Pagan Values: Ecology, Environmentalism & Practical Pacifism

A Guest Post by Ali, of Meadowsweet & Myrrh

Back at the beginning of April, I wrote a blog post ostensibly about global warming, but also in part about the various forms that our own complicity in and justification of violence can often take. I was amazed, and pleased, when this theme of violence was picked up by readers in the comments. After all, warriorship is a common topic of conversation in modern Paganism, especially among those practicing traditions with a particularly Norse or Celtic flavor. Given the sometimes less than subtle militaristic overtones of our modern Western culture, it can be all too easy to assume a simplistic warrior archetype that conflates nobility, honor and courage with the use of violence or the

imposition of brute force. Rarely do we hear of the “peaceful warrior,” or the ways in which responsibility and strength inform the goals of practical pacifism and enable modern Pagans to prevent, circumvent and withstand violence. By focusing too exclusively on our pre-Christian historical roots and the role of the warrior in ancient sociocultural structures, we miss an opportunity to integrate into the warrior ethic a uniquely modern emphasis shaped by our more recent social history of feminism, civil rights and environmentalism.

This last (r)evolution, in particular, exemplifies the changing conversation about the efficacy of violence when working towards mutual protection and prosperity. More and more, we see the image of the valiant, spiritually-grounded eco-warrior fighting, through political activism and conscientious conservation rather than through bullying and threats, to protect the earth and its diverse environments and ecosystems from the violence of exploitation and pollution. Such an inspiring, living archetype is a powerful example of practical pacifism in action.

Impractical Violence

When I use the term “practical pacifism,” there are always those who shudder, or shrug, or laugh and declare that there is no such thing. These days it’s very common to hear that a philosophy of pacifism — that is, essentially, an ethic of creative nonviolence and loving-kindness — is at best an unrealistic ideal that can be only imperfectly realized, if at all. Some people go so far as to insist that pacifism is a kind of aberration of good intention, characterized by a weak stomach and lazy thinking, and more likely to allow harm to occur than to accomplish any actual good. “A military force,” some have argued, “is a necessity born of human civilization, and humanity may never be able to eliminate its necessity.” For those who believe that violence — not just personal violence, but large-scale, state-sponsored, organized violence — is an inevitable consequence of human society, pacifism can appear at best like a luxury of the well-protected, and at worst like a dangerous form of denial.

As a strongly-committed pacifist myself who grew up reading Gandhi and King (not to mention a certain Jesus fellow), I doubt it will surprise anyone to hear that I hold fundamental disagreements with some of the objections outlined above. The belief that any given social institution, particularly one founded on violence, must be inherently and eternally necessary to human civilization overlooks the great capacity for creativity, adaptability and freedom we humans possess. In fact, the claim artificially restricts our alternatives for peaceful action to various forms of more or less overt complicity in either individual or systemic violence. Meanwhile, to dismiss pacifism as unrealistic is to ignore our natural tendency as social animals towards imaginative empathy, and the extreme acrobatics in logic we use to justify our own acts of violence precisely in order to mitigate our instinctive sense of guilt or responsibility.

One of the more popular philosophies of necessary violence is known as Just War theory. Developed in Roman antiquity and elaborated upon by the Catholic Church, the theory attempts to lay out the conditions sufficient to establish the “right to go to war,” including such stipulations as the severity of the threat, the likelihood of success, the proportionality of response, and the failure of all peaceful attempts at resolution. All these are, of course, common concerns when determining the ethical nature of any act of individual or group violence. However, any philosophy that proposes to set out conditions under which violence may sometimes be acceptable opens the way for manipulative doublespeak and back-bending to allow leeway for “us” while strictly condemning “them.” For every act of individual violence, there is a rhetoric of fear, ignorance or spite feeding a kill-or-be-killed worldview in which violence is declared necessary. For every act of organized violence, there is inevitably an innocent civilian population back home, the domestic hearth-center of the community, in need of protection, security or increased prosperity, and willing to support violent action against “the other” in order to obtain it. Whether we call these violent acts “national security measures,” “preemptive war,” “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “terrorist attacks,” the justifications of urgency, desperation and necessity are the same: my right to life and prosperity must be weighed against yours, and yours must come up lacking. In other words, to quote a modern-day trickster-god, Captain Jack Sparrow, “Now we’re just haggling over price.”

