Environmentalism, Modern Paganism, and Civil Disobedience

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 23, 2013 — 29 Comments

In his book “Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America” Pagan scholar Chas Clifton notes that the environmental awakening of 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, “was a year when Wicca (in the broad sense) became “nature religion,” as opposed to the “mystery religion” or “metaphorical fertility religion” labels that it had brought from England.” Since then, modern Pagans of many stripes, particularly Wiccans and Druids, have placed a special emphasis on being religions that care for, and have concern about, our natural environment. A who’s who of Pagans, both high-profile and not, have told the press, and the world, that we give special concern to problems facing our natural world, and further, that our faiths represent a positive shift away from abuse and towards sustainability.

“I think only spiritualities of sacred immanence are capable of doing earth justice, and I think that we, as Pagans, have a responsibility to act and speak in defense of this planet that has blessed us into existence.  If anyone can it is we who can argue for and sometimes introduce others to a direct experience of the sacrality of the earth. […]  Far from being anti-human, we need only enlarge that part of us which may be most unique, our hearts, to embrace what [Aldo Leopold] terms a “land ethic.” Such an ethic: ‘simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.’” Gus diZerega, Patheos.com

As Pagan chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum continues his historic visit to the Kumbh Mela in India, one of his primary messages to our Hindu cousins has been ecological awareness and restoration. From mucking trash in the Ganges river, to leading and blessing a march of Indian school children who are pledging to preserve the planet.

Patrick McCollum leads a march in India for preserving the Ganges and the planet.

Patrick McCollum leads a march in India for preserving the Ganges and the planet.

“Today I led a march of 5,000 school children along the banks of the Ganges to both clean up the sacred river, but also to call for world peace and the preservation of our environment generally. All of these things have been quite spontaneous, and our single act of mucking trash in front of all of the pilgrims has gone viral across the world.  There were TV stations from many countries and newspaper reporters everywhere.  The Governor and Minister and many other officials have joined with us, and banners and such are literally being created in the moment.  One TV station said this is the most significant event toward saving our planet in modern history. Swamiji got this idea to have the kids take a pledge to clean and preserve the planet, and it turned into a huge gathering.  I sat up in front with 5,000 children behind me and we all took the pledge together.”

Bron Taylor, author of “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future”, believes that religions which embrace an ethos of environmentalism, or ecological sustainability, will thrive as our world’s climate troubles worsen.

“The forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings. This is because most contemporary nature spiritualities are sensory (based on what we perceive with our senses, sometimes enhanced by clever gadgets), and thus sensible. They also tend to promote ecologically adaptive behaviors, which enhances the survival prospects of their carriers, and thus their own long-term survival prospects.”

But how far are Pagans, collectively, willing to go in defense of an Earth they call sacred? In a guest review of John Michael Greer’s new book “The Blood of the Earth” (Scarlet Imprint, 2012) from last year, UK Pagan Paracelsian wonders how deep our commitment to being “nature religions” actually goes.

“I’m not suggesting that individual Pagans are never involved with environmental activism, but I am convinced that this is not a priority for the vast majority of individuals who would identify as being Pagan. Greer’s work (and that of other authors who seek to engage contemporary Pagans with these issues: Emma Restall Orr, for example) should at least be encouraging members of the Pagan community to be asking some questions about what it means, in practice, to espouse a nature-based spirituality. This discussion is long overdue, and needed now more than ever, or Paganism will be never be any more than the “virtual religion” critiqued by Andy Letcher. How many self-identified Pagans can honestly live up to Chas Clifton’s challenge to “live so that someone ignorant about Paganism would know from watching your life or visiting your home that you followed an ‘earth religion”. It seems obvious to me that thinking about these questions is imperative if Paganism is not only going to survive, but also to make a positive contribution to the way that humanity relates to Nature in the future.”

It is from this lens that I think we should view the news that the Sierra Club, America’s oldest and largest environmental organization, founded by famed conservationist John Muir, has for the first time advocated civil disobedience to its membership.

Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune

Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune

“For civil disobedience to be justified, something must be so wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest. Such a protest, if rendered thoughtfully and peacefully, is in fact a profound act of patriotism. For Thoreau, the wrongs were slavery and the invasion of Mexico. For Martin Luther King, Jr., it was the brutal, institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South. For us, it is the possibility that the United States might surrender any hope of stabilizing our planet’s climate.” 

The first test of this new call for civil disobedience will be at a Washington DC rally this February in opposition to the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline. However, even if no arrests are made at this rally, it marks a major shift for the Sierra Club, which has preferred lobbying, deal-making, and advocacy over the more direct methods of groups like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. It erodes the idea that mere advocacy, or being ideologically behind better environmental policy, is sufficient in the current environment. It means that support for the Sierra Club implicitly means supporting civil disobedience for the environment.

