WORDS BY WILLOW DEFEBAUGH
PHOTOGRAPH BY Inka & Niclas Lindergård
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.” —Carl Sagan
Earlier this week, I had the good fortune of speaking with Dr. Suzanne Simard about her upcoming book Finding the Mother Tree. For those who are unfamiliar, her lifelong research proved that trees are social, intelligent creatures that communicate with one another, fundamentally shifting how we understand forests. Dr. Simard shared a great deal of wisdom in our conversation—which you’ll have to wait for the spring issue of Atmos to read—but one piece in particular stood out to me as both unexpected and unparalleled in its importance: “We all come from a place of spirit. We think of ourselves as these physical beings, but really it’s our spirits that are the most important.”
We spoke of the divorce that Western society created between science and spirituality, and how taboo it has traditionally been to speak of the two together. It’s a dichotomy I’m familiar with as well; journalism is meant to be an empiric field that is focused on facts, not faith. And yet, both science and journalism play a critical role in how we tackle the climate crisis, which will ultimately require a revolution of our core values and worldview. How is that not spiritual?
The ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis, because it concerns our understanding of where we fit into the wider realm of nature—which is why traditional ecological knowledge is so imperative at our present juncture. A common thread among many Indigenous belief systems is a non-dualistic view of science and spirituality based on the understanding that we are part of an interconnected whole. As ethnobotanist Jonathan Ferrier put it in a recent edition of The Frontline: “Indigenous people are very scientific—it’s just that our science includes the heart.”
This sense of interconnected oneness is coded across a number of world religions as well, from Buddha’s teachings of dependent co-arising to Jesus’s instruction to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden, a utopia that finds them in total harmony with nature. It is not until they eat from the tree of knowledge that they find themselves separated from the rest of creation. When read symbolically, this story starts to feel prophetic. Perhaps heaven is merely a metaphor for oneness. Perhaps hell is separation.
In a recent feature for Atmos, Whitney Bauck writes of how Pope Francis is working to shift how the Catholic church’s 1.3 billion members view the environment, having declared the degradation of the Earth to be an “ecological sin.” It’s a marked turn for the church, which she rightly notes as having “historically failed to stand against or even been complicit with destructive projects of extraction and colonization.” Now, as one priest tells Bauck, “We oppose environmental destruction because of our faith. It’s not an extra; it’s not an appendix. It’s at the heart of the matter as believers in the God who sustains life.”
There is a growing movement today that includes scientists, philosophers, and mystics—called spiritual ecology by some, deep ecology by others—that looks to the principles of nature and traditional ecological knowledge as a spiritual roadmap. As physicist Fritjof Capra puts it, “Deep ecology does not separate humans—or anything else—from the natural environment. It does see the world not as a collection of isolated objects but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all human beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life.”
Science and spirituality are both devotional practices, dedicated to learning from life itself. Either one without the other can lead to detachment, delusion, and destruction. In order to shift the paradigm of how we are interacting with the Earth and avert further ecological ruin, both will surely be necessary—for when woven together, the two create a more holistic understanding of this infinitely mysterious universe, the fabric that ties all of our fates together. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like something I’d like to place my faith in.