Manifesto for a Simple Life


Support us by either buying our print and digital works (everything’s 20% off for the month of May with code RIOT) or by donating here, or both!


“I want to live a savage life,
Of bared teeth and beauty and love.”

From Twm Gwynne

I want a life of simple wants;
Simplicity isn’t much to ask.
I’m not big on lofty goals
(other than changing the world).

I want room to stretch –
To stretch out my
Cloistered
Hunched
Aching shoulders.
I want room to stretch my arms and shoulders
Wide enough to hold the sun.

I want lungs full of air that tastes like air,
Like trees and streams and stones,
Like fighting and sweating and fucking,
Like seeing and hearing and touching.
Like life and death.

I want hands rougher than they are;
Black with dirt, thick with vital heat.
Skilled hands, wise hands,
Marked with signs and scars
Of a life fully lived.

I want knees that stoop to touch the soil
To plant a seed,
And never know the bend of deference.
I want feet that track out lost paths through venerated groves,
Through eternal grandeur,
And never demand a neck upon which to rest.

I want to walk through giants;
Ancient,
Full of secrets.
To touch their bark and know their life,
Their runes, their place.
To whisper among mountains
And chant with gods by firelight.

I want a hall, a house, a hearth,
Gathered friends that grin and laugh;
Those close to my heart,
With them I’ll share some dear-bought mead,
And gentler drinks.
My folk is all folk,
And I’ll skin the one who says a skin can tell you anything;
I’ll stretch his hide over my shield,
In our hall,
Where the only meat is pig
(the kind that drives in squad cars),
Where rapists are eunuchs before they’re dead.

I want to be a walking fire
That burns and so is burned.
Full of courage and of action,
Whose words are proved by deeds.

I want to live a savage life,
Of bared teeth and beauty and love.
I want to live a filling life,
Of building and growing and laughing.
I want to live this life,
With all the pain thus far,
I’ll defend it, and live it,
Until, at the last,
I find a place where I can pass
With no regrets.


Twm Gwynne

Eater of wild things, denier of stricture, communiser, poet, gardener, casual rambler – in essence, an anarchist in pursuit of the freest life he can grip. More of his writing can be found at his blog, Among Thorns, and at the radical poetry project he contributes to, Night Forest Cell of Radical Poets.


Support our work here.

Hedgework: On the Dialectic of Man and Nature

In the Vale of the White Horse, within sight of Uffington Castle, there is a large rectangular field, where until recently members of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids gathered to celebrate Lughnasadh. Every year in late August, under the light of the waxing moon, 200 people, of all ages, would materialise out of the summer heat and the ripening corn. After setting up a wide circle of bender tents and yurts around a central fire, they’d make sure to beat the bounds; processing clockwise around the field, playing instruments and clapping loudly, greeting the directions and the spirits of place. The same thing happened every morning throughout the festival.

This practice highlights an important truth; although any visitor to the camp would easily recognise the importance of the central hearth, those hedges around of the field were every bit as sacred. As if to highlight this fact, at the southern edge of the field, within the hedge itself, stood a hidden grove, with a holy oak at its heart – this venerable being oversaw all the naming ceremonies, initiations, and other secret rites in the community. When I first ventured into that grove, some seven years ago, I felt like I was on a threshold; beyond which, through which, the whole world began.

Hedgerows are perhaps one of the most quintessential features of these islands*. They wend their way between gardens, grass and crops, catching the bounty of the Earth like a net catches the wealth of the sea. Some of my most powerful spiritual experiences, like that mentioned above, have taken place along and within hedges. They are – to borrow a term from Celtic Christianity – “thin places”, locations where the veil between this world and the other is light, and the divine is close at hand.

The state of “in-betweenness”, or liminality as anthropologists call it, carries a great deal of significance in cultures all around the world; boundaries, be they intellectual or physical (and they’re often both), fascinate us and ensnare our imaginations; so we sanctify them, or joke about them, or wrap them up in taboos. Hedges – neither in one field, nor the next – are no exception.

