Tom Baugh

As a child, in an American blue collar family I was exposed to the frequent use of common, often colorful sayings. Two that I remember establish the dimensions of the impact of the response of religions and theologies to Earth in crisis. Someone was either ‘a day late and a dollar short,’ or ‘better late than never’ (it seems that both frequently applied to me, especially during my teens). These two sayings appear to set the boundaries of the response of religions and theologies to environmental crisis and establish the polar tensions acting on those responses.

In 1967 historian Lynn White published a much acclaimed and much abused article[1] stating, essentially, that the roots of our ‘ecologic crisis’ were found in the fundamentally exploitive nature of Judeo-Christian theology. While studying at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, I did a project and developed a handout on the number of titles dealing with what we might now call ‘ecological theology’ or ‘ecotheology.’ I used White’s article as a starting point in time. Regardless of what position one may take to White’s claim, the fact is that many took positions, the dialogue on this subject became rich, and the citations rapidly grew in number. The dialogue spawned a number of manuscripts and articles ranging from stern disavowal to reluctant acceptance of White’s thesis, including a number of acquiescent mea culpa’s.


‘A Day Late and a Dollar Short’

The academic speculation gave way to praxis, the doing of things, as church after church launched Earth-friendly projects to reduce energy consumption, replace Styrofoam cups with pottery, xeriscape the church grounds, and dozens of other well-intended eco-friendly actions. Stiffly resistant denominational hierarchies slowly began, in the light of new information about Earth in crisis and pressure from the pews, to develop and publish denominational position on environmental issues. Even the usually resistant Roman Curia weighed-in to tell the world that pollution is a sin. Religious groups now study ‘God’s Gift of Water’ and ‘Protecting and Healing Rivers’[2] under the guidance of Psalm 24:1 (KJV). Academics, even less likely to change than the Curia began, sometimes painfully, to develop theological foundations from ancient texts. These newly discovered threads were sometimes woven together with newly discovered ‘truths’ into social and cultural fabrics such as ecofeminism[3]. Everybody (except the most conservative Christians) seemed to buy-in and stake out turf and conservative religionists have lately started to come around. As I have said elsewhere[4] “The growing interest in the relationship between religion and ecology is nowhere more apparent than the recent efforts of Harvard University's Center for the Study of World Religions to codify these relationships.” The project has produced a number of books on the subject in what is called the ‘Religion and Ecology’ series. Educational institutions offer study in the field of religion and nature. The American Academy of Religion’s biannual meetings have very well-attended sections that deal with papers in ecological theology. Tom Berry told us we were at the edge of the Ecozoic [5] and Matt Fox talked about original blessings[6]. The religious focus on the environment appears to be an irreversible theme of theological inquiry and religious life.[7]

All of this time, however, Earth has been warming and people are talking of ‘tipping points’[8] [9]. The ice is cracking and melting. Even the most optimistic scientific prognosticator is less and less optimistic with each day that passes without significant action from the governments of the world. An increasingly strong case can now be made for catastrophes of such magnitude that the collapse of societies may be anticipated. It is increasingly apparent that for all that we have hoped, for all the new paradigms and the carefully (and sometimes carelessly) woven theologies, it may be too late.

I explored this concern in ‘Creation Spirituality as a Post-Apocalyptic Paradigm’[10]. In the article I pointed out that we live in possibly fatally challenging times in which:

“Three factors have come together to fashion, in our time, a crisis with potentially staggering dimensions. For the first time in history our weapons have grown in number and capacity so that humanity is now capable of near total destruction. The second factor of grave concern is the rapidly changing environmental condition of Earth. Humanity has so severely damaged natural systems that recovery is most likely impossible. We are now only on the outer edge of an ecocaust[11] of staggering proportions. The Ecozoic Era[12] had a relatively gentle birth as a concept in the latter part of the last century but it will have a very difficult adolescence in the coming Dark Age. The third factor in this tragic trinity is religion.”


‘Better Late Than Never’

As the ice continues to crack, so will democratic institutions. As the waters rise, so will authoritarian forms of governance. They will offer hope, as they have done in the past[13]. There will be declarations and protestations but the authorities of organized religion will, as they have in the past[14], join with the authorities in government and hold as tightly to the reins of power as they can. Authoritarian governments relate to organized religion in several ways. All of these ways involve command and control. As collapse progresses and democratic governments metamorphosed into authoritarian forms we will, most likely, also see the establishment of state religions (where they don’t already exist). In the years between 2000-2008 the US experienced a substantial increase in the blurring of the lines between church and state, not that the separation has ever been as sharp as American mythology would have us believe. The powerful underpinnings of civil religion[15] long ago established a firm foundation for state religion in the United States .

