Sept., 2007 Vol. 32 No. 3
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Published September 2007

Spiritual Ecology

A new movement finds commonality in religious tenets and environmental causes

by Jennifer Crites
Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel and Les Sponsel at the Thai Pavilion on the Manoa campus

Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, standing, and Les Sponsel at the Thai Pavilion on the Mānoa campus

Let’s face it, Earth is in trouble. Wars, global warming, destruction of rainforests, pollution, degradation of environments and species extinction due to habitat loss are devastating our planet. Legislative efforts, Earth Day initiatives and eco-friendly organizations may reduce the negative impact, but it’s not enough, says Les Sponsel, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa professor of anthropology.

A movement called spiritual ecology, however, has the potential to help us clean up our act and restore our planet.

"Ecology is the relationship between organisms and their environment," explains Sponsel. "The spiritual part can refer to religion but it doesn’t have to. There are many people who don’t consider themselves religious, yet they consider life sacred. Spiritual ecology alludes to a deeply felt personal transformation in the way we relate to our environment."

Jamie Nakama, a former student of Sponsel’s and an environmental educator at the Hawaiʻi Nature Center, can relate. "The underlying basis for everything we do at the nature center is a type of spiritual ecology on a practical level," she says. "We’re allowing children to form a deep and personal connection with the environment by giving them hands-on experiences in nature."

Working with both parents and children through the Hawaiʻi judiciary system, Nakama teaches the concepts of interconnectedness and interdependence, not only between humans and the environment, she explains, but between people.

"We help them connect with each other through nature."

Early Hawaiians understood those concepts and took care of the environment because their spiritual beliefs connected them to nature, notes Sponsel. He believes Hawaiian nature spirituality was the driving force behind a successful campaign to reclaim and restore the island of Kahoʻolawe following decades of military bombing.

Buddha in Thailand

The Sponsels study Thailand caves shared by native bats and meditating monks

A profound experience

"When humans are out in nature, many have profound experiences," he adds, citing naturalist John Muir who saw the wilderness mountains as his church, where he went to worship. "Many biologists come out of the closet when pressed and admit that when they’re in a forest or other natural place they feel an emotional bonding to the wonder, richness and intricacies of life."

That often translates into a personal effort to do something good for the planet. Sponsel says the Pacific Primate Sanctuary on Maui restores monkeys traumatized by captivity to physical and mental health because founder Lucy Wormser experienced a spiritual transformation.

Individuals can only do so much alone or in small groups. Religious institutions, on the other hand, are powerful entities that can reach out to many people.

At the forefront is the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, which is affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund. It includes Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam among its 11 participating faiths and urges each religion to help resolve the environmental crisis for its followers. Sponsel says the alliance has initiated more than a hundred projects since its inception in 1986, from restoring traditional, endemic plants in English churchyards, to preserving sacred landscapes and pilgrimage routes in Mexico, China and India.

At Misali Island—a sea-turtle nesting site and important coral reef system in the Zanzibar archipelago of Tanzania—local imams (Muslim leaders) used principles from the Qu’ran and Islamic law to stop 1,600 Muslim fishermen from using reef-destroying dynamite as a fishing technique.

"The dynamiting had been going on for a decade or more," says Sponsel. "The government of Tanzania, even with its gunboat patrols, hadn’t been able to stop it." The Islamic conservation initiative not only worked in Tanzania, it spread to other Muslim fishing communities around the world.

A common denominator

Preserving the environment is a common denominator for religions, according to Sponsel. "Conversation would be more difficult if the subject was abortion, capital punishment, the war in Iraq, stem-cell research or euthanasia.

But because we’re all in the same environmental boat, they can have that dialog, and they’re not trying to blame or convince each other. The primary emphasis is on trying to move people of their own faiths to be more environmentally friendly."

Universities, too, have embraced spiritual ecology. Like UH Mānoa, the University of Florida, University of Chicago, Yale, Vanderbilt and the Boston Theological Institute have created religion-and-nature academic concentrations. Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions hosted a series of conferences, 1996–1998, each focusing on a different world religion and ecology.

Similar conferences followed at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Museum of Natural History and the United Nations. These gave birth to the Forum on Religion and Ecology, which produced an informative, eight-language website and led to the Canadian Forum on Religion and Ecology and the European Forum for the Study of Religion and the Environment.

"This movement has exploded. There’s so much cooperation and collaboration going on," enthuses Sponsel, who recently wrote an article entitled "Religion, Nature and Environment" for the online Encyclopedia of Earth.