It’s unsurprising then, that we find the hedge playing a major part in the sacred geography of Anglo-Celtic Pagan traditions. The hedge, we are told, is the domain of the hedgewitch – a folk healer-cum-shaman; a cunning man or wise woman, who works in service of their community from its edges. For these workers of craft, the hedge is a medicine cabinet, an altar, and an axis mundi. It gives us herbs for healing, a place to meet the gods, and a means of journeying into the Otherworld. It is from this latter use that we get the name “Hedge-rider”.

In ancient times, we are told, every village would have been surrounded by a hedge that protected it from the wilds beyond – the village witch would have negotiated this barrier; mediating between the spirits of the forest and the human folk of the village.

The trifecta of wilderness, hedge and village never sat quite right with me. For one thing, you simply didn’t see this feature anywhere in the British landscape in which I grew up. No village I know is surrounded on every side by hedges, nor are woodlands pushed to the rim of each parish like the scum on a bath. Lots of villages – including the one in which I grew up – have a dispersed, not nucleated, pattern. The houses are spread out, not clustered together.

For most of its history, my village was a string of homesteads, scattered around a large area of common land – land that was only built on in the 20th century. Commons – often in the form of pasture, woods, reed beds, and heathland areas, frequently imagined as “wild” places – are usually carefully managed in Britain and Ireland, and were created in spots that, either due to steep topography or infertile soils, were not suited to agriculture. Instead of a landscape in which humans live apart from nature in little enclosures, what you see in reality is something quite different – a patchwork of different types of land use, according to a mixture of geography and human choice. Hedges, in this landscape, are the needlework; the green thread binding everything together. The hedge, in other words, is not the interchange between the village and the wild; but rather the connective tissue between places of all kinds.

We find this pattern reaching far back into the history of the landscape here. While the Celts or Anglo-Saxons would have surrounded their villages with fences made from wooden palisades if they chose, they would head out into the woods to clear patches for agriculture, wherever the soil, aspect, and water supply was preferable. Richard Mabey, one of Britain’s most renowned naturalists, tells us that rather than surround villages, the first hedges delimited these clearings. The edges of these clearings, enclosed by bushes and trees, were called haga – the root word for “hedge” today.

It is not hard to imagine how, perhaps while working on until dusk, these first farmers would have spotted haegtessa at the edge of the forest – ephemeral figures of women, skulking between the trees. Sometimes, it might have turned out that what they’d seen was one of their own wives or grandmothers, gathering herbs or praying to the gods. At others, no human visitor to the haga could be identified – and the apparitions would have been attributed to ghosts, fairies, or other beings.

The association between mortal wise women, the haga, and ephemeral spirits stuck. As these early farmers hollowed out more of the wildwood, they left threads of trees and bushes standing, to mark out one field from another. Over time, they trained these plants into a barrier against livestock – the first true hedges of the kind we know today. The shadowy haetessa would live on, as the word “hag”. In a very real sense, then, the hedge represents the essence of the wildwood, living on in the cracks of the British landscape.

But the ancient origins of the hedge are not the whole story; the recent past of these green walls is an altogether more chequered affair. Throughout the Medieval period, the ancient hedges retreated – being cut away to make more space for farming. Across much of England in particular, it ceased to be as important to set apart different fields. In many parishes, agrarable fields and pasture was held in common, as part of the open field system – managed centrally by the entire community through manorial courts. Under such economic conditions, hedges served little purpose.

But this situation did not last. Enclosure – the process by which common land was sold off to private individuals – was carried out steadily throughout the late medieval and early modern periods, before dramatically accelerating, with the assistance of several acts of Parliament, over the course of the 18th century. As environmental historians such as Nick Blomley and John Wright have documented, one of the first acts taken by new owners was often to plant hedges; hedges being a means of excluding commoners from the land that had been taken from them. Prior to enclosure, the rural poor relied on common land – especially pasture – to supplement their diet and obtain fuel. Once deprived of these resources, they had little alternative but to move to the industrialising cities or emigrate.

