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R.I.S.E. - Anthropological Contributions to Spiritual Ecology

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Anthropological Contributions to Spiritual Ecology

Paper presented at the Inaugural Conference of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture held at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, April 6-9, 2006.

Note: A greatly reduced and revised version of this conference paper was developed following an invitation from Editor Bron Taylor to publish an essay in the 2007 inaugural issue of the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. This essay is now in press after being sent to external reviewers by the editor and then revised by the primary author.




Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel, Professor
Director, Ecological Anthropology Program
University of Hawai`i
Honolulu , HI 96822-2223
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Dr. Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, Assistant Professor
Director, Gender Studies
Director, Buddhist Studies
Chaminade University
Honolulu , HI 96816-1578



For more than a century and a half anthropologists have studied various aspects of religion and spirituality. Since the19th century, anthropologists such as Edward B. Tylor and James G. Frazer occasionally touched on the relationships between religion and/or spirituality on the one hand and aspects of ecology and/or environment on the other. Indeed, this is almost inevitable with some subjects like Animism. However, only since the mid-1960s have anthropologists gradually developed a special focus on these relationships identified here as spiritual ecology. Although the research and publications of Roy A. Rappaport are often recognized in this regard, in more recent decades several other anthropologists have made especially important contributions to this subject. Among these are Eugene N. Anderson, Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, and Kelly D. Alley. This paper reviews the work of a sample of such pioneers in historical perspective, critically assesses their contributions and limitations, and identifies some major needs for future work in this exciting field. Anthropological research will also be placed within the larger context of the interdisciplinary study of the relationships among religion, nature, and culture.












Anthropologists have nothing to contribute to spiritual ecology because anthropology is a science, whereas spirituality is merely an irrational and superstitious anachronism, and as such, unworthy of scientific investigation. This is the posture of some anthropologists, especially those who pursue scientism. This is not our position, and we will try to explain why in this paper by surveying some anthropological contribution to spiritual ecology.


In the original call for papers for the present inaugural conference, the organizers indicated a special interest in contributions that explore the history of scholarly inquiry in different academic disciplines on the relationships among human beings and their diverse cultures, environments, and religious beliefs and practices. We decided to accept this challenge for anthropology. Accordingly, this paper is the beginning of a literature review on the history of anthropological contributions to spiritual ecology. In responding to the call for papers, we also include some suggestions for future needs in research, teaching, and service in this domain. Accordingly, we address four questions each with reference to anthropology (see Table 1).


Table 1. Primary Questions

1. What is spiritual ecology?

2. What main approaches mark the development of spiritual ecology?

3. What are the contributions of spiritual ecology?

4. What are the future needs for the further development of spiritual ecology?




1. What is spiritual ecology?

In the present context, we define spiritual ecology as a complex and diverse arena of intellectual and practical activities at the interface of religions and spiritualities on the one hand, and on the other, of ecologies, environments, and environmentalisms.

We prefer the term spiritual ecology for five reasons:

1.1. The term spiritual ecology parallels the well-established primary components of contemporary ecological anthropology consisting of primate ecology, physiological ecology, cultural ecology, prehistoric ecology, historical ecology, and political ecology. (Sometimes physiological ecology is more broadly conceived as human adaptability studies while prehistoric ecology is referred to as paleoecology). (See Sponsel 1997).

1.2. Spirituality is far more inclusive than the term religion, encompassing individuals who do not affiliate with any particular religious organization such as a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, yet it is also an integral component of any religion in principle (Nye 2003:199-205, Saint-Laurent 2000, Taylor 2005:1375).

1.3. Other labels, such as religion and ecology, religion and nature, and ecotheology are awkward and/or problematic in various ways.

1.4. The term spiritual ecology is used to be purposefully provocative; that is, to generate penetrating inquiry (cf., Schneiders 1989).

1.5. The term spiritual alludes to the radical transformation which is required to cope with the ongoing and worsening ecocrisis, whereas religious affiliation and worship alone is insufficient.

A variety of labels overlap with this domain of spiritual ecology (Table 2).


Table 2. Labels Overlapping with the Domain of Spiritual Ecology*

132,000,000 religion and nature

109,000,000 religion and environment

23,300,000 religion and ecology

15,300,000 religious ecology

5,990,000 spiritual ecology

4,250,000 sacred ecology

34,000 ecotheology

24,900 ecospirituality

* The numbers indicate the hits revealed in a search of on March 26, 2006.


