Some years ago I created the Pagan Environmental Alliance (not realizing that there was already an existing Pagan Environmental Network based around a much better known and successful document, A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment). I was following the impulse to “spread the message” I had received from a local (that is, to the state of Florida and nearby regions) Earth Mother. I wanted that space to serve as a gathering place for like-minded pagan folk who felt the centrality of Nature in their practice, especially localized Nature, and wanted to dedicate a certain amount of their spiritual work toward protection of said natural/holy places.
While it has gathered a great deal of people over the years, it has lost just as much. For perspective, it has always hovered at around 200-220 members, gaining and losing about the same amount per month for the last few years. I have no clear indications of whether those members are doing any environmental work in tangent with their spiritual practices, beyond that done by everyone concerned about that topic. Despite many topics calling for the sharing of information and community-building, I have not received many or much of any such. Instead, we remain in silent silos, only rarely posting an article about our particular interests with little to no context, much less a call to action, added.
I declared the P.E.A. defunct a few months back, exhausted from having to face this failure of mine, without much understand why. In my personal quest, I have encountered varying degrees of success: While more secular local efforts have come up short to my own expectations, and any reasonable measure of success, my personal education on the matter soars. In fact, that seems to be the general tone of successful ventures everywhere I look. The word spreads, but actions rarely follow, and almost always limited to an individual’s dedication and effort. The aforementioned Community Statement has not met its goal of 10,000 signatures consistently for the last 4 years, despite frequent calls to action and signal boosting. In other words, from what I could count as “pagan environmentalism,” the movement has failed.
Are we not Earth-Centered, then?
Or, perhaps, like so many have joked before, pagans as a whole are so anti-social and anti-authoritarian, that we consistently fail to come together? Perhaps it is as Misha Magdalene states in their book Outside the Charmed Circle: neo-paganism was never just one thing and we’ll never truly share enough in common to be a single, unified community. To consider that hurts me in some deep, unnameable place. I find it an impossible notion to make peace with. How can a whole minority faith claim to be earth-centered and pay lip service to Mother Nature and at the same time consistently fail to do much of anything for Her?
It is the effect of some deeply disenchanting and poisonous part of Protestantism, perhaps, that we’ve failed to exorcise in us. (No shame, it is a part of the overculture and requires great awareness of our shadows to even glimpse.) Might as well add in the next two likely culprits: the incomplete worldview that arises from Enlightment philosophies and the individualism of Capitalism. All of these things were presented to us as good things, but moreover, as simply the way things are. To question them, as many of us attempted to do, was quickly met with derision and ostracizing by adults and peers alike.
For those children whose “over-active imagination” saw them conversing with plants and “fairies” and imaginary friends, perhaps even psychologists were brought in. Their psychoanalysis stripped us of companion beings and standardized our imaginations toward the norm, rather than finding ways to mature childhood impressions into spiritual revelations. Our peers judged us for our habits, and even worse, we could not find a kindred soul to share our inner lives with. Too afraid of ridicule and ever-present bullying, we shut those parts within until they withered and sex became our fascination.
How long until we rediscovered them in paganism? How long after that until we learned the sober topics of discussion around the circle, and how to only merely wink at the Fae, or worse, to banish and dominate all spirits? In some regards, a great deal of modern occultism smacks of imperialism and colonial vanity. Why draw a magic circle, a special place, if the world beyond it is just as magic and special? Where do we get the hubris to think we can summon gods and elementals to do our bidding, and treat them like servants? The arms of our Great Mothers encircle us daily, and yet we fail to recognize this love and kinship. While we may do no harm to the world around us, explicitly, we maintain and perpetuate the systems that destroy her Body and her Children.
Whatever else we might do environmentally (rallies, donations, clean-ups, campaigning, voting, etc.) cannot even begin to compare with the cost in lives of the clothes we wear in the places we air condition and travel to with the cars fueled by gasoline, guided by the smart phones we explode mountains and children for.
Not Guilt, But What Then?
To feel overwhelmed with guilt is admit defeat in the face of complicity. We will be guilty for a long time to come, even if we manage to pull off the slow descent required for a just transition. We’ll carry this guilt for centuries to come–gods willing–if we are to remain on equitable kinship bonds with all the lives and beings among us. Guilt is the earned wages from ecocide; spend it wisely.
Transformation is the goal, I think. We must, for the first time in the histories known to us, consciously seek to become a better and more adaptive version of ourselves. It is, perhaps, a path trod by others before. I sincerely doubt we’re in this work alone. Various ancestors of spirit and place and blood await to instruct us in the needful lessons to come. Archaeological and ethnographic evidence suggests that many cultures left no trace of their transformations–as that might be the point–and emerged out the other end with all the wisdom of the past and a new suitable ecological function. I am thinking of the Maya people and the remaining mystery cults that emerged out of the Bronze Age collapse throughout the Mediterranean, before civilization once again swept them into complicity with imperial domination.