The rage felt by former commoners was considerable, and riots resisting enclosure were common – with hedges often being crossed through acts of mass trespass and grubbed up as criminal damage in the process. The old saying – Horne and Thorne Shall Make England Forlorne – encapsulates the feeling of the time; with both profit-oriented sheep farming (horne) and enclosure through hedge-laying (thorne) being identified as key instruments through which the poor were immiserated. Under such circumstances, we encounter another incarnation of the “hedge-rider” – the impoverished commoner who leaps across a newly planted line of thorns, to reclaim his birthright.

The hedge, then, emerges from the history of the British landscape in particular as a deeply ambiguous, yet highly potent force from my point of view. The hedge’s origins as the mysterious barrier between cultivated and uncultivated space, as the ubiquitous remnants of primordial woodland, retains much of the power of the original image of the hedge as the border between village and wild, while correcting that image’s flaws. If we imagine the hedge as a barrier between the human and the non-human, this can reinforce the problematic divide between nature and culture; a divide that so bedevils our attempts to live and think sustainably. The hedge’s more recent history as an instrument of enclosure; that kept people off the land, and eventually forced them off it for good; shows precisely the damage this sort of rhetoric can do. We cannot allow hedges to shut us out of nature.

If, on the other hand, we think of hedges as stitching that connects up landscapes of which humans are already a fundamental, and numinous part, then they become a constant reminder of the presence of the other natures in all our lives. Hedge-riding becomes as much a matter of crossing boundaries in defence of the commons, as it is a case of journeying along green roads into the Woods From Which We Come.


Notes

*The islands of Britain and Ireland. The term “British Isles” can imply continued overlordship of the Republic of Ireland by the British crown, and so it is not used here.

Image by Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


 You can still purchase our entire digital catalogue for $20 US until 1 June.


 

 

A Prayer to Athena for Canadian Democracy

So-called “Mattei Athena”. Marble, Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor. Related to the bronze Piraeus Athena. Public domain image by Jastrow, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
So-called “Mattei Athena”. Marble, Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor. Related to the bronze Piraeus Athena. Public domain image by Jastrow, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

O Grey-Eyed One,

She of the Steel Gaze;

In nine days my country goes to cast ballots

In the ancient ritual You taught to Your city.

Our system is broken.

Hateful betrayers of Your sacred trust hold power,

As they have for many years now.

We elected them because we trusted them,

But they have betrayed our trust.

They have prorogued our Parliament,

Ignored Parliamentary rulings,

Accepted bribes,

Corrupted our electoral system,

Gerrymandered democratic ridings,

Taken the rights of our expatriates,

Denied voting access to the disabled, the young, and the poor,

And told people to vote in the wrong place

So as to spoil ballots.

They have lied continually to us,

Stolen our money and our future,

Denied basic rights to our citizens,

Reduced the rights of women

And of people of non-conforming gender,

Oppressed our poor and disenfranchised,

Oppressed our First Peoples,

Abandoned our ancestors and our veterans,

Broken the unity of our labourers,

Spit upon the sanctity and sovereignty of the earth,

And deprived us of the right to speak against them;

All to better serve their Corporate Masters.

Lady of Wisdom, You see more clearly than I do,

But I see all that You stand for being suborned.

I implore You; give us back our nation!

Strike these betrayers down!

Cast them from the lofty seat they have stolen!

Make our voices count!

Give us back the gift that You gave us

That we may once again govern ourselves,

Instead of being ruled over by Corporatist lackeys.

May Your steel gaze fall upon these corruptors with wrath!

May You look upon us with favour!

Help us to take back what was stolen

Without the shedding of innocent blood.

