top of page
  • Writer's picturescoleman34

The Rise of Spiritual Ecology

In traditional Hawaiian culture, there was a brotherly relationship between the kalo plant and the first human; they nurtured each other. Native Hawaiian families had a sacred connection to the land and the food that came from it.

Before the first Western ships sailed into Hawai‘i, the islands produced enough food for a native population of more than half a million people. Over time, that intimate relationship with the land was lost with the rise modern industrial agriculture. Today, acres sugarcane and pineapple have been replaced by acres of GMO crops grown by the world’s largest chemical and seed companies, none of which benefit our local food supply. Instead of building affordable housing and promoting local, sustainable agriculture, our political leaders have allowed developers and investors to pave over O‘ahu’s most fertile lands in favor of upscale housing developments. The result is a complete disconnect from a local food supply, requiring the state the import more than 85 percent of its food.

The rapid pace of development and the destruction of our natural habitat have made Hawai‘i the extinction capitol of the world. “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” Pope Francis wrote in his recent papal encyclical. Named after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of all nature lovers, the Pope is now calling for an “ecological conversion” to help save the planet and ourselves. Religious leaders around the world are echoing this call, asking people, communities and nations to change their destructive ways and take better care of nature and each other. But where do we begin?

Photo: Courtesy Dr. Leslie Sponsel


“Ultimately, the environmental crisis is a moral and spiritual crisis in the way that humans relate to nature,” writes Dr. Leslie Sponsel, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Sponsel helped pioneer a popular new field of study called spiritual ecology to deal with these crises.

In his book, Spiritual Ecology: The Quiet Revolution, Sponsel says there is a growing movement in many religious and spiritual traditions to develop “greener individual lifestyles and societies that do not degrade the environment. Naturally, this also involves matters of justice and peace as well as environment, and all three are often interrelated.”

At its heart, spiritual ecology is about reconnecting humankind to the natural world. The movement embraces the best of traditional religion, indigenous culture, social justice and modern science. According to Sponsel, spiritual ecology calls for a fundamental rethinking about the ultimate causes and solutions of the ongoing and worsening environmental crisis. The essence of spiritual ecology can be summed up by Hawai‘i’s state motto: Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Aina i ka Pono. The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.

In a new book called, Thinking Like An Island: Navigating a Sustainable Future in Hawai‘i, local authors write about the roots of Hawai‘i’s ecological crisis and possible solutions. One essay suggests that missionaries helped spread the misconception that man has dominion over the natural world and its unlimited resources.

“This is clearly captured in the Genesis myth of the Garden of Eden,” says Louis Herman, an author and professor of political science at University of Hawai‘i, West O‘ahu. “This is the beginning of civilization and it really defines the whole separation from nature.”


Born into a Jewish community in South Africa, Louis Herman was exposed at an early age to the beauty of pristine savannahs in the African wilderness. Conversely, he also witnessed the brutality of racism. “As I was becoming aware of the incredible beauty, power and good feeling of being in the that environment, I was also becoming aware of the corruption and cruelty of civilization because of apartheid,” Herman recalls

Wanting to escape apartheid, Herman’s family moved to Britain, where he studied medicine and political science at Cambridge University. He later moved to Israel in an attempt to explore his Jewish roots. Living in a kibbutz and working on a farm, he experienced deep connections with the land that shaped his language and culture as a Jew.

During the Arab-Israeli wars, Herman became a soldier. Affected by these bloody political conflicts—apartheid and war—Herman lost his will to fight and began studying political philosophy to try and answer the question: What is wrong with civilization and how can we fix it? Herman eventually moved to Honolulu, where he earned a doctorate of political science at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Years later, he returned to his homeland after apartheid ended.

During a five-day trek through the South African wilderness, he saw all kinds of wildlife like elephants, buffalo, baboons and crocodiles. “It should have been terrifying and we were scared at first,” recalls Herman, “but our guides were extraordinarily skilled Bushmen.” According to Herman, San Bushmen live just like their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

Photo: Louis Herman

At the end of his journey, Herman felt at peace and at home in the wild. “I was happier and healthier than I had ever been in my entire life since I was a child,” he continues. “That was another revelation—that sort of experience must have been common to all human beings for much of human existence when we were living as hunter-gatherers in this incredibly rich environment.”

In the scope of human existence, he says our ancestors lived like hunter-gatherers for almost 99 percent of our time on Earth. But over the last century, we have destroyed more natural habitat than all the previous millennia combined. Herman believes we have to fight to protect our last wild forests, watersheds and coastal wetlands. “These areas are extremely valuable to all human beings because wilderness is the royal road back to the source.”


Since the launch of the voyaging canoe Hokule‘a in 1975, the Hawaiian Renaissance has brought about a resurgence of indigenous values that are still transforming life in the Hawaiian Islands. As people begin to recover their traditional cultural knowledge, they see how relevant ancient practices are in an age of ecosystem collapse.