Interconnection in Principle and Practice

Pacifism offers us an alternative to this quibbling zero-sum game, and contemporary environmentalism provides one of the clearest practical examples of the principles of pacifism in action. Our increasing understanding of ecology and the interdependency inherent in the natural physical world render it strikingly obvious that there can be no security or survival for the human species apart from that of the earth itself. A “loss” for the local environment wends its way into the global ecosystem as water systems grow polluted, animal and plant species die off, migrate or explode into monocultures, and climates worldwide readjust to compensate for changing atmospheric conditions, fluctuating wildly and setting off new local shifts, both subtle and drastic. In other words, a “loss” for the environment inevitably means a “loss” for human beings, as well. And not just those human beings who caused the initial damage, but a loss for all of us. There is no zero-sum scenario in which some of us may win at the expense of others. Action and consequence, cause and effect: environmental awareness requires that we acknowledge these as vital, and demands that we understand how our past actions have shaped the present, and how our current actions will shape the future.

This consciousness of interdependency and communal consequences is the very same principle that lies at the heart of practical pacifism. It connects us not only to each other, but to our shared histories and to the future towards which we all contribute. The ‘just’ice of most “just war” theories relies, inherently if not explicitly, on an assurance of “just this once.” But violence begets violence: destruction begets insecurity, urgency and need, and the justice of “just this once” fails again and again to make good on its promise. Yet well-intentioned citizens and political war-mongers alike continue to believe in the efficacy and practicality of violence. Rejecting lessons of the past as irrelevant, they cite history only as evidence that violence must be inherently unavoidable, since we have so far been so miserably inept at avoiding it. But because environmentalism is founded, clearly and deliberately, on principles of interconnection as well as on the practical knowledge of how these connections function in the world around us, a similar kind of “just war” approach to protecting the earth is so ridiculous as to be laughable. Politicians who attempt to drum up fear by accusing environmentalists of being “anti-human” are now increasingly dismissed as anthropocentric and ignorant, while those few who do resort to acts of violence in the name of environmental causes are denounced and ridiculed as equally confused in their priorities.

What does this mean? Something amazing, something downright revolutionary is going on here. For the first time in remembered history, it is possible not merely to imagine but to actually perceive as happening right now on a global scale a conception of protection and prosperity that does not — indeed, cannot — rely on violence for its realization. Ordinary people, whether they realize it or not, are incorporating the fundamental values of practical pacifism into their everyday lives: seeking out creative alternatives to callous destruction; practicing self-discipline and responsibility for the sake of a larger (and trans-human) community; working to realize relationships of honor, love and reverence with their local landscapes, their communities and the natural world. Campaigns for energy efficiency and alternative, sustainable fuel sources not only make economic sense, but speak to our increasing awareness of living in participation with natural forces worthy of respect and understanding which cannot be tamed or threatened into submission. People everywhere are rediscovering the joy and fulfillment to be found in the hard work of organic home-gardening and biking or walking to work. Even mainstream Judeo-Christian religions are taking cues these days from the nature-reverence of reviving Pagan traditions, abandoning the antiquated rhetoric of stewardship and dominion in favor of languages of love, gratitude and the immanent sacredness of our relationship with the thriving natural world. I for one can’t imagine a more exciting and hopeful time to be part of the environmental movement, and a diverse Pagan community that puts these concerns at the very heart of its spirituality.

Over the next couple weeks, in honor of International Pagan Values Blogging Month, I’ll be writing more on the themes of violence, ecology, nature, pacifism and the ways in which various cultural systems incorporate or undermine the goals of reverence, interconnection and peace. I hope you’ll join me over at my blog, Meadowsweet & Myrrh, to join in the on-going conversation!

11 responses to “Pagan Values: Ecology, Environmentalism & Practical Pacifism”

  1. Ali, thank you for such an awesome post! I had never thought about the environmental movement as an instance of pacifism, and I can’t wait to read your other articles on it. The myth that pacifism is idealistic and unrealistic is one that desperately needs exploding.

