Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.
I mean the earth dying, mass extinctions, poisoned rivers, irreversible shifts in climate that will eventually make certain areas of the world un-livable and others utterly miserable.All that damage, the stuff we and our descendents will be living through for the next several centuries, it’s already been done. And if we Pagans were the ones who were supposed to fix this, to stop all of that nonsense we’ve been doing to the earth the last few centuries, well… we failed.
But what if we haven’t actually started yet? I’m gonna suggest something a bit unusual here, that this gigantic, tragic mess the world has become is not where we end, but where we begin. Not, of course, like we’ve got any other choice.
Speaking of choice, let’s talk about environmentalism and Pagans. We’re supposed to be environmentalists, I’ve heard. Something about being part of earth-based spirituality, liking plants and trees and animals and all that. I’ve even met a few who go recycle and compost.
There’s a funny thing about environmentalism, though. It means nothing anymore. Once, it was tied to a critique of Capitalism, an observation about the damage we were doing to things by ripping apart forests and mountains and churning it all through factories into things we didn’t need so that some people could make lots of money.
But when we began to realize that we liked those things coming out of the factories, we changed our language a bit. Suddenly, people started talking about “green” Capitalism and “eco-friendly” product. So, now, we could all have too many things we don’t need and some people could make lots of money, but maybe a forest or two would survive.
Rather than ending the process that leads us to destroy the land around us, we’ve come up with some pretty ways of making ourselves feel better, like addicts covering over the consequences of their addictions, ignoring our impending deaths.
We can now change the lightbulbs we use and feel better, without ever questioning why we’re so dependent on electricity in the first place. We can drive hybrid and electric vehicles and no longer consider the awful destruction of wild lands caused by roads. Our computers and phones have power-saving options, which helps us ignore all the damage to the air and water which went into their creation.
We seem to want these things, though. We seem to think we need them, or deserve them. We even sometimes equate all this destruction we wreak upon the world as “freedom.” We’re free to drive wherever we’d like, buy whatever we think we need, have bright houses in the middle of the night, communicate long distances whenever we desire. We’re free and have unlimited choices now, but our freedom means destruction. As Dipesh Chakrabarty put it in his essay, “The Climate of History”:
In no discussion of freedom in the period since the Enlightenment was there ever any awareness of the geological agency that human beings were acquiring at the same time as and through processes closely linked to their acquisition of freedom.
That is, our freedom is the earth’s destruction, and the sorts of environmentalism that most people talk about (plant a tree to offset a plane ride, buy recycled toilet paper, change a light bulb) sustains the logic of destruction. And that logic? It’s Capitalism.
Capitalism is Killing Us All
“We need to offer the death rites in a culture that pretends that death can be cheated by buying the latest i-gadget or hooking ourselves up to plasma bags of young blood. These technological and scientific responses do not account for the wider environment which we do not control, but which now seeks to redress the killing balance and is doing so with storm surge and wildfire and tornado and flood and drought regardless of what is playing on your headphones or how high the gates are to your compound. I welcome this storm.”
Capitalism came about in the 1700’s, right about the time that we started destroying the earth. Also, its logic of displacement and private property and secular Enlightenment also destroyed lots of Pagan and Indigenous traditions in Europe, the Americas, and Africa (where it’s still doing so now).
That is, the very same arrangement of society that destroys the planet also disenchanted the world. Or, again–Capitalism destroys ancestral and pagan religions while also poisoning the water and air.
If we’re going to be Environmentalists–and not the light-bulb changing sort–we need to attack the very thing which is destroying the environment. And if we’re going to be Pagans, we ought to be attacking the thing which walls the gods and spirits from the world. And fortunately, it’s the same thing.
We just haven’t started yet.
It’s about time we get around to it, though.