On Sunday, I checked my carbon footprint (it was not good) and resolved to go carbon neutral by planting trees.
Pagans care about the same issues as everyone else – poverty, war, racism, homophobia, transphobia, the environment, saving indigenous lifeways, knowledge, and culture, women’s rights, cruelty to animals, and so on. Like any other movement, there are many different opinions in the Pagan movement: some Pagans don’t care about these things; some take a different view of them; and some care about them very much more than the average.
But there are some issues that are associated in people’s minds with being Pagan, the two most obvious ones being environmentalism and feminism. Many people have claimed that Paganism is a Nature religion (and many others have claimed that it’s not), and since Paganism and Nature-worship are synonymous in many people’s minds, caring for the Earth seems like an obvious thing for Pagans to want to do. And since the Earth is often viewed as a goddess, or as the Goddess, Paganism is an obvious choice for anyone who wonders why so many monotheists view their deity as exclusively male.
Pagans care about the environment for many and varied reasons. Some people became Pagans because they care about the environment; others began to care more about the environment after becoming a Pagan. Either way, Pagans recognise that the Earth is our mother, and if we don’t take care of her, we will all die, and so will many other species.
The earth is our mother,
we must take care of her.
Hey yanna, ho yanna, hey yan yan.
Her sacred ground we walk upon,
with every step we take.
The earth is our mother,
she will take care of us.
The causes of our current destructive course are many and complex. Some people blame capitalism; others blame consumerism; and others blame the dominionist views of conservative Christianity. I blame all three, and think they are historically interlinked.
Capitalism does not simply mean a market economy; it means the investment of surplus money in a business venture. This means that instead of being accountable to the whole community, a company becomes accountable to its shareholders, and shareholders generally want only one thing: a profit.
Consumerism is not simply wanting nice things; it is the view that only having nice things makes you happy, and the drive to acquire more and more nice things.
Dominionism is the view (derived from the book of Genesis) that God gave the Earth to humans for our use.
A major contrast with these views is deep ecology, which advocates the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, and argues that this requires a radical restructuring of modern human societies. This certainly chimes in well with the Pagan world-view, and I explored the ecological and embodied world-view in two previous posts, Eco-spirituality and theology and Eco-spirituality in practice.
The language of ecology can be problematic, especially when it gets co-opted by business trying to preserve the status quo. Sustainability used to mean living in a way that prevents damage to the environment and loss of species habitat; now it has been co-opted to mean something like ‘greenwashing‘ (paying lip-service to environmental concerns while actually continuing to act in a destructive way), or buying carbon credits and continuing to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The “environment” implies something that surrounds us, but which we are not necessarily part of. We are part of the environment and of ecosystems; we are not separate from our habitat.
A group of Pagans (of which I was one) have recently produced A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, which has been translated into several different languages and has now reached around 5000 signatures. Whilst a statement will not fix things on its own, what it does is articulate the principles and practices which will help to fix things, and signing up to the statement means a commitment to its principles and to doing something for the planet.
Some people became Pagans because they were feminists; others began to focus more on equality after becoming a Pagan. Either way, feminism is a natural bedfellow of Paganism, because most Pagan traditions worship a Goddess or goddesses, and value diversity and equality.
The roots of feminism lie in three simple premises:
- that women are equal to men,
- that women are not currently treated equally in society,
- and that we should do something about it.
However, as with any other philosophy, there is more than one flavour of feminism, because not all feminists necessarily agree on the correct tactics for getting rid of inequality, or indeed on who counts as a woman.
Variants include: Amazon, Analytical, Anarchist, Atheist, Black, Chicana, Christian, Conservative, Cultural, Cyber, Difference, Eco, Equality, Equity, Fat, French, structuralist, Global, Individualist, Islamic, Jewish, Lesbian, Liberal, Lipstick, Marxist, Material, Maternal, Mormon, Neo, New, Postcolonial, Postmodern, Poststructural, Pro-life, Proto, Radical, Separatist, Sex-positive, Social, Socialist, Standpoint, Third world, Trans, Transnational, and Womanism. There is even an online quiz for deciding what kind of feminist you are.
