Spiritual ecology is a spiritual response to the ecological crisis. It is a developing field that joins ecology and environmentalism with the awareness of the sacred within creation. It calls for responses to environmental issues that include spiritual awareness and/or practice.
Spiritual ecology acknowledges the critical need to recognize and address the spiritual dynamics at the root of environmental degradation.
The field is largely emerging through three individual streams of formal study and activity: science and academia, religion and spirituality, and ecological sustainability.
Despite the disparate arenas of study and practice, the principles of spiritual ecology are simple: In order to resolve such environmental issues as depletion of species, global warming, and over-consumption, humanity must examine and reassess our underlying attitudes and beliefs about the earth, and our spiritual responsibilities toward the planet.
Thus, ecological renewal and sustainability necessarily depends upon spiritual awareness and an attitude of responsibility. Spiritual Ecologists concur that this includes both the recognition of creation as sacred and behaviors that honor that sacredness.
Spiritual ecology identifies the Scientific Revolution—beginning the 16th century, and continuing through the Age of Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution—as contributing to a critical shift in human understanding with reverberating effects on the environment. The radical expansion of collective consciousness into the era of rational science included a collective change from experiencing nature as a living, spiritual presence to a utilitarian means to an end.
During the modern age, reason became valued over faith, tradition, and revelation, and industrialized society replaced agricultural societies and the old ways of relating to seasons and cycles. With the growing predominance of a global, mechanized worldview, a collective sense of the sacred was severed and replaced with an insatiable drive for scientific progress and material prosperity without any sense of limits or responsibility.
Some in the field note that our patriarchal world-view, and a monotheistic religious orientation towards a transcendent divinity, is largely responsible for destructive attitudes about the earth, body, and the sacred nature of creation. Thus, many identify the wisdom of indigenous cultures, for whom the physical world has remained as sacred, as holding a key to our current ecological predicament.
Spiritual ecology is a response to the values and socio-political structures of recent centuries with their trajectory away from intimacy with the earth and its sacred essence. It has been forming and developing as an intellectual and practice-oriented discipline for nearly a century.
Spiritual ecology includes a vast array of people and practices that intertwine spiritual and environmental experience and understanding. Additionally, within the tradition itself resides a deep, developing spiritual vision of a collective human/earth/divine evolution that is expanding consciousness beyond the dualities of human/earth, heaven/earth, mind/body. This belongs to the contemporary movement that recognizes the unity and interrelationship, or “interbeing,” of all of creation.
Visionaries carrying this thread include Rudolph Steiner (1851-1925) who founded the spiritual movement of anthroposophy, and described a “co-evolution of spirituality and nature” and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit Priest and French Philosopher (1881-1955) who spoke of a transition in collective awareness toward a consciousness of the divinity within every particle of life, even the most dense mineral. This shift includes the necessary dissolution of divisions between fields of study as mentioned above. “Science, philosophy and religion are bound to converge as they draw nearer to the whole.”
The American Jesuit priest, Thomas Berry, (1914-2009) has been one of the most influential figures in this developing movement, with his stress on returning to a sense of wonder and reverence for the natural world. He shared and furthered many of Teillard de Chardin’s views, including the understanding that humanity is not at the center of the universe, but integrated into a divine whole with its own evolutionary path. This view compels a re-thinking of the earth/human relationship: “The present urgency is to begin thinking within the context of the whole planet, the integral earth community with all its human and other-than-human components.”
More recently, leaders in the Engaged Buddhism movement, including Thich Nhat Hanh, also identify a need to return to a sense of self which includes the Earth. Joanna Macy describes a collective shift – referred to as the “Great Turning” – taking us into a new consciousness in which the earth is not experienced as separate. Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee similarly grounds his spiritual ecology work in the context of a collective evolutionary expansion towards oneness, bringing us all toward an experience of earth and humanity – all life – as interdependent. In the vision and experience of oneness, the term “spiritual ecology” becomes, itself, redundant. What is earth-sustaining is spiritual; that which is spiritual honors a sacred earth.
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.
Historically we see the development of spiritual ecology in some of the more mystical arms of traditional religions and the more spiritual arms of environmental conservation. And woven throughout its history, we hear a story of an evolving universe, bringing us to an experience of wholeness in which all dualities dissipate – dualities that have marked past eras and contributed to the destruction of the earth as “other” than spirit.
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. But many in the field of spiritual ecology acknowledge 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 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.
Features of many indigenous teachings include life as a continual act of prayer and thanksgiving, knowledge and symbiotic relationship with an animate nature, and being aware of one’s actions on future generations. Such understanding necessarily implies a mutuality and reciprocity between people, earth and the cosmos.
