Must We Embrace the 'Sacred' to Survive Peak Oil?

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Image credit: Rhys Alton, used under Creative Commons license.

There's no doubt that religion and spirituality can be a divisive subject. I've asked before whether green religion will sink us or save us, and suggested that preaching at people is not the best way to win green converts. A similar debate seems to be hotting up within the Transition Movement, with some people suggesting that to survive peak oil, rediscovering the sacred is not just a collective imperative—but a personal one too. In fact, say the proponents of a spiritual transition, "...if you're not spiritually connected to the Earth and understand the spiritual reality of how to live on Earth, it's likely you will not make it." That kind of talk has some other people worried. Very worried. The idea of a spiritually-motivated approach to weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is nothing new. The churches in transition group has already explored how religion can play a role in kicking the oil habit, and from solar-powered mosques in Turkey to greener Hindu temples, it is obvious that many folks find a profound connection between their faith and their stewardship of the Earth.

Must Sacredness Be Central to Transition?
But the debate swelling in the Transition movement—the community-focused response to peak oil and climate change that has been spreading globally—is an entirely different matter. Rather than simply embracing those with a spiritual or sacred perspective on the task ahead, some are arguing that the entire movement needs to rediscover the sacred, or risk failure.

The impetus for the discussion comes from Michael Brownlee, who featured in the New York Times piece on the birth of the Transition Movement in the USA, and who has issued a call for a reinvention of Transition for a US audience.

Declaring Independence from the UK?
As part of that reinvention he urges Transition Movements to convey the sense of urgency around climate change and peak oil to their communities—arguing that within a few short years we will begin facing stark choices about "how we live, where we live, and even who lives." He also argues that the USA must once again declare "independence from the England" in its thinking on transition, and it must wholeheartedly tackle the question of economics and the destructive nature of a growth economy (something, he says, that the broader Transition movement has been 'skittish' in taking on).

No Outer Transition Without Inner Transition?
But these issues are in many ways a preamble to the most controversial statements—namely that a spiritual focus to the changes ahead will be 100% central to its success, not to mention that it is also, apparently, the best hope we have of growing the movement:

"...we're beginning to appreciate the centrality of Inner Transition, what is frequently called "Heart & Soul" work in the Transition movement, a recognition that Transition in the outer world cannot occur without an Inner Transition. Holding the space for this--including the psychology of change; the whole broad field of ecopsychology; dealing with grief, anger and despair; and Joanna Macy's "Work that Reconnects"--is to me one of the most refreshing and endearing aspects of the Transition movement. This may turn out to be a more powerful attractor to the movement than the issues of peak oil, climate change, and economic decline!"

A Strong Response from Rob Hopkins
All this has awoken a strong sense of disquiet in Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Movement who I previously interviewed on TreeHugger. In his critical response to Rob Brownlee's call for Deep Transition, Rob first tackles some of Brownlee's other assertions. He argues that the Transition Movement has always supported adaptation of the model to different cultures, and that declaring "independence" is unhelpful and unnecessary. He goes on to suggest that while the science around climate change may be truly terrifying, using fear as a motivator has severe limitations (see my post on disasterbation turning you blind for my perspective on that one...).

Reasoned and Informed Evaluation
Rob also rejects the notion that the movement has been skittish about tackling economics, but rather that a lack of consensus regarding economics suggests that keeping an open mind is the best possible approach:

"Is Stoneleigh right, that we are about to see the imminent collapse of the financial system (she did say at the 2010 Transition Network conference that by now my house should by now be worth what it was in 1974, which is patently isn't). Is Herman Daly right, that a Steady State economy is possible? Or is the Ellen McArthur Foundation right, that we could create a 'cyclical economy'? Or perhaps Tim Jackson is right that we can create 'prosperity without growth'? I don't know, and for me to put all my eggs into one of those baskets would be an act of faith, not one of a reasoned and informed evaluation of the information available."

Sidelining Transition Through Spirituality?
But it is the question of the 'sacred' for which Rob reserves "the bulk of [his] disquiet." It's not, he says, that the 'inner' aspects of Transition shouldn't play a central role in the process, nor that those with a sacred or spiritual perspective shouldn't have a seat at the table. But rather that focusing the movement on an explicitly spiritual approach is "the perfect recipe to alienate, bewilder and sideline Transition in the US or anywhere else, to condemn it to the back pages of Kindred Spirit magazine and restrict it to a very narrow slice of society".

By defining the challenge of Transition as an explicitly spiritual process, Hopkins argues, we will inevitably alienate both those of differing spiritual traditions, and those with none:

"To be talking about the 'Sacred' in Christian or Muslim communities which have their own very strong sense of what the sacred means, would be highly divisive. And we'd find a similar response if we used it to engage and work with agnostics, atheists and others who don't share that world view. The idea that such an approach would be a guaranteed way of deepening engagement in the US seems poorly judged to me. In fact, I would argue that in the current economic climate, with unemployment running rife, a focus on, for example, social enterprise and economic localisation would be far more relevant and gain much deeper traction. We might also find that encouraging increasing levels of scientific literacy among Transition groups to better equip them in evaluating different options might also help gain more traction."

The Value of Debate
Say what you like about the current debate, one thing that is so encouraging is that the debate exists. Just as Alex Steffen's warnings about the dark side of Transition were welcomed as an opportunity to reevaluate how the concept is seen by the outside world, so too Hopkins welcomes Brownlee's contribution to the discussion:

"Michael is to be thanked, like others before him, for pushing Transition out of its comfort zone and asking it some testing questions. In Transition, we have tried to support an approach where these things are debated and discussed openly, and that any moves forward or evolutions to the approach are based on what emerges from that. I hope that Michael's piece, and this response, will lead to a debate on these issues."

An Atheist in Transition
As a devout and practicing atheist, it is perhaps no surprise that I personally come down on the side of Hopkins on this debate. I myself have been known to contemplate the mystical in relation to child birth. And I know enough green friends with a deep spiritual and/or sacred perspective to acknowledge that spirituality can be a tool for change, for resilience, and for regeneration. But to redefine a movement that has brought so many people together from vastly different political, spiritual, cultural and economic perspectives together, and which has offered a relentlessly practical approach to community responses to coming challenges, would quite honestly have me running for the hills.

Who knows, maybe my lack of a spiritual connection to the Earth may indeed mean I won't make it through whatever apocalypse apparently awaits us. I suspect the fact that I am also the most deeply impractical man I know might have something more to do with it...

More on Environmentalism, Sustainability and Spirituality
Will Green Religion Sink Us or Save Us
Churches Take on Peak Oil
A Solar-powered Mosque in Turkey
Hindu Leader Urges Temples to Go Green

Must We Embrace the 'Sacred' to Survive Peak Oil?
There's no doubt that religion and spirituality can be a divisive subject. I've asked before whether green religion will sink us or save us, and suggested that preaching at people is not

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