Advocating in ecology through meditation A case study on the Swiss “inner transition” network
Christophe Monnot and Alexandre Grandjean
In Europe and North America, actors claiming to be involved in religious interests bring about moral arguments to contest many progressive political projects, such as access to civil marriage (Tricon, 2015; Béraud and Portier, 2015) or medically assisted procreation for homosexual couples (Mathieu, 2017). As noted by Claude Proeschel and David Koussens (Introduction), these contestations have mainly fostered around normative secularist legal framework or new rhetoric of pluralistic individual freedom of conscience. In their complete review of situations in which public contestation occurs through religious actors or motives, they interestingly observe the "emergence of new areas of contestation, both in the locations where contestation is expressed and in the causes that it champions” (Introduction). Indeed, though religious contestation can easily be affiliated only with conservative political and ontological agendas, religious or spiritual argumentative registers are twofold. For instance, religious/spiritual actors and rhetoric are also used to support political or citizen-based projects related to ecology, alter-globalism, the introduction of new “green” technologies, and the struggle against climate change (Gottlieb, 2010; Kearns, 2012; Koehrsen, 2018; Veldman et al., 2014). The latter thus being contestation topics usually attributed to progressive and politically left-oriented social actors (Becci et al., 2021).
Yet, this twofold public contestation by religious actors is to be reconsidered, notably in the light of a general movement involving a blurring of conventional political maps, divided between progressives and conservatives, which Anthony Giddens already analysed in his book Beyond Left or Right: The Future of Radical Politics (1994). For instance, the contribution of religious actors to ecological issues is equally intertwined. Noteworthy is the example of Pope Francis’s Encyclical Laudato Si (2015) and his proposal for “integral ecology”. Indeed, while taking up the broad lines of the scientific debate and the current activists’ rationale for “the care of the Creation”, the encyclical statements remain, however, in line with the bio-power stakes supported by the magisterium and previous popes (Turina, 2013).
In this chapter, we focus on the “new areas of contestation” Claude Proeschel and David Koussens wrote about, thus following on politically oriented left-wing or progressive contestation originating with religious and spiritual actors. We will do so through a case study grounded within a network of religious and spiritual ecoactivists in Switzerland. The latter particularly drew our attention, because in their discourses two action registers intersect in a virtuous continuum. First, these religious and spiritual actors claim a posture of advocacy has relevance on environmental issues. Second, the posture of meditation is equally raised so as to seek a so-called harmony with the inner dimension of the “self’ and its relation with the environment and consumerist Western societies. More precisely, we will follow a case study we conducted on the Laboratory for Inner Transition (Laboratoire de la transition intérieure), a newly created programme by the Swiss Protestant Church’s humanitarian NGO, “Bread for AU" (BFA).2 It all began in 2016, when the international cooperation organisation BFA commissioned Michel Maxime Egger (MME),3 a well-known actor on account of his books and lectures on ecospirituality and ecopsychology (2012, 2016). This laboratory is of particular interest to us, because it is one of the influential nodes of an identified network of actors that calls for an “inner transition”. This situation is innovative in that it addresses both an audience of social Christians and actors active in the holistic milieu, besides those engaged in more secular forms of sustainable militancy.
By means of this structure - unique in Switzerland - the Laboratory, its founder (MME) and his employee have access to resources and enjoy institutional credibility, hence anchored in the continuity of this renowned organisation in Switzerland. The latter is situated at the intersection between the sustainable and humanitarian development advocated by Switzerland’s major development aid programmes and the Christian social tradition supported by the Swiss Protestant Church. With the case study of the Laboratory for Inner Transition, we will show how this programme operates a set of junctions, “binding” different social worlds and rhetoric together (religion/spirituality, the economy, politics, ecology, bottom-up alternatives, etc.). We will examine the contextual origins, social dynamics, successes and limitations of this strategy that strives to bind together advocacy and meditation in new modes of contestation. Indeed, is BFA’s political and humanitarian programme being renewed in its public expression throughout these innovative spiritual motives? Does this new form of advocacy through meditation reach or federate new audiences? In this context, what types of actors are engaged by the “inner transition” trope? Are these the one support by the Christian social base originating from BFA? Or are they members already active in ecological militancy, or leaders and decision-makers in the established Churches? In short, does the model of militancy proposed by MME bear political offspring or does it remain confined to alternative publics and individuals?
We assess these questions by discussing the results of a participant observation survey that we conducted over several years in Switzerland. After describing the general context of our investigation, we will first detail the founding of the Laboratory. We will highlight from which authors and approaches its founder, MME, shapes its “meditator-advocator” motto, and how this in turn resonates with BFA’s new institutional orientations and objectives. Second, we will situate the Laboratory’s activities in the context of the "inner transition” milieu that we
Advocating in ecology’ through meditation 113 observed between 2016 and 2019. In the third part, these observations will enable us to outline the successes and limitations of the “meditator-advocator” promoted by BFA and the Laboratory. We will note, in conclusion, that the “inner transition” trope, while it succeeds in uniting several audiences around a commitment linking the “inner self’ and ecology, modifies communication modes without influencing the substance of BFA’s advocacy work. As a result, the Laboratory and the “inner transition” trope benefit from BFA’s aura. Yet, this institution remains the sole legitimate and audible interlocutor when it comes to interacting with ecclesiastical, economic and political institutions in Switzerland. In a sense, it does not activate new forms of political militancy in the milieu of climate justice and calls in support of sustainability.