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Spiritual Ecology: Is It the Ultimate Solution for the Environmental Crisis?: Historical Development and Foundational Works

By Leslie E. Sponsel

Historical Development and Foundational Works

In academia, spiritual ecology was initiated by a historian of medieval Europe, Lynn White Jr.  In 1967, he published “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” in the journal Science.  He argued that actions by Christians based on the predominant interpretation of the Bible are the main causes of the environmental crisis.  White asserted that to resolve the environmental crisis, it was necessary to rethink, refeel, and revision the place of humans in nature.  He identified Saint Francis of Assisi as an appropriate model for Christians.  Among the works that his essay inspired is Franciscan Theology of the Environment: An Introductory Reader, edited by Dawn M. Nothwehr.  A student-friendly book with a glossary, it is organized in five parts, each of which includes discussion questions and suggestions for further reading.  In the same year as White’s essay, one of the world’s leading Islamic scholars, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, published one of the earliest explorations of spiritual ecology, Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, insightfully exploring the relationship between humans and nature in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Taoism.

White’s now-classic essay is among the most widely cited articles in the entire history of Science.  It is reflected implicitly if not mentioned explicitly in much of the literature on spiritual ecology to this day.  Furthermore, it was a major stimulus for the development of entire new fields of academic research and teaching, including ecotheology and environmental philosophy and ethics.  It was reprinted along with complementary essays in Ecology and Religion in History, coedited by David Spring and Eileen Spring in 1974.  Roderick Frazier Nash surveyed in detail the early development of this subject and its broader context in his The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics.

The Lutheran theologian H. Paul Santmire, a member of the Faith-Man-Nature Group, active from 1963 to 1972, published Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in Times of Crisis in 1970, one of the early constructive responses to White.  Since then, Santmire has continued developing a new visionary theology of nature.  In 1986, Eugene C. Hargrove edited Religion and the Environmental Crisis, in which contributors explored historically Eastern and Western religions in relation to the environment as another response to White.  Then, in 1992, Spirit and Nature: Why the Environment Is a Religious Issue, was coedited by Steven C. Rockefeller and John C. Elder.  It contains a set of revised papers from a historic interfaith conference by the same name at Middlebury College. 

It should be mentioned that a religion and ecology interest group has met at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion since 1991, and many participants are authors of works cited here.  Some of the more recent developments in this field and concerns for future scholarship are scrutinized in Inherited Land: The Changing Grounds of Religion and Ecology, coedited by Whitney A. Bauman, Richard R. Bohannon II, and Kevin J. O’Brien.  Two other sources with brief comments on many relevant books are Willis Jenkins and Christopher Chapple’s 2011 article “Religion and Environment” in Review of Environment and Resources, and “Religion and Ecology” by John Grim et al., added to the Oxford Bibliographies website in 2013.