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,