55 Love and Environmentalism

Sophia Shannon

Hi, I’m Sophia Shannon! Throughout the Religion and Environmental Values in America course, from the first day of class, I noticed the idea of love coming up over and over again. For this chapter I wanted to explore how love and care affect how people view religion and the environment, and I hope that the impact of emotions will continue to be explored in the future…read more.


My mother had one general rule for me as I was growing up: to respect others, respect myself, and respect the environment. Obviously there were more rules that fell under this— “clean the dishes after school” being one I was just as frequently reminded of—but they all fell under this principle in some form. This was also the basis of my environmental education: respecting the environment, showing it the care, love and awe that it deserved, was a fundamental aspect of our lives. Every time we would go outside or take a hike, I would be reminded not to touch anything I didn’t have to, to leave things the way I found them, and to appreciate the beauty of our surroundings. These ideas of respecting others and your surroundings are common themes in religious doctrines as well—“love thy neighbor” is a common refrain, and one that is often used in religious environmental arguments. As can be seen in many religious statements on environmental crises, protecting those less fortunate than yourself (respecting others) and protecting the gift of creation (respecting the environment) are the focal points of religious arguments in support of environmental action. Yet the love of nature is often underappreciated or overlooked when it comes to discussions of the environment, despite its universality. Perhaps because the concept is emotional rather than scientific, love is more easily dismissed as a weak persuader, but because it is so basic to humans it stands to be one of the more powerful forces we have available to us. As a common religious and moral value, the love and respect that people are asked to treat their surroundings with is a significant driver in environmentalism, both to better understand the environment and to create a sense of responsibility in preserving it.

Iris Murdoch was a feminist and philosopher who often discussed morality and love. With these elements, and in her descriptions of beauty and goodness, her philosophy can be applied to environmentalism. In Murdoch’s 1971 book The Sovereignty of Good, she argues that it requires love to give real things the necessary attention to truly see them and recognize them as real and true. For that same reason, she argues, one must use love to see life how it actually is and therefore be exposed to real goodness. Among other definitions of love that she has given throughout her career, in this book she describes the concept saying, “Love is knowledge of the individual,” (Murdoch, 1971, p. 28). This placing of love in the true understanding of another being gives readers a glimpse into her argument: love is a prerequisite for taking care of your surroundings, and therefore caring for the environment, because love requires focusing full attention and care on another object. Recognizing that something is different than you, and accepting these differences, is a crucial part of true love. In looking at the environment and at different species, there will be clear differences. Different things will look different, act different, and be treated different, but recognizing that all are worthy of love brings goodness.

Love requires seeing the truth about something or someone, accepting it, and being inspired by it. It is an incredibly powerful tool, one that has many ways of being used, but it can only be handled with truth and acceptance. You cannot try to control it or manage what you see or understand from it, but instead you must take in the truth. Despite this lack of control, love has no limit to where it can be found. Murdoch says, “If one is going to speak of great art as ‘evidence’, is not ordinary human love an even more striking evidence of a transcendent principle of good?…One cannot but agree that in some sense this is the most important thing of all” (Murdoch, 1971, p. 75). She argues that goodness and the understanding of the right way to act can only be approximated and approached, and one of the ways to do this is through love. Opening yourself up to the true understanding of some other entity is the best way to get a glimpse of the good, and this helps hint at how one can properly take action in a truly good way.

Mural on a brick wall of a teacher and several children of different races. "All are welcome" written across mural.
This mural was painted on a building by a local park and community garden in Columbus, OH. Photo by Sophia Shannon.

A work that builds off of Murdoch’s philosophy is Vision and Virtue, written by Stanley Hauerwas. He takes the ideas presented by Murdoch about opening up to things other than yourself with love and explains further how this requires addressing your own sense of self. Hauerwas says, drawing off of a quote from page 85 of Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good, “Love is any relationship through which we are called from our own self-involvement to appreciate the self-reality that transcends us. That is why it may be a profound moral experience to take self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones, and trees” (Hauerwas, 1986, p. 39). In love, their combined argument states, one is pulled away from their focus on their own wants and needs, and instead made aware of the details of life going on around them. Whether it is getting lost in another person who one is in love with or watching nature with open eyes, true love releases one’s thoughts from themselves and opens them to a whole other world.

