Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2006

Spirit Matters: Selections from forthcoming books, articles, and talks

Environmentalism as Spirituality

Excerpt from A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet's Future by Roger S. Gottlieb. (June 2006, Oxford University Press)

Pursued by his enemies, afraid for his life and his throne, King David experienced a moment of grace which he recorded in a poetic prayer that has given people comfort for centuries: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," says the Twenty-third Psalm, indicating a trust in God marked by gratitude and serenity. When a follower of the Buddha finally entered into meditation fully, he told a friend that he was able to let go of any sense of "I am this, this is mine, this is my self." When the orchestra and chorus burst into the Et Resurrexit section of the Bach B Minor Mass—an explosive and ascending melody that propels the believer into an awareness of the miracle of Christ's entry into Divine Life—devout Christians may experience a sense of overwhelming joy: a joy, we might note, that is always available, because for the Christian, Christ's resurrection is a permanently recurring miracle that gives meaning and hope to human existence. When we celebrate the Sabbath, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam tell us we should feel delight, thankfulness, and rest. It is a time to appreciate what has been given to us, to see it as the gift of a generous God, and to take a break from thinking about how we can get more.

These are a few of the distinctive experiences fostered by religious life. Their most important shared feature is the way they take us beyond the conventional ego, beyond a frame of mind in which we calculate our interests, compete with those around us, struggle for success, seek to control the world to get what we want from it, or unendingly complain about every damn thing we don't have. In the experience of God or Ultimate Reality or Spirit, we are less depressed, bored, anxious, and selfish and more grateful, joyous, and serene. We taste exuberance or tranquility, reverence or awe, a deep confidence in the universe or a sense of how much of the universe will always be an enthralling mystery. Finally, because we feel we have achieved communion with an immensely powerful source of meaning, a force or intelligence much vaster than ourselves with whom we can, in some sense, communicate, we no longer feel so alone.

For thousands of years religious writings have described these experiences as the product of encounters with God, or with states of mind stemming from meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Yet they are also to be found at the heart of environmentalism. It is precisely because for many of us the encounter with the rest of life on earth—indeed at times with the universe as a whole—provokes profound feelings of awe and reverence, mystery and serenity, that we commit ourselves to its protection.

The connection between nature and powerful, religious-like emotions is a familiar theme in the classic nineteenth- and early twentieth-century nature writers, writers who also were active in or guiding lights of the emerging social movement of environmentalism. Over and over, Thoreau and John Muir, John Burroughs, and Sigurd Olson describe the transformative quality of wilderness. Thoreau celebrated a "wildness" that is "the preservation of the world" and tells us, "When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest woods, the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow, of Nature." A keen observer of his surroundings, knowledgeable in natural history, Thoreau also regarded nature in a decidedly spiritual light: "The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence.... Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features." John Muir's celebration of (and lobbying for) California's Sierra Mountains in the late nineteenth century eventually helped give rise to Yosemite National Park. Of his first encounter with them he wrote, "No description of Heaven that I have ever heard or read of seems half so fine." Sigurd Olson, whose life in the rugged lake country of northern Minnesota produced widely read books and articles, suggested in 1938 that what we learn from wilderness "are spiritual values ... a familiar base for exploration of the soul and the universe itself.... With escape comes perspective. Far from the towns and all they denote, engrossed in their return to the old habits of wilderness living, men begin to wonder if the speed and pressure they have left are not a little senseless." John Burroughs, a contemporary of Muir's whose writings on birds made him equally famous in his day, reassured his readers, "Nature we have always with us, an inexhaustible storehouse of that which moves the heart, appeals to the mind and fires the imagination—health to the body, a stimulus to the intellect, and joy to the soul." During a long ramble in the countryside he described a kind of mystical perfection that could be found through a commonplace encounter with the sky: "The office of the sunshine is slow, subtle, occult, unsuspected; but when the clouds do their work, the benefaction is so palpable and copious, so direct and wholesale, that all creatures take note of it, and for the most part rejoice in it. It is a completion, a consummation, a paying of a debt with a royal hand; the measure is heaped and overflowing!"

