Spirituality and environmentalism: Perfect symbiosis? | Foreign policy

Rather than proposing a new religious syncretism in the face of the climate crisis, Karen Armstrong suggests rediscovering the religious imagination of different traditions in which she perceives a common thread: the understanding of the natural world as a whole unified by a sacred, immanent or transcendent force.


“That eternal and infinite being that we call God or Nature…”

Baruch Spinoza, ANDethics (1677).

“In the forests, we shed the years like snakes that shed their skin and, at any moment in our lives, we can always be children (…) We are part or particles of God.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836).

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has always been a careful politician in the use of words; he usually makes the necessary clarifications, distinctions and emphasis so as not to fall into the evasive euphemisms so typical of diplomatic language. No one was surprised, therefore, when at the Glasgow climate conference (COP26), Guterres spoke harshly to denounce that humanity was treating the environment as a “latrine”.

This year, in Sharm-el-Sheikh (COP27), he warned that if the world did not stop its rampant “race to hell”, the planet will reach a point of no return. Various signs indicate that six of the nine critical thresholds of ecosystem sustainability have already been violated, including the biogeochemical cycles of water sources – fresh and marine – and farmland due to high concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen from agrochemicals, fertilizers and herbicides.

When the acidity barrier of the oceans, on which the oxygen level of its waters depends, is crossed, most of the coral reefs will disappear. There are not many reasons for optimism. The only success story, so far, has been preventing the destruction of the ozone layer by banning fluorocarbons. The environmental NGO WWF estimates that 77% of land spaces and 87% of oceans have been altered by the Anthropocene, which has already made 83% of mammalian biomass and half of the original vegetation disappear.

If the current trend is not stopped, by the end of the century temperatures will rise by 2.8ºC, which will melt the polar caps and raise the level of the oceans by more than 10 centimeters and subject some 1.7 billion people to waves of extreme heat . Many regions will become desertified and the global food supply will fall, triggering social protests, waves of migration and wars.

The causes are not a secret to anyone: the loss of natural habitats, biodiversity and ecosystems due to population growth and pollution. Every year between 300 and 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents and other industrial derivatives are released into the waters of rivers and seas.

When it started the anthropocene?

The moment at which the Anthropocene began is still a matter of controversy. Some place it in 1945, when the first nuclear bombs were detonated, and others between 1763 and 1775, when James Watt and Matthew Boulton invented the first practical steam engine, one of the driving forces of the Industrial Revolution. Some even maintain that it began 10,000 years ago, with the appearance of organized agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle that ended with the nomadism of hunter-gatherers.

In the dawn of everything (2022), David Graeber and David Wengrow recall that the homo sapiens It has existed for at least 200,000 years, but what happened in most of that time is a mystery. The cave paintings in the Altamira caves were painted for at least 10,000 years, between 25,000 and 15,000 BC At the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov archaeological site, Israeli, British and German scientists have just found the remains of a two-meter species of carp that had been caught in a nearby lagoon and exposed to controlled use of fire some 780,000 years ago. Until now, the first evidence of cooking dates from 170,000 years ago, almost coinciding with the appearance of the homo sapiens.

atavistic fears

In Le grand voyage du pays des hurons (1638), the Jesuit Gabriel Sagard wrote that the Algonquin peoples he met in Nova Scotia perceived reality as a continuation of indissoluble space and time. As the West became secularized, that mythical or religious vision of existence faded away.

But their advanced and prosperous societies -like those of Antiquity, where everything that happened was attributed to the whims of the gods-, have not been able to get rid of certain atavistic fears, such as the fear of nature’s revenge for the hubris (ὕβρις) human. They are not misguided fears. The deforestation of the Amazon rainforest alters the rainfall and hydrological cycles of the entire planet, which explains why Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which are home to 52% of the world’s tropical rainforests, have just formed an association to cooperate in their preservation, in a kind of OPEC of the forests.

existential threats

The summit on the shores of the Red Sea showed the growing consensus among global elites that climate chaos -droughts, waves of extreme heat, hurricanes…- is the greatest threat facing humanity, among other things because its progress is so gradual that it makes it imperceptible to broad social sectors that must attend to more urgent problems.

But there is no possible escape: environmental deterioration impacts the production and supply chains of food, drinking water, and the extraction and consumption of minerals and fossil fuels, among many other vital sectors. It is not by chance – nor for nothing – that almost all the members of the United Nations have signed the Paris Agreement, which proposes regulatory, technological and technocratic solutions, including the elimination of hydrocarbon subsidies and the promotion of renewable energies.

