Sleboda M. Dark Green Religion and Deep Ecology: Moving Towards a Synthesis of Traditionalism and Green Theory


Dark Green Religion and Deep Ecology: Moving Towards a Synthesis of Traditionalism and Green Theory
by Mark Sleboda

This brief paper will examine the ecocentric ‘Green Theories’ of ‘Dark Green Religion’ and ‘Deep Ecology’ from a Traditionalist perspective. It does not make the claim that these belief systems should in fact be considered ‘Traditionalist’, but will analyze and compare their basic principles and beliefs with the precepts of Traditionalism with the goal of beginning a dialogue to discuss commonalities and differences between them and eventually moving towards mutual acceptance and synthesis.

This paper will also not examine the related phenomenon of the ‘greening’ of the more established world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism in light of modern ecological understanding and crises. While this remains an interesting and worthwhile field for discussion and exploration from a traditionalist perspective from a traditionalist perspective, time and space preclude it from this paper and presentation.

The rebirth of nature-centric faiths and spirituality and the aforementioned ‘greening’ of more established, institutionalized, and mainstream religions takes place in the context of global ecological crises and catastrophe as a result of the destructive lifestyles, processes, practices, and externalities of modernity driven by global capitalism and industrialism. Ecological and climate science tells us that as a result of anthropogenic activity that our planet has reached a number of planetary boundary limits which have already been crossed or are in imminent danger of being crossed all of which threaten not only the global biosphere but by extension, human civilization as well, including: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorous cycle, global freshwater use, change in land use, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading, and chemical pollution (Rockstrom, Steffen and others, 2009).

Thus we have a scenario where one branch of science is telling us that the rest of science and the exploitation of its products by modernity, industrialism, and consumerism is threatening all life on the planet. This is a material concern of course, albeit of a global and existential scale, but it is much more than that. This is a spiritual failing and a very damning condemnation and critique of modernity and the very Enlightenment idea of ‘Progress’ with its accompanying materialism. Many ecological scientists themselves are arguing that pure positivism and reason have failed humanity as a methodology and that a new moral theory and supporting metaphysics of our place in the universe, a new ontology and epistemology, is needed in order to adequately deal with the crises and shift public behaviour. As such last they are at last turning back to inspiration from some of the earliest religious and spiritual beliefs to inform them of an earlier time when humanity lived in harmony as part of nature: the animism, shamanism, and paganism of hunter-gatherer and nomadic civilizations.

The traditionalist philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr said in
Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man, that,

The environmental crisis is so critical that it is necessary to quickly go beyond what has been done during the past few decades to solve it. What is required is the re-examination of our very understanding of what it means to be human and of what nature is, along with the establishment of the harmony between man and nature.”(Nasr, 2004, p.6)

Bron Taylor, an American scholar and conservationist, Professor of Religion and Nature, Environmental Ethics, and Environmental Studies at the University of Florida, has coined the term ‘dark green religion’ and developed it as a field. He broadly defined dark green religion as a bricolage of religions, or spiritual sets of beliefs and practices, characterized by a central conviction that "nature is sacred, has intrinsic value, and is therefore due reverent care." Tied in with this belief is a felt kinship with non-human entities and a conscious awareness of the interconnected and interdependent nature of life on the planet. Generally, these belief systems are deep ecological, biocentric, or ecocentric. Dark green religions as a rule reject an anthropocentric ontology and cosmogony, as well as positivist methodology, and are critical of modernity, materialism, consumerism, and the Enlightenment ideas of human progress. Dark green religions adopt a holistic rather than an atomized individualist perspective; that is, they value populations, species, ecosystems, and the ecosphere as a whole (Taylor, 2010, 45-57). Bron’s inclusion of the word ‘dark’ as a descriptor, is a reflection of the recognition that as a part of a sacred nature, man is both predator and prey, a grim recognition of the scale and scope of the environmental crises that confront us, and a reflection that in end result, revolutionary action and the use of violent force may well be necessary to change our societies’ behaviour in order to save the planet and avert our own civilizational suicide.

Taylor categorizes four inclusive general forms of dark green religion in the environmental milieu that have explanatory and interpretive power: Spiritual Animism, Naturalistic Animism, Gaian Spirituality, and Gaian Naturalism. These categories include within them such diverse belief systems as animism, shamanism, pantheism, panentheism, and many forms of paganism and ancient polytheism, as well as more modern forms of nature-centric spirituality, philosophies, and radical environmental activism. ‘Deep Ecology’ a modern ecocentric environmental philosophy with strong spiritual overtones, developed foremost by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, can also considered to fit within these categories of ‘dark green religion’ (Naess, 1989). Obviously not all of these types of dark green religion correspond well with Traditionalism, any more than all branches of Christianity or Islam do, however many of them, particularly those informed by ancient traditions, such as spiritual animism do. Therefore, the rest of this paper will focus on these more ‘traditionalist’ aspects of Dark Green Religion in comparison with Traditionalism.

While a diverse and eclectic field, the most vital defining characteristics of Traditionalism are commonly held to include the principle of perennialism, inversion, the necessity of initiation, and a focus on esotericism over exotericism (Sedgwick, 2004).