The term spiritual ecology is beginning to attract attention and use in anthropology (e.g., Sponsel 2001a). However, not every anthropologist who might be considered as a contributor to this domain would necessarily identify their own work with spiritual ecology or themselves as a spiritual ecologist, and that is fine.



2. What approaches mark the development of spiritual ecology?

One of the earliest efforts at a literature review on spiritual ecology is an article on “Ecology” written by the anthropologist Ake Hultkrantz of Sweden in The Encyclopedia of Religion published in 1987. He briefly discusses the influence of religion on nature in the context of environmental conservation movement, and then turns to a more extended discussion of the influence of environment on religion. The latter is considered in terms of contributions to ethnography and ethnology. Hultkrantz identifies three “religio-ecological types”: “arctic hunting religions,” “hunting and gathering religions of the semideserts,” and “pastoral nomadic religions.” He relies on Julian H. Steward’s ideas about cultural ecology and mulitlinear evolution, but misinterprets culture core as synonymous with subsistence economy, a common confusion. Furthermore, Steward almost completely ignored religion because of a personal antipathy to it (Kerns 2003, Sponsel 2006a). Hultkrantz (1987:585) describes Roy A. Rappaport’s work as belonging to the “most astute and intellectually rewarding literature on the subject” of ecological approaches to religion, but also criticizes it as reductionistic materialism. While Hultkrantz’s article is certainly a valuable historical benchmark, it is not a thorough and penetrating review. There is much more of relevance to spiritual ecology to be recognized in the earlier anthropological literature. At the same time Hultkrantz’s lead regarding cross-cultural comparisons to identify types of religious-ecological complexes merits more attention, although it does not appear that others have pursued such ethnological research since his article. Subsequent studies have been almost entirely ethnographic, that is, case studies of the spiritual ecology of a particular culture as indicated later in this paper. (Also see Berkes 2001, Hutlkrantz 1966, 1979, and Sponsel 1997, 2001a, 2005c)

As an initial heuristic framework, we distinguish four approaches to anthropological research on spiritual ecology. These approximate successive stages in the history of the discipline, but some earlier approaches persist to this day in modified form and are very useful: 1. ethnology, 2. cultural ecology, 3. systems ecology, and 4. political ecology. Here, because of time limitations, we can only briefly characterize each approach and then illustrate it with one or two examples.


2.1. Ethnology

The ethnological approach was developed mainly in England during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and principally by Sir Edward B. Tylor at Oxford University and Sir James G. Frazer at Cambridge University. Their method involved extensive and detailed cross-cultural comparisons through library research. Their theoretical framework was unilinear evolutionism in which so-called primitive societies were thought to reflect earlier stages in cultural evolution. Tylor (1871) considered Animism to be the foundation of all religion which he defined as a belief in spiritual beings (cf. Guthrie 1993, 1997, Harvey 2006). [As a matter of respect, we capitalize the term “Animism” as one would the name of any other religion of the world, such as Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam (Sponsel 2006b)].

Frazer is famous for his monumental Golden Bough (1890-1915), a compendium of 12 volumes based on his exhaustive readings about magic, religion, and myth. The influence of this prolific writer was widespread, especially in the public arena, although almost forgotten in academia by now. The abridged version of the Golden Bough, published in 1922, has never gone out of print. It contains extensive discussions of topics like sacred trees and other phenomena that are at the heart of spiritual ecology (Frazer 1922:126-156, 344-376). For example, in January 1996 we had the pleasure of participating in an international conference on “Trees and Wood as Social Symbols” that was organized by anthropologist Laura Rival (1998) at Wye College in the University of Kent in England. As another example, many are probably aware of Julia Butterfly Hill (2000). She lived for two years in the top of a giant redwood tree that she called Luna some180 feet above the ground in Humboldt County, California. She was dedicated to protecting Luna from loggers. (Also see Circle of Life Foundation and Wolens 2000). In our own field research in Thailand, we have been most impressed by the continuing cultural, religious, and ecological importance of sacred trees for contemporary Thai society (Sponsel 2005e, Sponsel and Natadecha-Sponsel 2001). (Also see Altman1994 and Kaza 1993).

As another example of the enduring themes discussed by Frazer, in his Totemism and Exogamy (1910), he examined totemism as both a religion and a form of kinship classification that identifies individuals and groups as descendants of some common ancestor in mythic times, often a species of animal or plant. He recognized that totemic species were usually prohibited as food, this foreshadowing much more recent research on the potential consequences of such taboos for environmental conservation (e.g., Colding and Folke 1997, Kinsley 1995:22-33). The Council of All Beings may be interpreted as a contemporary environmentalist totemic ritual (see Macy 2005). Our point here is that many themes in contemporary spiritual ecology actually have very deep roots in the history of anthropology that bear investigation. Spiritual ecology did not just spring forth full bloom in the 1990s.

