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The Lost Gospel of the Earth
A Call for Renewing Nature, Spirit, and Politics
By Tom Hayden

Chapter One: Recovering the Lost Gospel

The Search for an Earth-Based Spirituality

No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections and convictions.

The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it.

In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.

ALDO LEOPOLD, The Land Ethic (1949)

In the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the hero tries to aid the god of the river, Asopus, whose daughter has been carried away by the patriarchal god of the sky, Zeus. But because he questions Zeus, Sisyphus is condemned to forever roll a stone uphill in Hell.

I have no desire to be an environmental Sisyphus, nor to wish that role on anyone else. But the modern Zeus must be challenged all the same. We have abandoned the rivergod, the sacred spirit of the natural world, for a skygod that is separate from the earth. Our covenant with God has been relocated outside of nature. Until we restore a spiritual covenant with the earth, we will forever roll the environmental stone up a mountain of frustration.

Our mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition has treated nature primarily as a storehouse of raw materials for our benefit, and as a bottomless container for our waste. The human condition is considered the primary focus of morality, while the tortured condition of nature serves only as background. Salvation has been promised to the individual, but not to other life forms on our planet. The Ten Commandments prohibit adultery but not pollution, demand that we honor our parents but not the earth.

The most influential creation myth of Western civilization is the Book of Genesis, in which a hierarchical universe is created with humans given dominion over all other living creatures. This mandate of Genesis can have a greener meaning, but instead it is more commonly understood as a license for humans to use and control the natural world as we see fit. We are miniature lords of the universe and the earth is our personal playground. We continually recycle this "mandate from Heaven" in the most important myths that shape our identity: the creation stories of the universe, of the world, of Western civilization. In each chapter of these stories, from the outer cosmos to our local community, we rediscover the possibilities of Eden, only to spoil them.

But we divide grace from nature and spirit from matter at our peril. When we worship God above, the earth withers from neglect below. We develop a society where everything from human habits to politics and economics exploits the environment with callous indifference. Unless the nature of the State is harmonized with the state of Nature, our greed and ignorance will eventually take us beyond the capacity of the very ecosystems that support human existence.

Preserving the Sacred Life of Earth

This book is an effort to heal the divide between the human spirit and the natural world. It attempts to retrieve and apply an older vision in which the earth is alive, and the sacred is present there too.

But in what sense is the earth alive? Some will object to the notion that the earth is a living organism--a superorganism--a host to a myriad of interconnected life forms. I do not claim that the earth is conscious of itself; it does not think and scheme, envy and lust, love and hate as we do. But the earth as a whole is the birthplace, the subject and object, and burial ground for the elements of consciousness. I cannot share the reductionist view that it is merely dead physical matter or a lifeless chemical ball. I believe that since the earth contains the elements of life, the earth is a living form as well. Ironically, this view is considered sentimental and subjective, yet science itself cannot agree on a definition of "life."

As for the sacred presence in the earth, I mean a dimension that is both beyond human understanding and at the same time the source of our understanding. The sacred is the indescribable realm of creation that inspires our awe and reverence. It is what Muir called the "first fountain" of the universe. Respect for the sacred is the opposite of utilitarianism and pragmatism. The sacred precedes human existence, and contains an inherent value apart from human calculation.

As I mean it, the sacred is interchangeable with God. But since God has acquired the image of a bearded gentleman in so many minds, a term like sacred, which evokes no human shape, seems more appropriate, inviting a creative participation in its mystery.

To say that the sacred, or God, is present in the living earth is to say that the miracle of creation includes the earth as well as its human inhabitants. Humans have long sought a fixed address for the divine. Long ago, the sacred was believed to reside in the earth. Then came an era when God and the sacred were projected from earth to a glorious cloud, stranding humanity in a waiting line below. Next, according to Christianity, the divine was reincarnated briefly on earth to redeem the human. Many await a second coming to lift up the faithful from the earth.

I cannot predict the future. But I believe the earth has suffered from the perception that the sacred is no longer resident in its depths. This book prays for a kind of reverse second coming, in which we experience a redemptive return of the sacred to inhabit the earth before it is further abused. We need a sacred presence that is more than an absentee landlord before the whole earth becomes a polluted slum. Only when we believe the sacred is present in the living earth will we revere our world again.

