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.