While Romantic worshippers in the cathedral of nature were the first conservation-converts, the reverence for the interconnected whole remains at the heart of modern environmentalism. The shift from egocentric to ecocentric philosophies was driven by spiritual experiences.
The most common criticism of spirituality is that its narcissistic, consumerist, selfish, apolitical and full of woo-woo magical thinking. That can be true, but not always. There’s one area where spirituality is much less individualistic, more politically active and more prone to evidence-based thinking than other faiths — and that’s regarding the environment.
Anecdotally, the overlap between spirituality and environmentalism is deep and obvious. Several friends of mine are active in Extinction Rebellion, the British-based environmental movement, and they are almost all ‘spiritual but not religious’. Several of them also take psychedelics (or plant medicine) — the founder of XR, Gail Bradbrook, was inspired to launch the movement after an ayahuasca trip.
Empirically, the Pew Research Centre (which studies religion and politics in the US) has found that ‘nones’ (ie Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, of which roughly half identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’) are more likely than any religious affiliation to be concerned about climate change, and to see it as caused by human activity (white evangelicals are the least concerned and the least sure it’s human-caused).
The ‘nones’ are also much more likely than religious-affiliated to be worried by population growth. Spiritual-But-Not-Religious Americans are in general in favour of smaller government, except in one area — environmental regulation.
Another study of 12 protestors against the Keystone XL pipeline (which was finally cancelled last week after years of protests) found they all identified as ‘spiritual’ and saw their environmental activism as a spiritual / religious vocation. The author of this study, Paul Deal, suggests environmental activism could be seen as a contemporary ‘nature religion’.
Perhaps the leading scholar on the overlap between spirituality and environmentalism is Bron Taylor, professor of religion and nature at the University of Florida. He wrote Dark Green Religion, which suggests that nature-worship / sacred ecology / Gaia or biocentric spirituality is an important contemporary religious movement.
He writes: ‘If there is a sensible post-Darwinian religion…dark green religion is a reasonable candidate.’ By ‘sensible’, Taylor means that ‘dark green religion’ is available to everyone, directly and immediately, through their sensory encounter with the living world. This gives it an advantage, in a sceptical era, over traditional religions that require faith in an invisible deity.
Now, suggesting environmentalism is a religion is a favourite tactic of critics of the green movement. ‘It’s a doomsday cult’, ‘it’s medieval apocalypticism’ — in other words, it’s irrational, fundamentalist, anti-scientific, extremist and shouldn’t be tolerated in the public sphere. But this misinterprets what religions are and what they do.
As I’ve previously argued, humans are religion-making animals. The impact of Darwinism in the mid-19th century did not, in my opinion, lead to the decline of religious thinking, rather it led to an explosion of new religious worldviews, which tried to offer sense-making, emotional healing, connection and a long-term vision for humanity. Often, these new worldviews tried to overcome the supposed war between religion and evolutionary science by incorporating scientific and evolutionary thinking. They were ‘science-religions’.
So, in the 1880s for example, you could find all kinds of Darwinian mutations — free market capitalist Darwinism, anarchist Darwinism, communist Darwinism, nationalist Darwinism, racist Darwinism, anti-racist Darwinism, Christian Darwinism, atheist Darwinism, Spiritualist Darwinism, environmental Darwinism and so on.
Spirituality emerged out of this post-Darwinian reformation, and it often adopted a spiritualized theory of evolution and ecology. So a reverence for the sacred ecosystem has been a part of spirituality right from its birth.
The history of environmentalism is a history of spiritual experiences
You could tell the history of the environmental movement in spiritual experiences — Wordsworth, Emerson, Thoreau, Humboldt, Darwin, Muir, Leopold, the Huxleys, Stewart Brand, all the way to Gail Bradbrook’s ayahuasca trip. It is an ecstatic history.
You can of course see aspects of environmentalism before the birth of modern spirituality, in Christianity (and even further back, in druid and shamanic cults). Scholars have pointed out that 18th-century American naturalists tended to be Calvinists, who saw nature as wondrous and humans as incorrigibly corrupt, and who predicted that a handle of elect would be saved from the coming conflagration. One contemporary scholar has described modern environmentalism as ‘Calvinism without God’.
But most scholars suggest modern environmentalism has historical roots in Romanticism, and in the revival of nature-worship found in the work of Romantic artists like William Wordsworth. Wandering lonely as a cloud suddenly became an alternative form of worship in the 19th century, particularly for those who didn’t feel at home in church. Anyone could have a mystical experience in nature, even if they weren’t sure they believed in a trinitarian God.
