ORONO, Maine — Environmentalists cannot save the Earth. Neither can economists, politicians, alternative energy developers or theologians. But working together, there is hope.
That was the promising mes-sage delivered Thursday at the second annual Senator George J. Mitchell Lecture on the Environment. The lecture, presented at Hauck Auditorium on the University of Maine campus and hosted by the Sen. George J. Mitchell Center for Environmental and Watershed Research, brought together Mitchell, the prominent former U.S. Senate majority leader from Waterville, and Mary Evelyn Tucker, a recognized expert on the role of religion in confronting environmental issues.
Speaking to a full house in the 550-seat auditorium, Tucker, who lectures on religion and the environment at Yale University, said there is no doubt that the Earth is facing an unprecedented global challenge.
“A planetary crisis is indeed emerging,” hastened by global warming, the exploding human population and an economic system that encourages the ruthless exploitation of natural resources, she said. “Forty years of environmental work and legislation has not worked — we are not winning.”
At the same time that science is revealing more of the beauty, complexity and interconnectedness of the natural world, she said, there is an emerging awareness of the devastation humans have brought about.
The “great work” before religious leaders, she said, is to establish a new relationship between humans and the fragile planet where they live.
“Our goal must be to raise the level of awe and lower the level of abuse,” she said. And organized religion — a powerful, deeply rooted presence in every society on Earth — has an essential role to play.
Already, Tucker said, “religious leaders from many denominations are calling for a new sense of valuing the natural order.” Influences as diverse as the pope, Judaism, the Dalai Lama and evangelical Christians, linked by their commitment to serving the poor, are decrying the impact of global warming on the world’s most disadvantaged populations — the tsunami in Indonesia, the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, the ocean waters rising around the island nation of Bangladesh all being examples, she said.
Students of Buddhism, Tao-ism and the teachings of Confucius are renewing traditions of reverence for nature at university campuses throughout Asia, Tucker said, adding essential notes of restraint and balance to the roar of economic ambitions.
And while some organized religions have a not-undeserved reputation for being intolerant, dogmatic and anthropocentric, Tucker said, the institutions of religion hold great influence over large numbers of people and have a long tradition of claiming the moral high ground on social issues. She referenced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for justice and equality and the Quaker movement’s stance against slavery as note-worthy examples.
After Tucker’s lecture, Mitchell told the audience that the longtime schism between environmentalists and economic developers must end.
“Both are needed to strengthen the fabric of society and preserve the health of the planet,” he said.
Citing the “economic imperative for [environmentally] sustainable development,” Mitchell said there are many opportunities emerging.
“A new industry is being created and we should be in the forefront rather than looking backward toward the solutions of the past,” he said.
Mitchell said that without health, happiness and economic security, people in developing nations cannot be expected to place a high value on environ-mental concerns.
“People have to have hope and opportunity in their lives,” he said. “It is especially crucial now as people the world over face what I believe will be an historic turning point due to climate change.”
Tucker and Mitchell both received enthusiastic applause and standing ovations after their talks. A reception was held afterward at the Buchanan Alumni House.
The lectures were recorded for future use on the Maine Public Radio program “Speaking in Maine.”
Information about Tucker’s academic work is available online at www.religionandecology.org.
More information about the activities of the Mitchell Center is available online at www.umaine.edu/waterresearch.