Eco-Conscientiousness & Eco-Activism in an Ecological Age

Eco-Conscientiousness & Eco-Activism in an Ecological Age
by Dr. Kurt Johnson and Rev. Mac Legerton

As heads of state from around the world gather at the United Nations to adopt a new vision for global development, as Pope Francis addresses the implications of his historic Encyclical on climate change, environment, and their myriad social implications in the United States Congress, as the World Climate Summit process (the “road to Paris”) culminates in France, we note that this time in history is full of conversation about the need for change. 

For those active in global discussions of challenge and change, there has been hope in hearing that business as usual is not an option; that transformative change is necessary. The questions now are about how this change will happen and who will make it happen.

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Persons of consciousness (those with what is being called “emerging heart intelligence”—be it secular or religious) have an especially pivotal role. A fact of cultural evolution has been that, in every human era confronted with evolutionary bottlenecks of change, key people have been challenged with the responsibility to cultivate and shape actions of social presence and service that can meet the challenges of the time and move humanity forward. 

The current era is characterized by a powerful shift in the human relationship to earth and all its life forms. This will, by necessity, transform planet-wide understanding, ethical principles, values-based vision, and social action. This transformation is occurring on every continent, albeit conceived in various ways. Eco-Awareness and Eco-Service, and, in cultures of religious parlance, Eco-Spirituality and Eco-Ministry are terms arising to depict this new sense of connection and expression between humanity and earth. 

In what is now a classic essay entitled, “The Ecological Age,” a prominent Western religious figure, Father Thomas Berry, described four stages in human history. He proposed that we are now entering the fourth stage—an Ecological Age. Assuming the hat of an anthropologist, Berry described how humanity has moved through a primary Tribal Age, a second Age of Great Traditional Civilizations, and a third Technological Age. 

In Western culture, he said, this journey through the ages gave “men power formerly attributed only to the natural or the divine.” Humanity now, Berry states, “has the power of life and death not only over human life but over the earth itself and its higher forms of life.” This, he says, makes it necessary to move to an age wherein “nations must learn a primary allegiance to this larger life system…. Planetary welfare is now the welfare of each nation and each individual.” 

Berry offers an impassioned account of the necessity of our transformation to an Ecological Age, declaring: 

“Only such an Ecological Age can produce the understanding and the corresponding commitment required to stop the world of exploitation, of manipulation, of illusory money values, of mutual human abuse, of destructive violence so intense that it threatens to put the torch not only to the human city but to the planet itself. We have now acquired the power to turn the earth itself into a vast conflagration. But while we stop one world situation we must create another. Thus the need to awaken the energies needed to create a new world, to evoke a universal communion of all living and nonliving systems of the universe…What is clear is that the earth is mandating that the human community assume a responsibility never assigned to any previous generation.” 

Indeed, the Eco-Spirituality Movement, The Journey of the Universe, Big History, and other similar initiatives are all calling civil society to secure our planet’s environmental future through a sound ecological footing and relationship to the earth. 

A colleague of Berry’s and an acknowledged “man of the heart”, Brother Wayne Teasdale, monk and author of The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions, founded a movement parallel to that of Berry’s. What Berry sought to bring to ecology, Teasdale and his associates sought to bring to world religions: a sense of the ecosystem inherent in all of humankind’s senses of meaning—spiritualities, philosophies, and cosmologies. He called this the “interspiritual” or “intersubjective” movement. Some 30-40% of people worldwide consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” according to a 2002 Gallop poll, and 71-80% believe that multicultural understanding is necessary for a harmonious global future according to multiple polls (FT & Harris, 2007, Yankelovich & Pew, 1998, 1999).

These trends are forging connections between the ethics, values, and ideals of the historic wisdom traditions (even those of “old time religion”) and the values of the classic secular Humanists (August Comte, Felix Adler, John Dewey, and the like). Indeed science itself has answered back with the “Prosocial Movement” based on new scientific understandings of evolutionary altruism. All these movements aim to convince religious institutions that what is important are their shared ethical and values-based messages, and the conflicts about which of their metaphysical religious claims are ultimately “true” are less important. 