Beyond the earliest anthropologists like Tylor and Frazer, later scholars like E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1940, 1956), Bronislaw Malinowski (1935), and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1922), among many others, contributed ethnographies that are inevitably relevant to spiritual ecology simply because the indigenous cultures they described embraced some variety of Animism which is inevitably a nature religion. Then, by the 1940s, the biological science of ecology was beginning to flourish, and by the 1960s, so were the various sociopolitical movement called environmentalism (Pepper 1996, Worster 1994). These are among the influences in the emergence of another approach to the anthropology of religion, one that is explicitly and systematically ecological, but manifest in several successive variants. Yet this ecological approach is only just now beginning to receive attention in standard textbooks on the anthropology of religion (e.g., Bowie 2006:107-137)


2.2. Cultural Ecology

One of the earlier efforts at an ecological approach to religion in 20th century anthropology is a fascinating article published in 1957 in the American Anthropologist by O.K. Moore on the functions of divination among the Montagnais-Naskapi hunter-gatherer bands of the interior plateau of the Labradorian Peninsula in Canada. The Naskapi shaman practiced scapulimancy by holding the defleshed and dried shoulder blade bone of a caribou over the hot coals of a fire, and then reading like a map the pattern of cracks and burnt spots that formed in order to divine the direction of prey for hunting. Moore hypothesized that scapulimancy randomized the direction of the hunt, thereby relieving pressure on prey populations by preventing game depletion through over-hunting in any particular area. Simultaneously, this shoulder-blade augury served to randomize hunting areas so that the prey was less likely to predict the behavior of the hunter and thereby hunting success may have been enhanced. Thus, Moore posited that, in this case, magic may well have had practical efficacy for Naskapi survival and subsistence. Furthermore, he observed that this kind of divination was not only central to Naskapi religion, but a widespread ritual in North America, Asia, and Europe (e.g., Vitebsky 2005:265-268). Moore’s interpretation of scapulimancy is not necessarily a materialist reduction of Naskapi religion to ecology, but suggests a latent function of one component of their religion (cf. Osgood 1951). Of course, many have long been critical of functionalist explanations in anthropology. Most of all, the function of something does not necessarily explain its origin. However, it does not follow from this observation that nothing in human behavior or culture has any practical effect (see Turner and Maryanski 1979).

More recently, Eugene Anderson (1996), in his book Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, Belief, and the Environment, argues that the sustainable use and management of natural resources depends not only on economic cost-benefit calculations, but also on beliefs, emotions, rituals, and symbols. Traditional indigenous societies that invest heart and soul as well as body and mind in caring for their environment often do so quite successfully (cf. Milton 2002). Resource strategies linked with religion that may appear superficially to be irrational to an ignorant outsider might actually be ecologically sound, grounded in intimate daily observations of nature over many years or generations. In contrast, so-called modern scientific, technocratic, and bureaucratic resource and environmental policies of centralized governments have failed more often than not. They usually lack not only meaningful experience on the ground locally, but also appropriate religious motivations, guidelines, rituals, and the like. Anderson demonstrates these principles with data and insights from his fieldwork on forest management by Mayan farmers in southern Mexico as well as fisheries and other resource management by communities in the Pacific and Asia. In the process, Anderson counters the simplistic reductionism of extremists from cultural materialism, evolutionary ecology, and postmodernism. Instead, he prescribes an intermediate path that combines reliable information, rational decision making, and positive emotion focused on reverential respect and care for nature, rather than simply the obsessive pursuit of resources as commodities for merely material ends. In many respects, Anderson comes closest so far to providing a holistic and comparative anthropological synthesis of spiritual ecology. (Also see Callicott 1994 and Kinsley 1995).

In Table 3, with apologies for any omissions, we list some of the anthropological contributions to spiritual ecology.


Table 3. Selected Anthropological Books Relevant to Spiritual Ecology

1968 – Roy A. Rappaport, Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People.

1971 – Gerardo Reciehl-Dolmatoff, Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians.

1974 - Barbara G. Myerhoff, Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians (northern Mexico).

1979 – A. Tanner, Bringing Home Animals: Religious Ideology and Mode of Production of the Mistassini Cree Hunters.

1981 – Anthony Seeger, Nature and Society in Central Brazil: The Suya Indians of Mato Grosso.

