Spiritual Ecology in AnthroNews

Sponsel, L.E., 2012 (November), “Spiritual Ecology,” AAA Anthropology News 53(9):24-25.


Spiritual ecology is a diverse, complex, and dynamic arena of intellectual and practical activities at the interfaces of religions and spiritualities on the one hand, and on the other environments, ecologies, and environmentalisms.(Among other rubrics for this arena are religion and ecology, and religion and nature). Although spiritual ecology has ancient roots, Animism, being one variant, in academia the most important historical turning point was the 1967 article in Science published by Lynn White, Jr. Basically he blamed the environmental crisis on prevailing interpretations of passages in the Bible like dominion over the earth. This ignited a heated controversy among Christian theologians and others, and generated the related field of ecotheology.

The major developments in spiritual ecology since the 1990s within academia have been generated among various initiatives by a series of international and interdisciplinary conferences organized by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim at Harvard University. (See the website for the Forum on Religion and Ecology at http://fore.research.yale.edu). One of the valuable results, the book Indigenous Traditions and Ecology edited by Grim, is most relevant for ecological anthropology. Also most noteworthy is the work of BronTaylor as Editor-in-Chief of the benchmark Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature and as the prime mover behind the development of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture plus its Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. (See http://www.brontraylor.com). Another scholarly periodical in this arena is Worldviews: Global Religions, Ecology and Culture.

Within anthropology, the contributions of Marvin Harris and Roy Rappaport are best known in examining the relevance of religion for human ecology and adaptation, while those of Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff are also seminal albeit less known like his book Amazonian Cosmos. Many others have pursued field research on this subject, such as Susan Darlington with Buddhist environmental monks in Thailand as reported in her new book The Ordination of a Tree. Eugene Anderson, in The Pursuit of Ecotopia and other publications, stands out for his theoretical and substantive contributions on the role of beliefs and emotions in natural resource use, management, and conservation.

Most researchers pursuing historical ecology and political ecology, however, have neglected religion, perhaps often because of some personal, ideological, or theoretical bias. Yet like ecology, religion is most fascinating, and examining their interface even more so. Religion is a cross-cultural universal, although in any society there are degrees of religiosity and perhaps seven some atheists or agnostics of sorts. Moreover, religion can be a powerful factor, if not necessarily always the most powerful one, in influencing worldview, values, attitudes, and actions including their practical environmental consequences which may be adaptive and/or maladaptive. For instance, the reality and force of spiritual ecology for many indigenous people is clearly demonstrated in Joy Porter’s recent book Land and Spirit in Native America.

Accordingly, spiritual ecology and related phenomena surely merit rigorous research scrutiny based on the systematic collection of empirical data, ideally testing specific alternative or competing hypotheses. Fortunately, this is happening increasingly, as for example, in recent years with growing interest in basic and applied field research exploring the possible relevance of sacred places for biodiversity conservation as exemplified in the book co-edited by Bas Vershuuren and colleagues titled Sacred Sites Conserving Nature and Culture.

Spiritual ecology is an especially fascinating and important frontier for scientific and academic research. Ideally it can complement rather than compete with the other approaches like historical ecology and political ecology. It is also a sociopolitical movement responding to the practicalities of environmental problems and issues from the local to the global levels. Certainly the development of purely secular approaches to ecocrises since Earth Day 1970 have proven necessary, but just as certainly they have proven insufficient as a whole to promote far more sustainable and greener societies. Spiritual ecology may help improve this situation. Ecological anthropology, including its applied dimension of environmental anthropology, has the potential to contribute significantly to both research on spiritual ecology and to the related sociopolitical movement.

Leslie E. Sponsel is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Hawai`i where he developed and directed the Ecological Anthropology Program for three decades and author of the recent book Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution (see http://www.spiritualecology.info).