Here are some of the ones that share concerns with Paganism:
According to Wikipedia, “Anarcha-feminism, also called anarchist feminism and anarcho-feminism, combines anarchism with feminism. It generally views patriarchy as a manifestation of involuntary coercive hierarchy that should be replaced by decentralized free association. Anarcha-feminists believe that the struggle against patriarchy is an essential part of class struggle, and the anarchist struggle against the state. ” Historically, anarchist feminists included those who advocated free love and campaigned against marital rape and the subjugation of women.
Black feminism: Black feminist theorists argue that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together. The way these relate to each other is called intersectionality. The theory of intersectionality has been adopted by many other feminists and social theorists. According to Barbara Omolade, ”Black feminism is sometimes referred to as womanism because both are concerned with struggles against sexism and racism by black women who are themselves part of the black community’s efforts to achieve equity and liberty”.
Eco-feminism: According to Vandana Shiva, women have a special connection to the environment through our daily interactions. She says that women in subsistence economies who produce “wealth in partnership with nature, have been experts in their own right of holistic and ecological knowledge of nature’s processes.”
Obviously there are lots of other things that Pagans care about, but these are two areas that are fairly central to why so many people have joined the Pagan movement.
This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’ link at the foot of the blogpost.
The next post in the series will be on controversies in the Pagan community, where I attempt to summarise all the controversies of the last few years, including racism, transphobia, Wiccanate privilege, and more.
Today, the same day that Dane County’s District Attorney failed to indict Officer Matt Kenny in the shooting death of Tony Terrell Robinson, I came across a face from my past, posted on Facebook. He hasn’t changed.
“I’m sure he’s a nice guy, overall,” I said to myself. “He was just too young to know better.”
“And I didn’t say no very loudly,” I said to myself. “I probably wasn’t forceful enough. It would have been easy not to hear me.”
“He was too drunk to know what he was doing, or hear what I was saying,” I said to myself. “He was—wait, what?!”
I’m one of the most pro-woman, pro-femme and pro-feminist people I know. And I had just repeated how many all-too-familiar, all-too-common excuses. And I’ve been repeating those lines to myself for almost twenty five years.
I never realized until today that the scripts I’ve called out as bullshit so many times were scripts I had internalized myself in my own history.
I curled up on the bed and sobbed for an hour as I never did when I was eighteen, not one iota less humiliated, confused, guilty-feeling than I was then, but finally allowing myself to give expression to those feelings and admit what happened to me.
I was in a situation one night that felt pressured, threatening, unsafe, and unwinnable. The next day he smiled at me. So did his friend.
That guy was not a bad guy, you know? That’s why I didn’t realize what had just happened to me.
I hear Officer Matt Kenny is a nice guy too. Our justice models fail us by focusing on individuals rather than systems. I’m no criminal justice expert. But today it was brought home to me, twice over, that something isn’t working here. How do we define justice, when (in the words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo) We have met the enemy, and he is us?
(This famous quote was originally used for Earth Day. Although it’s not within the scope of my small reflection here, I think a compelling case could be made that moving to a restorative justice model could revolutionize environmental movements as well.)
It’s hopelessly complicated. It’s hopelessly tangled and ambiguous. I rely on voices from the Young Gifted and Black Coaltion and Justified Anger to help me learn. Some other day I’ll figure how all this fits with environmentalism and spirituality and whatever this thing called Paganism is…but I feel pretty strongly this: the voices and stories in any situation need to be heard—and heard by all of us. Safe space needs to be created for speaking truth and deep listening on all sides. And stories, witnessing, need to be a bigger part of the justice equation. What if we focused on healing the harm on every side, rather than punishing (or failing to punish) the perpetrators of violence? By focusing on individuals, we too easily and often miss the larger, deeply entrenched and internalized systemic injustices which form and inform us, day in and out.
Patheos Pagan is hosting a conversation about honoring the ancestors this month. I didn’t write anything for it, having no established practice to speak of. More truthfully, the whole concept challenges me.
