Moving Beyond “Environmentalism”

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.


“Has Pagan Environmentalism Failed?” the prompt asks us to consider.

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.

A Theology of Trees and Fractals

June, and my yard is full of leaves again. I’ve been thinking about trees, about forests, dense and wild and other. It’s funny but I can’t think about forests without thinking about the branching paths we take through them, or maybe, the paths that lead us deep into the heartwood. Any forest is a labyrinth, a fractal pattern, complex at every level. Choose a path.

***

I’m reading a book from 1997 on ergodic literature, Cybertext by Espen J. Aarseth. “Ergodic” looks like the gods might be hiding in the text, but Aarseth states the word“derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning “work” and “path.” Unlike a traditional novel or movie, in ergodic literature, narrative is interrupted and the reader must make active choices when the paths fork. The easiest example might be Choose Your Own Adventure books, which I devoured as a kid. Interactive games are obvious examples. The Tarot deck is another. Ergodic literature is wildly fun, juicy, and completely intense all at once:

“you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard. Each decision will make some parts of the text more, and others less, accessible, and you may never know the exact results of your choices; that is, exactly what you missed.”

Every day we wake up is Choose Your Own Adventure, wildwood, labyrinth, if we have the eyes to see. I live on the border of grassland and woodland, in Southern Wisconsin. Or: I live in deep forest, the same deep forest we all wander through, that most of us have forgotten. Choose your reality; both are true.

***

Trees catch the wind and give it voice. Words catch at thought. These words like twiggy fingers snag on ghosts and gods. I read over my journals and weave dream and shadow together, stitch that cloth to noon o’clock until everything is weightless, suspended in blue.

The house swings up through ash trees,
to hang in light-scalloped air and interstice,
a lacework net of leaf and gap exactly
like a well-told joke that dangles us
over the pit of the true strange…

***

Sometimes I think of myself as a guide of sorts—

A guide? You? Wayland laughs.
No, I think not—a translator, maybe.

***

Choose a path. We have three large and lyrical ash trees in our yard. Someday not too far off they will all three die from the emerald ash borers now found in Dane county. In one of them, we’ve started hanging bird houses, round little doors peeking out among the green, darts of color and touches of whimsy. I know a woman who tucks her poems into an old birdhouse in her garage. Sandwiched between generations and caring for multiple relatives, she has no time to revise or send work out into the world, and she has no space in her house to call her own. I look at my birdhouse tree, the multiple doorways. Maybe I will start to poke my poems into those apertures, just as I poke them into these essays. Maybe I will shred them and let the birds weave them into their nests, along with my hair and the straw I never spin into gold. Offerings.

***

…Just like a joke,
the crack of alarm gives way to laughter’s gasp.
No one told us this was the day
our possessions would go weightless,
our footsteps sound across suddenly taller floors.

***

Paper comes from trees. All the leafy, dream-soaked notebooks I have written my way through—are my words worth the death of the trees it took to house them? They’d better be.

Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material, independent of the personality of the poet, but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning that is not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working but has slipped in from another level…

–Italo Calvino

(The gods are not even hiding.)

***

Is mine a theology of the Wildwood? Or is it a theology of poems? Of fractals?

Same thing. He’s reading over my shoulder.
Sometimes the Adventure chooses you.

***

“Work” and “path” may be how we locate our gods. Love is work. Poems are work. Living well is work. Asking the big questions and staying ready for the answers is work. Work worth doing. Halfway through the writing of this, I look up from my screen and realize how much of the art in my house features trees. Abstract, realistic, partial or completely representational, trees have been with me a long time, I guess.

 

In my parents’ house, the walls are covered with birds.

When knowledge was power

Lynne Kelly

Lynne Kelly

Ritual often seems like an activity designed only for interaction with the preternatural or the supernatural. However, in non-literate (oral) cultures, it can have a mnemonic function – to remember and pass on traditional lore, about how to grow and manage crops, about animal and plant species, how to interact with the land, how to use tools.

Lynne Kelly is an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe University. She is researching the ways in which knowledge is transmitted in non-literate cultures.

In a discussion on ritual on the British Archaeology mailing list, she wrote:

My research is into the way non-literate cultures learn, store and transmit information – vast amounts of it – when they don’t have writing. I then apply that to the archaeological record. A wide range of apparently enigmatic objects become very practical when the memory systems used are understood. The deliberate destruction or disposal of objects is common when there is no initiate suitable to take over the object. Unfortunately, it all takes too much to explain in an email. It is all to do with preserving the critical survival information accurately, among other things. Think of initiation as being initiated into higher and higher levels of a knowledge system, much of which is practical. I draw particularly (but far from exclusively) on our Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer cultures.

