Today at our GreenFaith retreat included a presentation and discussion with Erin Lothes Biviano, professor at the College of St. Elizabeth, about what motivates faith-based individuals and congregations to act on their environmental beliefs. This was fascinating and I want to read more of her work. We did read two of her articles: “Worldviews on Fire: Understanding the Inspiration for Congregational Environmentalism” (Cross Currents, December 2012), and “Come with Me Into the Fields: Inspiring Creation Ministry Among Faith Communities” (New Theology Review, March 2014).
I was inspired by her work methodologically, because she’s using social sciences methods (semi-structured focus groups) to measure behavior in faith-based communities, which is something I’ve been thinking about how to do. I’m excited to see that she does well-designed and -analyzed qualitative social sciences research, and she applies it in a way that is useful for those who are attempting to help lead faith communities.
I’m also excited to read about her work, which focuses on analyzing what seems to motivate faith communities toward pro-environmental behavior change. What she’s saying is somewhat different from what the field of conservation psychology says about how to motivate the average American (although there is quite a bit of overlap), so it would be interesting to look into this deeper and figure out if this means that communities of faith are motivated by something different from the general population, or if she’s identifying something different for other reasons.
In her Cross Currents article, she found that the motivating factors regarding whether or not a congregation is willing to engage in pro-environmental action include: level of scientific literacy, recognizing the interdependence of all things (including society, economy, ecology, and spirituality), a core community commitment to social justice, and the willingness to open themselves to an ever-widening understanding of God.
Interestingly, for my own work on critical hope, she said that “hope was not a universally driving factor” (p. 509). However, she then gave a quote that focused on someone’s explanation that they weren’t optimistic, and in my own work (and the psychological literature) I’m differentiating between hope and optimism. Hope is much different from optimism. I think hope includes struggle, and the real possibility of failure, whereas optimism is just a vague wish or desire, and doesn’t require personal responsibility or work. What she describes is that people in faith communities are willing to take action steps regardless of their optimism about their goal being completed, and in my opinion, this is the definition of hope. We don’t know whether it will happen, but there’s a possibility of it, and we choose to hope against hope that our steps will lead us there, or at least closer. We refuse to give in or give up, and taking those steps are in fact our enacted hope.
OK, enough about that, although of course I could talk about it for days, because it was fascinating! The next part made for better pictures, however.
In the afternoon, we went to Constitution Marsh Audubon Center & Sanctuary. It’s just up the road from the Garrison Institute on the Hudson River. Eric Lind, the center director, showed us around and told us some of the environmental history and ecology of the region. Constitution Marsh is about 50 miles from the ocean, but it’s still a tidal marsh with salt water coming in with the tide, creating an unique habitat that far inland. It’s a beautiful location! They have about 300 acres they’re conserving, providing habitat for many songbirds, butterflies, and other species.
Although Lind doesn’t think of himself as a particularly religious person, he talked about the marsh as a confluence between the environment and ethics. One can see in this marsh the negative impact of humanity on the landscape: the pollution from a former battery factory across the river, the impact of the straight line of railroad cutting across in an area that’s used to mushy and undulating boundaries, the latter of which provide much better wildlife habitat, and the attempts to dredge the river and build up the marsh in order to farm that land. Add to that the fragmentation of habitat resulting in fewer birds and other species migrating and surviving in place over the years, and human beings have had a huge negative impact in that place.
But the river is so resilient that it’s able to flourish in that area now, given a bit of human positive attention. It is evident that Lind loves this place and its creatures, and he loves himself when he’s
there. He told us that he’s really selfish, because he just wants all these creatures to flourish partially for his own enjoyment, and maybe that’s anthropocentric, but it’s also a recognition that he’s part of the whole picture. He’s not just saving these creatures because he should, out of obligation. He’s not saving them because they serve some utilitarian function. He’s creating space for them because he loves them, and he’s participating in that space with them.
He had us stand by the creek and just listen, and he told us that that’s the beginning of both inquiry and mystery. When he’s still and listens, he thinks of a lot of questions, and this is the scientific portion: he can go out and start learning answers. But there’s also the mystery, the part that draws him deeper and gives him peace, the part that makes him thoroughly human, to just listen, to be attentive, and to appreciate.
While walking in the rocky hills around the marsh and out on the boardwalk over the marsh, we heard numerous bird calls and saw red wing blackbirds, goldfinches, and some other birds I didn’t recognize, partially because I’m not from here, and partially because I’m pretty bird-illiterate. One of the other employees set up a telescope so we could see a bald eagle nest, and we watched an eagle chick for a while, then saw an adult eagle perched in a nearby tree. We also saw an eagle fly out over the marsh. Lind said New York had been down to one breeding pair in the ’70s, but their population has rebounded since then, due to the care of a biologist who hand-raised eagle chicks from Alaska (without imprinting) and released them in New York.
The marsh was a beautiful place to go and listen and watch and be aware. Fletcher Harper, the GreenFaith director, asked at the end, “What would it be like if our congregations went out once a month and spent time at a marsh, or a similar place in your region?” I know that Wilderness Way in Portland, OR does this, spending time at a local conservation space every third Sunday of the month. It’s something I’d like to experiment with.