In terms of perennialism, dark green religions hold nature itself to be sacred and in one fashion or another, divine. One of the only and perhaps most vital universalisms is the dependence of all humanity on the Earth. No matter how disassociated and alienated from nature we may be in our modern urbanized lives, we all in the end depend on the natural world, the biosphere, as our life support system. All of humanity can find common and original ground on the necessity of maintaining and living in harmony with the natural world on both existential and spiritual grounds. Thus, for dark green religions, nature itself, as universally sacred, provides the primordial metaphysical basis that lies behind all cultures, societies, and civilizations, through which all of humanity could therefore be said to be transcendentally united.

In terms of “inversion,” the principle that most change and development in the Western world, and now spread to the rest of the globe through capitalist-driven globalization, is for the worse, Traditionalism and Dark Green Religion are in firm alignment. Both regard what is commonly thought of as ‘Progress’ is in reality a destructive process. This inversion also gives both Traditionalism and Dark Green Religions their apocalyptic content and revolutionary potential. However, Dark Green Religion, while sharing with established Traditionalism the conception of inversion in spiritual terms, also adds the powerful critique of environmental crises and catastrophes, with its potentially existential threat to human civilization, as a further condemnation of modernity. This necessitates an ontological change and the global restoration of spirituality and a metaphysics that regard nature as scared in response.

In terms of ‘initiation’ Dark Green Religion seeks to restore the practices of the ancient traditions of animism, shamanism, and paganism (The more post-modern forms of Dark Green Religion, such as Gaian Spirituality, obviously do not fulfil this aspect of Traditionalism). This provides rituals and tests of induction into a chain of spiritual adepts going back to supernatural incarnations of the natural world as expressed through a higher plane. These spiritual traditions are the most primordial and antediluvian of human religious beliefs, dating to the earliest hunter-gatherer, nomadic, and first settled agricultural societies, when humanity lived an existence that was environmentally sustainable and largely in harmony with nature, their source of the divine. Those thus initiated through contact with spirits and/or deities that incarnate aspects of the transcendent natural world, form a ‘vanguard’ or guides that resemble lodges or groups in the established Traditionalist faiths.

There is precedent for this inclusion of shamanistic and animistic faiths into consideration by Traditionalist circles. Frithjof Schuon had an intense interest in Native American shamanism. In 1959 and 1963 he travelled to the US to seek understanding of, dialogue with, and eventually initiation with the primordial nature of Native American religion, as a direct manifestation of the Primordial Tradition in its ‘purest state’ (Sedgwick, 2004, 148-149).

The ancient traditions of Dark Green Religion however face criticism and potential hostility from the Abrahamic monotheisms, including accusations that their traditions are largely modern reconstructions and thus have little historical or metaphysical integrity. This is, of course, ironic considering the large number of traditions, rituals, and symbols that the monotheisms adopted and co-opted from the pagan religions themselves.

The various ancient nature religions within the Dark Green milieu, like Traditionalism, each have their own exoteric dimensions such as religious rites, sacred texts, and moral and dogmatic theology. However, when the issue of esotericism in Dark Green Religions is examined, we see a sharp conflict with most of the established religions of Traditionalism, most of which adhere to an anthropocentric ontology and establish a dualistic divide God and ‘the Creation’, or nature (this is less problematic in comparison with Hinduism and Buddhism). For Dark Green Religions, their conception of God, or the sacred or divine, is the Creation, one with it, or an aspect of it. They demand the establishment of an ecocentric ontology as a creed of faith and a means of restoring the proper sustainable balance between man and the natural world, which is at the same time both natural and supernatural. Man is already regarded as part of nature, as the divine, and needs only to commune and live in harmony with it, and, eventually, die and return to the sacred-nature, rather than life spent seeking an escape to a higher state of being. This division of esotericism and ontology between Dark Green Religions and most established Traditionalist faiths would seem to present a serious divide and point of difference on fundamental metaphysics that must be addressed though dialogue before any synthesis or reconciliation could take place.

So, in conclusion, the ancient nature religions within Dark Green Religion have much in common with the established forms of Traditionalism, most importantly the rejection of modernity and Enlightenment ideas of Progress, as well as the quest for a a return to a less materialist and more spiritual society. Dark Green Religion provides a powerful new environmental critique of modernity as innately suicidal, in destroying its own life support system, nature. This said, there remains several basic ontological and metaphysical divides that must be addressed through dialogue before any synthesis between the two could take place. Such a dialogue would, however, in my humble opinion, be of extreme value as Traditionalism and Dark Green Religion have much to offer one another as allies in the struggle against modernity and materialism.



Works Cited

Næss, Arne (1989). Ecology, community and lifestyle. Cambridge University Press.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (2004). “Man and Nature: Quest for Renewed Understanding,” Sophia, Vol. 10, No. 2.

Rockström, J. Steffen, .; Noone, K.; Persson, Å.; Chapin, F. S.; Lambin, E. F.; Lenton, T. M.; Scheffer, M.; Folke, C. 2009), "A safe operating space for humanity,” Nature, 461 (7263), 24 Sep. 2009: 472–475.

Sedgwick, Mark (2004). Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press.

Taylor, Bronn. (2010). Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. University of California Press, Berkeley.