Spiritual ecology is a spiritual response to the intensifying ecological crisis. It is an expanding field that unites ecology and environmentalism with an awareness of all that is sacred within creation. Calls include, a responses to environmental problems, a spiritual perspective, awareness and practice.
Spiritual ecology recognises that it is critical to admit and address the spiritual dynamics at the fons et origo of environmental degradation. Spiritual ecology is a field that is emerging through three main branches of study and formal activity: science and academia, religion and spirituality, and ecological sustainability. Notwithstanding that the areas of study are divergent, the principles of spiritual ecology are quite simple: To be able to solve environmental problems such as the decline of species, climate change, global warming and hyper-depletion; humanity needs to examine and re-evaluate our fundamental points of view and beliefs about the Earth and our spiritual responsibility toward this planet. Consequently, ecological renewal and sustainability may as an automatic consequence depend upon our spiritual awareness and our attitude of responsibility. Spiritual ecologists agree that this includes both the recognition of creation as sacred as well as adopting and changing behaviours that will honour the sacred.
Spiritual ecology identifies the Scientific Revolution, which began in the XVI century and continued past the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, considered important contributors to a fundamental shift in human thought with resounding repercussions on the environment. In the era of rational science, the radical expansion of collective consciousness included a collective change in a respect toward nature, and went from being experienced as a living and spiritual presence, to being seen as a useful means to an end.
During the modern era, reason became far more valuable than tradition, revelation, and faith, and industrialised society replaced agrarian societies and old ways of relating to seasonal cycles. The global rise of a predominant mechanised world viewpoint, mutilated and replaced the collective sense of the sacred with an insatiable drive for material wealth and scientific progress without promulgating any rules, limits or responsibilities.
Some in this field noted that our patriarchal global view and religious orientation toward divine transcendence are largely responsible for our destructive attitudes toward the Earth, the body, and the sacred nature of creation. For this reason, many identify the wisdom of indigenous cultures, for whom the physical world still remains sacred, as possessing not only the key but also the way in which to resolve our current ecological predicament.
Spiritual ecology is a response to the socio-political valued structures which have caused a distancing from intimacy with the Earth and its sacred essence over the last few centuries. It emerged and developed into an intellectual and practical-oriented discipline for approximately one hundred years.
Spiritual ecology includes a vast diversity of people and practices that intertwine spiritual and environmental knowledge and experience. Furthermore, within the same tradition there is the deep development of the spiritual vision of a collective human—planetary—divine evolution that is expanding consciousness beyond human—earth, sky—earth, mind—body dualities. This conception is typical of the contemporary movement that recognises the unity and interrelation, or “interbeing,” an interconnectedness with all of creation
Visionaries who promoted this idea include Austrian social reformer and philosopher Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner (1861-† 1925) who founded the spiritual movement of anthroposophy and described the co-evolution of spirituality and nature; Italian physician and educator Dr. Maria Tecla Artemisia Montessori (1870-† 1952), who proposed the idea evolution on Earth as successive increments of the incarnation of the energy of love and consciousness; The Sufi master of India, Radha Mohan Lal also known as Bhai Sahib (1893-1966) who said that the day would come when spiritual life and life as It was understood in this rational world they were destined to meet because they were two ends of the same stick, they would meet in the middle and become one; and Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ († 1955), a French Jesuit and philosopher who spoke of a transition in the collective perception towards a consciousness of divinity within every particle of life, even in the most densest of material. This shift includes the need to dissolve divisions between fields of study as mentioned above: “Science, philosophy, and religion are destined to converge as they get closer and closer to wholeness.”
The American Jesuit Thomas Berry (1914-2009) a cultural historian and scholar of the world’s religions has been one of the most influential figures in this developing movement, with his emphasis on returning to a sense of awe and reverence for the natural world. He shared and advanced Teillard de Chardin’s vision, including the notion that humanity is not at the center of the universe, but integrated within a divine whole with its own evolutionary path. This vision calls us to rethink the Earth / human relationship: “The current urgency is to begin to think within the context of the entire planet, the integral community of the Earth with all its human and non-human components.”