Those two examples might prove to be instructive, after all. The Maya remained in companionable kinship with their Mesoamerican environments until the arrival of the Spanish and its associated catastrophes. Some groups have only recently emerged out of this very purposeful way of life, mostly due to the catastrophic intervention of capital propaganda. A similar story could be told of the many different polities that rose and fell throughout the Andes before the arrival of Inca dominion and Pizarro’s murderous schemes.
By contrast, what adaptations emerged from the Mediterranean Bronze Age collapse can be found in the archaeological record (specifically, the move to remote mountain “holdfasts” that could protect and sustain the populations, mandating a closer link with Nature), but were seemingly forgotten in the cultural memory of the civilizations that followed. Imperium homogenizes thoroughly, especially when striving to serve male Sky Gods and their edicts of conquest. Thus we lose the Ashera and demote Kebele, we absorb Hekate and exalt the Hidden Mystery of Ra.
What lays in store for our paganisms, then? A mix of both, it seems from this present vintage point. We’ll both defy and submit to the coming empires after the Fall, in whatever form it takes. West Coast Gaianism and ofrendas, along with Mountain Momma’s Rebel Witches, will survive this cultural matrix. Perhaps doggedly persistent British Druids will remain, along with fearsome Scandinavian Norsefolk. But the rest? Without a proper link to ancestral cultural practices–without a root–there might be no survival beyond the shy esotericism of the State, much like many now practice.
Aquarian Ambitions, Piscean Roots
What if we learned the one trick that transformed us in the past and nearly drove us into extinction? I speak of proselytizing, of spreading the Word of Nature, of conversion. Whether through gentle compromise or lively competition on holy days or downright mobs sacking pagan temples, the early Church fought against the pagans and forced them into submission. They went from a minority religion that slowly gained strength and adherent in “high places” of Roman society, to a state-backed religion after Constantine’s death, using the Third Century Crisis to grow and confront the dominant cultus of the Emperor and Sol Invictus. Today, they continue this work through evangelizing distant tribes, fear-mongering in impoverished communities, and political back-dealing in the halls of power.
Such a style of violent take-over is not what I refer to, strictly speaking. It is, in many ways, what we must transcend beyond, just as the early Christians thought to transcend away from the pageantry of state-sponsored pagan cults in the Roman Empire, directing their followers to seek rewards and salvation in the afterlife. While we may turn down such violent conversion tactics, the zealots and mystics of the late Roman Empire understood they were fulfilling a need that the dominant religions failed to answer. Can we likewise do so today? Can neo-paganism become the answer to our present ecological and extinction crisis?
Obviously, I believe it is and it can be. I just don’t think we have reached such a level of understanding among ourselves to push for that transformation in a wider social space. What would we say to others, when our own words ring hollow without deeds? Even the early Church, steeped in its violent tactics, worked its proof through deeds: feeding the poor, housing beggars and bringing them into the fold, and even providing basic healing and shelter to the oppressed (i.e., the enslaved of Rome). Are we fulfilling such a function? Where is our justice work–or better yet–are we known widely for our fervent work on behalf of the needy and oppressed?
Yes, in order to become a force comparable to that of Christianity, we must transform a great deal of our practices and outlook. Neo-paganism would have to lose its fascination with self-help and gain a compelling interest in their fellow human beings and the natural beings it claims to align with. It must reach back to its deep ancestral roots to revive animism for modern struggles, and not just as a fetish of wokeness. It must make solid alliances with the local indigenous people, becoming unshakable advocates of their position. It must do the difficult work of elevating ancestors and healing ancient traumas that have festered for thousands of years. Then, and only then, will it have the “social capital” (I hate this term) to evangelize a message of balance and ecological kinship.
I believe this is the work to save our place on this planet, without requiring cyborg lungs and neo-feudal corporate control (a possible outcome of the current crises). It is emerging from the cracks of the old society itself, recognized by philosophers, spiritual leaders of all paths, and modern sages. It is already being done by folks involved in Deep Ecology, spiritual ecology, and Deep Adaptation networks across the globe. Faced with catastrophe and the possibility of extinction, humanity is rediscovering its living spiritual roots. But each and every one of them are doing what we ought to have done and can still do.
The wisdom of our ancestors does not belong solely to us, but to anyone who will take the time to honor the knowledge whispered in the quiet places of the collective soul. Who better to receive it than us, so far ahead along the path, yet so tragically distracted by our navels? Who better to inspire the world to come, than those who speak with squirrel, cloud and tree?
The work ahead is difficult and our success is not guaranteed. But we’ve tread this path before in a thousand different ancient forms. In our blood the old wisdom speaks, if we’ll but listen. We can teach the world to listen, too.