This year, the COP26 United Nations climate change conference took place in the UK. The goals of this conference were to mobilise finances for the sector and work together to protect communities and meet emission goals. I want to start with this as the backdrop to this topic because it is clear that we live in an age where ecological concerns are never far from the public eye and with good reason.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, one of the most extensive reports of the human impact on the environment, found that over the past 50 years, humans have caused more degradation to the ecosystems than in any other time period in human history.
In response, we have seen a variety of frameworks, conferences and agreements being constructed at the international level to try and tackle climate change. The most famous example, which has been featured in the news more frequently and as part of the COP26, is the Paris agreement which is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. The aim of this agreement is to limit global warming to below 2 degrees celsius. Many use this agreement as the industry standard for business and governance. It is considered to be a landmark process to catalyse change, but in what way are these changes being implemented?
There are many frameworks that offer businesses and governments ways to make changes to their practices, such as the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change convention. If you take a peek at what these frameworks recommend, there are similar recommendations across the board. A recurring theme is to conduct economic valuations on different ecosystem resources. By analysing what the environment offers us, we can give it a market value. Now while this may work on a practical level to reassess policy, there are some fundamental issues with this approach.
In the first place, it is a method that really abstracts us as humans from our environment. In the west, in particular, the lens of capitalism naturally leads us to a materialistic view of the environment. This is neither here nor there for the purpose of this article, but the question here should be can we really assign materialistic value to the environment? If we see the environment as simply a resource we can expend for our benefit, maybe we need to take a fundamental look at our attitude in general.
This is where spiritual ecology comes into play. Spiritual ecology is an approach that tries to situate the environment, and more specifically ecology, as intrinsic to human nature. It cannot be something separate from humanness. It ignites a strong belief in the environment as something sacred and non-materialistic. Some definitions of spiritual ecology may offer a religious aspect here. However, in the case of spiritual ecology, we can also see this as a secular belief system as well. As Dr Takacs, an expert in environmental law, puts it during his work with conservationists and biologists:
They had feelings they cannot understand, but that give meaning to their lives, impel their professional activities, and make them ardent conservationists.
If we look at spiritual ecology as a way to realign our thinking about the environment, we aim to look at the root of environmental devastation. This is about changing our thinking as a whole. In cultures outside the western scope, we see a very different set of beliefs when it comes to the environment.
For example, from the Khoisan peoples of South Africa to the Amerindian peoples of the Amazon we find beliefs in animism. This is the idea that confers human qualities to animals and other non-human entities around us. As such, this means they are entitled to the same rights and respect that humans receive. For this reason, anthropologists such as Eduardo Kohn have been looking at these cultures and others as a way to redefine humanity from perspectives other than our own. Perhaps if we looked at the environment the same way we do a beloved family member or pet, we might think twice about our use and abuse of its resources.
There seems to be a certain disconnect between us as humans and the environment in many areas. In fact, a 2015 survey of UK primary pupils found that almost a third didn’t know where their food came from. However, with the pandemic, many of us have had time to slow down and reflect on nature. There were many reports of ecological resurgences that caught the attention of the media. A more recent study actually found that:
70% of survey participants (from 8 different countries) said they were more aware now than before COVID-19 that human activity threatens the climate.
(Boston Consultancy Group)
As this awareness continues to grow, there has never been a better time to reconnect with the environment and critically look at our own values.
While a spiritual ecology approach is just one way to achieve this, there are several benefits to this outlook. Many see the environmental crisis as a spiritual crisis. Taking this out of the religious context, we might view this as materialism and in some regards globalism separating us from a connected experience with our environment. Many of the processes involved in manufacturing the everyday items we take for granted have become increasingly obscured from us.
Therefore, the first goal so to speak should be to look at our material possessions. Spiritual ecologist Vaughan-Lee talks about material accumulation as something which emphasizes “a constant stream of ‘doing’ over ‘being.’” We’ve all heard of the various psychological benefits of decluttering your life; it may be a useful question to ask why has it become so cluttered in the first place?
Another strategy recommended by Vaughan-Lee is to find meaningful spaces in your environment. They can be sacred, if only in your mind, as a way to reconnect with nature and by extension the environment. What we attempt through spiritual ecology is to build a new relationship with the environment. This may start internally and extend out into your everyday interactions in the lived world.
The last aspect we will mention here is a concept that underlies much of what has been talked about so far. This is the idea of dualism in western society. If you’re not familiar with dualism, it is a concept first attributed to philosopher Rene Descarte in the 1600s. Dualism is the idea that the mind and body are two separate entities. Although, through scientific advancement, we have seen the ways the mind is very much entangled with bodily experience, to some degree there are still aspects of this philosophy that remain in our society. The most prevalent from an ecological standpoint is the notion that we as humans are separate entities from our environment. Since we lead rich inner lives as humans, it is hard to separate our identity from the outside world. We don’t necessarily realise that we too are part of a large ecosystem and that our presence is integral to many processes in nature. By resituating ourselves back into the cycle, we cannot only gain perspective, but we can become aware of the more damaging aspects of our existence here on this planet.
Of course, these are just some suggestions about how spiritual ecology can practically motivate us towards change. The essential message here is that we need a change our outlook. It is one thing to see environmental damage as it stands now and try to make changes, but if we as humans don’t fundamentally change our perspective, we are never going to make significant ecological advances.
In short, we need to treat the disease, not just the symptoms.