The ancient awe of our sacred environment amounts to a lost gospel of the earth, which existed among indigenous people long before the rise of monotheism. It continues to exist in the myths of my Irish ancestors and the teachings of Native Americans. It was common to the early religions that were based on the Goddess and continue in feminist spirituality today. It was expressed in the nature mysticism of Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, and Maimonides. An earth-based spirituality was also central to the birth of environmentalism in the time of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.

In seeking to preserve these ancient insights, I am not calling for withdrawal from the sensibility or achievements of the whole modern world. But in repressing the past as primitive, the modern world has ushered in a reckless emptiness. We have modernized everything in our path at great moral and ecological expense. The time has come to retrieve the gospel of the earth.

Our return to this simple spiritual insight is crucial to resolving our environmental crisis. Technical fixes are inadequate--the earth is not a machine whose parts simply need occasional replacement or tuning. When our sense of what is sacred excludes the natural world, we diminish our capacity to imagine remedies for what we have done to that world.

A State of Denial

While managing the environment as though it is only machinery needing repair, we sink into a deep denial of the magnitude of the crisis.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the debate over global climactic change. There is no question that carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere from burning coal and oil has increased significantly since the industrial revolution, most of the build-up coming since the 1950s. We are playing God; the life-sustaining atmosphere of the earth is being altered by human intervention. We have pumped 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the twelve miles of the earth's inner atmosphere, causing an increased risk of melting the polar ice caps, rising sea levels, agricultural disruption, and higher levels of skin cancer and other diseases. Since 1988 many respected scientists have issued warnings; in September 1995, twenty-five hundred experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that the cause of global warming was the burning of fossil fuels, and called for a 60 percent reduction in fossil fuel use to prevent a worsening of the trend.

Industry representatives and government officials continue to deny the conclusion of the world's scientists. Paid lobbyists for the oil industry recently spent $1 million in an effort to cast "scientific doubt" on the threat. The fossil fuel industries showed that not even a proven threat to the world's climate could alter their behavior. During the decade that scientists were issuing their warnings, electricity use in the United States went up 22 percent.

Global warming is not the only specter we deny. While our consumption in the West increases, world population has risen in my lifetime from 3 billion to 6 billion people: more than the total growth of human population since the dawn of human history. The earth adds 90 million people yearly, equal to eight new Calcuttas. One out of every five people on earth lives in absolute destitution, and their number will double in the coming generation.

If nothing is done, tropical rainforests will disappear in this same lifetime, and millions of species and subspecies with them. Overgrazing is causing the pasture lands of the earth to shrink; 30 million acres of arable land are eroded and ruined each year. The equivalent of five Mississippi Rivers is diverted from lakes, rivers, and aquifers for multiplying growth projects (water diversions for farms, suburbs, etc.) every year.

We deny the direct effects of these losses on ourselves, most poignantly in the linkages between pollution, high cancer rates, and the spread of infectious diseases. Perhaps the least cost-effective war we have ever fought is the twenty-five-year "war on cancer," which has cost tens of billions of dollars without defeating the "enemy." It is true that progress has been made in the treatment of childhood leukemia. Better medical treatment like advances in surgery and blood transfusion has improved mortality rates, too. But when medical journals like Lancet and the American Journal of Industrial Medicine report an increased incidence of most cancers over the past thirty years, and so little is being done, the first symptom of illness we have to treat is denial itself.

If anything should get the attention of patriarchal politicians and corporate executives, it would be the decline of their own sperm count. Two years ago, I attended a U.S. congressional hearing on evidence of male infertility caused by exposure to certain chemical compounds. The combined evidence of sixty-one studies from around the world showed almost a 50 percent drop in sperm counts. Many scientists believe that this fertility crisis is related to chemicals that are disrupting the reproductive system. The hearing began slowly in an atmosphere of skepticism and disinterest. But when one public health expert testified bluntly that "this means you are not half the man your grandfather was," there was a perceptible awakening on the congressional panel. Instead of taking the evidence seriously, however, they poked at whether it was completely certain. When the scientific witnesses candidly acknowledged their lack of absoluteness, the politicians relaxed into proposing "more studies," the same path of delay and denial promoted by chemical and tobacco companies for years.

