Leslie Sponsel on Spiritual Ecology, Connection, and Environmental Change
October 1, 2013
Anthropology and Environment Society
ENGAGEMENT editors recently connected with Leslie Sponsel, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i, to talk about his recent book, Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution (2012, Praeger), and its broader contributions to environmental movements and policy decisions around the world. This interview is the latest in an ENGAGEMENT series that explores how environmental-anthropological book projects have profound and important impacts on the world around us.
EE: What is the theme of your new book?
LS: Spiritual Ecology is an historical and cross-cultural survey of a quiet revolution, its intellectual and practical activities from the ancient past to the present. Those who have enjoyed the privilege of conducting ethnographic research with indigenous peoples are likely to recognize the importance of religion and spirituality in their lives and societies. In my book, I look to indigenous groups from different parts of the world for lessons on how spirituality can inform ecological practices. Also, one chapter is a penetrating critical analysis of the so-called “myth of the ecologically noble savage.”
Since the late 1980s, interest in spirituality and ecology as well as their interface has been growing exponentially. As an umbrella term, spiritual ecology may be defined as a vast, complex, diverse, and dynamic arena of intellectual and practical activities at the interface of religions and spiritualities on the one hand, and environments, ecologies, and environmentalisms on the other. Other labels refer only to some aspect of spiritual ecology, such as ecomysticism, ecotheology, or religious environmentalism, although somewhat broader are the labels religion and ecology and also religion and nature.
Following the principle of cultural relativism, the book is inclusive and non-judgmental regarding religions and spiritualities. Spiritual ecology does not advocate any particular religion; instead those who are religious or spiritual are encouragd to examine their own beliefs and values to see how they relate to nature. Interestingly, even some atheists are spiritual ecologists of sorts.
EE: How does your book address broader questions in environmental anthropology?
LS: Environmental and ecological anthropology engages with elemental questions like: What is nature? What is human? What is the place of humans in nature? What should be the place of humans in nature? Spiritual ecology deals with all four of these questions (Sponsel 2011). Ideally, spiritual ecology seeks to integrate materialist and mentalist approaches within cultural anthropology, rather than automatically opposing one to the other as antithetical and incompatible. In addition, like Philippe Descola’s recent book, Beyond Nature and Culture, spiritual ecology challenges many dualities such as human/animal. It is important to recognize that several other pioneers in ecological anthropology, such as Roy A. Rapport, Richard K. Nelson, Darrell A. Posey, and Eugene N. Anderson, have been concerned with various aspects of spiritual ecology, even though they may not use the term (Sponsel 2010, 2011).
Since the late 1980s, a growing number of individuals and organizations, scientific as well as religious, are convinced that more-than-secular approaches are required to reduce, if not resolve, many environmental problems. They think that the solution is to pursue the potential environmental relevance of religion and spirituality. For example, my book devotes a chapter to Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement, which focused on planting trees, initially in local communities, but then throughout Kenya, and eventually beyond to other African countries and even worldwide. The subtitle of one of her own books is revealing: Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World. Like many environmentalists and conservationists, her ultimate motivation stems from spiritual or mystical experiences in nature (for more on such points see Johnston 2013 and Taylor 2010).
EE: How did you engage with different communities when you were doing the research for your book? How has your research sparked lasting collaborations or engagements in your field site?
LS: The book is based more on library than field research, although the first five chapters draw on my intermittent fieldwork on the behavioral ecology of predation with Yanomami, Ye’kuana, and Curripaco in the Venezuelan Amazon from 1974-1981, and since the mid-1980s on spiritual ecology and sacred places in Thailand. For example, Chapter 2 is a holistic analysis of sacred trees based on research in Thailand. The book is also grounded in what I learned from class preparation and students themselves over the three decades that I devoted to the Ecological Anthropology Program at the University of Hawai’i. That program included an optional concentration in spiritual ecology from 2003-2010. A third major source that the book draws on is my experience attending three of the groundbreaking series of conferences on religion and ecology at Harvard University (see Tucker and Grim 2013). Other sources are the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, and my experience as one of the Associate Editors and a contributing author for The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature.