Would no response from religion have been better than being late and short? No. The response has, at least, provided some foundation for a potential recovery following collapse. Has enough of a foundation been laid to carry a green theme through the coming collapse and into an undefinable future? That is hard to tell. Authoritarian governments have in the past incorporated strong ‘green’ themes. One notorious example of such incorporation was what Staudenmaier[16] refers to as the powerfully antisemitic and brutal ‘Green Wing’ of the Nazi Party. According to Staudenmaier, the “The National Socialist ‘religion of nature’…was a volatile admixture of primeval nature mysticism, pseudoscientific ecology, irrationalist anti-humanism, and a mythology of racial salvation through a return to the land.” This movement of ‘Blood and Soil’ did indeed contribute to the shedding of much blood on German and other soil. This is not to imply that environmental advocates could work easily with authoritarian, even fascist governments as collapse progresses. In the US, the situation becomes even more complex because of religion. Having watched the situation during the Bush Administration of 2000-2008, it is not stretching the point to perceive of an increasingly close alignment between rightist governments and the Christian Right. With one exception, it is hard to see a green component in such a comingling. The exception might be the increasing vilification and demonization of environmental advocates much as has been done to ethnic and religious groups by rightist advocates. As some of the environmental tipping points actually tip we might also see a tendency to blame the messenger.

One final thought, all governments require control. While consent of the governed might be the basis of democratic government, command and control is the essence of authoritarian governments and the hidden heart of organized, institutional religion. In the US the years from 2000-20008 have demonstrated how quickly the electorate will surrender its civil rights in time of threat and easily the Congress can be neutered. In addition, the rage of those attracted to the jack-boot set will grow as the global food crisis deepens, the economic situation worsens, and job loss continues. In the US, this rage will, as it did in Nazi Germany and a number of other nations, provide ready recruits for those movements that tend to support the political right. Energized by methamphetamine, the sacrament of the poor ‘heartlander’ and Southerner (although not limited to these regions) and whipped into a hate-filled fury by those thousands of Christian preachers whose messages are broadcast nightly from hundreds of radio stations scattered across the United States,[17] there is little question that conditions are rapidly becoming such that these movements may find fertile ground for rapid recruitment and development.


This note is a comment on the belated response of religions and theologies to Earth in Crisis. The work undertaken in the field of ecotheology should, however, indeed must continue. As an institution, religion has many tragic failings but its response to the world environmental crisis isn’t one of them, it is simply late; no more belated, however, than any other institution of society and a bit ahead of some. Depending on the length and ‘depth’ of societal collapse, the work in ecotheology, if it survives, may provide a partial foundation for recovery. We have all been a day late and a dollar short and now we will pay the price. How much we can salvage for the future remains the question.

“And this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.”

Ronald Wright[18]


Please cite this manuscript as follows:

Baugh, T. 2008. Cracks in the ice. Green Institute;

[1] White, L.T., Jr. 1967. The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science 155(3767):1203-1207.

[2] EarthCare. 2008. Annual Conference, March 29. Chattanooga Technical Community College

[3] Ruether, R.R. 2007. Ecofeminist philosophy, theology, and ethics: A comparative view. Pp 77-93. In Kearns and Keller, eds. Ecospirit: Religions and philosophy for the earth. Bronx, NY. Fordham University Press.

[4] Baugh, T. 2007. The greening of religion and theology in the West. The Green Institute.

[5] Term first used by Thomas Berry.

[6] Fox, M. 2000. Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality Presented in Four Paths, Twenty-Six Themes, and Two Questions

[7] Baugh, T. 2007. The greening of religion and theology in the West. The Green Institute.

[8] Hansen, J. et al. 2007. Dangerous human-made interference with climate: A GISS model1E study. Amer. Chen. Phys. 7:2287-2312.

[9] Meier, M.F. et al. 2007. Glaciers dominate eustatic sea-level rise in the 21st century.
Science DOI:10.1126/science. 1143906.

[10] Baugh, T. In press. Creation Spirituality as a post-apocalyptic paradigm. Creation Spirituality Communities, Inc.

[11] ‘Ecocaust’ is a term reportedly coined by author Mark Budz in his book Clade (Bantam Books).

[12] Term first used by Thomas Berry.

[13] Griffin, R. 2007. Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler. New York. Palgrave McMillian.

[14] Barnett, V.J. 1998. For the soul of the people: Protestant protest under Hitler. New York, NY.
Oxford University Press.

[15] Roberts, K.A. Religion in sociological perspective. Belmont, CA. Thompson.

[16] Staudenmaier, P. 2003. Ecofacism: Lesson from the German experience.

[17] Hedges, C. 2006. American fascists: The Christian Right and the war on America. New York. Free Press.

[18] Wright, R. A short history of progress. p. 132. New York. Carroll and Graf Publishers.