“Sacred Ecology” (with a new introduction) by Dr. Adrian Harris

Editor’s note: I am grateful for Dr. Adrian Harris granting us permission to republish his seminal essay here and honored by his offering of a new introduction for the essay.

A New Introduction by Dr. Adrian Harris

This paper was presented at a Newcastle University conference in 1994 and was published as part of a collection of papers in Paganism Today (Harvey and Hardman, 1996). It’s been popular ever since and has been republished several times, both in books and on the internet.

Revisiting it now, nearly 20 years later, I find much that I still passionately affirm. But in many ways I’ve moved on and now believe my emphasis on ritual misses something. While ritual can be very powerful, there are many ways to access the wisdom of the body and some – like Focusing – are arguably more reliable.

My philosophical guides in 1996 were Lacan, Kristeva & Berman. Today Gene Gendlin is my primary inspiration, though Berman remains an important influence. In retrospect, I think I was too harsh on the Deep Ecologists. While it’s true that there are volumes of theory on Deep Ecology, the work of people like Joanna Macy emphasizes the experiential in just the way I demand below.

Sadly the political landscape remains largely unchanged; we still have ‘sticking plaster environmentalism’ and dire warnings of ecological disaster continue to encourage despair. But the philosophical landscape has changed. What I tentatively called ‘somatic knowing’ is now widely discussed as ’embodied knowing’, Although it is still a somewhat nebulous concept, most academics in the humanities will have an idea of what embodied knowing is or might be. That, at least, is encouraging, as I still believe that embodied (or somatic) knowing is at the root of spiritual inspiration and is our best bet for political change.

Writing this paper inspired me to look more deeply into the mysterious and powerful ‘somatic knowing’ I discuss below: The next step in that journey was PhD research into embodied knowing in Ecopaganism and exploration continues through my ecotherapy practice. I now believe that although in some fundamental sense ‘all things are ultimately one’, an emphasis on oneness precludes an ethical relationship with the other-than-human world. Flipping from dualism to oneness misses a deeper mystery: Gendlin’s insight that we are interaction is harder to grasp but gets much closer to my embodied experience. As you can see I’m still very much involved with the ideas in Sacred Ecology: It still provokes me and it’s offered in the hope that it may do the same for you.


Photo by Jeff Luker

Sacred Ecology

When I was first approached about this conference back in February, I didn’t fully realise what a tightrope walk it would be. I could stand up here & spout on about environmental destruction & rant about our duty as Pagans to save the Earth. You’ll be glad to hear that I rejected that option; there has been too much ‘holier than thou’ preaching in the Green movement as it is.

My second option was to look beneath the surface a little & try to uncover what it is about Paganism, which speaks so clearly to those of us who care for the Earth. The risk now is telling my grandmother how to suck eggs; there are many Pagans here & I don’t want to spend the next 30 minutes or so telling you what you already know.

So I’m going to try & dig a little bit deeper: I’m going to explore Paganism’s unique role in the Environmental drama, & I’m going to argue that the theology & practice of Paganism not only holds a solution to our environmental crisis, but that it can bring about a revolution in the way our culture makes sense of reality. For Paganism puts us back in touch with the body; by reconnecting our wordy analytical culture with the physical self, Paganism brings us back to the Earth. Through that healing of ourselves we may come to heal our relationship with our planet.

Perhaps I should have titled this presentation “Towards a Sacred Ecology”, for the ideas I am going to try & put across are still in a process of development. But I trust that they will be coherent enough to make sense, & original enough not to be too obvious.

I am drawing on the theoretical work of Lacan, Kristeva & Morris Berman, as well as my own personal experience & that of other Pagans.

We find ourselves on the caring decade of the Green ’90’s, & in these enlightened days it is decidedly unfashionable to suggest that Nature exists purely as a resource for humankind to use. Every one from the Pope to Margaret Thatcher would have us believe that we are all environmentalists now. Even multinationals mouth the gospel of Greenness, & habits once considered eccentric, like recycling your bottles, are accepted as the norm.

But despite all the Green rhetoric, nothing has fundamentally changed. For most companies ‘environmentalism’ means having a Green public relations strategy. Government environmental policy is a half -baked compromise, motivated by a vote catching mentality that avoids real change. Most environmental groups concentrate on short-term crisis management, trying to slow the destruction of the rainforest, protect the last few wild tigers or urge reticent Governments to patch up the ozone layer. Such campaigns tend to be exercises in damage limitation; it is sticking plaster environmentalism, desperately treating the symptoms of the environmental crisis, but ultimately doing very little to deal with the underlying disease.