Along with the basic principles and behaviors 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 Oren Lyons.
Spiritual ecology is developing largely in three arenas identified above: Science and Academia, Religion and Spirituality, and Environmental Conservation.
Science and academia
Among scholars contributing to spiritual ecology, five stand out because of their exceptionally high 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 Forum on Religion and Ecology, an international multi-religious project exploring religious world-views, texts ethics and practices in order to broaden understanding of the complex nature of current environmental concerns.
Steven Clark Rockefeller is an author of numerous books about religion and the environment, and is professor emeritus of religion at Middlebury College. He played a leading role in the drafting of the Earth Charter.
Roger S. Gottlieb is a professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute is author of over 100 articles and 16 books on environmentalism, religious life, contemporary spirituality, political philosophy, ethics, feminism, and the Holocaust.
Each of the above has cultivated his or her own niche in this emerging field of academic thought and pragmatic action. Taken together they may be best considered as mutually reinforcing in synergy. There is a very substantial qualitative difference in the status of spiritual ecology prior to and since their work.
Other leaders in the field include: Leslie Sponsel at the University of Hawai'i , Sarah McFarland Taylor at Northwestern University, Mitchell Thomashow at Antioch University New England and the Schumacher College Programs.
Within the field of science, spiritual ecology is emerging in arenas including Physics, Biology (see: Ursula Goodenough), Consciousness Studies (see: Brian Swimme; California Institute of Integral Studies), Systems Theory (see: David Loy; Nondual Science Institute), and Gaia Hypothesis, which was first articulated by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970s.
Religion and ecology
Within many faiths, environmentalism is becoming an area of study and advocacy. Christian environmentalists emphasize the ecological responsibilities of all Christians as stewards of God's earth, while contemporary Muslim religious ecology is inspired by Qur'anic themes, such as mankind being khalifa, or trustee of God on earth (2:30). There is also a Jewish ecological perspective based upon the Bible and Torah, for example the laws of bal tashchis (neither to destroy wantonly, nor waste resources unnecessarily). Engaged Buddhism applies Buddhist principles and teachings to social and environmental issues. A collection of Buddhist responses to global warming can be seen at Ecological Buddhism.
All major world traditions currently seem to include a subset of leaders committed to an ecological perspective. The “Green Patriarch,” Bartholomew 1, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, has worked since the late nineties to bring together scientists, environmentalists, religious leaders and policy makers to address the ecological crisis. These religious approaches to ecology also have a growing interfaith expression, for example in The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD) where world religious leaders speak out on climate change and sustainability.
Spirituality and ecology
While religiously-oriented environmentalism is grounded in scripture and theology, there is a more recent environmental movement that articulates the need for an ecological approach founded on spiritual awareness rather than religious belief. The individuals articulating this approach may have a religious background, 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 seen as analogous to how the Inter-spiritual Movement moves beyond interfaith and interreligious dialogue to focus on the actual experience of spiritual principles and practices. Spiritual ecology similarly explores the importance of this experiential spiritual dimension in relation to our present ecological crisis.
The Engaged Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the importance of mindfulness in taking care of our Mother Earth, and how the highest form of prayer is real communion with the Earth. Sandra Ingerman offers shamanic healing as a way of reversing pollution in Medicine for the Earth. Franciscan monk Richard Rohr emphasizes the need to experience the whole world as a divine incarnation. Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee directs our attention not just to the suffering of the physical world, but also its interior spiritual self, or anima mundi (world soul). Bill Plotkin and others are involved in the work of finding within nature the reconnection with our soul and the world soul. These are just a few of the many different ways practitioners of spiritual ecology within different spiritual traditions and disciplines bring our awareness back to the sacred nature of creation.
The environmental conservation field has been informed, shaped, and led by individuals who have had profound experiences of nature’s sacredness and have fought to protect it. Recognizing the intimacy of human soul and nature, many have pioneered a new way of thinking about and relating to the earth.
Today many aspects of the environmental conservation movement are empowered by spiritual principles and interdisciplinary cooperation.
One trend to note is the recognition that women—by instinct and nature—have a unique commitment and capacity to protect the earth’s resources. We see this illustrated in the lives of Wangari Maathai, founder of Africa’s Green Belt Movement, which was initially made up of women planting trees; Jane Goodall, innovator of local sustainable programs in Africa, many of which are designed to empower girls and women; and Vandana Shiva, the Indian feminist activist working on a variety of issues including seed saving, protecting small farms in India and protesting agri-business.
Other contemporary inter-disciplinary environmentalists include Wendell Berry, a farmer, poet, and academic living in Kentucky, who fights for small farms and criticizes agri-business; and Satish Kumar, a former Jain monk and founder of Schumacher College, a center for ecological studies.
