SPIRIT AND NATURE: Why the Environment Is a Religious Issue
Edited by Steven C. Rockefeller and John C. Elder.
Beacon Press: Boston, 1992.
226 pp. $30.00 (clothbound) $16.00 (paperback).


Driving toward Seattle in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I am faced again with a certain despair for the environment and myself. Here I am rushing to Seattle past urban sprawl and “industrial parks” (a wonderful oxymoron) in a truck that con­sumes far more energy than is necessary, pondering the conse­quences of our ugly “progress”­ only to realize I have arrived at these same observations, conclu­sions, and sentiments before. I have begun to recognize a familiar feeling that life is moving in circles, that for all the politically correct talk about the environ­ment, the charters, and the summits, nothing really changes for the better, and just identifying environmental and ecological problems is no longer important. The next far more difficult step must be to question how these problems can be corrected and to admit that many of the proposals already put forward have failed; not because the ideas were wrong, but because advocates have not appreciated the need for a more sophisticated understanding of human nature in relationship to the environmental crisis. Spirit and Nature,edited by Steven C. Rockefeller and John Elder, is an important new direction in envi­ronmental discourse because it squarely faces the question of reli­gious force, both personal and institutional, as a prime player in the politics of environment.

The text contains the lectures and addresses of a four-day symposium entitled “Spirit and Nature: Religion, Ethics, and Environmental Crisis,” which was held at Middlebury College (where both Rockefeller and Elder are professors) in the fall of 1990. The symposium presented Buddhist, Islamic, Christian, Jewish, and Native American reli­gious perspectives.

Every chapter in Spirit and Nature sounds a note that could be lengthened, shortened, or tuned in some way; and while each voice is intelligent and caring and unique, several recurring themes and questions emerge.

In different ways many of the authors have arrived at the central importance of “interdependence” as a primary principle for under­standing ecological reality and for the actions which proceed from such an understanding. This notion is hardly unfamiliar to Buddhists and is included in the Dalai Lama’s remarks (“A Tibetan Buddhist Perspective”) at the symposium. According to the Buddhist view of “interdepen­dence,” our lives are propelled by craving or desire, and that fact has not been overlooked by other traditions. Ismar Schorsch (“Learning to Live with Less: A Jewish Perspective”), for example, laments our lack of self-restraint and the “ferocious consumerism of American life,” while Sallie McFague (“A Square in the Quilt”) alludes to the same dilemma in her discussion of St. Augustine’s understanding of sin as “living a lie”:

… living in false relations to God and other beings. It [sin] is, as he said in a term that may sound quaint and anachronistic but which is ecologically up-to-date, “concupiscence,” an insatiable appetite …

Recognizing this fact of human nature (desire, the force of desire, and its many subtle and uncon­scious layers of manifestation) must lead to important questions about the challenge we face as the Western “lifestyle” of consumerism spreads across the globe: should we expect rational discourse to prevail against non­rational forces, especially the non­rational forces of consumerism, which is nothing more than a meaningless economics of desire?

The full danger of consumerist societies and our inability to convert societies to a more envi­ronmentally sound lifestyle is only weakly represented in Spirit and Nature because, I think, the book is one-sided. While I consider myself to be very much on the same side, I wonder how useful it is to talk to oneself, as it were. Ronald Engel (“Liberal Democ­racy and the Fate of the Earth”) seems to be approaching this point when he writes: “We need to pause for a moment and listen to the two sides of this debate.”

Spirit and Nature is undoubt­edly a successful book because it makes us return to the primary issues of the environmental move­ment and ask, What next? One very real possibility introduced in Spirit and Nature is to convene another conference that would include “the other”: that is, intelligent and successful people in busi­ness, politics, science, and technol­ogy who do not share the point of view of the authors and editors. Listening to “the other,” I might gain a new respect for the incredi­ble forces that resist restraint, forces which—even though I am in sympathy with ecology and conservation movements—I find echoes of in myself: a certain lazi­ness, a refusal to give up a life of luxury (like the luxury of driving alone to Seattle) for the Spartan life advocated by Socrates or even Zen Master Dogen.

Professor Schorsch discusses his use of pen and paper for writ­ing as a way of resisting mecha­nization. But one wonders if his secretary did not process his words on a computer. This type of small contradiction is also a part of human nature, and the inability to see such contradic­tions certainly is a part of human nature and the resistance to change. It would be helpful to meet with “the other,” especially if one came to realize that “the other” exists, in some form, in all of us and that “the other” might offer some unanticipated oppor­tunities for change.

Nevertheless, the intriguing religious orientation offered in Spirit and Nature suggests that the environmental crisis exists not because we have forgotten the world, but because we have forgotten ourselves. In one of the most demanding chapters, Seyyed Hossein Nasr (“Islam and the Environmental Crisis”) describes us as a “humanity in rebellion against both heaven and earth,” and concludes that:

The solution of the environmental crisis can come about only when the modern spiritual malaise is cured and there is a rediscovery of the world of the Spirit, which, being compassionate, always gives Itself to those open and receptive to Its vivifying rays.

And yet if one does believe that a “spiritual sense” is a necessary prerequisite to an enlightened ecoview, then perhaps the environmental crisis is even worse than previously thought. One might even argue that to view the environmental crisis as a spiritual issue or from a spiritual point of view only reflets the pitifully low ebb of “Spirit” in our general ulture.  As the Dalai Lama noted:

Taking care of the planet is nothing special, nothing sacred or holy. It’s just like taking care of your house. We have no other planet, no other house, except this one….We cannot go to any other planet. If the moon is seen from a distance, it appears quite beautiful. But if we go there to stay, I think, it would be horrible. So, our blue planet is much happier. Therefore, we have to take care of our own place. This is not something special or holy. This is just a practical fact!

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