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Religion and Spirituality

Indigenous perspectives in the midst of climate change

By Jonathon Turnbull

Indigenous peoples (IP) are negligibly responsible for the negative impacts of climate change and often play a mitigating role against it. Despite this, they endure the greatest hardships wrought by global warming and receive the least support in coping with increasing rates of environmental degradation. IP constitute five per cent of the global population, inhabiting every environmental type across 90 countries, and account for one-third of the world’s extremely poor rural people. At COP 22 (an annual UN climate conference) in 2016, held in Marakech, I attended a workshop on ‘Art and Climate Change’, during which a presentation was made on the Ifugao Igorots, a group of IP from the Philippines, who worship a Bulol – a rice God or Goddess. When worshipped, Bulols are inhabited by ancestor or nature spirits (aníto). They usually come in the form of a carved wooden figure (Figure 1) and are placed in a rice granary to bring a plentiful harvest. In recent years, Philippine rice harvests have repeatedly dwindled and suffered as a result of climate change despite the Igorots performing Bulol rituals in the traditional way. Some Igorots have interpreted this as a shift in their relationship with ancestral spirits and deities, causing widespread anxiety and stress associated with disturbances in the spiritual realm. The impacts of climate change for IP, therefore, are not limited to the material world.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Unfortunately, research and reporting associated with IP is often ignorant to such substantial implications in the spiritual realm, which often accompany environmental degradation. Instead, researchers and reporters focus on the political, geographical and economic marginalisation faced by IP. These material and practical implications of climate change are, of course, important but they fail to adequately acknowledge the importance of the spiritual realm to many indigenous communities. In the scant help afforded IP by materialist Western governments who, arguably, tend to perceive value solely in protecting material wealth and minimising impacts, the emotional and spiritual burden of climate change is not sufficiently accounted for. This contributes to an incomplete understanding of the impacts of climate change and thus makes it difficult to build an ethical response to the diverse challenges it poses. In response to such oversights, the burgeoning field of spiritual ecology is attempting to enhance our comprehension of how the environment, spirituality and religion are intertwined, especially amongst IP. For spiritual ecologists, the current ‘ecocrisis’ can only be resolved if there is a thorough rethinking, re-feeling and revisioning of the place of humanity in ‘Nature’ – an ontological shift that entails a rethinking of our world(s), and the relationships we (humans) have with it.

Animism, indigenous ontologies and shamanism

It is well documented that IP are usually relatively ecologically sustainable, especially when contrasted with Western capitalist society. This is not to suggest that IP don’t face their own unique ecological crises, or to romanticise an imagined indigenous eco-friendly way of living. Indeed, it is important to avoid this temptation, especially given the historical context of anthropological work on the ‘Noble Savage’ and its misrepresentation of IP and their ways of life. Spiritual ecologists, however, often refer to animist societies to highlight societal and cultural modes of relating to the environment that are more sustainable and ecologically sensitive. The word ‘animism’ derives from the Latin, anima, meaning spirit, soul or life force, and denotes the common religion among many indigenous societies. Animists believe Nature is permeated with spirits. In many indigenous cosmologies, an array of landscape features including mountain peaks, glaciers, and waterfalls are considered physical manifestations of deities and are thus imbued with spiritual value, becoming central to religious and ritual practices. For the Igorots of the Philippines, for example, the world is comprised of a range of different sentient persons, where everything possesses a soul (ab-abí-ik). Intelligence and sentience are seen as attributes of Nature itself rather than any singular body or being in isolation. Animism contends that humans and other-than-human persons are comprised of very different material, yet all share a similar interior animating force that permeates the interconnected web of life and non-life. Recent work in anthropology, however, has warned against understanding animism and indigeneity explicitly and solely through reference to spirits and souls as these terms were often impressed upon IP by Christian missionaries as part of the colonial effort to convert IP to Christianity [i]. Scholars and researchers have instead engaged with these indigenous environmental knowledge systems produced by IP using the term ‘Traditional Environmental Knowledge’ (TEK) to denote a valuable source of information with regards to adapting and responding to environmental changes. TEK, however, is becoming increasingly threatened as languages become extinct, indigenous populations decrease, and cultural diversity is eroded by forces of imperial globalisation.

Spiritual ecologists, however, often refer to animist societies to highlight societal and cultural modes of relating to the environment that are more sustainable and ecologically sensitive.

