green spirituality and the limits to modernity

In an online report on Religious Innovation for Sustainable Future (no longer available), Nina Witoszek (Oslo University) surveys a “pastoral renaissance” taking place across the globe.

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This renaissance, she declares, is “not just a tide of projects and conferences, but a new-old mindset which aspires to reclaiming nature, culture and spirituality, influencing green architecture and furthering alternative models of consumption.” The report continues with four essays based in China [note: I wrote the essay on China], India, Ghana and Norway, which explore the various ways in which this pastoral renaissance is taking place. The major aspect of this development is that discussion about the relationship between religion and ecology is not simply academic but actively shaping projects, cultures and mindsets in these very different areas of the world. While this in itself would be an important observation, Witoszek probes further into this phenomenon, and ends the opening section of her essay with this intriguing question:

Does this green spirituality signify a curious “premodern turn” in Western conceptions of human progress?

That is to say, is the pastoral renaissance in world religions and cultures a step back from modernity, a retreat into the past, an end to the project of modernity, of relentless and inexorable progress?

To understand the worldview of modernity, Witoszek produces an acute observation from Daniel Bell, writing in the 1970s:

The theme of Modernism was the word beyond: beyond nature, beyond culture, beyond tragedy—that was where the self-infinitizing spirit was driving the radical self. We are now groping for a new vocabulary whose key word seems to be limits: a limit to growth, a limit to spoliation of environment, a limit to arms, a limit to torture, a limit to hubris – can we extend the list?”

Witoszek’s conclusion is that the affinity between religion and sustainability lies in the way they both regard the question of limit as a central concern. Sustainability is about living within the ecological limits of the planet and not degrading our biosphere beyond its ability to sustain life. Religions are also oriented towards placing limits on people’s behaviour: don’t eat pork; don’t have sex with your neighbour’s wife; don’t harm living beings. Of course these religious limits have also been oriented towards supporting one group of people’s power over another group of people: for example, refusing to admit women as religious leaders. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that religion is one of the most powerful cultural forces that is oriented around not doing certain things.

From my point of view, it’s no surprise that as the world experiences the downside of industrial modernity, a healthy regard for limits should once again rise to the forefront of our cultural consciousness. In China, the quest for a sustainable future is mirrored in the “back to the future” rise of religions. For sure this is a complex phenomenon: people pray to the gods for wealth and happiness, not for a lower ecological footprint. But at the same time, Chinese religions send messages about reducing desire, non-violence to living beings, harmony with nature, and the value of balance and moderation. Is it any wonder that people should see a profound connection between religion and sustainability?

So to answer the original question, does the renewed interest in green religion signify a retreat to the past? Certainly, as Witoszek notes, the new “pastoral renaissance” can be allied with powerful nationalist forces and reactionary fundamentalist movements (see also my blog post on the rise of a Hindu nationalist ecological movement). At the same time, I remain hopeful that the new spirituality is part of an real and evolving consciousness centred on sustainability as a new form of “immanent transcendence,” one the capacity to root humanity deeply in the world.

religion, ecology and nationalism

Should environmentalists support conservation projects that also serve to bolster right wing nationalist agendas? This was one of the questions that was discussed last month at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, in San Francisco. I spoke on a panel organized by the Religion and Ecology section which featured a vibrant discussion on this very issue.

One of the key points of discussion that came up was the way in which the alliance of religion and ecology is not necessarily compatible with left / liberal politics. In North America we tend to associate environmental issues with left / liberal politics, and religious organizations that advocate on behalf of environmental issues similarly tend to get associated with those similar politics. As an example of this, at the Forum on Religion and Ecology lunch just a few days earlier, it was quite evident from the conversation that scholars involved in environmental issues largely fell into the left / liberal camp. But just because this is the normative cultural expectation in North America does not necessarily make this the case everywhere else in the world.

Landsat Image of Rama's Bridge

George James from the University of North Texas, for instance, noted the way in which the right wing nationalist politics of India BJP opposed the Sethusamudram shipping canal between India and Sri Lanka not because of environmental reasons but because the proposed shipping channel would cut through the causeway known as Rama’s Bridge, which is identified in the Hindu sacred mythology of the Ramayana. Here was a case in which the alliance of religion and ecology did not conform to the typical expectation of the left-liberal North American academic.

My own paper, on the alliance of Daoist religion and ecology, similarly made the point that the state has particularly supported the conservation of Daoist sites where this has accorded with nationalist politics. This is the case at Maoshan, a designated AAAA tourism destination, which is also a red tourism site, associated with the 4th Army’s role during the 1937-45 war with Japan. It was also the case for Wudang shan during the Ming dynasty, which ordered a local garrison to prevent local deforestation, in part because of the national significance of the site to the Ming emperors.

Here were two examples, then, of the ways in which religious efforts at the conservation of sacred sites were aided by nationalist agenda rather than a green agenda. In these cases, environmental efforts were local, rather than global, and subsumed under the question of national identity.

