Spiritual ecology may be defined as a complex and diverse arena of religious, spiritual, 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 is applied as a parallel to other primary components of contemporary ecological anthropology like primate ecology, cultural ecology, historical ecology, and political ecology. The word spiritual is used, rather than religion, because it is more inclusive. While spirituality is part of religion, there are also individuals who pursue spiritual beliefs, values, and actions independently of any organization of adherents to a particular religion. Also, other labels for this subject, such as religion and environment, religion and ecology, religion and nature, ecotheology, and the like, are awkward and problematic in other ways. Moreover, the qualifier spiritual is used to be provocative; that is, to shake people out of their mental and social complacency for the simple reason that business as usual is a major obstacle to reducing, let alone resolving, the eco-crisis. Instead, it is increasingly recognized that a radical rethinking, refeeling, and revisioning of many human-environment relationships is imperative for the survival of humanity and the biosphere.
Since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, an increasing number of diverse individuals and organizations worldwide have recognized the gravity and urgency of the ongoing environmental crisis. Nevertheless, in spite of the development of numerous and varied environmental initiatives, the crisis has not subsided. Indeed, it has been getting far worse. For instance, there are many indicators that global warming is a reality. This is affirmed not only by an overwhelming consensus of the international community of scientific experts on global climatic and environmental changes, but even through personal experiences with weather and climate by the public in many parts of the world. Obviously the various secular initiatives, including the development of environmental aspects of the sciences, technology, education, philosophy, ethics, history, politics, government, law, economics, and the like, have not reduced, let alone resolved, the eco-crisis. Certainly they are necessary, but just as certainly they are not sufficient. The environmental crisis will only turn around for the better when a sufficient percentage of humanity thinks deeply enough and acts radically enough to profoundly change their detrimental impact on nature. Spiritual ecology may be the last hope for helping to trigger such a turnaround by humanity.
Since the 1990s, an accelerating number of diverse individuals and organizations have been seriously exploring religion as a last resort for resolving the eco-crisis. However, 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 for themselves and others. Mary Evelyn Tucker optimistically refers to this worldwide movement as religions entering their ecological phase in a second axial age.
This arena of spiritual ecology has grown exponentially throughout the 1990s to this day. Perhaps the most outstanding illustration of this phenomenon is the Web site of the Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE) in the Center for the Environment at Harvard University. This site surveys the major religions of the world, including indigenous traditions, in relation to ecology. It is in eight languages and receives as many as 60,000 visitors monthly. The site lists ten books, developed by the FORE, each on a different religion in relation to nature. There is a summary and table of contents 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 major result of ten international conferences held from 1996 to 1998 at Harvard University. In total, they involved more than 700 participants. The books each have substantial bibliographies, as does the FORE site. In addition, 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 of Bucknell University.
A second major academic initiative is the two-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Environment with Bron Taylor as Editor-in-Chief. It includes over 1,000 entries written by 518 authors. The project was developed from 1997 to 2005. Based at the University of Florida, Taylor is on the faculty for a special graduate concentration on religion and nature established in the Department of Religion in 2003. That same year a Spiritual Ecology Concentration was implemented in the Ecological Anthropology Program at the University of Hawai’i that operates at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These two unprecedented academic developments reflect the growth and maturation of the subject with the first textbook by David Kinsley in 1995 and the first major anthology edited by Roger S. Gottlieb in 1996. The following year the first academic journal devoted to the subject was launched, Worldviews: Environment, Culture, and Religion.
Spiritual ecology, however, is not merely an academic matter. Proponents are serious about the ultimate cause of the ongoing and worsening environmental crisis, which they view as a moral crisis. A multitude of various practical activities beyond academia are underway. For instance, in 1995 the Alliance for Religions and Conservation was established in association with the World Wide Fund for Nature in the United Kingdom. They have developed thousands of projects throughout the world linking sacred places with biodiversity conservation. Another practical example is the United Nations Environmental Program resource volume of over 800 pages, edited by anthropologist Darrell Posey and others in 1999.
Also impressive is the UNEP book edited by Libby Bassett and others in 2000. Secular nongovernmental environmental organizations that have become interested in spiritual ecology include the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., which published an assessment of the mutual relevance between religions and environmental conservation in 2002.