Hauerwas draws a connection between love and freedom. He says, “Such freedom is thus not the ability to have our way or to assert our will in an efficacious way. Rather, it is the disciplined overcoming of the self that allows for the clarification of our vision; to be free is to exist sanely without fear, to perceive what is real” (Hauerwas, 1986, p. 40). When people stop prioritizing themselves, when they stop trying to control nature and things that will not bend to their wills, they are able to truly see it, appreciate it, love it. They are free because they see the truth, the things that are different and diverse and unique, the things that they can’t control. Furthermore, they see that these things are good. By giving up on that sense of control and focusing instead on what is true, what is good, and what can be done to help it, true environmental change can begin.

Finding ways to connect to nature is a crucial first step in environmental involvement, and environmental involvement is of course necessary for taking action to protect nature. Stephen Kellert, a professor of social ecology who helped develop the theory of biophilia (literally the love of life), enumerated several ways in which a person can build these connections in his book The Value of Life. He discusses nine values of nature in total: utilitarian, naturalistic, ecologistic-scientific, aesthetic, symbolic, moralistic, dominionistic, negativistic, and humanistic. The humanistic approach, among these, is presented as the value of emotional attachment and love in connecting to the environment. More specifically, it addresses “affection and emotional bonding with animals” (Kellert, 1997, p.6) when interacting with the natural world. As many pet owners, and people in general, would surely agree, if you see a particularly cute or interesting animal, there is an instinct to fawn over it and become attached. Just by seeing another living being, you develop a care for its well-being because there is a tendency for connections between human and beast. As the person and the animal spend more time together and as their companionship grows, so does the person’s appreciation for the animal and its issues, strengthening this bond.

From spending time around animals or other elements of nature, you gain a certain respect for it because of the time and commitment that you have spent with it. Even if there was an initial interest, it is certainly deepened by sharing meaningful experiences and developing a closer understanding of the other party. If an animal provides you with company, amusement, or warmth while you are in nature, you will gain a deeper appreciation for it and likely a sense of love; you will want to care for it and others like it because of that positive association. Similarly, it stands to reason that if a certain plant or other natural element provides you with shelter or food in the wilderness, you will likely feel an appreciation for it as well and want to protect it. In this way a humanistic view, one of love and strong emotions, contributes to environmental care and action.

A wheelbarrow, gardening gloves, and rake sit in front of dozens of student volunteers at a park.
These OSU student volunteers help clean and reinvigorate a Columbus park. Photo by Sophia Shannon.

Kellert builds off of this in a 2008 writing entitled “A Biocultural Basis for an Environmental Ethic.” He describes an ethic which suggests that nature and environmental subjects have value partially because of how they connect and give meaning to humans, similar to the ideas presented by the humanist value. Because of the connections that humans have with things in nature, we appreciate them more and see them as more important to protect and care for. In a similar manner, Kellert says, “This position regards nature as morally valuable simply because it exists and is the recipient, for example, of our love and affection, appreciation of its beauty, or the spiritual qualities it may evoke independent of its utility” (Kellert, 2008, p. 3). From this perspective, which shares some concepts with the humanistic approach, people assign value to things in nature that they love and appreciate, and that leads to the care and protection of it. While Kellert does not stand behind this viewpoint entirely, he proposes a “middle way” (Kellert, 2008, p. 4) between a purely rights-based biocentric outlook and utilitarianism, where nature can be widely beneficial “as a source of affection, love, beauty, and spiritual inspiration” (Kellert, 2008, p.5). Instead of nature having value solely because humans assign it based on their love for it, nature is seen as a provider of that love, which is reciprocated by the people’s care for it and desire to protect it. From this perspective, humans are motivated to protect the environment and act against ecological crises to preserve the emotional and inspirational value that nature provides us.

The book Agape Ethics, written by William Greenway, provides another perspective on the relationship and love between humans and animals. Greenway starts by arguing that humans tend to resist environmental action to protect animals because of their prioritization of other humans; rather than prioritizing all living things, they focus on the other humans:

They are not only offended but also self-righteous because they are concerned for the poor, or for children—as if love for nonhuman creatures and love for children or the poor were somehow mutually exclusive, as if refraining from participating in the abuse of nonhuman animals or caring for nonhuman animals somehow precludes care and concern for humans, as if it is not precisely the same spirit of love that sees the plight of vulnerable people and the plight of other creatures.

