Kaid Benfield Archive


Faith-based environmentalism: an interview with Michael Abbaté (Part 1)

Kaid Benfield

Posted May 19, 2009 at 1:33PM

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Michael Abbaté is director of urban planning and design for Gresham, Oregon, a suburb on Portland's MAX light rail line that is attempting to create a smarter, greener and more sustainable community for its residents and visitors.  He is a landscape architect by training and co-founded Portland's award-winning design firm GreenWorks.  He and his wife Vicki live in Fairview Village, a much-acclaimed new urbanist community a couple of miles from his office.

What sets Mike apart from others in the field, though, is that he is also a devout Christian who fervently believes that taking care of the earth is man's duty to the creator.  Michael Abbate (www.michaelabbate.com)In his new book Gardening Eden: How Creation Care Will Change Your Faith, Your Life and Our World, published by WaterBrook/Random House, Mike explains the scriptural basis for what he calls "creation care," and discusses how it should guide people of faith in addressing such concerns as global warming, mountaintop removal mining, sustainable transportation practices, and daily life.

His metaphor is one of tending the garden, caring for the earth writ large as one would nurture one's own flowers and vegetables.  One of my favorite sentences in the book, which I am quite sure was written with a smile on the author's face, is "After he created the earth, all living things, God invented landscape architecture."  Another favorite passage, which comes in applying the "Halloween Test" of a walkable neighborhood:  "You may not be able to recognize a walkable neighborhood, but I guarantee a parent with a six-year-old child can" (from "Gardening Tip 25: Walk").

Mike believes that our society has created a false division between faith and science, and that environmentalism can bridge the gap between the two worlds.  His publicist sent me a copy of Gardening Eden, which prompted me to ask Mike some questions.  His answers are thoughtful and deserve some space, so I am going to run this in two installments, beginning here:

Q:  I was struck by not only the presence of both Old and New Testament sources in Gardening Eden, but also the way some of your thoughts about worship (particularly, for example, the steps of observation, solitude, and meditation) resonate with tenets of Buddhism.  You write of the potential of the environment to be a "bridge" between red and blue politics, between science and faith.  Do you also see it as a bridge between and among different faiths?

A:  Absolutely.  The faith I know best is Christianity, but Judaism and Islam also share a heritage that reaches back to a personal Creator God who gave us a spiritual reason for caring for the environment.  the cover of Gardening EdenBuddhism and Hinduism, though different in their beliefs about the essence of God, also recognize that humans and the earth are linked in ways more profound than simply our physical needs.  One of the points of Gardening Eden is that environmental stewardship is not, first and foremost, a political issue, it is a personal and spiritual one.

Q:  The American Values Network has recently surfaced as a welcome expression of your values in the political arena, running faith-based ads on Christian radio stations in support of a strong federal climate bill.  Your book is more personal than overtly political, which is important in its own right, but do you think more Christians are becoming ready to embrace pro-environment politics?  What are the signs?

A:  With 83% of Americans claiming some type of spiritual faith, and 75% of Americans believing that the environment is worth making financial sacrifices to protect, it is clear to me that a majority of Americans are motivated both by faith and the environment.  The election of President Obama also points to a potential shift in the public's desire to see some real environmental leadership by the federal government.  However, I am more interested in talking to some of the folks who did not vote Obama, are suspicious of environmentalists and dismiss the issue as driven by left-wing secular humanists.

Some things are right for an individual to do, regardless of politics.  Helping your neighbor, feeding the hungry, loving your enemy, nurturing a child, stewarding creation.  These are good and right for an individual to do, and must be driven by an inner conviction that is more profoundly personal than a party platform.  Too often, I believe that good, loving and sacrificial people have lumped all environmental issues and programs together, then dismissed them as politically untenable.  I have been told by many readers of Gardening Eden that reading it has caused them to rethink their personal beliefs and to implement different lifestyles and behaviors.  This is not because of a political awakening, but rather a spiritual one.

I also believe that people under 30 are going to lead the way on this issue. I have talked with dozens of people who are no longer willing to look at the issue in this left vs. right, polarized way.  They are activists wanting to DO things rather than just debate them.  These folks see the inherent mandate for the faith community to protect the planet, and are frustrated that older generations have failed to act decisively.  They read Shane Claiborne's book Irresistible Revolution, and decide they too want to move to the inner city to help rebuild a sense of compassionate community.  Gresham, OR, where Michael Abbate is chief planner (by: DeEtte Fisher, via Panaramio & Google Earth)They hang on to Francis of Assisi's words: "Preach the gospel at all times - if necessary, use words."  I think it is a very exciting time to watch how the faith community builds on the activist traditions of the past and transforms itself as doers as well as speakers.

Q:  Who do you see as the most important audience for your book, and why?

A:  I have felt like I have had my feet in two different worlds.  My professional world is filled with good people who are concerned about environmental degradation, but are much less interested (or willing to talk about) in a spiritual life.  On the other hand, when I have talked to friends in my church, very few of them seem to care much about environmental stewardship.  I believe that the two are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, the person of faith has a more clear and rational mandate to protect nature than the secularist.  So, my primary audience is latter; the Jew, Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, Muslim or other spiritual believer who has not connected his or her faith with the issue of environmental conservation.  However, I am very interested in reaching those who are not "believers", yet want to explore how faith might influence our society on this issue.

In fact, since the book has come out, I have been honored to have many deep spiritual conversations with people who would not identify themselves with any type of organized faith community.  These discussions have been rich, meaningful and profound.  I believe that these discussions have encouraged many of these folks to reevaluate their personal world-view and spiritual beliefs.  If nothing more, it has shown to them that not all evangelical Christians are right-wing hate-mongers, just like I tell my faith-filled friends that not all environmentalists are left-wing human-haters!

Tomorrow: Part 2.