“People live happier, healthier lives when tuning into these values,” Herman says. “They have an immediate, pragmatic value that’s been increasingly recognized by indigenous people themselves and by industrial societies. “

Conversely, the environmental impacts of development in Hawai‘i are obvious: overcrowding, traffic, stress and the diseases. “It’s very difficult to live a healthy life while working two jobs, commuting and trying to make it in an urban, industrial economy,” Herman says. “It’s very unhealthy physically, psychologically and socially. It fragments families and sets individuals against each other.”

Teaching at the University of Hawai‘i, West O‘ahu, Professor Herman is excited that the university is working with organizations like MA‘O Farms. “There’s an emphasis on building a community between the people and the land together,” he says. “This movement toward organic farming, co-ops and eco-villages can all be seen as creative attempts to apply elements of this primal wisdom in a way that is informed by the best elements of science. In a way, it really is a synthesis of the best of science, indigenous wisdom and the best parts of capitalism.”


Local organizations like MA‘O Farms in Wai‘anae are putting spiritual ecology into practice every day and inspiring young locals to learn about organic farming. By studying local food issues, Hawaiian cultural traditions and sustainable business practices, they recognize that environmental, social and economic issues are tied together in the life of the land. Established in 2001 by Kukui and Gary Maunakea-Forth, MA‘O Farms, located deep in the Lualualei Valley, started farming on five acres of land. Since then, the operation has grown tremendously and the Maunakea-Forths are working with Kamehameha Schools to create another farm on the North Shore.

One of the most important values that Kukui Maunakea-Forth tries to share with her student workers is their relationship with the land and the community. “You can’t really have that authenticity unless you have that sense of place,” she says. “That’s a very Hawaiian way of thinking. You can’t really know yourself unless you know your family, your community and your place in nature.”

Kukui says that vision is deeply embedded in the name MA‘O, which stands for mala (garden), ‘ai (food) and ‘opio (youth). “It’s about the connection between the land and the youth. That builds relationships, sustainability and resilience.” Along with learning about Hawaiian culture and growing local, organic food, MA‘O is helping to educate and nurture young locals searching for a sense of direction.

Many of the students come from troubled backgrounds, and part of MA‘O’s mission is to create a safe community where they feel like family. Kukui says that MA‘O Farms provides a healthy alternative to the “school-to-prison pipeline” that derails some young Native Hawaiians and locals who feel rejected or alienated from mainstream society.

Working in the soil, they are following in the footsteps of their ancestors. Farming is hard work, but it brings families and communities together. “Hana [work] is the root word of ‘ohana [family], so we are a social unit, but we are also an economic unit,” Kukui says. The students not only work in the fields tending the crops, but they also learn the business of organic farming. They grow, sell and distribute fresh, organic produce to big grocery stores like Foodland and top restaurants like Town and Alan Wong’s Restaurant.

Kukui credits part of their success to the wise guidance of Native Hawaiian elders who work with the students on the farm. “A big part of our pedagogy is the inter-generational connection,” she says. “We see our kupuna as our future ancestors.” Local leaders like William Aila, Sr. ask the kids engage the kids and teach them about environmental stewardship and community service.

Cheryse Kaui Sana grew up in Lualualei Valley near MA‘O Farm and joined their internship program while at Waianae High School. She went on to earn a bachelor degree from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Today she is the farm manager, overseeing the interns.

Sana says she learned her most important lessons from kupuna like William Aila, Sr., “Papa Aila used to say, ‘You need three things to succeed in life: love, respect and a willingness to work. If you do these three things, you are gonna go some place.’ That’s always in the back of my mind.”

Photo: Rafael Bergstrom Kukui Maunakea-Forth

Louis Herman believes farming and gardening have healing effects that benefit body and spirit. “Working on the land is the most intimate way of connecting with nature. If you plant seeds, you become aware of how important your role is in tending the earth. When you handle these plants and watch them grow, you become aware of the miracle of creativity and creation in all living things. Eating these plants and feeding your vitality is a profound act of communion with the natural world.”

The explosive growth of farmers’ markets around the islands shows that people are hungry for local food and a more direct connection to the land. The simple act of buying local, fresh produce empowers our local communities. Avoiding fast food and joining the slow food movement also helps support the local economy and a healthier lifestyle for our people. “It’s available to every one of us every time we eat,” Herman says. “So buying local and eating organic are ways of integrating spiritual values and economics in our personal practice.”

According to Les Sponsel, spiritual ecology emphasizes the unity, interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings and things. In the end, it’s about going back to the source and re-establishing a relationship with nature, each other and the life of the land.

25 views0 comments


bottom of page