In Review

A Vision for the Future of Environmentalism

An interview with Dan McKanan

Dan McKanan is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. In his new book, Eco-Alchemy, he constructs a history of environmental initiatives originating in anthroposophical spirituality, including biodynamic farming, the Waldorf school system, Camphill intentional communities, and green banking. HDS student Claire Laine met with McKanan to discuss the book and what inspired him to write it.

For people unfamiliar with anthroposophy, how would you introduce it?

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 “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 and a distinctive Christology.

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, economics, agriculture, medicine, and with care for people with disabilities. Anthroposophists create farms and social enterprises, develop new systems of banking, and run schools, rather than simply talking about the spiritual teachings that inspire them.

What can you tell us about the founder of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner?

Rudolf Steiner was the son of an Austrian railroad official and was born in 1861 in what is now Croatia. Though he was always fascinated by philosophy, his family wanted him to be a scientist or engineer, so they sent him to technical rather than humanistic schools—in effect, to MIT rather than Harvard. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he had encounters with mysterious teachers and spiritual experiences that did not fit into the scientific worldview.

He found his first professional niche as the editor of a collection of scientific writings by the German poet Goethe. Goethe was one of the first people to formulate the idea of evolution: he said that all plants had descended from a single Urpflanze, or original plant. He even claimed to be able to see the Urpflanze when he looked at ordinary plants. This approach helped Steiner make sense of his own experiences, and “Goethean science” remains an important part of anthroposophical environmentalism. Steiner began speaking more openly about experiences that he described as clairvoyant when he joined the Theosophical Society, and then he broke with that organization in order to put more emphasis on Christian forms of esotericism.


Eco-Alchemy: Anthroposophy and the History and Future of Environmentalism, by Dan McKanan. University of California Press, 312 pages, $29.95 paperback.

Photo of Dan McKanan

Dan McKanan. Photo by Justin Knight

In discussing anthroposophy’s gifts to environmentalism, you describe “appropriate anthropocentrism.” How might anthroposophy help us reconsider the relationship between the human and the natural worlds?

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 are 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 is 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 toward 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 are 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.

What does the qualitative distinction between humans and animals look like for Steiner? Is it a hierarchical relationship?

This is something that many students of Steiner are wrestling with today. Steiner definitely portrayed humans as a step above animals on the evolutionary ladder, but he put as much emphasis on our relatedness as on our differences. Only humans, he taught, have individual souls, and, as such, we have a special responsibility to foster the ongoing evolution of animals, plants, and even minerals. Students of Steiner don’t like to see humans “reduced” to the level of animals, but similarly they protest when animals are reduced to the level of plants by being raised in cages where they cannot move, or when plants are reduced to the level of minerals by being grown with synthetic fertilizers.

Biodynamic farms often receive the very highest ratings by organizations committed to animal welfare. That may be because other people committed to animal welfare shun animal agriculture altogether. But that’s not necessarily a solution: A field of organic soybeans that is plowed over every year is not as hospitable an environment for wild animals as a biodynamic pasture. In any case, some students of Steiner are now questioning the sharp boundary between humans and animals. Douglas Sloan’s book, The Redemption of the Animals: Their Evolution, Their Inner Life, and Our Future Together, is the latest word on this topic, and it puts Steiner into dialogue with animal rights activists and recent research on animal capabilities.

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

One of the main themes in both anthroposophy and 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, in which I had a share 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 is a real concern that if we lose familiar language for the natural world, we lose an allegiance to the natural world.

You emphasize anthroposophists’ holistic view of the world. How does this manifest?

Goethe said that if you want to understand a plant, you shouldn’t isolate it in a laboratory and study just one aspect of its existence. Instead, you should keep it in its natural environment and observe it from as many perspectives as possible. And Steiner urged farmers to “summon all of the universe into our counsels”! These bits of advice contrast with mainstream scientific method, which emphasizes falsification.

Mainstream science discards any idea that cannot be proven in a double-blind experiment, while Goethean science and anthroposophy seek to honor all experiences. This means that they draw freely on astrology, alchemy, and homeopathy—all traditions rejected by mainstream science. The price of this is that they perhaps embrace some practices that truly are nonsense. But the benefit is that they make connections that others would not have thought of. Biodynamic farmers assume that a healthy farm is connected to a healthy economic community, and that is why they, along with Waldorf teachers, created the world’s largest “green banks.” Camphillers, similarly, seek to create villages that are empowering for persons with intellectual disabilities as well as healthy for plants and animals.

Readers may be surprised by the history of the various political alliances that anthroposophists and environmentalists have created in the 20th century. How are you thinking about this material now, in our current political climate?

The book that I wrote before this, Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition, 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 antiracism. Though I am 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 is a great deal of compatibility between a leftist vision and an environmentalist vision, but also to 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 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. More fundamentally, I think the problem into which that scholarship falls 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 with 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 this 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 had a certain affinity for environmental thinking.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher brought into the world a different version of conservative thought, one 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 conservativism dominated from Thatcher’s time until 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 United Kingdom, and so forth.

But the alliance between fascism and environmentalism has not come back. 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 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.

Many people feel defeated by the enormity of environmental problems facing our world and become fatalistic, but the anthroposophical community remains actively committed to its work. What accounts for this attitude?

This is probably the aspect of anthroposophy that I find most attractive: there is much less despair in the anthroposophical milieu than in other communities of environmentalists. One reason for this is that they don’t see humanity, in itself, as an environmental problem. They truly believe that human activity, if rightly directed, can make the world a better place for other creatures. Another reason is that they are radical believers in evolution. They don’t think the environmental goal is to remake some past Eden; rather, it is to help every individual and every species continue on its path of development, in relationship with everything else.

Perhaps the most important factor, though, is that seeing the best in everything and remaining open to new ideas are integral to the spiritual practice of anthroposophy. They are, in fact, two of the “basic exercises” that Rudolf Steiner recommended all of his students practice on a daily basis. Not every person connected to an anthroposophical initiative practices these, but enough do that they set a positive tone for everyone else. Since I spend most of my time in academic and leftist contexts, both of which can foster an ultracritical ethos, I treasure the opportunity to spend time with people for whom affirmation and appreciation are core spiritual disciplines.

During the summer of 2013, you traveled with a research grant from the Center for the Study of World Religions. How do those experiences manifest in the book?

There is an intentional community movement called Camphill that is 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 on to 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 the 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.

This book is the culmination of many years of research. What is next for you?

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: Christian Communities Transforming Society, 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.

Claire Laine, MTS ’18, graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a concentration in religion, literature, and culture.

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