Sacred Environments

4 02 2011

I am a big fan of environmentalism, by which I mean the responsible engagement with our world with an appreciation for the value of diversity in our ecosystems and the dangers our present way of living in the world threatens that. I am also, no surprise, religiously minded. I do not think those two things are dependent on each or other, nor do I believe they should be too tightly joined together. That holds for them as personal convictions, but also for them as political-social communities.

Fusing environmentalism and religion tends to encourage both to be less articulate and less clear-sighted. It fosters a discourse in which care of the environment is conflated with care for the sacred. While there are cases where these two kinds of care overlap, they don’t always or even often overlap.

Care for the sacred, in a religious sense, is care for the ways for interacting with the divine, however that be understood. Things that are sacred (practices, places, people) involve the intensification of that brush with the divine. Care for the sacred begins with the assumption that sacredness is a quality unevenly distributed in the world. A ‘sacred’ grove is not any old grove, but a particular grove where the divine presents itself more easily.

Care for the sacred must also come to grips with the ways that access to the divine can change, shift. Over time, a place may become less sacred, seemingly be abandoned by the presences that once moved through it. It must also consider how sacredness can be reinvigorated, amplified.

Care for the sacred needs to distinguish the different kinds of divine presence manifested and how to care for them in their particularity. There is not just one way of being sacred, but many. There are sacred agitations and sacred calms, sacred visions and sacred healings.

Environmentalism is about the preservation and maintenance of resources for life on the planet, ours and other organisms. Care for the sacred is not primary to that and may even be in opposition to it from time to time. A rare plant, for example, may be essential to the preservation of a sacred rite and be threatened by those seeking it for their rite. Some animals on the verge of extinction are threatened by those who would use them for sacred purposes.

I know, some people would dismiss those un-environmental forms of care for the sacred as empty and pernicious superstition. Sometimes, I am sure it is, just as I am sure some environmental activism is empty and superstitious. But all the time? I deeply doubt that. My experience of the divine leaves me with little doubt that the divine can be unsentimental like that. As Lao Tzu observed, heaven and earth can treat all things as straw dogs.

While the claim that ‘everything is sacred’ may be a powerful rallying cry for an environmentalist, it is also misleading. The affirmation of life’s particular sacredness is too general, too universal for environmental action. That action requires distinguishing what kinds of life are more or less essential, more or less inimical, to preserve the overall balance and diversity of a system. For example, the mass hunting of deer may be essential to preserving the floral diversity of a region.

Conditioning people to think of life generally as sacred and inviolate gets in the way of long term environmental stability which must include action that are destructive or limiting to particular living things. Sometimes, too, this will entail action harmful to people and sacred things. Environmental thought needs to think at the level of the system, of which individuals are primarily components.

Obviously, a good environmentalist doesn’t support the system out of some abstract notion that a diverse system is good. Quite the opposite, the diversity is important because it is what makes a system resilient and capable of enduring stress without collapse. The damage done to the human system as a result of that collapse is one of the key factors.


Here, I take a breath, a pause. Now, I change direction.

I said that environmentalism and religion shouldn’t be too closely joined, but I do think they should still be joined. Their healthy relationship is not one of (con)fusion but of independent interaction. They don’t need to be joined before the fact, but in the fact; they ought to be joined only where they come into contact (and sometimes conflict) in concrete situations.

There need to be people who care for the sacred who are willing to find new ways forward for nourishing the sacred when traditional patterns conflict with environmental concerns. There need to be environmentalists who come to terms with the way that ways of caring for the sacred are part of a community’s material life and needs to be taken, seriously, into consideration where they come into conflict with environmental goals.

In short, there needs to be an atmosphere of negotiation. Sometimes, that will be personal, like when I have to negotiate between my personal environmental and religions convictions. Many times, though, the process will be communal, too.

There are fruits of this negotiation that can stand between both sets of values, too. The sense that other forms of life on this planet have a stake in in its survival and that we are in some fashion accountable to them for destruction wrought by our lifestyle, emerges from a sense of the sacredness of life being joined to the increased awareness of our impact on the environment they live within. That is an achievement, though, whose consequences are still nascent. It can’t be asserted as if its consequences are already obvious.


Finally, let me end with the meditation that initiated this. Look at this tree. From an environmental perspective, it is insignificant, an outlier in a trend. Spiritually? That is another question entirely.