The mid-19th century American Transcendentalists also helped to develop a post-Christian spirituality in which connection to nature played a central role. Emerson gives us a classic description of the mystical shift from egocentric to ecocentric:
"Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."
His friend Henry David Thoreau left us one of the great slogans of the environmental movement: ‘In wildness is the salvation of the world’. Thoreau developed botany and zoology as a form of spiritual practice — he contemplated the shifts of the seasons, the patterns of migration, the behaviour of animals, the connections between the various citizens of the ecosystem (how forests rely on squirrels, for example).
This reverence for the interconnected whole of the oikos, the ‘ecosystem’ (as Arthur Tansley would call it) was the theme of several 19th century German naturalists, from Goethe to Schelling to Alexander Von Humboldt, who had an epiphany standing on the peak of Mount Chimborazo in the Amazon, perceiving nature as a ‘living whole’, a web of interconnection.
Humboldt’s work inspired Charles Darwin to journey to the Galapagos, where he also had a mystical experience of the interconnectedness of nature. But Darwin’s worldview was also inspired by the Reverend Thomas Malthus, the early 19th century economist, who saw all of nature as a violent competition for limited natural resources. Species advanced and the ecosystem stayed in balance through this species war — the weak died off, the fittest survived. The great threat to the balance of the ecosystem, for Malthus, was over-population. Humans must control their sexual desires to avoid ‘misery and vice’. Nature rewards the most self-controlled and punishes the profligate. It’s biological Puritanism. Darwin likewise thought that if human population continued to rocket, there would be ‘standing room only’ — a phrase that would echo through the history of environmentalism.
The first generation of American conservationists — figures like John Muir and Aldo Leopold in the early 20th century — were profoundly inspired by their spiritual experiences. John Muir worshipped in the cathedral of nature in Yosemite, while Aldo Leopold was converted to conservation when he stared into the eye of a wolf he had shot, and saw the ‘fierce green fire’ of its subjecthood. He recognized the sentience of other species, their capacity for suffering, and their right to protection and life.
Leopold wrote of a new post-Darwinian ethic of the land:
"It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species…This new knowledge should have given us . . . a sense of kinship with fellow- creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over . . . the biotic enterprise…A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
In the mid-20th century, a new generation of environmentalists applied ecological thinking to the entire earth-system. Figures like Julian Huxley, William Vogt, Max Nicholson and Fairfield Osborn saw that human population growth was threatening other species with extinction, and the soil with barrenness. Again, their initial inspiration was often spiritual — Julian, although a leading humanist, wrote of his spiritual experiences in nature. He tried to create a new world religion, which he called ‘evolutionary humanism’, in which humans were the ‘trustees of evolution’, managing the global ecosystem from on-high. His friend Max Nicholson wrote an early book on the emerging environmental consciousness called The Environmental Revolution: A Guide for the New Masters of the World. Theirs was an elite religion for posh global technocrats like Julian and Max (among their accomplishments were the organization of the first UN conference on the protection of nature, the foundation of the World Wildlife Fund and Nature Conservancy in the UK, and the creation of several nature reserves around the world).
A more mystical and less technocratic environmentalism was suggested by Julian’s brother, Aldous, and by his fellow Californian expat Alan Watts. Aldous taught a course in ‘integrated education’ in the 1950s which combined environmental and ecological ideas with mystical teachings. His Perennial Philosophy is often credited as an inspiration to later figures in the Deep Ecology movement (see George Sessions’ work on this). Alan Watts, meanwhile, taught that humans are not separate from the Tao of nature but part of the sacred ecosystem, which controls us as much as we control it. Alan’s lectures on Zen and Taoism inspired San Francisco beats like the poet Gary Snyder, a Buddhist-animist prophet of ‘Dark Green Religion’. Snyder has said: ‘Biological diversity, and the integrity of organic evolution on this planet, is where I take my stand.’ He’s also said: ‘There are now too many human beings, and the problem is growing rapidly worse. It is potentially disastrous not only for the human race but for most other life forms.’
In 1962, this fringe way of thinking — sacred ecology, you could call it — went mainstream with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Carson, a biologist and journalist, introduced millions of readers to the ecological worldview. She wrote:
"The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been moulded by the environment."
But her version was a sort of ecology of terror. We are all part of the ecosystem, and there is poison in the ecosystem, invisible demons, and no one is safe, not you, not your children. Her book (which is still terrifying to read today) begins with a fairy tale:
"a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death."