    Reading this today, I find myself wondering about the use of environmental laws, fines, pollution caps, etc. By some definitions of violence, these sorts of things are violent because if polluting companies refuse to obey, their property (factories, land, etc.) will be forcibly siezed. Effectively, pollution is being stopped at gunpoint. By contrast, the tactics of Greenpeace and the Rainbow Warrior and tree-sitting, which are more frequently called “violent”, aren’t violent at all: they’re just getting in the way. :-). How do you feel about it? Will you discuss these issues more when you follow this up on your blog?…


  2. Jeff, thanks for your response! 🙂 As usual, you’re urging me to rethink my whole approach to a topic, bringing up ideas I hadn’t considered before.

    Originally, I had intended to focus (in this post, and the next few on my blog) on how we as individuals can incorporate both environmentalism and pacifism into our lives in practical ways. For instance, consuming less in our daily lives, choosing “green” products and services that support local, organic businesses, and cultivating a personal relationship of love and gratitude with the natural world are all things we can do right now to make a huge difference. Laws and regulations, on the other hand, are things that governments do. I hadn’t thought much before now about why I don’t mention more of these, but I think part of the reason is that I figure we should mostly try to live as though our government were incompetent… since, in many many ways, it is.

    On the other hand, I disagree that laws and regulations (and their penalties) are a form of violence against companies who refuse to comply. First of all, a company is not a person, it is an organization. The idea that a group or organization is a Thing In Itself in the abstract has led to some pretty terrible treatment in the past: individuals persecuted for the sake of the group (anyone heard of Socrates?), and whole groups of people condemned as scapegoats or branded as enemies (anyone heard of the Burning Times? O no, I think I just invoked Brock’s law!). I think one of the worst mistakes of modern capitalism was the decision to treat corporations as “people” under the law. They are not people. They do not “suffer” penalties or pain the way individual beings suffer. Rather, laws and their penalties are applied to companies regardless of who happens to be running them, which means they serve as a kind of pressure or shaping-force, influencing the way in which the group, itself an emergent phenomenon, will tend to “emerge” or express itself. Environmental laws and fines, for instance, make certain company policies more profitable than others; meanwhile, any given individual working within the company still retains the freedom to act according to his or her conscience, to stay or to quit, to take on the challenges that environmental protection laws create, or to go into some other business where the challenges are fewer.

    Not to mention, if the penalty leveled against a company is seizure of land, property, etc… that brings up the whole complex philosophical issue of whether anyone–company or individual–can truly “own” such things. Considering the interconnection of ecosystems, is it fair to say that “land ownership” gives that owner the right to do with that land whatever he or she wants, including pollute?


  3. Ali, you’re definitely right that companies are not people, and they certainly should not have the same rights that people do. However, the same issue arises with individuals who own property. For example, in many towns, it is now illegal to burn leaves, because of the pollution it causes. People who burn their leaves will be fined, and if they refuse to pay their fines they may end up in jail. This is not, I think, a pacifistic solution. Which is not to say that no pacifistic solution is possible, of course: perhaps the towns should offer to pay people NOT to burn leaves. 🙂

    For the record, I also agree with you that land ownership is probably not the best way to go. 🙂


  4. Hi Ali, very interesting post here. It seems that the recent environmentalism “movement” does, or at least can, involve two very important concepts related to pacifism: 1) interdependence, 2) consequences for the community. And I think this fact supports the efficacy of pacifist-like routes in our practical lives, helping to debunk, at least a little, the impracticality crutches used by non-pacifists. I also think, though, that people in general do not pay enough attention to the deceivingly simple point that pacifism is a choice.

    For example, when most people make decisions they tend to throw around the terms “good” or “bad” to help them determine what the best choice is given a set of options. Reducing our options to these two categories, though, neglects the important realization that every choice should be based on either a reason or group of reasons to help support making that choice. By throwing the terms “bad” and “good” around we instead deflect the focus away from these reasons, leaving others stranded when trying to determine why a choice like pacifism would even be considered.

