Saturday, November 3, 2007

Love the planet not fear its demise

'Arguably, the challenge of the spiritual is the most significant we face in our contempor-ary world, through it may not be seen as such by many.' This sweeping statement by authors Clive and Jane Erricker (2001:xv) headlines their edited volume Contemporary Spiritualities: Social and Religious Contexts.

They arrive at this challenging point through the assumption that, 'it is necessary for every individual to establish a place of belonging in society'. But a sense of belonging, particularly to place, can give rise to inter-place conflicts when place takes on the mantle of ownership.

To discuss these contentious issues, the authors suggest spirituality is one pathway towards conflict resolution or at least is a way of reconfiguring the impact of conflicts:

'[W]e are not suggesting that the spiritual is a panacea for contemporary global conflict, an alchemical means for producing global harmony. Rather...different conceptions of the spiritual are strong motivating forces within the politics of human communication ...we ignore this at our peril' (2001:xvii).

Their frame of interaction and their desire for mutual understanding and dialogue is broad. But to narrow or highlight their intention, Erricker and Erricker define the spiritual as 'an act or process of relationship: with others, the divine, the natural world, places the emphasis on growth, reflection, responsibility, altruism and thus even denial' (xviii).

This is a significant undertaking - to promote engagement with and reflection on the other - the earth, the refugee, the person suffering poverty, the drought affected farmer, the depeleted ocean affected fisher, and/or the polluted river. The process begins with reflection then shifts to responsibility and altruism on one hand, but can lead to denial on the other, when social and environmental justice seem too hard to achieve or the individual feels too powerless to effect change.

Similar issues were raised on this morning's BBC program 'Heart and Soul'. The radio documentary discussed the relationship between religion and environment but in the macro sense. It argued that the environment movement has become society's newest religion as it preaches a moral and ethical way of living, and in a secular society, seems to have replaced mainline religion with its plea to take care of the planet. But as well as the message of hope and responsibility, the program suggested that the environment movement also preaches an apocalyptic outcome - the end of the world as we know it.

Religious organisations have, at least in Australia, tended to overlook the ecological imperative although this is slowly changing with policies and action platforms appearing in the Catholic, Anglican, Uniting, Baptist churches and other mainstream religions. At the end of 2006 Australia's religious leaders met with the Climate Institute and produced the Common Belief Report: Australia's Faith Communities on Climate Change. This interfaith group includes: Aboriginal leaders, Anglicans, Australian Christian Lobby, Baptists, Buddhists, Bahais, Catholics, Evangelical Alliance, Greek Orthodox, Hindus, Jews, Lutherans, Muslims, Salvation Army, Sikhs and the Uniting Church. A couple of weeks ago these religions combined to lobby the federal government to take environmental issues more seriously and all but the Catholic Church joined this entreaty (ABC News, 2007).

Climate change issues fill the headlines but does it make people more active in taking care of the environment, the river, the bay or their local place community?

The BBC program made the point that the environment movement has, in the past, sometimes ignored the human in its call for the establishment of refuges like animal santuaries and marine parks where humans are barred or restricted. It suggested that the environment movement has tended to have a 'blame the other human' mentality and in the process could be accused of fear mongering. In fact the message around fear is having an impact on the community. The program pointed to recent British research on children's environmental awareness that shows half the 1,150 children surveyed, from 7 to 11 years, 'are anxious about the effects of global warming and often lose sleep over it' (Jones, 2007). Amongst the fears the children mention are 'poor health, the possible submergence of entire countries and the welfare of animals'.

How do children learn about the environmental crisis? From their parents, the school, the media, their friends? The report did not look to socialisation as such but stated that 1 in 7 children believe their parents are not doing enough to look after the enviroment. It also found that most of the children are aware of the benefits of recycling although 10 percent thought that recycling had something to do with riding bikes (!)

There is a serious lesson here - how to inform the community, especially young children, about environmental problems and the need to care for the planet without raising the spectra of fear?

Environmental educator David Sobel (1999) is concerned about this kind of pressure on children to understand the dynamics of the ecological crisis. He suggests that adults, and especially environmental education programs which focus on environmental abuse, may in fact work in reverse. Rather than raising awareness and concern about environmental issues, Sobel asserts that these programs may engender a subtle form of disassociation. Children may turn off, tune out, or cut themselves off because the problem is too difficult for them to handle or even to hear about. Sobel likens this tendency to switch off to the same kind of reaction or response mechanism acted out by children who have suffered various kinds of abuse.

His antidote? 'If we want children to flourish we need to give them time to connect with nature and love the Earth before we ask them to save it.'