1983 - Richard Nelson, Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest (Alaska).

1983 – J. Donald Hughes, American Indian Ecology.

1991 – Stephen J. Lansing, Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bail.

1991 – Helena Norbeg-Hodge, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh.

1992 – Deborah B. Rose – Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture.

1993 - Philippe Descola, The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon (Achuar Jivaro in the Upper Amazon of Ecuador and Peru).

1993 – Robert Brightman, Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Human-Animal Relationships.

1995 – A. Oscar Kawagley, A Yupiq Worldview: A Pathway to Ecology and Spirit.

1996 - Nigel J.H. Smith, The Enchanted Amazon Rainforest: Stories from a Vanishing World (oral literature of the caboclos regarding spiritual beings and sacred places in the forests and waters of Amazonia).

1996 – E.N. Anderson, Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, Belief, and the Environment.

1999 – Fikret Berkes, Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management (Cree of Canada).

2000 - Valerio Valeri, The Forest of Taboos: Morality, Hunting, and Identity among the Huaulu of the Moluccas (Indonesia).

2002 – Kay Milton, Loving Nature: Towards an Ecology of Emotion.

2002 – Kelly D. Alley, On the Banks of the Ganga: When Wastewater Meets a Sacred River.

2005 - Piers Vitebsky, The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia.

2005 - Nancy J. Turner, The Earth’s Blanket: Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living (Nlaka’pmx of the Pacific Northwest).

[Of related interest are Grim (2001) and Posey (1999)].


It should be noted that Marvin Harris (1979) is a special case in cultural ecology, given his systematic elaboration of cultural materialism as a scientific research strategy in his book Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture (1979). His attempts to explain cultural riddles regarding religious practices, like Aztec ritual sacrifice, the sacred cow of India, and the Jewish and Muslim prohibition on pigs, remain fascinating and insightful, if not always entirely satisfying (e.g., Harris 1966). His distinction between etic and emic is still decisive. (Also see Harris’ books Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture 1974, Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Culture 1977, and Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture 1985).


2.3. Systems Ecology

A systems approach to human ecology with a strong biological component was developed by Andrew P. Vayda and Roy A. Rappaport (1968), in part inspired by Gregory Bateson (1972, 1979). Rappaport’s classic study, Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People (1967, 1968, 1984) is very well known as are his collections of more theoretical essays, Ecology, Meaning, and Religion (1979), and Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999) (see Glazier 2005, Hart and Kottak 1999, Messer and Lambek 2001). Decades later, Stephen Lansing (1991) developed a systems approach to human ecology reinforced by computer simulations to analyze the functional interrelationships of temple priests and rice paddy irrigation in Bali in his sophisticated study titled Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Endangered Landscape of Bali. (Also see Lansing 1987, Lansing and Kremer 1993).

Here, however, we briefly focus on an important pioneer in field research on spiritual ecology who, unfortunately, is less well- known in American anthropology than Rappaport, the Austrian Colombian anthropologist, Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (1971, 1976, 1996, 1999). He ingeniously argued that the Desana, a Tukano group, in the Vaupes River area of the Colombian portion of the northwest Amazon, are intimately tuned into their forest and aquatic ecosystems, not only through their subsistence activities, but also through their social organization, cosmology, myths, rituals, and symbols. He depicts the Desana as essentially native deep ecologists in both their thinking and behavior. Their shaman even serves as a manager of natural resource exploitation by regulating a complex system of faunal food and sexual prohibitions. In effect, this ultimately regulates the dynamics between the human predator and animal prey populations to keep them in equilibrium. In these and other ways, the Desana population as a top carnivore maintains a balance with its environment below carrying capacity, and thus doesn't irreversibly deplete the natural resources and degrade the ecosystems in its habitat. The Desana are circumscribed by other groups, and therefore, cannot expand geographically, unless they were to resort to warfare and conquest. Reichel-Dolmatoff's penetrating and elaborate systems analysis comes closer than any other ethnography to a holistic spiritual ecology that integrates materialist and mentalist approaches to human-environment relations. He includes etic and emic aspects, although this distinction is not always clear in his analysis. However, Reichel-Dolmatoff’s book is based almost exclusively on work with a single key informant, Antonio Guzman, although he followed up with further ethnographic research in Desana communities. Also, his study is entirely qualitative, in contrast to Rappaport’s far more quantitative work. Nevertheless, if anyone, Reichel-Dolmatoff might be recognized as the founder of spiritual ecology. [See Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (1971:243-252) for a concise summary of his Desana book, plus Elizabeth Reichel-Dolmatoff (2005) for more background on her Father’s work including with other cultures such as the Kogi, and Arhem (1996) for a similar study].


