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Every day we are warned about the ongoing destruction of the Earth’s life-support system. Scientists continually document the exponential deterioration: ozone layer depletion, global warming, desertification, deforestation, species extinction, air and water pollution and rampant human population growth. Despite these warnings of imminent environmental catastrophe, government leaders and economic elites continue to push for economic growth and development.

Although this contemptuous treatment of nature seems to be predominately perpetrated by males who are immature—emotionally, spiritually, ethically and ecologically—previous social and psychological theories have failed to satisfactorily explain why this is so. Academic and spiritual leaders constantly try to understand why narcissism, sociopathic behavior, political corruption and materialism are increasing, rather than the reverse. They have sought almost everywhere for the answer, but have failed to recognize a traditional process uniquely suited to the psychology of the adolescent male which promotes responsible and caring adulthood.

 All traditional societies have such a processcalled initiation. For millennia, tribal and religious rites have supported and directed youth on their path to a healthy adulthood. Cultures worldwide have almost universally held rituals of transformation for their young. These traditional customs endured for centuries as part of a carefully structured and effective rite of passage into adulthood. Culture after culture felt that if the young man were not introduced into “the Mysteries,” he would not know what to do with his pain and would almost always abuse his power. Young men were thus initiated into the social and ecological heritage of their community, enabling initiates to perpetuate their society in a meaningful and orderly way. Today, however, we live in a clockwork reality that is linear, rational, and mechanistic. Initiation is perceived as an artifact of the ancient past. Modern communities and cultures have discarded the initiation process, long practiced in traditional and indigenous societies, at enormous social and ecological cost.

Sustainable Cultures

According to the most recent research, hunter-gatherer cultures represent the oldest and most successful examples of human adaptation, maintaining a relatively harmonious relationship with the natural world over many generations.[1] They evidently solved, or avoided, problems that modern society seems incapable of seriously addressing. Members generally enjoyed a high quality of life characterized by more leisure time, almost free of crime, healthy diets, and, we may speculate, better psychological health. These societies were, by and large, egalitarian, community centered and practiced tribal economics where the accumulation of wealth was discouraged and natural resources were utilized in sustainable ways.

Earth Wisdom

With few exceptions, hunter-gatherers hold as their most foundational concept the belief that we are not different from, separate from, in charge of, superior to, or inferior to the natural world. We are part of it. Whatever we do to nature, we do to ourselves. Whatever we do to ourselves, we do to the world. There is no concept of a separate “nature” or “wilderness.” Over ninety percent of humanity’s history, humans viewed the world and its living creatures as sacred, as having souls or spirits. A person who caused permanent harm to that world was severely reprimanded or even banished from the tribe. The elders of the tribe realized that he was destroying the world of his children’s children, an unthinkable and aberrant act.

The nature-centered cosmologies of hunter-gatherer cultures have been the most pervasive religious perspective throughout human history. Nurit Bird-David notes that many, but not all, hunter-gatherers have a notion of the giving environment, the idea that the land around them is their spiritual home and the source of all good things.[2] Their cosmologies are primarily biocentric. Deep ecology philosopher, George Sessions, maintains that

. . .although this issue has been hotly debated in the literature over the last thirty years, it seems accurate to say, based on recent scholarship, that the cultures of most primal societies throughout the world were permeated with nature-oriented religions that expressed the biocentric perspective. These cosmologies, involving a sacred sense of the Earth and all its inhabitants, helped order their lives and determine their values.[3]

Despite the present six billion people currently living on the Earth, some anthropologists argue that the majority of humans who have lived on Earth, over the approximately four million years of human history, have been hunters and gatherers. If so, this means that biocentrism has been the dominant human religious/philosophical perspective throughout time. It seems that, from an evolutionary perspective, a sacred view of nature has long-term survival value.