To give one example of the way indigenous rituals can appear superficial, but aren’t, I’ll use a Pueblo example because it is so beautifully recorded. Alfonso Ortiz in ‘The Tewa world: space, time, being, and becoming in a Pueblo society‘ (1969) talks a lot about the stories of the Corn Mothers and the variously coloured Corn Maidens. Lots of ‘rituals’, many of which are restricted to a select group of initiated males.

Ortiz also suggests, in later writing, that you read Richard I. Ford, an ethnobotanist. Ford describes the same rituals – ceremonies – rigidly repeated acts – in terms of the outcome. Effectively, these ritual performances ensure that multiple varieties of corn, each known by the different colour, have been maintained pure over centuries, if not a lot longer. These are the descendant of the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) cultures. Careful selection and planting of multiple varieties means that no matter how bad the weather that season, some corn will produce food. Corn cross-pollinates very readily, so it is quite complex to ensure all varieties are maintained pure. Consequently, Ford titled the paper ‘The colour of survival’, (1980), Discovery, pp. 16-29. [Not the common magazine, Discovery, but an academic journal.] Ford suggests you read Ortiz to get the Puebloan way of describing the same events and outcomes.

I have covered the Puebloan knowledge system and associated ‘enigmatic’ objects in the thesis, and have plenty more examples like this from other cultures. For example, think of ‘Hunting magic’ as ceremonies which remind all of the group about strategies … and so it goes on. Knowledge is stored so differently by cultures without writing that the pragmatism is often disguised and it is easy to see only simplistic ‘religious’ reasons as the purpose for the ceremonies. All the oral cultures I explored integrate the secular and the sacred so the two become almost indistinguishable.

If you think about it, contemporary Pagan rituals are also designed to transmit knowledge – to enable people to understand sacred stories from within, by re-enacting them; to transmit knowledge of magic, symbolism, and mythology. This also got me thinking about how ritual could be used to transmit botanical knowledge, or astronomy, or other scientific information. I once did a ritual about quantum mechanics, so why not? Learning through ritual engages the right hemisphere of the brain as well as the left, so is probably a more effective way to transmit knowledge.

[Note: the above quote is used with Lynne’s permission. Her research will soon be published as a book.]

[Photo credit: Lynne Kelly, used with permission]

Realism and non-realism

There are several ways in which to construe the relationship of religious discourse to the world it attempts to describe, and with other (possibly competing, possibly complementary) interpretations such as science and philosophy.

The NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) position, put forward by Stephen Jay Gould, is that science and religion deal with two different domains, and therefore share no common ground for either agreement or argument; science deals with empirical matters and religion deals with ‘questions of ultimate meaning’ (McGrath, 2007: 18).  Richard Dawkins disagrees with NOMA because he argues that a universe with a creator deity would be a very different place to a universe without one, and therefore discussion of this does fall within the domain of science (Dawkins, 2006: 55).

The POMA (partially overlapping magisteria) position is that there is some overlap, and that they are two complementary ways of viewing the world (McGrath, 2007: 19).

Naturalists argue that only the physical realm exists, and phenomena such as consciousness are emergent properties of complex biological systems (Naturalism.org).

Bienkowski (2006: 2) identifies four possible belief positions for adherents of religions: materialism, the belief that only the material plane exists (this is similar to Naturalism, atheism, and humanism); idealism, the belief that the material plane is illusory; dualism, the belief that both material and spiritual realms exist, but are separate (similar to Luhrmann’s two worlds view); and animism, the belief that the spiritual world is immanent in the material world. The ideas discussed are very broad in scope, however, as they are intended to represent a range of religions and philosophies, and something more specific is needed to identify the nuances of Pagan discourse.

Tania Luhrmann (1989: 285-293) outlines four possible positions which magical practitioners take in justifying their views to sceptics. The first is realism, the idea that ‘there is a knowable objective reality and that magic reveals more of it than science’.  The second position that she identifies is the two worlds view, that ‘the objective referent of magical claims is unknowable within the terms of an ordinary, scientific world’ (this is similar to the ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ or NOMA position).  The third position is relativism, which ‘defines all truth as relative and contingent’ (which Luhrmann found to be quite a common view).  The final position is the metaphorical view, that magic is metaphorical and is probably objectively not true, but is nevertheless a creative and enjoyable practice.  Luhrmann (1989: 293) says that she rarely encountered this position except among those who had come to magic through political concerns such as environmentalism and feminism.  This metaphorical view is embraced by Starhawk (1999: 219), who says that ‘[s]cientific knowledge, like religious knowledge, is a set of metaphors for a reality that can never be completely described or comprehended.’  However, Starhawk (1999: 7) is one of those Pagans who are deeply involved in environmental and feminist activism, as predicted by Luhrmann.

