Guest blog by Associate Fellow Edward Thacker
Spiritual ecology is knowing that we are all part of one living, spiritual being. It is the knowing of the connection of our soul and the soul of the world, the understanding that our fate is entwined with the fate of life on Earth. The rupture of this spiritual connection to the Earth, and the resultant mindset which sees the human experience as separate, viewing nature as something external to our lives that can be controlled or managed, is fundamental in how we are to understand the breakdown of ecological systems around the world.
We must move beyond this thinking; we must move beyond the logic of capital. In this capitalist world system, where private property is enshrined by law over the rights of nature, we should confront the possession of land where we can. Within our spiritual ecology, we must begin to challenge the commodification of nature. This must be central in the “great turning” (Macy 2007) we are to make.
Grow Heathrow came into existence on March 1, 2010, seeking to create an alternative to the hierarchical, ecologically destructive, and oppressive structures that fuel airport expansion in the Heathrow villages. It is on the site of an abandoned market garden, once agricultural land. Our protection of this land, to preserve it for agricultural use, means resistance, resulting in an antagonistic relationship with the landowners and the police. We do not recognise the private ownership of the land we live on.
The original occupiers, members of Transition Heathrow, lived in the Heathrow villages for six months, investing time into building human relationships. They got to know people living in the neighbourhood and attended local resident meetings. There was a patient effort to find out what was needed in the local area. A lack of community spaces was one issue identified. Indeed, the reclamation of the abandoned market garden was a result of considered communication and at the request of local residents. This derelict and abused plot, which served no purpose for the local area, was transformed into a thriving community space.
A project rooted in community participation, Grow Heathrow has since then understood that a vibrant local community willing to fight for its future is our best chance of defeating plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport.
Bringing together the democratic innovation of the Transition Town network and environmental direct activism, this project and our home aspires to offer a viable alternative to the bulldozing of green spaces, houses, lives, and history; to explore anti-capitalism, non-hierarchy, and permaculture; to promote local relationships based on mutual aid and reskilling; and to instill a culture of direct action for those directly affected by expansion plans and beyond.
A third runway at Heathrow would spell the end of community life in the Heathrow villages. Thousands of homes and buildings that escape the brute force of bulldozers will be rendered unlivable. Already, the air around us is not fit to breathe. Noise from aircraft, and the motorways which serve them, all amount to the early deaths of our neighbours. A third runway would spew more poison into the air. This is a struggle against an anti-life worldview, one that sees the air we breathe, our land, our homes, and our cultural legacy as profitable, serving economic growth before our health and our communities.
Grow Heathrow asks us to take up the challenge of connecting our economies to the quality of our lives and the future of the environment, and—most concretely and urgently—we hope to raise the alarm alongside those living on the front lines of climate change in the Global South, as well as our neighbours in the Heathrow villages.
Living at Grow Heathrow has been a spiritual experience. We are actively rebelling against the wasted values of materialism, the capitalist worldview which seeks to objectify nature. Viewing the land we live on as sacred means rejecting the old habits of objectifying land, claiming it for an investment or naming it for empire; instead, we attempt to have a relationship with our home amongst the elder trees that surround us.
In this city of London, we see this extractivist mindset in overdrive; land and property too often do not serve the city’s children, families, or communities but are simply banked on, viewed as relatively safe and secure investments. At Grow Heathrow, we do not own the land; it does not belong to us—there is only a relationship with the land, with the elder trees. This is a relationship we are just discovering, and it is one that can nourish us. We are learning how the calendula can heal our skin and how the elderberries can protect us from viruses.
We are more tuned in to the workings of the Earth, the weather, and how they influence our daily activity. Sometimes one experiences this in simple ways, like whether we need to water our plants, or whether we gained enough energy from the wind turbine and solar panel to power tonight’s party. Living here involves developing a greater understanding of Earth’s rhythms. We mark the equinox and solstice with celebration. This is a reminder of our connection with nature, the rhythms of growing food. It is our attempt to honour and give respect to nature.