Send Your Owl to give Sight and Wisdom

To our people, who have been denied it.

Call upon any friends You have

Among the Sacred Spirits of our First Peoples

To ask them to take part in the ritual,

If only this once.

Draw Your Aegis over us!

Give us back our Canada!

I shall cast my ballot in honour of You.

I shall ask all who know me to do the same.

Praise be to the Lady of Wisdom!

Praise be to the Grey-Eyed One!

My First Blood Rite.

Artifacts to make sacred.
Artifacts to make sacred.

Locking the doors felt both foolish and oddly securing. I was shaking with the anticipation of what I was to step through. The rite I had conjured for myself felt so very dangerous, as if   I was about to step into, through and beyond something that would change me forever. A threshold I could never come back from. This was the point; Really truly deeply changing something took this kind of sacrifice of fear, of terror, as the edges of it were felt through.

Who would stop me? Who could stop me? Who would know? There have been many moments of my life spent this secretively. Times where I would explore something never seen in a book. But ached for by my skin or by my heart, in such a way as to build the entire path to it. Every little detail of the encounter with self, alone and in so many ways All one, every part created with such joy and true abandon.

This here was the passageway to reclaim my blood. I had been using a menstrual cup for a year by then. I dearly loved it and the truth it afforded me, by virtue of its design that I may have such direct contact with my blood. So many questions arose from its use, so many wonderings that my bloodmind would wonder. But it would be years before I would even conjure that notion of my being… the recognition of bloodmind… by this stage I was barely able to see, to smell, to witness the bloods effect on my being… by being safe with it. This was another step along the pathway to understanding why we are so very forbidden from this blessed gift from within.

I had fashioned a simple spell working, from my basic and newbie relations to witchcraft. My sacred tools assembled, I cast circle. I created a sacred space, naked now, dripping in sweat, I sang a simple Goddess chant, The River… returning back unto She Then, taking my menstrual cup from my body, trusting it would be rather full, which it was, I opened to the blessed wonder that was this sacredness and added this cup of my blood to my bowl of ochre.

I felt like an original witch. Working with the most primitive of elements, blood and earth. I made my sacred paste. Stirring and blending till the consistency was just right for painting. Singing quietly to myself as I built such an offering, to me, to Her, to the life force that engaged me to continue, to move through any resistance, anything that would tell me this was too wrong, too far away from what is considered “normal”.

Once this sacred tool was ready, I turned and faced each element to ask for the blessings of each quarter. I conjured a power-filled brew, and turned to the mirror to apply it to my being, to reach ALL the way in. I was after what ever had made this feel wrong. I was chasing the tail of the beast that had stolen my first blood and made me fetid, filthy and dirty for being a woman that bleeds. I was chasing the demon that had laid this curse, so that I may shift it within myself. As I faced that mirror, I painted a crescent moon upon my third eye with my sacred blood earth, and knew myself a blood witch. I painted a spiral upon my heart to journey further and further within to the heart of woman.

I felt then, what I do now. A peace, a profound peace where there now lives an incredible life, sharing such life giving possibility of the sacred blood.

Original art Kathleen Aguis
Three Fold Goddess… Original art Kathleen Aguis

That first blood rite led me to the sharing of blood wisdom with many women. A life led deeper and deeper into the flow of what lay within a curse, what lay within the meaning and value we place on being a woman. I have sought the source of the curse in myself, in other women, in the texts that support it to remain. Those still invested in a woman’s perceived weakness rather than making room for the rest of her to be welcome at the table.

What I was after, what I am still opening to, is the state where in my body, the menstrual cycle has the rest of its worth enacted upon. Where I reach into the emotional realms, the heart tools of being whole as woman. Being real in this bloody glory.

