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Heaven on earth: Religion returns to the environment

Published: Sunday, April 21 2013 1:50 p.m. MDT

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni speaks at the "Biodiversity, Endangered Species, and Resiliency" panel discussion at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on April 12.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Coming home from school each day in Bethesda, Md., Nalini Nadkarni had a difficult decision to make: which of the eight maple trees in her front yard was she going to climb that afternoon?

Little did she know that the next 50 years would be full of her favorite childhood pastime. Known by many as the “queen of canopy research,” Nadkarni has climbed and studied cloud forests the world over, including those in Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon and the Pacific Northwest.

Now a professor of biology at the University of Utah, she’s spent the last few years branching out, so to speak, engaging the mediums of dance, poetry, television — even rap music — to take the treetops to the people. And by “the people,” she means everyone from prisoners to parishioners.

With a Hindu father and Orthodox Jewish mother, Nadkarni realized early on that nature — and the need to take good care of it — plays a prominent role in all religious traditions.

“Throughout the Talmud, Quran, Buddhist writings and so forth, you come to realize that trees represent something spiritual that connect people to God and the Earth. In the Old Testament alone, there are 328 references to the words 'tree' and 'forest,'” she said April 12 at the University of Utah's annual Stegner Symposium, which this year focused on the relationship between religion and the environment.

Nevertheless, in a 2010 Pew Forum poll, only 6 percent of Americans said religion is the biggest influence on their environmental views. And less than half (47 percent) said that their clergy speak out about the environment. Judeo-Christian theology has been criticized for anti-environmental tendencies going back to historian Lynn White's 1967 article in the journal Science, which condemned exploitation of the scripture in Genesis about man's dominion over nature.

Hoping to change the story line, conservationists and faith leaders — including, in the case of the Stegner Symposium, a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — are coming together to discuss doctrine and advocacy, highlighting the ways in which religion can — and in many cases is — returning to environmentalism after decades away.

An evangelical perspective

Tri Robinson discovered God at the age of 16 on a mountainside overlooking Antelope Valley in Los Angeles County. The view from his family ranch took in a finger of the Mojave Desert and was, in a word, “breathtaking.”

“I knew it couldn’t be an accident,” said Robinson, founding pastor of Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Boise, Idaho. “God revealed himself to me in that moment.”

Robinson also spoke at the Stegner Symposium, looking more cowboy than clergy in a slightly faded button-down shirt. It was only proper — his ties to the land run deep. He and his wife Nancy raised their family on that rustic ranch during the turbulent 1970s, a time in which, as Robinson tells it, evangelicals and environmentalists largely parted ways.

The best-selling book “Population Bomb” by Paul Ehrlich was published in 1968, helping to fuel the Zero Population Growth movement. By the time Roe v. Wade became law in 1973, the countercultural Jesus Movement of the 60s and early 70s was fading and the environmental movement was on a more secular, politicized path.

“I was a closet environmentalist all that time,” he said.

In 1989, he and Nancy moved to Boise to plant a church, but it wasn’t until a decade later that he began searching the Bible for a theology of the environment. His study resulted in what he called a “green letter Bible” and his first sermon on the topic.

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