Whilst we learn organic food production on our occupied land, the objective is not to sustain ourselves solely from the land we live on. Considering the size of the land and the number of mouths to feed, this is neither possible nor our primary aim, but living in a community garden growing organic fruit and vegetables, one becomes more conscious of the health of the soil. And our compost toilets also reaffirm our cyclical relationship with resources; “humanure” is used as a mulch for trees and flowers. Finally, sharing and giving of food is central in bringing people together; this gesture can be conceived as a spiritual component of our community work. Collecting “waste” food from wholesale markets and supermarket bins, we serve it to volunteers, visitors, and workshop attendees.
Nature has a gift economy, and we aspire to replicate it by offering our events and resources for free. One can see this in how an apple tree gives its fruit with unconditional love. We must aspire to provide food, knowledge, festivity, and love without expecting anything in return.
Prefiguring the world we want to see, we attempt to organise non-hierarchically. This means everyone in the group takes on some degree of collective responsibility for the work that needs to be done; there is no greater authority instructing the group to work. Upon my first arrival, I was struck by the community’s ethos of self-management. Values based in mutual aid and cooperation clearly underpinned everyone’s efforts. People worked of their own will, with a shared commitment to a cause we all believed in.
Moving to Grow Heathrow has its challenges for those who have been brought up with modern comforts; heating our homes without burning fossil fuels has been a steep learning curve, and there is still much to learn here. Just as fasting can be a spiritual tool to bring one closer to those without food, being inflicted more acutely by a cold winter snap makes one empathise with those without shelter. This all occurs in the context of a housing crisis in London, with brutal evictions making people homeless. There is a need for land to house people, and we’ve taken in many.
There is also an emphasis on preserving the wildlife that surrounds our self-built dwellings and communal spaces, and so there is a tension between the need for shelter, the need to create infrastructure for a community numbering 40 to 50, and encroaching on wildlife. We have discussions attempting to overcome this issue. In the practise of our democracy, the care and respect for other species is present. But we are still learning—and we will make mistakes.
The strawbale house—constructed with a respect and reverence for nature, using locally sourced, organic materials—could be described as a sacred building, the temple of our community. When meditating in the strawbale house, one cannot erase this memory from the depths of the mind, the memory of love and care that went into the building. The house is surrounded by elder trees, providing homes for a variety of birds, their singing surrounding us as we sit in stillness.
With the sometimes daunting challenge of facing up to corporate greed and state imperialism, meditation can help us find clarity and conviction. We find ourselves in a state of peril, with six degrees of planetary warming a real possibility, spelling the widespread extinction of species on Earth. But if we are not to despair, we must “touch eternity in the present moment, with our in-breath and out-breath” (Nhat Hanh 2012).
If we are to truly acknowledge our intimate relationship between our bodies and the health of the soul of the world, how are we to persist obediently to the norms of modern society that are destroying our health? Understanding this intimate relationship must translate into a fierce love to protect it, a love reaching beyond the legal authority of any state.
It was the impulse of love that led some residents of Grow Heathrow to lock down on Heathrow’s northern runway in July of 2015. Twenty-five flights were cancelled. The group narrowly avoided prison.
The government’s decision on aviation expansion in the southeast of England has been delayed until September of this year. Despite sustained pressure forcing delay after delay, the idea has not been abandoned completely. But this is nonetheless “breathing room for Mother Earth” (Winona LaDuke 2013); we will continue to fight for this breathing room, allowing time for us to awaken from this sleepwalk towards ecocide.
We must protect nature. We must protect ourselves. The love we have for each other and life on Earth must result in a fierce resolve to protect us. Sometimes we will have to act in a way which sacrifices our legal rights for the rights of other humans, for other life to flourish. We must embrace an antinomian spiritual ecology, whereby our ecological responsibility demands a rejection of civil legal authorities and their laws. With a spiritual ecology, this act no longer is sacrificial, but a self-interested act; an eroding detached ego-self making way for an identity as one with nature. In our movements we can garner great strength and resilience with this understanding of oneness.
One indicator that the Earth is degrading is the lack of empathy and love for those most vulnerable in society. This is a cause anyone concerned with our spiritual awakening should engage in. We can measure the greatness of a society by how it treats those most poor and marginalised. This is why we must wed any ecological resistance to struggles against austerity and the oppressive, egotistical ideology which serves it. Struggles against patriarchy, racism, and colonialism cannot be detached from our spiritual work. If we begin not to care for our own kind, how will we develop empathy for life as a whole? A lack of empathy for humankind is a signpost for the degradation of our ecology.