I still remember the mortification of realizing a small drop of blood had landed on our rental carpet and the panic of having to explain how it got there to my housemate. I did all that I could to clean it, but in the end I confessed what it was, and how it got there. In testament to our friendship she heard me, and helped me remove my exposure. This beautiful sister became the first woman that I shared what I had learnt from within the blood circle, the first of many. She was to remain a deep sister that held me sane during a time when I could have easily slipped off an edge and been lost. For it feels like there is a madness, an  agreement that we break outside of our current thought … a treason we commit by turning to the blood, away from everything else, when we bleed.

I know I am not the first woman to have my attention taken by the flow of wisdom down my thighs.

I know that I will not be the last woman to re-frame my blood, my bleeding as sacred.

I hope that this story touches any woman that has felt this place and had no language for it. For where do we find such a language in the world of men that have never felt the entire dissolve that is menstruation.

Blessings of the Blood, for there are so many!

Katherine Cunningham.

Tools of my trade
Tools of my trade

 

 

What Is Magic For?

Last fall I had the privilege of returning to the Berkshires for a weekend of community, celebration, ritual, and discovery. An annual event for over 20 years, it was a weekend of working together to support our individual journeys in preparation for the coming months of darkness, a prime time for deep inner spiritual work. I’ve participated in this gathering on four occasions, and each has been a rich experience: some more enjoyable than others, some more effective than others. I’ve had my buttons pushed in good ways and bad. I’ve had realizations about myself and what it means to connect to community. I’ve felt frustrated and deeply grateful, ecstatically connected to all beings of the Earth, and at times, profoundly alone. I’ve complained about and filled with pride at belonging to such a community of diverse people and practices. Every year I leave with a bit of this and a touch of that tucked inside, waiting to be unpacked upon my return home.

Each year the weekend culminates in a ritual designed to reach into the hearts of the participants and pull out some insight to help determine the needed spiritual work for the coming dark season. Previous years’ themes include the abundance found in knowing that you are enough, dissolving the ego and reintegrating into the  web of life, and the trap created by the belief that you know what the pattern is. This year’s ritual was different: instead of focusing on the individual self, it centered on the needs of our dying Earth and encouraged a personal, magical, spiritual response.

Edward Burne-Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edward Burne-Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The ritual was long. It was physically demanding, it was at times very cold and uncomfortable and it was difficult. It had been orchestrated with the intent to reach deep, to the part inside each person that is vitally concerned with the future of our species, of all species, of our home on this planet. As a Pagan, a Goddess worshipper, a nature worshipper living day-to-day, it is very difficult to forget the evidence of that harm, even as my own life is livable, and enjoyably so. In ritual space, wide open to the spirits and the energies of the Divine in all things, it was impossible to ignore the reality of our planet, of those who call Her their home, of the suffering caused by the still-somehow-functioning machine that drives our global culture of consumption.

I was not alone in this ritual. Besides the dozens of unseen hands responsible for building and holding the container, many more walked before me, behind me, and a few beside me. I do not know what occurred in those hearts when faced with the strenuous and often-provocative points along the path. I only know what outward behavior I witnessed from many: bantering, silly comments and inane chatter during the moments when we were invited to sit and connect with the trees on the sacred mountain under the cold stars and half moon; the deterioration of sacred space into a mundane autumn bonfire despite the sincere efforts of the magic workers to maintain the ritual atmosphere; people snarking and laughing in the face of the deep work we were given the opportunity to do. I kept searching for a quiet place or for others who felt the weight of the work, who understood the solemn intent of the ritual and who were seeking to connect with the energy of the Earth. I’m sure there were others like me, but they must have been lost, too.

Some of those beside me were likely new to ritual, and on some level they cannot be held to the standard of understanding and behavior a seasoned practitioner would be; perhaps they were afraid or ill-prepared to handle such heavy, deep work. Some were experienced practitioners who are simply ego-driven and likely disappointed that the ritual was not the self-focused working typically offered at this annual gathering. And some were people who I’d thought would know better than to turn away from the answerless questions that the ritual, the magic, the Mother Earth asked us to consider on that lovely starlit night.

