When God Isn't Green

A World-Wide Journey to Places Where Religious Practice and Environmentalism Collide

Whether it’s Hindus in Mumbai carrying twenty-five foot plaster idols of Ganesh into the sea, or Taoists in Hong Kong creating poisonous fumes by burning bushels of “ghost money,” or American Palm Sunday celebrants contributing to the deforestation of Central American palm forests, religious practices can sometimes cause significant damage to the environment. In this book, law professor Jay Wexler travels the globe–from Alaska to India, from Singapore to Mexico and beyond–to investigate instances where religious practice and environmentalism collide, in order to understand the complexity of these problems and learn how society can best address them. Whether he’s feasting on whale blubber above the Arctic Circle, bumping along in the back of a battered jeep through a Guatemalan jungle, or learning how to pluck a dead bald eagle at the National Eagle Repository, Wexler never fails to entertain as he tries to answer the question: can religious practice and environmental protection coexist?

If you’ve ever wondered where fronds for Palm Sunday came from or what to do if you find an expired bald eagle, your questions will be answered in this illuminating book. Wexler, inspired by a visit to an eagle repository in Colorado, began to wonder how religious practices connect with the environment, and he takes the reader along on his ensuing journey of discovery. In honest, funny prose, Wexler describes his attempts to understand—and sometimes participate in—rituals that poison waters and clog the air. As it turns out, certain religious practices around the world have been negatively impacting the environment for years—for instance, releasing nonnative species of turtles into the water. Despite his findings, Wexler genuinely and thoughtfully wrestles with the tension between caring for the earth and caring for the people who find these rituals so meaningful. It is a reminder that, for good or ill, the actions of a faithful few can have a major impact.

Booklist

In this evenhanded book, Wexler (Boston Univ. School of Law; Tuttle in the Balance, 2015, etc.) chronicles his travels around the world in search of spiritual practices that threaten environmental stewardship. As a law professor, the author approaches his subjects with clinical curiosity. Is it appropriate for Inuit villagers to hunt whales and eat their blubber, given that whales are so endangered? Should Native Americans be allowed to use bald eagle feathers, when the species teeters on extinct ion? Wexler is a self-described atheist and environmentalist, but he is remarkably sympathetic to worshippers and their age-old rituals. During a trip to India, he watched thousands of Hindus toss giant plaster sculptures of Ganesh into the sea. When he attended an eco-friendly alternative to the festival, he felt torn. “I wondered, not for the last time during my travels,” he writes, “whether the highly controlled, largely sterile atmosphere that the environmentalists had set up was really compatible with the vibrant religious practices of the fervent believers.” Wexler‘s prose is clear and respectful, and he avoids both the shrill anger of a radical and the dry academic language of the law school classroom. He combines prescient legal anecdotes with self-effacing humor, such as when he brought a small plastic fork to carve a hunk of whale meat. Some issues are surprising, such as the widespread burning of palm fronds during Palm Sunday, which has caused devastating repercussions in the rain forests of Central America. Sometimes, the solutions are equally surprising: the National Eagle Repository collects dead birds, most of which have been killed by accident, and supplies them to Native American spiritual leaders. . . . Witty and engaging, this book simultaneously celebrates and challenges spiritual traditions.

Kirkus Reviews

Boston University law professor Wexler offers a highly entertaining and eye-opening look at situations where freedom of religion and environmental protection clash… Wexler is often lighthearted in tone, but he conveys the gravity of harming either the environment or the vitality and vibrancy of a religious culture with uncritical legal regulation. Though he directs this work mainly toward governments and nongovernment organizations, religious and secular readers alike will find much to enjoy and appreciate in this fascinating travelogue of worldwide religious practice and the legal, economic, and social systems that make environmental protection difficult to enforce.

Publishers Weekly