In this GTUx Live discussion, Greening Spirituality with Drs. Rita Sherma and Devin Zuber, the GTUx community came together to discuss the most pressing existential issue of our time, ecological sustainability, and how the principles of spirituality can address this issue in a meaningful way. This blog post will feature the topics covered in addition to resources from the event to further your learning experience.
Top of mind was the war in Ukraine and the long-term effects of the warfare ecology, in addition to the devastating loss of human life and wellness. There is a genuine and felt relationship between warfare and ecosystemic change that will last long beyond the war. For additional reading on this topic, The New York Times published an article, “How Nature Becomes a Casualty of War.” This other crisis lends itself to the discussion on how human infrastructure can be reinvigorated and restored to be in better harmony with the restoration of the ecosystem.
Matched with this crisis is the urgency of the climate catastrophe. Recently, carbon-dioxide levels readings from the Mauna Loa observatory have exceeded 420ppm. This is the highest level ever recorded. An article from The Wall Street Journal discusses this news in further detail in their article “Carbon-Dioxide Level in Atmosphere Hits Historical High.” This means that we as a global community are beyond a tipping point at this great moment of urgency.
This is where spirituality becomes all the more essential for grounding ourselves. Our spiritual praxis helps us stay centered while catastrophe unfolds before our eyes. With the historical and cultural use of the word “spiritual” there is an understood detachment from religion (ex: “being spiritual but not religious”). Therefore spirituality has become a concept that detaches and floats free from religious structures. Dr. Zuber suggests that to be spiritual and religious requires a grounding, coming to terms with where you are–quite literally. He asked the participants to take a moment to reflect upon the land in which they are sitting. What are the tools and technology that are allowing participants to be able to attend the lecture? How have these tools based on a carbon-based capitalist economy or even a colonial misappropriation of the land been a part of the crisis?
Adolf Leopold, an American intellectual and conservationist published a book called The Sandcountry Almanac, which argues for the creation of a land ethic. This argument suggests that we need another value when thinking about the land and the nonhuman members that we are entering a relationship with when we occupy this space. In thinking about where you are, Dr. Zuber asks the audience, what is the land ethic of the land you are occupying? Have you ever thought about the other species that are also sharing your habitat? Furthermore, who are the people who have called that land home? What is the land ethic concerning the indigenous communities? With this land ethic of going down into the earth and thinking about right relationships with both nonhuman and other human beings (i.e. indigenous communities that have called these places home) we can better understand our own small role in this greater narrative of ecological sustainability.
Dr. Rita Sherma discussed how the environment is more than the wilderness. The environment is the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat, and the products you consume. The environment also incorporates human infrastructure with cities and residents. She suggests that the new concept of a Slow Movement, which advocates a return to a more handcrafted world, could be in itself a way in which humans can live in right relationships with their environmental counterparts. Dr. Sherma explored the profoundly damaging economic concept of economies of scale. The cost savings of greater output from larger companies is not only damaging to the environment on a greater scale but also leads to a monoculture of the mind. The same products and therefore the same messages are becoming ubiquitous on a global level. She suggests that this is where epistemic justice, which honors your personal experience in the world and therefore honors the knowledge of communities, can remedy the commercial corporate experience that is creating this damaging monoculture.
Dr. Zuber noted that sometimes we are spoon-fed a story about the history of the environment, which is John Muir on a rock divining with the divine, but that’s not the whole story. There is a more significant, mostly untold, story underneath the foundations of the modern American environmental movement that is in conversation with a spirituality that transcends religious differences. For example, Thoreau would not have written Walden without first encountering the Bhagavad Gita or the Lotus Sutra. This is detailed more fully in Dr. Zuber’s and Dr. Sherma’s joint article, “A Meeting of the Waters.” Therefore eco spirituality is a shared space that is something pluralistic and doesn’t belong to one tradition, but is instead a meeting point. The search is in finding those kinds of pluralistic meeting places where we can have ourselves transformed by our differences.
Dr. Rita Sherma discussed how these ideas are not just an experience that is textual and contemplative, but is also an experience of finding a way into these narratives blooming with incredible descriptions of the wild world around them. This meeting place between text and practice has given rise to a number of arts and ecovillages around the world. One such example is the Govardhan Ecovillage, which has a relationship with the GTU to develop greater educational and academic thought leaders in the field. These examples highlight how different global religions are streams and branches of a river that bring together disparate religious traditions and practices that are founded on their sacred texts and praxis that are now situated outside the places of worship and in nature itself.
Dr. Zuber offered that these different branches and streams have a time different from the homogenized linear time of modernity and cycles of capitalism, consumption, and endless growth. This thinking locks society into a logic where religion hasn’t been relevant in the public sphere of discourse around eco sustainability. By incorporating a more spiritual and religious approach to environmentalism, we can mine religious texts for examples of how to better incorporate ourselves into a healthy dynamic with nature. These will establish green roots for rethinking our place in the present and beyond.
To end the discussion, both Dr. Zuber and Dr. Sherma were asked what gives them hope. Dr. Zuber replied that we are in the midst of a great turning as old paradigms are dying out and new possibilities are being created every day. From eradicating ideas of top-down institutions that don’t work and reconciling the failure of international organizations, laws, and government to protect us against climate change, to turning towards the small stories of success with ecovillages and sustainable farming communities. Dr. Zuber highlighted the story of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe and the Shasta Dam, which can be found here in this LA Times article entitled “California Salmon Are At Risk of Extinction. A Plan to Save Them Stirs Hope and Controversy.” On the smallest of scales, even a breathing practice that cultivates mindfulness that generates an awareness of the marvelous and wonderful things around us is itself a thing to give hope.
Dr. Rita Sherma offered that the practice of mindfulness, by removing ourselves from the virtual world, and establishing contemplative practices that ground us in deep awareness is crucial to establishing an understanding of ourselves and our place in the narrative of environmental sustainability. The network of problems surrounding the climate crisis, the dangers of the current war, and environmental degradation, are all interconnected. You can’t begin to solve or understand the problems facing both humans and nature unless you are tuned in on a deep spiritual level of awareness. Even the simple act of grounding yourself quite literally in a patch of soil in your home or community can lead to significant change. The practice of rewilding as established in the book Half-Earth, can be a deeply inspiring and hopeful practice. This practice suggests that if everyone who has housing would rewild whatever soil they have available to them, then they could practice rewilding, which would make an immense impact for the birds and animals that rely upon the land. This in itself is a sacred practice. This practice offers an intrinsic value to the earth and allows us to see something greater than ourselves and our species in order to find the sacred around us.
You can watch the lecture in its entirety here. Additionally, for more information about these topics, you can explore our GTUx Originals Greening Spirituality and Ecospirituality: Environmental Pathways to Healing. Additionally, you can learn more about the GTU’s Sustainability 360 project, which reflects many of the ideas expressed in the GTUx Live lecture and GTUx Originals.