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Spiritual Ecology: Is It the Ultimate Solution for the Environmental Crisis?: Recent Developments

By Leslie E. Sponsel

Recent Developments

The maturation of spiritual ecology as an academic field is marked by five foundational textbooks.  In 1995, the first textbook, Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in Cross-Cultural Perspective, was published by David Kinsley.  It remains most useful for its wide scope and diversity, with contents ranging from indigenous religions to Buddhism and Hinduism to deep ecology, ecofeminism, and ecovisionaries.  The latter include Murray Bookchin, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, and Barry Lopez.  Two very useful chapters focus on Christianity; one sees the religion as ecologically harmful, the second as ecologically responsible.  A decade later, philosopher Roger S. Gottlieb published his passionate and engaging book A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future.  Gottlieb offers an in-depth analysis of the activism component of spiritual ecology by sampling many of the more important religious leaders, organizations, and initiatives across various cultures and countries.

Bron Taylor’s unusually creative and challenging Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future is far more inclusive in scope through applying a broader and more flexible conception of religion and spirituality.  Coverage extends from radical environmentalists to bioregionalists, surfers, New Agers, and adherents of nature religions.  Taylor reveals fascinating aspects of spiritual ecology in literature, art, and film.  Leslie E. Sponsel’s Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution samples the extensive history of the intellectual and practical aspects of the subject, including chapters on animism, indigenes, the film Avatar, Tibet, and pioneers from the Buddha and Saint Francis, to Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, to Wangari Maathai, Joanna Macy, and “Green Patriarch” Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church.  Gottlieb, Taylor, and Sponsel each address serious challenges facing spiritual ecology.

The most recent textbook, a reflective synthesis of their voluminous work over the last two decades, is Ecology and Religion by John A. Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker.  They emphasize indigenous, Christian, and Hindu religions in relation to environmental ethics, ecology, and conservation.  Taken together, these five texts are complementary and provide a panoramic and penetrating overview of spiritual ecology.  Noteworthy as more modest surveys for the public that are also useful for academics are Stephanie Kaza’s Buddhist-inspired Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinking and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai’s Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World.

Other resources demonstrating the maturation of spiritual ecology as an academic field include anthologies, publishers’ series, reference works, journals, and websites.  Richard C. Foltz edited Worldviews, Religion, and the Environment: A Global Anthology.  It is a relatively thorough survey of religions and ecology, and also encompasses material on modernity, globalization, emerging religions, radical environmentalism, ecofeminism, voices from the South, new cosmologies and visions, community, and ecojustice.  Addressing a similar breadth and diversity of subjects and authors is a more massive anthology edited by Gottlieb, This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, a landmark inventory in its comprehensiveness.  Grounding Religion: A Field Guide to the Study of Religion and Ecology, coedited by Whitney A. Bauman, Richard R. Bohannon II, and Kevin J. O’Brien, encourages critical thinking and is innovative pedagogically, with a chapter probing the concept, a dialogue, and a case study each on religion and ecology.  A third part deals with issues of sustainability, animals and religion, gender, economics, justice, globalization, and place.  It has a very informative chapter by Grim and Tucker on the intellectual and organizational foundations of religion and ecology as a new field.

Richard Bohannon edited Religions and Environments: A Reader in Religion, Nature and Ecology, an interdisciplinary and interfaith collection of essays successively focusing on the spiritual ecology of wilderness, garden, and city.  Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s edited book Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth is a less technical set of concise but profound essays by many pioneers on the subject, including Native Americans Oren Lyons and Winona LaDuke.  Another charming collection, EarthLight: Spiritual Wisdom for an Ecological Age, coedited by Cindy Spring and Anthony Manousos, reprints many of the best articles from EarthLight: Magazine of Spirituality and Ecology.  These last two anthologies provide readily accessible reading for the general public as well as academics.

At least four publishers developed series on spiritual ecology and related subjects.  In “World Religions and Ecology,” Cassell Publishers first published edited books on Buddhism (Buddhism and Ecology, edited by Martine Batchelor and Kerry Brown), Christianity (Christianity and Ecology, edited by Elizabeth Breuilly and Martin Palmer), Hinduism (Hinduism and Ecology, edited by Ranchor Prime), Islam (Islam and Ecology, edited by Fazlun Khalid with Joanne O`Brien), and Judaism (Judaism and Ecology, edited by Aubrey Rose) in 1992, and, in 1998, indigenous religions (First Nations Faith and Ecology, edited by Freda Rajotte).  These were intended for the general public, but each book is also useful as a clear, concise, informative, and interesting set of essays for introductory courses.  However, they are no longer in print, except for Hinduism and Ecology.