This is a moment of challenge for those Pagans who espouse an eco-spirituality, who want to practice an Earth or nature religion. If the “safe” moderate environmental group says it’s now time for civil disobedience, do we follow suit? Do our leaders also say “enough” and call for civil disobedience? For direct action in the face of climate crisis? Such calls have usually come from “activist” Pagans like Starhawk, and her critics have often accused her of politicizing Paganism, but are we now at a different moment? Is this the moment where we move beyond recycling and buying the Sierra Club calendar, into advocating for direct action? Not just prayers and spells, but our bodies on the front lines? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but perhaps it’s time we had a renewed discussion about what, exactly, Wiccans, Druids, and other Pagan faiths that espouse the natural world as sacred and alive, should do in the face of a now impossible to ignore climate crisis. The Sierra Club has made a decision, and perhaps that should press us to collectively make one too.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • GimliGirl

    If not now, when? It’s already almost too late to make the big changes we need too, as a species, in order to survive what climate change is going to throw at us.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I am reminded of a statement some 20 years ago by Charlene Spretnak, that she was going to become a “spiritual ward heeler,” working to point out to whomever will listen the sacredness-of-the-earth nature mysticism found in their own faith communities. We Pagans don’t have a patent on religious concern for the environment.

    Chas Clifton’s challenge depends so much on context. My recycling buckets and composter would have marked me out as something, if not necessarily Pagan, if I were still living in Cleveland Heights. In heavily-recycling Oberlin (which also recovers methane from the local landfill as fuel for municipal power) I just look like a good citizen.
    As a Sixties survivor my primary response to the Sierra Club’s turn to civil disobedience is nostalgia, and I don’t mean that in a snarky way. Obama promised work on climate change in his second inaugural, and the lesson of my youth is that well-meaning elected officials need steady pressure from an aroused citizenry to do what their hearts tell them is right because they work in an adversarial environment. FDR famously said to a lobbying group, “All right, you’ve convinced me of what I should do. Now get out there and make me do it..”

  • I agree with the Sierra Club and it looks like by the successful march and cleanup in India that people are ready for this kind of change. I think most of us are really tired of the government sitting on their hands and have already realized we’re going to have to battle climate change on our own. Our government will forever wait for the permission of their corporate overlords and that’s simply not going to happen as long as there is money to be made.

    • I agree that the action Patrick helped create in India this year is a great one, but mucking trash isn’t an example of what the Sierra Club is now advocating because it isn’t civil disobedience.

      • Of course not, but I feel that people are ready for the deep changes we need to make but have been hampered by the fact that such organizations have not been willing to make the first move. Now the average person will be more willing to jump on the bandwagon. For most, it takes less temerity to ride on the wagon than to pull it. That’s just human nature.

  • Well, this is my life. This was my basic quest last year, and have been asking for years, why are we not as a community and individuals involved with the Green Movement. Why are we not the drivers of this economically, including recycling drives, solar tech, etc.

    As part of this, I retired from my tradition duties, and as head of Witch School, to form a new company called Paganics, in order to meet the demand. Our first project is Vermiculture, earthworm cultivation, and to work with Urban farms. It is my hope and expectation is to create jobs as well as green solutions on a macro as well as micro level. So I agree that most Pagans do have a idea of being green, working to become green, but are not yet ready to be part of the solution. Some are and emerging, but most are too caught up in poverty mentality and political/social/rights activism to become part of a sweeping green industries emerging.

    • Genexs

      Heh, I keep a worm farm too! Vermiculture is very easy to do, it even can be done if you are an apartment dweller. I keep my worm container outside during the summer/spring/fall, but lug it indoors during the winter.

  • After years of responding to environmental disaster it is
    good to see this discussion get started in our community. Burning forests, polluted waters, rising temperatures, and intense storms have been Gaia’s unheard cry for too long. There has been much talk of solidarity within our community. Lets
    manifest some solidarity in action, shall we?

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I see (my) religion as a way of life. As such, I would say to anyone accusing me of politicising religion that, yes, I am politicising religion. But, at the same time I am also religificating (I was stick for the proper word) politics.

    If my religion is a way of life, then surely my politics should be an expression of that? And my religiopolitical view is that we need a greater respect for nature and also need to work towards the sustainability of society,

  • The idea of 5000 children pledging to clean up the Ganges is amazing and inspiring. It would be even more inspiring if there were also some girls in that photo.

