Because our values are embedded in our own stories and these in turn grow from the broader narratives of our cultures, here is a brief personal statement, offered in the hopes that it will help those reading my published work to better understand and evaluate it.
Born and raised in Southern California, my earliest memories include being unable to bicycle home from a swimming pool because air pollution induced "lung burn," and the outrage I felt at the bulldozing of my childhood woodland playground to make room for new subdivisions in the suburb of Los Angeles where we lived. Moving to the coast in 1968, I discovered cleaner air and a love for the ocean, only to see the beaches soiled the following year after the infamous Santa Barbara oil platform blowout. After graduating from high school in 1973 I began a thirteen-year career as an ocean lifeguard (eventually adding Peace Officer responsibilities) with the California State Department of Parks and Recreation. This work made it possible for me to earn both undergraduate and graduate degrees.
My interest in social justice and environmental movements, and related policy issues, was kindled during an undergraduate course on Latin American liberation movements during the mid 1970s. The course examined the religious ideas, social analyses, and political impacts of such movements. Through this course and a variety of activist endeavors I began to understand the many connections between the violation of human rights and environmental degradation.
To pursue these issues further I matriculated at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, focusing my studies on liberation movements and religious ethics, while serving as the chair of its student-led Human Concerns Committee. Fueled by youthful idealism we campaigned for social justice, promoted divestment in South Africa, fought U.S. military involvement in Latin America, and sought to eradicate nuclear weapons. A prominent Rector and Rabbi (in Pasadena and Los Angeles) noticed our efforts on campus and asked me to serve as the initial director of the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race. I agreed and after helping launch the center, I enrolled at the University of Southern California, earning a Ph.D. in Social Ethics in 1988.
Throughout my undergraduate and graduate years, working in urban state parks, I learned a lot about urban violence, human stupidity and courage, and resource conflicts over public lands. I saw California Brown Pelicans disappear from the coast due to DDT poisoning, but return a number of years later when their numbers boomeranged after the pesticide was banned. Such experiences intensified my desire to bring ethical reflection down from the ivory tower into the morally muddy landscape of everyday life.
About the time I was finishing my dissertation exploring empirically the impacts of affirmative action policies on ordinary people in California Civil Service, and using my own empirical data as grist for ethical reflection on these policies, I noticed that environmentalists had begun to use sabotage in their efforts to arrest environmental decline. I soon surmised that, like the liberation movements that I had studied south of the U.S. border, the emerging, 'radical environmental' groups were animated by religious perceptions and ideals. Intrigued, I soon left for the woods to learn more. This turned into a long-term research trajectory exploring the many dimensions of and forms of contemporary grassroots environmentalism, especially the most radical ones.
This research drew me increasingly to the environmental sciences, in part as a means to evaluate the apocalyptic environmental claims the activists I had encountered were making. I became convinced of the importance of interdisciplinary environmental studies in the quest to establish (and in some cases restore) environmentally sustainable lifeways. Consequently, I led a faculty initiative to create an environmental studies program after assuming my first teaching position at the University of Wisconsin.
My research into the religious dimensions of contemporary environmentalism subsequently broadened into an investigation of the role of ‘religion,’ including the affective and ‘spiritual’ dimensions of human experience, in all nature-human relationships. This led me to the emerging field known as Religion and Ecology and to my editorship of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, which has helped provide me with the background needed to develop a graduate program to explore these themes. I am now editing the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture, and continue to help develop the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture.
My most recent books, Dark Green Religion and Avatar and Nature Spirituality examine some of the most promising and problematic aspects of environmental thought and action that have emerged since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species on November 24, 1859. Meanwhile, I continue to try to understand what sorts of things precipitate environmental action, whether I am working on my next book exploring radial environmentalism, or leading a research project trying to understand what sorts of religious and spiritual experiences and traditions, if any, are currently or most likely to promote environmental mobilization.
My hope is that my collaborative efforts, personal research, and citizen activism, will contribute in some small way to the conservation of the earth’s biological and cultural treasures.