2.4. Political Ecology

Political ecology, like spiritual ecology, is a relatively recent approach within ecological anthropology (e.g., Little 1999, Robbins 2004). Sacred places are often contested, and there are also political struggles among different interpretations within the same religion as well as between religions. Accordingly, it is feasible and productive to approach spiritual ecology from the perspective of political ecology.

A most fascinating case study of environmental struggles over the Ganges River in northern India has been pursued by Kelly Alley (1998, 2000, 2002). One of the most important lessons from her work is that spiritual ecology and sacred places can involve very difficult complexities and ambiguities. One of the most sacred rivers in the world is simultaneously one of the most polluted. Alley describes the differing and often conflicting worldviews, assumptions, perceptions, discourses, and approaches of environmental scientists, government agents, and religious leaders regarding the purity and pollution of nature in the case of the Ganges. All three interest groups share in their own way the view that this is a period of degeneration. But each accuses the other of having a hidden agenda in promoting only their selfish interests instead of acting on behalf of the Ganges itself. Alley (1998:324) concludes that: “Whatever environmental activists and government officials may think, they need to be aware that the worldview of the local people must be an important factor in any solution.” Here is precisely where the anthropologist can be of some special relevance in helping to resolve environmental problems and issues. Ideally, the anthropologist might also be able to serve as a mediator to facilitate communication among the different interest groups so that they at least understand each other’s viewpoint. That would be a step toward possibly finding some common ground for resolution of the conflict.



3. What are the contributions of spiritual ecology?

In discussing some specific studies, like Reichel-Dolmatoff, we have already indicated particular contributions. Here we will consider anthropological contributions to spiritual ecology in a more general sense with a focus on Animism (Harvey 2006, Narby and Huxley 2001, York 2003).

What is the place of humans in nature? What should it be? The first question is pivotal for ecological anthropology, the second for environmental philosophy and ethics (Curry 2006, des Jardins 2005). As well, both questions are of special relevance for spiritual ecology, and vice versa. Probably both questions are very ancient and elemental ones entertained by most thoughtful humans, the first question since humans evolved into self-aware and rational beings, and the second question since they became spiritual beings. Viable answers to these and related questions are indispensable for any ecologically sustainable green society. In most cultures, religion is usually decisive in answering such questions. In this regard, anthropology can make a special contribution to spiritual ecology, particularly given its particular interest in Animism and in indigenous peoples together with the fact that indigenes are the original spiritual ecologists. Humankind has survived for several million years, and that adaptability reflects some wisdom in effectively answering such questions. The ethnological and ethnographic records help identify some of these answers for more recent societies in the historic period of cultural evolution like the Desana.

Anthropology’s documentation of Animism is probably its greatest contribution to spiritual ecology so far. There are up to about 7,000 distinct cultures in the world today, and many others were known and documented within the last couple of centuries before they became extinct. The majority of these cultures embrace some form of Animism. Because of the holistic approach to describing culture as a whole, most ethnographic monographs include at least one chapter on the local religion. Furthermore, there are numerous ethnographies focused mostly on religion, albeit in its social and cultural contexts while emphasizing behavior as well as beliefs. Therefore, to find out something about any particular manifestation of Animism, one need only decide which culture or region is of most interest, and then pursue the available literature through standard sources, not that these are perfect. [See Lambek (2002:573-613) for the most recent and extensive bibliography that is indexed by topic and region].



4. What are the needs for the future development of spiritual ecology?

Here we will make some suggestions under the standard academic domains of research, teaching, and service.


4.1. Research

4.1.1. History

There is a need to explore far more systematically and thoroughly than has been feasible here in this brief paper the historical foundations of spiritual ecology in anthropology and beyond in order to reveal the solid intellectual foundation that already exists and can be built on through further work. We have alluded to the considerable potential for such inquiries. They can proceed productively in tandem with teaching special courses on spiritual ecology.


4.1.2. Evidence

We need hard data to prove the efficacy of spiritual ecology through testing competing hypotheses in rigorous field research on particular cases. This is required to convince more people--- policy makers and the public as well as skeptical colleagues--- that spiritual ecology holds significant promise to help at least reduce if not entirely resolve the ecocrisis. Decades of diverse secular approaches to deal with the ecocrisis have not proven sufficient. Spiritual ecology may well be the last possibility to turn things around for the better. But it needs to gain more recognition and appreciation as a credible and promising pursuit.

