Eco-Alchemy: Rudolf Steiner’s Spiritual Science and the Ecology of Ecology

a “work in progress” proposal for Collegium 2014

Dan McKanan

Emerson Senior Lecturer

Harvard Divinity School

For nearly a century, the worldwide anthroposophical movement has been a catalyst for environmental activism. Acting sometimes as a mother and sometimes as a midwife, it has helped bring to life organic agriculture, community supported agriculture, environmental education, ecovillages, transition towns, and green banking. Yet the “spiritual science” of anthroposophy, initiated by Rudolf Steiner in early twentieth century Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, is unknown to most environmentalists and contains many elements that stretch conventional definitions of “ecology.” Rudolf Steiner was the first agricultural theorist to reject chemical fertilizers and pesticides on principle, but he was also a spiritual teacher who claimed clairvoyant powers and taught his disciples “how to know higher worlds.” Steiner was a scientist who preferred deeply engaged observation to double-blind experimentation, an evolutionist who taught that the spiritual evolution of humanity began eons before the material evolution described by Darwin, and a multifaceted reformer who had as much to say about education, architecture, international trade, and Christian liturgy as about farming and gardening. Among environmentalists who are aware of Steiner’s influence on the movement, many regard his ideas as too wide-ranging to grasp or too “unscientific” to take seriously. A few critics have even portrayed anthroposophy as a dangerous Trojan horse within environmentalism.

In my current book project, I offer a different view: anthroposophy occupies a distinct and essential niche within the broader “ecology of ecology.” It should not (and does not) claim sole responsibility for any aspect of environmentalism, yet virtually every part of the movement would be at least a little bit different without anthroposophy. In particular, ecology’s holistic impulse—the idea that every particular phenomenon exists within a vast web of relationships and can never be reduced to the sum of its parts—has been enriched by Steiner’s expansive holism. For Steiner, as for other ecologists, the health of a cabbage or a farm depends on biological interactions within soil and air—but for Steiner it also depends on the meditative practices of the farmer; on the educational, social, and economic structures surrounding the farm; on alchemical processes that continually recreate the elements of earth, air, fire, and water; and on the subtle influences of stars and planets. By calling attention to these diverse factors, anthroposophy has continually challenged other environmentalists to broaden their own holistic vision—and environmentalism will become ever richer as the anthroposophical contribution becomes better known.

In this “work in progress” presentation for my Collegium friends, I will reflect on research experiences from my 2013-2014 sabbatical, and attempt to explain why Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals should care about the esoteric environmentalism of Rudolf Steiner.


Dan McKanan holds the Emerson chair at Harvard Divinity School, where he has taught since 2008. He is the author of Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition and three other books on religion and social change in the United States. Currently he is researching the ways anthroposophy and other esoteric spiritualities can inspire work for economic cooperation and ecological harmony. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with his spouse Tammy and daughter Oriana, and is a proud member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, Massachusetts.