Spiritual Ecology: An Overview

Paper to introduce Session #968 on “Bringing the Religious Past into the Present: The Environmental Legacy of Religion and its Relevance for Envisioning and Engaging the Ecological Future” in the annual convention of the American Anthropological Association in Washington , D.C. , December 3, 2005.

Revised 12/10/2005


 

TOWARD AN OVERVIEW IN ANTHROPOLOGY AND BEYOND

Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel, Professor
Director, Ecological Anthropology Program
University of Hawai`i
Honolulu , HI 96822-2223
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
http://www.soc.hawaii.edu/Sponsel/

Dr. Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, Assistant Professor
Director, Gender Studies
Director, Buddhist Studies
Chaminade University
Honolulu , HI 96816-1578
 

 

“In the Shona language the word sacred, inoera, is an adjective describing a thing or place. Sacredness has the connotation of being life sustaining, such as providing food, fruit, or water. The concept is closely linked with rain, and the fertility of the land. A sacred place (nzvimbo inoera) is a place where spirits are present; it has certain rules of access, as well as behaviors that are not allowed there (taboos)” (Byers, Cunliffe, and Hudak 2001:187).

In order to provide some introduction and background for this session, we would like to briefly explain the meaning and significance of spiritual ecology by focusing on five basic themes: definition, rationale, momentum, relevance, and opposition.

 

1. DEFINITION

In this context we define spiritual ecology as a complex and diverse arena of intellectual and practical activities at the interface of religions and spiritualities on the one hand, and on the other of ecologies, environments, and environmentalisms.

The term spiritual ecology is preferred for four reasons:

  1. It parallels the well-established primary components of contemporary ecological anthropology like cultural ecology, historical ecology, and political ecology.
  2. It is more inclusive than the term religion.
  3. Other labels, such as religion and ecology, religion and nature, and ecotheology are awkward or problematic.
  4. The term spiritual ecology is used to be provocative (cf., Schneiders 1989).

 

2. RATIONALE

One approach to explaining the rationale for spiritual ecology is illustrated by a statement on the potential environmental role of religion on the website of the Canadian Forum on Religion and Ecology:

The human species is a uniquely symbolic species: our languages, cultures and rituals form the values that shape human behaviour toward others and toward nature. These symbolic systems are passed on from generation to generation in our diverse religious and cultural traditions. Religious traditions can play an important part in shaping the way people engage with the natural world, and are important partners in fostering ecologically sustainable living (CFORE 11/24/2005).

Since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 , an increasing number of diverse individuals and organizations worldwide have recognized the environmental crisis. Environmental components have developed in many arenas including the sciences, technology, education, philosophy, ethics, history, politics, government, law, economics, and the like (e.g., Collett and Karakashian 1996, Pepper 1996). Nevertheless, the crisis is worsening. For instance, there is an international consensus among scientific experts that global warming is a reality. Therefore, the aforementioned secular initiatives to cope with the ecocrisis have proven inadequate. Obviously they are all necessary, but, just as obviously, they are not sufficient. The ecocrisis will only turn around for the better when a sufficient portion of humanity thinks deeply enough and acts differently enough to profoundly change their detrimental impacts on nature. Religion and spirituality may be the last hope for generating such a fundamental change by humanity. Adherents to spiritual ecology aim to contribute to this transformation.* Also see the journal Kosmos: An Integral Approach to Global Warming:

http://www.kosmosjournal.org/kjo/home/index.shtml

Since at least the 1980's, an accelerating number of diverse individuals and organizations in many sectors and levels of society have been seriously exploring religion as a last resort for resolving the ecocrisis (e.g., Beyer 1992, 1994, Gardner 2002, Nash 1989). This movement is not offered instead of previous secular approaches, but in addition to them as a complement with the hope of finally turning things around for the better. No particular religion is designated as the sole solution. Instead, scientists, scholars, educators, clerics, adherents, politicians, and others are probing deeply into their own religion or spirituality for elements to construct more viable environmental worldviews, attitudes, values, and practices. These initiatives frequently involve the participation of individuals from different religions, cultures, countries, disciplines, and/or professions. Mary Evelyn Tucker optimistically refers to this global movement as religions entering their ecological phase, a second axial age (Tucker and Berling 2003). (Also see Dunlap 2004, Gardner 2002, and Webb 1998).

A conference held on May 11-14, 2000 , titled “The Good in Nature and Humanity” is just one among several examples of such a dialogue among representatives from both science and religion generated by their growing concern for the ecocrisis and efforts at collaboration. This conference was sponsored by the Divinity School and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University together with The Wilderness Society and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (Kellert and Farnham 2002). (Also see Carroll and Warner 1998, and Matthews, et al., 2002).