And so, fellow Witches, Pagans, energy workers, magic makers, I ask you: what is magic for? Is it simply a means to attain what personal desires drive us? A currency to exchange for goods? Must we receive personal benefit from our magical efforts? At what point do we look at ourselves and our practices, and acknowledge that our personal spiritual work will not heal the damaged ecosystem? When do we get smart enough, or scared enough, to use our will and our energy to work to stem the tide of destruction that is taking place right now, under our noses, in our names? If not in the context of an amazingly well-constructed ritual container, the product of dozens of hands and minds and hearts, where will we find the ability to connect to the very real needs of our Mother Earth?

I came down from the mountain grateful for the comfort of my soft bed, for my family pressing close to welcome me home, for the connection I feel to my bit of urban landscape. And, I came back afraid for the future of our planet and for our species, for if the magic worker cannot be trusted to act in the face of the evidence before us, if we cannot be called, then who can? Who will?

This is thankless work, and not everyone is prepared for it; not everyone is mature enough for it; not everyone wants to do it. And yet, it must be done. If not by us, then by who? What will it take to encourage action, if not the love of the beauty of the green Earth, the white Moon among the stars, the mysteries of the waters? We are being called to arise and to go unto Her, to be strong, agile, wise, courageous, and compassionate in whatever capacity we are able. We are being called to act in community, on behalf of the community of innocents who have no voice.

I came down from the mountain with a question pressing on my heart: What is magic for? The only answer I can find is to commit to this work: to connecting to the Earth beneath me, to listening to what She asks of me, and to taking action in Her name. By the Earth that is Her body, I sincerely hope that the seed planted in ritual months ago takes root in those who walked with me in sacred space and that we all can grow in community, for the good of all.

A Radical Pagan Pope?

Last week, Pope Francis’ much-anticipated environmental encyclical was published. As was expected, the Pope acknowledged the “human origins of the ecological crisis” (¶ 101), specifically that global warming is mostly due to the concentration of greenhouse gases which are released “mainly” as a result of human activity (¶ 23). And he called for the progressive replacement “without delay” of technologies that use fossil fuels. (¶ 165)

The Pope and small-p “paganism”

Image courtesy of the Scottish Skeptic
Image courtesy of the Scottish Skeptic

Even before Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical was published, critics were calling the Pope a “pagan”. This isn’t all that surprising given how the religious right has always accused environmentalists of “paganism”. And indeed there are some similarities between the Pope’s statement and contemporary Pagan discourse. For example, in the encyclical, the Pope personifies the earth, calling the the earth “Sister” (¶¶ 1, 2, 53) and “Mother” (¶¶ 1, 92). However, this language is drawn from a Christian, not a pagan, source: St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creatures”. And Pope Francis makes a point of saying that he is not “divinizing” the earth. (¶ 90) Instead, his intent is to emphasize the “fraternal” nature of our relationship with the earth and its inhabitants, both human and other-than, which he says have their own intrinsic value independent of their usefulness to us. (¶ 140)

Some of the language from the Pope’s statement resembled language in “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” For example, no less than 8 times throughout the encyclical, the Pope observes that “everything is interconnected” (¶¶ 16, 42, 70, 91, 111, 117, 138), a fact which, he says, “cannot be emphasized enough” (¶ 138). Similarly, the Pagan statement begins by recognizing our interconnectedness with the web of life:

“In recent decades, many contemporary Pagan religious traditions have stressed humanity’s interconnectivity with the rest of the natural world. Many of our ancestors realized what has now been supported by the scientific method and our expanding knowledge of the universe — that Earth’s biosphere may be understood as a single ecosystem and that all life on Earth is interconnected.” — “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”

The Pope also observes that we are inherently part of the earth: “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” (¶ 139) The Pope introduces the encyclical with the observation that “our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” (¶ 2) This also resembles very closely language in the Pagan statement:

“We are earth, with carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus making up our bodies one day, and incorporated into mountains the next. We are air, giving food to the trees and grasses when we exhale, and breathing in their gift of free oxygen with each breath. We are fire, burning the energy of the Sun, captured and given to us by plants. We are water, with the oceans flowing in our veins and the same water that nourished the dinosaurs within our cells.” — “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.”