What is the cause of so much procrastination, this indifference to evidence of preventable planetary and human crisis? Part of the answer is the power of vested interests to lobby for the status quo. There is also a blindness that comes from ideology; in the words of one group of pro-growth scientific researchers, "markets ceaselessly encourage the development of more efficient resource uses, making the limited supply of any physical commodity ultimately irrelevant." But there is also the human tendency to resist bad news and displace the blame toward a scapegoat. Even such admired thinkers as Susan Sontag (who has battled cancer) and Dr. Lewis Thomas (former president of Sloan Kettering Cancer Center) have denounced as "paranoid" the view that cancer has roots in the workplace or petrochemical causes. The belief runs strong that a scientific cure for cancer will be discovered. Dollars spent on research and treatment far exceed any budgets for prevention and public health. As cancer strikes more people, the constituency for treatment and cures grows in scale, reducing the priority on prevention still further. The war on cancer continues virtually without popular opposition, whereas any other $20 billion, thirty-year stalemate against a foreign enemy would be reassessed.

At the deepest level, this denial seems rooted in a faith that there must be a technological fix for everything. We think that if we have polluted our bodies and the earth through the rise of an industrial society dependent on petrochemicals, we can find a cure using the same tools. The leading treatment for cancer is chemotherapy (and/or radiation).

Instead of a strategy of public health and wellness aimed at preventing the environmental causes of cancer, employing chemotherapy as a last resort, the priorities are reversed; attacking cancer with cancer-causing agents is the top priority and prevention or a healthier relationship with nature is neglected. This arises from a belief that the technologies of modern medicine can shield us from a natural world where disease and death would prevail. Our empathy has been transferred from nature to anti-nature: technology.

The alternative to this ongoing denial is not the wholesale rejection of science and technology, nor the refusal of chemotherapy for those it may help, but a new set of priorities. Instead of treating the environment as storehouse and toxic dumping ground, we need to restore an empathy for the natural world and its processes. In the case of global warming, for example, we have ejected massive amounts of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without regard for the effects on the earth and, ultimately, ourselves. An empathy for the earth would prevent us from acting in this reckless manner and serve as a protective, early-warning system for our own health as well.

There are instances where this profound empathy is beginning to emerge. I found particularly moving the case of a scientist at the sight of a melting polar ice cap caused by warming seas, as described in a 1995 headline:


"The first thing I did was cry," said the Argentine scientist upon seeing the cracking, the first time the continental ice cap had been exposed for twenty thousand years. Reading this report, I saw a double image: tears of the human falling on tears of the ice. I felt the scientist having sentiment for the ancient ice shelf itself. There has been enough academic research and debate about global warming, I think, but not enough tears. When enough scientists weep, we may awaken to the evidence that our souls have been frozen.

Connecting to the Nature Within Us

The only way to avert the catastrophe of neglect is through an evolutionary leap in the way we see and feel our context. We need to experience nature and the universe within ourselves, not as external scenery we view outside the window of real life. In religious terms, we need to be "born again" in nature. We were baptized after our first birth into a special religious sphere that promised eternal life beyond natural boundaries. Now we need a rebirth, a connection to the nature we lost in that baptism.

It took many generations to develop a universal ethical standard for the treatment of all human beings as inherently deserving respect because all are made by the same Creator. We violate that standard routinely, but it is nonetheless an ethical organizing principle of great importance. The next step is to extend the experience of a common Creator to the natural world, and build a system of ethics, economics, and politics accordingly.

We need to see and feel ourselves in nature, not in a privileged and separate sanctuary called society. As the ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote in 1949, ethics are not simply theoretical: they involve the "loyalties, affections, and convictions" that are the very foundations of conduct. The creation of a new "land ethic" could not occur, he felt, unless the ecological issue took on a religious and philosophical character. That time has come.

The Purpose of This Book

This book begins with a personal description of what I call the Divide, the process by which we divide ourselves from the rest of nature. This Divide rationalizes our denial and is perpetuated by psychiatry, education, and the media. I then go on to address the Default, the role of organized religion in perpetuating this hierarchical schism between human beings and nature. I turn next to the lost gospel traditions in Christianity, Judaism, native spirituality, Buddhism, and American environmentalism. These are indigenous traditions whose voices have been oppressed, marginalized, and erased in the long process of conquest, industrialism, and modernization.

