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religious diversity and ecological sustainability

By: James Miller

For the past six months I’ve been working with Dan Smyer Yu from the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity on a conference which is finally taking place next week at Minzu University in Beijing. The title of the conference is Religious Diversity and Ecological Sustainability in China. Here’s the conference rationale that we wrote.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the health of Planet Earth is affected by human activities on both organizational and personal levels. The industrialist vision celebrating a modern cornucopia has proven itself successful in extracting and harnessing resources from the Earth as well as in producing wastes lethal to the biosphere. The worldwide project of modernization has concurrently brought blessings to human wellbeing as well as displacement of human communities and endangered myriad species. Many of us, who are either socially engaged or theoretically-oriented, have produced works critiquing the environmental consequences of modernity and its grand global material project—modernization. Meanwhile, many of us have also begun to revisit and reinterpret ancient ecological worldviews and practices that are an inherent part of native belief systems for the purpose of either exploring alternative, “green” models of modern life or radically reorienting the course of modernization the world over. Nowhere are these questions more intensely focused and their impacts more keenly felt that China, which has experienced the full brunt of industrialization, population explosion, rural to urban migration at a pace and scale un- precedented in world history.

At the same time, however, it is necessary to resist the simplistic construction of “New China” as exclusively “secular”, “modern”, or “materialistic.” The resurgence of religious expression in contemporary China, the attention paid to minority nationalities throughout China’s diverse environmental contexts, and the resuscitation of Confucius as supreme icon of Chinese culture together compel us to pay attention to the cultural and religious diversity of contemporary China. Doing so leads us to question the binary taxonomies of tradition / modernity, sacred / secular, rural / urban, religion / science that inform the ideology of mo- dernity, and to pay particular attention to the way their attendant ideologies and narratives serve to construct and authorize particular views of nature and environment.

We aim to do so by weaving together three separate spheres of inquiry. The first aims towards an historical understanding of China’s traditional constructions of nature and environment and of how those constructions have been reconfigured by modern narratives of secularization, nationalism, or scientific development. The second engages an understanding of China’s diverse environmental contexts and the ways in which minority nationalities, popular culture and official religions have constructed and engaged their local ecolo gies and environments. The third analyzes contemporary urban China and the concepts of space, nature, technology and environment that inform and authorize contemporary archi- tecture, urban planning and utopian dreams of eco-cities. In these three ways we develop a comprehensive understanding of contemporary China that goes beyond the tradition / modernity dichotomy, and illuminates the diversity of narratives and worldviews that inform contemporary Chinese understandings of and engagements with nature and environment.

To generate this breadth and depth of knowledge requires a multidisciplinary approach, the first stage of which will take place by means of a workshop at Minzu University. In this workshop, both the historical studies of larger traditions and the ethnographic discussions of eco-religious communities among non-Han populations are part and parcel of the ongoing worldwide scholarly effort to discern the diverse superstructures and axiomatic roots of human ecological practices. On one hand, the workshop explores the “green” facets of religions in China, and, on the other hand, traces origins of modern ecological views, ethics, and practices from ancient times. The inclusion of ecological discourses from the non-religious sphere in China is meant to acknowledge the social reality of contemporary China, in which approximately 90% of the population is “non-religious.” This does not mean the secular society of China is constructed of social behaviors absent of belief systems and religiosity. The path of China’s modernization, despite its changing forms, bears a millenna- rianist trademark ranging from scientism to the current modernization trends, in which the vision of a “saved” China has always been projected into a not-yet-manifest future depicted as a paradise on earth with abundance, equality, and fair division of labor. This enchanted utopian trait of China’s modernity deserves an ecological reading from the perspective of religious studies as does contemporary field studies in smaller scale communities negotiating modernity and their own traditions in a globalized era. We look forward to working with a diverse body of scholars bringing fresh theoretical perspectives.

If you visit the Max Planck website  and download the conference brochure, you will see that we are bringing in a group of top-notch scholars from Europe, North America and China. I fly to Beijing on Saturday, and the conference takes place from March 6-9. After the conference I will be going on a brief lecture tour with Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim from the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. I will report back with some of the highlights over the next few weeks.

Categories: Blog, Conferences

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