(Greenway, 2016, p.28)

His discussion revolves around the idea that love for living beings is the same idea of love whether it is for fellow humans or other creatures. Caring for people and caring for animals are compatible practices, and doing so for one enforces the practice of doing so for the other. Because we are able to recognize emotion and feelings in animals, Greenway says we have a “moral responsibility to treat them lovingly” (Greenway, 2016, p. 29).

After all, he further explains, you would expect a person who mistreats or abuses an animal to behave in a similarly dangerous way towards humans and you would be wary of them. Someone who mistreats other people may, then, appear more likely to be cruel towards animals, and people who are more caring to other people might be more caring to animals as well. As an example, serial killers are often associated with abusing and killing animals as a child, clearly showing no love for any living being. Of course, some people may feel more connected to either people or animals than the other. I myself do not want a pet, and I am not one to surround myself with animals or be very close with them, and some people would much rather share a home with several cats than with another human. Again, though, these preferences do not mean that people completely disregard or hold no love for the other. I may not want to own or be around animals all the time, but I still think that they’re cute and I care for their wellbeing. The love between humans and other forms of life is linked, and having one does not diminish the other but rather strengthens it. Clarifying this, Greenway says, “It is not the case that love, concern, and respect for other animals competes with love, concern, and respect for humans. To the contrary, it’s the same love and concern and respect that one has, or not, for all life” (Greenway, 2016, p. 33).

Mother and daughter walking on a hiking trail, one wrapping her arm around the other's waist
The author’s mother and sister on a family hike. Photo by Sophia Shannon.

If loving animals signals higher love for other humans as well, and this can be applied to other aspects of nature and the environment, then loving nature should be regarded as a good thing. Showing love for your fellow man is rarely frowned upon after all, and even if they weren’t connected, being more loving than expected seems like it should be a positive thing. And yet, lovers of nature are often mocked and ridiculed for their eco-friendly actions. Greenway says, “Instead of being a phrase of admiration, a naming of those whose spiritual sensitivity is so refined they feel compelled to sacrifice life energy for the sake of saving trees, ‘tree hugger’ is in many influential circles a phrase of derision. This is a stark sign of an alienation from life that permeates Western society” (Greenway, 2016, p. 45). These words and phrases that literally seem to be very positive and kind have much more negative connotations in practice, and as a result people are often discouraged from participating in environmentally friendly practices or telling other people about it if they do. In order to destigmatize these narratives around environmentalism, healthy and caring environmental practices must become more normalized.

One avenue which may be used to do so and reach some hesitant audiences is religion, and several religious figures have made comments on the subject. Pope Francis in his famous encyclical Laudato Si’ says that caring for all creatures “cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior” (Francis, 2015, paragraph 11). Francis simply yet eloquently shows us exactly why using terms like “tree hugger” or “nature lover” as insults is damaging. When we listen to the mean-spirited people critiquing environmental action, we are disincentivized from taking those necessary steps as caretakers of Earth. To spread environmental care without hesitancy, we must disregard the stigmas and negativity surrounding the issue and focus instead on the loving and encouraging aspects that guide us.

Religious establishments are often the most ready to comment on love’s role in an environmental view, as spiritual motivators lend themselves more readily to emotional and awe-filled forces. Shaping this practice are religious texts themselves, which place emphasis on showing care for all of the beauty of creation, whether it is believed that a God created it or not. One Christian perspective, in a clear and straightforward way, is as follows:

Christians must care about climate change because we love God the Creator and Jesus our Lord, through whom and for whom the creation was made. This is God’s world, and any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God Himself (Gen. 1; Ps. 24; Col. 1:16). Christians must care about climate change because we are called to love our neighbors, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and to protect and care for the least of these as though each was Jesus Christ himself.

(Evangelical Climate Initiative, 2006, Claim 3)

These statements get straight to the heart of religious love and environmentalism. Because a believer’s leaders, in this case God and Jesus, proclaimed that they should love God and His creation, and love their neighbors as themselves, these same standards and principles must apply to the issue of climate change and other environmental crises.