These few examples signal a widespread fact: it is quite common, says historian Michael P. Nelson, for people to argue for the preservation of wilderness as "a site for spiritual, mystical, or religious encounters: places to experience mystery, moral regeneration, spiritual revival, meaning, oneness, unity, wonder, awe, inspiration, or a sense of harmony with the rest of creation—all essential religious experiences."

These experiences are not merely the passing pleasures of ecological aesthetes, but are often integrated into lives of environmental activists. Engaged in a fight to prevent Yosemite's magnificent valley Hetch Hetchy from being dammed, Muir raged, "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man." As a twenty-four-year-old, the Jewish forester Robert Marshall, early advocate for wilderness conservation and a founder of the influential Wilderness Society, spent Yom Kippur of 1925 walking in the Idaho mountains and for three hours meditated in silence while sitting on a rock. The experience, he claimed, was for him more religiously effective than traditional observance: "In Temple ... it has in the past been impossible to banish [trivial] thoughts from my mind, and, at best, fasting, hard seats and dull sermons are not conducive to deep thought. Therefore, I feel that my celebration of Yom Kippur, though unorthodox, was very profitable." Richard St. Barbe Baker, who pursued a lifelong vocation in support of tree planting to repair landscapes, improve agriculture, purify water, and orient humanity to cooperation with rather than unthinking control over nature, often wrote of how forests led him to awe and reverence.

It is important to note that such attitudes toward wilderness are not, as some might suppose, relics of earlier times when people were "more religious" than they are now. During three recent seminars on the "value of wilderness" hosted by the National Forest Service, accounts of the economics of lumber and consumer preferences for outdoor recreation were persistently joined by acknowledgment of the "intrinsic value" of wilderness, and of how it sustains and elevates humanity's spiritual life.

Of the many religious experiences to which wilderness gives rise, one deserves special mention: a sense of the dissolution of the ego, of the boundaries that sharply divide one's own self from others. Sigmund Freud termed this experience "oceanic," and it has been a hallmark of religious mysticism in virtually every tradition one can think of. A good deal of spiritual practice, from long periods of meditation to extended fasting to intense prayer, has as its goal a lessening of our sense of separation, of rigid demarcation, between "me" and the rest of creation. Such experiences are also common in relation to nature. At certain crucial moments, ecofeminist Charlene Spretnak wrote in 1990, we manage to attend fully to what is around us, and "at that moment the distinction between inner and outer mind dissolves, and we meet our larger self." A century and a half earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson described how going into the woods provides a "perfect exhilaration," enabling a man to "cast off his years" and be forever a child. "Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the current of the universal Being circulates through me: I am part or parcel of God." As traditional religions revere those times when we are overwhelmed by the presence of God, or feel our ego dissolved in meditation, so people have for centuries acknowledged the power of nature to take them out of their normally constricted sense of self.

This expanded sense of self prompts an extended sense of fellowship as well, one in which we feel for all of nature (including people, we hope!) the kinds of moral sentiments held dear by traditional religions: to love our neighbors as ourselves (Christianity and Judaism), to "spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans for the needy, for the wayfarer" (Islam, Qur'an 2:177), or to respond to anyone's pain as if it were our own (Buddhism). To use Jewish philosopher Martin Buber's terminology, each animal and plant, even each mountain and river, becomes a "thou" rather than an "it." In Baker's words, "A Tree is a real thing, it has a personality. It is a living entity. Is it too much to believe that it responds to the love that is given to it?... We shall tread softly when we enter the sanctuary of the woods, seeing we are in company with tree beings who respond to our love and care."

This sense of kinship extends to the whole as well as to the particular elements that make up the whole. American nature writer and inspirer of the radical deep ecology group Earth First! Edward Abbey suggested that love of wildness is "an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need."