In many indigenous societies, the primary navigator of the multidimensional web of life/non-life is the shaman – a person who has access to and influence in the world of good and evil spirits. Shamans communicate with the spirits to heal, harm, prophesize and mediate in situations of social and environmental conflict, often working to maintain socio-ecological and spiritual balance in the community, as well as managing scarce ecological resources. Emerging from the ancient reindeer hunting cultures of Eastern Siberia, shamanism is an ecstatic tradition that often involves disembodiment and soul-flight to other unseen dimensions to acquire knowledge. To embark on these spiritual conquests, the shaman will enter into an altered state of consciousness attained through sensory overload or deprivation through drumming, dancing, fasting, binging, smoking, vomiting, isolation, meditation, hyperventilation and more. Many shamans incorporate psychotropic and entheogenic plants and plant mixtures such as tobacco, ayahuasca, peyote, ibogaine or psychedelic mushrooms alongside these other techniques to enter into the spiritual realm in which their work is done. It is often through the shaman that spirits express their dismay at how humans are living with their environments and interacting with the spirits that pervade the web of life. For Tibetan Buddhists, for example, Mount Khawa Karpo – one of Tibet’s most sacred mountains – is considered to be the physical manifestation of the powerful warrior God of the same name, deriving from the ancestral religion of the area – a shamanistic tradition named Bön [ii]. Climate change induced glacial retreat, diminishing snow cover, changing river flows, and shifting vegetation patterns all signify changes to the mountain, and thus to the God, Khawa Karpo, inducing felt impacts for local IP. Such spiritual and emotional impacts of climate change are more likely to be intensely felt by IP who, through animist and shamanistic traditions, imagine themselves more deeply connected with their environments. This contrasts starkly with Western society, which has arguably become progressively alienated from the ecological processes on which it depends. Many spiritual ecologists (and others) suggest this alienation is at the core of many contemporary ecological crises.

It can therefore be shown that some IP consider the effects of climate change as an active assault on their Gods, causing direct harm and weakening their power to protect humans and to answer prayers. Climate change-induced impacts on Khawa Karpo are simultaneously material and immaterial; glacial retreat is of great environmental concern in terms of global rising sea levels (to name only one impact of glacial retreat), whilst the God Khawa Karpo is also seen as melting away with the glacier – losing its power to protect the local population. Some have also interpreted climate change to be a retaliation by the Gods in response to the ways in which humans are treating and degrading the natural world. The word ella for the Yup’ik peoples of Alaska and the Russian Far East is variously translated as ‘weather’, ‘world’ or ‘universe’. Ella is responsive to human thought, and climatic changes have been interpreted as punishment for not treating ella with care and respect [iii]. In this way, the impacts of glacial retreat are arguably most intensely felt in the spiritual realm for many IP in Tibet. Climate change has both immaterial and material consequences for IP, which are not only felt in the spiritual realm, but also affect the interactions of IP with the spiritual realm. Take, for example, ritual practices intended to encourage social cohesion, performed by the Kogi of Colombia. Alarmed at how outsiders are degrading the Earth, they cope with the threats posed by melting glaciers through performing and adapting their rituals [iv]. Similarly, for the Urapmin peoples of Papua New Guinea, the destructive investments of a multinational mining corporation have led to the development of new rituals [v]. Climate change therefore affects distinct practices that constitute the performance of a given spiritual tradition.

Science, religion, and indigenous peoples

Climate change is a truly global phenomenon – affecting all Earth systems across all continents – but is felt and experienced locally. IP are uniquely sensitised to their local natural environments in ways that people in industrialised societies are simply not. With less access to complex technologies, indigenous livelihoods are more intimately entwined with environmental fluctuations. Their perspectives are crucial for understanding how ecosystems change in lieu of climatic changes. While useful for understanding how social ecological systems function, positivist science cannot provide a ‘true’ or full understanding of climate change in isolation. Collaboration between IP and scientists is required for equitable solutions to climate change that contest hegemonic power relations. In Tibet, however, where IP have embraced science (and scientists) as a mechanism for understanding environmental changes, scientists have proven reluctant to reciprocate this understanding, often dismissing the spiritual realm as superstition or pure fantasy, much like the early anthropologists that studied IP [vi]. In the Pacific Islands region, however, religious messages concerning environmental conservation and stewardship are equally as powerful as secular and scientific messages when it comes to communicating the impacts of climate change [vii]. Despite the supposed causes of climate change, it is clear that to produce equitable solutions, both science and traditional spiritual understandings and knowledge are required.

Spiritual ecologist Leslie Sponsel has called this general movement towards a global spiritualism, ‘a quiet revolution’.