Although evidence indicates that these societies generally enjoyed a sustainable relationship with their environment, this harmony was precarious and required diligent social maintenance. Hunter-gatherer traditions consistently reinforced an individual’s interrelationship with their environment and their responsibility both to and for their community. The eco-literate world-view of hunter-gatherer cultures was preserved and transmitted to subsequent generations through mythology, legends, social taboos, ceremonies, and rituals. The primary ritual for accomplishing this task for adolescent males was an initiation rite often performed at puberty. It is considered one of the most important and deeply rooted rituals practiced by traditional societies. The goal of initiation rites was to situate and align the individual correctly in the universe. Performed at the most impressionable period of the initiate’s life, this rite was considered a critical window of opportunity for the transmission of a culture’s most deeply held values—its sacred myths, secrets and social rules, and the tribe’s “covenant with nature”—essential for its long-term survival.The education a male experienced during his initiation rite was rich, mystical and unforgettable.

A Sacred Universe

Traditional male initiation rites of hunter-gatherer societies had a powerful effect on the male psyche and played a significant role in the transformation of the male identity. During the ritual, the initiate underwent a change of social status and a profound change of consciousness—from an egocentric to an altruistic, ecological self-image. For adolescent Dakota boys, the personal vision quest is a mandatory rite of passage to responsible manhood and environmental consciousness. During this solitary sojourn into the mountains, a boy spends several days naked, vulnerable, and fasting as he awaits the arrival of animal-spirit allies who might help him to develop and actualize his understanding of the spiritual and ecological unity of nature. He enters into a liminal, transformative space, a sacred universe of meaning.

Frank Waters relates a father’s consoling words to his son in The Man Who Killed the Deer, where a boy, undergoing the initiation process, experiences the “greater mother” of the natural world as the substitute for his prior attachment to his biological mother. His self-centered ego dies and is reborn within not only the community of the tribe, but also within the larger biotic community. He is taught the responsible role he is to play in both of those communities.

“Father, Oh father! I hear weeping. Is it my mother I leave in grief?”

           “Have courage, son. You but leave the lesser mother for the greater. . . From an individual human womb you were born to an individual human life. It was necessary. It was good. But individual human life is not sufficient to itself. It depends upon and is a part of all life. So now another umbilical cord must be broken—that which binds you to your mother’s affections, that which binds you to the individual human life she gave you . . . Now you belong to your greater mother. And you return to her womb to emerge once again… as a man who knows himself not as an individual but a unit of his tribe and a part of all life which ever surrounds him… it is necessary that each man sometime be born again: into the consciousness of an even greater life. . .You must be taught the laws of world creation and world maintenance, the laws of life whatever form it takes. . .” (Emphasis added.)[4]

In male rites of passage, young male initiates confronted transcendent, sacred, and sometimes demonic forces. They relived the primordial events, the mythic history of their tribe, away from the familiar ground of their childhood homes. It was important to root them in their collective history, to show them the archetypal grounds upon which they could live their lives with meaning and honor. According to the outstanding religious scholar, Mircea Eliade, powers greater than the individual needed to be honored, placated, and experienced in the context of a living mythology. He believed that initiation recapitulated the sacred history of the world, and thereby the “whole” world, for the initiates and the larger community, was sanctified anew.[5]

Abandoned Rites

In Western society, puberty rites have lost their formal recognition and symbolic significance. There is no longer any consensus as to what constitutes an initiation ritual. The old ways of marking the end of childhood and the beginning of adult life have devolved into gestures emptied of their content by the realities of modern experience. The loss of these rituals has coincided with the emergence of an illusion that people no longer require intimate relationships with the living world to achieve lives full of meaning and value. Margaret Mead believed the loss of sanctioned rites of passage in modern society contributed to increasing social pathology.

Post-Vietnam America is a country of older men falsely initiated into militarism and materialism—middle aged men who, according to Susan Faludi’s recent book, were “stiffed” of their only shot at significance, and many sad and angry young men who do not believe that there are any sacred mysteries to be initiated into. As in the case of young males, they are left to their own devices in the struggle to define their identity as men and their place in society. This task is made even more difficult by the demise of the traditional father-son relationship and the disintegration of the extended family, particularly grandfathers and uncles. Carlton Coon, a Harvard anthropologist who devoted fifty years to the study of traditional cultures, concluded that in contemporary America,

