Pagan Ethics and the Predicament of Climate Change

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.

Contemporary Paganism encompasses practices that help us feel our aliveness within the earth. How can we feel our aliveness within the earth when our planet is dying? Climate change threatens the very life of the earth, which is often seen as a goddess, our mother. The challenge of climate change stretches Paganism to evolve an ecologically centered ethic, one that incorporates distinctly Pagan ideas of religious practice and ritual to challenge systemic sources of environmental ills.

Historically, the rise of Paganism is a spiritual response to environmental crises and compares to the social response of environmentalism in America. Both have roots in the Transcendental movement of the early 20th century and gained momentum after the nuclear developments of the 1940s and the pesticide concerns of the 1960s. After Americans realized humans have the power to shape our environment, concerned individuals turned to environmentalism as a social response or Paganism as a spiritual response for dealing with this newfound uncertainty and grief. Both communities grew during the latter half of the 20th century and are slowly moving into the mainstream today.

There's a joke that says you can ask one hundred Pagans what Paganism is and get one hundred and one different answers. Even with so many varieties of Paganism, it holds together as a religion that sees the earth as sacred and worthy of reverence. Paganism encourages us to feel deeply into the places we occupy and the ways we inhabit our spaces to connect with the divine and, often, the spirit(s) of the land.

Contemporary Paganism has never been a static religion. However, as it's currently practiced, Paganism does not fully address our planetary situation. We are somewhat set in descriptions of Paganism passed down unquestioned from our British lineage. I've seen Pagans on the East Coast call to the element of water in the West when there's a massive body of water directly to the East. All of the British-influenced how-to books state that water is in the West, where you'd find it if you happened to be in England. How can we learn the ecology of our environment if we're not paying attention to major features around us?

Science has broadly shown that climate change is affected by human actions (see the most recent IPCC report). Our actions have extreme, unforeseen effects on our human and non-human neighbors. As the climate changes, we are seeing ice melt and sea levels rise, putting our neighbors in low-lying countries into refugee situations. Flora and fauna populations are not able to adjust as easily as we can, and species are dying into extinction at a rate far higher than historical levels. Those of us in less fortunate situations are bearing the brunt of the environmental harm in terms of waste facilities, power plants, and fewer green spaces.

Climate change is not an issue of technology or will. It is an issue of ethics. Pagan ethics could provide a clear path for creatively handling climate disruption. We already revere and incorporate natural cycles into our spiritual work. This reverence for the earth can develop into an understanding of ecological systems that can inform our morals. Paganism has no single standard for ethical action, and this gives Pagans considerable flexibility in defining a new environmental ethic.

Climate change challenges us to up our spiritual game. Anthropogenic climate disturbance is more than a potential problem since we have reached and passed tipping points that cannot be reversed. It threatens all humans, as it threatens all non-humans. There is no longer any romantically untouched space. And with our handling of all spaces comes a responsibility for stewarding and tending the places we love. Places that are loved thrive, and their agency in a world of uncared-for areas reverberates through everyone who can mindfully enter. As Pagans, we have the capacity to love the entire planet. As part of our Pagan ecological ethic, it's time to develop a Pagan version of stewardship as we tend to our earth mother in hospice.

It's not enough to be Pagan and an Environmentalist. Climate change draws from the deep well of systemic dysfunction. We can sometimes feel stuck in the unhealthy systems we must participate in to function in society. Paganism has already completely broken open the unsavory system of institutionalized religion. We have created a spiritual tradition that is eclectic and individual, yet still collaborative and honoring of tradition. We can become leaders in similarly breaking open other institutions like education, government, and economy that perpetuate cycles encouraging climate disturbance.

We have reached a point where climate disruption is inevitable, and our world requires new stories to help us cope with the changes we cannot foresee. The best science tells us waters will rise, winds will blow, earth will shake, and heat will blast. As Pagans, we have developed techniques of ritual, magic, and divination that can help us find creative solutions to our environmental problems. Through a robust environmental ethic that challenges unhealthy systemic structures, these techniques of the sacred can not only help us deal with our pain for the earth, but can empower us to foster the rebirth of a sustainable and just world.