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The Soul of Nature:
The Meaning of Ecological Spirituality

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

2: Enviromentalism and the sacred

Intriguingly, environmentalism itself has occasionally been accused of being a religion. One manner in which this occurs can be seen in John McPhee's 1971 profile of longtime environmental activist David Brower, in which American resort developer Charles Fraser refers to environmentalists as "druids":

A conservationist too often is just a preservationist, and a preservationist is a druid. I think of land use in terms of people. Ancient druids used to sacrifice human beings under oak trees. Modern druids worship trees and sacrifice people to those trees.[1]

Similar feelings have been echoed in many quarters, most recently in the town of Temagami, where a public official once accused the Wildlands League of being a religious cult.[2]

In a less hysterical and more sophisticated argument, Linda H. Graber discusses the wilderness preservation movement as a religion, outlining its iconic use of nature imagery, its treatment of wilderness areas as sacred space, the ways in which its public education campaigns resemble religious evangelism, and the fact that its core consists not of economic, ecological or political rationales for preserving wild spaces, but a mode of perceiving the world that is fundamentally different from that of mainstream society. The key purpose behind most nature writing, art and photography, she suggest, from the works of Thoreau to the Sierra Club's glossy nature calendars, is to train potential new "initiates" in the correct modes of perception and experience of the "religion" of wilderness preservation.[3]

But there is more to the image of environmentalism-as-religion than merely an attempt to smear activists, or an explanatory paradigm. One does hear and see frequently, in the speech and writing of many environmental activists, references to nature as sacred. No matter what scientific, economic, or other rationalistic arguments are used to justify the protection of some wild creature or place, the underlying motivation -- at least among the most committed activists -- very often seems to be that sense of a sacred space threatened with desecration by unbelievers.

And it may be that very concept -- the sacred -- that has the most potential to motivate people to act. Economic or scientific arguments may be useful in swaying the authorities, but they are unlikely to be the sole, or even primary, motivation of passionate, committed activists. Such motivation is almost always rooted in the realm of the moral or spiritual. It is difficult to imagine the Earth First! slogan "No Compromise in Defence of Mother Earth" being reworded as "No Compromise in Defence of Sustainable Development," or biological diversity, or any other such buzzword. It is the image of the Earth as mother, as source and foundation of life, as sacred, that gives the slogan its strength and its motivating power.



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