Respect for the Earth, however that may be interpreted by a practitioner, is one of the common hallmarks of Paganism. The concept of following an “Earth-based” religious path is a common attractor for seekers, and — perhaps in an effort to make Paganism palatable to monotheists — interfaith communities often refer to the Pagan representatives as “Earth-based.” While there are a large number of Pagan paths, and not all would describe themselves in this way, most would at least acknowledge that respect for the Earth, its changing climate, and its long-term health is a value to them.
Pagans have played a prominent role in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, allying with the local native community to defend sacred land from being desecrated by oil interests. Pagans of multiple traditions have fought against other pipelines, fracking, strip mining, clear-cutting forests, and pioneered sustainable living practices. Support for the Earth can be interpreted in many ways, but Pagans, regardless of tradition, tend to lean toward a love for the planet and advocacy for its preservation.
Yet there is a contradiction here. Pagan practice can be very consumerist and environmentally damaging. It often contains a large arsenal of accouterments: statues, candles, cauldrons, blades, herbs, matches, lighters, oils, even plastic utensils for festivals. Practice often involves fires and the burning of spells, incense, or offerings which, despite their sacredness, contribute to the carbon in the atmosphere. Objects are often buried, released into rivers, or scattered to the winds; practices that, if done on a larger scale, would be environmentally unsustainable. As practitioners of religions that often claim to respect the Earth, it seems vital to be aware of our own damaging practices and modify them into more environmentally friendly versions wherever possible.
“I think much of Paganism runs the risk of becoming materialistic,” says Katrina Ray-Saulis, self-described kitchen Witch, writer, and artist from Maine. She gives the example of spell books instructing the purchase of certain candles, knives, and other objects for a spell. “And then,” she adds, “the spell says ‘let the candle burn down completely to make this spell complete.’ But do you know where that candle came from?” Are we aware of how these items are produced? “And when you’re done with it, adds Ray-Saulis, “what happens to the cup? A lot of waste goes into spell craft…If we’re going to be Earth-worshipers we need to truly be worshiping the Earth and caring for her, right?”
Sparrow Anderson, the co-host of the Wigglian Way Pagan podcast who also been on the front lines of the fight against Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain oil pipeline through Burnaby Mountain in Vancouver, Canada, tries to compensate for this by utilizing natural objects in her spell craft. “I find myself using natural objects more often, or none,” says Anderson. She still struggles with candles, though. “Paraffin wax is a problem. It’s made from fossil fuels. We try to purchase mostly beeswax and plant-based waxes, but again cost becomes an issue.”
“I am reminded,” says Anderson, “that in spiritual practice we should be using the very best we are able.”
Trisha Morey, Ray-Saulis’ wife and a Native American/theosophical practitioner puts the problem simply, “Pagans are harvesting from resources in ways that are not sustainable. Unless people start growing their own and harvesting is sustainable ways, we’re going to run into issues. We’re already running into issues.”
Morey cites the difference between native and non-native harvesting practices. Where native practice is to “take the smaller” and less healthy plants while leaving the seed for future growth or to hunt the less healthy deer from a hunt, non-native cultures take the largest plant and the healthiest animals.
Morey further cites the popular Pagan tool of the drum, which often requires animal hide for the skin. “As far as I’m aware,” she says, “non-native cultures throw [out] the hide of the animal that they hunt instead of using that hide, or they’ll [obtain it] from someone who uses the animal just for the hide and the meat gets wasted. The bone is wasted,” she concludes, “and a bone knife is sharper than a metal knife and doesn’t dull for years.” This pattern of single use and disposable, along with fact that few Westerners give much thought to the sourcing of the products they purchase in New Age stores or anywhere else adds to the unsustainable nature of much of Pagan practice.
Because of this, Ray-Saulis advises that the first step toward a more sustainable Paganism is awareness. “Awareness,” she says, “is how we modify our practice first and foremost. Learn where your things come from.” As an example, she suggests that we “follow the path of how that piece of fabric got to your house. It may have only cost $1.50, but what did it cost to make it? What chemicals were dumped into a river of some country with poor environmental practices?” Ray-Saulis advises reuse, noting from her own practice that, “I needed a piece of black fabric for a spell, and I had a pair of old black work pants with a hole, so I cut the fabric from the pants. Small things like that,” she says, “can make such a big difference.”
