Book Review of Dark Green Religion, by Bron Taylor
Book Review by David Johns
…I take it [the problem of certainty] to be intrinsic to the human condition, that is, the condition of a species that lives, and can only live, by meanings and understandings it itself must construct in a world devoid of intrinsic meaning but subject to causal laws, not all of which are known. It is, further, a world in which the lie is ubiquitous, and in which the “reality” or “truth” of key elements, like gods and values and social orders, not only have to be invented but maintained in the face of increasing threats, posed by ever-burgeoning alternative possibilities… Roy A. Rappaport. 1999: 21.
Why a review of a book almost a decade old? Because it is topical for a number of reasons. Most people in the world answer the why questions by way of religious belief. It is indisputable that scientific method provides the best, and self-correcting, information about how the world works. But science does not provide meaning, though it might inform it. As Rappaport suggests above, humans (and perhaps other cultural animals) invent meaning. Meaning emerges from emotion, needs, and experience and takes the form of stories, including stories about the sacred. The sacred concerns the most basic and unquestioned—and untestable—assumptions about the most fundamental purposes of life for a group or individual. These purposes may or may not be related to a divinity, but they are a means of making the cultural and invented seem natural and ensuring wide acceptance within a group and even defining a group as a group (Rappaport 1999: 166-7).
Despite the decline of religious belief in wealthier societies, much of the world consists of religious believers, and the world is growing more religious because the religious have more children than non-believers (Norris & Inglehart 2004). For conservation to broadly influence behavior it must become embedded in existing belief systems or serve as the basis of a new belief system—a dark green religion in Taylor’s terms. In the realm of meaning, dark green religion (DGR) holds the natural world to be sacred (fundamentally important, among the highest and most important purposes); and in the realm of science, uses ecology to guide specific behavior toward other species and the natural world. Both threads are essential in guiding behavior—in limiting hubris and grounding humility.
In the second chapter Bron Taylor outlines four types of DGR: spiritual animism, naturalistic animism, Gaian spirituality and Gaian naturalism. Naturalism rejects an immaterial essence (or spirit) in things, living or otherwise, but all recognize the intrinsic value of the non-human. Animism of either sort has roots as deep as humanity, so in some sense it represents a return to pre-agricultural and pre-state meanings and transcends the relatively short detour that embraces earth goddesses and sky-gods typical of societies that seek control over the world. What is new, in Taylor’s view, is a Darwinian understanding of our kinship with other life. What is not new is the felt kinship and connection with others that anchors DGR in the human personality. From poet Gary Snyder to scientists such as Jane Goodall and Marc Bekoff and historians such as Donald Worster, the notion of connection is central. We are all “netted together” as Darwin put it.
In chapter 7 Taylor picks up this theme from a different angle: he notes that Einstein, Sagan, Thoreau, Muir, Alice Walker and Gorbachev not only reject personal gods in favor of nature as a whole—or find connection to the whole through particular elements such as forests—but see the loss of the connection humans used to have as destructive. Not just for individuals who embrace tribal gods with pretensions to universality, but because some extant religious institutions block political progress such as an expansive Earth Charter or birth control (chapter 8).
In chapter 4 Taylor discusses the obstacles to the emergence DGR. There is little basis for animism because agriculture and urbanism separate people from the natural world. Daily life consists of interaction with other people—most existence is bereft of wild species or places. Nonetheless the notion of Gaia is attractive to many and offers a cognitive if not strongly emotional connection to the Earth. No mention is made of the extensive anthropological literature on the coming of agriculture, hierarchy and the state and religions hostile to nature: among them Paul Shepard, Christopher Boehm, Johnson and Earle, Peggy Reeves Sanday, and Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, the last being published after DGR. Calls for a DGR, from Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson, for example, may not deeply resonate absent more widespread experience of other species.
In chapter 5 Taylor explores surfing as a current means of transcending disconnection and bonding with the ocean, learning humility and developing reverence for the natural world. Surfers often speak in religious terms of their experience. The surfing community—and groups such as Surfrider—exhibit many elements of DGR and religion generally: myth, ritual, symbols, sacred places and experiences, and cultivating proper relationships with the oceans and with outsiders.
