Anna M. Gade: Exploring the confluence of religion and environment

October 17, 2014

Connections between faith and environmental stewardship have been the focus of a growing conversation in evangelical Christianity, led in part by Nelson Institute emeritus professor Cal Dewitt. But other religious communities, including Islam, have also been exploring this relationship, according to Nelson Institute professor Anna M. Gade.

Gade, a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor and expert in religious studies who recently joined the Nelson faculty, teaches a variety of courses, ranging from Islam in Southeast Asia to Religion and the Environment.

Her environmental studies courses have a religious focus in an effort to bring a multidisciplinary perspective to the environmental humanities. Religion and the Environment will be offered as RELS 101 in spring 2015, with credit for environmental studies programs. Gade is planning a new course on environmental humanities in Asian perspectives, along with others.  

We sat down with Gade and asked her about her passion for religion and environmental understanding.

How do you think that religion and environmental change are connected?

Gade: For research and teaching, now in the Nelson Institute, I see a few important things. One is that religious commitments can help mobilize people in groups for environmental engagement. That doesn’t always happen, but when it does, that’s something that interests both the people who study the environment as well as the people who study religious systems.

They’re also connected because the study of religion helps us understand how people relate seen to unseen worlds. We can talk about ontologies, or ways of being, that are human, that are non-human, and that are even inanimate.

Also, religious systems tend to present relations of cause and effect that can grasp indeterminate futures along with ethical responsibility. Finally, and coming out of this point, religious systems express human norms and ethics that are relevant to many of the questions in environmental studies today.

The class you’re teaching this fall is about culture and Islam. Do you plan on linking it to environmental change in any way?

I do, anytime I can. An example of that is our unit coming up on Islamic law. Examples drawn from a fascinating and developing area of Islamic law illustrate fundamental principles of Sharia law as well as a relationship to the environment, because this kind of reasoning recognizes that a healthy biosphere is a necessary precondition to any human activity, including religious thought and practice.

For this class, I frequently use material from a collection of original videos I have been making about Islam and the environment in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia.

What sparked your interest in environmental change?

I wanted to be an atmospheric scientist. I studied math and physics as an undergraduate, and then things moved in another direction. But I never lost my interest in thinking about the complexity of human and environmental systems. When I wrote my books on the Qur’an, I was always struck by the great amount of material on the ecosystem — past, present and future. I plan to write about this more in my forthcoming book, "Islam and the Environment."

As a scholar of Islam and Asia, my interest in the discipline of environmental studies came to the forefront when I did a fieldwork project in Cambodia. I went to Cambodia to study religious revitalization and social recovery among Cham Muslims. I expected to study religious texts and teachings, but instead, what struck me when I carried out my research along the banks of the Mekong River was that the fish harvest on which people relied for their livelihood was declining rapidly. I realized I did not have the tools yet as a scholar of religion to talk about environmental change in the context of my research. And since then, I have been developing new approaches.

What are you most excited about this fall?

Here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I am looking forward to the international Anthropocene Slam scheduled for this November, which brings together creative people and scholars from North America, Europe and farther afield.

What is your favorite thing to do in Madison in the fall?

My grandfather got his master’s degree in education from UW-Madison. He used to tell stories about swimming as far as he could from off the pier at Lake Mendota. And I like to swim too. But in the fall, I just swim in the pool, not the lake. I am also trying to learn to play jazz piano.

Professor Gade with Prof. Dr. Ir. Muhjidin Mawardi (Gadjah Mada University, Chair of Muhammadiyya's national Environmental Committee), and leaders and educators of the environmental studies program at a prize-winning 'Green Islamic School' in Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Professor Gade with Dr. Ir. Muhjidin Mawardi (Gadjah Mada University, professor and chair of Muhammadiyya's national Environmental Committee) and leaders and educators of the environmental studies program at a prize-winning "Green Islamic School" in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Photo, top left: K.H. Ahmad Yani at the “Harim Zone" in Bogor, Indonesia, from a series of short videos by Gade.

Melanie Ginsburg is a senior majoring in journalism.