However, this does not make the Pope “pagan” (much less a “Pagan”). As Pagan Studies scholar Michael York explains, “even though such world religions as Christianity and Islam might cherish nature as a divine gift, they do not comprise nature religions. Instead, I argue that any religious perspective that honors the natural as the sacred itself made tangible, as immanent holiness, is pagan.” Rather, the Pope’s statements merely show how ubiquitous the idea of our interconnectedness with the earth has become. More than anything else, they are a reflection of the Pope’s acceptance of what has become scientific consensus.

Getting to the “root” of the matter: Anthropocentrism

A more interesting question than whether the Pope’s encyclical is “pagan” is the question whether the encyclical is as “radical” as some are claiming. No doubt, it is a radical challenge to capitalism (which will undoubtedly be a subject for future posts at G&R), but just how “radical” is the encyclical’s ecology? The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix or “roots”, so another way to ask that question is: Just how “deep” is the Pope’s ecology?

A truly deep ecology is one that challenges the anthropocentric paradigm which places humans hierarchically “above” other living species and above inanimate matter, which is seen to exist in some sense “for” humans. The Pope states that the encyclical is an “attempt to get to the roots of the present situation, so as to consider not only its symptoms but also its deepest causes.” (¶ 15) But while the Pope comes to many right conclusions about anthropogenic climate change and the limits of capitalism, the encyclical is nevertheless plagued by a lingering anthropocentrism which he never manages to root out.

At first glance, it appears that the Pope is critical of anthropocentrism, but a closer look reveals that he always qualifies the word “anthropocentrism” when he uses it. For instance, he criticizes “distorted” or “excessive” or “tyrannical” anthropocentrism (¶¶ 68, 69, 116), but never just plain anthropocentrism. This implies that there is such a thing as an “undistorted” anthropocentrism or a “right amount” of anthropocentrism. And this becomes clear when the Pope insists on humanity’s “pre-eminence” (¶ 90) and “superiority” (¶ 220), and when he eschews “biocentrism” (¶ 118) and declines to “put all living beings on the same level” (¶ 90).

The Pope’s justification for a qualified anthropocentrism is flawed. He argues that, in the absence of a belief in our superiority, human beings will not feel responsible for the planet. (¶ 118) It is true that human beings are “unique” in many ways among the world’s fauna, but only in so far that other forms or life are also unique in their own ways. And while it is reasonable to argue that humans have special responsibilities to the earth, due to our highly developed cerebrum and opposable thumbs (especially considering the messes we have made with our highly developed cerebrum and opposable thumbs), the notion that a feeling of superiority is a necessary condition for a feeling of responsibility is specious. In fact, a belief in humanity’s “superiority” can actually weaken people’s sense of ecological responsibility, just as a heightened sense of responsibility can grow out of the loss of that belief.

Papal paternalism: the Great Chain of Being

A related problem with the encyclical is the Pope’s repeated characterization of the earth or nature as “fragile.” (¶ 16, 56, 78, 90) If by “fragility” he is referring to the fact that all of our actions affect the environment or that the ecosystem is sensitive to change, then that is true. But the earth itself is not fragile. It is we — and other species — that occupy a fragile place in the ecosystem. The ecosystem itself is resilient. As “Mother Nature” says in a video from Conservation International:

“I’ve been here for over four and a half billion years
Twenty-two thousand five hundred times longer than you
I don’t really need people but people need me

… I’ve been here for aeons
I have fed species greater than you, and
I have starved species greater than you
My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests,
they all can take you or leave you
How you chose to live each day whether you regard or
disregard me doesn’t really matter to me
One way or the other your actions will determine your fate not mine
I am nature
I will go on
I am prepared to evolve

Are you?”