In examining the relationships between religions and spiritualities on the one hand, and on the other hand, ecologies, environments, and environmentalisms, anthropologists can apply appropriate theories and methods encompassing their traditional framework of holism, culture, ethnographic fieldwork, and cross-cultural comparison (Sponsel 2001a, 2005a,b,c). In particular, there is a dire need in spiritual ecology to go beyond scholarly analyses of the relevance of points in sacred texts and other literature to what anthropologists themselves do best; namely, ethnographic fieldwork in communities through participant observation, interviewing, focal groups, and other methods. In other words, research on spiritual ecology needs to encompass context as well as text; that is, actions as well as ideas.


4.1.3. Sacred Places

Most of all, field research is needed to systematically, empirically, and critically explore the environmental consequences of religious and spiritual beliefs, values, and behaviors in particular sites, landscapes, and ecosystems. Sacred places in nature provide a focus that is especially conducive to such research (see Hamilton 1993, Lane 2001, Ramakrishnan, et al., 1998, Sponsel, et al., 1998, Sponsel and Natadecha-Sponsel 2003, 2004, UNESCO 2005). Moreover, spiritual ecology must deal with the complexities and difficulties of religions and spiritualities in relation to ecologies, environments, and environmentalisms, including negative as well as positive aspects (e.g., Delcore 2004). For example, many sacred places are contested by diverse and conflicting interest groups as the example of the Ganges from Alley’s work illustrates. (Also see Burton 2002 and the website for the Sacred Land Film Project of Christopher McLeod:

To the extent that nature is considered sacred, then the degradation and destruction of the environment, including species, habitats, landforms, and waters, is sacrilegious and morally irresponsible and reprehensible. The international Alliance for Religions and Conservation (ARC) which is based at the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture (ICOREC) in Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, England, is an especially exciting practical initiative promoting the connections between sacred places and environmental conservation (Dudley, et al., 2005, Edwards and Palmer 1997, Palmer and Finlay 2003). (Also see their website:

Field research is also needed to relate sacred places to pivotal heuristic concepts like biodiversity, biophilia, and topophilia (geophilia), and vice versa (Kellert and Farnham 2002, Kellert and Wilson 1993, Sponsel 2001b, Takacs 1996, Tuan 1974, Wilson 1984, 1992). Although these ideas started out at the purely theoretical level, they have resonance at the empirical level and anthropology can help document this through research in spiritual ecology.

Many biologists, although operating mainly, if not exclusively, within the framework of Western science, variously recognize the mutual relevance of biodiversity and religion. As David Takacs (1996:9) writes:

By activism on behalf of what they call biodiversity, conservation biologists seek to redefine the boundaries of science and politics, ethics and religion, nature and our ideas about it. They believe that humans and other species with which we share the Earth are imperiled by an unparalleled ecological crisis, whose roots lie in an unheeded ethical crisis. Biodiversity is the rallying cry currently used by biologists to draw attention to this crisis and to encapsulate the Earth's myriad species and biological processes, as well as a host of values ascribed to the natural world. An elite group of biologists aims to forge a new ethic, in which biodiversity's multiplicity of values will be respected, appreciated, and perhaps even worshipped.

Takacs (1996:254-270) identifies spiritual value as among the several different kinds of values of biodiversity, based on interviews with numerous prominent biologists. Many of them admitted to having extraordinary experiences during their field research in nature that they variously identified as a sense of wonder, awe, joy, exhilaration, tranquility, reverence, mystery, or spirituality. Thus, Takacs (1996:270) concludes: "Some biologists have found their own brand of religion, and it is based on biodiversity. The biologists portrayed here attach the label spiritual to deep, driving feelings they can't understand, but that give their lives meaning, impel their professional activities, and make them ardent conservationists." Takacs (1996:256) notes that most of the biologists he interviewed think that: "If the value of biodiversity were felt not merely in the pocket or in the brain but in the soul, then the most effective, permanent conservation ethic imaginable might result" (cf. Wilson 1992:343-351).

Arguably scientific concepts like biodiversity and biophilia are a Western rediscovery of the ancient ecological wisdom and corresponding practices of many traditional cultures. In many ways, and to varying degrees, most indigenous societies developed world views, attitudes, values, institutions, and behaviors that usually promote sustainable use of biodiversity and often enrich it as well. The sustainability of most indigenous societies is evidenced by the fact that they and the ecosystems in their habitats survived for centuries or even millennia (Sponsel 2001b, 2005d).