. . .unlike the children of [traditional societies]. . .boys and girls [today] have no adults to guide them through the puberty ordeals that they need in order to maintain social continuity. . ..Saving our planet from human destruction, and from the destruction of life itself, is only half of our problem. The other half is for us to learn how nature intended human beings to live and to reestablish continuity with those who may still be alive after the rest of us are dead.[6]

 Due to the lack of meaningful rites of initiation, adolescence in Western society has been prolonged into the latter years, even extending throughout adulthood! Many adults are unclear about when their adolescence actually ended. They continue to live as though they had never formally taken on the burdens and responsibilities of maturity. As a result, there are many males in our society who remain suspended in an adolescent state of consciousness, vulnerable to the corruptive influences of an ecologically dysfunctional economic system and self-indulgent values. The late philosopher, Paul Shepard, describes this state as a “crippled ontogeny,” where “men may now be the possessors of the world’s flimsiest identity structure—by Paleolithic standards, childish adults.”[7] Western society allows this stage to be sanctioned by the unbridled pursuit of wealth, status and power—leading ultimately the plundering of the Earth’s resources.

Although Western culture gradually abandoned initiation, the psychological need is still there. The primal desire for symbolic rituals pushes youth into substitutes for initiatory experience: gangs, suicide, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse. These symptoms demonstrate the unquenchable urge for existential transformation and the need for elders, mentors and rituals. The dilemma we face is that our own society has no concept of what kind of transformation our children should undergo. For all of its advances in technology and human rights, Western culture has not found a way to integrate the private individual into a larger and healthy society. That larger and healthy society is precisely the work of initiation—without sacrificing the importance and dignity of the individual person. Initiation only works when there is a collective spiritual wisdom into which the boy can be introduced and which the vast majority of a people agree upon.

Can We Rebuild?

Where will we find the wisdom to make our way through the maze of global overpopulation, industrial toxins, loss of biodiversity, ozone depletion, and countless other unfolding environmental crises that cast a long, uncertain shadow over the Earth’s fate? World-renowned Stanford ecologist, Paul Ehrlich, suggests we may find it in a movement that offers a timely blend of the truths of modern science and a complementary spiritual quality of altering our collective behavior: the nature-centered deep ecology movement. I am convinced that such a quasi-religious movement, one concerned with the need to change values that now govern much of human activity, is essential to the persistence of our civilization.[8]

It is imperative that we re-invent and introduce a contemporary version of male initiation rites that can help resolve the identity and eco-literacy crises suffered by so many males in our society. The philosophical movement of deep ecology can now provide that meaning we so desperately need. If these rituals are reconstructed upon the biocentric values of deep ecology, I believe they can help establish a new and sustainable covenant with nature for Western culture.


What form might a male eco-initiation rite take and how might it be implemented? I offer this brief outline of some initiatory patterns that might help young men reconnect with themselves, with a community of men, and with the sacred in nature:

  1. The ritual should take place in a remote wilderness location, separate from the ordinary world. In wilderness the Earth has the best opportunity to provide a numinous experience for the initiate and for the initiate to immerse himself fully in nature.
  2. It should follow the time-tested, classic stages of a rite of passage: Severance—the descent, the dark night of the soul; Threshold—the numinous world, listening to the inner voice, revealing the gift; Reintegration—returning to the world, bringing the gift back, engaging in action as advocates for the Earth.
  3. The traditional Native American inipi ceremony (sweat lodge)—a powerful psychic cleansing and rebirthing ritual tool—may be incorporated to prepare the initiates for subsequent initiation activities.
  4. Chanting, drumming and singing can suspend the rational mind and allow the initiate’s unconscious to emerge and thus merge with the “oceanic.”
  5. Experiential exercises, such as Joanna Macy’s Council of All Beings, can be incorporated to evoke compassion and empathy with the larger biotic community.
  6. Tests of endurance can take the form of the traditional Native American vision fast. This would be the apex of the ritual period, where the initiate is given the opportunity to open the door to the soul of nature and discover his unique place within it.
  7. Initiates should learn the arts of primitive living and wilderness survival skills, such as shelter building, first aid, fire making, cordage making, flint knapping, hide tanning, identifying and gathering wild edibles, tracking animals, and nature observation and awareness. The mastery of these skills fosters self-reliance and self-confidence.
  8. The initiate’s body might be physically altered, perhaps with a tattoo, signifying his allegiance to deep ecology ethics and the protection of the environment.
  9. The initiation rite must be held by elder men who embrace and live the deep ecology ethic, that they may serve as examples and mentors to the initiates.
  10. Initiates should be introduced to the precepts of deep ecology and this instruction should continue, not only throughout the initiation process, but also for years afterwards when the initiate returns to his community. Performing such rituals and providing ongoing support should be the responsibility of new fraternal organizations that uphold deep ecology as their code of ethics and practice environmental conservation and restoration as their service to the larger community.

