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Grant to fund ethics, religion, environment program

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Elaine Justice

The Ray C. Anderson Foundation has awarded $400,000 to the Emory University Center for Ethics to launch a four-year program aimed at developing scholars and teachers in sustainability worldwide.

The grant will fund an initiative at the ethics center called the Culture, Religion, Ethics and the Environment (CREATE) program. CREATE will produce and disseminate new scholarship on the religious, ethical and cultural foundations for the environmental and sustainability movements. This new scholarship will be used to develop curricula for broad training by businesses, educational institutions and religious communities.

"Underlying the American environmentalism and sustainability movement is an ethical sensibility," says Paul Root Wolpe, director of Emory's Center for Ethics and principal investigator for the project.

"The reason we care about saving endangered species, for example, has a lot to do with our sense of stewardship, our responsibility to future generations, and other ethical and religious ideals," he explains. 

According to Wolpe, the CREATE program "proposes to bring together the best thinkers on the ethical and religious foundations of environmentalism and sustainability to generate scholarship and develop curricula, so that we can better understand the roots, and perhaps the future, of the American environmental movement."

The program also will produce two conferences, an academic text, and numerous articles and speeches by global scholars and leaders. The intent is for curricula generated by the program to "enable clergy, faculty and civic figures of all faith traditions to bring back home the ethical foundations of human action as they relate to caring for the earth," says John A. Lanier, director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. 

"Ray Anderson was known in many countries for advancing the business case for sustainability. But in his career as an industrialist he was keenly aware of the ethical considerations as well," says Lanier.  "He was personally motivated to create a better world for 'Tomorrow's Child,' namely those future generations of people yet to visit this planet.  His motivation was a highly ethical one, and this program will reflect that."

Attitudes toward environment changed

The CREATE initiative arises from the dramatic transformation in thinking about the environment and sustainability in this country, says Wolpe.

"In the 1980s, most businesses were strongly opposed to the environmental movement, seeing it as a cost without a lot of benefit. Now every major business has a vice president for sustainability," Wolpe says.

What caused the shift? "Part of the answer is that businesses became convinced of the pragmatic advantages of sustainability, so a lot of the focus has been on resources, on cost-savings of efforts like recycling," says Wolpe. "But the focus on the pragmatic side has reduced the recognition of the philosophical and ethical side of it, which is the way people actually think about it."

As evidence he cites recycling centers that were soon overwhelmed by people embracing the concept. "Recycling obviously tapped a need, but it wasn't a pragmatic one," says Wolpe. "It was that people felt guilty because of the enormous amount of waste that they were generating and was going into landfills. They thought it was morally wrong, and recycling gave them a way to alleviate their guilt about it."

Ultimately, says Wolpe, "we need to understand the ethical and religious underpinnings of environmentalism and sustainability because those are the real motivating impulses by which we make our environmental decisions." 

Ray Anderson, for whom the foundation is named, understood that connection well. 

"Ray viewed the Bible as an environmental handbook that commands us to conservatorship, and by doing so brings those two old archenemies – science and religion – together constructively," says Lanier. "True to his view, the CREATE program will have an impact on members of religion and faith communities of all types."

Emory faculty developing CREATE

Along with Wolpe, Emory faculty developing CREATE include Cory Labrecque, Raymond F. Schinazi Junior Scholar in Bioethics and Religious Thought, and Jonathan Crane, Raymond F. Schinazi Junior Scholar in Bioethics and Jewish Thought, who will serve as project investigators; and Kathy Kinlaw, associate director of the Center for Ethics.

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