These Christian values of love as they relate to the environment are expanded on in Laudato Si’. Francis soon gives an introduction to St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology and animals, and the figure from whom Pope Francis took his name. Francis writes of the saint, “He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness…He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (Francis, 2015, paragraph 10). This early description of the role of love in bonding people to nature, animals, and neighbors is important in understanding the Pope’s perspective. Interconnectedness serves as the basis of his argument for environmental caring, and his namesake saint exemplifies this interconnectedness nicely.

These connections are not only between people and the rest of creation, but also between people and God as well as creation and God. Every part of creation is united with God, Francis says, and people are those who are designated to protect the rest of God’s creation. In paragraph 220 of Laudato Si’ Francis writes, “it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate His generosity in self-sacrifice and good works…It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.” Reinforcing this idea of connectedness, Francis illustrates how this Christian outlook causes believers to act as loving towards the rest of creation as God would, as they are called to imitate God’s goodness. In following this reasoning, Christian theology asks its followers to care for the environment and other living beings around them because God gifted the world out of love and “even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection” (Francis, 2015, paragraph 77). What God loves, so should His followers, and they should take care of it and protect it. Environmental dangers such as climate change, pollution, and animal violence pose a threat to this creation, and therefore Christians should make efforts to combat them.

Many other religions have similar beliefs. The Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, for example, includes related sentiments in the opening paragraph of the preamble. It states, “All created beings by nature serve and glorify their Maker, all bow to their Lord’s will. We human beings are created to serve the Lord of all beings, to work the greatest good we can for all the species, individuals, and generations of God’s creatures” (2015, section 1.1). This statement reflects the same beliefs and values presented by the aforementioned Christian writings. It holds that all living things and every aspect of nature is connected with the believers’ maker, in this case Allah, and that humans are designated to serve these other parts of nature on Allah’s behalf. Allah shows love for people and the rest of creation, and thus creation is inherently connected and people should show love to it and protect it. The Islamic Declaration specifically mentions doing good for future generations as well. Beyond protecting the parts of nature that currently exist, this statement also seeks to be sustainable and protective for people and creatures who have not yet been born. It seems to be a very human thing to show care for the well-being of people that you don’t know, and will never know, and the inclusion of this aspect emphasizes this purely human component of true love and affection for others.

In theology, philosophy, and everything outside and in between, there is love. It is clear that this omnipresent force has the capacity to create change, both in how people view the world and how they act in it. Environmentalism is just one course of action that can be influenced with love as a motivator, but it is an incredibly important one. It takes work to see the world in a true and productive way, and to love it in a true and productive way, but when achieved it is beautiful. The Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum once said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love” (Dioum, 1968). If viewing the wonder of the world with love and care can become a common practice, if it can become more widely accepted to be a lover of nature, significant progress can be made towards environmental issues, and much more can be accomplished to better respect others, the environment, and ultimately yourself.

My mother’s words have stayed with me as I develop my own environmental values, and I surely value them as such because of my love and respect for her. In being taught love, we are taught many other things. It is a value that applies to every aspect of life, and indeed the value of life itself. We care about things because we love them, we remember them and respect them and look after them because we love them. This perspective of love has so much potential to change our world, and if we come to effectively accept and teach it we can succeed in protecting our Earth.



Dioum, B. (1968). Paper presented at the General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, New Delhi. Seattle Public Library Archive.

Greenway, W. (2016). Agape ethics: Moral realism and love for all life. Cascade Books.

Hauerwas, S. (1986). Vision and virtue: Essays in Christian ethical reflection. Notre Dame Univ. Press.

Islamic declaration on global climate change. ifees.org.un. (2015). Retrieved April 11, 2022, from https://www.ifees.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/climate_declarationmmwb.pdf.

Kellert, S. R. (2008). A biocultural basis for an ethic toward the natural environment. Foundations of Environmental Sustainability, 321–332. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195309454.003.0021.

Kellert, S. R. (1997). The value of life: Biological diversity and human society. Island Press.

Murdoch, I. (1971). The sovereignty of good. Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Pope Francis. (2015). Laudato Si’ [On Care for Our Common Home] [Encyclical letter]. Retrieved from: http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.

The Evangelical Climate Initiative. Legacy.npr.org. (2006). Retrieved April 11, 2022, from https://legacy.npr.org/documents/2006/feb/evangelical/calltoaction.pdf.


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