More recently, leaders of the committed Buddhism movement, including the Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk, peace activist, and founder of the Plum Village Tradition Thích Nhất Hạnh, also pointed to the need to return to a sense of identity that includes the Earth. Environmental activist, author, and scholar of Buddhism, Joanna Rogers Macy describes a collective shift — which she refers to as “The Great Turning” a shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilisation — that brings us to a new consciousness in which the Earth is not experienced as separate. Similarly, Sufi Master Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee grounds his work on spiritual ecology in the context of a collective evolutionary expansion toward unity, leading us all toward an experience of Earth and humanity — all of life as interdependent. He considers that in the vision of unity, the term “spiritual ecology” becomes, in itself, redundant. What is sustainable for the Earth is spiritual; that which is spiritual honours a sacred land.
An important element in the work of these contemporary teachers is the call for humanity’s full acceptance of responsibility for what we have done — physically and spiritually — to the earth. Only through accepting responsibility will healing and transformation occur.
Including the need for a spiritual response to the environmental crisis, Charles, Prince of Wales in his 2010 book Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, writes: “A specifically mechanistic science has only recently assumed a position of such authority in the world… (and) not only has it prevented us from considering the world philosophically any more, our predominantly mechanistic way of looking at the world has also excluded our spiritual relationship with Nature. Any such concerns get short shrift in the mainstream debate about what we do to the Earth.” Prince Charles, who has promoted environmental awareness since the 1980s, continues: “… by continuing to deny ourselves this profound, ancient, intimate relationship with Nature, I fear we are compounding our subconscious sense of alienation and disintegration, which is mirrored in the fragmentation and disruption of harmony we are bringing about in the world around us. At the moment we are disrupting the teeming diversity of life and the ‘ecosystems’ that sustain it—the forests and prairies, the woodland, moorland and fens, the oceans, rivers and streams. And this all adds up to the degree of ‘disease’ we are causing to the intricate balance that regulates the planet’s climate, on which we so intimately depend.”
Pope Francis’s Encyclical, “Laudato Si’ on care for our common home” (May 2015) endorsed the need for a spiritual and moral response to our environmental crisis, and thus implicitly brings the subject of spiritual ecology to the forefront of our present ecological debate. This encyclical recognises “The ecological crisis is essentially a spiritual problem,” in line with the ideas of this developing field. American environmentalist, author, and journalist Bill McKibben who has written extensively on the impact of global warming, says that Pope Francis has “brought the full weight of the spiritual order to bear on the global threat posed by climate change, and in so doing joined its power with the scientific order.”
Historically we see the development of spiritual ecology among the more mystical branches of traditional religions and along the more spiritual lines of environmental conservation. And woven throughout its entire trajectory, the story of an evolving universe is heard, leading us to an experience of integration and totality in which all duality disappears — dualities that have marked ages past and contributed to the destruction of Earth as something which is not spirit.
A Catholic nun interviewed by Sarah MacFarland Taylor, author of the 2009 book, “Green Sisters: Spiritual Ecology” (Harvard University Press, 2009), articulates this perspective of unity: “There is no division between planting new fields and prayer.”
The historical journey that was narrated above took place predominantly in a European Judeo-Christian context, because it is within this context that humanity experienced the loss of the sacred nature of creation, with its devastating consequences. Yet many in the field of spiritual ecology recognize a distinct stream of experience woven through all of history, a stream that has at its core a lived understanding of the principles, values, and attitudes of spiritual ecology: indigenous wisdom.
Many in the field of spiritual ecology agree that a distinct stream of experience threading throughout history that has at its heart a lived understanding of the principles, values and attitudes of spiritual ecology: indigenous wisdom. The term “indigenous” in this context refers to that which is native, original, and resident to a place, more specifically to societies who share and preserve ways of knowing the world in relationship to the land. For many Native traditions, the earth is the central spiritual context. This principle condition reflects an attitude and way of being in the world that is rooted in land and embedded in place. Spiritual ecology directs us to look to revered holders of these traditions in order to understand the source of our current ecological and spiritual crisis and find guidance to move into a state of balance.