The change that is required of us to more fully awaken ecologically cannot come from a top down approach. The change we need cannot come from government alone. We depend on all of us, individually and in communities, to make self-determination the centre of our activity and weaken the tyrant of capital that enchains us.
We must no longer prop up capital, or any power structures which oppress human beings or exploit life on Earth. Our driving momentum is not to convince those in power to change their direction. It is often very tempting to be lured into the logic of the state and its power. Instead we hope to transcend the logic of party politics and enhance a DIY culture, encouraging others to take their lives into their own hands.
We must engage with experiences that teach us how to commune together, how to live together as an interdependent community. There are emotional resources and wisdom one can acquire from living communally, or in Grow Heathrow’s case, living in a squatted eco-community. This experience, that is both taxing and enriching, can help us develop the kind of compassion we will need to embrace each other in the wider society and ecology.
Part of our project as spiritual ecologists is to undermine the political narrative that justifies our exploitative economy, the ideology that believes we cannot act as “we” but only as self-centred individuals. This notion has to be undermined. We must be part of a political project which demonstrates that human beings can and are motivated by far nobler causes than financial gain: mutual aid, cooperation, care, and compassion for humans and other beings.
We must reawaken the identity which wishes to respect the ancient soul of the world and ensure that this life-giving force prevails over the competitive, industrialist psyche that has dominated capitalist economic production. We can hope that the struggle against corporate interests and the state can reinvigorate our spirit, allowing us to become more centred to the needs of the global ecology within our political framework. We can hope that by mobilising in solidarity against the objectification of nature, we can grow a greater ecological awareness amongst humanity.
This vision of the world is against any idea of a totality, but rather a future of alternative post-capitalist worlds. The drive towards self-determination for those of us at Grow Heathrow living amongst the elder is exploratory, drawing inspiration form the Zapatista principle “preguntando caminamos” (asking, we walk). We don’t have all the answers. We are still learning and always will be. Employing horizontal structures using consensus decision-making, we acknowledge our democracy is a dynamic, evolving process, always to be worked and reworked, always ready to accept it if we’ve taken the wrong direction.
Let us be open to adventure; if we are afraid of struggle and pain, we will miss the joys that life has to offer. Perhaps we can lead in searching for hope in the dark night; better to step out into the unknown and take the wrong direction than not to walk at all. And let us be attentive explorers, for those who view the universe with dimness and a lack of attention will not be shown its true nature and complexity.
Everything we achieve at Grow Heathrow is only with the comradery of inspiring and trusted allies and friends. Living here has demanded much of us, trials that have touched our whole humanity. I am continually moved and inspired by the individuals who live here. They have taken a spiritual step, for they have recognised the emptiness of materialism, how the pursuit of financial gain bankrupts the soul. By moving to Grow Heathrow, they have placed greater importance on human bonds and the need to take care of human beings and nature. This is a step that I admire in everyone.
This land inhabited by the elder, one of our native trees, cherished for healing and nourishment, provides a spiritual protection for humans and nature alike. Much like the interconnectedness of life on Earth, our words and our creative doing are interwoven with their being; an eviction would spell the same fate for our community and the elder. For now, the elder are flourishing, growing through the remnants of derelict structures—inspiration for how we must search for light amongst the rubble of capitalism.
We can be certain of nothing, but we can have hope. Sometimes the universe does feel harsh and indifferent, but Grow Heathrow offers hope by asking us to recognise the interconnectedness of all beings—to reveal life in all its forms and the connecting energy that drives them, which is, of course, love.
Laduke, W. 2013. In the Time of the Sacred Places. In: L. Vaughan-Lee, ed. Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth. Point Reyes: The Golden Sufi Center.
Macy, J. 2007. The Great Turning. Berkeley: Centre for Ecoliteracy.
Nhat Hanh, T. 2012. Thich Nhat Hanh: in 100 years there may be no more humans on planet earth [online]. Available from: http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/1291786/thich_nhat_hanh_in_100_years_there_may_be_no_more_humans_on_planet_earth.html.