GREENING THE PARANORMAL: RE-WILDING AND RE-ENCHANTMENT
This book is an exploration of the many threads subtly interconnecting what might at first seem to be unrelated fields: anomalistics (the study of the paranormal in all of its guises), and ecology (the study of the relationships between organisms in living systems). It has emerged at a critical moment in the history of humankind’s relationship with the Earth, and all the species that co-inhabit with us. Throughout the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, we have continually – and often deliberately – ignored the warning signs of the ecological catastrophe we are now facing. 2018, so the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) recently announced, was the fourth hottest year on record, closely followed by 2017, 2016 and 2015. Indeed, the twenty warmest years since records began in 1850 have been in the last twenty-two years (WMO, 2018a). Who knows what 2019 will hold? On top of this, the WMO also reports that global greenhouse gas emissions are at their highest levels yet, in spite of the efforts and agreements of governments around the world to reduce them (WMO, 2018b). When this is combined with the dramatic loss of animal species over the last fifty years – up to as many as 60% of species according to the World Wildlife Fund (2018) – and the continued deforestation of vast swathes of the world’s ancient woodland (BBC, 2018), we are presented with a very grim picture indeed. Something needs to be done, or rather, something should have been done a long time ago. As sociologist Bruno Latour puts it: ‘we haven’t lacked for warnings. The sirens have been blaring all along’ (2017, p. 9).
There are, however, some promising signs that we are collectively beginning to wake up to the reality we have created. From the bottom up perspective there are already hundreds of grass-roots regenerative ecology projects emerging all around the world (Rootes, 1999). The Youth Strikes for Climate that have been taking place on every continent, inspired by sixteen year-old Greta Thunberg’s ‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ outside the Swedish parliament, are also raising awareness of our ecological crisis on a massive scale, as are the growing number of Extinction Rebellion groups across the UK. Promising signs from the top-down perspective include the Paris Climate Accord, which was agreed in December 2015 and signed and ratified in April 2016 by 195 countries. This was a major stepping stone in that the agreement represents an international scientific consensus on climate change – that it is real, that human beings bear the brunt of responsibility, and that we need to (and can) do something about it. The agreement is aimed at:
[keeping] global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change (UNFCCC, 2018).
This is a process that will involve radical social, cultural and economic transformations. These changes will (at least to begin with), be driven by the need to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% in the next decade, followed by similar 50% reductions in the following two decades. It will entail a total transformation of the way we live our lives – food, energy, transport, culture and society. By 2050 we should be living in a carbon negative world if we hope to have even a 66% chance of avoiding run-away climate change (Rockström et al., 2017). Although it is true that no international agreement is ever going to solve the problems we face – we are talking about something much more than mere politics here – it is the overarching message of the Paris Agreement that is of greatest importance. In essence, the Paris Agreement calls on individual nations, communities, institutions and individuals to develop their own localised responses to climate change. In other words, it is up to us – in whatever capacity we can – to develop innovative new ways (or perhaps even return to some very old ways) of building resilient communities, regenerating ecosystems, enhancing biodiversity, mitigating climate change and meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement. It is an opportunity for creativity (Jones & Hunter, 2017; 2018).
All this talk of climate change, biodiversity loss and the urgent need for practical action might well seem a million miles away from the fringe topic of the paranormal, and it may at first be difficult to see any way that a re-engagement with the paranormal might help us to make sense of and overcome these terrifying global threats. In the spirit of creative exploration, however, this is precisely what I am suggesting with this book: that approaches emerging from the study of (and engagement with) the supernatural may ultimately help us to re-connect with the natural, and in so doing develop innovative approaches to confronting the eco-crisis. This book, then, will examine parallels between anomalistics (incorporating parapsychology, paranthropology, cryptozoology, religious studies, and so on), and ecology, not just for the sake of exploring interesting intersections (of which there are many), but for the essential task of contributing towards a much broader – necessary – change of perspective concerning our relationship to the living planet.
In a sense what I am suggesting is that the ontological assumptions underlying the rejection of the so-called paranormal by mainstream materialist science and culture are precisely the same as those that underlie the ecological crisis and our society’s fractured relationship with the Earth. It is this book’s contention that if we really want to change our behaviour we will have to change the way we think about our place in the cosmos. I am not the first person to suggest this kind of approach – see, for example, Jospeh K. Long’s ‘Extrasensory Ecology’ (1977), Warwick Fox’s (1990) work towards a ‘transpersonal ecology,’ Paul Devereux’s (1996) ‘Re-Visioning’ of the Earth, and Mark A. Schroll’s (2016; 2018) explorations of ‘transpersonal ecosophy,’ to name just a few. This book may be thought of as a contribution to these increasingly pertinent conversations.
The following introductory discussion will be broken down into four parts. Part 1, ‘Belief, Experience and Behaviour’ will look at how an engagement with alternative worldviews (such as religious and paranormal worldviews) might be useful for developing social, cultural and behavioural changes that can have a positive impact on the living planet. Part 2, ‘Ecology and Anomalistics’ lays out key concepts arising from these two fields of research and explores how they might relate. Part 3, ‘Other Minds: Non-Human Intelligence’ looks at some of the possible deeper ontological connections between ecology and the paranormal, specifically in relation to the notion of mind and intelligence in nature, and the processes by which it manifests and interacts with us. Finally, Part 4, ‘Animism and Re-Connecting to Place,’ considers animism as a model for engaging with the world and synthesising the ideas we have been exploring.
Belief, Experience and Behaviour
Environmental activists can sometimes be a bit squeamish about engaging with the faith communities of organised religions. Indeed, some scholars have argued that our current climate catastrophe has its roots in the doctrines of the major monotheistic denominations and their ideological influence on Western society and culture. In particular, commentators have highlighted the anthropocentric emphasis on human dominion over nature in monotheistic traditions (Toynbee, 1971). Religious worldviews have been used to justify human consumption of the Earth’s finite resources. It is equally clear, however, that a large proportion of the blame for the ecological crisis also falls on the scientific and philosophical developments of the Enlightenment, and the technological and industrial developments of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Harding, 2009, pp. 31-35). Combined with the more recent digital revolutions of the twenty-first century, and our increasing absorption in screens of various kinds, we have long been on a trajectory of increasing perceived separation from nature.
Religion and science have both played their part in this unfortunate unfurling. As a category that effectively collapses the distinction between science and religion, however, the paranormal might suggest new directions for innovative thinking about our relationship with the ecological systems that surround, sustain and interpenetrate us – beyond mainstream scientific and religious perspectives. Indeed, Jeffrey Kripal suggests that the paranormal can be conceived as ‘the sacred in transit from the religious and scientific registers into a parascientific or ‘science mysticism’ register’ (Kripal, 2010). This ‘middle-way’ could provide new routes toward re-evaluating our relationship with thr world around us. At any rate it is clear that there is an urgent need for this kind of boundary crossing work, especially if we hope to develop creative ways of reversing the damage that humanity has inflicted on the Earth. Neither science nor religion can tackle these problems alone. We will all have to pull together, across differences of culture and belief, if we are to stand a chance of keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees of change from pre-industrial levels, as research indicates that we must (IPCC, 2018).
The Greening of Religion
With approximately 2.2 billion Christians (32% of the world’s population), 1.6 billion Muslims (23%), 1 billion Hindus (15%), nearly 500 million Buddhists (7%) and 14 million Jews (0.2%) (not to mention all those who participate in indigenous, folk, and new religious movements), by invoking the admittedly contested category of religion we are talking about vast numbers of people right across the planet – a demographic that encircles the entire globe (PEW, 2010). If even a fraction of these faith communities (as eclectic and diverse as they are) was to take up ecologically regenerative practices (such as permaculture, agroforestry, community garden projects, wildlife restoration, and so on) – made meaningful to their lives by their respective cosmological models – consider the huge impact it could have on the global system.
Fortunately, since the 1980s there has been a growing awareness of anthropogenic climate change among the major world religions, as well as a rise of religiously motivated ecological restoration projects. Some have referred to this phenomenon as the ‘Greening of Religion’ (Taylor, Wieren & Zaleha, 2016). In the build up to the United Nations Paris Climate Summit (COP21) in 2015, for example, statements were issued by representatives of the major world religions calling on members of their respective faith communities to take positive action on climate change (Chaplin, 2016). Pope Francis, for instance, announced his first encyclical – Laudato Si’ (‘Praise be to you’) – which is expressly concerned with issues of sustainable development, runaway consumerism, global warming and environmental destruction. In the encyclical, Pope Francis (who takes his name from the patron saint of ecologists, St. Francis of Assisi) writes:
I urgently appeal ... for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all (Pope Francis, 2015).
A central connecting feature of many of the statements issued by representatives of the major faith denominations is an emphasis on ‘holistic, organic or relational images of the world’ (Chaplin, 2016, p. 2), which highlight the interconnectedness of all life on Earth. The Hindu declaration on climate change, Bumi Devi Yai Kah!, for example, suggests that ‘all elements of reality are ‘organs of God’s body ... the entire universe is to be looked upon as the energy of the Lord’ (cited in Chaplin, 2016, p. 3). We will return to these themes throughout the chapters that follow, but suffice to say at this juncture that the potentials for both affecting social and cultural change and practically regenerating ecosystems framed in cosmological models such as these are enormous. Models of the universe as a living system imbued with intelligence and agency, of which we are all a part, are valuable alternatives to the mainstream models of reductionist and materialist science, which have actively contributed to the collapse of our global ecosystems (Plumwood, 2010).
Greening the Paranormal
Just as the faith communities of the world’s religions represent an opportunity for climate change mitigation, so too might the ‘paranormal milieu.’ If recent surveys are anything to go by, belief in (and experiences of) the paranormal are remarkably common in the Western world (Castro, Burrows & Wooffitt, 2014; Bader, Mencken & Baker, 2017). The Chapman University Survey of American Fears (2018), for instance, suggests that paranormal beliefs are actually on the rise in the United States. The survey suggests that 57.7% of the US population believe that ‘Places can be haunted by spirits,’ an increase of 11.1% since 2016, and that 75.9% (approximately ¾) of the US population holds some form of paranormal belief. Interestingly, the Chapman Survey of American Fears also revealed that just 53% of the population is ‘Afraid of Global Warming and Climate Change.’ Based on these figures it would appear that there are more paranormal believers in the US than people worried about the damage we have inflicted on the global ecosystem. Is there a way of redressing the balance somewhat? What if the paranormal demographic could also be tapped into for climate change mitigation?
Just as we might talk about the ‘Greening of Religion,’ maybe we could also talk of a ‘Greening of the Paranormal’? What if every time Sasquatch research groups went on an expedition into the wilderness they also planted trees to rebuild habitat, or lake monster researchers worked to improve water quality, or when ghost hunting organisations conducted vigils in abandoned hospitals they also scattered wildflower seeds to enhance biodiversity? What if UFO spotters set up community gardens for late night star gazing? Consider the possibilities. On a very practical level, appealing to the sheer number of paranormal enthusiasts out there to get involved in regenerative efforts could yield very real positive outcomes. As fun as this sounds, however, this is not really what I am talking about – I am talking about something much deeper.
RE-WILDING AND RE-ENCHANTMENT is an extract from Greening the Paranormal: Exploring the Ecology of Extraordinary Experience by Jack Hunter
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published August 2019
Size: 6 x 9 inches