Luhrmann (1989: 284) states that the four positions are not mutually exclusive; she senses that ‘most magicians will give most of these arguments at some time during their magical career’.

In contrast, Dawkins (2006: 50) identifies seven possible belief positions on the existence of God, from strong theism to strong atheism, with agnosticism in the middle.  However, these are not very useful for the purpose of discussing Paganism, because they only relate to the existence of a supernatural creator deity, and not to the possible ways in which the spiritual and material realms could interact.  Belief in a creator is largely irrelevant to Pagans, since we are more interested in relating to Nature (Harvey, 1997: 145).

Other possible discursive positions include deep ecology, the view that the human order is not separate from the natural order, which implies that all life is sacred (Livingstone, 2002: 347).  This is similar to the animism proposed by Graham Harvey, who advocates an embodied awareness and ‘listening neighbourliness’ towards other species (Harvey, 1997: 141).  The Gaia Hypothesis goes further than this, arguing that the entire planet is such a complex system that it should be regarded as a living organism (Livingstone, 2002: 347).  All of these views can be found in Pagan views of relationship with Nature.

Michael York suggests that, rather than talking about the “supernatural”, which implies that the Divine, deities, and spirits are somehow outside and beyond the material realm, we should use the term “preternatural”:

The supernatural as we know it is largely a Christian-derived expression from the idea that its ‘God’ is over and ‘above’ nature – material/empirical reality. It is this notion that is the target of secular and naturalistic animosity alike. Instead, rather than ‘supernatural’, I turn instead to the ‘preternatural’ that expresses the non-causal otherness of nature – one that comprehends the magical, miraculous, numinous, mysterious yet non-empirical quality of the sublime. Most important, however, the preternatural does not demand belief or faith but instead encounter and experience – whether through contemplation, metaphor, spontaneous insight, ecstasy, trance, synchronicity or ritual or any combination of these. As Margot Adler expressed it, paganism is not about belief but what we do.

This is an important distinction; much of the criticism of religion offered by new atheists and skeptics is aimed at the supernatural elements of theology – the assumption that the supernatural exists outside the physical world, and that is why it is undetectable by science; whereas atheists would argue that it is undetectable by science because it does not exist.

Another approach to distinguishing between different models of the world is offered by Nuyen (2001: 394), who discusses realism and antirealism in religion.  Religious realism (like Luhrmann’s realist position) asserts that there is an external referent of religious language; religious antirealism asserts that ‘there is no transcendent being or reality to which religious languages and practices refer, and that the source of religious meaning and value lies in us, human beings’ (Nuyen, 2001: 394).  This antirealism is very similar to Luhrmann’s metaphorical position.

There is also a debate within science itself over whether scientific discourse actually has any objective referents in reality, or whether scientific understandings are necessarily metaphors.

Folse (1986: 96) describes the classic scientific realist position as holding that at least some terms in theoretical statements correspond to the properties of entities to which these terms refer.  Another form of realism is ‘the quest for knowledge about the reality producing the phenomena we experience’, which does not necessarily insist that that reality is entirely comprehensible.  This is comparable to religious realism, which also asserts that descriptions of deities have objective external referents.

Muller and Livingston (1995: 16) describe scientific antirealism as the view that scientific terms are merely ‘terminological abstraction(s) designed to account for the… results of a particular set of experiments’ and do not necessarily have any objective referents.  They note that much of the debate between realists and antirealists in science hinges on the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which posits that the observer affects the observed, thereby calling into question the notion of an objective external reality.  Magicians often quote this in defence of the ‘relativist’ position (Luhrmann, 1989: 291); it is interesting because it implies that some scientists understand their descriptions of reality to be metaphorical.

The various positions available in both scientific and religious discourse show that the debate is not simply happening between science and religion, but also within both those discourses, and so it is not accurate to talk about either discourse as if it were a monolithic entity engaged in a titanic struggle for truth and authority with the other discourse; the whole picture is far more complex.

Bibliography

Bienkowski, P. (2006) ‘Persons, things and archaeology: contrasting world-views of minds, bodies and death’, Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. [online] Available from: Manchester Museum,http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/medialibrary/documents/respect/persons_things_and_archaeology.pdf (accessed 25.08.2008)

Dawkins, R. (2006) The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press.

