St Paul's Institute

Spiritual ecology: A deeper response to the ecological crisis

by Amrita Bhohi

Posted: 21 Nov 2016

"We have come to see ourselves as the lords and masters of the Earth, entitled to plunder her at will. The sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life are symptoms that reflect the violence present in our hearts. We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the Earth; that we breathe her air and receive life from her waters." - Pope Francis

Can we respond to the true nature of the environmental tragedy from just a political, economic or even ecological perspective?  I used to feel and speak strongly about the need to recognise the systemic nature of our ecological crisis; caused by an economic system hardwired to infinite growth on a finite planet, and that any solutions needed to be based on systems change and a new economics.  More recently however, my attention has shifted from the outer symptoms (as real and as grave as they are) to a renewed perception that our problem is not only a systems one, but is also a spiritual one, caused by a worldview that desacralises and reduces the earth to dead matter and from within which no real solutions can be found.

To me, the fact that a deeper shift is necessary if we are to 'save the planet,' is increasingly self-evident.  We've known the facts and figures about climate change for decades, and despite warnings from scientists about impending ecological collapse, no adequate political, economic or even environmental solution has been put forth.  As scientist David Suzuki puts it:

"The environmental movement has failed, because although we now have laws that protect clean air, clean water, endangered species and millions of hectares of land - we have not changed the way people see the world."

I believe that until we address our underlying beliefs and attitudes towards the earth, then no real change will happen.  I like how the Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh says, "real change will only happen when we fall in love with the Earth," and to fall in love with the earth means we need a relationship with her.

Spiritual ecology is an emerging field that joins environmentalism with an awareness of the spiritual roots of our ecological crisis in witnessing the earth as a living, interconnected, animate and sacred whole.  It is inspired and informed by the teachings of religious traditions, indigenous wisdom and also the new scientific paradigm, which show us in new and old ways the living unity and interdependence of all existence in the web of life.  In my work with spiritual ecology, I often hear people express how this concept describes and gives words to something that they have intrinsically known for themselves.  Some people call it 'sacred ecology', 'deep ecology' or 'holistic science', but beyond language rests a deep knowing that many of us feel and experience directly.

Learning about spiritual ecology through my work at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace has profoundly affected my approach to environmental action and 'change-making.'  Time and again, I am humbled and challenged to let go of my assumptions about how to make a difference and what it means to be in service to life on earth.  Last year, in a talk at the centre, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, a Lakota native from the Sioux nation, shared with us the cosmology and worldview of his people.  In it, he stunned the audience with the message, "we won't save the earth, mother earth will save us."

By making this simple inversion, Tiokasin's words confounded, alarmed and then awoke me to my own in-built and utterly unconscious anthropocentric arrogance.  It occurred to me that the very idea that we humans should have the power, authority or even ability to 'save the earth', was a response from within the very same self-centred worldview causing the problem in the first place.  A worldview that is all about 'us', that cannot even conceive of the intelligence and creativity of the rest of life.  Of course we need to take responsibility for the ecocide we are creating, and find solutions, but Tiokasin's message has inspired me to ask: what would it be like if our responses came from a place of deep reverence and humility, of co-creation with the Earth?

So, how can we practice spiritual ecology?  In her chapter for the anthology Spiritual Ecology: The cry of the earth, Geneen Marie Haugen describes the role of imagination as a first step to enter into the enchanted reality of communion with nature.  She asks: 

"If we approached rivers, mountains, dragonflies, redwoods and reptiles as if all are alive, intelligent, surfaced with soul, imagination, and purpose, what might the world become?  Who would we become if we participated intentionally with such an animate Earth?  What if we apprehended that by nourishing the land and creatures with generous praise and gratitude, with our remembrance or tears, we rejuvenate our own relationship with the wild Earth?"

I like this practice of imagining ourselves into an enlivened relationship with the Earth, and how this can even lead us to an experience of interconnectedness that might otherwise be restricted by our conditioned selves.

'Listening' has been another recurring theme in my spiritual ecology learning.  I think that our capacity to listen, to hear with our hearts, is what will define whether we have made the 'deeper shift' that is necessary.  In his recent Encyclical letter, Pope Francis writes that "the Earth now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her."  Furthermore, he combines ecological and social justice when describing how climate change most adversely affects the poor.  It is in our arrogance that our hearts have become hardened to the "cry of the earth and the cry of the poor".  In a similar way, Thich Nhat Hanh, when asked what we need to do to help our world, replied, "we need to hear within us the sound of the earth crying."

It may sound pretty radical, but I've begun to feel that until we can move from facts and figures - to love - and go this deep; only once we can find this level of connection, communion and relationship with the Earth, can we respond to the true nature of the crisis, and make real change.

Finally, I've been contemplating the notion of the 'sacred' and how it relates to bringing back the kind of reverence for the Earth that many indigenous people still have but that we in the modern world have lost.  The current North Dakota access pipeline protests are extremely significant in highlighting, amongst other things, the native peoples relationship to their land as sacred and to their collective purpose to 'defend the sacred' which I resonate with deeply.  I've also been interested in the words of Indian eco-feminist and activist Vandana Shiva:

"to protect the life of this earth her rivers and waters, then we have to recognise their life....and we have to create the cultural mechanisms to protect that life, and that cultural mechanism is the category of the sacred. The sacred that shows us the links, the primacy and the basis of sustenance."

We know that cultures who believed in the sacredness of mountains and forests as the domain of the spirits were able to live sustainably for thousands of years.  In a western culture that largely views mountains for mining and forests for felling, how do we bring back the kind of reciprocal relationship that was facilitated by the understanding of the sacred?

For the past year at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace we have been exploring some of these questions and ideas of spiritual ecology in relation to peace making, interfaith and young adult leadership.  We've had an overwhelming level of interest and engagement from our networks of change-makers and peace activists of all generations who want to explore these questions and create practical responses that embody the spiritual ecology worldview.  See the links above for different ways to get involved!

About this author

Amrita's is Programme Co-ordinator for the Project Phoenix and New Economics for Peace program at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.