Feb. 14, 2018

Including the sacred in addressing the ecological crisis

Contributors in the field of Spiritual Ecology contend there are spiritual elements at the root of environmental issues. Those working in the arena of Spiritual Ecology further suggest that there is a critical need to recognize and address the spiritual dynamics at the root of environmental degradation. 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. U.S. Advisor on climate change, J. G. Speth, said: "I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.” An important element in the work 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.

Thomas Berry, the American priest known a 'geologian' (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 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. 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. He 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. 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. Pope Francis’s 2015 Encyclical, “Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home,” 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 recognizes that “The ecological crisis is essentially a spiritual problem”

Wangari Maathai is the Kenyan activist who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work with the Green Belt Movement, a nonprofit that focuses on planting trees, conserving the environment and fighting for women's rights. Maathai wanted a practical way to help the rural women of Kenya with their basic needs: clean drinking water, food, energy for cooking and heating. Planting trees and restoring natural habitat was a way to achieve those practical goals. "I didn't think digging holes and mobilizing communities to protect or restore the trees, forests, watersheds, soil or habitat for wildlife that surrounded them was spiritual work," Maathai writes.

But over time, her feelings changed. She found what was driving those who joined the Green Belt Movement — and in time, what was driving Maathai herself — wasn't just about fixing material needs. It was about meeting something intangible within people. The poisoning of the earth, the destruction of the forest — Maathai came to believe that human beings could feel these losses. "If we live in an environment that's wounded — where the water is polluted, the air is filled with soot and fumes, the food is contaminated with heavy metals and plastic residues, or the soil is practically dust — it hurts us, chipping away at our health and creating injuries at a physical, psychological and spiritual level," Maathai writes. "In degrading the environment, therefore, we degrade ourselves." Maathai came to understand, however, that the opposite is true as well. As we work to heal the earth, we heal ourselves as well. 

Scientist, environmentalist, and world leader in sustainable ecology David Suzuki also expresses the importance of including the sacred in addressing the ecological crisis: "The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity—then we will treat each other with greater respect. Thus is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective."

Once again, I state unequivocally, transforming eco-perspectives and addressing environmental issues begins with love. I post this on Valentine's Day- let's send a Valentine to Mother Earth.