Richard Cartwright Austin became an Environmental Theologian out of his pastoral experience with Appalachian people who sought to defend lands they love from strip mining for coal. Al Gore cites Austin in his book, Earth in the Balance:

Believers are called upon to remember that even as they “till” the earth they must also “keep” it. This has long been clear to … Richard Cartwright Austin, for example, a Presbyterian minister working among the poor in Appalachia, [who] reports on his experience in trying to stop irresponsible strip mining: “I learned early on from my years as a pastor in Appalachia … that the only defense those mountains have from exploitation by the energy conglomerates’ bulldozers is the poor, isolated people who live in those hollows, who care so deeply that they would fight for that land.”

Austin led the first state campaign to abolish strip mining for coal, in 1971 in West Virginia. He was Co-Chair of the national coalition, Citizens to Abolish Strip Mining, that assembled people from across the United States to press the U.S. Congress for strip mining legislation. Austin was with President Jimmy Carter in the White House Rose Garden when Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.

Austin devoted the next quarter century to articulating a Christian Environmental Theology, speaking to Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical and Eastern Orthodox groups across the United States, and training young ministers in environmental awareness through the ecumenical Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center in Berea, Kentucky. For this work Austin was honored in 1999 by Wilson College, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, with a Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

From 1977 to 1982 Austin led the seven-state Coalition of American Electric Consumers that eventually forced the American Electric Power Company to withdraw plans to build the nation’s largest pumped-storage hydroelectric facility at Brumley Gap in southwestern Virginia.

Between 1987 and 1990, Austin’s four-book series, Environmental Theology, was published by John Knox Press and Creekside Press.2 Baptized into Wilderness explores the spirituality of John Muir. Beauty of the Lord draws from American theologian Jonathan Edwards to propose an understanding of beauty that is relational rather than aesthetic, and that strengthens our experiences of God with experiences of nature. Hope for the Land explores Biblical texts that affirm human responsibility to liberate land from oppression. Reclaiming America proposes land reform, civil rights for natural life, and new approaches to agriculture.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1934, Austin was raised in Washington DC in a politically active family. He received his Bachelor of Arts from Swarthmore College in 1956, Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He received a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in 1959, with honors, winning the church history prize. He earned his Doctor of the Science of Theology from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1975.

Austin served a five-church Presbyterian parish in a rural mining area of Pennsylvania, then served as Associate Pastor of the Georgetown Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. In 1966 he was appointed Director of the West Virginia Mountain Project, his denomination’s largest Appalachian mission, in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. From 1975 until his retirement in 1999, Austin had a special ministry in Environmental Theology with the Presbyterian Church. His base was a mountain farm in southwestern Virginia, near Dungannon, where he pioneered organic produce production and sustainable forestry practices.

Since his retirement, Austin has written a series of books on Moral Imagination in Industrial Culture, drawing upon family history to explore Christian responses to the challenges of industrialization during the past two centuries. Building Utopia, Erecting Russia’s First Modern City, 1930, (Kent State University Press) draws from his parents’ experiences in the Soviet Union with the largest construction project of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan.

Austin is married to Anne Leibig, a Gestalt Psychotherapist. He has three sons from a previous marriage, and seven grandchildren. 

Austin and Leibig were among those who organized the ElderSpirit Community in Abingdon VA, a unique self-governing retirement community for mutual support. In 2011 they moved to this community.

"At the heart of the biblical vision is a promise that if we love nature and treat the life of the earth with respect, we will fulfill our human vocation and find personal satisfaction. Furthermore, we will be happy with the earth's response. The harvest which the earth yields is far more than meat and fruit, oil and wine. Interactions with nature differ from the interpersonal, social, and cultural relationships which predominate in modern life, so that natural relationships may expand our sensibilities and enrich our lives. ... Nature is beautiful: if we do not engage with this beauty we are deprived. Culture and manufacture provide us many things that are both essential and desirable, but they are not worth placing nature at risk. To make peace with God we are called to make peace with nature as well, so that God's glory may return to our landscape." - Dick Austin in Hope for the Land, Nature in the Bible.

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"A striking feature of the natural world is how many things work together to support existence, each contributing to the life of others. We call this a universe: a whole composed of many interdependent and mutually supporting parts. If the many things in existence did not support each other, there would be chaos instead, in which most things attack, destroy, or flee from each other....

"When we look at the beauty of the natural world, we see that both the animate and inanimate tend to support each other. Each, directly or indirectly, contributes to the life of all. Equally striking is the amazing diversity which is so supported. The world's life-support system does not make everything the same, but rather permits the flowering of so many different things. From our perspective, the earth - with all its complexity of life and activity - is more beautiful than an alternative, sterile planet. We see that an important aspect of the beauty of the universe is the process of individuation, by which species become differentiated from one another; and by which individuals within species, sustained by interdependence, develop their unique potential." - Dick Austin in Beauty of the Lord, Awakening the Senses.

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