In line with this, the spiritual implications of climate change are not limited to indigenous societies. Western religions have recently been mobilised in the climate change arena following the release of an Encyclical – the highest-level teaching document in Catholicism – by Pope Francis on June 18th, 2015. Entitled Laudato Si’, it was the Catholic Church’s first ever Encyclical concerning ecology and the environment explicitly, and it will reach a large audience with over two billion Christians globally [viii]. For Pope Francis, ecology and equity are inextricably linked. This marks an important shift in Catholicism, where teachings aimed at protecting the environment are rare in an institution whose priorities are human-focused, often to the detriment of the natural world. The Catholic Church’s conception of the relationship of humans with ‘Nature’ is changing, however. Spiritual ecologist Leslie Sponsel has called this general movement towards a global spiritualism, ‘a quiet revolution’. These new avenues for approaching climate change do not attempt to settle scientific questions or replace politics, according to Pope Francis in the Encyclical. Rather, they represent a merging of science and religion, the two foundational human intellectual and spiritual endeavours. A contemporary example of such an approach that straddles the science/spiritual divide, is the recent research conducted on psychedelic drugs, which has been coined, ‘the psychedelic renaissance’. Much psychedelic research since the 2000s has an element of mysticism at its core, according to anthropologist Nicolas Langlitz who documents the psychedelic scientists using science as a means to explore spiritual phenomena. Early research has pointed to increased feelings of nature-relatedness amongst those who have taken psychedelics. The parallels here with the use of entheogenic plants amongst shamanistic traditions should not be ignored and could play a crucial role in understanding more deeply what it means to be human and to live ecologically in the Anthropocene – the era in which humans become a planet-changing force.

To the future

Critical engagement with traditional environmental narratives and indigenous ontologies offers unique perspectives and tools in the face of unprecedented change. It does not, however, presume that indigenous lifeways or narratives offer a panacea for all current environmental crises. In fact, in line with the associations between shamanism, spirits and colonialism mentioned above, this essay urges for a closer engagement with indigenous perspectives on climate change through concepts other than medieval European ones that empirically engage with the lived, embodied and practiced knowledges of IP today. Moreover, this engagement also presents an opportunity to bridge the gap between science and religion in pursuit of a more integrated and holistic perspective on social and environmental change. Not only must we be interdisciplinary, but we must be international, interpersonal, interspecies and interdimensional in the collection of diverse perspectives to truly seek justice for all earthly beings in lieu of the impacts of climate change. Thinking beyond materiality and into the spiritual realm may be the greatest challenge that environmentalists face in integrating TEK and indigenous perspectives into their approaches for tackling climate change and conservation issues in an equitable manner. If the quiet revolution is underway, indigenous perspectives may offer the insights necessary to come to terms with the task of tackling climate change.

[i] Giraldo Herrera, César E. (2018) Microbes and Other Shamanic Beings. Palgrave Macmillan.

[ii] Byg, A. and Salick, J. (2009) Local perspectives on a global phenomenon – Climate change in Eastern Tibetan villages. Global Environmental Change, 19: 156-166.Climate change has induced glacial retreat, diminished snow cover, changed river flows, and shifted vegetation patterns, all of which signify changes to the mountain, and thus to the God, Khawa Karpo, inducing felt impacts for local indigenous peoples.

[iii] Fienup-Riordan, A. (2010) Yup’ik perspectives on climate change: “The world is following its people”. Études/Inuit/Studies, 34(1): 55-70 AND Fienup-Riordan, A. (2014) Linking local and global: Yup’ik elders working together with one mind. Polar Geography, 37(1): 92-109.

[iv] Sponsel, L. E. (2012). Spiritual ecology: A quiet revolution. ABC-CLIO.

[v] Moretti, D. (2007) Ecocosmologies in the Making: New Mining Rituals in Two Papau New Guinea Societies. Ethnology, 46(4): 305-328. [vi] Byg, A. and Salick, J. (2009) Local perspectives on a global phenomenon – Climate change in Eastern Tibetan villages. Global Environmental Change, 19: 156-166.

[vii] Nunn, P. D., Mulgrew, K., Scott-Parker, B., Hine, D. W., Marks, A. D. G, Mahar, D., and Maebuta, J. (2016) Spirituality and attitudes towards Nature in the Pacific Islands: insights for enabling climate-change adaptation. Climatic Change, 136: 477-493. [viii] Tucker, M. E. and Grim, J. (2016) Four Commentaries on the Pope’s Message on Climate Change and Income Inequality: II. Integrating Ecology and Justice: The Papal Enycylical. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 91(3): 261-270.

Illustration by Jasmine Yang

Jonathon Turnbull reads for a PhD in Geography at King's College, University of Cambridge. He is interested in spaces of spontaneous nature and contamination.


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