I began this blog talking about the role of the spiritual in relation to identity and belonging. It looked to the process of relationship creation whether with the divine, the natural world or with others, then shifted to consider the role of mainline religions in promoting a sense of identity and belonging with the natural world as divine other. It discussed whether certain religions and certain elements of the environment movement have something in common - the escatological dimension, but outlined that the dire end of the world warnings give rise to fear and trauma in young children.

The lesson unfolds - to protect the earth there needs to be another way to act and react: rejoice and celebrate the planet's wondrous and interconnected ecosystems, love the earth, engage with the outdoors, cherish a sense of play and place, delight in birdsong, relish each day and feel the allure of the divine natural world - not only as other but also as self.

ABC News, 2007, Religious leaders urge Govt to act on climate change, PM, Oct 3, 2007,
Erricker C and J Erricker, Eds, 2001, Contemporary Spiritualities: Social and Religious Contexts, London and New York: Continuum.
Jones A, 2007, 'Children losing sleep over global warming,' The Scotsman, Feb 27, 2007,

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Singing Tree

Sometimes the whole tree grove along the river is singing. Parrots, Lorikeets, Noisy Mynahs, Little Brown Birds, the trees are filled with movement and the sparkling sound of bird chatter. Shadows flit through the branches, darting from blossom to blossom, chirping, and all the while the trees seem to sway with a choir of bird song.

The spirit of this place is heightened by paying attention, engaging with all the senses, becoming attuned to the allure of sirens that draw you to them. Sound, touch, feel, taste, smell. Feeling heady amongst the honey aroma of the eucalypt grove, tasting the sweetness on the breeze. These experiences enrich the river connection and remind me of what is lost when people forget the need for these special and precious moments. Ecophilosopher David Abram (2001) (re)vitalizes the destiny role of the senses when he states: 'The fate of the earth depends on a return to our senses.'

Abram maintains that in this post-industrial era we have literally lost our senses, in particular, the direct sensory experience of the world around us. As the city loses its green shadey avenues and its heritage housing, as the birds and animals (except domestic ones) disappear from the tight urban swell, he fears we lose a part of who we are, part of our identity as both human and nature. Instead, he suggests we need to re-discover the world using 'our animal eyes' and 'animal ears' and re-invest the surroundings as sensate, feeling, animate. By engaging the senses and re-engaging with the sensory world, we rekindle the patterns and textures of our wildness, our evolutionary relationship with all sentient beings in the vibrant ecosystem. Abram puts it this way:

'The senses are what is most wild in us; capacities that we share, in some manner ... with most other entities in the living landscape, from earthworms to eagles. Flowers responding to sunlight, tree roots extending rootlets in search of water, even the movement of a simple bacterium in response to its fluid surroundings; here, too, are sensation and sensitivity, distant variants of our own sentience. Apart from breathing and eating, the senses are our most intimate link with the living land, the primary way the earth has of influencing our moods and guiding our actions.'

The earth influencing our moods and guiding our actions? As I have outlined previously in this blog, much research has been conducted on the role of green spaces, trees and gardens in enhancing human health, wellbeing and quality of life and the consequences of being removed from what Abram calls in his article 'The Ecology of Magic' (1995) those 'vital sources of nourishment' like the sight and sound of birds quivering on luscious honey flowers.

I wonder then if there is a loss of memory as if the so-called scientific modern rational mindscape has plastered over the cracks of an emergent sensual spirituality. Perhaps, and partly because of this, notions of the sacred are directed to the other worldly and gloss over the dynamism of the ecosystem as sacred process. The sense of the sacred and the full expression of the senses then become 'out of this world' rather than embedded within it. This use of the notion of other worldlyness also heightens the dualism between sacred/profane, transcendent/immanent, supernatural/natural (Piette, 1993 in Hervieu-Leger, 2000:46). Within the realm of the sensual, an emotionally-laden and experiential spirituality awakens through the process of connecting with the sacred - the river, the birds, the trees, the ecology in an embodied and feeling (eco)self.

Reconnecting with body memory, with the crazy sensualness of life, touches a multitude of experiential receptors. A sensual spirituality is enflamed and disperses like seeds on the wind into an ecospiritual sensual richness of symbolic and embodied meaning creation.