“I’m all about reusing things,” states Ray-Saulis. “When we write spell books, it should be with the idea that nothing need be purchased for the spell. When we are are building public ritual it should be eco-friendly. I can’t even count the number of Pagan celebrations I’ve been at where I ate off of Styrofoam plates!”
Morey agrees, and looks to her native culture for inspiration. “When you take from the environment,” she says, “you should use all that you take.” She gives the example of one plant: “We use sage plants,” Morey explains, “to make sage tea [for] women. We use the leaves to extract infection from in the mouth or open sores, almost like a band-aid. A lot of people don’t realize that plants have more than one use, so they’re picking a lot of different plants when one plant can do three jobs.”
Morey also advises a more balanced approach to diet, noting that lack of balance in diet leads to a lack of balance in the Earth. “The problem I and a lot of Native Americans see with not eating meat,” she says, “is if you’re only eating plants those plants have to be renewed somehow, because otherwise you’re over-consuming one resource, which the plant-eating animals also eat.”
She continues, “So if humans are only consuming plants and plant-eating animals are only eating plants you’re stripping the plants from the Earth, which also produce oxygen, and you’re setting off the balance. She notes that the same is true of humans only eat meat. For us,” Morey finishes, “all life has equal value: rock, plant, animal, fish, human…the trick is always balance.”
Travel is another aspect of Paganism that can damage the environment in unsustainable ways. Pagans travel into nature for celebrations, to festivals, to small gatherings, and all of that involves the use of fossil fuels, the same substances sold by the companies Pagans helped resist in North Dakota and elsewhere. Anderson says that “travel is a constant concern” for her because “many of [her] coven mates travel from other nearby cities for esbats, sabbats, and other events.” She often travels to the U.S. to attend festivals. “That’s a lot of fuel.” Many other Pagans have experienced similar concerns.
Large public events such as Pantheacon, which takes place every February in San Jose, Calif., have taken measures to reduce their environmental damage. Pantheacon offers a carbon offset purchasing program with registration, and it provides water to attendees while encouraging them to bring refillable bottles to the event instead of using plastic cups. TempleFest in New Hampshire does the same with water, and next year the festival will be held in a retreat center with cabins, so participants do not need to drive back and forth from hotels during the weekend.
Ray-Saulis advises other steps that people can take on their own to mitigate the environmental damage of their travel. “I am really big, first and foremost, on bringing our own food.” She cooks a whole chicken and uses the meat for sandwiches and other meals while on the road. She also likes to “take gallons of water which I can refill at springs along the way.” While refilling water at natural springs is not an option for everyone, using large refillable bottles of water to diminish the use of plastic is possible for everyone. “I am far from the greenest person,” she says, “I struggle. But I think just being aware and taking notice helps.”
“Anything that burns less fuel is going to help our environment,” says Morey. Inspired again by her native culture, she suggests the idea of “runners” to obtain supplies. In the past, “instead of everybody traveling, two people from one tribe would pack a canoe full of supplies.” That way, “anything that was needed outside of the home environmentally the energy of two people was utilized.”
She suggests that if local spiritual communities did something similar, “there wouldn’t be any need to use up so much gas.” Ultimately, she says “what we need to do is stop thinking of ourselves as little individual islands and start going back to living as communities.”
Above all, Ray-Saulis advises a mindset that looks toward the future rather than bemoaning the past. “When I first began thinking specifically along these lines, I was upset with myself for past actions,” she says. “I think it’s important to be okay with our past and work toward a better future at the same time. We don’t all need to move to yurts in the middle of the woods and catch our own dinner, but we do all need to be warriors for Mother Earth in one way or another.”
“We should be looking toward being more selective and mindful and consume less,” agrees Anderson. “It’s time to join the Minimalist Witchcraft Movement. Is that a thing? Or did we just start it?”
CORRECTION 1/17/16 7:15pm: The original article stated that Sparrow was involved in protests against the Keystone Pipeline. However, her work is directed at the TransMountain pipeline. The correction has made in the article.
* * *
The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.