Green consumerism, that much vaunted mythical saviour, is driven more by guilt & fear than by any real feeling for the ecology of our world. Ultimately, it can do no more than slow the process of destruction.

Meanwhile, media predictions of global chaos & graphic descriptions of ecological disaster tend to disempower people, encouraging despair rather than motivating action.

So how do we bring about real constructive change?

There are many philosophical & theological attempts to answer that question.

Green Christians, for example, tend to talk about ‘Responsible Dominion’. Humankind is to act as stewards of the Earth. The ecology of the planet is to be protected because it is part of the glory of Gods Creation. God loves the Earth, & therefore so must we.

Environmental philosophers may agonise for hours over moral imperative & definitions, but there are three main camps:

First, the instrumentalists. These pragmatic greens argue that we should protect our environment simply because we need it to survive. Even if we manage to fend of the worst effects of Global Warming, pollution & the like with a few techno-fix miracles, trashing the world’s wild places would leave us with an impoverished quality of life.

Then there are the Social Ecologists, who have a broader view of things. They argue that the environmental crisis is rooted in the structures of our society, for it is the direct result of the hierarchical organisation of power & the authoritarian mentality, which goes with it.

Their alternative is to base our society on ecological principles: an organic unity in diversity, free of hierarchy & based on mutual respect for the inter -relationship of all aspects of life.

Social Ecology emphasises the social dimension of the environmental problem: We must change human society first; our relationship with the rest of nature will become transformed as we move from a world based on domination & hierarchy to one rooted in mutual respect & co-operation.

A third position is that of the Deep Ecologists. They emphasise that human beings are only part of the ecology of this planet, & believe that only by understanding our unity with the whole of nature can we come to achieve full realization. In the philosophy of Deep Ecology all organisms are equal. Human beings have no greater value than any other creature, for we are just ordinary citizens in the biotic community, with no more rights than amoebae or bacteria.

I can only give you a very brief outline of the richness of Green thought. This is not the place to discuss the complexities of environmental philosophy. But I want to give you some idea of how people have attempted to answer the question of how we are to achieve real change.

There are a lot of valuable insights in both Deep & Social Ecology, but they are fixed in the Western philosophical tradition which goes back beyond Aristotle & which, I would argue, is the root of the whole problem. For it is a way of making sense of the world which is profoundly cerebral & which assumes a Universe of concepts, language & logic which has no place for the mystical which lies beyond words.

Even Deep Ecologists, who appear to be proposing a kind of spiritual understanding of our place in the ecology of the planet, end up producing verbose academic discussions full of careful definitions & well considered principles to be followed, like a doctors prescription or some legalistic judgement.

From my study of the subject of environmental philosophy it seems that al these Green thinkers are stuck in a common mind set: Such systems live in the head, the rational, analytical world of argument & counter-argument.

What is required is another way of knowing, a Sacred Ecology that moves beyond the cerebral to bring us to a direct experience of a wholeness rooted in the body.

The Sacred Ecology, which is emerging, does not proscribe or provide manifestos. It does not have a carefully argued programme of principles, because it is not known intellectually, but through direct experience.

Besides the cerebral knowledge we all possess, the words & ideas stored in our heads, there is a deeper knowledge held within the tissue of our bodies. It is a somatic, physical knowing which comes from direct experience. This is the knowledge of faith, of emotion, of the gut feeling.

The philosophical tradition of the West is an intellectual one founded on logic & language. It is profoundly limiting, for within it whatever cannot be said does not exist. What I am proposing is a radical alternative: A Somatic philosophy which respects the knowing of the body, the knowledge memories & wisdom held within our muscles, flowing with our hormones, sparking through our nerves.

A Somatic Philosophy is yet to be developed, although the seeds of it exist in the work of Wilhelm Reich & Morris Berman, in the practice of body work, massage, Rolfing & Alexander technique.

But accept for a moment the possibility of such a way of knowing, for therein lies Sacred Ecology.

Our culture is based on a certain way of understanding reality, which has developed over the last two thousand years or so. What passes for common sense, as obvious, actually has a history. The way we think about ourselves & our world is not ‘natural’, not born into us, but learnt. What we in the West have inherited from the great philosophers & theologians of the past, Plato, Aristotle, Saint Paul, & their ilk, is a split in our reality that alienates us from ourselves. Our languages, our culture, & our ‘common sense’ all conspire to convince us that we are self contained entities, divided from the rest of the universe. Each of us occupies a little box, & most of us remain shut up inside our heads for our entire lives.

