Global Climate Change and Spirituality

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Global climate change is altering every dimension of the Earth’s environment. In addition to raising sea levels and increasing the likelihood of drought and weather-related natural disasters, climate change is reducing biodiversity, accelerating energy use, decreasing the planet’s volume of fresh water, reducing the amount of food available for consumption, and diminishing the natural resources we need for everything from medicines to building materials.

Michael Nash’s 2010 documentary film Climate Refugees address the human dimension of the global climate change problem. Learn more from an interview with Michael Nash and a trailer from the film.

As you learned in the science section, these alterations in Earth’s environment are occurring at an unprecedented rate. For some communities, changes in water and food availability, weather patterns, and sea levels have already reached catastrophic levels, overturning patterns of life that people have followed for centuries. Unless the problem of global climate change is addressed, everyone on Earth will ultimately face these radical transformations in their ways of life.

Closer Look

The 2010 documentary film Sun Comes Up follows the challenges faced by the Carteret Islanders, the world’s first climate change refugees. Watch an introduction to the film. See also the incredible story of Ursula Rakova, who was a leader in helping the Carteret Islanders survive their climate crisis.

The way you live communicates who you are, what you value, how you relate to others, how you celebrate and mourn, and what you hope for. As you learned in the ethics section, global climate change presents a “perfect moral storm”. We can also say that climate change is creating a perfect spiritual storm.

By breaking up people’s routines of life, their very livelihoods, their trusted assumptions, and their sense of security, global climate change confronts human beings with very serious life questions. Where would I go if climate change made my home inhabitable? How would I protect myself and my family if climate change forced me to move? How would I secure food and water when everyone around me is seeking the same thing? What can I plan for the future? Do I want to bring children into this world?

We discovered in the case study at the beginning of this chapter that climate change is causing the herders of Mongolia to ask these very questions. Though some of us may live far from Mongolia, we all inhabit the same planet. Thus, these are questions we all must ask. How would you answer them?

When we truly contemplate the questions global climate change poses for us and begin thinking through our personal responses, we draw on our deepest beliefs about life. In other words, we reach into our inner spirit, or spirituality. In this section of the chapter, we explore the relationship between spirituality and global climate change, returning to a question posed at the end of the opening case study:

  • How might spirituality be a resource in addressing global climate change?

Climate, Culture, and Spirituality

Climate shapes culture, and culture shapes spirituality. The long-term and historic regional weather patterns and atmospheric conditions to which human communities have adapted for thousands of years contribute to everything from people’s distinctive diets, recreational activities, and manners of dress, to our diverse languages, art forms, musical expressions, and spiritual traditions. 

A Quechua girl and her llama.1

The spirituality of the Quechua people in the subtropical climate of the Peruvian highlands, for example, is distinct from the spirituality of the Inuit people in the arctic climate of Upper Canada and Greenland. Their spiritualities have been formed in very different cultures and these differences have been shaped, in turn, by very different climates. 

Most Quechua are Roman Catholics who have maintained their ancestral respect for the apu, or mountain spirits. With its frequent clear blue sky and bright sun, the highland climate of the Andes has allowed the Quechua people to gaze for centuries at their towering mountains and sustain their spiritual link to the apu.

An Inuit family and their dog sled. 1

The majority of Inuit people are animists who believe that all living and non-living things have a spirit. Atmospheric conditions in the arctic allow them to enjoy the stunning night time display of the aurora borealis, or northern lights. The Inuit look closely at the lights. In them, they see the spirits of their departed families and friends dancing in the next life. If conditions to changed so that the Inuit could no longer see their loved ones, the spirituality--and culture--of the people would be drastically altered.

The aurora borealis over Bear Lake, Alaska.1

  • 1.

    This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

Many cultures draw spiritual energy and insight from not only the constant, calming features of the atmosphere they live in, but also the incidental, fearsome drama of powerful storm events. Indigenous People of the United States, for example, have lived with tornadoes and severe storms on the Great Plains for hundreds of years.

An authentic Sioux Buffalo Skull Shield
depicting the four directions. 1

When the Sioux depict the sacred “Four Directions” of the world, the west is always painted black, representing both the Earth and the powerful black storms that come from that direction. These storms bring destructive winds and hail, but they also bring rejuvenating seeds and rain. These weather events reinforce the Sioux belief that from death comes life.

It is uncertain precisely how many distinct human cultures exist in the world. A good indication is the use of traditional languages and dialects. Linguists estimate that there are 5,000-6,000 languages still spoken around the world, suggesting an equal number of living cultures. Whatever the exact number of spoken languages is, we can be sure that Earth’s climates have shaped these languages, as well as the customs and spiritualities of all these human communities, including your own.

Questions to Consider

What are the weekly and seasonal patterns of sun, clouds, wind, humidity and dryness, heat and cold, rain and storms that characterize your region of the world?

How does this climate influence your way of life?

How do you think these patterns influence the culture of your community?

Can you imagine a change in this climate that would seriously disrupt your way of life and the culture of your community?