"With my other courses, I have to make an effort to find positive, encouraging examples for students, but with spiritual ecology, it’s all positive, hopeful and uplifting."

In addition to credit ecological anthropology classes, Sponsel teaches spiritual ecology to packed classrooms at Mānoa’s non-credit Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. "I’m not evangelizing or championing religion versus science," he insists.

"For anthropologists, religion is considered a component of culture, like the economy and politics. I’m simply exposing students to ideas and doing research from an academic, scientific point of view."

Sacred ground

Sponsel’s own spiritual ecology research, focused on Thailand, is conducted with his wife and research partner Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, a UH alumna and Chaminade University professor of religion, philosophy and ethics.

The pair began with a study of sacred trees. "The Buddha was born beneath a sal tree; he meditated under the bodhi tree and became enlightened, so these are sacred trees because they remind people of the life of the Buddha," explains Natadecha-Sponsel. "Sometimes a colored cloth or saffron robe is wrapped around a tree to show that it is sacred and people shouldn’t touch it or disturb its spirit. This is one way Buddhism can help protect the natural environment."

Their new project involves Thailand’s sacred Buddhist caves and the bats that live there. Forty percent of Thailand’s mammalian species are fruit- or insect-eating bats, says Sponsel. The bat is a keystone species for pollination, seed dispersal and insect control. A significant reduction in the bat population would lead to serious ecological decline.

Some bat species roost in caves, many of which are used by Buddhist monks for meditation, says Natadecha-Sponsel. When a monk becomes famous as a healer, the caves he used are considered sacred. Resident bats fall under the cave’s protection.

Buddhist ethics are being challenged today. Some farmers make "curry stew" out of bats that raid their fruit orchards, says Sponsel. Others kill bats to drink their blood (mixed with alcohol) because they associate the mysterious mammal with health and longevity. In an effort to stop bat poaching at one sacred cave, temple monks pursued a secular course—they took the matter to court—and won.

A changing culture

"Shopping malls are the new temples for many Thais," laments Sponsel. "Before westernization and so-called modernization, many places in Thailand were sacred and this helped conserve nature. Prior to World War II, three-quarters of Thailand was covered with forests. Now it’s 15–20 percent at best. Thailand is a mess. They’ve had massive deforestation and floods, which we and others attribute to a weakening of adherence to Thai culture and religion."

"There is a relationship between culture, spirituality and the environment," says UH graduate student Sapril Akhmady. Akhmady spent several months filming the Ammatoa people in Indonesia for his master’s thesis.

"Their ʻold’ religion (based on their sacred forests) and traditions taught them to preserve the environment," he says. "It’s the pivotal force holding them together."

Akhmady’s poignant film, People Inside the Frontier, explains how the Ammatoa’s forests and their spiritual way of life are being threatened. The video has been submitted to Mānoa’s Sinclair Library; a six-minute clip is available at

The growth of eco-awareness in Western cultures is encouraging, too. With more nature enthusiasts demanding "green products, large companies are forced to reduce their earth-damaging ways to attract customers, says Natadecha-Sponsel.

The role of religion

Religion has its critics. Sponsel points to a still-controversial essay published in Science in 1967 in which the writer, a theologian and historian, blamed an interpretation of the Bible that exhorts humans to "multiply and dominate the Earth" as the primary cause of the environmental crisis.

Religions haven’t always practiced what they preached, and followers don’t always act on what they profess to believe, Sponsel admits. The discrepancy between ideal and actual behavior is the Achilles heel in spiritual ecology, he says.

But times are changing. In an uncommon move, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim leaders met in June 2007 in Indonesia for a common purpose: to publicly denounce acts of violence committed in the name of religion, to discuss the problem openly and honestly and to call on their counterparts around the world to join them.

"Religion itself is not negative," says Sponsel. "It’s the way people use and abuse it. Religious leaders, like those in Tanzania, can play an important role in pointing out the consequences of behavior."

"The ʻeco’ in ecology comes from the Greek root oikos, meaning house," says Natadecha-Sponsel. "The earth is your house. You want it to last, so you keep it clean and protect it. At the same time, you depend on it. The environment will support you, too, if you take care of it."

Spiritual ecology goes even further, she adds. "Spiritual beliefs make us more aware of who we are. We hope that will be represented in how each one of us treats the environment."

Jennifer Crites (AA ’90 Windward, BA ’92 West Oʻahu) is a Honolulu freelance writer/photographer


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