‘Common sense’ teaches us to analyse our world into discrete units. I am ‘in here’, & everything else is ‘out there’. We are separate, unconnected, & the boundaries are set by that Sacred Cow of the West, the big ‘I am ‘, the ego.

But this analytical & divisive way of knowing the world is not the only one possible, as anyone who has been part of a powerful ritual or experienced good sex, can tell you.

At such times we come to the wisdom of the body; that all things are ultimately one.

Intellectually, that is a very difficult thing to prove, although research on the edge of quantum physics is moving towards such a conclusion.

Yet even if we accept intellectually that the split between the self & the other can be healed, as some Deep Ecologists do, it is far more important to feel it, experience it in our bodies, for that is a far deeper knowing & a true healing.

How do we come to know this wisdom of the body? We need some way of reconnecting with our own physical selves, healing the rift between our cerebral self & our somatic self. I mentioned two ways of connecting to wholeness earlier: Ritual & sex.

Good sex is the closest most people get to a truly spiritual experience, but few in the West have the cultural understanding of sexuality that such a spiritual path requires. Sadly ours is not an erotic culture. Our attitudes to sex have been profoundly damaged & distorted by patriarchy & the Aristotelian self/other split that locks us into isolation, & sex has become a form of consumption.

A culture of sensuality knows the sacred through the physical: It tastes, smells, touches & hears bliss, feeling wholeness in sensual delight.

But we actually repress sensuality & the body, worshipping instead the concept of consumption & its ultimate insatiability. Sadly, the spiritual dimension of sex is all but lost to us.

I am not saying that we can save the Earth by learning to have better sex, although that suggestion isn’t as absurd as it might at first sound. That must remain another discussion for another time.

For now I want to talk specifically about healing the split through the techniques & beliefs systems broadly called Paganism.

There has been much debate of late about what we mean by Paganism. One of the clearest & simplest expressions I have found is in a short article on ‘Witches & the Earth’, by Chas S. Clifton:

“Live so that someone ignorant about Paganism would know from watching your life or visiting your home, that you followed an Earth religion”

For me Paganism is not so much a set of beliefs as a way of relating to the world. The wholeness I have spoken of, that oneness of everything which we experience in moments of spiritual knowing, is what I call the Sacred, & Pagan ritual is both a path to the Sacred & a way of honouring it. In our rituals we reconnect with ourselves, healing the rift between body & mind through ecstatic dance, Chanting & the drama of ritualized myth. We loose our ego centered selves & achieve that somatic knowing of the unity of everything. It is in these moments of spiritual ecstasy that we know the wisdom of the body.

One function of myth & ritual is psychological integration operating somatically at the deepest emotional level. It is concerned with what we truly are & what we can be.

This healing through ecstatic Pagan ritual is what lies at the heart of Sacred Ecology. It is a deep knowing of the sacredness of the Earth that is more than just an intellectual awareness of the facts & figures about species decimation & habitat loss. It is a feeling of unity with the Earth that we have in our gut. There is no guilt now, no fear or disempowerment. We act to protect our Earth because we know, in every cell of our bodies, that our lives, our communities, & our land are sacred. We act from a grounded strength that reaches beyond intellectual awareness & yet reinforces it, rooting deep within us.

Around us lies a highly complex industrial society, which has no real heart. Instead of the sacred at the core of our society we have consumerism. Yet our lives demand meaning. With the spiritual lost from our world we seek something to replace it. What has emerged from loss is obsessive consumerism, an ersatz religion that has reached its apotheosis in our age. The consumer object is the fetish, to consume becomes the rite, while advertising vampirizes our deepest needs to preach the new creed of the product. Consumerism leads us like a will-o-the-wisp to destruction, & we follow like lemmings. It is a cancer on the physical world, destroying our environment with its insatiable demands, & worse still it is a cancer of the soul, cheapening & prostituting the spirit.

Sex food & music all have sacredness, but in our society they are pre-packaged & freeze dried. Fast food, musak & pornography are all expressions of our consumerist mode of being. We have sanitized once sacred acts, cut out their essence, and taken the love & the care out of them: Food music & sex without qualities. It has become simply material. We stuff ourselves with this pap, somehow believing that consuming more will satisfy our need.

We have come to rely on a religion of materialism. Our lives & our society are falling apart, & revisionist nonsense about social reform will achieve nothing unless we can bring the spiritual back into our lives.

The shattered shards of the sacred remain buried in many aspects of Western culture: Music, sport, advertising, dance, drama, & the cultural icons of art, all hold smoldering embers of the scattered fire of the sacred.

The obsessional worship of pop stars & sports personalities which is manifested in the tribalism of football supporters & youth subculture, is an attempt to reach wholeness, to relate to something larger than ourselves.