  • I have conflicting feelings about this. On one hand, I have a background in biology, specifically conservation biology and I’ve even taken to calling my own religious path “spiritual bioregionalism”…I believe very strongly in environmental stewardship on a public and private level. On the other hand…people are part of bioregionalism (spiritual or otherwise), and if we take an honest look at history, people have been altering the environment to suit themselves for a darn long time. For too long, this has been an issue of division, with both “sides” only making the other more intractable, and nothing being accomplished where it counts–in getting more people to care in a meaningful way. It has long been my experience that the best way to get people to give a damn about nature isn’t protest, or advocacy–its to to get them in nature.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      There is also the fact that the environment changes, naturally, anyway.

      • Aine

        It does – but hardly at the rate it’s shifting right now. The ‘it changes anyway’ argument doesn’t really hold when we’re actively if unintentionally wiping out species and habitat and resources at a frightening rate. I don’t think that changing our environment is bad by default, but I do think we have some serious issues with how we relate to and affect our environments currently.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Oh, I am not suggesting that humankind should not significantly lower their impact, or learn how to live sustainably. I am merely pointing out that even when everything is done to minimise human impact, the climate will still shift.

          Rather than preventing this, learning to live with the climate might be an idea.

      • We really do need to take how we relate to our environment seriously though. For many in my region it’s too late. We’ve just been warned by the U.S. Geological Survey not to eat our homegrown foods and people have known for years now that there are places that the water is best not used for drinking or bathing. Appalachia could have used Sierra Club’s new “harder” stance 30 years ago.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Personally, I don’t think that governments are likely to do anything meaningful until after the fact. As such, it is entirely up to the individual to look at their own lifestyle and force change that way.

  • cernowain greenman

    I am somewhat amazed at the number of Pagans I know who do not recycle. There is more work to be done on this, more education and more encouragement. It is usually the first step toward being ecologically minded. And yes, after that, there are many things we can do in the real world individually, collectively and politically.

    • Genexs

      Agreed. I have posted here before about this. I have met Pagans who are anything but ‘green’, yet claim they care about the earth. I’m so glad this topic has moved to the front.

  • My wife and I moved 800 miles away to start “Pagan homesteading” and living a much more simple, sustainable life. We made drastic changes to our lifestyle including reducing the demand for resources that we put on the “system”. We recycle what we can, support the Sierra Club and a couple of other such groups financially, and are constantly writing to our elected officials regarding many important environmental issues. We are also growing more of our own food each year, and I hope to one day invite others to come learn how to do a lot of these [homesteading] things through first-hand experience, but we’re no where near that point, yet. These are choices we’ve made in part because of our religious views of “the land”. I cannot force or guilt others into making changes which help the environmental movement, but I can be the best example that I practically can with what we have.

  • Instead of civil disobedience, how about people who profess membership in an “Earth Religions” start acting like it. There is a great opportunity for solidarity and change just by being a great example of someone living as an “Eco-Pagan”

    • We need that AND civil disobedience. I feel that with things the way they currently are it’s way past time to drop the nice act. Simply encouraging takes more time than we have.

      • Vinegar, honey, and setting examples.

        • “Vinegar, honey, and setting examples.”
          Yeah, we’ve been doing that since the 60’s. Meanwhile, I’ll be here planting seeds for vegetables I can’t eat.

      • Deborah Bender

        John Michael Greer, the Druid writer, has repeatedly made the point that if you profess concern about the environment but don’t make changes in your own way of living that reduce your environmental impact, other people will not take your views seriously.

        If this demonstration were closer to home, I would probably attend, but it would take me a week to get to Washington and back on the train, and the CO2 that thousands of miles of air travel would add to the atmosphere would more than cancel out any good my presence would do.

        If there’s a coordinated local demo, I might go to that.

        I agree that the climate change situation is dire enough to warrant civil disobedience in addition to other forms of organizing.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Organise your own, perhaps?

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      This isn’t an either/or question. Some are drawn to public action and some to private cultivation. A good case can be made that unlocking the fossil carbon of the Canadian tar sands is a dire enough prospect for public action but YMMV.

      • You’re absolutely right, issues as large as this seldom ever are of the either/or type. Caution on the road ahead is important because it’s very easy for one to undermine the other.

  • First off, the Sierra Club works to advance environmental causes by way of advocacy AKA lobbying and, to a equally important degree, suing people-polluters, developers, etc. The recent presidency of Bush and his appointees and the obstruction of the Repub Congress when it comes to filling judicial vacancies have greatly undermined the Sierra Club’s legal strategy. What’s left to a group that has more members but less influence than the NRA? Civil disobedience…. As for our response, I’m beginning to see the first move should be education of pagans as to a greener lifestyle, through blogs like this and the individual pagan reaching out and interacting with other pagans at the local level. Just the airline flight attendant say-we’ve got to “put that O2 mask on first” before we can help others.

  • It is due to my faith, my Pagan views, that pushed me to enroll in the community organizing program at the graduate school in social work I attend. I think that there is a macro-shift toward this sort of mentality due to the recent attacks against Mother Earth by those in power.