The question the book ultimately addresses is how to carry out a spiritually grounded transformation of our political culture and institutions today. Finally what I believe is needed is the kind of passionate engagement in the environmental cause that the clergy of America gave to civil rights in the 1960s, or that priests in Latin America invested in liberation theology on behalf of the poor.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing today instead is the Religious Right vigorously condemning environmentalists as pagans while defending the property rights of polluters as somehow protected by the mandates of Genesis. Meanwhile the mainstream religious institutions have been largely silent and little engaged in the environmental debate of the past twenty-five years. The religious community has not defined the actions of corporate and government polluters as a mortal sin against God's creation, nor have the clerics defended the earth as sacred in the way they have vigorously defended the poor and victims of discrimination as God's children. Religious institutions are the source of guidance and teaching on questions of morality and justice, and their relative silence on the fate of the earth robs the environmental movement of the moral legitimacy it needs to change our behavior. There is hope that the religious default is beginning to end, a change that this book is meant to encourage.

Out of Despair

I am neither a theologian nor a religious scholar. But as an environmentalist for twenty-five years, and as a senator who has chaired the Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee in the California Senate, I am convinced that we cannot resolve the environmental crisis without rediscovering its lost spiritual significance.

The idea of this book first arose in 1990 from a despair I felt on the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day. I concluded (and still believe) that the planet's condition was worsening at a more rapid speed than the rate of the progress we were achieving. Like Aldo Leopold warned in 1949, we were only willing to accept those environmental reforms that could fit comfortably with our existing cultural, political, and economic assumptions.

I began a quest to understand the religious and cultural origins of our environmental attitudes. Profound social change, like the American Revolution or the civil rights movement, always begins within consciousness, in what sociologist Robert Bellah has called the "habits of the heart." When enough people feel they are all creatures of the same maker, the spirit of compassion and equality proves more powerful than greed or domination. Only when enough people awaken to a deep spiritual connection with nature will environmentalism become a global ethic. With a new "habit of the heart," institutional change will follow. Without such a heartfelt shift, partisans of the environmental movement will continue to feel like Sisyphus.

While piecemeal reform is helpful in the short run, such pragmatic politics are not enough to hasten the change that is necessary. But spiritual withdrawal from the temporal world of politics and action is not the answer either. I decided to be as engaged spiritually as I was politically. I taught college classes on ecology and religion by night, while serving as the chairman of the California Senate's Natural Resources Committee by day. I have tried to align spirituality and ecology in a new approach to politics. In my first decade in Sacramento policy debates, for example, no clergy had ever testified in support of environmental bills, not even when endangered species were at stake. In 1995 we formed a network called Clergy for All Creation, whose members began testifying to the spiritual significance of preserving the web of life.

During the same five years, I began to notice a modest awakening to the silent pathos of the earth in many of our faith traditions, along with a new interest in bringing a spiritual perspective to politics. For example, America's major religious groups have created a formal National Partnership on Religion and the Environment. They are united around an interpretation of the Genesis mandate as "stewardship," a responsibility to "till and tend" the Garden, rather than an anti-environmental license to subdue and pollute. Meanwhile, as this manuscript neared completion, the foremost liberation theologian of Latin America, Father Leonardo Boff of Brazil, issued a ground-breaking work, Ecology and Liberation, which proposed a theology defending the natural world as sacred. He calls for recognition of a new cosmology, in which "the human race is part of nature and the biosphere, not the center of the universe." Boff defends mysticism as the "secret motor of all commitment, ... the interior fire arousing the individual in spite of the monotony of everyday tasks." These are very important departures from a tradition that has placed the human above nature, and which has expected believers to be inspired by the dogma of the hierarchy. Where Boff's liberation theology founds its "church" in the slums of the poor, its extension to nature will rediscover the cathedrals of the forests as well. The role of human beings, he writes, should be to serve as "guardian angels" of nature.

For the past several years, however, America has been in retreat even from its modest twenty-five-year commitment to better manage the environment. A backlash has been underway in the name of God; one that asserts the absolute rights of human beings to help themselves to nature's bounty. As the backlash proceeds, as more of our forests and wetlands disappear, as more of our rivers and estuaries are degraded, as more of our cities are congested and polluted, I envision an even stronger environmental outcry arising once again.

This next wave of environmentalism must include a passionate, spiritual alternative. Just as we humans are not expendable parts of a machine to be used and thrown away, neither are forests, soils, and rivers. In every political and economic act, we must treat the earth as an organic whole, recognizing and appreciating the interdependent diversity of people and nature.

We need a new gospel (or Torah) of the earth to make our religious traditions relevant to the environmental crisis, and to provide the philosophical and spiritual basis for the evolutionary leap we must make for our quality of life to survive.

© 1996 Tom Hayden

Sierra Club

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