2 responses

4 02 2011

I’m fascinated by this post… in part because, for most of it, I couldn’t disagree more. Yet your conclusion, where you state:

There need to be people who care for the sacred who are willing to find new ways forward for nourishing the sacred when traditional patterns conflict with environmental concerns. There need to be environmentalists who come to terms with the way that ways of caring for the sacred are part of a community’s material life and needs to be taken, seriously, into consideration where they come into conflict with environmental goals.

…is something I agree with whole-heartedly.

It seems to me, though, that many of the most articulate and influential environmentalists and ecologists in the last century have been inspiring and effective precisely because they did bring a spiritual sense to their environmental activism: Arne Naes, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, Jane Goodall… and those are just the ones I can rattle off from memory, the list goes on. I wonder what evidence you have for your assertion that blending spirituality and environmentalism leads to “less articulate and less clear-sighted” results, when so many of the leading figures in environmentalism have consistently demonstrated just the opposite. It is far from my personal experience that this is the case.

Yet, theoretically, your argument makes a lot of sense. If it weren’t for the fact that it so drastically contradicts my own experience and my own studies in ecology and environmentalism, I could very well believe you have a valid point. It sounds very convincing. But because my own experience and knowledge do contradict your view, I’m left wondering if perhaps it’s only convincing on an abstract level, one where people behave in neatly predictable ways. You might expect the kinds of conflicts you describe – between sacred rite and ritual and our responsibilities to the planet – to arise quite often. Yet it seems that, regardless of the theory, in practice it is possible to have a viable, even thriving spiritual life that is not white-washed with universals nor environmentally destructive, just as it’s possible to act in ecologically healthy ways out of a desire to care for the sacred. They do not come into conflict as much as you might guess.

I really highly recommend Bron Taylor’s recent book, Dark Green Religion, for an in-depth exploration of the overlap between environmentalism and spirituality. He makes a very convincing argument – based on his years of research into different communities and activist groups as well as influential individuals in the field – that one can be “spiritually environmentalist” (or “environmentally spiritual” ?) without hindering either. You might find it interesting, at least. :)

5 02 2011

I’m not a fan of the information barrage as answer, so let me just highlight a few situations that indicate a real tension between spiritual and environmental practice. I’m sure you can google more from there without much difficulty ;-)

First, a big one: Catholic (and other christian groups) who take oppose, on spiritual principles, the use of birth control. Population control is a central concern for environmentalism and birth control is one of the most basic tools in dealing with that.

Second, some smaller ones, this link: Yes, I know these discussions primarily uses terms like ‘human’ and ‘cultural’ rights, but some of what at issue, beneath the rights talk, is a demand for a group to continue ‘traditional’ practices that, for many communities, are intimately bound up with how they conceive the sacred.

Also, even where the talk is just about rights, I think we ought to remember that the concept of human and cultural rights is itself bound up with a humanistic concept of the sacred, a ‘traditional’ form oft-overlooked.

I don’t have the same engagement with environmentalist writers that you seem to have. I don’t have a list of names and people whose words moved me. The most articulate voices of environmentalism for me haven’t been spiritual, but scientific. Reading ecologists, whose names mean so much less to me than the information they provide, talk about how ecosystems stripped of their diversity become fragile and prone to disastrous failure (e.g. Irish potato famine) have motivated me more than reading John Muir or listening to Jane Goodall.

I can appreciate the experiences the spiritual dimension of the people you mention, recognize it in some of my own experiences. That doesn’t join up directly for me with the complex actions that environmental regulation demands, though.

I’ve not been terribly interested in Bron Taylor because his focus seems to be on the emergence of a spirituality that is tightly bound up with environmentalism. If I’m wrong about that, let me know and I’ll take a second look. Ifso, though, my sense of the sacred just isn’t bound up with that. It is the traditional expressions where I find my closest contact with the divine. Sometimes, yes, my experiences brush up against that sort of spirituality, but it is just that, a brush.

This is where I am frustrated with some (many) of those voices in the environmentalist spirituality movement–there is a tendency to assume the primacy of their sense of the ‘sacred’ at the expense of other forms.

There isn’t much ‘theoretical’ about all this to me. I do write with a philosophical hand, but the experiences and frustrations are not paricularly theory-laden.

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