The resurgence of Paganism is bringing together these elements. We are creating something entirely new from threads leading back into our cultural past that connects us to our physical selves & to our Earth.

Pagans practice Sacred Ecology across the globe & across history. In the U.K. we are still developing our vision, yet many of those who campaign to save our land from destruction draw on this wisdom of the body. The battle to save Solsbury Hill from tarmac & bulldozers is a Pagan struggle. Twyford Down, which has become a symbol for the grass roots environmental movement of the strength of our spirit, was the birth place of the Dongas Tribe, many of whom draw courage & inspiration from their own knowledge of Sacred Ecology.

Meanwhile, Dragon Environmental Group is working on the front line to weave this most powerful eco-magic, using Pagan ritual to empower individuals to campaign for social & environmental change.

This is a challenging agenda, & one fraught with pitfalls. An obvious issue is our role as a Priesthood. The word ‘hierarchy originates from ‘hierarkhes’, the Late Greek for High Priest. In many religions it is the High Priest who controls the power of the sacred, & spiritual practice too easily becomes the exclusive business of a Priesthood who are all too often male, esoteric & heirarical.

Now is the time to release the sacred from the temples & bring it back into people’s lives, to plug everyone back into the ecstasy of the sacred. This must be a process of empowerment, & the role of Paganism is not to create a Priesthood caste to carefully dispense wisdom & spirit. We can best act as guides, signposts for others on the road who may well travel far beyond us.

I believe that Paganism has the ability to rise to this challenge & the responsibility to accept it. If we are to live in harmony with our Earth & know the joy of unity that is the sacred, we must abandon much of what passes for common sense. Established values & accepted principles have brought us to where we are today. I don’t need to list the horrors of environmental destruction or human misery, for you already know too well the birthright bequeathed to us by the errors of the past. But there is nothing that cannot be changed. Piecemeal elastoplast repairs to the environment will only postpone the crisis, for even if scientific techno-fixes can save us from global warming, ozone depletion & habitat destruction, the human crisis remains.

Ultimately we must face the need for radical change. The ecological crisis is more than a question of environmental destruction & human misery, for it is at root a spiritual crisis. Genuine alternatives, revolutionary alternatives, require remarkable imaginative leaps. Sadly most revolutions simply regurgitate old forms; hence their inevitable failure. We must think beyond ourselves. Not simply beyond the established consumer driven system, but beyond language, beyond the conceptions, categories & habits that tie our minds to established ideological models. We must go beyond, to imagine what has never been conceived of, to dare to demand what contemporary thought considers impossible.

But all this is just words. What is basic to Sacred Ecology lies beyond language, for words are but a finger pointing to the moon. Sacred Ecology leaves behind words. It can only ever truly be known through experience.


‘Coming to Our Senses’, by Morris Berman. Publ. Unwin 1990

‘Introductory Guide to Poststucturalism & Post Modernism’, by M. Sarup. Publ. Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988

‘The Kristeva Reader’, ed. by Toril Moi. Publ. Blackwell 1986.

‘Natures Web’, by Peter Marshall. Publ. Simon & Schuster Ltd. 1992.

‘Patterns of Dissonance’, by Rosi Braidotti. Publ. Polity Press 1991.

‘Witchcraft Today ‘, (Book One), ed. by Chas S. Clifton. Publ. Llewellyn 1992.

The Author

Adrian Harris

Dr. Adrian Harris, MSc – Counselling, psychotherapy and ecotherapy in Devon:  I work as as an ecotherapist in Devon.  I offer one-to-one Counselling in South East London and run workshops at various venues.  My nature connection walks and workshops which draw on my own research and spiritual practice, are perhaps best described as ecopsychology.  Because I ground all my work in the wisdom of the body, I use an embodied approach and Focusing.  You can follow my blog, read my articles and talks, or discover exercises I’ve created. Lost? A click on the labyrinth will always take you to a map of the site.  I have an eclectic background which includes environmental work and a PhD in Religious Studies. You can e-mail me about anything you like!

See Dr. Adrian Harris’ other posts.

2 Comments on ““Sacred Ecology” (with a new introduction) by Dr. Adrian Harris

  1. Wow, thanks! This is my first exposure to this wonderful essay.

    It makes me hear some dissonance in our SolSeed Creed. Perhaps other readers can help me with ideas on how to tweak the wording to address the disconnect?

    • It’s ironic that after reading this I want to tweak some words rather than get some dirt under my fingernails! I’ll save the words for another day and get some dirt under my fingernails in our community garden plot instead 🙂

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