The Question: Spiritual Sensibility within Social Ecology
Social Ecology and Spiritual Ecology have common goals: Finding and solving the root causes of our environmental problems. However there have been a rift between them and for the past twenty-five years I have been curious as to why. What would an integration look like and how could it take place?
In retrospect I wasn’t clear what I needed to do. Did I need to integrate these two schools or injecting a cohesive analysis of spirituality into the philosophy of Social Ecology? ِYes, the latter is a mouth full, even arrogant. At the end it was neither of those as you can see in the subtitle. It turned out to be about exploring the word contemplate and the concept of hierarchy, another words contemplation in reference to hierarchy.
Here is a brief sketch as what these two schools are about. Social Ecology is a developmental evolutionary step in line of Hegel’s philosophy which from that line of thinking Carl Marx’s brought forth Dialectic Materialism both in Germany in 18th and 19th centuries. In 1960’s in the United States Murray Bookchin began to further develop this philosophy. He didn’t have a problem with workers being comrades in the factories but digging up the earth in massive scales to get raw material to use in those factories and that sense of domination over “nature” didn’t set well with him. Even if every worker in that factory was a shareholder. He saw that the environmental problems that his town, state and region was facing were created because of our social behavior. He also saw that the root cause of these problems was in the emergence of hierarchy in natural evolution. In his book, Ecology of Freedom; Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy, he wrote, “By hierarchy, I mean the cultural, traditional and psychological systems of obedience and command, … I refer to the domination of the young by the old, of women by men, … of countryside by town, and in a more subtle psychological sense, of body by mind, of spirit by a shallow instrumental rationality, …”
The solution Bookchin offered was: Empowered communities can make decisions for themselves and intelligent communication between communities can create a network or community of communities. Most important to have consensus decision making rather than majority vote in the community meetings. Another words find an alternative not only to the system of domination and obedience but also find a better alternative to majority votes win and get their way as in the current system of democracy here in the United States and many other parts of the world.
In social ecology circles I found little discussion on the role of spirituality in the community or an in depth analysis of what spirituality meant to Bookchin. In the paragraph above he makes a reference to body mind and spirit which means he believed we are more than a body and mind. He is saying we have a spirit. Or he held the theory that we have a spirit.
Spirituality is a spectrum. On one end of this spectrum there is a person who simply gravitates towards the thesis that as a human being uou (she or he) has a spirit, leaves the discussion at that and goes about the career and family obligations. Also goes on hikes and canoe trips or whatever worldly desires uou might have and once in a while uou might go to a temple with family to see others and socialize and gets whatever else out of going to temple. On the other end of the spectrum there is a devotee who spends lots of time studying the relationship between body, mind and the spirit in meditation and even in active and working time of the day. They are both spiritual folks. In other words, they are on the spectrum of spirituality.
So far so good. I can related with Bookchin’s theory on emergence and dissolution of hierarchy and I can relate to people who know, more or less, where they are on the spectrum of spirituality. But when it comes to the “field” of Spiritual Ecology I’m at a loss. It’s a vague concept to me and there isn’t one source of reference. As far as I know the first book that came out with Spiritual Ecology as its title was in early 1970s. More recent books with the same title have been written by folks from different background, Anthropology professor, Sufi teachers, etc. Their books have subtitles such as; A Quiet Revolution or Cry of the Earth. Deep Ecology is another name and title of a book which to me is in the same category.
My lack of interest in Spiritual Ecology is sensible, to me, but if my thoughts and feelings towards this “field” bothers you then please forgive me and my short introduction of it. Since last year Wikipidea has defined it this way: “Spiritual Ecology is an emerging field in religion, conservation, and academia recognizing that there is a spiritual facet to all issues related to conservation, environmentalism, and earth stewardship.” Although I just noticed this year they have changed the second part form, “Contributors in the field of Spiritual Ecology contend there are spiritual elements at the root of environmental issues.” to “Proponents of Spiritual Ecology assert a need for contemporary conservation work to include spiritual elements and for contemporary religion and spirituality to include awareness of and engagement in ecological issues.”
If I try to make comments it’ll mostly be critiquing the Spiritual Ecology movement and seeing it’s weakness more than the strength it might have. Therefor I won’t go further into my critique other than this. The use of the term “spiritual elements” in the above definition is loose for it’s not well defined. Spiritual elements can come from anywhere on the spectrum of spirituality. I believe most people believe that the general notion behind the word and concept of spirituality is the “goodness” implied. But is this general goodness of spirituality a logical and cohesive notion. No. Spiritual elements can come from different branches and different trees. In reality one tree of spirituality may have attractive looking branches but might have become susceptible to a disease in the root system by lust, greed, violence and anger. We have heard of various financial and sexual scandals in religious institutions. Another tree might have average or even dull looking branches but have very strong roots in love and kindness.
Bookchin’s idea of building and strengthening community has appealed to me on the intellectual level for years because it makes sense. There is logic behind building communities or local physical tribes. For one it’s a cohesive solution for producing food and energy locally instead of buying it from far away. If cultivated intelligently the closeness of people to work together for their basic needs will bring a well rounded sense empathy which is the essence of the teaching of Daniel Chodrokoff, the co-founder of the Institute for Social Ecology.
Social Ecology’s view on spirituality, as far as I found out, is: Find it in your community. Having a tribe for spiritual seekers means seeking to learn within the community from people we know and have learned to trust. But why haven’t I been able to find my local physical tribe since I have been looking for the past 30 plus years? (Not only in the U.S. where I have been residing starting over 40 years ago and not in Iran where I was born and raised and in my 40s I moved there for year and a half to see if I can find a community there.) Why did I end up learning about spirituality from people who lived far away me? Why did I have to travel for a distance within the States to gain knowledge and experience and even traveled to India for it?
I struggled with these issues for years, decades, then a question showed up. It was May of 2015 and I was frustrated. I took out a pen and paper and literally out of frustration about the issues above and personal issues related to job and global issues such as climate change I wanted to write a blog or something. I felt the need to move the pen across the page to see what comes out for I was too frustrated to think. When I stopped and read what I had written, I knew it was a big deal for me. I had written a question which turned out to be the keystone of my work in fields I studied in graduate and undergraduate schools.
This question brought simplicity to my life. All I need to do in order to begin a discussion is to pose it: Are you willing to contemplate on the role hierarchy plays in your life?
I’m good with any answer. Yes, no, maybe or a simple nod as in, “why not?” Someone might ask me to elaborate on what I mean by hierarchy and contemplation. Either way, a discussion has started.
To continue reading see Sacred Gift: Biography of a Synthesis