Editors’ Note: This article is a part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here, possibly.
A few months ago our channel editor Christine Kraemer posed this topic to the various writers at Patheos Pagan:
Has Pagan Environmentalism Failed?
With the recent release of several large-scale studies showing that climate change may now be inevitable, many Pagans are re-evaluating their approach to environmentalism. Particularly in the United States, the Pagan movement of the 1960s and 1970s embraced ecotheology and Gaia theory in the belief that the damage human beings were causing to the environment could be slowed or stopped. Today, the possibility that human beings will change their ways before our fossil fuels run out seems much less likely, and the hopes of earlier Pagans may appear wildly unrealistic.
As Pagans, do we continue or intensify our environmental activism, hoping to minimize climate change? Do we take time to grieve, as in the Dark Mountain project, or begin to prepare for scarcity scenarios? When we listen to our gods, our ancestors, the spirits of the land, and/or Gaia Herself, what guidance do we receive? What does it mean to be Pagan or practice a nature religion in the midst of climate change?
I like to participate in many of the bigger discussion here but this one wasn’t really up my alley. Has Pagan environmentalism failed? I’m not sure that’s exactly a fair question (and boy is it negative!). Paganism didn’t fail, but the environmental movements of the 1970’s mostly did. I tend to get a bit annoyed when we Pagans pretend that we are the only spiritual grouping that cares about the Earth. There are all sorts of Earth loving Jews, Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus, heck I’ve even met at least one from all of those different faiths. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there are also Muslims, Shintoists, and Taoists who do the same.
It’s certainly true that there was a real “we are going to save the Earth” vibe in 1970’s Paganism. Pick up Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler if you aren’t familiar with the era, it was a pretty heady time, but Pagans weren’t the only ones thinking those things. Whether or not the Gaia Theory was first articulated by Oberon Zell or James Lovelock is really immaterial. Theories like the Gaia Hypothesis were picked up by Pagans, environmentalists, and just plain folks who happened to like the Earth. Environmentalism existed before Modern Paganism, and there was no way we were really going to tip the balance back in the 70’s.
Maybe the Pagans of the 1970’s thought they were going to single handedly fix the hole in the ozone layer, save the rain forests, and get everyone to eat organic but I’m not sure that was really the case. What so many of those Pagans wanted was to transform the Earth, and the human society that lives on her. In that sense (if we use the long span of human history as a judge) those people succeeded. They created a vibrant community with a deep love for the Earth, and found a way to mostly make Pagans an accepted (if still misunderstood) segment of society. More people than ever in the Western World now know the Goddess and can practice their faith openly without worrying about losing their children. Are we all eating tofu, riding bikes to work, and powering our computers with clean renewable energy? No, but at least some of us are, but we weren’t going to fix that all on our little lonesome anyways.
Remember what I said at the beginning of this piece, we didn’t fail but that much of the environmental movement did? I really think that was the case, after a series of victories in the 1970’s everything was reversed in the 1980’s. Many of our gains were torn down by the very unsaintly Ronald Reagan and giant industries pumping billions of dollars into our politics-clouding the minds of voters and journalists. Back in the 1990’s even Republicans believed in global warming, and we didn’t even have to call it climate change to get their attention. Sadly, the well has been poisoned so badly that the 90’s (which hosted much of the SUV craze) now feels like a golden era. Even George Bush the Elder passed legislation that attempted to clean up our air.
Many of the limited gains made by the environmental movement in the 90’s fell apart when we all fell asleep when Bush the Dumb became President and our media played willing accomplice. We don’t argue about gravity on television, why do we argue about climate change? Both are theories, and both are things that are actually happening as I type this. Have you ever seen the movie Idiocracy? The only thing wrong with it is that it was set too far in the future.
As a Pagan do I feel as if I have a special obligation to the Earth? Mostly, but I don’t think the mantle of “environmental religious warrior” is ours to wear alone. I also have a great deal of faith in humanity, and yes I know it’s most likely displaced. I really do think that the realities of climate change are becoming too big for even the dumbest pawns of the Koch Brothers to ignore. I know it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of hope for the continued existence of the human race but I’m going to hope anyways.
We Earthlings are mostly a clever bunch of people and while I realize things are pretty shitty right now I’m not ready to start hoarding food or “grieving” for the planet quite yet. Like attracts like, which means negative attracts negative and I’ve always been a glass half-full sort of person. We are still here, there’s still time, and eventually the little efforts of people like you and me are going to eventually pay off. “Hope” is a pretty big thing and as long as I have it I feel like we will eventually get things worked out.
Is it disappointing that the wildest of Pagan environmental dreams didn’t quite work out as planned back in the 1970’s? Absolutely, but the progress we’ve made as a faith grouping over the last forty years has been pretty amazing. Without any real central leadership or cheerleaders we’ve carved out a space on the shelf in America’s religious marketplace. That’s a big accomplishment and we’ve done a lot of good work for the planet along the way. Paganism didn’t fail, because if we had failed we wouldn’t still be here.
Do you like Raise the Horns? Even if you don’t would you be interested in humoring me? Like us on Facebook, and also like Patheos Pagan for more great articles just like this one. Are you a Pagan living in the UK? Jason will be in London and Edinburgh this September and October, send him a message if you’d like to get a cup of tea or a pint of cider. He will also be speaking and teaching in North Carolina this August, click here for more information about that.