Interview with Calvin DeWitt

December 7th, 2006

By Emily McNeill

Calvin DeWitt is a leader of what has come to be known as “evangelical environmentalism,” a movement among evangelical Christians to address environmental degradation. He is co-founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network and served as director of the Au Sable Institute for Environmental Studies, which draws on both science and Christianity in its curriculum for college students. DeWitt is currently a professor of environmental science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He spoke to Buzzsaw editor Emily McNeill about the increasing concern for the environment among evangelicals and what that might mean for the environmental movement and the nation.

Buzzsaw Haircut: How have you seen the relationship between Christianity and environmentalism evolve throughout your career?

Calvin DeWitt: I was born in 1935. Those first 10 to 20 years, what we now refer to as the environment was referred to by practically everyone as “the creation.” There was a great deal of respect for it. In many ways we were doing good environmental things.

That started to shift in the 1960s, not just amongst people of faith, but it became kind of a thing to do across all American society, to consume more and more. We built ourselves into this thing we now call the environmental crisis by abandoning practices we had earlier. One of the puzzles I’ve been working on is, how did we ever do this? How did we forget these values, both people of faith and also in the wider society? How could this ever happen?

BH: Do you see that the tide is starting to shift again?

CD: It is. I teach at the University of Wisconsin. I teach a course in environmental science here every semester, and every one of my students, no matter what their own beliefs are, are very uneasy about this society that seems to be so bent on using our resources so rapidly, emphasizing getting jobs versus finding meaningful vocations and careers.

They’re very dissatisfied with things that make us look at the bottom line, as we call it. So the idealism is there. I think what is happening is a lot of [students] now have graduated with debts, and they have to be paid back, and that means they have to get a job that pays a lot of money. That often makes them seek jobs not primarily because they’re the jobs they want to do, but because they’re the ones that can generate the money they need to pay back their loans. Once they’re in that pattern they tend to stay there.

BH: And you see that problem relating to other social problems, like the environment?

CD: I do. It sucks us into the kinds of jobs that produce a great deal of money, including jobs that make that money at the expense of the wider creation. I think this fuels this tremendous intensity of our economic activity, and while we celebrate that by increasing GNP, I don’t see happiness increasing or the integrity of our communities increasing. In fact our communities tend to disintegrate.

I’m kind of radical in the botanical sense. Radical comes from the Latin word meaning root, and to be radical means that you get back to the roots of your problems and not just rearrange the foliage. I think the kinds of solutions we’ve been trying to apply to environmental degradation and societal degradation have largely been in the area of rearranging the foliage rather than delving back into the roots of these problems.

BH: What do you see as some of the most important accomplishments of the evangelical environmentalist movement so far?

CD: Probably the greatest accomplishment of the evangelical environmental movement is to bring the issue of climate change and global warming up to such a position of prominence and understanding that it’s beginning to show very positive effects on American society, including effects like who’s getting elected.

There was a meeting of world-prominent climatologists and evangelical leaders in Oxford in 2002, and that marked a tremendous turning point. That confer ence of about 65 people issued a statement called the Evangelical Declaration on Climate Change. That, I think, was a major event for evangelical Christianity, because it moved that whole community from a position of doubt to a position of knowledge, and that shift didn’t take effect immediately with everybody, because there were only 65 folks there, but it did impact the leadership of the evangelical community in the U.S. and some evangelicals elsewhere as well.

One nice thing I think about evangelicals and other religious people, if they really are sincere about their faith, is that they do strive to find the truth and be honest and live rightly on Earth, and that particular conference turned around some very key people including Richard Cizek, who is the vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. He has become key in the transformation of evangelical people in America from having many doubters about climate change to having a very large proportion now understanding climate change and advocating that we must do something about it.

BH: Are there any significant differences in the policy objectives of the secular and religious environmental movements?

CD: The major difference is that for most evangelicals – not all – they would prefer to call this “creation care” or “caring for creation” rather than “environmentalism.” It doesn’t mean that they behave differently, it means they don’t use the same label. And the label turns out to be very important, because even among secular environmentalists there is the understanding that human beings are part and parcel of the environment. In the religious world, when you use “creation care” or “care for creation” that includes what we call “the environment” and people. It’s all part of an integrated fabric, people and the environment.

So I think that this difference is very important, because the secular environmentalist is also seeking to do a very similar thing, to make sure we’re not thinking of ourselves as apart from the natural world. They’re really seeking for ways to convince all of us that it’s not us versus climate but it’s us and climate. So this movement is in the process of contributing something positive to the whole environmental movement.

I don’t doubt that what is going to happen throughout the secular world is what has happened to this leading evolutionary biologist, and really the living Darwin of our day, E.O. Wilson of Harvard. He recently published a book called “The Creation.” Even though he is not a person of faith, what he’s proposing is that we re-introduce this word “the creation” across the secular world as well as across the religious world, taking that term away from its exclusive use by creationists. So his book is a real catalyst for bringing the change in the way we identify our problem today, and it may well result in our eventually adopting that word again, not using that word to describe how the earth came to be, which is really quite secondary to our deciding to take care of it.

BH: Evangelicals have, in the past, been suspicious of human authority, including the scientific community, but you’ve said that this is beginning to change. What brought on this shift, and how has it influenced the evangelical environmentalist movement?

CD: Many really conservative evangelicals, including what we call fundamentalists, have developed a strong suspicion of science because of evolution and evolutionary theory being part of the sciences. I think the key here to resolution between science and religion is to say that what religion and science have in common is that both lay the groundwork for how we would care for creation, and what’s important is that religion and science do not have to agree on how it came to be. All they have to agree on is how to take care of it.

BH: How does concern for the environment affect evangelical Christianity’s political priorities? Do you anticipate more evangelical support for progressive candidates, or will evangelicals push the conservative candidates to address environmental issues?

CD: I’ve actually heard answers to this given by very key evangelical leaders. There are two who said basically the same thing, and that is: Candidates for office take notice. The last election was the last one in which we are going to decide between family values and the environment or between abortion and climate change. The next candidates we vote for will be candidates who do not split us as we have been split before, but those candidates will be people who are supportive of the whole creation, everywhere from the embryo on through to whole ecosystems like the forests and the rivers.

BH: So you’re hoping to see a new kind of candidate.

CD: Yes, and we already are seeing it. If you look at the Democrats who got in this time taking Republican seats, many of them have a little more conservative bent than the ones they replaced, and yet they are putting things on the same side of the ledger, the personal and the ecosystem concerns. You’re also seeing this happen in the Republican candidates, where the environment is increasingly coming in alongside issues of personal ethics and family values. So I think the message from the evangelicals, which apparently constitute about 25 percent of the entire American voting population, is really being heard. We see a tremendous impact already in a relatively short period of time on the make-up of the U.S. Congress, and I think it’s going to be very dramatic, even more so in another two years. It doesn’t mean it’s going to go conservative or liberal, it means that the two issues of what happens at the personal level and what happens at the ecosystem level will both be concerns within a single candidate.

The interesting thing about people of faith is that they will be voting ultimately on the basis of values and not party. Now, elections over the past 10 years have suggested that maybe it’s linkages with party. That may be true for a time, but it is not ultimately true. The thing that evangelicals are very committed to is the truth of the Scriptures, and once they come to discover that their candidate is not being true to Biblical teaching, they have no trouble backing off from supporting such a candidate. They are really voting their values. Now with this great change taking place, which means a change to look at the entire creation, the whole picture is changing, and it’s changing very rapidly.

Emily McNeill is a junior journalism major who enjoys interviewing people in her sleep. Email her at emcneil1@ithaca.edu.

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