It must be stressed that the language of love, awe, and reverence, of nature's capacity to heal and comfort, are not, as some might suppose, simply the province of poetic and private individuals, of a Thoreau in a cabin by Walden Pond or an isolated nature writer whose affection for nature is solely literary. Rather, for many in the environmentalist community, these kinds of experiences of nature are essential to why they became active environmentalists, and to why they continue the struggle throughout their lives. Muir helped create America's national parks and founded the Sierra Club, Marshall the national forest system. Baker spent his entire adult life trying to regenerate lost forests, helping protect redwoods in California, creating a tree-planting society among native Kenyans, and improving tree cover for fields in India and Australia. Spretnak has been a political activist in the American green movement for decades.

To take a less well-known but critically important example from recent American history, consider Howard Zahniser, who spent seven years drafting more than sixty versions of what became the 1964 Wilderness Act, an act that set aside more than 9 million acres of the United States as places human beings could visit but not impact and in which the marks of human activity would be absent. The Wilderness Act was an enormously detailed, highly technical legal accomplishment, not the stuff of religious enthusiasm or spiritual musing. Getting it passed required extensive lobbying, negotiating, consulting, and coalition building by Zahniser and his allies. Yet, in "The Need for Wilderness," after giving the more tangible recreational, scientific, and ecological values of wilderness their due, Zahniser went on to emphasize that "the most profound of all wilderness values in our modern world" is its ability to help us "know a profound humility, to recognize one's littleness, to sense dependence and interdependence, indebtedness and responsibility."

Another conservation professional, chief economist and social science coordinator for the National Forest Service's Inter Mountain region David Iverson, speaks of "a spiritual element to the land: you can feel it every time you're out there." Influenced by a childhood filled with experiences of nature, by Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey, Iverson heads the remarkable organization Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a group of professional foresters who oppose our government's tendency to treat the woods simply as raw material. Their goal is not only to manage the land efficiently, but to pass it "with reverence from generation to generation." Of all the words that could have been used in this simple statement of intent, it is striking that an essentially religious word was chosen. In a review of Nature and the Human Spirit, a large collection of essays by foresters and environmentalists, Iverson points out that such a volume could not have been possible in the past, and that its endorsement by high-level administrators indicates that the longstanding taboo against speaking of the forests' spiritual meanings may be weakening.

In general, says experienced forester Robert Perschel, many of his fellow paid staffers of the 250,000-member Wilderness Society find a spiritual sensibility underlying their work. If the culture of professionalism forbade a great deal of discussion of that dimension, it still could be tapped. During the Society's annual weeklong staff meeting, Perschel initiated an hour-long discussion by asking participants to bring in "sacred objects," something to indicate why they were doing the work they did. "Amazing things came out," he says. "One man talked about taking walks with his dying mother through pine forests where she had played as a child. A woman who had worked for the merchant marine described seeing a pod of whales suddenly shooting out of a massive wave during a typhoon, and her staring into the eyes of one of them who was magically suspended in front of her." Perschel, former head of the Northern Forest Alliance and current environmental director of the Garrison Institute, believes that in the environmental movement, "You can always make a connection to someone about some special moment. Maybe it came in the Grand Canyon, maybe in the backyard, but there is always that common thread: that there is more to us than just the self, there is the larger community—from the family and the town and the nation, to all of nature, the whole universe." The environmental crisis demands, says Perschel, far more than "rational management": "We have no hope unless we infuse the debate over the environment with the deep emotional and spiritual connections that it warrants and that will be required for a great social transformation."

Source Citation

Gottlieb, Roger S. 2006. Environmentalism as Spirituality (excerpt from the book A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet's Future, June 2006, Oxford University Press). Tikkun 21(3): 21.

SPIRIT MATTERS contains selections from forthcoming books, articles, and talks that raise significant spiritual, religious, or social theory issues that connect to the Tikkun project of healing and transformation of the world. Authors or publishers who seek to have work included in this section must send us the material for consideration at least three months prior to the cover date of the issue of in which they'd like to be included, and this date must be prior to the actual publication of the book. Email submissions to rabbilerner@tikkun.org.

tags: Environment, Spirituality