Eco-Alchemy

Anthroposophy and the History and Future of Environmentalism

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Dan McKanan
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , October
     2017.
     296 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520290068.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Since its emergence a century ago, Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy has posed a series of conundrums for scholarly inquiry. Even the most basic definitional questions remain contested: though scholars of religion routinely classify it among the so-called New Religious Movements, Steiner insisted that anthroposophy was not a religion at all, but a “science of the spirit.” While historians see anthroposophy as an offshoot of theosophy and a variant of Western esotericism, Steiner’s followers adamantly maintain the originality and uniqueness of his teachings. If the early years of anthroposophy clearly locate it within the fin de siècle spiritual ferment known as the modern occult revival, its latter-day adherents often shy away from public association with the occult or esoteric. Internal anthroposophical discourse is no less divisive. Despite Steiner’s message of universal redemption, the movement he founded remains deeply fractious, riven by conflicts over the proper interpretation and implementation of Steiner’s sometimes obscure ideals.

It is thus a pleasure to find new scholarship on this challenging subject. Since most of the research on anthroposophy is in German, as are many of the primary sources, serious treatments in English are relatively rare. Dan McKanan’s book represents an important step toward filling this gap. McKanan has wisely chosen to examine the topic by way of anthroposophy’s richly complex relationship with the rise of modern environmentalism. This is a promising starting point. Aside from Waldorf schools, the environmental milieu is where Steiner’s followers have had the most noticeable impact: a remarkable instance of the influence of alternative spirituality beyond the borders of the esoteric and New Age scene. The focus on ecological practices broadens the scope of the book, making the material McKanan has gathered relevant to religious studies, history, and environmental studies as well.

Eco-Alchemy makes a solid case for the importance of anthroposophist initiatives to the evolution of modern environmentalism. Much of the book is essentially ethnographic, built around interviews with dozens of anthroposophists in a variety of countries. Though clearly sympathetic to his subject, McKanan claims a neutral stance toward anthroposophy as a whole. This approach generates illuminating insights about the contemporary culture among Steiner’s followers. It comes at a cost, however; parts of the book lack sufficient critical assessment or contextualization. Eco-Alchemy reflects the challenges that face scholarly engagement with any spiritual tradition. As Wendy Doniger has remarked, many scholars “strike the familiar religious studies yoga posture of leaning over backward in their attempt to avoid offense to the people they write about.” (The Hindus, Oxford University Press 2009, 13) Nonetheless, McKanan’s friendly relations with anthroposophists have afforded him significant access to internal viewpoints, providing a revealing perspective that will be instructive for readers regardless of orientation.

McKanan’s overview of the emergence of biodynamic agriculture is particularly enlightening. Biodynamics, the anthroposophist version of organic farming, represents a synthesis of the ecological and the esoteric, combining astrological and homeopathic principles with a respectful approach to the natural world. Through Demeter and Weleda products, it has established itself as a vital part of the organic milieu in Europe and North America. As McKanan notes, the “biological” and “cosmic” dimensions of biodynamics “cannot readily be disentangled.” (13) This links Steiner’s spiritual cosmology to the decidedly down to earth activity of growing food. For biodynamic practitioners, the health of the soil is as important as nutritional quality, accounting for the ecological reputation that biodynamic methods enjoy. Anthroposophists played a central role in the maturation of the modern organic movement and helped initiate related causes such as community supported agriculture. The book does a fine job of showing how a seemingly marginal esoteric current made a substantial difference to the contours of first-world environmental concern.

The political valence of anthroposophy has always been a contentious matter, and McKanan offers a thoughtful historical appraisal: “One puzzle that confronts any historian of anthroposophy or environmentalism is that both movements seemed to change their political character during the 1960s. Before 1960, they were frequently allied with fascist, agrarian, or libertarian forms of conservatism; after 1970, environmentalists were routinely grouped with feminists, pacifists, civil rights activists, and socialists” (73). This lends a curious frisson to the relationship between anthroposophy and environmentalism, one that has sometimes hindered informed historical judgement. McKanan commendably faces it head on. The same theme, however, reveals the book’s limitations. Its discussion of anthroposophist involvement in the emergence of the German Greens is extremely brief, perhaps an indication of limited familiarity with German sources. More important, the treatment of anthroposophical attitudes toward science is conspicuously uncritical.

At several points McKanan’s sympathetic approach, which otherwise proves informative, takes on an unfortunate air of apologia. As a minor example, his paragraph on an outspoken contemporary anthroposophist critic of Darwin presents a notably innocuous portrait. McKanan characterizes the anthroposophist’s work merely as an attempt to find a “middle ground between the polarities of Darwinian evolution and creationism.” (188) This is exactly how Steiner’s followers prefer to present their more disputed ideas to the public, but it misses the decisive context of esoteric antipathy toward ostensibly “materialist” scientists. The same anthroposophist dismisses the modern evolutionary synthesis as a “myth” and insists that climate change is a “scam.” None of this is mentioned in McKanan’s treatment.

Similar problems arise elsewhere in the book. There is comparatively little dialogue with the growing body of interdisciplinary scholarship on Steiner and his movement (full disclosure: McKanan does engage, critically and perceptively, with my research), and several of the most important studies are not cited at all. This is a missed opportunity; McKanan’s argument is very relevant to ongoing international debates about anthroposophy. Eco-Alchemy also avoids the broader literature on occult worldviews; McKanan quotes biodynamic farmers musing about “the Akashic chronicle” (233), but provides scant context for making sense of such references. Yet the book’s strengths counterbalance these shortcomings. It deserves a wide readership among those interested in esoteric spirituality, environmental politics, and the controversial interaction between religion and public affairs.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Staudenmaier is Associate Professor of History at Marquette University.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dan McKanan is Emerson Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School and the author of several books on religion and social transformation, among them Touching the World: Christian Communities Transforming Society and Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition.

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