A Vision for the Future of Environmentalism

January 18, 2018
Dan McKanan
Professor Dan McKanan's research focuses on religious movements for social transformation in the U.S. / Photo: Jonathan Beasley

Professor Dan McKanan, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity, has previously published books on religious movements working towards social justice and transformation.


In his new book, Eco-Alchemy: Anthroposophy and the History and Future of Environmentalism, he constructs a history of environmental initiatives inspired by anthroposophical spirituality and offers a vision for the future of environmentalism.


HDS student Claire Laine spoke with McKanan to discuss the experiences that led to this book and where his research will take him next.


Harvard Divinity School: For people unfamiliar with anthroposophy and its founder, Rudolf Steiner, how would you introduce the subject?


Dan McKanan: My standard synopsis of anthroposophy goes like this. The Theosophical Society was created in the late nineteenth century by westerners seeking eastern wisdom. The Anthroposophical Society was created in the early twentieth century by theosophists who wanted to take a new look at western wisdom, particularly at some of the hidden currents of the western tradition. These currents include alchemy, astrology, the seasonal festivals of western Europe, and ancient traditions of the planetary spheres and bodily humors. Scholars often lump these currents together under the label of “western esotericism.” So anthroposophy is a rich mix of western esotericism with seemingly eastern ideas about karma and reincarnation, along with a healthy dose of Christian liturgy.


What I add to that synopsis is that, among the dozens of spiritual movements that grew out of theosophy and are still thriving in many places today, anthroposophy was distinctive in the extent to which students of Rudolf Steiner wanted to apply spiritual wisdom to practical problems in the world—problems having to do with education, with economics, with agriculture, with medicine, with care for people with disabilities. Anthroposophists create farms and social enterprises, develop new systems of banking, and run schools, rather than simply talk about the spiritual teachings that inspire them.


HDS: In the parts of the book where you discuss anthroposophy’s gifts to environmentalism, you describe the concept and practice of “appropriate anthropocentrism.” How might anthroposophy help us reconsider the relationship between the human and the natural world?


DM: Anthroposophy means “wisdom of the human,” and the anthroposophical emphasis on the human is one of the things that can create a block for a lot of environmentalists. Many environmentalists would say humans are animals, full stop. We’re no more special or dignified than any other animal. And if you feel that way, it’s hard to get your head around Rudolf Steiner’s claim that there’s a qualitative distinction between humans and animals as significant as the qualitative distinction between animals and plants, or the qualitative distinction between plants and minerals.


But what that qualitative distinction persistently allows students of anthroposophy to do is to say that it is in the nature of human beings to live in harmony with other creatures. This is part of the reason that agriculture, rather than wilderness preservation, is at the heart of anthroposophical environmentalism. This agricultural emphasis appeals to me because there are huge problems with a kind of environmentalism that puts wilderness preservation at the center.


Certainly in the United States, the wildernesses that are preserved by the federal government became wilderness by virtue of the forced killing and expulsion of their indigenous inhabitants, who had, in most cases, been living on that land in ways that did not pose a significant threat to other creatures and ecosystems.


The other problem with wilderness-oriented environmentalism is that it can create an almost anything-goes attitude towards all of the spaces that haven’t been designated as wilderness. Anthroposophists believe agricultural spaces can be hospitable spaces for wild nature, and if we’re going to turn back the crisis of biodiversity—the mass extinction of species—we have to make changes in how we deal with agricultural spaces as well as changes in how we deal with wilderness spaces.


HDS: Your chapter titles, such as “Roots,” “Branches,” and “Flowers,” reflect the organic quality of the subject matter. Why did you decide to structure the book this way?


DM: One of the main themes both in anthroposophy and in kindred spiritual traditions is the idea of correspondences between earth and heaven, macrocosm and microcosm. I first learned that there was such a thing in the world as anthroposophy when I read the newsletter that I received from the community-supported agriculture farm Angelic Organics, which I had a share in when I was a doctoral student in Chicago.


One thing that caught my attention in the newsletter was the idea that every organ of a plant corresponds to an organ in the human being, but that in order to understand these correspondences, you have to see that the plant is the human being turned upside down. In coming up with chapter titles, I wanted to honor that way of thinking, that the parts of the plant can provide a template for understanding other things by using it to structure my argument.


This is something that I find enormously appealing about anthroposophy: it tries to provide a picture of the world in human-scale terms. Students of Steiner are quite willing to use the classic Aristotelian elements (earth, water, fire, and air) to talk about the natural world. You cannot walk into a garden and use the Periodic Table of Elements to understand what you experience in that garden, whereas earth, water, fire, and air allow you to have that experience in the garden. This helps you to think of yourself as belonging there. There’s a real concern that if we lose familiar language for the natural world, we lose an allegiance to the natural world.