As integral philosopher Ken Wilber has said, this understanding is the pathway to lift planet-wide humanity out of the conflicts of magic-mythic-literalist religion and into higher developmental levels that are pluralistic, holistic, and integral. And as altruistic evolutionary leader Dr. David Sloan Wilson says in his 2015 book Does Altruism Exist?,  from the “Foundational Questions in Science” series, nature has always been fundamentally about building systems and processes that serve the whole rather than self-interest groups. He offers up the possibility that, based on altruistic principles, it might be possible to join all senses of meaning (religious and secular) to one of being simply positive.

Both Wilber and Wilson joined us on a summer event tour with the aim of expanding the conversation on these themes. Wilber, in an historic presentation in Denver on July 17, 2015, suggested that a major bottleneck that is affecting our current relationship to our earthbound home is the “trapping” of most modern religions in magic-mythic-literalist arguments and the resultant fighting over who is right.

Teasdale has made the same linkage. In his unifying vision for a healthy global civilization based on the heart, he has identified seven shifts that must occur on a global level for us to break free of such trappings. More than half of these shifts involve the relationship between humankind and the earth—ecological awareness, the rights of all species, recognition of and interdependence of all life, and earth’s part in the universal community. These are complemented by other social and cultural changes, namely the abandonment of militant nationalism, community between and among the world’s religions, and so on. 

Indeed, while most people associate the use of the prefix “inter” in Teasdale and Wilber’s work (interspiritual, intersubjective, etc.) with the notion of being between, the term “inter” also means “earthen;” the term thus further depicts ecological interdependence and eco-consciousness. Fundamentally, the worldview and practice of eco-consciousness has been grounded within the lifeways of all indigenous cultures for millennia. As Father Berry summarized: “There is no such thing as ‘human community’ without the earth and the soil and the air and the water and all the living forms. Without these, humans do not exist. In my view, the human community and the natural world will go into the future as a single sacred community or we both will perish in the desert.”

The upwelling of a new unity consciousness (a term used by Kurt Johnson in his book The Coming Interspiritual Age, an influential follow-up to Teasdale’s work) has led to major new initiatives in eco-spirituality, eco-ministry, and eco-justice on the local, state, regional, national, and international levels of our earth community. In turn, these initiatives address major eco-issues like climate change, over-exploitation of natural resources, pollution, urban sprawl, corporate agriculture, habitat loss, family farm loss, overconsumption of processed and fast foods, cultural dissolution, rising poverty, poor health outcomes, and indigenous and rural colonization. 

These subjects were major foci for sessions of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City in October 2015. They were also the central focus of our two largest summer events: “From Self Care to Earth Care,” sponsored by the Teasdale-founded Interspiritual Network, and a conference of United Nations NGOs known as Forum 21 Institute. We were pleased how the events of this past summer’s initiative engaged some of our world’s best activists and change agents in navigating our planet’s dilemma of being beset, at once, by undeniable increases in both collective consciousness and epic global challenges. But we as a global community are just beginning. 

Eco-consciousness and eco-activism are dialogues that must penetrate the hearts and minds of everyone living here on planet earth. We are a capable human family that can make the shifts in understanding and action needed to create a safe and humane earth for all. Know that each of us, whether in our smaller communities or in the greater whole, have the potential to make great contributions to this convergence of movements. Take the time to learn what you might have to contribute. §

The Aspen-to-Parachute Valley Experience
by Dr. Bradley Tyndall

We were privileged to co-host the “From Self Care to Earth Care” summer events in Colorado at Colorado Mountain College, the Davi Nikent Center for Human Flourishing, and the Aspen Chapel. 