The relatives I’ve lost (thankfully few) weren’t a very spiritual bunch. They lived deeply in this world. I honor them best by enjoying good food, good friends, and remembering to appreciate the small beauties of each passing day.
As for ancestors of the land, having just passed “Indigenous People’s Day” (which is still known as Columbus Day in much of the nation), I have at best uneasy relationship with this idea. Who am I to assume that the ancestors of this place called Wisconsin, called the USA, welcome my attempts to reconcile with them? They might well be furious—at the genocide and displacements of their people, at the ignorance with which we carved up and plowed into the land, at the disrespect we show to their descendants, even now, in how we treat both the peoples and the land. I would like to believe some sort of connection is possible, but I don’t think I’ve yet put in the work and time that would make this an honest effort. At best, I can bow my head, and promise to try to listen, to teach my children how to listen.
But there is a ritual pilgrimage my family makes in October each year.
Traveling about an hour up the road, the town of Reedsburg, Wisconsin serves as host to a ten-day Fermentation Festival, celebrating all things fermented, from compost to chocolate to kimchi to beer. And as part of this celebration, each year arising out of the farm fields in a 50-mile loop, the Farm Art DTour.
People come from as far away as the Twin Cities and Chicago to drive the loop, stopping at the installations—some of them by professional artists, others by the farm families that own the land, local 4H groups, and some pop ups from local artisans and neighbors. We move as pilgrims through the rural landscape, stopping at each station to read, consider, pause, interact, take pictures, try the food.
It’s always a profound experience for me to see so many people spend a day visiting art of all kinds, driving through the autumn fields. The DTour ties together agriculture, culture, art, food, history and land. This year, the very first stop was a new sign with this text:
The native inhabitants of this area were called Winnebago by the neighboring Sauk and Fox tribes. In 1993 the tribe reclaimed their original name of Ho-chunk, or “People of the Sacred Language.” Reedsburg has long held a respected place in the history of the Ho-chunk. In the winter of 1893 the citizens of Reedsburg stood up to the US Government military in order to protect the Ho-chunk from the decimation of the forced removal from their homelands. Due to the large number of church-sponsored cemeteries or final resting places located in Reedsburg, the Ho-chunk refer to the city as Wanagomjk cinak, or land of cemeteries.
The words washed over me like cool water, reminding me that history is always more complex than the stories we learn (no matter which stories we learn). That in every generation, peoples can work together in spite—or even because of—their differences. That respect and appreciation can grow anywhere. Maybe, just maybe, keeping in mind this piece of local history, I can begin to find my way to connecting with the ancestors of this place in a way that is respectful to them and honest to myself.
We drove on. Soon we came to a spiral labyrinth mowed into the corn, with signs along the way reminding us to “still your lips” “open your ears” “quiet your mind” “listen to the land…”
when we reached the center of this contemplative journey, there were stairs leading up to a platform that allowed us to see over the cornstalks, the view expanded in front of us to embrace the landscape. The metaphor was unmistakable.
One of my favorite aspects of the DTour is that it forces one to see the land, agriculture, and culture, anew. If this is art:
What about this?
And what about this?
How we find food, prepare it, share it, and how we honor our dead…these things may vary from generation to generation, from one culture to another, one region to another, but… we all do procure and share food together, and we all do honor our dead.
By the time we finished the loop and headed for home, we had enjoyed pork and sauerkraut sandwiches, Asian-inspired potstickers (including a macaroni-and-cheese version–this is Wisconsin, after all), fermented salsa, local chocolates. I felt my connection to this place reaffirmed and reframed—by returning to the land with a reverential attitude, I already begin to connect to the ancestors of this place, and in doing so, I reconnect more deeply to my own humanity.
With thanks to my husband, Reed Busse, for the photographs. My daughter insists that I use some of hers as well. Alas, she missed my deadline…so expect to see more DTour shots in upcoming essays.
Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.
