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A Religious Dimension to Environmentalism? Nothing Ridiculous About It

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People often speak dismissively of the spiritual aspect of
environmentalism. "Environmentalism is a religion," they say, as
if the ridiculousness of such an attitude were patently obvious.
But they never look further to examine, let alone evaluate, what the
environmental vision is and what is the moral/spiritual ethic behind
this supposed religion.

A close and honest look would show there's nothing ridiculous about it.

Environmentalism is about the relationship between humankind and the
natural world--the natural world in which we are embedded and on which
we depend for our very lives.

Environmentalism calls for that relationship to be one of care and harmony rather than reckless destruction.

Environmentalism sees in the living systems of the earth something worthy of respect and even reverence. Something sacred.

There's nothing unusual about people having religious feelings about
the natural order. Indeed, in the context of the many human
cultures throughout the ages, what is strange is the failure to see
anything sacred in nature.

As an ethic for honoring the sacred, environmentalism seems as legitimate as other religious ethics.

"Live in harmony with the earth," as we are all too slowly beginning to
learn, is ultimately as essential to Wholeness in the human system as
"Love Thy Neighbor." Indeed, it is a form of the same

"Give us this day our daily bread" is a request that will be granted
only so long as we maintain our soils and waters and a stable climate
with which to grow the staff of our lives.

Like the Biblical commandments, "Live in Harmony with Nature" entails a
kind of obedience to an authority bigger, and more important, than our
own desires.

With the environmental ethic, as with the Biblical commandments, there
is also --in this obedience to commandment-- an indissoluble element of
self-interest: obey or else.

In the case of the Bible, one of the motivating factors behind
obedience is to avoid God's wrath. With environmentalism, the
punishment for misbehavior is a form of "natural consequences." It is
simply a natural property of the system that if it goes down we go with
it: a moral order not of wrath expressing itself from above but
of karmic justice.

Destroy your home and you will be homeless.

But the environmental ethic also like the Biblical teachings--is not
just about self-denial or self-protection. It is also about love,
and appreciation, and reverence. Only a person incapable of awe
can go very far into knowledge of the mind-boggling complexities, the
dynamic harmonies, of the living systems of the earth without being
struck by their beauty and wholeness.

In both the environmental and Biblical ethics, some desires must be
suppressed, some pleasures must be denied, because there are more
important values at stake.

The spiritual dimensions of environmentalism are not necessarily
alternatives to our civilization's religious traditions, but can be a
legitimate aspect of those traditional religions.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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