In collaboration with my wife Dr. Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, who is Thai, I continue to conduct field research each summer on sacred places in Thailand and their role in biodiversity conservation. During the past two years I also gave lectures on aspects of spiritual ecology at three major universities in Thailand, Chulalongkorn University and Thammasat University in Bangkok, and the Center for Environment and Resource Management of Mae Fa Luang University in Chiang Rai in the far north. Guest lectures provide one venue to spread information and ideas about spiritual ecology, and in Thailand, one way to reciprocate for the most kind and generous hospitality and assistance of people.
EE: What is the key message you hope people take away from reading your book?
LS: The key message of the book is twofold. First, secular approaches to environmental concerns are absolutely necessary and have made great strides, but they have not been sufficient. Second, the multitude of diverse approaches under the rubric of spiritual ecology may well be the last chance for the survival of our species. We are likely to see whether or not the intellectual and practical components of spiritual ecology will help turn the environmental situation around for the better within a few decades, especially in the face of the increasing pressures of global climate change (assuming that this does not reach a catastrophic tipping point).
The core behind everything in the book is two tables. The first table, reprinted from another publication (Sponsel 2001), details the trajectory of cultural evolution from prehistory to the present emphasizing the progressive intensification and acceleration in the magnitude of the human ecological footprint. The second table contrasts in great detail the ecocidal industrial growth society and the life-sustaining and enhancing society, the latter sorely needed to restore some modicum of ecosanity. That table is extracted from material in Ralph Metzner’s book Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth. The second table is in my chapter on Joanna Macy’s decades of vital work in facilitating this transformation, something she calls “the Great Turning,” which involves, among other things, a fundamental shift in consciousness (Macy and Johnston 2012). In my book, that shift is referred to as the quiet revolution of spiritual ecology; namely, a radical re-thinking, re-feeling, and re-visioning of the human place in nature to avert, or maybe just to adapt to, critical environmental challenges such as global climate change. Ultimately, as with other anthropologists, the book takes advantage of our discipline’s ability to view humanity diachronically from the local community level to the human species globally.
EE: What are the broader contributions of your book to public discussions about environmental conservation projects?
LS: I wrote the book for a general audience, but also with scientists and academics in mind. The book provides the big picture. An apt analogy is a jigsaw puzzle with the entire picture in view, rather than focusing on only one or a few pieces of the puzzle. The big picture of spiritual ecology places in a broader context and perspective the initiatives of numerous environmental and conservation organizations that are turning to religion as a significant resource for their work, such as the recent probing of the role of sacred places in biodiversity conservation by NGOs like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (e.g., Versuuchen, et al., 2010). (Also see the Alliance for Religions and Conservation which collaborates with the World Wide Fund for Nature, and Dudley, et al., 2006).
EE: What are the broader contributions of your book to public and policy discussions about social and environmental justice?
LS: Ecologists realize that everything is interconnected and interdependent. The environment is fundamental to justice and vice versa. This is illustrated in chapters on Joanna Macy and Wangari Maathai, and those that critically analyze the provocative film Avatar and the horrifying case of Tibet, both of which reflect issues of social and environmental justice. For instance, the completely unjustified Chinese military invasion and colonial occupation of Tibet, an independent and relatively peaceful nation for many centuries, continues to cause not only systematic genocide and ethnocide, but also ecocide. The latter results from the desecration of the environment for the rapacious economic exploitation of natural resources with deforestation, wildlife decimation, mining, and toxic waste dumps.
Many contemporary environmental problems from the local to the global ultimately result from the worldview and values of industrialism, materialism, consumerism, and capitalism, especially when they are fed by rapacious greed that impoverishes people and ecosystems. In particular, they pivot on the dangerous fallacy that unlimited growth is possible on a limited base. That base is not only natural resources, but also the capacity of planet Earth’s systems to process pollution and other anthropogenic stresses. Spiritual ecology tries to help awaken people to such issues and help them to find their own pathway toward a more sustainable, green, just, and peaceful future. Thomas Berry (2006:17) stated the crux of the matter most succinctly: “… the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”
EE: How is your book being used beyond the academy? Has it prompted invitations to engage with new groups of people about your ideas?
