Should Pagans be Environmentalists?

A river cuts through a rocky canyon.

Snake River, Cauldron Linn. Southern Idaho. Credit: D M Koffer.



Well, to be fair, I think if you live on Planet Earth you should have a hand in preserving things so we can keep living here.  But Pagans tend to have a closer connection to Nature, and I think that comes with a higher obligation to protect it.

But if you’re not an environmentalist, that might come across a little judgy.  So let me break it down and explain what I really mean.

What’s an Environmentalist?

First of all, I don’t own the word, so I’m not even going to pretend this covers all environmentalists.

But to me, an environmentalist is someone who considers the impact of their actions on the world around them.  Someone who makes decisions to limit or repair damage to their ecosystem.

I am against violent action to protect animals or plants.  So those people who spike trees to injure lumberjacks?  Not OK.

But I do think that if you make a mess, you ought to clean it up.  So if you’re running a big potassium mine, and you’re dumping a bunch of toxic chemicals into the local water supply, and people are getting sick with cancer and other diseases, you should knock it off and clean up your mess.

If you’re a farmer and you let cow manure get into a stream that the neighbor kids play in, you should clean it up.

If you have a choice between a diesel truck that you’ll only need once or twice a year, or a more efficient gasoline-powered car for your commute, maybe you should pick the one that spews fewer toxic chemicals out into the air.

Other people have to breathe that air and drink that water too.  It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum, I-win-you-lose situation.  If we cooperate and clean up after ourselves, everyone gets healthier.

What Kind of Paganism?

When I think of Paganism, I think of Earth-based, Nature-worshipping Neopaganism.  But I have to stop and remind myself that not all Pagans identify that way.

If you’re a Heathen, ancestry is probably more important than the environment.

If you’re a Ceremonial Magician, you’re probably interested in the movement of the planets and constellations, but perhaps are less affected by whether there’s a coal mine within a couple miles of your house.

Now, I consider myself an animist.  I’m convinced that there’s a spirit inside everything – trees, rocks, rivers, and so forth.  (And even if I’m wrong, I get good results if I act like each thing has a spirit.)  So in a very real sense, dumping your used oil and antifreeze in your back alley is wounding the spirit of the underground aquifer.

Regardless of your beliefs, though, you’re still a resident of this ball of rock hurtling through space.  This is the only home we’ve got.  If we poison all the air and water, our kids and grandkids will get sick and die sooner.  So even if you’re not an environmentalist as part of your spirituality, it’s pretty hard to deny the practical aspects of environmentalism.

It doesn’t matter whether we say “the spirit of the aquifer is wounded,” or “nitrate levels are elevated and can cause blue-baby syndrome.”  Either one can motivate us to make a change.

Is Climate Change Even Real?

I saw a post the other night on Facebook about ten climate change predictions that were wrong.  It was posted by a libertarian page, and it had a list of quotes from Al Gore and some other guy.  Many of the quotes were from the 1970’s.

The author ended by saying, “And no I’m not just nitpicking absurd predictions made by cranks. A study in the journal Nature Climate Change reviewed 117 climate predictions and found that 97.4% never materialized.”

I thought Libertarians were more rational and reasonable than other people, but it seems even rational and reasonable people can be biased.

I’ve read a lot of studies from a lot of scientists taking a lot of measurements.  Most of them are really worried about the amount of crap we’re dumping into the environment.  Some of that worry includes carbon, sure, but that oversimplifies things a little.

Plus, data from some of those climate scientists is being deleted by a political regime.  Why delete data sets, unless they disprove the political stance you’re taking?

Why indeed.

So, to avoid this discussion devolving into a flame war, let’s just put the debate over climate change aside.  We know dumping crap into the environment tends to be bad, and we usually don’t find out how bad until later.


Let’s take a look at a couple things we dump into the environment without even thinking about it.  Car exhaust, plastic bags, and coal ash.

Do you want to have your car exhaust hooked up to your air conditioner?  Of course not.  People commit suicide that way.  Not only can you die from carbon monoxide poisoning, there are lots of other nasty chemicals in car exhaust that you don’t want to be breathing.  You could get lung cancer.  Or emphysema.

Do you use plastic bags at the grocery store?  I mean, they are pretty convenient, especially if, like me, you forget to bring your reusable bags.  But have you ever tried to catch one of those bags when it’s floating in the wind?  Had to disentangle your pet from one, or had surgery on your pet if they eat one?  Someone (or something) is paying the price for your convenience.

Have you ever burned a lump of coal?  It’s not just like burning wood.  For starters, there’s more soot, which is millions of little particles of carbonaceous gunk that can hurt your lungs.  And that’s just what goes into the air.  You also have ash, which contains really bad stuff like mercury.  And when you burn coal, you concentrate all those toxins in one place.  We humans are pretty good at making coal ash.  We’re not so good at figuring out how to store it without risking poisoning people.

I think it’s pretty simple.  No one wants to be eating, drinking, or breathing stuff that’s going to hurt them.

And it’s pretty clear that this stuff will hurt you.

And if you think that the corporations that are making money on these things – gasoline, automobiles, coal, coal-fired power plants, or even grocery stores – will help when you get sick, I recommend that you watch the movie Erin Brokovich.

The Earth is Huge, and My Effort Doesn’t Make a Difference

Perhaps.  But everyone is using that excuse.  And together, we really are having an impact on the environment.

Paleontologists have measured 5 mass extinction events over the millions of years this planet has had life.

