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The Soul of Nature:
The Meaning of Ecological Spirituality

Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. See contents page for full permissions.

11: The resurgence of spirituality in the West

Increasingly, many people even within Western industrial society are confronting the questions raised here. Many people are not content with the mechanistic worldview of scientific atheism, or with mainstream monotheistic religion. As outlined at the beginning of this paper, many are searching for a form of spiritual meaning rooted in the world, not outside or above it. Others are led to explore new or non-mainstream forms of spirituality by a discontent with mediated experience. They want to know divine ecstasy, to experience direct, personal revelation rather than predigested revelations someone else experienced a thousand years ago. They want to meet God, or Gaia, face to face. And still others cannot bring themselves to accept on blind faith that Western science, or Western models of reality, are sufficient to explain everything. They may have had experiences for which they can find no rational explanation. Like the student mentioned above, they may have encountered ghosts or spirits, or simply felt presences in the world that mainstream science or even mainstream religion could not explain.

Obviously, not every manifestation of this growing interest in spirituality is going to be relevant from an environmentalist point of view. It is not simply an interest in spirituality per se that motivates the activists I described earlier in this paper, nor is an interest or involvement in spirituality in itself going to automatically alter anyone's perception of or interaction with nature. The effect is entirely dependent upon exactly what type of spirituality we are dealing with.

The most visible sign of this growing interest in things of the spirit is the burgeoning new age movement, or industry as it could perhaps better be termed. But from an environmental point of view, there are numerous problems with this. Although this topic has been dealt with in considerably more depth elsewhere[34], I will briefly enumerate some of what I see as the movement's major failings. Foremost among them is its intensely commercialized character. The emphasis is frequently on buying your way to enlightenment -- an approach that fits all too well with our society's already out-of-control mania for overconsumption.

Then there is its incessant shallowness. As compared to science, where it has been said that one comes to know more and more about less and less until one eventually knows everything about nothing, new agers tend to know virtually nothing about virtually everything. Searching for easy answers to complex problems, they mix and match materials from a mind-boggling variety of cultures with no regard for the contexts in which the symbols, beliefs or practices evolved.

They have come in for particularly harsh criticism from First Nations activists for appropriating Native beliefs and practices.[35] I think this may be rooted in the fact that many North American white people feeling rootless, living in one land while having ancestry from another, which they may have never seen. Finding mainstream North American culture lacking in answers, they clutch at other cultures, seeking answers in Eastern mysticism or Native shamanism, whether those cultures want the participation of outsiders or not.

There are also deeper philosophical problems with the movement, as George Sessions and Dolores LaChappelle recount.[36] So while it is true that the new age movement occasionally speaks of reverence for nature, and may thus be responsible to some degree for raising at least a few of its followers' level of environmental awareness, I do not think it can ultimately can be considered a form of ecological spirituality. Too many of its tenets and practices work against the aims of environmentalists, either by encouraging overconsumption, emphasizing instant gratification rather than in-depth effort (via $300 weekend "shamanism" workshops and the like), or through endangering cultural diversity by erasing the distinctions between cultures and falsely appropriating the identities of other peoples.



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