In many pockets across the country, people are taking back the planet one project and one issue at a time. Groups of people and entire communities have stopped waiting for others to legislate reasonable behaviors and systems and instead have decided to create their own islands of ecological sanity. One such example is the Roaring Fork Valley, an 85-mile stretch of small towns from Aspen to Parachute, Colorado. 

In this valley, it is safe to say that the tide has turned. The concept of sustainability is widespread and has been adopted within a large framework, including a whole array of business activities, spiritual practices, and social justice initiatives. The local community college, Colorado Mountain College, whose mission is to serve the needs of its communities, has established a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sustainability Studies, now one of the college’s most popular degrees. Cohorts of local students, with an average age of about 29 years old, commit to the degree in order to develop the skills, knowledge, and partnerships needed to better serve their communities. The basic sustainability model they learn is based on their 4-E model: the balance and dynamics of Environment, Economics, Equity (and other social considerations), and Education. Students are asked to define their own sustainability framework, and, by taking lessons from the many practitioners in the area, they often add ethics and spirituality to their models. A new holistic understanding of the human-planetary ecology has been achieved.

The outcropping of this new consciousness can be seen far beyond the activities of the local college, which only mirrors the educational desires of the communities it serves. There are reportedly over 650 non-profit organizations in the area. Many, such as the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, address environmental concerns and education. Others, such as the Valley Settlement Project, focus on sustainable development and social justice for people in the area living on the margins or with hardship. Still others, such as the Davi Nikent Center for Human Flourishing, provide education and healing support for biological, psycho-spiritual, relational, and cultural wellbeing. 

These non-profit organizations are complemented by faith communities and religious leaders, especially contemplatives such as Fr. Thomas Keating in Snowmass, CO, who have embraced and lauded the eco-spirituality movement. Within the valley, a large body of citizens now pursue an understanding of deep sustainability, which suggests that the key to addressing over-consumption, environmental destruction, and social injustice resides in finding psycho-spiritual balance and stability within the self. After all, if one saves thousands of dollars by installing solar panels merely to take that windfall to buy a large gas-guzzling SUV, what good has taken place? Sustainability begins with the sustainable self. 

In addition to the many non-profit groups, other institutions, such as the Sustainable Settings Farm, incorporate values-based practices with other organizational models to establish healthy enterprises. With a firm gale established from area citizens, more corporate and governmental groups have been moved to action. The local Roaring Fork Transit Authority, for example, has an extensive fleet of buses that run on compressed natural gas. A great many government entities, businesses, and households work closely with groups such as CLEER, the Clean Energy Economy for the Region, and CORE, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency. 

The Aspen-to-Parachute valley has significantly raised the communal consciousness for the socio-ecological good. The communities are blossoming because of it. In terms used by the famed biologist David Sloan Wilson in his book, Does Altruism Exist?, the valley people have become noticeably more prosocial such that the communities themselves have taken a significant evolutionary leap forward in terms of their viability and sustainability. Many others across the nation and world are finding a similar pathway forward. §



Dr. Kurt Johnson is the co-author of the The Coming Interspiritual Age and one of the leaders of the emerging global interspiritual movement. His background includes 40 years associated with the American Museum of Natural History and the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York City. He holds a Ph.D. in ecology and is the author of the popular science books Nabokov’s Blues and Fine Lines, among numerous other publications.

Rev. Mac Legerton is Coordinator of the Eco-Ministry Initiative of the Interspiritual Network and Forum 21 Institute. He leads the Center for Community Action in rural North Carolina with a focus on sustainability, poverty reduction, and justice. He is a Christian contemplative ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ, a leader in the Guild for Spiritual Guidance and Windcall Institute, and a graduate of Union Theological Seminary.

Dr. Bradley Tyndall is an environmental and ecological economist who has served as the Vice President of Academic Affairs at Colorado Mountain College and is now Vice President at Central Wyoming College in Riverton, Wyoming. Brad has worked extensively in overseas sustainable development, especially in Africa and the MidEast, and is author of Touching God: A Journey, A Guide to Mysticism in Christianity and Islam.