Did Pagan environmentalism fail? I proposed this as a frame for the Patheos Pagan summer series on climate change because the question haunts me. Surely it was too much to expect that the tiny, idealistic Pagan movement of the 1960s and 1970s would utterly change the course of global culture. But I’m not sure we’ve even significantly managed to change ourselves. John Beckett cites a recent study by anthropologist Kimberley Kirner suggesting that though Pagans are somewhat more politically active than average on behalf of the environment, but our sustainability practices are no better.
Why is this?
The most straightforward answer is that, like our neighbors of many faiths, we are subject to economic and social demands and pressures over which we have little control. For-profit corporations have a tremendous influence on United States’ national policy, and few of us feel that our elected representatives are responsive or have their constituents’ best interest at heart. Even those of us who believe in our representatives are disappointed time and time again by the difficulty of making change through legislative means. Feeling disenfranchised by government, Pagans and other environmentalists have often turned to emphasizing individual choices, like recycling, composting, or taking public transportation.
These activities are not entirely useless – especially when public desire for them leads local governments to create structures for doing them more easily and more universally. And yet I can’t help but see the intense focus on individual action as wrongheaded. Ultimately, it makes little difference if one person decides to take the bus rather than driving to the store. We remain part of a society that operates as if our economy will never stop growing, as if our consumption of resources need never cease. Within that framework, we make choices not out of our deeply held values, but out of a need to survive.
Many of us went to college, or trained for a trade, and came out with debt. We sought jobs in a flagging economy and took what we could get, knowing that many of those around us were unemployed. Jobs are concentrated in cities, and many of those jobs require commuting by car, because housing near our jobs is not affordable; and so we increase our debt with car payments. Going forward, we hang on to stressful or meaningless jobs so that we have resources to care for children or elderly or ill family members, because we do not have community resources to help us with these tasks. In our state of isolation and overwork, we buy gadgets and trinkets to give ourselves a little pleasure, pleasure that might once have been provided by social time spent with family and friends. Once trapped within this web of debt and consumption, it is very difficult to get out; removing oneself may mean risking bankruptcy, the loss of access to health care, or threats to the safety and well-being of dependents. These are not conditions we can change through individual action alone.
I do not say that Pagan environmentalism is failing because we are not all already living in self-sufficient co-operatives, traveling by bike, and growing our own food. Nor do I say it because there are no Pagan leaders – Starhawk and John Michael Greer probably being the most visible – who have been working to draw attention to climate change and other environmental issues. Nor is it because there are not Pagans who are modeling sustainable practices like permaculture, or reclaiming practical skills like gardening and weaving to prepare for a resource-scarce future.
Somehow, however, this has resulted in relatively little effective, sustained collective action – by which I mean, the kind of action that creates concrete community support for freeing oneself from the web of debt and consumption. Some of you reading this may (for example) already be growing your own food in self-sufficient co-operatives, to which I say: more power to you; and, do you live in California? Because I’ve been in the Pagan movement for fifteen years, mostly in Texas and New England, and though I’ve seen Pagan families attempting to radically change their lifestyles, it seems like most of them have been forced, over and over, to do so on their own. Perhaps it’s our rabid individualism that’s pulling us down. And yet I find it misguided to condemn Pagans who, by themselves, can’t see their way out of their economic trap. We can free ourselves much more successfully if we work together.
My efforts have begun to focus on collaborative projects that are too small and flexible to be called “institutions,” but still potentially involve more people than my immediate family. If you looked in my recent browser history, you’d find articles about biodiesel cars, raising livestock, real estate prices, yurts, water reclamation systems, and solar energy. I am engaged in collective real estate ownership and am involved with group starting a cooperative living arrangement. I also serve on the board of a self-directed learning center for students aged 10-19. The center provides scholarships for low-income families seeking a creative alternative to traditional schools, and it also offers a robust outdoor program that includes wilderness survival skills – good preparation for kids entering an unstable future. And finally, I try, every day, to talk to someone about climate change in the most low-key way possible… just so they can hear those words from a person they consider reasonable and sane.