LS: The book was only published in July 2012, thus it is too early to assess with confidence how it is being received beyond the academy. However, a few examples can be cited. Some of the endorsements printed in the book, like those of Bill McKibben of 350.org and Jeffrey A. McNeeley of the IUCN strongly affirm the book’s key message and approach. A Native Hawaiian anthropologist, Lynette Cruz, interviewed me about spiritual ecology on her program “Issues That Matter” for the local Native television station, and Joanna Harcourt-Smith conducted a phone interview for her radio program “FuturePrimitive” from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Perhaps more significant is the complementary website for the book which provides even more resources and a venue to regularly update the book. Also, it shares information about spiritual ecology far more widely. During the first year it received over 10,000 vists.
Spiritual ecology is revolutionary, a serious challenge to fundamentalists not only in religion, but also in business, government, media, science, and academia. It is a devastating critique of the industrial growth society as a seriously unsustainable, maladaptive, dysfunctional, and destructive system. Moreover, it proffers radical alternatives, as in the chapter on Joanna Macy. Some kind of Great Turning appears inevitable within coming decades, whether voluntarily by choice or by the force of “nature’s revenge.” I am far from alone in that diagnosis and prognosis of the unprecedented ecological pathology of the industrial growth society, as the book documents (e.g. Taylor 2010). Such messages are unlikely to attract attention by the establishment other than to purposefully ignore them.
Spiritual ecology is a quiet revolution in the sense that it is nonviolent, decentralized without any single leader or organization, and not yet well-recognized and appreciated. It is a revolution in the sense that it calls for profound transformations in individual lifestyles as well as societies. Ultimately this is by far the most important choice we face today, between ecosanity or ecocide. The latter is seriously degrading, if not destroying, our own species and the biogeochemical systems of planet Earth, and this by a portion of a species that is only a wink in the vastness of geological time. While the environmental situation is increasingly dismal and depressing, overall spiritual ecology is positive and hopeful. For example, Western science and religion, which have often been in conflict since the Enlightenment, are increasingly finding common ground for collaboration in addressing the challenges of environmental problems (e.g., Tucker and Grim 2013). Likewise, various religions that often have been in conflict are also increasingly finding common ground for interfaith collaboration in facing environmental problems. By now it should be obvious that this quiet revolution of spiritual ecology is of considerable relevance to ecological and environmental anthropologists, and vice versa.
Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel is Professor Emeritus at the University of Hawai’i where he was hired in 1981 to develop and direct the Ecological Anthropology Program. In August 2010 he retired to devote full time to research and writing concentrating on spiritual ecology, although he still teaches one course each semester. He is also developing the Research Institute for Spiritual Ecology (RISE) at http://spiritualecology.info.
Within ecological anthropology his previous books include Indigenous Peoples and the Future of the Amazon, and Tropical Deforestation: The Human Dimension.
Berry, Thomas, with Mary Evelyn Tucker (ed.), 2006, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA.
Johnston, Lucas F., 2013, Religion and Sustainability: Social Movements and the Politics of the Environment, Equinox, Bristol, CT.
Macy, Joanna, and Chris Johnstone, 2012, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, New World Library, Novato, CA.
Sponsel, Leslie E., 2001, “Human Impact on Biodiversity, Overview,” in the Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, Simon Asher Levin, Editor-in-Chief, Academic Press, San Diego, CA , 3:395-409 [Second Edition in press].
_____, 2010, “Religion and Environment: Exploring Spiritual Ecology,” Religion and Society: Advances in Research 1:131-145.
_____, 2011, “The Religion and Environment Interface: Spiritual Ecology in Ecological Anthropology,” in Environmental Anthropology Today, Helen Kopnina and Elanor Shoreman-Quimet, eds., Routledge, New York, NY, pp. 37-55.
Taylor, Bron, 2010, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Tucker, Mary Evelyn, and John A. Grim, 2013, Forum on Religion and Ecology, http://fore.research.yale.edu.
Versuuchen, Bas, et al., eds., 2010, Sacred Natural Sites Conserving Nature and Culture, Earthscan/International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), London, UK.