It’s filled with visceral accounts of adults, children, pets and wild animals dying in horrible ways from poisoning by synthetic pesticides. It couldn’t fail to alarm and galvanize millions of families. This was an important shift in environmentalism — from ‘masters of the universe’ controlling the global ecosystem, to worried mums and dads trying to fight against evil corporations and government cover-ups.
In 1970, the first Earth Day gathered 20 million Americans together in the largest-ever human gathering. Again, this moment in environmental history was connected to an ecstatic experience — Stewart Brand was tripping on LSD in 1966, when he scribbled down an insight in his journal (below)— ‘why haven’t we seen a photograph of the entire earth yet?’ Trained in the ecology of Paul Erlich and the earth systems design of Buckminster Fuller, Brand thought that seeing a photograph of the wondrous interconnected whole of the Earth would prompt a shift in global consciousness. He was right.
For a while, Earth Day seemed to connect the warring factions in American society — even president Nixon got on board, introducing legislation like the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But the environmental movement soon moved out into the radical fringe again with the founding of Greenpeace in 1971.
Greenpeace took veterans from the anti-war movement and gave them a new mission — put their bodies on the line in protection of other species. The founders were ‘spiritual but not religious’ — they called themselves ‘rainbow warriors’ after what they thought was a Native American myth (in fact it came from a white evangelical text). They discovered something important that later climate activists would learn — when you sacrifice something for a cause (your time, your comfort, your freedom, your physical safety) you make your cause sacred. That’s what sacrifice means — sacer facere, to make sacred. One of the early members of Greenpeace, Paul Watson, called for a new biocentric religion:
"What we need if we are to survive is a new story, a new myth, and a new religion. We need to replace anthropocentrism with biocentrism. We need to construct a religion that incorporates all species and establishes nature as sacred and deserving of respect."
Is dark green religion…too dark?
In the last three decades, environmentalism has gone from a somewhat niche worldview and lifestyle to something that affects us all, as the evidence for global warming becomes harder and harder to ignore. We have all been forced to confront our place in the interconnected ecosystem of ‘Gaia’, and to realize that Gaia could settle into a new equilibrium which would make large parts of the earth uninhabitable. Daily temperatures of 50 degrees centigrade are becoming normal in some parts of the world.
The existential threat to humans and other species has swelled the ranks of the environmental movement. It’s now a vast coalition of many different groups and attitudes — from the global to the local, from naturalist to supernaturalist, from techno-utopian to primitivist, from biocentric to interplanetary. It includes atheists, spiritual-but-not-religious, Christian, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and other faiths.
The most prominent movement in the UK, in the last few years, has been Extinction Rebellion, which as I mentioned has brought the implicit and secret spirituality of the green movement out into the open. Scholars have compared XR to early Christianity, critics have called it a doomsday cult.
Calling something quasi-religious doesn’t negate it or undermine it. The slavery abolition movement was quasi-religious, so was the civil rights movement. Free market capitalism is also quasi-religious. The question is, how good a religion is it? Does it provide meaning, connection, consolation, hope, mystical experience, appropriate ethical values and useful sense-making predictions?
In all of these, ‘dark green religion’ has plus points — it certainly gives people ready access to experiences of connection, awe and oneness (especially if they take psychedelics). It also gives them values and a way of life. It gives them a community through activism, and that activism helps make their worldview sacred (in a largely non-violent way). Above all, it seems extremely adaptive and appropriate to the present historical crisis. It fits important facts.
Of course, every religion or worldview has a shadow side. One risk of sacred ecology is not that it’s too selfish and individualist (the usual charge against spirituality) but rather than it’s so focused on protecting the ecological whole that it is happy to ride roughshod over the interests of individuals, groups or the human species.
There has long been an authoritarian, eugenic and, sometimes, a racist edge to ecological thinking. The inventor of ecology, Ernst Haeckel, was also a scientific racist. So was the founder of the Sierra Club, Joseph LeConte. Another pioneering American conservationist, Madison Grant, was a leading eugenicist and author of The Passing of the Great Race. He believed the ‘Nordic race’ needed protecting, just like the bison and the great redwood (both of which he helped to protect). The Nazis were similarly ‘ecofascist’ — individual rights meant nothing compared to preserving the mystical ecology of Aryan Germany. Even in more humane figures like Julian Huxley, ecological thinking was often accompanied by eugenics — scientists have a right to intervene in human reproduction, he believed, to limit human numbers and to improve the long-term genetic quality of the human species.
