Since 1970, human activities have caused the world’s wildlife populations to plummet by more than two-thirds. For the tropical subregions of the Americas, it is 94%. Since 1989, the insect population has fallen by 60%. Wildlife in freshwater habitats have fallen by 84%. As we stand, 1 million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction over the next few decades.
Human activities have increasingly destroyed forests, grasslands, wetlands and other important ecosystems. 75% of the Earth’s ice-free land surface has already been altered, most of the oceans are polluted, and more than 85% of wetlands has been lost. Only a handful of countries retain most of the last remaining wilderness areas.
This rate of destruction is unprecedented in history. Our natural world is transforming more rapidly than ever before.
In the last 50 years our world has been changed by an explosion in global trade, consumption and population growth, as well as an enormous move towards urbanisation.
Until 1970, humanity’s Ecological Footprint was smaller than the Earth’s rate of regeneration. But to feed and fuel our 21st century lifestyles, we are overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56%. The way we produce and consume food and energy, and the blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic model, has pushed the natural world to its limits.
We’re looking at the Sixth Mass Extinction on this planet, and it is caused by human activity.
“OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE IS BROKEN.”
When we are faced with facts and figures like this, as individuals we feel powerless and it is easy to fall into complete hopelessness, into a black hole of despair.
What can we do? Yes, we know we must take practical action in our own lives – consume less meat, travel less, stop waste, eliminate plastic use and so on. We must protest and lobby governments and corporations. We can join Greenpeace or Extinction Rebellion.
BUT AS PAGANS WHOSE RELIGION IS NATURE, AS MAGICIANS, WHAT CAN WE DO? Can we do anything?
Many of us in the Pagan world have spent the last decade or more trying to come up with rituals that serve.
I’ve spent the last few years thinking about this above everything else, meditating on it, asking the Gods for help.
It is clear that we need some pretty fundamental and far-reaching approaches.
- We need to acknowledge what is happening and allow ourselves to mourn – raising awareness through such rituals
- We need to change the narrative
- We need to widen the circle of compassion
- REMEMBRANCE DAY FOR LOST SPECIES
The first thing we must do is acknowledge what is happening and allow ourselves to mourn for what is lost, whether this is a species going extinct or the meadows and woodlands around us destroyed for housing estates and railways. A few years ago, I came across an idea which suggested that on Remembrance Day, 11 November, we have communal mourning not just for the war dead, but for all we have lost. In Britain, we celebrate Remembrance Sunday with parades for fallen service men and women, and at Samhain we Pagans have rites for the ancestors who have gone before us. But why don’t we grieve for extinct species? Where are our rituals for coping with extinction, ecological destruction or environmental loss? 
Remembrance Day for Lost Species was begun by artist Persephone Pearl after she saw an exhibit of a thylacine in the Bristol Museum, an animal that went extinct in 1936. Legend says the world’s last thylacine died cold and alone, mistakenly locked out of its night-time quarters at the zoo in Hobart, Tasmania, during an unusually cold night. The animal, which was never even identified as a male or female, perished from exposure. Poppy realised that we barely remember it, let alone weep for it, and began the first Remembrance Day for Lost Species in 2011 with artists, activists and the general public finding ways to mark and mourn with performance, ceremony, poetry and art installations, each in their own way. 
I think this is something that more of us should do, whether as individuals, groups, or as open rituals.
- CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
We live in a society that is based on consumption, one that tells us that for the benefit of the country, which is entirely defined by a particular economic model, we should produce more and consume more. It is clear that we need a different economic model, and that eternal growth is not possible in a finite world.
Not all societies arrange themselves this way, and we can find many examples of traditional tribal societies where very different priorities exist.
I wrote a deliberately contentious – and slightly tongue in cheek – article a couple of years ago called “Can Paganism Save the World?”, but it is true that we are facing two competing narratives of the world – the western consumer one in which the world is there to be used and exploited however humans wish (or rich humans at any rate), and one in which the world, and all upon it, is sacred.
This is the narrative that western civilisation is based on:
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Compare to this Native American Prayer:
“Honour the sacred.
Honour the Earth, our Mother.
Honour all with whom we share the Earth:
Four-leggeds, two-leggeds, winged ones,
Swimmers, crawlers, plant and rock people.
Walk in balance and beauty.”
THE POWER OF MYTH
Here we have two diametrically opposed spiritual mythologies – one in which humankind is the pinnacle of creation, and has dominion over the earth and its creatures, to do what he wills with it, and one in which all beings are equal in the circle of creation.
So why do these old myths matter in a largely secular world?
Myths have long lasting consequences. Myths are important. Our communal and cultural myths show us our place in the cosmos, on the Earth, in our tribes and communities. We live by our myths, our stories, even when we think we don’t.
We are surrounded by modern myths fed to us through books, films, newspapers and social media. They determine what we think about the world, how we think it operates, and where we think our place in the world is. We are fed tales of the rich and famous, superheroes, maverick cops and populist politicians. We might stop and ask ourselves how these modern myths help us to recognise the world around us, where we stand in it, whether they help us, and whether they serve to guide us in a time of climate crisis?
