about providing a form of economic advancement for individuals. Most of my students desire education not as a goal in itself but as a means to social advancement, earning more money and increasing their status. In all likelihood, education will practically result in expanding their ecological footprint over their lifetimes, not shrinking it.

People who denounce environmentalism as a pseudo-religion have a good point. Environmentalism as a movement should prioritize action over knowledge and behavior over belief. Changing behavior depends on changing the shared cultural narrative that educates our emotional response to experience. We can change people’s behavior if we can get them to love nature, to fear an environmentally degraded future, and to mourn the extinction of species. It’s about cultural narratives–myths–even more than scientific knowledge. Maybe it’s time to be cynical–or realistic?

Categories: Blog, Opinion, Questions


  1. This post makes a very astutue observation, and one which is perhaps a bit counter-intuitive. It does highlight the difficulties of the question: what is one doing when one studies the environment? The series on religions and ecology out of Harvard illustrates that there is a definite focus on doing something–on changing people’s behavior. I think a challenge here for scholars is that it is almost necessary that they cross that divide between research and involvement. However, this becomes tricky in Religious Studies in the face of the dictum “study religion, but don’t DO religion.” When one attempts to do something about the environment through the resources of religions, what position does that put the scholar in? Did this situation present itself during your course?

    I also found your reflections on action versus knowledge apropos to the Chinese Buddhist question: if we are already enlightened, what need is there for practice? If knowledge itself was a transformative as some have suggested, why do those of us who are “environmentally enlightened” still leave such a large footprint?

  2. Hi Seth, and thanks for your comment. I agree very much that the Buddhist tradition has a lot to say about the relationship between knowledge and practice, and tends to emphasize the latter over the former: meditative practice leads to enlightened understanding, and not generally the other way around.

    On the other hand Protestantism has generally configured this relationship the other way. Right belief leads to right action. This methodological and pedagogical priority has thoroughly imbued the Western academy and also environmentalism. Environmentalists tend to view their opponents as uneducated and unthinking, whereas they should really view them as unfeeling and wrong-acting.

  3. I think that’s a important distinction to make and I couldn’t agree more. But it does pose a problem for the type of multicultural environmental ethics that people like Tucker and Callicot seem to be promoting. Which leads me to wonder if the discussion of an environmental ethic is not problematizing scholar’s ability to build tradition-based ethics that are addressed to a specific traditions worldview. I have lately been trying to discern whether a Buddhist environmental ethic requires one to focus on a specific Buddhist tradition. As I see it now, a Thai Buddhist EE would not be very similar to a Chinese Buddhist EE (although the latter might be an aspect of a larger Chinese Environmental ethic, combining aspects of Confucian and Daoist thought).

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