While the mutual relevance of religion and nature, or more specifically spirituality and biodiversity, is often asserted with only logical arguments, textual interpretations, and/or anecdotal evidence from library research, a growing number of field studies are systematically and empirically testing and verifying specific hypotheses. For instance, a recent report by Bruce Byers, Robert Cunliffe and Andrew Hudak (2001) demonstrates that, in the Zambezi Valley of northern Zimbabwe in southeastern Africa, deforestation in sacred forests is at least 50% less than that in their secular counterparts. Some 133 species of native plants occur in these sacred forests, whereas they are threatened, endangered, or extirpated elsewhere in Zimbabwe. In this case, apparently spiritual values have helped to protect biodiversity as Byers, et al. (2001:193) explain succinctly:

In the Shona language the word sacred, inoera, is an adjective describing a thing or place. Sacredness has the connotation of being life sustaining, such as providing food, fruit, or water. The concept is closely linked with rain, and the fertility of the land. A sacred place (nzvimbo inoera) is a place where spirits are present; it has certain rules of access, as well as behaviors that are not allowed there (taboos).

While Byers and his colleagues only examined sacred forests, they allude to the sacred geography of the Zambezi Valley landscape by noting that many other kinds of sacred places also exist, including certain trees, pools, rivers, mountains, and even mountain ranges. They conclude that biodiversity conservation strategies that link the conservation of culture and nature are more likely to be effective than top-down government and/or international approaches which ignore traditional beliefs, values, and institutions. (For other studies see Dudley, et al., 2005, Posey 1999, and Ramakrishnan, et al., 1998).

There are multifarious connections between biodiversity and religion that really need to be explored in a far more systematic and penetrating manner for practical environmental as well as scientific, intellectual, and spiritual purposes. Whether those connections are positive or negative, adaptive or maladaptive, also needs to be assessed as holistically, objectively, and empirically as possible in specific cases.


4.1.4. Historical Political Ecology

The spread of new religions into a region can precipitate profound changes in the trajectory of the historical ecology of local societies, because different religions can contribute to very different relationships between humans and nature with very different impacts on biodiversity, ecosystems, and ecological processes. Often as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam spread into many parts of the world, they suppressed or even destroyed previous religions, most of which were Animistic, including those of ancient Europe (Metzner 1994:55-60). Indeed, at least some Christians still advocate such destruction (e.g., Whelan, et al., 1996:39). While many people still devalue Animism, in principle, it is ethnocentric to disparage any religion. Furthermore, not all Animists have converted to another religion. Many indigenous peoples throughout the world remain essentially Animists. Also, even after a new religion such as Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam becomes dominant in an area, in numerous cases some elements of previous Animism persist. In any case, the historical political ecology of the spread of different religions into the same region is a subject that merits much more research.

Spiritual ecology encompasses a social, political, and intellectual movement as well as a religious one. It is not merely a transdisciplinary arena of academic research and teaching. For example, in the U.S.A., several years ago, Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant organizations at the national level established a coalition on behalf of the environment called the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. It is basically an educational initiative in applied spiritual ecology. Anthropologists have long documented religious movements, some called revitalization or millennarial movements. Spiritual ecology also needs to be documented and understood as such, both through library and field research, the latter including participant observation as well as interviews.


4.1.5. Holistic ecology

Modern archaeological research nearly always involves a multidisciplinary team, but research in cultural anthropology rarely does so. While certainly important work can be done by anthropologists working alone, spiritual ecology, and sacred places in particular, offer a special opportunity for multidisciplinary teach research. For example, since last summer we have been developing such a long-term team research project focused on the possible ecological relationships among Buddhist monks, sacred caves, bats, forests, and biodiversity conservation (Sponsel and Natadecha-Sponsel 2003, 2004). (See “Research” at

Spiritual ecology provides a special opportunity to apply either a materialist or a mentalist approach, or some combination of them. Far too often materialism and mentalism are conceived and practiced as mutually exclusive approaches. However, they are not necessarily antithetical. After all, humans are simultaneously biological, cultural, mental, and spiritual beings. Spiritual ecology offers a special opportunity to strive for a middle ground between materialism and mentalism, perhaps even some integrative model or synthesis. Reichel-Dolmatoff’s work certainly pointed in that direction.

Another component of holistic ecology would be far more attention to biological ecology including ecosystems and related natural phenomena, something that is often the Achilles heel of research in ecological anthropology. This weakness can be overcome by incorporating biologists in research teams investigating aspects of spiritual ecology. If serious attention is not afforded to ecology, then there is little if any justification in using the term ecology.