Abram D, 1995, 'The Ecology of Magic,' in T Roszak, ME Gomes and AD Kanner, Eds., Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind, San Francisco, Sierra Club.
Hervieu-Leger D, 1993, Religion as a Chain of Memory, Trans S. Lee, Cambridge, Polity Press.
Piette A, 1993, Les Religions Seculaires, Paris, PUF, Coll. Que sais-je?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


One in ten (!) of the world's large rivers runs dry every year before it reaches the sea, the magnificent Murray is one such river. The danger to rivers globally was raised this week as part of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report: Global Environment Outlook: Environment for Development.

At the very time when the planetary crisis was announced by UNEP following a study from 1400 scientists across the globle, the courts in London were debating the validity of showing Al Gore's An Inconvenient truth to school students without an accompanying critique of Gore's conclusions. This court ruling and the scientific evidence seem poles apart.

The UNEP report made a startling statement: 'The future of humanity has been put at risk by a failure to address environmental problems including climate change, species extinction and a growing human population.'

The thought of the extent of ecological damage and the human cause of this life-threatening problem should be so shocking as to galvanise urgent action but UNEP says that governments worldwide have their collective heads in the sand. And in Australia as well.

The earth is overused and undervalued. The UNEP report found that human consumption and its accompanying ecological footprint is signficantly outstripping the earth's resources to match the demand. Biodiversity was next on UNEP's list of great concerns with 30% of amphibians, 23% of mammals and 12% of birds in danger of extinction.

There is not much more to say. It is a frightening picture.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Action, Compassion, Love

Could the Brisbane River be considered a deity? And if it were deemed a god or goddess, would it mean the community would be more reverent to this grace-ful waterway? To consider this question I turn to David Haberman's wonderful book River of Love in an Age of Pollution (2006).

Haberman spent several years in India conducting ethnographic research about the people who revere the Yamuna River, the Goddess Yamuna, the Mother. For thousands of years the river has been worshipped as a divine entity but, says Haberman, recent ecological trauma has placed the river in both environmental and religious jeopardy.

The Yamuna river is among the holiest in india. A sister to the sacred Ganges, the Yamuna rises in the land of high peaks, ice and snow and flows through India, into the Ganges and onwards to the sea (Bay of Bengal). But Haberman's view of this endanged river is shocking. Littered witih toxicity, the river Goddess is seriously ill. The task of his marvellous book is epic, to document the plight of the river and travel its length bearing witness to its failing health.

Talking with people along the way from Hindu priests, ecologists and locals, Haberman weaves a story of resilience and deep spiritual grace. The Goddess Yamuna is the Goddess of 'exquisite love and compassion', of 'loving generosity' and 'Mother of the World' (2006:104, 107). Honouring the Goddess by immersing onself in her sacred flow is said to 'increase love' (122), to be cleansed of sin and 'evil consequences' (126), and to be healed of illness. Hearing about the Yamuna's role in healing he asks: 'One might wonder: what will happen as she who protects from disease herself becomes a possible source of disease through pollution?' (127).

Haberman makes a pilgrimage far to the source of this sacred river. At the headwaters, the Yamunotri glacier, the river's water is pure, clean, clear. He calls the water here 'aquatic drops of nurturing love' (44). But as the river travels downstream the water colour changes as the effects of industrialisation, chemical outflow, agricultural pesticide and fertilizer runoff, urban development and sewerage interact. The grace and elegance of the river shifts from the beauty of the loving sacred Goddess to a sewer which 'can no longer sustain life' (81). Eutrophication from a build up of toxic contaminants suffocates the Yamuna.

For example, a recent news item from India reports that just this week the Yamuna will be inundated with 30 tons of toxic paint from 300 clay idols of the Goddess Durga will be immersed into its flowing waters. The news report indicates that although there are guidelines for religious communities to follow in relation to river pollution, they are not being enforced. The outcome - the Goddess Yamuna continues to suffer.

Along his river journey David Haberman meets a priest who declares that the Goddess 'is dying' (137). The priest recalls how he 'used to bathe in the river with faith when she was alive' and with a great deal of sadness adds: 'When the river is finished, life will no longer be possible for human beings'. Others argue that despite the pollution, the spiirtual power of the river is still strong.

Haberman's book is a masterful lesson of reverence and worship in the face of rapid ecological decline. There is a message here about love, compassion and action. We need to love a river, an ecosystem, the Bay, the ocean, the forest, our local places. But beyond love we need to care for these environments actively. Haberman says what's needed is 'a vast outpouring of love, a mighty river of love that will nouris and sustain us while washing away the pollution that is threatening the very fount of all life' (195).

Reflecting on the need for love of and for the Goddess Yamuna brings me back to this river valley in Brisbane and to the possibility that deep reverence, honour and love can be piled upon its grace-ful flow.

Haberman DL, 2006, River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.