 

3. MOMENTUM

Religion and ecology are each on their own interesting and significant subjects. Moreover, when religion and ecology are considered together, then the level of interest and significance is greatly elevated. The arena of spiritual ecology has been growing exponentially throughout the 1990s to this day (Gardner 2002, Pedersen 1998, Sponsel 2001b, Tucker 1997, Tucker and Grim 2001). For example, a search of Google.com for the key word “spiritual ecology” on November 28, 2004 yielded 420,000 sites while the same search just one year later yielded 2,010,000, a nearly fivefold increase. Also there is a substantial interest in spirituality in general in contemporary society. For example, a national survey of 112,232 entering first-year students attending 216 diverse colleges and universities in the U.S.A. during the fall of 2004 revealed that 83% believed in the sacredness of life and 80% have an interest in spirituality (Astin, et al., 2004).

A quick entry into academic aspects of spiritual ecology is provided by the website for the Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE) at the Center for the Environment of Harvard University:

http://www.environment.harvard.edu/religion

 

This website surveys the major religions of the world, including indigenous traditions, in relation to ecology. The site is available in eight languages. It receives as many as 60,000 visitors each month, one indicator of the accelerating interest in spiritual ecology.

The FORE website lists ten substantial edited books, each on a different religion in relation to nature (e.g., Grim 2001). A summary and a table of contents are provided for each book. The religions covered in these impressive volumes are Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Indigenous, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, and Shinto. These books are the most visible result of ten international conferences held from 1996 to 1998, most hosted at Harvard University . In total, they involved more than 700 participants. The books each have substantial bibliographies, as does the FORE website.

Culminating conferences were held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Museum of Natural History, and the United Nations. The principal catalysts in the Harvard and FORE initiatives are Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, both from the Department of Religion at Bucknell University .

Since 2004 a parallel initiative has been developing, the Canadian Forum on Religion and Ecology (CFORE):

http://www.cfore.ca/index.php

 

A second major academic initiative is the monumental Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature with Bron Taylor (2005a) as Editor-in-Chief. Collectively the two volumes include more than 1,000 entries in 1,877 pages by 518 authors. Under development since 1997, it was finally published in 2005. The address of the website is:

http://www.religionandnature.com

 

Taylor is on the faculty in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville . In 2003, his department launched an optional track in their graduate program for students to specialize in Religion and Nature:

http://www.religion.ufl.edu

 

The same year the Spiritual Ecology Concentration was implemented as an optional specialization within the Ecological Anthropology Program at the University of Hawai`i . This concentration is unique in being in anthropology and in being available to students from the undergraduate through the M.A. and Ph.D. levels. At the core of this concentration are two courses cross-listed between Anthropology and Religion: 444 Spiritual Ecology, and 445 Sacred Places. Also cross-listed is 422 Anthropology of Religion that provides general background. A description of the Spiritual Ecology Concentration and the syllabi and bibliographies for these and other courses are readily available on the personal homepage of Les Sponsel:

http://www.soc.hawaii.edu/Sponsel

 

It is also noteworthy that the Boston Theological Institute offers a Certificate in Science and Religion that includes a Religion and Ecology track:

http://www.bostontheological.org

 

The publication of textbooks, readers, and journals as well as the development of courses and training programs are indicators of the growth and maturity of an academic subject. The first real textbook on spiritual ecology was published in 1995 by David Kinsley:

Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in Cross-Cultural Perspective .

(Also see a more recent text by Tanner and Mitchell 2002 as well as Anderson 1996).

The first major anthology was edited in 1996 by Roger S. Gottlieb:

This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment ,

In 2004 Gottlieb published a second expanded edition. (Also see Foltz 2003 for a second major anthology).

In addition, the first academic journal devoted to the subject was launched in 1997. It is titled:

Worldviews: Environment, Culture, and Religion .

http://www.brill.nl

 

Bron Taylor and others are developing a second journal devoted to this subject called Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. Furthermore, this new academic periodical is associated with the new Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. The inaugural meeting of this new society will be held at the University of Florida in Gainesville on April 6-9, 2006 . (For more information see the website:

http://www.religionandnature.com

 

These efforts also reflect the development of the Religion and Ecology Group within the American Academy of Religion in 1993, although its roots extend back into the late 1980's (Taylor 2005b:1373). See the “Religion and Ecology Group” on the American Academy of Religion website:

http://www.aarweb.org

 

Spiritual ecology, however, is not restricted to academia. Many of its proponents are serious about the root causes of the continuing ecocrisis which they view as ultimately a moral crisis (e.g., Kunstandter 1989). A multitude of various practical activities beyond academia are under way. For example, in 1995 the Alliance for Religions and Conservation (ARC) was established by Martin Palmer and his colleagues in association with the World Wide Fund for Nature in the United Kingdom (Edwards and Palmer 1997). (Palmer is affiliated with the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture at Manchester Metropolitan University ). ARC developed The Sacred Land Project linking sacred places with biodiversity conservation in many regions of the world:

http://www.arcworld.org

 

The World Bank publication:

Martin Palmer and Victoria Finaly, 2003, Faith in Conservation: New Approaches to Religions and the Environment. 

