This course explores how various cultures through time and space have interacted with the natural environment in an effort to achieve material, spiritual, and medical wellbeing. We will closely examine sustainability as reflected in a variety of spiritual traditions (from “animism” to Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, polytheism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and in societies or in social phenomena not necessarily driven by any “religious” system (such as hunter-gatherers, nomads, socialist and communist kibbutzim or Sirius, an intentional community and eco-village in Shutesbury, Massachusetts). The current “greening” philosophy spreading across the U.S.A. and globally has created a campus-wide (and 5-College-wide) thirst for courses related to sustainability, permaculture, organic gardening, and environmentalism. None of these wonderful initiatives or courses, however, examines the idea of Sustainability in a comparative historical and religious context. This course helps to fill an intellectual gap in the curriculum and also offers students an opportunity to consider Sustainability as an age-old human preoccupation. Among the questions we will explore are: What is human wellbeing and how has its definition changed according to time and place? How was the concern for human wellbeing connected to concern for other entities, such as animals or the earth as a whole? Was there a gap between law and actual practice? How successful or detrimental were sustainability efforts? How did these efforts differently 2 impact the various sectors of a given society? To what extent does the modern Sustainability movement show awareness of religious traditions and history? Does the movement’s principle preoccupation with techniques and science make room for the historic orientation of religious traditions to the natural environment? In other words, is the modern Sustainability movement compatible with today’s spiritual traditions? For each theme we will ask: What is the role of “religion” and is religion” a useful category of analysis for the topic under consideration? The motto of this course is: “One foot in the past, one foot in the present.” Most Sustainability concerns have to do with the present day. A significant portion of the course, therefore, invites students to bring contemporary themes into the classroom, discuss them, and endeavor to place them in historical context. For example, in the week spent discussing deserts in historical context, we will also consider the significance of today’s deserts for Sustainability, e.g. the potential of the desert as a model for biomimicry.
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