Spirituality and Climate Balance

In Ancient Greece, Earth’s atmosphere--understood as the air between the land and the heavens--was seen as one of the four essential powers of nature, along with earth, fire, and water. The Greek philosopher Plato (427-347BC) considered these four elements the divine tools used by the Demiurge (or, divine craftsman) in creating the world. The philosopher Aristotle (384-322BC) thought these four elements must be in balance, because each carries a quality that is necessary for life: heat (fire), moisture (air), cold (water), and dryness (earth). Aristotle believed that an excess of any one element caused imbalances harmful to both the environment and the human body.

Thousands of years before Plato and Aristotle, religious traditions on the Indian subcontinent--traditions we now group together as Hinduism–also emphasized the interconnectedness of air, earth, fire, and water. A balance of these natural elements was seen as a manifestation of Līlā, the creative play of the gods. In this creative action, air and wind had special importance because Prāṇa (the breath) was considered the source of life itself.

RassLeela by Krishna, in Prem Mandir Vrindavan, depicting a traditional Hindu Rasa Lila dance that celebrates the creation and balance of nature. 1

Today, Hindu spirituality still promotes the belief that the human spirit longs for equilibrium, an equilibrium that can only be achieved when one’s spirit is aligned with the symmetry of air, earth, fire, and water. Unfortunately, humans too often disregard this symmetry, thereby harming themselves and nature. Actions such as these demonstrate a spiritual failure. The only lasting remedy is to recover one’s spiritual connection with nature. As the 2009 Hindu Declaration on Climate Change says,

Closer Look

Read the complete Hindu Declaration on Climate Change.

Humanity’s very survival depends upon our capacity to make a major transition of consciousness, equal in significance to earlier transitions from nomadic to agricultural, agricultural to industrial and industrial to technological. We must transit to complementarity in place of competition, convergence in place of conflict, holism in place of hedonism, optimization in place of maximization.1

Emerging many centuries after Hinduism, the religion of Islam likewise emphasizes the spiritual need for humans to repair the imbalances they have inflicted on nature. As applied to climate change, the Islamic spiritual tradition reminds humanity that the atmosphere is a fruit of God’s omnipotence and grace. In the sacred Qur’an, God provides “the fertilizing winds” (Qur’an 15:22) and

. . . sends the winds as tidings heralding his grace: until when they have raised a heavy-laden cloud, We drive it to a dead land and cause the rain to descend upon it, and thereby bring fruits of every kind (Qur’an 7:57).

Artist Odilon Redon's painting, Spirit-Waters, depicting Genesis1

By supplying these life necessities, the atmosphere makes possible mīzān, the balance of nature. When in balance, nature itself is Muslim--submissive to the will of God. It is the role of the human Muslim to be a khalīfa--a viceroy of God for the sake of a balanced earth.

Predating Islam by two thousand years is the Genesis story of creation, shared by Judaism and Christianity. In it, "The earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1). The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, meaning “air in motion.” In the Jewish and later Christian spiritual traditions, the atmosphere participated in the life-giving breath of God.

This breath of divine air is also connected to Earthly peace. In the Christian tradition, when the resurrected Jesus entered the room to meet his frightened disciples, he said to them, “Peace be with you . . . and when he said this he breathed on them and said to them ‘Receive the holy Spirit’” (John 20: 19, 22).

Artistic rendition of Jesus breathing peace on Earth, breaking through the dark clouds of fear. The dove of peace, or the Holy Spirit, proceeds from Jesus’ breath, reminiscent of the dove of peace sent to Noah after the great flood. 1

In their 2001 statement on global climate change, the Roman Catholic Bishops of the United States continued this spiritual tradition of connecting climate balance, air, and spiritual peace. They write, “Our enfolding blanket of air, our atmosphere, is both the physical condition for human community and its most compelling symbol. We all breathe the same air.”2

We see that from time immemorial, human beings have taken the familiar patterns of climate and weather in their environment as a resource for inner, spiritual balance. Conversely, one can understand how a permanent change in climate can shatter not only the ‘outer’ working lives of human beings, but also their inner spiritual lives.

Questions to Consider

Describe the major characteristics of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere of the place you live.

In your view, are these natural features of the environment in balance? Explain why or why not.

Imagine you are a Muslim khalīfa. Do you need to recommend any actions to balance your environment?

What do these spiritualities of the world’s religions have to do with you? Maybe you are a member of one of the religions discussed above and this is an opportunity to learn more about your religion’s relationship to the environment.

Maybe you do not participate in a religion. Why should you bother learning about spiritual traditions of people you have nothing to do with? Especially in an environmental science textbook!  The authors of Healing Earth believe that every human being has a spirituality. You have a spirituality. It is the expression of your deepest beliefs about our planet and your place in it.

Thinking about these questions is not easy. They are not the kind of questions we think about every day. Nevertheless, they are important questions. And they grow in importance each day that global climate change accelerates. Learning about how others have thought about these questions and have tried to live out their answers offers ideas that you can compare and contrast with your own. This can help you come to a clearer sense of your own core beliefs. Today’s environmental challenges are extremely serious. We need to consider the spiritual wisdom of all people as we face these challenges, including yours.