(Also see Edwards and Palmer 1997, and UNESCO-MAB 2005).

 

Another practical example is the resource volume of 731 pages edited by anthropologist Darrell Posey and others in 1999 for the United Nations Environmental Program:

Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity .

 

It is available free online:

http://www.unep.org/Biodiversity

 

Also available from UNEP is the impressive book edited by Libby Bassett and others in 2000:

Earth and Faith: A Book of Reflection for Action .

 

Secular non-governmental environmental organizations that have become interested in spiritual ecology include the Worldwatch Institute in Washington , D.C. :

Gary Gardner, 2002, Invoking the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in the Quest for a Sustainable World.

 

This paper is available free online:

http://www.worldwatch.org/pubs/paper/164/

 

Clearly, since the 1980s ample material has been accumulating, not only for teaching general courses surveying spiritual ecology, but also for courses focused on a single religion in relation to ecology. Indeed, by now there is enough material for developing a specialization for an entire career focused on spiritual ecology and/or a single religion in relation to ecology (Sponsel 2001b, 2005c,d,e).

 

4. RELEVANCE

Spiritual ecology is certainly one of the most exciting and promising new frontiers for research as well as teaching in anthropology and beyond. Of course, there are important pioneers from decades ago into the present, even if they wouldn't necessarily identify themselves as spiritual ecologists in particular. In anthropology, they include Roy Rappaport (1967), Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (1971), Barbara G. Myerhoff (1974), Richard Nelson(1983), Stephen Lansing(1991), Brightman (1993), Philippe Descola (1994), A. Oscar Kawagley (1995), Darrell Posey (1999), Valerio Valeri (2000), Kay Milton (2002), and Piers Vitebsky (2005) as well as many participants in this session like Kelly Alley (2002) and Eugene Anderson (1996). (Also see Berkes 1999, Hughes 1983, Hultktantz 1987, Messer and Lambeck 2001, Norberg-Hodge 1991, Osgood 1951, and Rappaport 1979, 1999).

 

In examining the relationships between religions and spiritualities on the one hand, and on the other hand, ecologies, environments, and environmentalisms, anthropologists can apply appropriate theories and methods encompassing their traditional framework of holism, culture, ethnographic fieldwork, and cross-cultural comparison (Sponsel 2001b, 2005a,b,c). In particular, there is a dire need in spiritual ecology to go beyond scholarly analyses of the relevance of points in sacred texts and other literature to what anthropologists themselves do best; namely, ethnographic fieldwork in communities through participant observation, interviewing, focal groups, and other methods. In other words, research on spiritual ecology needs to encompass context as well as text; that is, actions as well as ideas. Most of all, field research is needed to systematically, empirically, and critically explore the environmental consequences of religious or spiritual beliefs, values, and behaviors in particular sites, landscapes, and ecosystems. Sacred places in nature provide a focus that is especially conducive to such research (see Hamilton 1993, Lane 2001, Ramakrishnan, et al., 1998, Sponsel and Natadecha-Sponsel 2004). Moreover, spiritual ecology must deal with the complexities and difficulties of religions and spiritualities in relation to ecologies, environments, and environmentalisms, including negative as well as positive aspects (e.g., Delcore 2004). For example, many sacred places are contested by diverse and conflicting interest groups (e.g., Alley 2002, Burton 2002). Also see Christopher McLeod’s Sacred Land Film Project:

http://www.sacredland.org

 

In addition, see the UNESCO-MAB website on “Conserving Cultural and Biological Diversity: The Role of Sacred Natural Sites and Cultural Landscapes” about the conference at the UN University in Tokyo , Japan :

http://www.unesco.org/mab/SNS/symposium.htm

 

Some exemplary recent case studies in spiritual ecology include the following: Lebbie and Guries on sacred groves published in Economic Botany in 1995; Bruce Byers and co-authors on sacred forests in Zimbabwe published in the journal Human Ecology in 2001; and Colding and Folke on taboos and threatened species in Conservation Ecology in 1997. The latter is available free online: 

http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol1/iss1/art6/ 

(Also see the table of contents in Tanner and Mitchell 2000 which is essentially a list of various research possibilities. For further discussion of some anthropological aspects of spiritual ecology see Sponsel 2001b, 2005 a,b,c).