    In a similar way, I think people often deflect attention away from these reasons by concerning themselves with the question, “Well is pacifism even feasible?” While this question is certainly good to ask, we should also consider that many choices are only feasible because the individuals who make those choices dedicate themselves to the manifestation of that choice (in a sense, they will that choice into being). For example, Palestinian pacifists dedicated to ending the brutal treatment of Palestinians by the nation state of Israel choose not to respond to violence with violent reactions, and instead choose other routes to such acts: organized peace rallies, demonstrations, vigils, etc. To them the question is not feasibility, but instead how they apply their ideas/beliefs/dedication to pacifism to respond to their situation? (practical pacifism)

    Only once people place more focus on creatively manifesting pacifistic ideas will an actual change be brought about. Otherwise we continuously lock ourselves into the debate of feasibility, which essentially delays actual change from being carried out. And so perhaps our focus as a society should be more concerned with teaching individuals how to creatively incorporate their ideas/beliefs into their everyday lives without placing too much stock in the question, “Well is it feasible?” A great artist, for example, rarely concerns themselves with the problem of feasibility and simply circumvents such roadblocks with creativity, perseverance, dedication, etc. And while feasibility still plays a part in how a choice is practically applied, it is rarely seen as a means of abandoning the decision to carry out a choice. Think of the process more as fine tuning, ironing out the minor details of how something is to be done.


  5. Well Ali, I would say just war theology is actually a departure from the original teaching of Jesus, the apostles and the early Christians. For some references see here:


  6. Raymond, I completely agree that the debate about pacifism (or any idea or philosophy not usually accepted by the mainstream) can get derailed by the ceaseless debating about feasibility. This strikes me as especially strange when it comes to pacifism, since most people are functioning a vast majority of the time on the principle of nonviolent relationship. For the most part, we don’t live in a dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed world, and we see every single day ways in which peaceful coexistence benefits everyone. But talk to people about transforming this everyday peacefulness into a commitment to pacifism that works on multiple levels (interpersonal, social, and political), and suddenly nobody believes its possible!

    I think what’s really going on is that people lack faith in themselves and their ability to come up with creative, nonviolent alternatives. They want to reserve their own right to act violently because they’re afraid they won’t be strong enough or quick enough to get by without resorting to force. So, as frustrating as it is, every discussion of pacifism has to start out with a discussion of whether or not it’s feasible… people just need convincing that they’re actually capable. But if you can accept, like you said, that whatever choice you make you can also actively pursue and manifest in reality (which plenty of Pagans do anyway!), then the practical how-to of applying principles of nonviolence becomes pretty obvious!


  7. Matt,

    Thanks for your response, and you have a really nice collection of quotes there! I completely agree that Jesus himself and early Christianity was very much a religion of nonviolence. Perhaps you missed it, but above I linked to an interview with John Dear, a Jesuit priest who founds his pacifism and civil disobedience on his Christian faith. In the full print article, he says:

    “I don’t believe you can be a Christian and support war in any form — or, for that matter, greed that leads to global poverty or any form of injustice, racism, or sexism. Christians are supposed to be peacemakers. The only thing you can say for sure about Jesus is that he was nonviolent.

    I think that the development of Just War theory within Catholicism was very likely an attempt to reconcile this most basic nonviolence in the heart and history of Christianity with the imperial power the Church inherited from the Roman Empire. Personally, I’ve always been drawn to the early Christianity and its small communities striving for goals of simple, peaceful living. Taking Jesus seriously, along with Gandhi and King, is one reason why I’m a committed pacifist today.


  8. I snese we’d agree on many things. Empire corrupts. I find too many wealthy Christians have a split-level Christianity. They trust Christ in the private sphere but not the public sphere. They affirm the supremacy of Christ but relativize his teaching when it comes to politics and economics, elevating the Old Testament over the New Testament, reversing the revelation. In many ways this is a denial of the gospel, the affirmation that Jesus changes everything. You are right to reject that anemic Christianity, I do as well.


  9. Hi Jeff

    a friend sent me an interesting blog and I thought you might enjoy taking a look too.


  10. […] thankful that there are Pagans out there who are more experienced at this and are already putting thought and action into this sacred […]


  11. […] Pagan Values, Ecology, Environmentalism, and Practical Pacifism […]


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