Ted Nordhaus and Vijaya Ramachandran recall in Foreign Policy that today an average inhabitant of the planet is 90% less likely to die from natural disasters than one in the twenties of the last century due to economic and technological development. Floods caused by the overflow of the Yellow River claimed two million lives in China in 1887. In 1970, tropical cyclones killed half a million people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and 140,000 in 1991. Since the 1980s, the rate of Global mortality from these causes has fallen by 85%.

distilled wisdom

Ethics and religious traditions in relation to nature also have an essential role to play. The problem is that until 1969, when James Lovelock formulated his hypothesis Gaia –which posits that the biosphere self-regulates its physical environment to make it more hospitable to life–, Western culture has tended to consider the natural world as an object of observation or exploitation, almost as if it only existed to be at its service.

In her latest book, Karen Armstrong — who entered the Lancashire convent in 1962, which she left in 1969, and who is today one of the world’s leading experts on religious issues — argues that if ecological disaster is to be avoided, humanity it needs to recover the veneration for nature that its mystics, ascetics, sages and spiritual teachers cultivated for millennia.

Armstrong tackles complex issues and brings them back to their essentials. But A story of God (2006) and the great transformation(2007), for example, were three times longer than sacred nature. His theses win with laconicism: the brief text exudes wisdom and reads almost like a prayer or an invocation for each religious culture to review its belief system to find in them the keys to survival.

More than proposing a new religious syncretism, he proposes to rediscover the religious imagination of the Abrahamic, Dharmic and animistic traditions, in which he perceives a common thread: the understanding of the natural world as a whole unified by a sacred, immanent or transcendent force.

In its summa theologiaThomas Aquinas (1225-74), for example, held that God was not just a being but Being itself (esse seipsum), the divine essence at the heart of all things. As Armstrong explains, religions take many forms, but their relationship with nature is based not on dogmas but on feelings and emotions that are experienced not from the logos but of mythos.

Spirituality and nature

Armstrong’s ecumenical scholarship is dazzling. In Taoism, he writes he, the qi –the ineffable essence of the Universe– is neither completely material nor spiritual, a conception anthropoceitherseismic that erases the borders between the human and the divine. Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240), Sufi mystic, philosopher and Andalusian poet, insisted, for his part, that each verse of the Qur’an (from Arabic القرآن, recitation) is a ayah, a divine revelation that reflects the rhythms and pulses of the natural world in a constant theophany.

Armstrong values ​​above all the concept of ahimsa, common to Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism that prohibits causing any kind of harm to others. After studying for two years with a Jain monk, Akbar, India’s third Mughal emperor (1556-1605), passed laws protecting leopards, horses, monkeys, snakes, and fish, among other animals. The rishis (wise) Hindus perceived nature as a living entity imbued with the divine, a conception so ingrained in various cultures that it seems to be an archetypal notion of the human psyche.

rationalism and anthropocentrism

Since the Age of Enlightenment, the ethos anthropocentric Western humanism entrenched the notion of nature as a commodity. Descartes, recalls Armstrong, believed that since it was inert, matter could not teach anything of the divine, so its value was only utilitarian. Isaac Newton, for his part, wrote that the dominancewhich he identified with the force of gravity that controls the cosmos, was the defining characteristic of divinity, which he conceived of as a kind of scientist especially gifted for geometry and mechanics.

But it is not the only Western tradition. In magnrebellious fiends (2022), Andrea Wulf writes that Friedrich Schelling, one of the philosophers of the Jena circle, held that everything is interconnected and that we are part of a living organism: nature, a precursor idea of ​​environmentalism, which extends compassion not only to other beings and species but also to the next generations.

scientific pantheismfico

The so-called scientific pantheism, which does not resort to supernatural notions or factors, is based on the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who believed that Nature-God is its own cause and the only existing essence. According to Henri Bergson, Spinoza was a mystic who had wanted to “geometrize the mysticism of him” from him. Albert Einstein said that Spinoza’s god was the only one he believed in.

beat nihilism

Days before the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, Islamic and Catholic leaders met in Bahrain for a dialogue that prioritized the environment on their agenda and was attended by Pope Francis and Ahmed Attayeb, grand imam of the Cairo mosque of Al Azhar, one of the greatest religious authorities of Sunni Islam.

In the Epilogue, Armstrong insists that atheists, agnostics or believers can feel nature as the ultimate source of the sacred. The ecological crisis, he warns, is the fruit of self-destructive and nihilistic tendencies that Kabbalists, Sufis, Christians, Taoists and Hinduists must help counter, taking action to restore and preserve the world they received.

Spirituality and environmentalism: Perfect symbiosis? | Foreign policy