Spiritual ecology is a most exciting and promising new frontier for research as well as teaching in anthropology and beyond. Of course, there are pioneers from decades ago to the present, even if they wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as spiritual ecologists. They include anthropologists Kelly D. Alley, Eugene Anderson, Susan M. Darlington, Philippe Descola, Stephen J. Lansing, Kay Milton, Richard K. Nelson, Darrell Posey, Roy A. Rappaport, Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, and Leslie E. Sponsel who have authored field-based case studies on the relationships between religion and environment.
In this arena, anthropologists can apply appropriate theories and methods encompassing their traditional framework of holism, culture, ethnographic fieldwork, and cross-cultural comparisons. In particular, there is a dire need to go beyond scholarly analyses of the relevance of points in sacred texts and other literature for spiritual ecology to what anthropologists themselves do best; namely, fieldwork in communities through participant observation, interviewing, surveys, and other methods and techniques. In other words, research on spiritual ecology needs to encompass context as well as text, and actions as well as ideals. Most of all, fieldwork is needed to systematically, empirically, and critically explore the environmental consequences of religious or spiritual behaviors in specific ecosystems. Sacred places in nature provide an especially useful focus conducive to such research.
Of course, as in anything, there are skeptics, critics, and opponents. Among these are individuals who ascribe to scientism, the myopic and reductionistic pursuit of science as if it were the exclusive route to knowledge, understanding, and truth about all of reality. Other opponents include extremists ascribing to rationalism, humanism, secularism, Marxism, materialism, nihilism, atheism, and agnosticism.
Certainly not everyone needs to join the spiritual ecology movement; there are many other valid and useful ways to pursue human ecology and environmentalism. Diversity is the key to adaptive success, and that principle applies to science and scholarship as well. However, for many of those who combine intellectual curiosity with an open mind and who have a deep concern about the health of the planet that is our only home, spiritual ecology provides some hope for a better environmental future.
This is not to say that religion is an unmixed blessing by any means. Religion can be used by humans for better or worse, but for that matter, so can science, technology, medicine, education, government, politics, and law. For instance, modern science and technology can cure some horrible cancers, but they also provided the carcinogenic chemicals that permeate our air, soils, water, and food, as Rachel Carson warned in her classic book Silent Spring more than four decades ago.
One of the most striking positive attributes of spiritual ecology is that it has proven to be a very special arena in which individuals and organizations from quite diverse religious persuasions can actually find common ground to engage in constructive dialogue and collaborative initiatives, unlike most sociopolitical issues regarding life and death, such as abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, terrorism, and war. Likewise, spiritual ecology is conducive to such cooperative initiatives between representatives from science and religion, this after several centuries of antagonism, and in contrast to the situation of recent controversies such as cloning, stem cell research, and other biotechnologies.
In terms of theory, one of the potential contributions of spiritual ecology is to challenge a number of binary oppositions that have persisted throughout Western intellectual history, including science/ religion, rational/irrational, objectivity/subjectivity, fact/myth, nature/culture, natural/supernatural, and profane/sacred. The time is long overdue to transcend such simplistic, reductionistic, and dualistic thinking, albeit without denying the occasional validity and utility of some analytical contrasts.
In conclusion, spiritual ecology has already made a significant contribution in academia and beyond, and it still holds the promise of much greater achievements in coming decades. It complements secular approaches to dealing with the ecocrisis. As in the case of the secular approaches, spiritual ecology is not sufficient, but it is necessary. Moreover, perhaps it will finally help turn things around for a better future, one which is more sustainable, greener, just, and peaceful. Anthropology has a distinctive contribution to make in this enterprise, and spiritual ecology also has a contribution to make to both teaching and research in anthropology.
- Foltz, R. C. (Ed.). (2003). Worldviews, religion, and the environment. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
- Gottlieb, R. S. (Ed.). (2004). This sacred Earth: Religion, nature, environment (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
- Palmer, M., & Finlay, V. (2003). Faith in conservation: New approaches to religions and the environment.
- Washington, DC: World Bank. Taylor, B., (Ed.). (2005). Encyclopedia of religion and nature. New York: Continuum Press.
- Tucker, M. E. (2003). Worldly wonder: Religions enter their ecological phase. La Salle, IL: Open Court.