Climate Change(s): New Approaches to Environmental and Agricultural Ethics
Podcast with Gretel Van Wieren 12 Oct. 2020.
Interviewed by Candace Mixon
Transcribed by Savannah H. Finver
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/climate-changes-new-approaches-to-environmental-and-agricultural-ethics/
Candace Mixon (CM) 0:09
Alright listeners, I am here today with Dr. Gretel Van Wieren. She is an accomplished scholar, and she’s currently at Michigan State University in the Department of Religious Studies working within the fields of environmental ethics, religion and nature, agricultural and food ethics, as well as religion and nonprofit organizations. She’s the author of a few books, including Restored to Earth: Christianity, Environmental Ethics, and Ecological Restoration in 2013, as well as Food, Farming, and Religion: Emerging Ethical Perspectives, and that’s her 2018 publication. And her most recent publication in terms of books is Listening at Lookout Creek: Nature and Spiritual Practice. And that was out in 2019 from Oregon State University Press. She’s also a member of a number of working groups and roundtables and blogs, all devoted to themes that we’ll be talking about here. So, we are so happy to have on the podcast Dr. Van Wieren and to discuss her ongoing research on food, ethics, and especially climate change. So, welcome to the Religious Studies Project, Dr. Van Wieren.
Gretel Van Wieren (GVW) 1:14
Thank you, Candace. Thank you so much for having me.
Yeah, no problem. So, one thing I love to just get people talking about is sort of origin stories and thinking about–maybe if you could bring us to what brought you to the current and past research projects that you’ve been working on, on religion, farming, food and climate, and maybe what activated for you that this was such an essential topic to be looking into?
So, I think that there are a couple of impetuses at least for my work in religion and the environment, and specifically with the food and agriculture book, Food, Farming and Religion. And they stem from my earlier professional life. I started right after college working with several nonprofit organizations that were committed to anti-hunger, anti-poverty social justice efforts and did that kind of work for five years or so. And my first graduate degree was in International Agriculture and Rural Development from Cornell. And so that focus early on in my professional life shaped, I think, eventually, my interest in working on a food ethics book. And then also prior to going back for my PhD in Religious Ethics, I worked in upstate rural New York as a parish pastor where most of my parishioners were either dairy farmers, or came from generations of dairy farmers, or were some way associated with farming in upstate New York. And I was involved then with several farmer advocacy groups, locally as well as internationally, with anti-economic globalization groups and ecumenical groups. And so I think that work early on with nonprofit organizations and agricultural issues contributed to the book project.
And then here at Michigan State, we have quite an agricultural focus as Michigan’s land grant institution; we were started as an agricultural college. And so now that I’ve been at Michigan State going on 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many working in agricultural fields within the humanities and also social sciences and natural sciences. And in 2016, I was PI on a grant from the Mellon Foundation, a Humanities Without Walls grant, on the new ethics of food that brought together numerous researchers and practitioners at Michigan State in collaboration with scholars and community partners at Ohio State and Penn State at University of Wisconsin-Madison. And so this group was just an incredibly rich and interdisciplinary group in which to be a part of, and also really helped shape the ultimate form of the book, both in terms of conversation partners and then also the book’s focus both on community-based farming groups and on concrete problems, environmental problems, in the study of food and agricultural ethics.
Awesome, thanks so much for that. Yeah, I’ve really loved seeing, in the different projects that you’ve been on, how much interdisciplinarity has been involved there, and especially with the sciences and thinking about your place at your particular university and the opportunities that affords. I think that’s really brilliant that you’ve been able to kind of bridge all of those folks that might have seen themselves as further away from religious studies, or something like that. I think that that’s great. So, you obviously work a lot with food and agriculture. And so, shifting a bit more to the religious studies side of things, I mean, what is it about food that’s so either integral, or sometimes touchy, to deal with in this discussion of thinking about religious groups’ response to crises such as climate change?