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- Sponsel, Leslie E. (2012). Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution. Praeger. pp. xiii. ISBN 978-0-313-36409-9.
- This theme is developed further in the work of Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Sandra Ingerman, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim: http://fore.research.yale.edu, Leslie Sponsel: http://spiritualecology.info, and others.
- Mary Evelyn Tucker, “Complete Interview”, Global Oneness Project video. See also: Worldviews & Ecology: Religion, Philosophy, and the Environment, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A. Grim (eds.), and the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology
- See Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul, ch. 3, “Patriarchal Deities and the Repression of the Feminine.”
- See Leslie E. Sponsel, Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution, ch. III, “Branches”, 69-83 and specifically ch. 12, “Supernovas.”
- Leslie E. Sponsel, Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution, p. 66.
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, p. 30.
- Thomas Berry, The Great Work, p. 105.
- See Joanna Macy and The Great Turning
- See http://www.spiritualecology.org and http://www.workingwithoneness.org
- Ibid. Also see the video: “Taking Spiritual Responsibility for the Planet” with Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, and Engaged Buddhism
- John Grim, “Recovering Religious Ecology with Indigenous Traditions”, available online at: Indigenous Traditions and Ecology, Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.
- Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A. Grim (eds.), Worldviews & Ecology: Religion, Philosophy, and the Environment, p. 11.
- Tu Wei-Ming, “Beyond Enlightenment Mentality”, published in Worldviews & Ecology: Religion, Philosophy, and the Environment, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A. Grim (eds.), p. 27.
- "Chief Arvol Looking Horse Speaks of White Buffalo Prophecy", YouTube video, ; "An Invitation", Global Oneness Project Video about the Eagle and Condor prophecy; and "Moyers/Oren Lyons the Faithkeeper", a film about the Onondaga prophecies
- Leslie E. Sponsel, Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution, ch. 12, “Supernovas.”
- See http://www.brontaylor.com
- See Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology, Harvard University Press, 2008 ISBN 0674034953 | ISBN 978-0674034952
- See http://www.patriarchate.org
- Interspirituality moves a step beyond interfaith dialogue and is a concept and term developed by the Catholic Monk Wayne Teasdale in 1999 in his book The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions. Also see “New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Life in the 21st Century”, by Rory McEntee & Adam Bucko, p. 22, and Wayne Teasdale, A Monk in the World, p.175. Furthermore, interspirituality has an ecological dimension. See “The Interspiritual Age: Practical Mysticism for a Third Millennium”, Wayne Teasdale, (1999).
- See http://www.spiritualecology.org
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Beyond Environment: Falling Back in Love with Mother Earth
- See http://www.natureandthehumansoul.com
- Berry, Thomas, The Dream of the Earth. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988. ISBN 1578051355
- Berry, Thomas, The Sacred Universe. Essays edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker. Columbia University Press, New York, 2009. ISBN 0231149522
- Hayden, Thomas, The Lost Gospel of the Earth. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1996.
- Jung, C.G., The Earth Has A Soul, The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2002. ISBN 1556433794
- Laszlo, Ervin & Allan Coombs (eds.), Thomas Berry, Dreamer of the Earth: The Spiritual Ecology of the Father of Environmentalism. Inner Traditions, Rochester, 2011. ISBN 1594773955
- Macy, Joanna, World as Lover, World as Self. Parallax Press, Berkeley, 2007. ISBN 188837571X
- Nelson, Melissa (ed.), Original Instructions, Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future. Bear & Co., Rochester, 2008. ISBN 1591430798
- Maathai, Wangari, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World. Doubleday Religion, New York, 2010. ISBN 030759114X
- McCain, Marian Van Eyk (ed.), GreenSpirit: Path to a New Consciousness. O Books, Washington, 2010. ISBN 184694290X
- McDonald, Barry (ed.), Seeing God Everywhere, Essays on Nature and the Sacred. World Wisdom, Bloomington, 2003. ISBN 0941532429
- Newell, John Philip, A New Harmony, The Spirit, The Earth, and The Human Soul. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2011. ISBN 0470554673
- Plotkin, Bill, Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. New World Library, Novato, 2007. ISBN 1577315510
- Plotkin, Bill "Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche". New World Library, Novato, 2003. ISBN 1577314220
- Stanley, John, David Loy and Gyurme Dorje (eds.), A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency. Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2009. ISBN 0861716051
- Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have. Parallax Press, Berkeley, 2008. ISBN 1888375884
- Vaughan-Lee, Llewellyn “Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth”. The Golden Sufi Center, 2013. ISBN 978-1-890350-45-1; downloadable in PDF