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Spiritual Ecology (Sponsel, 2009)

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Course Title

Spiritual Ecology

Instructor(s) Les Sponsel
University of Hawaii

Anthropology, Religious Studies

Subject(s) Religion and Ecology


During the 1970s, developments like Earth Day, The Ecologist magazine, Friends of the Earth, the Green Party, Greenpeace, and the Stockholm Environment Conference reflected a marked increase in international knowledge, awareness, concerns, and actions about the growing environmental crisis in the world. However, after nearly four decades this crisis is even worse including the continuing discovery of new problems like acid rain, global warming, biodiversity erosion, frog abnormalities, bee population declines, and so on. Obviously, the usual remedies for the ecocrisis have proven insufficient, such as environmental science, technology, education, government, laws, and politics. Since the 1990s, an accelerating number of diverse individuals and organizations have been turning to religion and spirituality as the last resort. This “religious environmental movement” is not offered instead of previous approaches, but in addition to them as a complement, an additional component that may finally turn things around for the better. No particular religious or spiritual path is designated as the sole solution for the ongoing and worsening ecocrisis. 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 worldviews, attitudes, values, and practices for themselves and others. The pivotal idea is that “Unless we transform our relationship with nature, we will destroy the preconditions for human life on this planet” (Rabbi Michael Lerner).

A most exciting and promising whole new trans-disciplinary field, here called spiritual ecology, has been developing since the 1990s. It may be defined as a diverse and complex arena of intellectual and practical activities at the interface of religions and spiritualities on the one hand, and on the other of ecologies, environments, and environmentalisms. Accordingly, in 1995, David Kinsley published the first major textbook on this subject, Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Just a year later Roger S. Gottlieb edited a monumental benchmark anthology, This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, and in 2004 he published a second expanded edition.

A series of ten conferences on the world's religions and ecology were held at the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) in the Harvard University Divinity School from May 1996 to July 1998. They were organized by Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker and Dr. John Grim, at the time professors in the Department of Religion at Bucknell University of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. These 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 (see below). The primary goal of these conferences and books is to outline the contours of a whole new multidisciplinary 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 to the press at the United Nations following a symposium reporting on the conclusions of the Harvard series. FORE recently moved from the Harvard Center for the Environment to Yale University where Tucker and Grim are now located in the Divinity School and the School for Forestry and Environmental Studies (http://www.religionandecology.org, http://fore.research.yale.edu). The FORE web site is in eight languages and is purported to receive over 60,000 visitors monthly. Two similar organizations developed more recently elsewhere: Canadian Forum on Religion and Ecology (http://rel.queeenssu.ca/cfore) and the European Forum for the Study of Religion and Environment (http://www.hf.ntnu.no/relnateur).

A second major initiative is the 2-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Dr. Bron Taylor, Editor-in-Chief, published by Continuum Press in 2005. With 518 authors and about 1,000 entries in 1,877 pages, this definitive reference work of global and comprehensive scope recapitulates and defines the parameters of discussion regarding nature religion, the natural dimensions of religion, and related matters including spiritual ecology (see the index in the Resource Guide to Spiritual Ecology near the end of this syllabus). Beyond the printed encyclopedia, the ongoing website for this project provides extensive online resources. (See “Introduction and Reader’s Guide” at http://www.religionandnature.com). Furthermore, in 2003, Dr. Taylor and his colleagues in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, launched an exciting new concentration on Religion and Nature in their graduate program (http://www.religion.ufl.edu). (Florida is one of two such primary programs, the other being the Spiritual Ecology Concentration within the Ecological Anthropology Program at UH also launched in 2003). Moreover, in April 2006, the inaugural conference was held at the University of Florida for the new International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (ISSRNC)(http://www.religionandnature.com).

It is also noteworthy that since 1997 an entire international refereed academic journal focuses on aspects of spiritual ecology: Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion (BL 65 .N35 W675). In 2008 the title was changed to Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, Ecology. 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, sociology, and theology (http://www.brill.nl). In addition, a popular periodical, EarthLight: The Magazine of Spiritual Ecology, was published for more than a decade, although it was discontinued a few years ago (http://www.earthlight.org). Another periodical was launched in 2007 in association with the ISSRCN, the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, succeeding Ecotheology (www.religionandnature.com) but with a broader scope and aims. (Volume 11 in 2006 was the last of Ecotheology).