 

In spiritual ecology there is also ample room for serious research by anthropologists who are materialists or mentalists, or modernists or postmodernists, as long as they are not myopic extremists who automatically exclude any approach other than their own. The pursuit of hegemony in science or academia is despicable and dangerous. (Also see Flood 1999, Morris 1987, Saler 1999, and Whaling 1995).

 

5. OPPOSITION

As in any academic and scientific enterprise, there are skeptics, critics, opponents, and the like. However, any constructive commentary is most welcome as its consideration helps strengthen the position of spiritual ecology. Among the opponents are those who adhere to scientism, the pursuit of science as if it were the exclusive route to knowledge, understanding, and truth about all of reality (e.g., Lett 1999, Stenmark 1997, and Turner 1992). Others include extremist proponents of rationalism, humanism, secularism, Marxism, materialism, nihilism, atheism, and agnosticism (Crosby 2002, Haught 1990, cf. Young and Goulet 1994). Also some Christian fundamentalists oppose spiritual ecology as a reversion to paganism (Whelan, et al., 1996). In addition, some academics believe that spiritual ecology should be limited to basic research rather than applied or advocacy initiatives (e.g., see Taylor 2005b, Zimmerman 2001). However, they fail to recognize that applied and advocacy work rely on basic research in order to be reliable and effective. (For a thorough rebuttal of the assertions of various opponents, see Les Sponsel’s homepage under “Religion” under “Controversies”:

http://www.soc.hawaii.edu/Sponsel/

Also see Barnes 1997, Engelke 2002, Osgood 1951, Taylor 2005b, and Whelan, et al., 1996).

 

Certainly not everyone needs to pursue spiritual ecology, there are many other valid and useful ways to investigate human ecology and environmentalism. Diversity is the key to adaptive success in the biosphere, and that principle applies to science and scholarship as well. However, for those who combine intellectual curiosity, an open mind, and a deep concern for the health of humanity and that of planet Earth, spiritual ecology holds out some hope for a better future (see Tucker and Berling 2003).

 

This is not to imply that religion is any panacea or without problems. Like anything, religion can be used for better or for worse (e.g., Kimball 2002). However, this applies likewise to science, technology, medicine, education, government, and law as history amply illustrates. For instance, modern science and technology can cure some horrible cancers, but they also provided the carcinogenic chemicals that permeate our environment, as Rachel Carson(1962)warned us four decades ago in her classic book Silent Spring.

 

CONCLUSION

One of the most striking positive attributes of spiritual ecology is that it has proven to be a very special arena where individuals and organizations from quite diverse religions and religious sects can actually find some common ground to engage in constructive dialog and collaboration, unlike socio-political issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and war. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment is a case in point:

http://www.nrpe.org

 

It is composed of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, U.S. Catholic Conference, National Council of Churches of Christ, and the Evangelical Environmental Network.

 

Spiritual ecology is also conducive to such cooperative initiatives between representatives from science and religion, this after many centuries of mutual antagonism (Barbour 2000, McGraith 2002, Smith 2001, Wallace 2000) and in contrast to the situation of recent controversies such as cloning, stem cell research, and other biotechnologies. For example, see The Metanexus Institute:

http://www.metanexus.org

 

Since the 1990's spiritual ecology has already made a significant contribution in academia and far beyond. It holds the promise of even greater achievements in the future. It complements secular approaches to meeting the challenges of the ecocrisis. As in the case of the various secular approaches, spiritual ecology alone is not sufficient, but it is a necessary component. Religion is an ancient cultural universal and can be a powerful influence for individuals and societies (Klass 1995, Nye 2003). Moreover, perhaps it will finally help turn things around for a better future, one that is more sustainable, greener, just, and peaceful (Myers and Kent 2005).

 

Anthropology has a distinctive contribution to make in this arena, and spiritual ecology also has a contribution to make to both teaching and research in anthropology (Sponsel 2001b, 2005a,b,c). The remaining papers in this session will discuss some of these points and many more as well as provide critical commentary.

 

NOTES

*For historical background on the discussions and debates surrounding the relationship between religion and the ecocrisis see Eckberg and Blocker 1989, Hargrove 1986, Nelson 2001, Spring and Spring 1974, and White 1967, 1973. For various perspectives on the role of religion and spirituality in restoring some modicum of ecosanity see Cohen 1997, Gardner 2002, Hartmann 1999, Jenkins 2000, Metzner 1999, Nollman 1990, Rockefeller and Elder 1992, Skolimowski 1993, and Sponsel 2001a,b.

 

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