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R.I.S.E. - One Anthropologist's Reflections

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Spiritual Ecology: One Anthropologist's Reflections

Unedited penultimate draft of an essay invited for the inaugural issue in 2007 of the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture.




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.


This journal and its parent organization are certainly most exciting, positive, and promising developments, but what might this new field be called? The study of religion, nature, and culture overlaps with a variety of domains (Table 1). I prefer the term spiritual ecology, which may be defined as a diverse and complex 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. This trope is preferable for five reasons. Others, such as religion and ecology, religion and nature, and ecotheology are problematic in various ways. Spirituality is more inclusive than religion, encompassing individuals who do not affiliate with any particular religious organization, yet in principle spirituality is also an integral component of any religion. Spiritual ecology is used purposefully to generate more penetrating thinking and inquiry. The concept of spiritual alludes to the profound transformations in individuals and societies that are required to cope with the worsening environmental problems and crises in the world, whereas religious affiliation alone is insufficient (e.g., Lerner 2000, Tucker and Berling 2003). The label spiritual ecology parallels and complements well-established arenas in the study of human-environment interactions, such as cultural ecology, historical ecology, and political ecology. (For discussions of spirituality see Saint-Laurent 2000, Schneider 1989, and Taylor 2001a,b).


Table 1. Labels Overlapping with the Domain of Spiritual Ecology *

146,000,000 religion and nature

125,000,000 religion and environment

24,600,000 religion and ecology

14,400,000 religious ecology

5,700,000 spiritual ecology

3,890,000 sacred ecology

30,900 ecotheology

25,200 ecospirituality

* The numbers indicate sites revealed in a search of the associated topics with on July14, 2006.



Since the work of late 19th century anthropologists like Edward B. Tylor and James G. Frazer, many others have touched occasionally on the relationships between religion and environment as well (Hultkrantz 1987, Sponsel 2001, 2005a). Indeed, this is almost inevitable with some religions such as Animism (Harvey 2006). However, only since the mid-1960s have anthropologists gradually developed research intentionally focused on these relationships. Although several of the publications of Roy A. Rappaport are most often recognized in this regard, many other anthropologists have also contributed to this subject (Table 2). Nevertheless, not every anthropologist who might be considered to be a contributor to spiritual ecology would necessarily identify either their own work as such or themselves as a spiritual ecologist (Kinsley 1995, Sponsel 2001). In addition, it is noteworthy that this ecological approach is only just now beginning to receive coverage in standard textbooks on the anthropology of religion (e.g., Bowie 2006).


Table 2. Selected Anthropological Books Relevant to Spiritual Ecology

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

1971 – Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians. C hicago , IL : University of Chicago Press.

1974 - Barbara G. Myerhoff, Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians. Ithaca , NY : Cornell University Press.

1979 – A. Tanner, Bringing Home Animals: Religious Ideology and Mode of Production of the Mistassini Cree Hunters. St. John’s , Newfoundland : Memorial University of Newfoundland Institute for Social and Economic Research.

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

1983 - Richard Nelson, Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest . Chicago , IL : University of Illinois Press.

1983 – J. Donald Hughes, American Indian Ecology. El Paso , TX : Texas Western Press.

1991 – Stephen J. Lansing, Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali , Princeton , NJ : Princeton University Press.

1991 – Helena Norbeg-Hodge, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. San Francisco , CA : Sierra Club.

1992 – Deborah B. Rose, Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture. New York , NY : Cambridge University Press.

1993 - Philippe Descola, The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon. New York , NY : The New York Press.

1993 – Robert Brightman, Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Human-Animal Relationships. Berkeley , CA : University of California Press.

1995 – A. Oscar Kawagley, A Yupiq Worldview: A Pathway to Ecology and Spirit. Prospect Heights , IL : Waveland Press.

1996 - Nigel J.H. Smith, The Enchanted Amazon Rainforest: Stories from a Vanishing World. Gainesville , FL : University of Florida Press.

1996 – E.N. Anderson, Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, Belief, and the Environment. New York , NY : Oxford University Press.

1999 – Fikret Berkes, Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management. Philadelphia , PA : Taylor and Francis.