Folse, H.J. (1986) ‘Niels Bohr, Complementarity, and Realism’. Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 1, pp. 96-104 [online] Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/193111 (accessed 07.09.2008)

Harvey, G. (1997) Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York: New York University Press.

Livingstone, D. N. (2002) ‘Ecology and the Evironment.’ In: Ferngren, G. B., Science & Religion: a historical introduction. Baltimore andLondon:JohnsHopkinsUniversity Press.

Luhrmann, T. (1989) Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGrath, A. E. (2007) The Dawkins Delusion? London: SPCK.

Muller, A. and Livingston, P. (1995) ‘Realism/Anti-Realism: A Debate’. Cultural Critique, No. 30, The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part I, pp. 15-32 [online] Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1354431 (accessed 07.09.2008)

Nuyen, A.T. (2001) ‘Realism, Anti-Realism, and Emmanuel Levinas.’ The Journal of Religion, 81, (3), pp. 394-409 [online] Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1206402 (accessed 07.09.2008)

Starhawk (1999), The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco.

York, M. (2008), ‘A Pagan Defence of Theism’. Theologies of Immanence.  [online] Available from: http://pagantheologies.pbworks.com/w/page/13621955/A%20Pagan%20defence%20of%20theism (accessed 30.01.2013)

Eco-spirituality in practice

Paganism is often said to be a Nature religion, but often Pagans are not very immersed in Nature. This could be because we get distracted by shiny things like mythology, or because many of us live in cities and so are more familiar with brand names than tree species, or because connecting with Nature is just too hard.

One thing that is often suggested as a way to connect with Nature is celebrating the seasonal festivals. I have certainly found it helpful to have the seasonal festivals in my life as markers of time, and they have made me more aware of the passing seasons, but I don’t know if they have made me more connected with Nature. I also worry that we sometimes impose our own patterns on Nature, rather than listening and looking to see what’s there.

Another way to connect with Nature is to get out more, and walk in the woods, by the sea, in the mountains. Meditating in Nature is excellent, and is a very old pagan practice called “sitting out”. Adrian Harris writes, over at Bodymind Place:

The principle of the sit spot could hardly be simpler: Find a place outdoors and sit there everyday for at least 15 minutes.  Though it’s generally traced to Native American teachers, this ancient practise is cross-cultural. What modern Pagans call ‘sitting out’ has a more explicitly spiritual purpose, but is essentially the same thing.

Cultivating a sense of place is important too. The excellent book The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci by Barry Patterson is one that I recommend highly, because it offers specific techniques for engaging with place, including learning about its history, geology, flora and fauna, mythology, archaeology, and so on.

This approach is also recommended in a bioregional quiz, “Where You At?”, originally developed by Leonard Charles, Jim Dodge, Lynn Milliman, and Victoria Stockley, and updated by Connected by Nature. Learn about your local flora and fauna, what flowers, fruits and vegetables are in season at what time.

We also need to be in right relationship with Nature, so reducing your carbon footprint and your ecological footprint and auditing your lifestyle are important.

Eating food that is local and in season helps the environment, but it also makes you more aware of your surroundings. It’s very hard to eat seasonally in some places, but we should at least be aware of the air miles on what we eat, and try to buy more local produce.

 

Eco-spirituality and theology

Eco-spirituality is a new name for a set of ideas that goes back a long way.

Baruch Spinoza and Giordano Bruno both viewed the universe as divine. Their ideas were broadly pantheistic. The implications of the idea that the universe itself is divine are explored by Sam Webster, who prefers immediacy to immanence. The universe is a theophany, the manifestation of the Divine. The implication here is that everything is sacred, and we should take care of the Earth and other beings; we certainly don’t have dominion over them.

A common trope in Western views of reality is the idea that there is an underlying essence to everything, a pure state of being, and that everything else emanates from that. This is a very pervasive idea, from Plato’s concept of Ideal Forms, all the way to Cartesian dualismProcess theology was an attempt to correct this thinking; its basic premise is that everything is always changing. It also views the Divine as involved in the process of change, and developing as a result of the changes:

For both Whitehead and Hartshorne, it is an essential attribute of God to be fully involved in and affected by temporal processes, an idea that conflicts with traditional forms of theism that hold God to be in all respects non-temporal (eternal), unchanging (immutable), and unaffected by the world (impassible). Process theology does not deny that God is in some respects eternal, immutable, and impassible, but it contradicts the classical view by insisting that God is in some respects temporal, mutable, and passible. (Wikipedia)

As Pagans usually view our deities as neither infinite nor perfect, and many of us regard them as beings on their own spiritual journeys, this makes a lot of sense. Cyclicity and change are regarded as positive in Paganism, so process theology fits in well with that. Indigenous traditions also affirm that process and becoming are natural and inevitable; many indigenous American languages do not translate well into English, because English refers to everything as a fixed state (nouns), whereas they refer to everything as a process.

