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Spiritual Ecology


Sponsel and spiritual ecology

What is spiritual ecology? What does Sponsel argue to be the relationship between science and religion in natural resource management?

Sponsell writes eloquently and wonderfully about the connection between spirituality and ecology in a way of thinking that I find resonates deeply with my own beliefs. The author wrote that the union of the two words spiritual and ecology was meant to signify the “…arena of spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and practical activities at the interface of religions and environment.” (Sponsel 181). He frames his argument for a spiritual ecology in terms of “when all else fails, try religion”, an argument meant to explain the need to try a new angle of approach to the environmental problems facing humanity.

This concept inspires ideas in me of the many different religious perspectives on nature and ways of interacting with nature of which I am aware, including indigenous systems around the world, but there is more than just the history of traditions in Sponsel’s writings. He emphasizes that it is ancient, yes, sacred, yes, but also influential: as in, it can impact the modern world. I think this is a strong line of reasoning, and as one of our earlier readings called for a “full court press” necessary to tackle the environmental hurdles facing us, the idea of using religion and more specifically the fostered spiritual connection to nature from which religion most likely first came is more important than any sports metaphor can hope to catch. It could really work in some places. Some places is better than no place.

Of the three examples of spiritual ecology Sponsel introduces, animism, Neopaganism, and Jainism, I find them all fascinating. I was struck by his writing on the longevity and overall product of animism as the formerly-universal human religion:

“Given the great antiquity and former universality of animism, together with its obvious ecological relevance through special respect for spirits and sacred places in nature, the cumulative environmental impact of animism must have been significant and largely positive.” (179).

One can see from this passage that Sponsel finds animism to be a particularly powerful form of the early spiritual ecology that could serve as a model for a more sustainable relationship to the earth.

The relationship between science and religion is deeply rooted in culture. As Sponsel quotes White, “Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny – that is, by religion.” (182). This is a wonderful quote to put the roots of science at the door of our religious persuasion, despite their status as old enemies in some circles.

Sponsel also notes the union of religions in ecumenical dialogue over the future health of the environment and how this can be alleviated. He writes that there are numerous approaches to solving the environmental crisis which are perceived as being inadequate or having ‘failed’, and he includes science among these approaches. This is where religion comes in. I tend to agree that a spiritual understanding of one’s connection to all life is essential to overpower the greedy consumerism the elites want us to operate by. This connection defies the utterly materialistic conception of reality and recognizes the spiritual facets of life.

Sponsel’s mentioned of Rappaport’s article on the Tsembaga is an apt display of the role science, and in particular anthropology, can play in illuminating the extent and nature of spiritual ecologies around the world, from which we can learn valuable principles (188).


In summation, the idea of spiritual ecology can be seen through many lenses, but the single continuous factor of any of those interpretations is that the natural world needs to be seen 'in the light of reverence'. A fine film by that same name depicts the struggles of indigenous people to whom the natural world is still sacred, fighting against the onslaught of 'progress' in the form of development and resource extraction.

One of the most poignant realizations such a depiction of other modes of life and ways of perceiving the natural world's spirituality is found in the difference between the ways the Native Americans view the geological formation known as Devil's Tower, as compared to the ways non-native Americans use t for rock climbing and recreation. While the former hold this column of rock in the middle of the Badlands as a sacred site and their cultural identity depends on them being able to treat it as such, the climbers see it more as a facet of a national park to which they are entitled entry due to their membership in the citizenry of the USA. AS things stand now, the rock is set aside for the Native american's religious ceremonies only for a few days each summer, though the rock, the land around it, the rest of the state, and the entire country were forcibly taken from those same Native Americans.

To many of you, these injustices will be things you know about, at least in general terms. But the application of spiritual ecology to this situation can help show the disconnect between the climbers and the land. Our civilization needs to reconnect to the spirituality of nature in a very real and urgent way.