This is what I’d like to see from Pagan environmentalism now, a collective action that doesn’t require us to immediately jump out of the web of debt and consumption without a safety net: let’s say the words “climate change” every day. Let’s make climate change the context for all our conversations – about theology, social justice, ritual, cooking and crafts. Planning for the future can no longer be about retirement funds and cute condos in Florida; that era is over. We need to look back to historical crises of the past, like the Depression or World War II, for models of how to survive these changes – with no promise of success. And, knowing we cannot free ourselves from our economic bondage alone, we need to join forces with relatively like-minded people and – horror of horrors – learn to compromise, forgive, and be patient with each other. Our –isms and our desire that our groups or traditions be ideologically perfect will not serve us now. Our efforts must be both intrafaith and interfaith, and we must focus on what we can concretely achieve, not on how we theoretically differ.
Whether we are ready to face it or not, we are in a life or death situation. It is time to embrace our imperfect allies, because that is all we have, and all we are.
This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.
Whenever I confront my personal ethical choices around sustainability and ecology, I realise that everything depends on everything else. One choice may be more sustainable than another, but it may have other deleterious effects. You fix one part of the ecosystem, another gets broken. You try to fix poverty by donating clothes to charity shops (thrift stores) and then discover you have undermined small-scale indigenous clothing manufacture. You buy fair trade goods and then discover that they have been shipped over vast distances.
This interconnectedness of everything shows that we need a massive global paradigm shift, not merely a cosmetic fix to our already broken system. Capitalism – the practice of creaming off profits to give to shareholders and investors who do not contribute directly to the enterprise – created the opportunity to exploit people and resources, and got us into the mess we are in now. I recently watched a documentary on the origins of the industrial revolution, and it was very clear that it could not have got started without capitalism to fund it, and consumerism to drive demand for the commodities that were produced. Manufacturing snowballed in response to the stimuli of investment and consumer demand.
As others have already outlined, we are in a huge mess right now, and we need action. Climate change is already happening, sea levels are rising, species are dying off. It might be worse if there had not been an environmental movement, and if Pagans had not existed. This is also the premise of the excellent book Hope in the dark: The Untold History of People Power, by Rebecca Solnit.
Deep Ecology is the radical idea that all life has the right to exist, that no one species is more important than another.
According to Judi Bari, “Nature does not exist to serve humans. Rather, humans are a part of nature, one species among many. All species have the right to exist for their own sake, regardless of their usefulness to humans”.
Biodiversity is essential for the continued existence of the living Earth. As part of this biodiversity, humans must learn to live within nature, according to nature’s laws, and learn to accept our role as one among many.
— Centre for Deep Ecology
Environmental justice and social justice go hand-in-hand. You can’t solve world poverty unless we are all in right relationship with the Earth:
‘Deep ecological solutions are the only viable solutions to ensuring that every person on this planet has enough food, has enough water, has adequate shelter, has dignity and has a cultural meaning in life. If we don’t follow the path of living in ways that we leave enough space for other species, that paradigm also ensures that most human beings will be denied their right to existence. A system that denies the intrinsic value of other species denies eighty percent of humanity, their right to a dignified survival and a dignified life. It only pretends that is solving the problems of poverty, it is actually at the root of poverty. And the only real solution to poverty is to embrace the right to life of all on this planet, all humans and all species.’
So we all need to change our perspective to one of deep ecology, rather than seeing environmentalism as some kind of ‘add-on’ to our existing lifestyles.
How will this change of perspective come about? Like any paradigm shift, it started with individuals who were ahead of their time, and has gradually been building momentum. Sadly, so has climate change, but this means more people will wake up and smell the coffee. We can take action to speed up the process of change. We can re-enchant the world that capitalism and the industrial revolution disenchanted.
There are also interventions that can be made to restore ecosystems.
One of the most interesting discoveries of recent years has been trophic cascade. This is the discovery that if you restore a major predator to an ecosystem, other species recover.
For example, restoring wolves to Yellowstone Park resulted in a decrease in elk, but an increase in the tree species that elk would otherwise have eaten, and consequently an increase in beaver and bison, as well as carrion birds which benefit from the remains of the wolves’ kills.