HDS: Another part of the book that may be surprising to readers is the history of the various political alliances that anthroposophists and environmentalists have created over the course of the twentieth century. How are you thinking about the material now in our current political climate?


DM: The book that I wrote before this, Prophetic Encounters, is a history of religion and the left in the United States, written from the perspective of my own commitment to the range of causes that would conventionally be considered part of the left, such as socialism, feminism, and anti-racism. Though I’m also an environmentalist, I was never quite convinced that environmentalism fit comfortably in the paradigm of the left, because the left is mostly about liberation, and environmentalism is mostly about preservation.


As I worked on this book, my challenge was to honor my own perspective as a leftist who thinks that there’s a great deal of compatibility between a leftist vision and an environmentalist vision, but to also tell an authentic story of a strand of environmentalism that, at its core, is neither left nor right, but doing something quite different.


A significant chunk of the scholarly work on anthroposophy, as opposed to the vast amount of work that’s been done by people working within the anthroposophical community, has in fact focused on interconnections between anthroposophy and the political right in ways that are both illuminating and in my view sometimes quite unfair. But more fundamentally, I think the problem that that scholarship falls into is that it presupposes an either/or view of politics. That way of thinking denies the core of environmental politics, which is concerned neither with the liberation of the left nor the authority of the right, but rather with harmony and balance.


There was an alliance between environmental thinking and fascist thinking in the 1930s and 1940s. It included some strands of anthroposophy and some other early promoters of organic agriculture. That alliance has pretty much dissolved. Part of the reason for that is that the emphasis within the political left and the political right has shifted since that time.


In the 1930s and 1940s, the strongest force internationally on the political left was Stalinism. Students of Rudolf Steiner and environmental thinkers more generally could not stomach Stalin’s centralized, statist view of society: it was too out of balance. But the blood and soil version of fascism has a certain affinity for environmental thinking.


Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher brought into the world a very different version of conservative thought, not so connected to nationalism or racial identity, but committed to the idea that free economic markets are the source of all salvation for humankind. And free market fundamentalism is about as far from environmental thinking as you can get. That version of conservative thought dominated from the time of Thatcher until just a few years ago.


But now the old, fascist form of conservatism has come back. In this moment, those of us on the left really don’t know whether the enemy we should be concerned about is the neoliberalism that Thatcher and Reagan brought into being, or the rise of nationalist and fascist currents on the part of Trump, Le Pen, many of the people behind the Brexit vote in the U.K., and so forth.


But even though fascism has come back, the alliance between fascism and environmentalism has not. I have seen absolutely no evidence of any sympathy for this sort of resurgent fascism among people connected to the anthroposophical movement. Politicians in Europe with anthroposophical connections have been tied to very strong pro-refugee policies. The anthroposophical movement is very cosmopolitan, so it really relies on open borders.


Despite the fact that Rudolf Steiner was quite critical of government bureaucracies and government involvement in the economy, virtually no one in the anthroposophical movement today would be pushing to scale back social welfare bureaucracies. They see the excessive power of corporations as the stronger threat.


HDS: During the summer of 2013, you traveled with a research grant from the Center for the Study of World Religions. What were those experiences and how do they manifest in the book?


DM: There is an intentional community movement called Camphill that’s rooted in anthroposophy, where people with and without developmental disabilities create life together, usually in an agrarian context. In the summer of 2013, and then again more briefly in the summer of 2016, I took my family and we went from place to place, through the United Kingdom and then onto Switzerland, visiting Camphills and other anthroposophical initiatives.


My usual ethnographic method is to blend formal interviews with immersion in the life of particular communities. So we would get work schedules and participate in various tasks needing to be done. My “Alternative Spiritualities” class in the fall also included field trips to Camphill Village USA and a few other places connected with other spiritual traditions, where I and my students also got to do a little bit of agricultural labor and so forth.


HDS: This book is the culmination of many years of research. Do you have an idea of what’s next for you?


DM: I am on sabbatical this spring, and I will be writing a new book entirely focused on the Camphill movement. Back in 2007 I published a small book, Touching the World, that is a comparative study of Camphill communities and Catholic worker communities. But it doesn’t really delve into the anthroposophical roots of Camphill, and it doesn’t fully explain how it happened that a network of intentional communities started in the 1930s is still thriving today. So while I was researching Eco-Alchemy, I was simultaneously researching a bigger book on Camphill, and I hope to have that book finished soon.

by Claire Laine