While he speaks of an environmental “crisis” and “irreversible damage” to the ecosystem, there is no sense in the Pope’s encyclical that human beings are facing an existential threat (in contrast to the his earlier statement in May that “If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”).

The Great (Hierarchical) Chain of Being
The Great (Hierarchical) Chain of Being

This insistence on the “fragility” of nature and humankind’s “superiority” is a symptom of an implicit paternalism running throughout the encyclical. This paternalism is premised on a vision of nature as the Aristotelian “Great Chain of Being”, with God at the top, angels and humans in the middle, and (other) animals, plants, and the earth at the bottom. This arrangement places humans in same relation to the earth as God is in relation to humans — that of a powerful father to a weak child. This is why the Pope rejects “a divinization of the earth” (¶ 90), as it would effectively break the order of the Great Chain.

The Pope also repeatedly refers to the earth as God’s “gift” to humanity (¶¶ 71, 76, 93, 115, 146, 159, 220, 227), an idea which the foundation of a stewardship model of environmentalism. The idea that the earth is God’s gift to humanity first of all implies that the earth is “property” which can be gifted, which undermines the Pope’s earlier talk about humans being part of nature (¶ 2). It also perpetuates the hierarchical vision of the cosmos and implies that our responsibility to the earth derives not directly and horizontally from our “fraternity” with nature, but indirectly and vertically through our filial duty to a paternal deity. While the introductory paragraphs of the encyclical do speak of interconnectedness and fraternal responsibility (see above), ultimately the Pope never breaks out of the stewardship model of environmentalism (¶ 116), a model which has been thus far insufficiently radical to effect the “deep change” (¶ 215) which is necessary to revolutionize our collective relationship with the earth.

The same old story: Hierarchy

In 1967, professor of history Lynn White published an article in the periodical Science, entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. The article examined the influence of Christianity on humankind’s relationship with nature. White argued that the environmental decline was, at its “root”, a Christian problem. For White, the belief that the earth was a resource for human consumption could be traced back to the triumph of medieval Christianity over pagan animism, and even further back to the Biblical injunction to man to “subdue” the earth and exercise “dominion” over every living thing. Medieval Christianity, according to White, elevated humankind, who was made in God’s image, and denigrated the rest of creation, which was believed to have no soul.

In his encyclical, the Pope attempts to answer White’s charge, and he makes a valiant attempt to reinterpret the Genesis “dominion” language. He rejects the notion that being created in God’s image and being given “dominion” over the earth justifies “absolute domination” over other creatures. (¶ 67) Instead, he says, a correct reading of Genesis understands that language in the context of the corresponding commands to “till and keep”, the latter word meaning “caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving”. This, he says, “implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.” (¶ 67)

In spite of this, the Pope’s qualification of the word “domination” with the word “absolute” implies again that a limited domination is justified. “We are not God,” he says. Citing scripture, the Pope says that the earth and everything in it belongs to God, and has been given to us. (¶ 67) Thus, it is not humankind’s domination of the earth that concerns the Pope, so much as humankind’s usurpation of God’s domination over everything.

This is the same old Christian story we know well, with its Great Chain of Being and the upstart human beings who don’t know their place: “a little lower than the angels” and with all the creatures of the earth “under their feet”. (Psalm 8:5-8) While arguably the Pope’s encyclical is more “theocentric” than “anthropocentric”, this turns out to be a distinction without a difference because humans are still placed above above all other forms of life (other than God and angels) in the cosmic hierarchy. Ultimately, the Pope fails to truly get to “root” of the ecological crisis, and his environmental encyclical never rises (or should we say “descends”) to the level of a truly “radical” — much less “pagan” — declaration.