Spirituality vs Ecology — The Myth of Spiritual Ecology
03 Jan 2009
Spirituality and ecology are often viewed as different facets of the same modern spiritual belief. However, digging deeper we find that they are in fact mutually exclusive and that the very term spiritual ecology is oxymoronic.
'AFTER THE LAST TREE is felled, Christ will come back." These words were supposedly uttered in a public testimony to the US Congress by former President Reagan's first secretary of the interior, James Watt. Although there is no evidence that he actually said this, his testimony is often repeated in progressive circles as it succinctly encapsulates the environmentally-destructive perspective of America's religious right.
It is all too easy for those of us in the alternative spiritual and ecological movements to be shocked by such myopic statements of religious dogma, and this is borne out by the quote's persistent appearance in the alternative press in evidence of the insanity of fundamentalist religious perspectives. But what most fail to realize is that all spiritual perspectives are at odds with the central tenets of the ecological movement. This is because the spiritual perspective sees the world as an open system, whereas the ecological perspective sees the world as a closed system. And never the twain shall meet, except in the oxymoronic myth of spiritual ecology.
Those who believe that we are a part of a larger intelligent and omnipotent power must believe in the possibility miracles. After all, if God cannot supersede the normal laws of nature, the very concept of this limited God becomes redundant as it would be synonymous with empirical materialism. So a Higher Power, especially one responsible for creating the universe, must be capable of doing extraordinary things, which is reflected in the stories (literal or mythological, depending on your point of view) that define, explain and justify just about all of the different religions and spiritual beliefs. (Even Buddhism, which is considered largely non-theistic, has a rich heritage of the miraculous.)
God is infinite, so if we have a link or relationship to God (and God is connected to everything), we have a link or relationship to the infinite. And if we leave room for the infinite or miraculous in our system, we are, by definition, living in an open system.
The ecological perspective, on the other hand, specifically focuses on the limitations associated with closed systems, such as our material planet. The inherent physical limitations of such systems define sets of parameters within which the system can maintain relative homoeostasis, beyond which the system will break down. So, for example, from the ecological perspective, carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere must not be allowed to rise too high or else global warming will reach a tipping point beyond which the Earth ecosystem will rapidly deteriorate and no longer be able to support complex life.
A closed-system perspective, such as the ecological paradigm, has no room for God or a Higher Power outside the natural mechanics of that system. Whilst it is true that novelty or emergent properties can and do arise in a closed system from sufficient complexity, the system is still fundamentally mechanical in that it is defined and described as a mechanism, albeit a very complex one (one that may be too complex to mathematically model). Ecology is essentially a materialistic perspective of the interplay of living organisms and their environment, as opposed to spirituality's non-materialism.
These two perspectives, the spiritual open-system perspective and the ecological closed-system perspective, are worlds apart, although most people do not realize this because the two have been victim to a shotgun wedding by the New Consciousness movement, which has taken advantage of the increasing secularization and materialization of spiritual values, forcing them in line with ecology's materialistic systems perspective.
This marriage between spirituality and ecology is often justified by alluding to an historical precedence set by aboriginal people. This is, however, a distortion of the original shamanistic perspective which views the world not as a limited material system to be conserved but as a series of interwoven spiritual relationships to be maintained. Aboriginal people did not think of trees, for example, as limited resources to be protected, but as entities that must be respected. To show disrespect from the shamanic view brings great misfortune, and every misfortune is a consequence of a spiritual relationship that has gone awry. The ecological and shamanistic perspectives in this case produce the same end result — the conservation of trees — but the paradigms in which they fulfill this could not be more different. The conservation perspective is a closed-system perspective whereas the shamanistic perspective is an open-system perspective. An ecological disaster from the later perspective is viewed as consequence of not honoring the gods, spirits or ancestors — of our spiritual relationship with All-That-Is being out of balance. But certainly not primarily as a material overuse of limited ecological resources. The concept of limitation is a new one — in times past, the natural resources in relation to a much smaller human population seemed unlimited.
Another example might be pollution in the atmosphere. From the ecological perspective, pollution is caused by industry and our fixation on burning fossil fuels. It is a material problem whose solution involves making changes in industry and energy generation, so that the pollution can slowly dissipate according to the laws of physics and chemistry. From the spiritual perspective, however, material pollution will have a spiritual foundation, and the solution to dirty air is not a material problem but one of changing our relationship to the world. The air can miraculously change in a moment if we get our spiritual relationship right, and those who call themselves spiritual but who do not believe this are actually holding a strong belief in scientific materialism. (There is nothing wrong with this, but it must not be mistaken for open-system spirituality.)
