Environmental destruction is an inescapable reality. Rainforests are clear-cut, oceans are polluted, ecological hotspots are breached with invasive species. The earth is the only planet (so far) that is known to harbour a wide variety of unique life forms, but our reverence for all biological life is sometimes questionable. Even with global efforts imposed to cut back gas emissions and resource exploitation, it is only a matter of time before the next oil spill occurs. The question is, will a public recognition of all of these crimes against nature really spark a revolution for environmental sustainability?
According to economists and biologists, probably not.
As it turns out, telling someone that the world’s biosphere is crumbling will just elicit short term guilt that rarely results in any long term response. Let’s be honest: most of us finish an article about the environmental destruction caused by oil extraction, only to go out and buy a sandwich wrapped in plastic later that day. It’s not that we don’t care about the world, but realistically, our needs and wants override our sense of guilt. We think to ourselves, ‘someone else will deal with it’, and go about our day.
Even though all evidence points towards a new mass extinction event occurring on earth, our lives are filled with all kinds of priorities that can often put eco-friendly lifestyle choices on hold. It may be that improving environmental sustainability may have less to do with informing people, and more to do with combating basic psychological responses. As Guy Speth, a US Advisor on climate change, said in 2014:
“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.”
Either as a result of societal constructs, evolutionary mechanisms or just plain laziness, our hierarchy of needs often overrides certain feelings of guilt or empathy towards the earth. However, some ecologists believe that by adopting certain philosophies, these internally focused attitudes can be changed. Cue entrance for spirituality.
Since about 83% of people around the world are affiliated with some religion, integrating environmental sustainability with faith could elicit huge responses for change. An emerging movement known as ‘spiritual ecology‘ suggests that we intertwine environment appreciation with religious beliefs. In many ways this movement is already happening:
Yeb Sano, a government climate change negotiator (and typhoon disaster victim), has dedicated the past few years to advising various religious leaders on how they can spearhead the campaign against climate change.
Last year, Pope Francis made it very clear that global action must begin now as a moral obligation, a message that has carried through to the Roman Catholic community.
154 Religious leaders signed a statement last year outlining a protocol for environmental change. This statement was then handed over to the UN.
The spiritual ecology movement has also shown some traction in non-religious communities, since spirituality is not necessarily defined in terms of religious faith. Writer and philosopher Donald A. Crosby believes that understanding our role as humans in the biosphere is vital for establishing meaning in our lives. In his book, Nature as a Sacred Ground, he explains that the biosphere is inherently sacred and should be respected with the highest regard, scientific theory and religious values aside.
Given that spiritual ecology has the potential to wrap itself around our moral compass, it may be able to elicit a more long-lasting and significant impact on the world community. In many cases, guilt and dread simply isn’t enough to combat the diffusion of responsibility and elicit a behavioural change. In order to become sustainable, we must treat our environment, the only home we know to exist, as sacred.