So, I think food in particular is a topic that opens conversations about touchy subjects like climate change, as you say, because everybody eats. And everybody not only needs to eat, but oftentimes religious groups eat in a way that builds community; but also religious groups eat in a way that excludes community. And so it’s a topic that I think is ripe for not only opening questions about community in terms of religious interpretations of that, but also in terms of thinking spiritually about food, and what that means, what it has meant historically and presently. And I think, talking about the roots of food, and one of the things that religion helps us do, as both an academic study but also as a personal practice, is think through where things come from, and the meanings of those things. And so I think in terms of, though, connecting food with climate, to have those conversations about if we do think of food in a spiritual way, what does that mean, in terms of whether our food is creating harm for others, for ourselves, for the earth? And those kinds of questions of tracing food’s origins, and what kinds of meanings and impacts those choices have on ourselves and others, I think, is ripe for [a] kind of religious conversation and discussion and can often open those questions in ways that we might not otherwise have them.
Early on, when I was working on this book, I was invited to teach a class at a seminary on the western side of the state, Western Theological Seminary, which is a Reformed Church in America seminary, which tends to be more conservative politically and socially. And that food class really allowed, I think, seminarians to ask questions about climate and the environment in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise. And that was in 2014. So, that was when I was first beginning working on the book project. And it really opened my eyes to–I was initially thinking about starting the book around concrete, environmental problems, and not focusing as much on community-based groups. And it also forced me to begin thinking more about how explicitly religious groups were engaging the issues as a way to connect, perhaps, with religious people that weren’t thinking about food as a climate issue. So that was helpful in helping me think, too, about connecting more with religious community-based groups.
Yeah, I mean, so you mentioned thinking more about concrete environmental problems. So, again, thinking about the specific example of climate change, and the way that many agricultural methods have accelerated this. And you’ve researched that [and] you’ve gone over that in many of your works and publications. So I wonder if you have some more examples for us, besides this Western [Theological] Seminary that you mentioned, of how some religious groups that you’ve studied are dealing with the current time in terms of relating to climate change, or perhaps thinking of this as a particular era that needs to be either addressed or dealt with?
Most of the community-based farms that I studied always had climate in the back of their minds, even if they wouldn’t use that term specifically. And so whether it meant farming in low water use kinds of ways, either because climate change demanded it because of water use issues–such as at Abundant Table Farm in Thousand Oaks, California, because of the water issues particular to the Pacific Northwest–but also in terms of explicitly thinking about, say, carbon footprint when it comes to animal agriculture or other kinds of climate related things. And so, I think all of the groups had that in the back of their mind, because most of the groups that I studied also were using organic methods and were very conscious about issues of not only water pollution and air pollution and soil health and all of those sorts of things, but also thinking about climate issues as an environmental justice issue. So, oftentimes, the farms had links and connections with community groups or explicitly mentor training programs in urban agriculture for raising up a next generation of climate-friendly farmers.
One example I can think of–there are many examples in the book, but one example, in particular, was Coastal Roots Farm in Encinitas, California, which is a farm spin-off of the Jewish environmental organization Hazon. And the year that I visited there, they were preparing the farm for the shmita year, which is the year in the Hebrew Bible in Leviticus where the early Israelites were said to have let the land go fallow for restorative and liberation purposes. And they were preparing the farm to literally go fallow for the year and to plant it with cover crops that were restorative, and they built a beautiful labyrinth. But in terms of connecting with climate, that idea, not only for Coastal Roots–the kind of connection between Sabbath and rest, and the need to give the land a rest, both for spiritual and ecological kind of purposes. And the way in which with climate change, now, even thinking more broadly about the idea of giving certain things a rest, so that the earth systems can replenish themselves, I think, is just one example of the way in which a farm was using ancient spiritual wisdom and reapplying and reinterpreting it in terms of the circumstance we find ourselves with, with climate change.
Thanks for the nice example and that specific story related to renewing some sort of ancient practices in the in the current time. Something else I wanted to ask about, though: so, we’ve talked a little bit about thinking through farming, and let’s say, care of the earth, like preserving water and making land better and giving it rest in order for it to be more productive at other times. So, I just wonder if you might be able to speak more to animal agriculture and maybe some changes that you’ve seen, specifically related to topics like vegetarianism or veganism, or particular attitudes around, I guess, eating animals in terms of how that’s being brought to light in terms of the current climate crisis and change that we’re dealing with?