This discussion was also continued with reference to Suzanne Armstrong’s paper on the Christian Farmer’s Federation of Ontario, which demonstrated a range of theological opinions regarding the alliance of religion and agriculture that could be classified politically anywhere from conservative to liberal. Similarly, Elizabeth Allison’s paper on “brown” environmental issues in Bhutan raised the question of whether a technocratic approach to environmentalism bolstered a statist agenda, that is, empowered the government to strengthen its control over a wide range of issues in people’s lives.

The conclusion we reached, I think, is that just because environmental issues are perceived as being left/liberal issues in North America does not mean that this is necessarily the case in other cultures. We should not expect environmentalists to hold the same colour of political opinions, and we should also expect that there are instances where local environmental issues will bolster conservative orthodoxies and right wing agendas. Does this mean that we shouldn’t support environmental efforts where they also serve to bolster political ideologies that we don’t agree with?

sustainability as cultural and psychological transformation

Light within all living beingsIn a fascinating article on metaphors for progressive politics, George Lakoff summarizes succinctly the message that progressives need to be communicating as regards the issue of sustainability:

The economic crisis and the ecological crisis are the same crisis. It has been caused by short-term greed.

I fully agree that the economic crisis and the ecological crisis are deeply interrelated, and that we must overcome the stupid political divide of “economy” versus “environment.” The issue here is how to overcome short-term thinking: how do you get people to think longer, deeper and further than their own immediate context? This demands a cultural revolution and a psychological revolution, because sustainability at its heart involves a different way of imagining oneself in the world. It involves:

  • Imagining oneself not as an autonomous individual but as part of an ecosystem
  • Imagining oneself to occupy a duration in time that extends deep into the grave and far into the future
  • Imagining oneself to be a world that extends deeply in space and time beyond one’s own body

Sustainability requires people to broaden the context in which they make decisions. It involves their feeling beyond the narrow context of their immediate place in the world so as to consider their actions extending far and wide across the world. It involves feeling beyond the narrow context of their immediate time so as to consider their actions extending deep into the future. It involves feeling beyond the narrow context of their body so as to consider their very being as extending widely into the world.

This is very hard, for an important psychological reason and an important cultural reason. They psychological reason is that our intuitive psychological apprehension of the world is that our “environment” is a thing outside us: the “world” is apart from us, not a part of us. That is our default intuition generated in the deep basement of our psychic apparatus. We intuitively perceive the world to be outside of us, separated from us by the skin.

The cultural reason is that the culture of modernity builds upon and reinforces this intuitive perception to create a complex civilization founded upon normative dualisms in which the thinking self is divorced from the material world.

The new sciences of evolution and ecology, however, teach us that this default intuition and its normative culture are false: that our thinking selves are the product of 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution; and that our bodies are permeated by the worlds they inhabit and impact upon it in powerful and destructive ways.

The movement for ecological sustainability depends on embedding the holistic picture that has emerged in the new sciences into the operative norms of our culture. This requires transgressing the conventional norms of modern culture and, what is harder, the intuitive psychology whereby we perceive the world as a space outside our bodies. Sustainability depends for its success on these cultural and psychological transgressions.

Is it possible that religious traditions can help us to imagine how to transgress the normative culture of modernity and the intuitive dualism of self and other? In so doing, can they point the way to fostering a culture of sustainability?

In raising these questions, I am implicitly arguing that environmentalists have not been nearly radical enough in advocating for the harmony of human beings with each other and with their biological matrix. So long as environmentalists urge people to respect, heal, or value nature as an object beyond the hermetically-sealed walls of our bodies, they unconsciously reinforce the default dualism that posits an absolute separation between human beings and their lived environments. What is necessary therefore is to rewrite the discourse of ecological sustainability so as no longer to perpetuate the false reification of nature as a thing outside our bodies.

The movement for ecological sustainability depends on a deeper transformation in the way that people feel and perceive their place in the world. Sustainability at its deepest level is an aesthetic transformation, changing the way human beings sense, feel and cognize their location in space and time.

In Religion is Not About God, Loyal Rue proposed that we understand religions not so much as doctrines, but as effective systems for training people in the cultural habits and emotional responses that shape their experience of the world. Religions are mass cultural habits that train some people, for instance, to feel disgust at the thought of eating pork. In so doing they shape people’s perception of the world and educate them emotionally to respond to the world in certain ways.

This gives us a clue about how to deploy the techniques of religions for the benefit of training people not to feel disgust at pork, but to realize psychologically and culturally the hard truths that the new sciences are telling us: that we are implicated in a ecological matrix much bigger and more complex than we had previously imagined. In a sense, religions that train people to think about themselves sub specie aeternitatis have been doing this for a long time. But thinking of oneself from an eternal perspective is too big a deal. If only we can train people and politicians to think about themselves from the perspective of the next twenty years, that would be an enormous improvement.

what is freedom of religion for?

