During the last few decades, many people have become justifiably alarmed by the continuing growth of technology. In recent years this has been augmented by the concern over global warming, which may be at least in part caused by human activities. We may observe a certain anxiety arising from such concerns that impels many to defend what is paradoxically called the “environment.” (The paradox derives from the fact that “environment” is a thoroughly anthropocentric term, since it defines the natural world as something that surrounds human beings).
The growth of environmentalism has come about in at least partial conjunction with the growth of a secular, i.e., nonreligious mindset in Western society. The British author G.K. Chesterton is credited with the saying that when people cease to believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing: they believe in anything. Thus, as support for traditional Judeo-Christian religiosity has declined, people in Europe and America have begun to look elsewhere to meet the very basic human need to revere something outside of themselves. In the comparatively recent past, Nazism and Marxism filled this gap in the lives of many people. After it had become obvious that these substitute religions were cruel disappointments, environmentalism provided a new god. The environmental writer Richard D. North gave expression to this truth in the following paragraph:
An awful lot of us just need to worship something. But in order to be able to worship, you have to be able to find something outside of yourself – and better than yourself. God is a construct for that. So is nature. We are falling in love with the environment as an extension to and in lieu of having fallen out of love with God. As it happens, it makes for a pretty deficient religion, but as an object of worship nature takes some beating.1
Looking at this phenomenon through psychological eyes, we might present another analysis. It would seem that today we humans are suffering from a certain psychological disequilibrium. Not long ago, most people still lived in a landscape where they felt encompassed by natural forces. Such is no longer the case. Many of us live in a landscape of artificial wilderness called the city; we turn night into day with the aid of electricity; we defy gravity in airplanes. As a result, a certain disorientation has entered our psyches. We try to bring this condition to consciousness, and in so doing we employ the method of projection. While trying to preserve our inner balance, we concentrate on the imperiled balance of the outer world. We shout “save the earth,” but inwardly, we desperately desire salvation for ourselves.
The Guilt Culture
One of the symptoms of our psychological crisis has been the widespread acceptance of the notion that we are merely part of nature and that the human individuality that renders us separate from natural systems is an undesirable illusion. Another psychic mechanism that plays an important part in our predicament is guilt. When things go wrong, when crises threaten, we do one of two things: we blame the circumstances on others (projection), or we blame ourselves (introjection). There is little doubt that the early and powerful Puritan influence has made the United States into an eminent example of a guilt culture. Today, some insightful scholars are coming to identify the pro-earth and antihuman syndrome as a new form of Puritanism.
“Here we have the essential Puritan outlook disguised as science – human beings, the sinners, occupy centre stage, and cannot move a muscle without risking the direst consequences in a cosmic drama,” as the noted naturalist Thomas Palmer wrote in the January 1992 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Puritanism has been ironically described as a belief holding that the devil must have invented ice cream because it tastes so good. The new Puritans of our time denounce much that makes our earthly life bearable as wasteful and irresponsible. The old Puritans thundered against us in the name of God; the new Puritans instil guilt in the name of nature and the earth.
Indeed, if one has a desire to feel guilty, one can find much justification for such feelings in the statements of radical ecologists. Humans are seen as despoilers, tramplers, the hackers and hewers who are making species disappear, who erode the ozone layer, and who perform innumerable unspeakable acts that injure the earth. Many of these accusations are made in the name of a dogma called “biodiversity.” This teaching declares that the greater the complexities and diversities of plant and animal life, the more ideal are conditions on earth. Before the eyes of radical environmentalists floats a vision of a paradise frozen in time, a paradise without human inhabitants. A fact seldom recognised is that some of the most catastrophic changes that have occurred in the history of the earth had nothing to do with humans. Science informs us that vast natural cataclysms have devastated the earth on many occasions. According to an article in the June 1989 issue of National Geographic, there was one such event 240 million years ago that destroyed about ninety-six percent of all species then inhabiting the earth. And to think that all this occurred without even the presence of one member of that villainous species, the human race!
“Green spirituality” & Traditional Spiritualities
Such, then, are some of the difficulties arising from the unbalanced, quasi-religious dogmatism of the radical ecologists. Clearly the so-called “Green spirituality,” in spite of its superficial appeal, cannot be considered as compatible with the traditional mainstream spiritualities of the West. These belief systems regarded the earth and the animal kingdom as strictly subordinate to the human being. The Old Testament, which is part of the authoritative sacred canon of both Judaism and Christianity, leaves no doubt on this point. Numerous passages could be quoted, but a mere two will suffice here: In the blessing given by God to Noah and his sons we read the following:
“Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth. Be the terror and the dread of all the wild beasts and all the birds of heaven, of everything that crawls on the ground and all the fish of the sea; they are handed over to you” (Gen. 9:1-2). More poetically, but very much in the same vein, we find the Psalmist exclaiming: “The heavens belong to the Lord but the earth he has given to men” (Ps. 115:16).