I think there is growing awareness, just generally, about the role that animal agriculture plays in creating climate change. I think that has been slow to the conversation, and there are many documentaries and books that document why, especially in the United States, we’re so reluctant to see animal agriculture as inherently part of the climate problem. I think in the groups that I studied–and I focused on food and farming efforts in the Abrahamic faith traditions–there’s a huge variety of views on the moral considerations of eating animals. And in each of those traditions, you can find groups of people who believe strongly that their faith means that veganism is the appropriate and ethical posture all the way to those who don’t think eating animals is maybe a moral issue at all. The groups that I worked with had a variety of takes on that. Most of them were only farming vegetables, I would say, with maybe some chickens. And then there were those farms that were working, or trying, to include animal agriculture, animal husbandry, on their farms in ways that were explicitly considering spiritual, moral, and ecological concerns.
So, one of the farms that I highlight in the book is Norwich Meadows Farm in upstate New York, which is a community-supported agriculture. And it’s farmed according to certain Islamic principles. And they were working very hard with agriculture, mostly chickens, to practice in ways that were both halal and ecological, and also that thought a lot about justice to farmworkers. And so that’s one example, at least, of animal agriculture that was attempting to farm in ways that were both sustainable and ecological and spiritual. Now, granted, these farms that I looked at that included agriculture farmed on a very small scale. So, those are different kinds of questions than, say, if we’re talking about the mass production of very, very large concentrations of animal agriculture, which I think is a different kind of question in terms of how religious groups are engaging with public policy advocacy around asking ethical questions of very large-scale animal agriculture. And I think you can also find that advocacy work around larger global public policy questions in many of the religious traditions that I studied. But I mostly was focusing on the smaller-scale practices of agriculture and how spiritually-oriented farms were making sense of those issues if they kept animals.
Yeah, thank you so much for that. This is a topic that’s very interesting to me personally, but I’ll keep going a little bit. I was thinking through some of the questioning that you’re offering about seeing animal consumption, as–going back to that community aspect of certain festivals that are based on particular eatings of animal products or particular farming practices. And I’m just thinking generally about, you know, religious reform, and sort of a question of how we interpret past tradition, as whether it’s sacrosanct or something that can be changed. And so, I think your research is kind of weaving in really well here, as far as looking at some of these farms, instead of perhaps just texts, or something like that, that almost–this is a material way of looking at different reform and ethical reform movements. And I don’t know if you have anything to say about that. But that’s just where I’m seeing it. Because often, we can think of, you know, texts as leading the way, but I feel like the examination and fieldwork in particular farms is a material way of looking at those advances.
Yeah, thanks for raising that. I think that was one of the things that really interested me about visiting and studying farm work in particular, which not everyone would think is a legitimate topic in religious studies. Or even, you know, to start there, with small-scale farms as a first source for thinking through ethical questions. But I really do think that looking to the ways in which, as you said, some of these community groups are rethinking, maybe, traditional notions of how animals were used either in terms of animal sacrifice or in certain ritual activities. And really rethinking not only how animals are conceived in religious traditions that used animals in sacrifice and other sorts of things, but also now, how we rethink ritual itself, and what counts as a kind of ritual. And what counts as a kind of low and high ritual, if you will. And I think many of the groups that are working with the land, whether it’s in food and agriculture, or whether it’s in land restoration, or whether it’s in issues of property and land ownership, or other types of things, I think, are really thinking about this as a sacred activity in and of itself, even if it’s not a sacred activity that’s instituted in doctrine or text, as you say, or even historically. But thinking through what counts as a sacred practice and what makes something sacred, I think many of these groups are doing–whether they use that language or not, they’re kind of reflecting back to their communities, “this is a sacred meaningful activity, or it can be,” and helping think through some pretty fundamental spiritual questions in those ways, too, that I found really interesting.