A Taiji quan peformance

A Taiji quan performance at a Daoist temple in Sichuan

There is hardly a truth more sacred to the contemporary American imagination than that religion must be free from interference by the state and that the state must be free from interference from religion. Neither of these ideals holds true in China, and this fact is an enormous thorn in the side of Chinese-American relations, especially as regards the Tibet question.

The fact is that religions and the state in China have co-existed in something of a symbiotic relationship for thousands of years. In medieval China, Buddhists seeking to ingratiate themselves in the life of the court proposed rituals to bring about the salvation and prosperity of the empire. Daoist priests also ordained emperors and oversaw court rituals. In return, the Emperor bestowed his patronage on monasteries and temples, granting them land, money and prestige. At the heart of this arrangement was a very simple and natural proposition: you help me and I’ll help you. (More…)

does environmental science lead to environmental action?

Green Heart (And the Green Grass Grows All Around, All Around)I have just finished teaching my undergraduate course on religion and the environment. Most of the students are in engineering or environmental science, and the course fulfills a humanities requirement for them. It’s been fascinating teaching scientists about religion, as you can imagine, but it’s also been hard.

One of the most serious problems that I’ve had to deal with among my students is the basic assumption that seems to be taught in environmental science, namely that knowing more about the environment is the best way to generate action on the environment. (More…)

is democracy good for sustainability?

Sustainability Salute - Green Olympic Volunteers, Beijing China_0050

Sustainability Salute from the Green Olympic Volunteers

I’m teaching a course in religion and the environment this term, and my students are preparing to debate this very question: is democracy good for sustainability?

By way of background, they have been reading Judith Shapiro’s book Mao’s War Against Nature, which forcefully details the way that Maoist ideology trumped scientific reason in charting China’s development in the twentieth century, resulting in famine, population explosion, and environmental disaster. (More…)

did china’s dams trigger the sichuan earthquake?

A collapsed building in Dujiangyan, close to the epicentre of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

China’s massive system of hydroelectric dams and water distribution has come under fire once again. Right after the devastating Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008, in which over 70,000 people lost their lives, officials rushed to deny that the massive Three Gorges Dam complex hundreds of kilometres downstream could have played any role in triggering the natural disaster.

Now officials are working hard to  play down a call by Fan Xiao, Chief Engineer of the Regional Geology Investigation Team of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, for scientists to investigate whether the Zipingpu dam project, located upstream of the quake area, may have triggered the earthquake.

Fan’s call comes in the wake of a paper by Christian Klose at Columbia University which theorized how abnormal surface stresses caused by the Zipingpu dam system may have triggered the massive earthquake. Klose’s hypothesis also matches work conducted by Lei Xinglin a geologist with the China Earthquake Administration in Beijing.


religious traditions and the future of east asia

Here’s three reasons why China’s traditional religions and cultures will play an increasingly important role in the East Asian political scene. 

  1. In mainland China, more people than ever are turning to religion. An interview with Arrianna Liu, who works in a Beijing-based NGO, reported that it’s not just the government’s attitudes that have changed. Ordinary people are now more curious about religion, and more tolerant of it, especially foreign religions such as Christianity.
  2. Confucianism is increasingly being recognized as part of the social fabric that holds East Asian society together. Chinese scholars such as Kang Xiaoguang at Renmin University in Beijing, which has traditionally trained the cadre ranks of the Communist Party, openly advocate a more direct reliance on Confucian values for future policy directions. Moreover, Confucianism is also key to understanding East Asian society from Korea to Vietnam. And it is also a source of controversy for diaspora Chinese living in Indonesia. 
  3. Buddhism is playing an important bridging role in relations between mainland China and Taiwan. China’s second World Buddhist Forum is being held in the spring this year and is being held jointly between the mainland and Taiwan. Academics and Buddhist teachers will be holding the first part of the conference on the mainland, and then flying by charter air to Taiwan for the closing half. 

what has become of china’s eco-cities?

An artist's rendering of the Dongtan eco-city

There has been much news lately that the project to design a massive eco-city on Chongming Island near Shanghai may finally have fizzled out. The project, designed by the British engineering firm Arup, would have created a low carbon-footprint city called Dongtan, just a thirty-minute boat ride from Shanghai. In its first phase, to have been completed in time for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, it would have created housing for 50,000 people. At three quarters of the size of Manhattan Island, the project could eventually have housed half a million people, connected to the mainland via a network of bridges and tunnels.

What went wrong? And, as Andrew Revkin asks in his New York Times blog, is growth still trumping green?


i’m dreaming of a green christmas

By James Miller

Christmas, as we all know, is the grand festival of the religion of consumerism. We pay homage to our saviour Santa Claus in the vast cathedral of the shopping mall. There we make a sizeable donation to the faltering economy and, just because it’s Christmas, cheerfully pay the GST to our non-existent government. We stagger home laden under the weight of a vast array of glittering gifts. We then dress them in the finest of wrappings and reverently lay them at the foot of the sacred tree. Over a sacrificial meal of turkey and pinot noir our family bonds are strengthened, relationships renewed, and we settle into a blissful oblivion before the television set.