It may be useful to recall that none of the great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam) can be reasonably said to hold to the concept of the superiority of earth and of the animal kingdom over humanity. Allowing for significant other differences, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, and most other religious traditions agree on the notion that human life is qualitatively different from other forms of life and that humans possess a spark of ultimate divinity, which is either absent from or far less developed in other creatures.
Intimidated by the ecologists, leaders of several mainstream Christian denominations have come to proclaim what they call “stewardship,” whereby they mean the responsibility of humans to “tend” the earth and its flora and fauna. The scriptural justification of this thesis is taken from Gen. 3:15: “And the Lord God took man and put him into the garden of pleasure, to tend it and to keep it.” This injunction clearly pertains to Adam’s role prior to his expulsion from his original habitat. In a lighter vein, one might say that Adam’s job as gardener was terminated when he was bid to leave paradise. Thus there was no gardening stewardship to be inherited by Adam’s descendants.
Much of contemporary ecological reasoning is based on the notion that the human being is exclusively a part and product of nature, an ungrateful and sinfully prideful child of Mother Earth. This is clearly contrary to the scriptures and teachings of the mainstream religious traditions, particularly the monotheistic traditions, as we noted earlier. What is often overlooked is that such a view is equally contrary to the worldview of the esoteric or alternative spiritual traditions. Esoteric spirituality looks upon the human not as a clever animal, but rather as a spirit inhabiting a body derived from the matter of earth. Plato, the father of much esoteric philosophy, looked upon humans as strangers to this earth. His famous parable of the cave shows humanity leading a melancholy existence in a realm separated from the light world that is its true home. The Platonist vision of humanity gave rise to the corresponding views of Neoplatonists, Hermeticists, and Gnostics, who together represent the fount and origin of the esoteric tradition in the West.
Underlying the esoteric transmissions is the perception that the human being is a sort of exile, a colonist from other, nonphysical dimensions, and that this status of exile is the source of humanity’s ambivalent relationship to earth and nature. It must also be recognised that humanity has brought forth a large number of achievements that upon closer scrutiny reveal themselves as unusual, unnatural, and unearthly. Even if we were to disregard the innumerable physical and technological inventions (which are regarded as sinful things by many ecologists), we are still left with the marvels of art such as sculpture, painting, music, and theatre, none of which ever appeared in nature.
Oscar Wilde’s witty comment “Life imitates art” may be applied here. There is little or no natural scenery in the world that can equal Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. We may also need reminding that while there is much natural beauty in the universe, none of it was created by a person in order to delight other persons.
The esoteric tradition accounts for the unique, or at least different, position of humanity in relation to earth and nature through the principle of emanation. The cosmos and its denizens are not created ex nihilo (out of nothing) by a creator. Rather they are emanated by a transcendental, impersonal divine essence. Thus, in a sense, all that exists is divine. Yet in certain ways this statement is rather misleading. Many of the inner teachings assert that the emanation of the divine essence occurs not at once but in a series of outpourings. The material world represents the earliest emanation, which is followed by a later outpouring of the matrix of plant and animal life, while the last outpouring is the one that brings human spirits to earth. (Such teachings are by no means unique to the West, for they can be discovered in Mesoamerican legends as well as in the traditions of Japan, India, and Africa.) The earth is not the “mother” of humanity, according to this view, but is a temporary habitat for human spirits. Some inner traditions hold that the earth as well as its flora and fauna have undergone a radical alienation from their origins, which accounts for the darkness and imperfection present in the “sublunar realm.” (The emanationist doctrine followed here is that of Valentinus, the Gnostic teacher of the second century AD.)
To summarise the above: We are not a mere part or product of physical nature. We have not grown like weeds from the soil of earth, and thus no kind of biodiversity can ever adequately account for the phenomenon of Homo sapiens. We are here on business of our own, which at times coincides with the purposes of nature but at other times diverges from it radically.
The Nature of Evil in the World
How easy it is to equate nature with the beauty of a spring morning or the song of the nightingale, the green of a meadow, or the azure of sky and sea! How much more difficult is it to acknowledge the shadow side of nature and to withdraw our unrealistically positive projections! As the Buddha proclaimed, suffering is the great existential reality of embodied existence. St. Paul agrees when he writes: “All creation groans and travails in pain” (Romans 8:22). All life lives on life, and thus living creatures kill and devour each other regularly. Almost always the death of sentient beings is preceded by a good deal of suffering. The lion’s claw, the tooth of the shark, the fang of the viper are as much part of nature as the flowers in our garden or the comforting adulation we receive from our pets. (Referring to the latter, we may notice the cruel game a cat will play with a captured mouse – a game quite unnecessary for the kill!) Even more grotesque and frightful forms of behaviour may be observed in the insect kingdom, where some species engage in mating and feeding practices that strike our mind as diabolical. Such considerations have motivated many thinkers to attribute not only unconsciousness but outright evil to nature. Thus the noted biologist and naturalist Lyall Watson writes:
Evil exists and seems to me to have sufficient substance to give it credence as a force in nature as a factor in our lives. It is part of the ecology and needs to be seen as such. My thumbs convince me, not that “something wicked this way comes,” but that it is already here and has been for a very long time, casting its shadow on almost everything we do.2 (emphasis added)
Perhaps more of us ought to consider the possible accuracy of the saying attributed to the Gnostic teacher Marcion: “Evil adheres to materiality as rust adheres to iron.” The natural world and the natural part of the human being are riddled with unregenerate, evil forces and tendencies.