Yeah so I have another little question that maybe follows up on that; or something I’m kind of thinking about is that many of us who are listening, you know, this podcast gets audiences, both from professors to sometimes students as we assign these things, and then also just people that are generally interested in different aspects of religious studies. But I did have a question that might be more pedagogically oriented, in which many of the listeners might teach some of these “Abrahamic,” so to speak, traditions, especially as you do in your 2018 publication related to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And I wonder, what advice would you have for us, or ways to think about integrating either food or ethics and environmental ethics, maybe, in some of the ways that we think through religious traditions beyond textual approaches or beyond sort of rigid ritual practices? Or maybe what ways has that affected your teaching, as well, perhaps?
So, pedagogically speaking, and really, per the method of the book, one thing that I do in every one of my class periods, and one thing that I do no matter what subject I’m teaching, whether it’s an intro to religion class or religion and the environment more explicitly, is–I think, a really good tool for engaging a particular tradition and connecting with food or environment is to try to find some groups and actual communities that are working on the issues as a kind of entré and intersection with a particular tradition, or with a particular aspect of tradition. And so, I have a colleague in Jewish Studies here at Michigan State, Laura Yares, who is perhaps going to use a chapter from the book or an essay that I wrote on Coastal Roots’ farms in Worldviews for a section that she teaches, an intro to religion, on the globalization of religion in terms of the wider way to think about Jewish practices. And so, I think, to either introduce food or the environment as an example of either modern expansion of thinking about religion, or to just introduce a kind of aspect of practice each week in a class, either by highlighting the work of a particular religious group in that tradition that’s working on food or the environment to talk about and analyze. Of course, you can find many, many, many things on YouTube or whatever. But I think in terms of engaging students, probably the way I’ve been able to engage students the most, and thinking through how environmental issues and food issues explicitly relate and are being interpreted by religious groups, for better or worse, is simply by introducing work that people are doing on the ground or what they’re thinking about in practical ways.
Awesome. Yeah, thanks for that. Already, as I was prepping for speaking with you, I wondered, you know, could I redo the whole last three weeks of some of my classes this semester? The answer is probably not right now. But there are certainly questions that I want to work in more going forward after engaging with some of your work. So, thank you for that. Finally, we need to wrap up, but I wanted to ask about any future directions, or any projects, or things that you’re particularly excited about working with right now that you might want to mention with us or give us a preview of?
So, one of the things that I’m very excited about right now, that we started in the department of Religious Studies at Michigan State and that I’ve been putting a lot of time into, is that we began a concentration in our department in Nonprofit Leadership several years ago as a way to offer our majors a professional track, since many of our majors did go into nonprofit or public benefit work. And that has just been a fabulous way to both attract majors as well as give a broader foothold for religious studies in the humanities at our institution. And now, we are working on developing an online Master’s program in Nonprofit Leadership that we’re hoping to launch in about a year. But one of the things that we think about down the line is thinking about nonprofit leadership as a form of what others are calling, or some others are calling in my department, one of my colleagues–and I know others are using it–the idea of “applied religious studies,” and we’re still in the process of defining what that means. But the idea, I think, of thinking about applied religious studies is something that I’m very interested in exploring, both just with my teaching, but also with others. I’m hoping, at some point at the American Academy of Religion, to have some kind of panel or some sort of discussion around how we’re engaging religious studies with undergraduates, but also, within the humanities, being able to continue to work on this. And then, in terms of what I’m working on, I started working on a book on place and the contested notion of place, and I tentatively titled it Staying Put: Place in an Age of Planetary Uncertainty. And I tentatively titled that before the quarantine. So, it’s taking on all sorts of new meanings, but that’s the next book project I’m working on right now.
Awesome. Well, thank you so much, again, for meeting with us. And I look forward to your future work and, yeah, thanks again!
Thanks so much, and thanks for your great work!
Gretel Van Wieren. 2020. “Climate Change(s): New Approaches to Environmental and Agricultural Ethics”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 12 Oct. 2020. Transcribed by Savannah H. Finver. Version 2.0, 12 Oct. 2020. Available at:
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