The Ecological Imperative Of Spirituality For The 21st Century


The Ecological Imperative of Spirituality for the 21st Century

      Spirituality for the 21st Century must embrace ecology and vice versa. This is imperative for at least two reasons. First, human nature requires it. Human health encompasses physical, mental, and spiritual components. Humans are only as healthy as their environment and their connection to it. However, alienation from nature is one pathological symptom of the industrial growth society with its rampant urbanization, materialism and consumerism. Yet many people look forward to holidays and vacations when they “return to nature” by visiting parks and other environments. To be healthy holistically, people have to connect in meaningful ways with nature on a regular basis, even if only minimally by contemplating a tree or other aspect of nature daily for a few minutes. Research has shown that hospital patients who have a view of a tree or some other aspect of nature recover faster.

     Second, nature requires spirituality and ecology to embrace. The archaeological record of cultural evolution reveals humankind’s progressively increasing ecological footprint (environmental impact). Prehistoric hunter-gatherers used fire in various ways, such as in game drives or in the conversion of vegetation to attract prey. Their environmental impact in Australia and elsewhere accumulated over many millennia, even though it was minimal in the short-term. With the Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 years ago in the Old World, successive conversion of the landscape into farms and pastures impacted nature far more extensively and intensively, eventually with fragmentation into humanized and natural areas. Over the last 250 years the Industrial Revolution greatly increased the exploitation of natural resources, especially fossil fuels which in turn generated unprecedented levels of the pollution of air, water, and soil. Nature is resilient, but human impacts can be so intense and/or accumulate over time to the point of diminishing that capacity. Global climate change is the most serious result today. Increased extreme weather events, melting of polar ice caps and mountain glaciers producing sea level rise, and other processes like methane released from the melting of tundra permafrost are being scientifically monitored and documented. Humans must significantly reduce their ecological footprint, if for no other reason than for their own survival and well-being.

     A multitude of diverse secular initiatives have tried to resolve or alleviate environmental problems since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Some have been quite successful, such as reducing acid rain and the ozone hole. However, many environmental problems continue, some are getting worse, and new ones keep emerging like bee colony collapse. Obviously, although vital, secular approaches have not been sufficient.

     Spiritual ecology may help to turn things around for the better. This is affirmed by a few exemplary cases among the accelerating number of effective environmental initiatives ultimately motivated by spirituality. Wangari Maathai established the Green Belt Movement which planted thousands of trees in her native Kenya. After adoption by the United Nations this movement spread through 170 countries with ten billion trees planted so far. Green Patriarch Bartholomew I, with a following of 250 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, leads interfaith campaigns to mitigate the pollution of the Black Sea and other great waterways. Interfaith Power and Light was created by Episcopalian Reverend Sally Bingham of San Francisco to facilitate energy efficiency and conservation in response to global climate change. By now it has spread to 14,000 religious congregations in 40 states of the U.S.A. The Alliance of Religions and Conservation developed by Martin Palmer works through 11 major religious faiths promoting biodiversity conservation in thousands of sacred places throughout the world.

     These and many other practical initiatives are transforming the relationship of many humans to nature thereby helping to restore the health of both. A recent search of for the key words “spiritual ecology” yielded 4,700,000 results (August 17, 2013). This number grew from 420,000 in a previous search (August 15, 2004). This trend reflects the quiet revolution of spiritual ecology. It is quiet in the sense that it is nonviolent, diffuse with no single leader or organization, and little-recognized. It is a revolution because it involves a profound transformation of the place in nature of a rapidly growing number of humans that deep thinkers like David C. Korten and Joanna Macy recognize as The Great Turning.        

     Ecology as a science focuses on the interconnections and interdependencies among organisms and their habitats. Nature is the biophysical world and includes humans. Moreover, many individuals, such as Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau in the 19th century to Zen poet Gary Snyder in our time, have recognized spirituality in nature as well. Spiritual ecology integrates science and religion as indispensably complementary in their common concern for nature.

     No single religion is championed as the solution to environmental problems. Instead, anyone who is religious is encouraged to search their own faith to promote a more sustainable and greener lifestyle. Ultimately, it is imperative that a far greater portion of humanity realize the profound point made by Thomas Berry in his book Evening Thoughts: “… the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects” (p. 17).


Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel, Author, Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution