“From Biophilia to Cosmophilia: The Role of Biological and Physical Sciences in Promoting Sustainability”

Lucas F. Johnston. 2010. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 7-23.
DOI: 10.1558/jsrnc.v4il.7
Ideas from the life sciences and the physical sciences, particularly the ideas that
ecosystems, the planet itself, and even the cosmos are interconnected and ‘organismic’, have influenced the development of sustainability discourse. Sustainability advocates strategically deploy such scientific concepts through subtly spiritualized language and metaphors to advance their arguments. Even when the language of sustainability advocacy is not explicitly religious, it reflects core values and deep beliefs of particular individuals, communities, or groups. In such cases, sustainability movements derive their power by following a neo-religious narrative, and when deployed in the public sphere, such narratives are performing religious work.

The interdisciplinary discussion that we have begun here in Inhabiting the Anthropocene has pulled together many different ideas in the humanities and sciences. Several themes are emerging. Among them are ideas about the reciprocal (or cybernetic) relationship between humans and nature, about the moral responsibility that human beings have toward the earth, about localism versus cosmopolitanism, and about the concept of anthropocene and our worldview/myth/religion.

The last of these ideas is my focus here. Zev points out that it might be necessary to construct a modern myth so that we can internalize a new way of thinking about our relationship with our home planet. David talks about building a new “habitat literacy” that involves concepts and vocabulary that most people simply don’t have right now. For example, few people easily grasp what it means to say that we are coevolving with the rest of our world. Our pragmatic minds haven’t been trained to deal with this sort of thing.[1]

Our deficit is at least partially due to the fact that in the West we have lived too long with myths that don’t contain mental building blocks for us to work with. We have a heritage that gives us either Christian or Cartesian concepts, and we end up with mental models that are dogmatic or anthropocentric or linear. None of these things ease us into an “eco-centric framework,” and yet it is probably just such a framework that we need to have in order to feel at home in the Anthropocene.

Johnston’s article points us to people who have tried to help us develop this new eco-centric literacy by asking us to consider new religious or mythic ways of thinking. The twentieth century has brought us many men and women in the sciences who have offered a vocabulary for a new age.

Physicists and life scientists have contributed to sustainability movements a sense of awe and reverence experienced through their professional work. Such perception is typically grounded in an understanding of biological or cosmological relationality. While biophilic affinities extend to the carbon-based world, some scientists imagine human wellbeing against the backdrop of a larger cosmological narrative, and advocate for ‘cosmophilic’ affinities. Both sorts of scientifically mediated feelings of interconnectedness with nature have been used to market sustainability-oriented narratives. (p. 8)

We find the ecologist Aldo Leopold talking about developing an “ecological conscience.” A diverse collection of thinkers follows him, including sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, physicist Fritjof Capra, environmental theorist James Lovelock, and biologist Rachel Carson. I would add primatologist Jane Goodall as another key figure.

The rethinking involves both large-scale, mythic, reimagining of our world, but it also includes personal connections to the non-human other. Johnston recounts, for example, the story of a woman’s encounter with a porpoise that gave her a wholly new experience of human-animal communication. The point to the article is that the mythic and religious connection that links us to the world around us can be profoundly reconceived. These are not simply a philosophical shifts in thinking but deeply personal and emotional experiences that give people new intuition about our world. Moreover, it is the scientists who are enabling this by “connecting their own existence and moral sensibilities … to evolutionary and cosmological narratives that are understood as sacred in some way.” (p. 21)

Theologians and religious studies scholars are picking up on these religious myths coming from the sciences, and they are exploring the relationship between environmentalism, ecology, and religion. Johnston points to a few prominent writers in this area like Bron Taylor. Taylor has proposed the idea of a dark green religion that seeks to spiritualize all of nature. Another figure, not mentioned by Johnston, is the Christian theologian David Ray Griffin, who, by contrast, builds his eco-theology out of the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.[2] Other scholars have turned to native spirituality for further clues to how moderns might rethink their relationship to nature.

These are all very different directions for religious worldviews. Not all are compatible with each other. Nonetheless, the fact that they are founded in the experiences of natural scientists makes them important and compelling. Johnston claims that they are having an effect by promoting community and providing moral and emotional resources for environmental activism.

[1] I have just picked up a new book by philosopher Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) that is an effort to help us understand and deal with these nonhuman-scale objects.

[2] David Ray Griffin, “Green Spirituality: A Postmodern Convergence of Science and Religion,” Journal of Theology (Dayton, Ohio: United Theological Seminary), 96 (1992), pp. 5-20.


Bron Taylor. 2010. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. University of California Press. ISBN-13: 978-0520261006. Taylor’s perspective of a non-Christian ecological view of nature that includes inherent moral values and should be regarded as sacred The introduction discusses many dimensions of a green religion. 
Michael S Northcott. 2011. “Review Essay: The Evolution of Green Christianity.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, vol. 5, no. 3, pp 354-363. This review discusses four recent books on green Christianity and green religion showing the wide range of thinking that is currently embraced.
Willis Jenkins. 2009. “Religion and Ecology: A Review Essay on the Field.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 77, no. 1, pp. 187-197. This review points readers to four significant reference books in the field of religion and ecology: Christianity and Ecology (2000), The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Nature (2006), The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2005), and Ecospirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth (2007).

2 thoughts on ““From Biophilia to Cosmophilia: The Role of Biological and Physical Sciences in Promoting Sustainability”

  1. This is extremely interesting, and I look forward to reading Johnston’s article. I would add Donna Haraway, Gregory Bateson, and Tim Ingold to the list of influential scholars whose work would be relevant to this discussion.

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