From 1997 to 2003, Harvard University Press published a similar series, “World Religions and Ecology.”  It encompasses Buddhism (Buddhism and Ecology, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryuken Williams), Christianity (Christianity and Ecology, edited by Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether), Confucianism (Confucianism and Ecology, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Berthrong), Daoism (Daoism and Ecology, edited by N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan), Hinduism (Hinduism and Ecology, edited by Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker), indigenous religions (Indigenous Traditions and Ecology, edited by John A. Grim), Islam (Islam and Ecology, edited by Richard C. Foltz, Frederick M. Denny, and Azizan Baharuddin), Jainism (Jainism and Ecology, edited by Christopher Key Chapple), and Judaism (Judaism and Ecology, edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson).

These books are far more substantial and comprehensive for academic audiences.  Each is composed of revised papers with some additions from a succession of conferences at the Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions and as an integral component of the Forum on Religion and Ecology.  The books and forum, among other initiatives by Tucker and Grim, were designed to provide a solid, high-quality foundation for the emergence of religion and ecology as an academic field, with important implications for policy and other practical matters.  The “Ecology and Justice” series developed by Orbis Books under the editorship of Grim, Tucker, and colleagues since 1994 includes a greater variety of topics, many of which are more specialized.  Somewhat similar is the “Religion and Environment” series of the State University of New York Press, launched in 2011.

Two academic periodicals and two popular magazines are devoted to spiritual ecology, and all four are complementary.  Tucker, Grim, and colleagues started Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology (formerly, Worldviews: Religion, Environment and Culture) in 1997.  It concentrates on the major world religions in relation to ecology, although not exclusively.  There have been special issues on biodiversity, landscape, Thomas Berry, environmental ethics, evolution, and sustainability.  The Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture was launched in 2007 with Bron Taylor as editor.  It is affiliated with the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, which Taylor started one year earlier.  Following his approach, the journal is broad and diverse in scope, including special issues on African sacred ecologies, Aldo Leopold, plants in Amazonian spirituality, religious naturalism, the movie Avatar, and imagining utopia.  The popular magazine Resurgence (since 2012, Resurgence and Ecologist) was started in the United Kingdom in 1966.  A Quaker publication edited by K. Lauren de Boer, EarthLight: Magazine of Spirituality &Ecology, was published from 1991 to 2006.

Although many reference works include articles relevant to this topic, three are directly focused on spiritual ecology.  Taylor, editor in chief, published The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature in 2005.  The two volumes contain 1,000 peer-reviewed entries by 520 experts from the social sciences, humanities, and other backgrounds.  This landmark title includes entries on a wide range of conventional and unconventional subjects.  Notably, it covers nature religions as well as world religions, the former usually neglected in other works.  Gottlieb edited the seminal compendium The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology.  After an informative introduction, it is divided into three parts.  Part one, “Transforming Tradition,” includes individual chapters on Judaism, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Protestantism, Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Daoism, Confucianism, and African and indigenous religions.  Part two, “Religion and Ecology,” contains individual chapters on population, genetic engineering, animal theology, ecofeminism, science and religion, nature writing, and environmentalism and ecology.  Part three, “Religious Environmental Activism,” includes an introductory chapter by the editor, followed by regional chapters on Latin America, Africa, and the United States.  Gottlieb also compiled Religion and the Environment, a comprehensive, four-volume anthology of seventy-five reprinted articles and chapters.

The last basic component of the academic foundation of spiritual ecology involves websites that are far more extensive than the usual faculty home page.  Tucker and Grim developed the website The Forum on Religion and Ecology.  It encompasses information not only on world religions and ecology, but also on environmental science and policy.  Furthermore, it contains useful information about the work of Tucker and Grim.  Taylor has a website (Bron Taylor) associated with his book, which includes extensive course syllabi, and another ( for the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture and its journal.  Sponsel developed the website Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution as a resource to regularly supplement and update his book of the same name, containing, among other information, long lists of other websites, films, and an extensive topical bibliography of nearly 700 books.  The above resources are complementary and provide a substantial core of information on spiritual ecology and related concerns, most accumulating since the late 1980s.

Works Cited