An eco-initiation program should include significant tests of character, skill and achievement. These help initiates to understand and improve their capacities and to recognize and overcome their limitations. The time of adolescence is a time when a boy seeks his independence and discovers his personal identity. The initiation process is an opportunity to contain youthful aggression and violence and channel it towards useful and productive projects. Inside each boy is a “man of honor” who has unique strengths, talents and gifts to express in his life and offer to his community. Entered into with an open heart, this passage can offer a more meaningful life, dignity, and partnership with the Earth, experiencing the interconnectedness of all life.

Goals and Benefits

An eco-initiation program seeks to create better-balanced males on the threshold of adulthood by introducing initiates to ecological sources of knowledge and wisdom. An effective ritual helps to delineate what it is to be a mature man by discovering the Sacred within and the Sacred in nature, and to recognize personal value beyond work, status, money and possessions. It is a unique opportunity to introduce initiates to the world of heroes and myths, deep ecology ethics, inter-cultural and traditional indigenous knowledge, and to outstanding role models. An eco-initiation program can develop self-respect, and help men to recognize “all their relations” so that they no longer are deprived of the natural world.  As Tom Jay says, “Psychology without ecology is lonely.”

Following a well designed initiation process, young men are more likely to evolve from onlookers to active citizens; from guided to self-directed; from apathetic to involved; from sheltered to shapers of society; from dependents to providers; from at-risk to at-strength; and from self-centered to service-oriented leaders. As young men discover greater meaning and dignity in their lives, cycles of ennui, hopelessness, addiction, and destructiveness are countered. When young men serve, passion and commitment become part of their lives.


We must awaken to the fact that many ancient indigenous cultures did a better job than Western society in limiting narcissistic, aggressive masculinity and harnessing its energies for the community. The challenge now facing us is to learn from our forebears the importance of male maturation—that mature, responsible men are made and not simply the result of chronological aging. Yet even our ancestors could not see beyond their tribal visions the possibilities of achieving a mature masculinity for our species as a whole. Our work is to help reverse the soul crushing, environmentally suicidal trend of Western society, to plow those fields of the masculine soul and rediscover that essential, sacred relatedness to all of life. Initiation into the deep ecology paradigm can provide the foundation—the “mysteries”—so desperately needed for the formation of a mature masculine psyche, an ecological self that can create a sustainable future for the Earth. It can offer men, young and old alike, the opportunity to rekindle their most ancient relationship in the world: their relationship with the world.

[1] John Gowdy, ed., Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter-Gatherer Economics and the Environment, 1998)

[2] Nurit Bird-David, “Beyond  The Original Affluent Society”: A Culturalist Reformulation, (Washington, D.C., Island Press, 1998)

[3] George Sessions,  “Ecocentrism and the Anthropocentric Detour”, ReVision 13,3 (1991, Rev. 1993)

[4] Frank Waters, The Man Who Killed the Deer (New York: Ballantine, 1972)

[5] Mircea Eliade, Rites and symbols of initiation: The mysteries of birth and rebirth. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1958).

[6] Carlton Coon, The Hunting Peoples, (Boston, Atlantic, Little Brown, 1971), p. 392-3.

[7] Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1982) p. 124.

[8] Paul Ehrlich, The Machinery of Nature, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986) p. 17

Originally published in Taproot, Winter 1999

For a more in depth analysis: The Ecological Impact of Human Mating Strategies and the Loss of Male Initiation Rites. Masters thesis by Christopher Paddon, 1999.

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