Proponents of this recent movement argue that religion and spirituality can be important factors in resolving environmental problems. They assert that the root cause of the ongoing environmental crisis resides in concerns and choices that are ultimately moral, and that here religion and spirituality can be decisive factors. Thus, spiritual ecology is not merely an academic matter. Indeed, practical action is underway in a remarkable number and variety of substantial initiatives as illustrated for example by the video “Renewal: Stories from America’s Religious Environmental Movement” (http://www.remewalproject.net). As another example, since 1995 the Alliance for Religion and Conservation in association with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the United Kingdom has been developing numerous projects focusing on the linkage between sacred places in nature and biodiversity conservation (http://www.wwf.org.uk). One major accomplishment of WWF is the book Beyond Belief: Linking Faiths and Protected Areas to Support Biodiversity Conservation, by Dudley, Nigel, Lisa Higgins-Zogib, and Stephanie Mansourian (December 2005) (http://www.panda.org). As another illustration, in 1999 the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) sponsored publication of the monumental inventory Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity co-edited by anthropologist Darrell Addison Posey of Oxford University and others (http://www.unep.org/Biodiversity). (Also below see Earth and Faith: A Book of Reflection and Action coedited in 2000 for the UN Environmental Program by Libby Bassett and others).

There are also various academic programs focusing on what amounts to spiritual ecology that have been developing over the last five years at several universities including Drew University, University of Chicago, University of Florida, Graduate Theological Union in the University of California at Berkeley, University of Hawai`i, Ohio Northern University, Schumacher College, University of Toronto, Vanderbilt University, Western Illinois University, and Yale University. Undoubtedly other universities will develop programs on this subject as well.

The Spiritual Ecology Concentration within the optional Ecological Anthropology Program at the University of Hawai`i is unique in being available to undergraduates as well as graduates and in the special combination of courses available which are cross-listed between the departments of Anthropology and Religion (422 Anthropology of Religion, 443 Anthropology of Buddhism, 444 Spiritual Ecology, and 445 Sacred Places). Spiritual Ecology is the core course for this optional concentration (see http://www.soc.hawaii.edu/Sponsel).Other relevant courses can be found in various departments and centers to integrate into a meaningful program of studies at either the graduate or undergraduate levels. Undergraduates may pursue such a program through a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies (http://www.hawaii.edu/libst/).

From the above, it is certainly obvious that substantial progress has been made in the development of basic and applied work in spiritual ecology, including major international conferences, an international scholarly organization, two academic journals, major textbooks and anthologies, web sites with substantial resources like FORE, university programs with specialized courses, and so on. All of this is even more impressive because it has transpired mostly since the 1990s, although there are some deep roots historically. Already it is feasible for someone to develop a whole career in teaching and/or research focused on spiritual ecology in general or in the case of a particular world religion such as Buddhism. The extensive resources listed in the accompanying guide further documents this extraordinary and promising development. (For more resources see FORE at http://www.yale.edu/religionandecology as well as the chapters and bibliographies in major texts and anthologies by Roger S. Gottlieb and others).

The present advanced course offers a systematic, thorough, in-depth, and critical exploration and analysis of this flourishing, exciting, and most promising new subject as a frontier for research, teaching, activism, and spirituality. Here at UH spiritual ecology is approached predominantly from the academic, scientific, and anthropological perspectives, the latter encompassing holism, culture, cross-cultural comparisons, and ethnographic fieldwork. However, the guide includes resources for individuals who may wish to pursue spiritual ecology beyond academic concerns for their own personal growth and well being.

Here the term spiritual ecology is used simply because it is more inclusive than religion, referring to ideas and actions in this domain by individuals as well as organizations, and because it parallels the names of other primary approaches within ecological anthropology like historical ecology and political ecology. [See Leslie E. Sponsel, 2007, “Spiritual Ecology: One Anthropologist’s Reflections,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 1(3):340-350].

The above and many other exciting developments reflect the rapidly growing momentum of diverse intellectual and practical interest and activities in this new frontier of spiritual ecology. This must overlap with the strong concern among college and university students with both environmentalism and spirituality, the latter as revealed by ongoing surveys of the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute (http://www.spirituality.ucla.edu). Spirituality and environmentalism do not arise spontaneously in a vacuum, they are grounded and motivated by intellectual as well as practical activities in a dynamic and dialectical process.

See PDF here.