James Mills, SUNY Oneonta – Pilgrimages Could Save the Environment

Jim Mills, associate professor of geography and environmental sustainability at SUNY Oneonta, photographed October 25, 2019.
File#: 19-A33823

On SUNY Oneonta Sustainability Week: Pilgrimages could save the environment.

James Mills, assistant professor of geography and environmental sustainability, explores how.

Dr. Mills completed an undergraduate degree in natural resource planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and MA and PhD degrees in geography from the University of Minnesota. He served as the director of the Environmental Sciences Program for eight years at SUNY Oneonta and helped create a new major in environmental sustainability.  He currently teaches regional courses on Asia, the Geography of Culture and Environment, Environmental Issues, and a course entitled Religion, Spirit, and Environment. His research often focuses on landscape and spirit. He has visited pilgrimage destinations in Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Levant, Europe, and the US. His book Creating Pilgrimage Pathways Across the US: Walking in Community to a More Soulful and Sustainable World, published by North Atlantic Books, will be available early in 2021.

Pilgrimages Could Save the Environment


Pilgrimage has traditionally been a means of personal healing, but many see it today as one of the best ways to fulfill a number of additional spiritual purposes as well. One challenge is that we have very few pathways where you could undertake such a journey.  New pathways could be designed and constructed in ways that fulfill this desire for a rich pilgrimage experience while promoting environmental preservation and restoration. Pilgrimages could be local and based on walking, therefore limiting the use of fossil fuels for mobility. Pathways could simultaneously serve as wildlife corridors, connecting fragmented habitats and making movement safer for birds, mammals and amphibians. Green cemeteries could be integrated into the pathways further increasing natural habitats while serving a human purpose. Attitudes and behavior by those who take these pilgrimages could be changed by the experience. Intimate contact with local landscapes while on a pilgrimage can help develop a stronger sense of place, which often leads to greater concern and stewardship of the environment. You could say that by creating new pilgrimage pathways we would be healing ourselves and the planet.