2000 - Valerio Valeri, The Forest of Taboos : Morality, Hunting, and Identity among the Huaulu of the Moluccas . Madison , WI : University of Wisconsin Press.

2002 – Kay Milton, Loving Nature: Towards an Ecology of Emotion. New York , NY : Routledge.

2002 – Kelly D. Alley, On the Banks of the Ganga : When Wastewater Meets a Sacred River . Ann Arbor , MI : University of Michigan Press.

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

2005 - Nancy J. Turner, The Earth’s Blanket: Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living. Seattle , WA : University of Washington Press.

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



Turning to some future needs, the first is historical. There needs to be a thorough exploration of the historical foundations of spiritual ecology in anthropology and beyond in order to reveal building blocks that already exist that can be incorporated with appropriate acknowledgements and qualifications together with further work into constructing a solid intellectual foundation.


Second, there is a whole set of needs regarding field studies. Anthropologists can apply appropriate theories drawn from their traditional frameworks of holism, culture, cultural relativism, and cross-cultural comparison. Furthermore, spiritu al ecology provides a special opportunity to pursue either a materialist or a mentalist approach, or some combination of both. Usually materialism and mentalism are conceived as mutually exclusive (Harris 1979). However, they need not be because in reality humans are simultaneously biological, cultural, mental, and spiritual beings. Spiritual ecology offers a special opportunity to strive for a middle ground between the poles of materialism and mentalism, and perhaps even some integrative model or holistic synthesis. The research by Rappaport, Reichel-Dolmatoff, and Lansing points in that direction (Sponsel 2001).


Hard data are required to demonstrate the efficacy of spiritual ecology by testing competing hypotheses through rigorous field research on specific phenomena. 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, even though they are vital, to what cultural anthropologists specialize in; namely, ethnographic fieldwork in local communities through participant observation, interviewing, focus groups, and related methods. In other words, research on spiritual ecology needs to encompass context as well as text, and actions as well as ideas (Anderson 1996, Rue 2005).


Most of all, field research is needed to systematically, empirically, and critically explore the environmental implications and consequences of religious and spiritual beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors in particular sites, landscapes, and ecosystems. Sacred places in nature provide a convenient focus that is especially conducive to such inquiries ( Byers, et al. 2001, Ramakrishna, et al., 1998, Sponsel, et al., 1998). Furthermore, 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. For instance, many sacred places are contested in various ways by diverse interest groups, such as the Ganges River described by Kelly Alley (2002).


Also far more attention to biological ecology is needed, encompassing biodiversity, ecosystems, ecological processes, and related natural phenomena. The neglect of biological ecology is usually the Achilles heel of research in human ecology. One way to overcome this weakness is to incorporate biologists on teams investigating aspects of spiritual ecology. Research in modern archaeology usually involves a multidisciplinary team, but this is rare in cultural anthropology. While surely important contributions can be made by individuals working alone, spiritual ecology and sacred places offer a special opportunity for multidisciplinary team research. For example, the present author is developing a project with a multidisciplinary team of Thai colleagues focused on researching the possible ecological relationships among Buddhist monks, sacred caves, bats, forests, and biodiversity conservation in Thailand (Sponsel and Natadecha-Sponsel 2004).


Different religions can contribute to very different relationships between humans and nature with varying impacts on biodiversity, ecosystems, ecological processes, and related phenomena (e.g., Tanner and Mitchell 2002). The entrance of new religions into a region can precipitate significant changes in the trajectory of the historical ecology of local societies. Often as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam spread into many parts of the world they suppressed or destroyed previous religions, most of them Animistic including those of ancient Europe (Metzner 1994). However, not all Animists have converted to another religion. Many indigenous peoples throughout the world remain essentially Animists (e.g., Grim 2001). In addition, even after a new religion becomes dominant in an area, as with Buddhism in many parts of Asia or Catholicism in most of Latin America , often elements of preexisting Animism persist. Archaeological and historical research can be especially helpful in addressing such matters.