The above historical trajectory is located predominantly in a Judeo-Christian European context, for it is within this context that humanity experienced the loss of the sacred nature of creation, with its devastating consequences. For example, with colonisation, indigenous spiritual ecology was historically replaced by an imposed Western belief that land and the environment are commodities to be used and exploited, with exploitation of natural resources in the name of socio-economic evolution. This perspective “… tended to remove any spiritual value of the land, with regard only given for economic value, and this served to further distance communities from intimate relationships with their environments,” often with “devastating consequences for indigenous people and nature around the world.” Research on early prehistoric human activity in the Quaternary extinction event, shows overhunting megafauna well before European colonisation in North America, South America and Australia. While this might cast doubt upon the view of indigenous wisdom and the sacred relationship to land and environment throughout the entirety of human history, it this does not negate the more recent devastating effects as referenced.
Along with the basic principles and behaviours advocated by spiritual ecology, some indigenous traditions hold the same evolutionary view articulated by the Western spiritual teachers listed above. The understanding of humanity evolving toward a state of unity and harmony with the earth after a period of discord and suffering is described in a number of prophecies around the globe. These include the White Buffalo prophecy of the Plains Indians, the prophecy of the Eagle and Condor from the people of the Andes, and the Onondaga prophecies held and retold by a Native American Chief and Faith-keeper of the Turtle Clan Oren R. Lyons Jr.
Spiritual ecology is developing mostly in three areas identified above: Science and Academy, Religion and Spirituality, and Environmental Conservation.
Science and academia Among scholars who contribute to spiritual ecology, five stand out for their exceptional creativity, productivity, and impact: Steven C. Rockefeller, Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, Bron Taylor, and Roger S. Gottlieb.
Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim are the dynamic forces behind Yale University’s Religion and Ecology Forum, a multi-religious project that explores religious world-views, texts of ethics, and practices in order to broaden our understanding of complex nature of current environmental concerns. Steven Clark Rockefeller is the author of numerous books on religion and the environment and Professor Emeritus of Religion at Middlebury College. He played a central role in carrying out the declaration of The Earth Charter.
Roger S. Gottlieb is Professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic and the author of more than 100 articles and 16 books on the environment, religious life, contemporary spirituality, political philosophy, ethics, feminism, and the Holocaust.
Each of the aforementioned cultivated their own area in this emerging field of academic thought and pragmatic action. Taken together they can be seen as mutually reinforcing in synergy. There is a substantial difference in the position of spiritual ecology before and since his work.
Other leaders in this field include: Leslie Sponsel at the University of Hawaii, Sarah McFarland Taylor at Northwestern University, Mitchell Thomashow at Antioch University in New England, and Schumacher College Programs.
Within the field of science, spiritual ecology is emerging in the areas of physics, biology (Ursula Goodenough), consciousness studies (Brian Swimme of the California Institute for Integral Studies), systems theory (David Loy of the Institute of Integral Studies). non-dual science) and the Gaia Hypothesis, which was first articulated by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis († 2011) in around 1970.
Religion and Ecology
Within many faiths, environmentalism is becoming an area of study and support. Christian environmentalists emphasise the ecological responsibilities of all Christians as custodians of God’s Creation, whilst contemporary Muslim religious ecology draws inspiration from themes from the Qur’an such as humanity being khilāfah (خليفة) and has traditionally been considered a shortening of Khalīfat Rasūl Allāh “Surely I am making in the earth a successor” (Al-Baquara [the cow] 2:30). There is also an ecological perspective in Judaism based on the Torah (it also appears in the Bible) for example on the laws of bal tashchis (בל תשחית) —‘do not destroy’ senseless damage or waste—. Engaged Buddhism applies Buddhist principles and teachings to social and environmental problems. A collection of Buddhist responses to global warming can be seen in Ecological Buddhism.