The other false justification for spiritual ecology tends to be the Buddhist contemplation of interdependence. However, traditional Buddhism never had any concern for ecology, with the contemplation of interdependence being used as a tool to dissolve the ego with the realization that there is no separation between self and non-self, not as a means of justifying the protection of the natural environment — a novel interpretation.
So spirituality and ecology bring very different perspectives to the crisis that we currently face. To call the crisis an "ecological crisis" is to take the ecological perspective. To call the crisis a "spiritual crisis" is to take a spiritual perspective. But because these two paradigms are so different, these two perspectives cannot both be used at the same time. It is a bit like looking at the wire-frame outline of a cube — it is either this way or that way, but it can't be both in the same moment. Where both perspectives agree is that the earth and humankind are experiencing some kind of deep crisis, a crisis so deep that our very future hangs in the balance.
Generally speaking, the more materially focused individuals are, the more they potentially care about the physical environment. (Those focused on attaining possessions are driven more by emotional issues rather than a specific focus on the physical.) So the more fervent environmentalists and ecologists tend to be materialistic, for the destruction of the material environment is, for them, the destruction of their world. That is why they are so driven regarding material destruction. For a religious or spiritual person, on the other hand, the destruction of the environment, although deeply concerning, is in the larger picture the destruction of a single dimension of being, and even that destruction is often seen a necessary initiation to a new order — a healing crisis. So the spiritual person is often less driven when confronted with the state of the world's ecosystem.
Many spiritual paradigms not only are less concerned by ecological destruction but positively welcome it as evidence for the "end times" – when God will return and the world will be transformed (open-system type transformation). Nearly all religions and spiritual beliefs are teleological — they include details of some kind of "end game" — and many believe that this time of societal chaos and ecological breakdown marks the time of this endgame, an endgame has to be played out before the birth of a new world or paradise, or before the return of the "Lord" or Messiah. So although this crisis is feared, it is also accepted as a necessary initiation. The sooner it happens, the sooner the reign of God or the new world order can begin. This is why many religious fundamentalists (those who do not allow their religion to be secularized by material concerns such as ecology) seem so unconcerned about the state of the environment — they actually welcome it. The sooner the Earth's life support system is turned off, the sooner their God will return.
And of course, it is not just religious fundamentalists who feel this. The New Age is replete with visions of End Times (often around the year 2012 – the Mayan countdown). And if we are going to be witnessing the birth of a new world in a few years time, what is the point of trying to conserve the old world? Of course, from the ecological perspective, this is complete insanity and totally irresponsible; but not from the spiritual perspective. This brings us to an important point that is never discussed: The New Age and New Consciousness movements have more in common with traditional religions than they do with modern secular perspectives such as ecology. After all, even though traditional religions are highly dogmatic, they are still fundamentally open-system perspectives, just like the New Age and New Consciousness perspectives (which have their own dogmas — but more modern ones). This is opposed to ecology's closed-system material perspective that is fundamentally at odds with any spiritual open-system perspective.
The New Age or New Consciousness movements are redefining our relationship to God or Spirit, and our very concept of God/Spirit itself. But, like all spiritual paradigms, they must still be founded upon some belief in God or Spirit nonetheless. However, in our modern secular society, our spiritual beliefs have been tainted by material concern. The open system of true religion, which demands a letting go to miracles, is increasingly replaced by a closed system of material pseudo-spirituality, in which the "spiritual" system becomes knowable because it is closed. (Open systems, by definition, are unpredictable and fundamentally unknowable; open-system beliefs demand humility because our place in them can never be certain and is always in a state of flux.)
Given that the closed ecological viewpoint and the open spiritual paradigms are diametrically opposed, can a we successfully put both positions simultaneously into practice? Does spiritual ecology have any practical possibilities even though it might be an oxymoron philosophically? We all can and do hold contradictory belief systems, using different ones in different contexts. For example, the hard-nosed reductionist scientists does not think of other humans as merely agglomerations of molecules when he is holding his baby daughter — he will leave his material reductionism for a moment and enter into a more open-system heart space. But such schizophrenia is not entirely successful, and there is always reality-bleed when we hold opposing paradigms. And because it is the nature of the human ego to want to control and understand things, the bias is generally in favour of the closed-system perspective because it is only closed-system perspectives (closed-minded perspectives) that support the ego — open-system perspectives fundamentally challenge it. (Spend enough time in completely open-system perspectives and your ego starts to dissolve.) So it is actually egotism that supports the ecological perspective.