Gaia theology & theory affirms the idea of the Divine as living, and therefore changing. Gaea theology was developed by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart in 1970, independently of James Lovelock‘s better-known Gaia Theory. Oberon Zell-Ravenheart derived his ideas in part from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic palaeontologist and geologist. Both Zell and Lovelock regarded the Earth as Gaia, a living organism, and named the idea after the Greek Goddess Gaia.

According to Wikipedia:

According to James Kirchner there is a spectrum of Gaia hypotheses, ranging from the undeniable to radical. At one end is the undeniable statement that the organisms on the Earth have radically altered its composition. A stronger position is that the Earth’s biosphere effectively acts as if it is a self-organizing system which works in such a way as to keep its systems in some kind of equilibrium that is conducive to life. Biologists usually view this activity as an undirected emergent property of the ecosystem; as each individual species pursues its own self-interest, their combined actions tend to have counterbalancing effects on environmental change. Proponents of this view sometimes point to examples of life’s actions in the past that have resulted in dramatic change rather than stable equilibrium, such as the conversion of the Earth’s atmosphere from a reducing environment to an oxygen-rich one.

An even stronger claim is that all lifeforms are part of a single planetary being, called Gaia. In this view, the atmosphere, the seas, the terrestrial crust would be the result of interventions carried out by Gaia, through the coevolving diversity of living organisms.

Eco-spirituality embraces an ethic of non-violence and sustainability. Non-violence includes respect for life in all its manifestations (human, non-human, animal, vegetable and mineral); harmonious use of natural resources, with respect for the natural order and cycles of the environment, and development compatible with the ecosystem; and listening to Nature, not dictating to it. In Hinduism, non-violence is known as ahimsaSustainability means not using up or depleting the resources available, and maintaining the diversity of ecosystems. Reducing the diversity of an ecosystem, or doing something that creates an imbalance in it, upsets the food web (what eats what in a specific ecosystem).

A key idea in eco-spirituality is deep ecology, which advocates the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their usefulness to humans. Deep ecology argues that the natural world is a subtle balance of complex inter-relationships in which the organisms depend on each other for their existence within ecosystems. This philosophy was named “deep ecology” by Arne Næss in 1973. It is becoming increasingly apparent that a deep ecological approach is needed to ensure sustainability, biodiversity and the continued existence of the human species. Vandana Shiva writes:

‘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.’

Another important strand of eco-spirituality is eco-feminism, the idea that the exploitation of the Earth is symbolically linked to the domination of women, with talk of conquest, dominion, and so on; whereas respect for the Earth can be equated with respect for women. This is a big part of contemporary Goddess spirituality, and is obviously related to Gaia theology. In Ecofeminism (1993) authors Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies point out that modern science is not a universal and value-free form of knowledge, regarding the dominant scientific discourse as a projection of Western men’s values.

Another green precept is “Think global, act local“, the idea that before acting, we should look at consequences for the whole biosphere, as well as for the local environment. This is consistent with the Wiccan ethic “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”, which encourages us to look at the consequences of our actions. It also relates to the idea of spirit of place. The Romans honoured the genius loci, and the Greeks honoured the daemon (both terms mean ‘spirit of place’). This was the consciousness inhabiting wood and grove, tree and well, river and lake. Pagans have found that specific locations have a different atmosphere, a sense of presence. Christians have started to talk about ‘thin places’ – liminal places where the numinous can readily be encountered.

One of the things that keeps me Pagan is the importance of wildness. For me, this concept includes the erotic, the instinctive, the intuitive, a sense of connection to Nature, intimacy, freedom, and solitude. It also links in with deep ecology – the valuing of wild places and wild beings for themselves and not for their utility. An excellent book on the subject of reclaiming wildness is Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a Jungian psychotherapist and traditional storyteller.

Ancient cultures regarded the landscape itself as sacred, and devised sacred geography to describe it. This includes the concept of the four cardinal directions and their associated symbolism; the idea of the World Tree at the centre; and cosmologies with the heavens above, the underworld below, and the Earth in the middle.

So, how do we put these ideas into practice? That will be the topic of the next post.