That’s pretty cool, right?  I mean, they can dig into the ground, and based on how far down stuff is, and what stuff they find together, they can tell how old something is.  And how many different creatures were alive at the time.

And they can tell when a whole bunch of plants and animals all died at the same time.

Modern scientists are tracking the extinction of species today.  I’m sure you’ve heard of the effort to try and save panda bears from extinction (whether you agree with it or not).  But did you know that human activity is estimated to be causing dozens of species to go extinct every day?

But what do we care if some stupid bird in the desert goes extinct?  (Where I live, there’s an endangered bird called a sage grouse, and it’s a source of a lot of frustration for local farmers and ranchers.)

Biodiversity – that is, having a lot of different species – is actually very good for everyone.  Even ranchers.  Even people who work at Wal-mart.  Biodiversity is linked with a more resilient ecosystem, and with a stronger economy.

Sure, correlation is not causation.  But the environment is an incredibly complex system.  We didn’t know how complex it could be until we found that reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone Park actually changed the course of rivers.

It seems to me that the only way to believe that humans aren’t affecting the environment is to stick your fingers in your ears and yell “LA-LA-LA-I-CAN’T-HEAR-YOU!”.

Climate Scientists Have Been Wrong

Of course they have.  That’s part of the scientific method.

But they were right often enough that they created the computer you’re reading this on.

Science is not a belief system, and it’s not a library of information.  It’s a process for finding the best and most effective ways of interacting with our world.

So yes, climate scientists may not get it right the first time.  Lots of scientists don’t get it right the first time.  But they’re getting better.

And I’d rather clean up the Earth and not drink a mercury in my water, than let big industries continue to dump their waste in my back yard.

What Can I Do?

Well, hopefully, if you’ve read this far and haven’t thrown your laptop across the room, maybe you’ll take some time to think about this.

You can do little things, like reusing your grocery bags.  You can toss soda cans and cardboard in the recycling bin instead of the trash.

You can do mid-sized things, like buying a car that gets better gas mileage.  (Better mileage means less gasoline burned, meaning less gasoline needs to be manufactured, meaning less pollution dumped into your local rivers.)

You can “vote with your dollar,” and buy your products with intent.  Shade-grown coffee is much more sustainable, and it only costs a couple bucks more.  Non-GMO and Organic foods are less likely to have glyphosate residue.  (Glyphosate is the chemical name for Round-Up, which is made by Monsanto, and which has recently been linked to autism-like symptoms.)

You could make a bigger effort, and call your elected representatives and push for more sustainable industries and practices.

Or, you can choose to do nothing.  I hope not, but sometimes this stuff is just too big or too far away for people to really get involved with.

And in fact, my guess is that most of you reading this won’t really do anything about it.  Sure, maybe you’ll share this post on Facebook to “raise awareness.”  (And I appreciate if you do!)  But as far as really changing your habits, I’m more of a realist.

But who knows, maybe this will get you thinking about it.  Maybe I’m wrong, and you’ll start trying to make a difference.

So, as a Pagan, Should I be an Environmentalist?

I hope I’ve given you a few things to think about.  Not the least of which is that someday, you (or your kids) might be drinking the crap coming out of your car exhaust.

If you’re an Earth-based Neopagan, then I think you have an obligation to live gently on this planet, and to not cause it more harm than necessary.  And if you’re not living that way, it’s worth spending some time thinking about how you might bring your lifestyle into coherence with your spiritual beliefs.

For other Pagans, like the Hellenic or Celtic, you do you.  We Americans tend to romanticize Nature, as if our ancestors lived in closer harmony with Nature.  That’s not necessarily true.  Even out here in the American West, we’ve found evidence of Native American mass killings of buffalo by herding them off a cliff.  No one could use as much meat and bone as that would produce.  (Otherwise, all the bones would’ve been taken and used, and we wouldn’t have seen the evidence!)

If you’re a Liberal, I expect you’re probably at least conscious about your impact on the environment.  If you’re a Conservative, maybe consider leaving some wilderness and raw nature for your grandkids to enjoy.

In fact, if you’re currently a tenant of the planet Earth, I hope you give some thought to taking care of our home.  No one wants to live in a mess you make.  And all of us – from the microbes in the soil, to the sage grouse, to your local farmers and ranchers – live better when our environment is clean.

What are your thoughts?  Does environmentalism feature in your spiritual practice?  Am I way off base here?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments!

About the Author

I live in the sagebrush desert of southern Idaho, in a little town perched above a deep, rocky canyon. I've been pagan for a little over two decades. I've dipped my toes in Wicca, Rosicrucianism, Yoga, Reiki, and Qabala, only to settle into an Earth-based Neopagan Buddhist path. My credentials (if you care about such things), include an MA in English, an apprenticeship with Jason Miller, and a few publications here and there. I run a small Pagan group with my lovely wife, where we encourage people to show up, do pagan stuff, and live empowered and ethical lives.

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1 Comment

  1. I’d love to see Pagans challenge themselves on this topic. One of my favorite things to see at a Pagan potluck is when people bring real dishes!! lol Paper is SO much easier and more convenient, but whether it’s due to budget or a conscious choice to bring real plates and cups and silverware, opting out of one-use consumables still has the same benefit to the environment. It means less waste and resources are needed to replace disposable things. I need to do a better job of this myself, and appreciate this article’s gentle nudge to get me to make more conscientious choices day-to-day. It’s more in tune with the spiritual path and connection with Earth and the other living beings we share this planet with when we make decisions that either doesn’t add harm or reduces harm.

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