Spiritual Ecology

This is a background essay on the website of the Ecological Anthropology Program
in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawai'i


Why the Environment is a Religious Issue 

During the 1970s developments like Earth Day, The Ecologist magazine, Friends of the Earth, Green Party, Greenpeace, and the Stockholm Environment Conference reflected markedly increased international awareness, concerns, and actions about the growing environmental crisis in the world.  However, after more than three decades the crisis is even worse with the discovery of new environmental problems like acid rain, global warming, and biodiversity loss.  Apparently the usual remedies are insufficient -- environmental science, technology, education, and politics.  Since the 1990s, an accelerating number of diverse individuals and organizations are turning to religion as a last resort.  This movement is not offered instead of previous approaches, but in addition to them as a complement and to hopefully finally turn things around for the better.  No particular religion is designated as the solution.  Instead, scientists, scholars, educators, clerics, adherents, politicians, and others are each looking deeply into their own religion and/or spirituality for elements to construct more viable environmental world views, attitudes, values, and practices for themselves and others. 

The New Field of Spiritual Ecology 

An exciting and promising whole new transdisciplinary field of spiritual ecology has been developing since the 1990s which may be defined as follows:  a complex and diverse arena of spiritual, intellectual, and practical activities at the interface of religions with environments, ecology, and environmentalism (Sponsel 2001a).  In 1995, David Kinsley published the first major textbook on this subject, Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Prentice-Hall), while a year later Roger S. Gottlieb edited a monumental benchmark anthology, This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment (Routledge).  (A second edition of the anthology is forthcoming).

Harvard Forum on Religion and Ecology 

A series of ten conferences on the world's religions and ecology were held at the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) at the Harvard University Divinity School from May 1996 to July 1998. These were organized by Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker and Dr. John Grim of the Department of Religion at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/religion). These multidisciplinary and international conferences were collectively attended by more than 700 individuals. Most of the conferences were focused on a particular religion in relation to ecology and environmentalism—Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Indigenous Traditions, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, and Shinto. Subsequently a substantial anthology with an extensive bibliography was published as a result of each conference by Harvard University Press. The primary goal of these conferences is to outline the contours of a new field of study in religion that also has implications for contemporary environmental ethics, public policy concerns, and related matters. In addition, three culminating conferences in the autumn of 1998 were held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the United Nations in New York City invited by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE) arose out of the ten conferences at the CSWR and was announced at the United Nations press conference at the conclusion of a symposium reporting on the conclusions of the Harvard conference series. FORE is now housed at the Harvard University Center for the Environment. (http://environment.harvard.edu/religion, and for book orders http://www.hup.harvard.edu).

Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature 

A second major initiative is the 2-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature with Dr. Bron Taylor and Dr. Jeff Kaplan, General Editors (London, England: Continuum International, 2003).  With more than 1,000 entries, this definitive reference work of global and comprehensive scope reviews and defines the parameters of discussion regarding nature religion, the natural dimensions of religion, and related matters including spiritual ecology.  Beyond the printed encyclopedia, the ongoing website for this project provides extensive online resources (http://www.religionandnature.com).  Furthermore, Dr. Taylor and colleagues in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, have launched an exciting new concentration on religion and nature in their Ph.D. program (http://web.religion.ufl.edu).  A Journal of Religion and Nature is also planned.

Periodicals about Spiritual Ecology 

It is also noteworthy that since 1997, an entire international refereed academic journal focuses on aspects of spiritual ecology:  Worldviews: Environment, Culture, and Religion.  The purpose of this scholarly journal is to offer an interdisciplinary exploration of the environmental understandings, perceptions and practices of a wide range of different cultures and religious traditions.  Disciplines represented include anthropology, environmental studies, geography, philosophy, religious studies, philosophy, sociology, and theology (http://www.brill.nl).  Also a popular periodical, EarthLight: The Magazine of Spiritual Ecology, has been published for more than a decade now (http://www.earthlight.org).

Applied and Advocacy Initiatives 

Proponents of religion as one important factor in reducing or resolving environmental problems argue that the ultimate cause of the ongoing environmental crisis resides in choices and concerns which are ultimately moral, and that religion and/or spirituality can be decisive.  Thus, this is not simply an academic matter.  Indeed, practical action is underway in a remarkable number and variety of substantial programs and projects.  For instance, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation founded in 1995 by Dr. Martin Palmer of Manchester University in association with the Worldwide Fund for Nature in the United Kingdom has numerous projects focused on linking people across cultural, religious, and institutional boundaries to promote environmental conservation, and especially through sacred places (http://www.religionsandconservation.org).  As another illustration, the United Nations Environmental Programme sponsored publication of the monumental inventory Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity co-edited by Darrell Addison Posey and others based at Oxford University (London: International Technology Publications 1999).