Sometimes this Malthusianism had positive impacts — Malthusians like HG Wells helped the spread of sex education and voluntary birth control around the world (‘Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe’, Wells said). Less positively, Malthusian ecologists could blame developing countries for ecological problems — you non-white people are breeding too much — and their prophecies of doom encouraged third world governments to take illiberal actions like the Indian sterilization campaign or the Chinese one-child policy.
The Romantic cult of the solitary individual mystically communing with nature led to the creation of nature reserves carefully purged of any dirty natives. John Muir complained of the native Americans in Yosemite park as ‘mostly ugly, some of them altogether hideous’, who disturbed his ‘solemn calm’. They were cleared out when Yosemite became a national park, much as local tribes were cleared out when nature parks were created in African countries in the 1900s-1950s (for more on this see the excellent new book Beloved Beasts).
These darker tendencies in ‘dark green religion’ are by now well-known, and environmentalists have done much repentance. These days they are much more likely to talk about indigenous people as the sacred stewards of the land, and much less likely to mention population growth as a problem. There’s also been a lot of progress on recognizing the historical racism in the green movement — indeed, one New Zealand school strike group ritually disbanded this week, as self-flagellation for being mainly white.
But the remaining issue with dark green religion is…it’s very dark! It remains a pretty apocalyptic religion. This is not necessarily its fault or even its choice — we do live in quite apocalyptic times, and various scientific warning lights have been flashing red for some decades now. But the apocalyptic vibe often comes off as quite anti-humanist. As in early Christianity, belief in impending apocalypse leads to the ethical injunction to not breed. ‘Go forth and don’t multiply’ is the mantra. It is Puritan — preserve your purity from the miasma of evil by not breeding, only eating whole foods, only wearing recycled hemp clothing. That Puritanism can easily lead to a distaste for unregenerate humanity.
There is a sense that humanity will be purged in the Great Judgement, and numbers will be drastically reduced from nine billion to perhaps one billion. They will be the Saved, The Elect. They will live in the new paradise, at one with nature, when the hordes of rotten selfish humanity is finally swept away. Militant environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote in 1986:
"I predict that the military- industrial state will disappear from the surface of the Earth within fifty years. That belief is the basis of my inherent optimism, the source of my hope for the coming restoration of higher civilization: scattered human populations modest in number that live by fishing, hunting, food-gathering, small- scale farming and ranching, that assemble once a year in the ruins of abandoned cities for great festivals of moral, spiritual, artistic and intellectual renewal…"
This is basically Calvinism in a kaftan. We are predestined to fall and be destroyed, except for the handful of Saved (which will probably include the pure eco-warriors). It’s notable that out of all the things deep ecologist Joanna Macy could have taken from Tibetan Buddhism, she took the apocalyptic myth of the ‘Shambhala prophecy’, in which there is a final cosmic war and a cadre of ‘Shambhala warriors’ arise to save the Dharma (and, in the 12-century original, eliminate the Abrahamic religions). These warriors, she has suggested, will be saved themselves and will build a new heaven on earth — or at least, she said: ‘Certain Tibetan predictions and prophecies…indicate there will not be a total extinction of humans.’ Of all the parts of Buddhism, the ex-Presbyterian missionary picked the one myth that was an Abrahamic-style apocalypse.
This version of Dark Green Religion is a bit too dark for me. I don’t like the idea of welcoming the decimation of humanity as an unavoidable and important spiritual lesson. That’s spiritual Malthusianism — Nature as stern teacher administering correction. It’s eco-masochism. Spank us, Gaia! Tell us how bad we’ve been!
On the other hand, you have figures like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk (and perhaps Stewart Brand?) who think population and resource pressures are the crisis-catalyst that will propel humanity to an interplanetary future. Before we dismiss them as techno-nuts, who is doing more to protect the environment at the moment than Elon Musk and the electric car revolution?
If I had to pick my own denomination of sacred ecology, it would be somewhere between these two — reverence for the interconnected Earth system, but also a sense that humanity’s future is interstellar. And beyond all that, the great transcendent mystery, consciousness, wisdom, the Dharma beyond all forms and planets.
Anyway, to conclude, next time someone says spirituality is selfish and individualistic, you can point to the environmental movement as a strong counter-example. It’s not perfect by any means, but ‘dark green religion’ is already a major spiritual worldview, and looks set to grow further as the climate crisis warms up.
Words by Jules Evans
Jules is a practical philosopher - he does academic research on ideas from different eras and cultures and then tries them out in his own life, and he interviews others to see how ideas have helped or harmed them. From Stoicism to CBT, from Aristotle to ayahuasca, he searches for the best wisdom to help people suffer less and flourish more.