All of the major world traditions today seem to include a subset of leaders committed to an ecological perspective. The “Green Patriarch” Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople of the Eastern Orthodox Church since the late 1990s has been bringing together scientists, environmentalists, religious leaders and legislators to address the ecological crisis. These religious approaches to ecology also have a growing interface expression, for example at the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD) where world religious leaders speak about climate change and sustainability.
Spirituality and Ecology
While ecological religious orientation is based on scripture and theology, there is a more recent ecological movement that expresses the need for an ecological methodology founded on spiritual knowledge rather than religious belief. The individuals who are articulating this methodology may be religiously based, but their ecological vision comes from their own lived spiritual experience. The difference between this spiritually oriented ecology and a religious approach to ecology can be understood as analogous to the way in which the inter-spiritual movement goes beyond interfaith and interfaith dialogue to focus on current experience of spiritual principles and practices. Spiritual ecology similarly explores the importance of this experimental spiritual dimension in relation to our current ecological crisis.
Buddhism teacher Thich Nhat Hanh engages us in a dialogue of the importance of mindfulness of our Mother Earth and that the highest form of prayer is real communion with the Earth. Sandra Ingerman offers shamanic healing as a way to reverse pollution in Medicine for Earth. Franciscan friar Fr. Richard Rohr OFM founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation emphasises the need to experience everyone as a divine incarnation. The Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee directs our attention not only to the physical suffering of the Earth but also to her inner spiritual being or anima mundi (soul of the world). Bill Plotkin and others are concerned with finding in nature a means of reconnecting with our soul and the soul of the world. These are just a few of the many ways in which practitioners of spiritual ecology within different traditions and spiritual disciplines remind us and make us aware of the sacred nature of creation.
The field of environmental conservation has taken shape and been informed and led by individuals who have had profound experiences of the sacredness of nature and have fought to protect it. Recognising the closeness of the human soul and nature, may have led a new way of thinking about the planet and relating to the Earth. Today many aspects of the environmental conservation movement are empowered by spiritual principles and interdisciplinary cooperation.
One notable trend is the recognition that women — by instinct and nature — have a unique commitment and ability to protect Earth’s resources. This is illustrated in the lives of Wangari Maathai († 2011), the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement, which was initially carried out by women planting trees. She authored four books: The Green Belt Movement; Unbowed: A Memoir; The Challenge for Africa; and Replenishing the Earth. The English primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall, an innovator of local sustainable programs in Africa, many of which are designed to empower young women and women tells us “By protecting chimpanzees and inspiring people to conserve the natural world we all share, we improve the lives of people, animals and the environment. Everything is connected—everyone can make a difference.” The Indian scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, ecofeminist and anti-globalisation author Dr. Vandana Shiva often referred to as the “Gandhi of grain,” is a Hindu activist working on a variety of issues including saving seeds, protecting small farms in India and crusader against the agrarian industry and anti-GMO, Dr. Shiva reminds us “food is the currency of life.”
Other contemporary interdisciplinary environmentalists include Poet, novelist, and environmentalist farmer Wendell Berry who lives in Port Royal, near his birthplace, where he has maintained a farm for over 40 years. Mistrustful of technology, he holds deep reverence for the land and is a staunch defender of agrarian values who fights for small farms and criticises the agrarian industry. Wendell tells us “Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” Last but not least Indian British activist and speaker Satish Kumar. He has been a Jain monk, nuclear disarmament advocate and is a pacifist. Now living in England, Kumar is founder and Director of Programmes of the Schumacher College an international centre for ecological studies, and is Editor Emeritus of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine., formerly a Jain monk and founder of Schumacher College, a university of ecological studies. He insists that reverence for nature should be at the heart of every political and social debate. Defending criticism that his goals are unrealistic, he has said: “Look at what realists have done for us. They have led us to war and climate change, poverty on an unimaginable scale, and wholesale ecological destruction. Half of humanity goes to bed hungry because of all the realistic leaders in the world. I tell people who call me “unrealistic” to show me what their realism has done. Realism is an outdated, overplayed and wholly exaggerated concept.” (Sica, Giulio (16 January 2008). “What part does spirituality play in the green movement?” The Guardian. London.