4.1.6. Rebuttal

Although since the 1990s spiritual ecology has developed impressive momentum and has already yielded some significant positive contributions, it also faces a variety of serious limitations. In particular, there is a need to effectively respond to opponents who are ignorant, prejudiced, and closed minded obstacles to progress in the scientific and scholarly investigation of spiritual ecology. Among the opponents are those, such as James Lett (1999), who apparently embrace scientism, the pursuit of science as if it were the exclusive route to knowledge, understanding, and truth about any and all of reality. Incidentally, the worship of science as a fetish is also problematic for the progress of science itself, among other things, because of the closed mindedness it promotes. We raise this issue, but here only have time to refer any interested individuals to several other places where we have discussed such matters (Sponsel 2001a:186-188, and Sponsel’s homepage under “Religion” in the entry “Controversies”). (Some of the pertinent literature on such matters includes Crosby 2002, Engelke 2002, Guthrie 1993, 1997, Haught 1990, McGrath 2002, Osgood 1951, Smith 1992, 2001, Stenmark 1997, Tuan 1968, Turner 1992, and Young and Goulet 1994. Also see the Metanexus Institute website:


4.2. Teaching

There is a substantial interest in spirituality in general in our contemporary world. For example, a national survey of 112,232 entering first-year students attending 216 diverse colleges and universities in the U.S.A. during the fall of 2004, revealed that 83% believed in the sacredness of life and 80% have an interest in spirituality (Astin, et al., 2004). Spiritual ecology is attractive to many such students. Rigorous courses in this subject need to be developed at the undergraduate and graduate levels as well entire special training programs. In the Department of Religion at the University of Florida there is a wonderful program being developed by Bron Taylor and his colleagues since 2003 ( Also the historic benchmark The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature edited by Taylor and others is a treasure for students, teachers, and researchers.

In 2003, the Spiritual Ecology Concentration was implemented as an optional specialization within the Ecological Anthropology Program at the University of Hawai`i. This concentration is unique in being in anthropology and in being available to students from the undergraduate through the M.A. and Ph.D. levels. At the core of this concentration are three courses cross-listed between the departments of Anthropology and Religion: 422 Anthropology of Religion, 444 Spiritual Ecology, and 445 Sacred Places. Cognate courses in anthropology are 415 Ecological Anthropology, 482 Environmental Anthropology, and 620H Human Ecology. (A description of the Spiritual Ecology Concentration and the syllabi and bibliographies for these and other courses are readily available at this website:

We would be most interested to learn of other universities and colleges where courses and programs in spiritual ecology or related subjects are being developed or offered. (Also see Rockefeller 1996).


4.3. Service

Meetings such as this inaugural conference are extremely important opportunities for learning about the frontiers of research in spiritual ecology. Sessions on this subject are also needed at meetings of particular disciplines. For instance, last November, we organized and chaired such a session at the annual convention of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, D.C. Moreover, we are developing a new Research Institute for Spiritual Ecology (RISE) that will focus on providing free resources such as internet conferences. (See

In addition, we need to extend our reach beyond academic colleagues who share our interests to inform and engage the public and even policy makers. The Forum on Religion and Ecology based at Harvard University initiated such outreach through several of its programs ( (Also see the UNEP publication edited by Basset, et al., 2000). One way we have attempted to implement such outreach ourselves is by organizing some kind of special event on spiritual ecology as an annual Earth Day Celebration around each April 22.



The pivotal role of religion in human lives and societies has long been recognized by anthropologists among other scholars. The roots of spiritual ecology as an academic field of study extend back into the beginnings of anthropology to the late 19th century in England with an interest in Animism as the primal religion of humanity. Indeed, as specialists in the study of indigenous cultures, anthropologists have also specialized in the study of Animism more than in any other religion, at least until recent decades. Spiritual ecology is inherent in Animism, thus anthropologists can be recognized as among the pioneers in studying spiritual ecology.

Ultimately, spiritual ecology reflects philosophical, religious, and moral traditions, ancient to contemporary, that, at least in principle, view all beings and things in nature and thereby planet Earth as a whole to be sacred. Therefore, ultimately, for spiritual ecology, a pivotal point is to comprehend that the natural and supernatural are not rigidly separate and antithetical domains, but interwoven into the very fabric of human experience and ultimate reality. This point is pivotal for any attempt at effectively resolving the ecocrisis. Anthropology has much to contribute to this vital effort. Instead of conceiving the supernatural in nature as illusion, we join those who think that it is an illusion to separate the natural and supernatural, and that includes the bulk of humanity through millennia.



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