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Why Spirituality and Environmentalism need each other

Dr. Roger Gottlieb discusses the role of spirituality in the environmental movement at the first anniversary Kenneth Mark Drain Lecture, Wednesday, Oct. 12

Roger S. Gottlieb is a professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Roger S. Gottlieb is a professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Imagine a day without texting. According to Dr. Roger Gottlieb, speaker at Wednesday evening’s first anniversary Kenneth Mark Drain Lecture, the concept of the Sabbath, of taking a day off – from work, from consumption, from gadgets – is just one of the gifts that spirituality has to offer the environmental movement. “Oh my god – no texting for a day? Yeah, try it. Think of the reduction in consumption if we all turned everything off for a day. It is possible,” he maintained, pointing to Israel as an example of a successful modern economy that still manages to shut down one day a week. But for Professor Gottlieb, the personal and spiritual benefits of a day of rest are as important as the environmental ones. “Think what it would be like – a day without all that pressure. That’s the kind of gift spirituality can offer.”

The environmental movement, argued Prof. Gottlieb, is fundamentally a very spiritual movement, but, he maintained, the movement would benefit from a more explicit awareness of this connection.  According to Prof. Gottlieb, what sets the environmental movement apart from all other political movements is that it doesn’t serve a particular interest group; rather, its aim is to protect all living things. “If you look at the global environmental movement,” observed Prof. Gottlieb, “one of the things that strikes you is the stated universality of its goal. The first move that contemporary environmentalism makes in the direction of spirituality is an explicit political goal of taking care of all living things. The individual participant in the movement identifies with the movement not as a man, a woman, an American, a Jew or whatever, but simply as a living being. This goal transcends, or temporarily suspends the conventional ego that sees itself as separate and different from everyone else.”

For Prof. Gottlieb, however, the environmental movement can sometimes be hampered by its approach. “What does the environmental movement tell us? You can boil it down to three words: No, don’t, stop. No you can’t do that, don’t do that, stop doing that. Now it certainly is good if someone is using a product that is poisonous to the environment, don’t. If we’re addicted to fossil fuels, using more and more and changing the climate, we shouldn’t. It’s not that these things aren’t important, but it’s not enough – it’s too negative.”

According to Prof. Gottlieb, spirituality can strengthen the environmental movement by providing a broader, more positive vision. “Spirituality has something positive to offer - a way to enjoy life, to get fulfillment, to have better relationships - that doesn’t involve excessive consumption, thoughtless acquisition of objects, and the endless compulsion to consume.” Moreover, spirituality addresses one of the core challenges of the environmental activist – despair. “One of the great obstacles to environmental activism is despair. It’s hard not to despair. Spirituality gives us a sense that we can face our despair and carry on.”

The flip side, argued Prof. Gottlieb, is that environmental activism is a necessary corollary of the spiritual life through the spiritual virtue of compassion. “We are connected to our neighbours, and our neighbours are the whole world. What determines the shape of the consequences of our individual actions is a set of economic and political relationships which need to be overturned. Therefore, I would argue, you cannot be spiritual without being political, otherwise your spirituality is just a form of the pleasant.”

Roger S. Gottlieb is a professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is the author or editor of 16 books and more than 100 articles on environmentalism, religious life, contemporary spirituality, political philosophy, ethics, the Holocaust, feminism, and disability.

The Chair in Ethics was established in 2010 by members of the Patterson and Drain families in honour of Kenneth Mark Drain, described as “a quintessential son of Peterborough.” Having lived and worked in Peterborough County all his life, Kenneth Drain was an exemplary volunteer and lived a life of quiet deeds.

Posted on Friday, October 14, 2011.

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