1. What forms of belief does animism take?
2. What are the ways in which behaviors differ between
people with animistic and non-animistic beliefs?
3. How does an animistic perspective affect the way in
which people understand their place in the world?
4. What are specific results on how this belief affects the
Connie Hwang, SJSU Graphic Design Professor
Yoon Chung Han, SJSU Graphic Design Assistant Professor
Animism is the belief that objects, places and beings all possess distinct spiritual essences. It is a feature of the original belief systems of most human cultures. In dominant discourses—as a method of trying to legitimize and justify colonialism—animistic worldviews are commonly characterized as being primitive and “savage” . These characterizations are not only inaccurate, but incalculably harmful, causing the corruption and extinction of cultures. In addition to the urgent ethical issues that presents, given that it has been shown that indigenous people currently protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity, it has profound environmental impacts.
When considering the ecological destruction brought about by the current dominant industrial capitalist paradigm, one has to wonder what is truly “savage”. In this way the the relevancy of animism for a sustainable future for this planet becomes obvious. An animist understanding of the world and our place in it can advance our societies towards a more sustainable future for our planet, which is necessary for our survival as a species to live in harmony with nature and be less destructive.
In Animism: Respecting the Living World, Graham Harvey relates that an animism is most accurately understood as “a concern with knowing how to behave appropriately towards persons, not all of whom are human.” Animism does not exist in opposition to modernity: such is the narrative that has been put forth by colonial powers in order to assert power and dominance over cultures with animistic values. Understanding the value of animistic beliefs is necessary for liberation of the mind from the yoke of colonial narratives.
The current dismissal is in service to a colonialist agenda which seeks to justify its exploitation of other cultures by classifying them as primitive and backwards. Furthermore, the current capitalist paradigm nature as a collection of objects created for humanity to exploit.
The preinert resources has lead us to the overwhelming majority of ecological destruction, contributing to climate change which now threatens our very existence.
I argue that, far from being “primitive”, an animistic understanding is a more advanced way of being than the current industrial capitalist paradigm. When considered from an animist perspective, ecologically destructive practices such as mountaintop removal mining are understood as violations, either to personified nonhuman entities or to an all-encompassing natural order.
It’s time for a broader cultural shift where we understand that we are part of a larger biological community of nonhuman entities, and that one of the most important aspects of living a good life is to be in right relationship with these entities.
Early ideations and Brainstorming
“Anima, n. from Latin:
The vital principle; soul; the breath of life.”
–Lewis & Short’s Latin Dictionary
Equirectangular map from
Humans are creatures of culture: it’s in our nature to seek the social. We learn best by example, which is why I chose to conduct case studies of animistic worldviews from specific cultures in order to explore the relationship between between animistic worldviews and humanity’s cological impact. Due to time limitations, my research focused on three cultures: the ancestral Norse culture of Iceland, the Yoruba of Nigeria, and Japan’s Shinto tradition.
The commonalities shared between these three distinct cultures have implications for how we can approach discourse around culture and the environment. Much environmental preservation is thanks to adherents of traditional cosmologies such as the ones featured.
Many people around the world have become disenchanted with the effects of consumerism and widespread industrialization, as they have to contend with the lasting environmental effects. As people try to minimize their effect on the environment, decolonize and search for more meaningful and authentic lifeways, people who had drifted from their traditional cultures are are rediscovering the value in their own traditions.
Screens for Iceland