Living Green: The Neoliberal Climate of Protestant Environmentalism

Rose, Kevin Stewart, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hedstrom, Matthew S., Religious Studies, University of Virginia

In April 1970, organizers of the first Earth Day hoped to herald a period of national environmental mobilization. But the actual nature of this new environmental politics was contested. A younger generation of leftist activists who had cut their teeth on anti-war protests, SDS meetings, and administrative building sit-ins hoped their brand of direct action would become the order of the day. Two months prior, a group of students in San Jose California tried to set a tone for this first Earth Day by holding a funeral for a car, literally digging a grave and burying a Ford Maverick. Soon after Earth Day that April, a number of Protestant church leaders, both evangelical and mainline, set out to mobilize their congregations, hoping to stir up their environmental concerns and get them to take action for the sake of planet earth. Their early efforts focused on the notion “action,” hoping to compel their constituencies to embrace the forms of direct action and collective activism made familiar by 1960s social movements. However, couched in crisis-talk as the early 1970s brought on waves of middle-class anxiety about overpopulation, energy shortages, and mass starvation, many simply sought a way to get back to normal, keeping the existing international political economy in place while making just enough changes to stave off widespread ecological and social collapse and disorder. By the middle of the 1970s, the notion of “action” had been supplanted by a neologism that circulated widely in evangelical and mainline environmental networks: “lifestyle.” Freshly minted by the American Marketing Association, the idea of lifestyle provided churchgoers with a ready-made set of compelling personal choices, all rooted in consumption, through which they could embody Christian environmental concern without fear of more radical or disruptive redistribution. Focusing on the rise of “lifestyle” as a central theme in Christian environmentalism, this dissertation tells the story of these attempts at Protestant environmental mobilization throughout the 1970s, looking at the way their mobilization efforts were shaped and disciplined by the structures of American capitalism. All of these efforts occurred within existing infrastructures: capitalism’s global supply chains, its vast networks of fossil fuel extraction, and the shipping lanes and interstates that make these flows possible. Talk of crisis helped encourage a return to normalcy rather than more wholesale changes, leaving these infrastructures in place and helping make lifestyle choice more sensible than direct action. With lifestyle choice, middle-class churchgoers were invited to imagine a seamless flow, through the free market’s global networks of exchange, that would link their virtuous consumer choices with the suffering Global South, ensuring order and the maintenance of their own affluence.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
religion and ecology, religious environmentalism, Christian environmentalism, religion and capitalism, religion and neoliberalism, American religious history, twentieth century, American evangelicalism, Mainline Protestantism, American Christianity, American Protestantism
Issued Date: