International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Deep Ecology and World Religions: New Essays on Sacred Ground

edited by David L. Barnhill , Roger S. Gottlieb

Introductory Essay by Holmes Rolston III

Deep ecology is a worldview associated with the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess and, in the United States, with George Sessions, a philosopher, and his colleague, Bill Devall, a sociologist. Taking a model from ecology, the deep ecology movement emphasizes the ways in which humans, although individual selves, can and ought to extend such selves through a webwork of connections. This contrasts with a shallow ecology, where the natural world is regarded as simply consisting of resources.

The human "self" is not something found from the skin-in, an atomistic individual set against other individuals and the rest of nature. Deep ecology dissolves any firm boundary between humans and the natural world. Humans’ destinies are so entwined with the natural world’s that their richest quality of life involves a larger identification with these communities. Such transformation will result in appropriate care for the environment.

This anthology results from a session on deep ecology held at the 1997 national meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The religious dimensions of deep ecology were deliberately left open by the founders of the movement, convinced that deep ecology is a new name extending old, widely shared beliefs. There are essays in this book analyzing the perspectives of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, Islam, Catholic and Protestant Christianity, ecofeminism, New Age Spirituality, and aboriginal faiths. The anthology is quite eclectic, the editors and contributors are sympathetic to possibilities of synthesis, but they also want to be critical, and realistic.

A troubling issue is whether any classical faith can be uprooted from its defining culture and replanted in the contemporary Western world challenged by an ecological crisis The Maori of New Zealand, for example, were intimately related to their local places, with a cosmology that gave every living thing an inherent right to its place in the world. Hindus have a positive view of five sacred elements incorporated into their rituals and agricultural practices. Huayan Buddhists used relational holism, a non-dualistic approach, to see nature as a whole without denying particulars. Chinese Daoism was likewise holist with pragmatic intent, seen especially in agricultural rituals that divinize Sky and Earth and provide checks against abusing the natural world. Neo-Confucians saw humans with a distinctive role, a hierarchical view, an anthropocosmology.

Western faiths also show parallels, though these are fewer. In theocentric Judaism, there is respect for nature, divine purposes transcending human designs, and limits to human power. Catholicism, equally theocentric, affirms a sacramental creation. Protestants, with their ecotheology start with social justice and expand outward to environmental issues. Only by realizing our unique dominance can we develop the sense of responsibility needed to meet the ecological crisis. Ecofeminists see the problem not so much as human, but male dominance. Nor does a novel ecospirituality easily solve these complex problems.

These contributors generally find themselves suppressing or reinterpreting the world-denying aspects of faiths, such as seeing the world as maya, illusion, appearance, or samsara, an unsatisfactory, ever-cycling wheel of thirst and suffering. Nor do they seek escape in nirvana, extinction, or in descent to an oceanic consciousness in Brahman. Nor do they consider salvation as other-worldly, taken up, saved to heaven from a fallen Earth.