Spiritual ecology is not merely a trans-disciplinary arena of academic research and teaching. Far more importantly, it involves religious and spiritual sociopolitical movements. For instance, in the U.S.A. in the early 1990s, Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant organizations developed the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (Womersley 2005). Such movements and applications of spiritual ecology also need to be investigated both through documentary and field studies (Bassett, et al. 2000, Edwards and Palmer 1997, Gardner 2002, Gottlieb 2006, Palmer and Finlay 2003, Tucker and Berling 2003).


A third major need is to reach a far wider audience beyond specialists, such as members of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. Rigorous research is required to convince more people, policy makers and the public as well as skeptical or prejudiced colleagues, that spiritual ecology holds significant promise to help at least reduce, if not entirely resolve, ecocrises throughout the world. Decades of diverse secular approaches to resolve environmental problems and issues have proven to be insufficient. Spiritual ecology may well be the last possibility to turn things around for the better, but it needs to gain far wider recognition and appreciation as a credible and effective pursuit (e.g., Lerner 2000). This will require greater involvement by researchers in publishing for the general public in addition to their usual professional venues. Portions of conferences need to be open to the public as well. The Forum on Religion and Ecology based at Harvard University initiated outreach through several of its programs ( Individuals committed to spiritual ecology could organize some kind of special event on this subject for the celebration of Earth Day each year.


Another important venue for reaching a broader audience is teaching. For instance, a national survey of 112,232 entering first-year students attending 216 colleges and universities in the U.S.A. during the fall of 2004 revealed that 80% have an interest in spirituality and 83% believe in the sacredness of life (Astin, et al., 2004). Spiritual ecology is attractive to many students as well. Rigorous courses and special training programs on this subject need to be developed such as the Religion and Nature track in Religion at the University of Florida ( and the Spiritual Ecology Concentration in Anthropology at the University of Hawai`i (, both of them established in 2003.


Beyond teaching students, if framed appropriately, then spiritual ecology may also appeal to numerous biologists, conservationists, environmentalists, and other professionals, if they are not biased by scientism (Barbour 2000, Lett 1999, McGrath 2003, Stenmark 1997). For instance, many biologists variously recognize the mutual relevance of biodiversity and spirituality. As David Takacs (1996:9) writes in his book The Idea of Biodiversity:


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 a large number of prominent biologists. Many of them admit to having extraordinary experiences during their field research in nature that they variously identify 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." Moreover, 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." Indeed, much of the field of conservation biology is animated by deep spiritual connections to the earth’s living systems (Sponsel 2005b, Taylor 2005).


In conclusion, t he pivotal role often played by religion and spirituality in human lives and societies has long been recognized by many scholars from a diversity of fields including anthropology (e.g., Smith 2001). The roots of spiritual ecology as a scientific and academic field of study to a substantial degree extend back to the beginnings of anthropology during the late 19 th century in England with an interest in Animism as the primal religion of humanity. Some forms of spiritual ecology are inherent in Animism and indigenes are the original spiritual ecologists. Because anthropologists have traditionally specialized in the study of indigenous cultures, usually they have attended to Animism more than to any other religion (e.g., Viveiros de Castro 1992). Thus, anthropologists can be recognized as being among the pioneers in studying spiritual ecology (Sponsel 2001).


Ultimately, spiritual ecology reflects philosophical, religious, and moral traditions that tend to view nature as sacred, although this does not imply that the associated societies are always in harmony with their environment, given the discrepancies that may exist between ideals and behavior. Accordingly, the primary working assumption of spiritual ecology is that the natural and the supernatural are not necessarily separate and incompatible domains, but instead they are often interwoven into the very fabric of human experience, even though they may be distinguished analytically in many cases (e.g., de Quincey 2002, Turner 1992). Consider spirit as analogous to wind. With the naked eye humans can not actually see the wind itself, but certainly they can observe its physical effects, such as in the motion of leaves in a tree, a hurricane or tornado, or the rotation of the propellers of a wind turbine generating electricity (cf. McNeley 1997). Contemplating this analogy may help facilitate more open minded and penetrating thinking about the potential of spiritual ecology as a legitimate arena of research and teaching as well as of practical action on behalf of the biosphere including humanity.



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