TERRY PRATCHETT SAID THAT PEOPLE THINK THAT STORIES ARE SHAPED BY PEOPLE WHEN IN FACT, IT’S THE OTHER WAY ROUND.
The modern myths of greed and individualism, where we battle the world alone, have filled the myth gap left by the disappearance of cohesive communities where the sacred and mundane were connected, but we don’t have to live by the myths of the rich and powerful. We can choose.
A deep cultural and systemic shift is urgently needed, a transition to a society and economic system that values nature, stops taking it for granted and recognises that we depend on nature more than nature depends on us.
The old Pagan myths are beautiful and rich with meaning. They show us a world in which everything is alive and connected by the great matrix of Nature, the divine flowing through it, connecting it into a unified, sacred whole. Where the land beneath our feet is not merely dirt, but a fountain of energy that sustains animals, plants and people. They show us a truth that we cannot challenge or change without diminishing ourselves: we are not separate from Nature – or above it – but part of it.
They tell us that there is a balance, an agreement between the Gods and humankind to keep that balance. An agreement that modern myths and modern life has broken.
The old myths also tell us what happens when the agreement is broken, and balance is lost – the powers of chaos gain ascendancy. Nearly every creation myth in the world speaks of a primal chaos, a formless void that existed before the Sun was set spinning on its course, bringing the light, regularised time and the seasons that allows life to exist, a chaos that always strives to return. There are stories of the final triumph of chaos, from Ragnarök  to the Apocalypse, when the scales tip too far for the balance to be restored.
With the climate crisis, the impoverishment of soil through modern farming methods, and the mass destruction and pollution of habitats causing mass extinctions, we are at that tipping point.
In the modern world we are programmed by the modern myths of the consumer society to value the self above all, to take without need and to measure people by what they own; our beautiful planet is treated as merely a resource to be exploited rather than being honoured as our living Mother.
We need a whole paradigm shift in our modern mythic thinking, to find a way back into the mystic. We need modern myths that tell of community, connection, compassion and a deep, embodied sense of belonging to this beautiful, living Earth.
Paganism’s many gods and goddesses represent the diversity of that natural world, indwelling divinity present in all things from a blade of grass to a stream, a mountain and a human being to a galaxy; for the Pagan, the physical world is a manifestation of the sacred one. Pagan spirituality centres on experiencing the sacredness inherent within the rhythms of nature, the turning of the stars, the changing of the seasons, and the mysteries of birth, life, death and rebirth. Traditional societies have always recognised that the spiritual and the physical are intertwined.
We hold Mother Earth to be sacred. She is a manifest goddess, and her divine presence flows through the world and everything in it. She has many names – Gaia, Rhea, Cybele, Tellus Mater. In Slavic mythology she is Moist Mother Earth, who was never depicted in human guise, but always shown in her natural form. In spring, she was considered pregnant, and no one was allowed to strike her with hoe or plough until after the spring equinox, and if she was treated with reverence would reward with bounty. The bounty had to be acknowledged, and the Gods were thanked for it. Moreover, there was a return – in the autumn, some of that bounty would be given back to the Gods as first fruits, and fertility returned to the earth by practical means when the fields were manured. There was a tacit agreement, between the Gods and humankind, that nature, what might be termed divine law, would be respected with give and take.
We stand on the precipice of environmental disaster. But myth and history tell us that such times can be catalyst for radical change and powerful renewal. In such times we find our purpose, perhaps the very thing we were incarnated at this point in history to do.
THE CIRCLE OF COMPASSION
The spiritual teachings of all religions tell us that love and compassion must be the basis of everything.
I believe that it is fundamental to widen the circle of compassion to encompass every being – the two-legged people, the four-legged people, the winged people, the swimming people, the crawling people, the rock people and the rooted people, to perform acts and rituals of love and healing – and to widen this circle by teaching others to do the same.
But ritual lip service is not enough. It must also translate into our daily lives. Some Pagans say that the code they live by is the Wiccan Rede – “an’ it harm none, do what you will”, but each Pagan has to consider for themselves what that actually means. Does it mean only other humans? Or only when it doesn’t inconvenience me? When it doesn’t conflict with my transient desires?
It is difficult to make ethical choices in a world dominated by factory farming that treats animals as unfeeling ‘production units’, that promotes processed foods full of strange chemicals, that advocates the use of poisonous fertilizers and pesticides, wasteful packaging, overfishing, exploitative labour practices, and a global market that means that many food miles are added to a product.
So what are we to do? I think the only answer is that we do as much as we can as best and as honestly as we can – but we have to be completely honest with ourselves, and not ignore the prickings of conscience just because we fancy something we know involves pollution, cruelty and suffering. It will fall short, it will be imperfect, because we live in the world as it is, we have to travel and eat, but it will be better.
In small steps, we moved away from worshipping nature to destroying it. In small steps, let us consciously return to honouring it.
© Anna Franklin, 2022
 This myth does say that two humans will repopulate the world, after the destruction.