Today, I want to look at the history of religion from a Hegelian perspective (ok, actually a Fichtean perspective, but I didn’t realize that until this moment). What I mean is using the triad of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.” First comes one idea, then an idea in opposition, and then, over time a synthesis that takes from both to create a new (and ideally improved) idea.
I’d argue that early religion was land-based, intricately intertwined with one’s place of being—with the environment, plants, animals (and the educational stories that stemmed from these). These religious systems offered a spiritual philosophy to understand that specific place and a code of conduct to survive in it (including with the other people—both in their groups and not part of them). That worked well until populations grew large enough and concentrated enough that religions could be spread beyond a specific geography. Christianity and Islam spread out across the Middle East, Africa, and Eurasia (driven by missionaries who traveled city to city to spread those ways). Buddhism spread from India (where, interestingly, it minimally took root) colonizing Sri Lanka, China, Southeast Asia, and Japan.
Then when the new world was “discovered,” Christianity, in its many forms (old and new), colonized North and South America and, through persuasion and brute force covered both continents, converting, suppressing, or eliminating the Indigenous peoples who loved, stewarded, and understood the land that they had inhabited for hundreds of generations. (This is not the place to debate whether Indigenous peoples were perfectly sustainable—of course no humans are—but generally speaking, they lived in relative harmony with their lands. Though whether, given a long enough timeline, they would have taken the same techno-centric Earth-deaf path of the Europeans is unclear but certainly not definite. After all, the Chinese built ships that dwarfed European ones in the 1400s but never used them to colonize the world. Culture, values, and belief systems strongly shape a society’s priorities and pathways of development.)
With the missionary non-land based religions, came a detachment from the land, and an otherworldly focus on heaven or the end of the karmic cycle, both of which downplayed our utter dependence on and our being part of the land and planet (once that became known). After all, if the ultimate goal is to go to heaven or stop being reborn into a cycle of suffering, nurturing the land for the seventh generation to come is less relevant. (Plus, it’s probably worth adding, being missionary in nature, there were benefits of growing far bigger—i.e. being fruitful and multiply—to help spread their beliefs as possible, saving even more souls, or growing in power, or both, even if that meant transcending local ecosystems’ biocapacity).
Missionary religions, by their nature, need to be uniform enough to transcend land so they can appeal to peoples regardless of where they are or what cultures they are part of. Plus, as more people moved to cities—and further separated themselves from the land and their umbilical cord to Gaia (it’s still there, people just no longer see or feel it), it was that much easier to communicate through these spiritual universals.
Gaianism as a Synthesis
But can we imagine a synthesis? A religion that recognizes our dependence on specific lands as well as on the planet, passing that knowledge on to its adherents, but is also global enough to appeal across cultures, and spread wide enough to shape societal perspectives and priorities? That’s ultimately my vision for Gaianism. Local Gaian groups should have their own local sub-cultures, but should be readily understandable as “Gaian” by any visitor or transplant who moves to that village, town, or city (whether running from a flooding city or a violent locale, or running to a better place that through the Gaian presence has become somewhere worth weathering the storm).
I remember hearing the term “glocal,” a decade ago when I studied the global economy and “local economy” responses to it. The ideal path, some argued, was the global/local synthesis. Some aspects of the global economy are here to stay. In fact, they were here long before even the fossil fuel era and became an integral part of the world since the era of exploration/colonization (even the Pilgrims came to New England under an economic agreement that they would send back “fur, fish, and forests” to pay their passage).
Even in collapse, there will be a globalized system, complete with competing missionary efforts—whether Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, Consumerism (the current winner), or perhaps even a new idea: an ecocentric missionary philosophy that once again values the land and local cultural traditions where it takes root, while also recognizing our global dependence on and connectedness to Gaia. Next week, finally, I will explore what these local groups might look like.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erik Assadourian has been a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute for 15 years and the Director of the Institute’s Transforming Cultures project since its creation in 2009 with production and publication of State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability. Erik is co-author of over a dozen books and an eco-educational board game, Catan: Oil Springs. He is a leading expert in sustainable development, economic degrowth, sustainable communities, consumerism, and cultural change. In his free time, Erik yardfarms and forages edibles where he lives. Erik recently obtained a certification on Sustainable Urban Agriculture from the University of District of Columbia. He is currently writing a book on Gaianism.