Recently, the film Zeitglist Addendum caused quite a stir on the internet. It is certainly an inspiring film, but one that is clearly in the materialistic camp. It is amazing how many people who call themselves spiritual have been raving about it when it clearly rejects the spiritual perspective in favour of material solutions. Those in the New Age or New Consciousness movements seem unaware of its material perspective because the rejection of spirituality is portrayed in the film as a rejection of traditional religion, when in fact the film is rejecting all open-system spiritual perspectives and offering only closed-system technological solutions to our world crises. Intellectuals always tend to support ecological perspectives because they are trained in the closed-system perspective (too many variables and the predictive foundation of the scientific/rational model is lost).
So where does this leave us? The above will be deeply unpopular with many in the New Age / New Consciousness arena, and even more so with the ecological movement. By presenting a systems-approach to the paradigms that circulate in society, this author is trying to bring clarification, not to favour one approach over another. If the world really can be completely described by closed-system perspectives such as scientific reductionism, and if any god that you might believe in is limited to the laws of physics and chemistry, then the ecological considerations are entirely valid. In this case, open-system perspectives become deeply irresponsible because they encourage less physical intervention. So James Watt's statement at the beginning of this article becomes irresponsible.
If, on the other hand, All-That-Is is an open-system which brings in the possibility of miracles and divine intervention, then closed-system perspectives are a waste of time because they will paradoxically only deepen our problems as they involve a crisis of spirit, not a crisis of ecology. The ecological perspective distances ourselves further from making right our relationship to the divine because it strengthens our egotistical walls — by taking a closed-system perspective, we turn our backs on our connection to the Infinite. So whilst, for example, we might cut our carbon dioxide emissions, the ecological paradigm that encouraged such physical intervention will further erode our relationship to Spirit, causing an even greater imbalance in the world around us.
The question of our future comes down to which paradigm more accurately reflects reality. If our reality if fundamentally spiritual, and if the crisis we are facing is fundamentally a spiritual one, only a spiritual solution will work. If, on the other hand, our reality is fundamentally a closed-system material reality described by the laws of physics, and if the crisis we are facing is fundamentally an ecological one, only an ecological solution will work. Unfortunately, humankind does not agree on the fundamental nature of reality, and there is no absolute conceptual frame by which to judge the veracity of the reality we experience. This problem is further compounded by the possibility that the reality, as opposed to just the perspective of the reality we experience, is literally created by us: if this is the case, then those who are ecologically minded are the ones that need to undertake material solutions and those that are spiritually minded are the ones that need to undertake spiritual solutions.
Of course, it is better to be safe than sorry, and in the face of the possible extinction of life as we know it, excluding any potentially life-saving solution is irresponsible. Whilst it is difficult for a single individual to operate in two contradictory paradigms, such an individual, and society as a whole, can still follow both solutions — a "Render unto Caesar" type approach. So, as a species, it would be wise for us to undertake stringent ecological remedies such as limiting our carbon footprint, compassionately putting breaks on the human population explosion, changing our diets to more eco-friendly ones, and reducing or cutting out our use of carbon fuels. And at the same time, we need to honour a non-denominational connection to spirit, without allowing ecology's pragmatic material paradigm to erode that connection. For if we make the mistake of severing our connection to the Infinite in order to take closed-system approaches, we magnify societal disharmony and vacuity which trigger more self-destructive behaviour, individually and collectively.
The myth of "spiritual ecology" does not bring legitimacy to this twin approach because, as we have seen, it is fundamentally oxymoronic. So whilst, from some perspectives, it can be a useful metaphor for promoting this twin-solution approach, it actually sows seeds of confusion, blocking true spiritual development by promoting a kind of spiritual materialism or closed-system pseudo-spirituality. And in so doing, it can block us from actualizing a genuine spiritual-solution approach. For in reality, spiritual ecology is more about closed-system ecology than it is about open-system spirituality.
So when James Watt (allegedly) makes irresponsible statements such as, "After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back," he is actually expressing a strong open-system spiritual perspective which will only seem insane to those rooted in closed-system paradigms. And the fact that his statement is rejected so strongly by those in the New Age and New Consciousness communities is evidence that these communities have become largely secularized, and that, what most people practice as New Spirituality is in fact not spirituality at all, but a kind of spiritual materialism.
If you truly want to go all the way in your spiritual development, you have to reach a stage where such statements do not seem insane, although of course this does not mean you are necessarily condoning ecological destruction, but merely expressing a belief in miracles — in the unexpected. If you are decidedly in the closed-system ecological camp, however, then using such beliefs in the miraculous as evidence for the insanity of the spiritual perspective is your prerogative. The choice is yours.