Restoring beavers to river systems has resulted in the creation of more pools, and hence more habitats for fish and plants.
The problems that climate change has brought, is bringing, and will bring will be severe and disastrous. Maybe we can ride out the storm; maybe it is too late; but if we despair and do not act, it will definitely be too late.
Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.
I don’t even know what “Pagan” environmentalism is.
But the question is moot. The “isms” can be thrown away. The world is alive and aware and we are part of it. The world is not dying, but it is possible that we, along with so many other species, are.
Traditional environmentalism will tell you that agriculture in the Midwest in the 19-20th centuries destroyed the great prairie ecosystem. But there is another story, from another culture, that says the prairie is waiting, just under the surface, and will come back when our relation to the land changes.
What does that mean?
Each morning I go down to my office and share a cup of coffee with whatever gods and spirits the day will bring my way, whichever wights the night has left me. Now, you can laugh (and I’m quite sure some of my friends and family do, yes) at the thought of me slopping a couple of tablespoons of coffee into a mug each morning in my office. What’s it gonna get you? What is it for? Nothing happens. That is missing the point. Through our gift, we acknowledge we have already received, simply by being alive, being present, being part of the pattern. Through our gift, we weave ourselves a little more deeply into that pattern. We establish connection, relation.
So nothing is supposed to “happen” (except hopefully the coffee wakes me up).
Gift economies have been found the world over. The European settlers misinterpreted the Native Americans’ pattern of gift giving in early contact and hence the offensive and mistaken term “Indian giver” came into being. For that matter, we (for I am descended from those settlers and am planted firmly in this culture) also misheard and misunderstood “potlatch”—a feast where wealth is given away and honor accrued through the giving—turning it into “potluck,” at best a church supper and at worst “luck of the draw.”
We misunderstand the nature of religious offerings if we mistake what is a gift economy for a notion of simple reciprocity or a “prosperity gospel.” This gift economy emphasizes establishing and maintaining good relation. It’s also about passing the gift forward.
We brought our culture with us… and we were curiously un-curious about the cultures already here—plant, animal, human — for far too long.
We’re still curiously un-curious in how we approach our place in the world. The failure of environmentalism, Pagan-identified or not, as far as I can tell, is—it has not been radical enough. We have understood ourselves as humans as somehow separate and separated from the environment—it is our specifically human footprint upon a passive and receptive “nature” that traditional environmentalism addresses. If we can “lessen our impact” we can save the world.
I am not interested in saving this world—I don’t even know what that would mean, outside of me trying to protect my privileged lifestyle, which given the reality of most peoples across the globe I have no right to do. I do hope that humans will survive this wave of extinctions because I have a soft spot for our species. But I’m convinced in order to survive our relation to the land must change. We must listen harder, respond more thoughtfully and also more immediately.
The world is alive and aware and we are part of it. The world is not dying, but it is possible that we, along with so many other species, are. “In the midst of life we are in death. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Given this reality, what does it mean to pay the gift forward now?
I say: in the midst of death we are in life—let’s not forget that. We can honor our beloved dead and mourn extinctions personal and monumental, but our allegiance in the gift economy is to the living and those to come. Listen, grow. Stay flexible. Recognize what symbiotic relationships you are part of, what permacultures you participate in. Play your role. Nurture those around you, be they human, plant, animal, mineral, other.
We must remember our places. We must remember ourselves within these places. What would it be to acknowledge and embrace our own immersion in the land, and our own vulnerability? As someone who is more an indoor than outdoor person, what I’m saying here challenges me. I’m not advocating for some nostalgic back-to-the-land movement. So what do I think must happen?
I don’t have any easy or quick answers tonight, but somewhat vaguely, I can say: the word “pagan” for me is not a question of believing one thing or another. And it’s not a set of practices or rituals. If it’s anything at all, “pagan” signifies an altered orientation to the world we inhabit. Who do you listen to and for? Are you willing to attune yourself to river bend? To the passerine? This summer’s rampant Queen Anne’s lace?
We are in life, meshed, snared, scared and dancing still, and have a responsibility to act like it.