The esoteric tradition of the West, of which the Gnostic teachings form an important part, recognises that evil is present in everything in this world. The current Green mythos would like to recognise evil only in humans and exempt the natural world. Following this reasoning, one would have to believe that the environment is always good and thus is preferable in its so-called natural state to any alterations introduced by human ingenuity. A good case in point concerns swamps, now euphemistically renamed “wetlands.”
“Wetlands,” so we are told, are wonderful things that virtually always should be protected from human interference. Now it is a fact of history that draining swamps has been regarded as one of the great achievements of human civilisation. Rome, the eternal city, owes its existence to the draining of the Pontine Marshes; Dutch engineering reclaimed much of Holland from the sea in the seventeenth century by means of dams and dikes. The Capitol and the White House in Washington, D.C., stand on former swamps; as do St. Petersburg, Russia, and Mexico City. Any attempt to carry out such works now would meet with fierce opposition from environmental lobbyists. There is a curious spiritual significance attributed to swamps and wilderness areas by many environmentalists. The difference between ordinary intelligent citizens on the one hand and perhaps many environmentalists on the other is that ordinary citizens may enjoy a watery habitat for pleasant birds or a nearby wilderness park for deer and coyotes, while the Green folk attribute a spiritual significance to such localities that puts them into the category of sacred shrines.
Swamps are but a single example of the curious situation that we face in contemporary society. When the work of humans is categorically decried as “unspiritual” and the wild is seen as sacred, one begins to suspect that some value system is skewed.
Some issues that arise in connection with environmentalists are even more curious. The present writer has some interest in an idyllic island not far from the metropolis of Los Angeles. This island, covered almost completely by wilderness, is inhabited by wild pigs, goats, and a small number of bison. Environmental enthusiasts have on occasion repaired to the island in order to slaughter many of these creatures. The reason given was that some of the rare plant life of the place had to be “saved” from these animals. (Certainly a Buddhist would not condone this, since pigs and goats qualify as “sentient beings” while plants do not.) In other areas, large numbers of sparrows are routinely destroyed in order to “save” bluebirds. One may wonder what gives the Green persons in question the right to decide which part of the ecosystem they may exterminate in order to allegedly assist another part.
Environmentalism, it would seem, tends to become an unduly heady business. The practicalities of human and other life are eclipsed by abstract ideas that are pursued with fanaticism. The bottom of the pit of Green irrationality has been reached by those animal rights extremists who time and again liken the slaughter of chickens to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany!
The Cultivation of Compassion
All of this brings us to a final consideration. Spiritual teachers, among whom the Buddha is most prominent in this regard, enjoin the cultivation of compassion. One reason they may have done so is that if humans do not exercise compassion, no one will. Nature does not know compassion, which implies the ability to consciously feel the suffering of another. Certain animals show love and devotion to their young, and sometimes to their mates, but this is not compassion. (Other animals show the opposite disposition: Young hyenas emerge biting and clawing from their mother’s womb and eat each other when convenient!) Compassion is a human quality; it may be called a uniquely human virtue. Needless to say, like other great virtues, compassion is not as ubiquitous among us as we might wish. Yet when consciousness rises to a certain level, compassion also tends to appear. It is to be doubted that compassion plays as great a role in Green consciousness as one might hope. Those in this camp are more often in love with their ideas about nature and its denizens than with the real sentient beings themselves. One cannot have true compassion for abstractions and collectivities such as ecosystems and for mental fictions such as “Mother Earth” or “Gaia.”
It is right that we should concern ourselves with the environment. Making the world a better place to live in might be one way in which we might become “the salt of the earth” (a term Jesus applied to his disciples). Using an avian metaphor, only an unwise bird befouls its own nest. But the bird is different from the nest, even as the inhabitant of the house is different from the house. We are not here to serve the environment, although we may assist it in various ways when this seems indicated. We are not called to worship the world, but to overcome it. And when in the fullness of time our wanderings on this earth will be over, we may hope to have left this land of exile in not too much worse condition than we found it. The human spirit, which dwells in our bodies, will not demand more of us, and possibly it will accept no less.
1. Jonathan Porrit and David Winner, The Coming of the Greens, London: Fontana, 1988, 251-52
2. Lyall Watson, Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil, New York: Harper Collins, 1995, xvi
This article originally appeared in Quest Spring 2009 and was reprinted with permission in New Dawn 115. For further information, please visit http://theosophical.org/publications/questmagazine/index.php.