Predators, who are sometimes seen by humans as threats or competition, are a test for the human commitment to the natural world. They are simultaneously, according to Taylor, a sign of the health of an ecosystem and of our ability to relinquish control and learn limits. They require that we accept, as Muir and Alfred Russel Wallace did—among others—that the Earth and its creatures were not made for us. Some films, Taylor notes elsewhere in chapter 6, encourage empathy for other creatures by giving them personalities and struggles we can identify with. We probably have certain pioneering scientists to thanks as well as the movies for such empathy; scientists like Jane Goodall who were not afraid to name their study subjects rather than just give them numbers. Most scientists have been slow to recognize personality in other species.
DGR puts many extant religions on the defensive, Taylor believes, because it challenges their smallness (tribalism or humanism). DGR combines connection with the entire universe with a modern understanding of its size, nuance, elegance and grandness. Taylor concludes that although humans for most of our existence have been animists, DGR is different in that it incorporates Darwinian knowledge. Indeed, a Darwinian understanding of life has helped to stimulate DGR thinking. Taylor recognizes that while some religions may be influenced by the values of DGR and the experiences that underlay it, others are not. They do not recognize the Earth as sacred and still resist a scientific understanding of the world. They will have to fade to make room for DGR.
Taylor is right that for DGR to take root it will need to displace other religions. This is an important aspect of change; and the book would be stronger if this were discussed in greater detail. Conversion is the exception rather than the rule (Rambo 1993); and the sort of wholesale transformation of religions doesn’t occur simply because a religion stops explaining things adequately: there invariably needs to be a social or individual crisis and a compelling alternative to the old (Wallace 1956, 1970).
Another important element missing from this volume is a discussion of church. Religion is about much more than doctrine, values and meaning. It is also about human interaction and community. The role of religion in the US civil rights movement was not just about the theology of freedom, liberation, equality and redemption. It was about the institutions that provided safe places to meet, to share, to build relationships and trust, to plan and to organize. It’s difficult to imagine the success of the movement without black churches. Conservation has nothing similar and it suffers from that lack.
Dark Green Religion has aged well and still provides a good primer on green theology, ideology and philosophy while avoiding the distractions of minutiae.
Boehm, Christopher. 1999. Hierarchy in the Forest. Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA.
Flannery, Kent and Joyce Marcus. 2012. The Creation of Inequality. Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA.
Johnson, Allen W and Timothy Earle. 2000. The Evolution of Human Society. 2nd ed. Stanford University Press. Stanford CA.
Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart. 2004. Sacred and Secular. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge UK.
Rambo, Lewis R. 1993. Understanding Conversion. Yale University Press. New Haven CT.
Rappaport, Roy A. 1999. Roy A. Rappaport. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge University Press.
Sanday, Peggy Reeves. 1981. Female Power and Male Dominance. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Shepard, Paul. 1982. Nature and Madness. Sierra Club Books. San Francisco.
Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1956. “Revitalization Movements”. 58 American Anthropologist 264-81
Wallace, Anthony F.C. 1970. Culture and Personality. 2nd Ed. Random House. New York.
David Johns has advocated for large-scale conservation for many decades. A co-founder of the Wildlands Network, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, and Conservation Biology Institute, he currently serves as chair of the Marine Conservation Institute which is home to the Global Ocean Refuge System Initiative. He has worked on conservation projects in the Russian Far East, Australia, Europe, southern Africa and throughout the Americas. He is author of A New Conservation Politics (2009), a manual on effective advocacy for conservationists, and Conservation Politics: The Last Anti-Colonial Battle, about overcoming the major obstacles to conservation. He also teaches politics and law at Portland State University.
David Johns is a conservation activist, political scientist, lawyer, and conservation strategist. He was a co-founder of Wildlands Network and Conservation Biology Institute, among other NGOs, and he has worked on large-scale projects around the globe. His books include Conservation Politics: The Last Anti-Colonial Struggle (Cambridge 2019) and A New Conservation Politics (Wiley Blackwell 2009).