Faith upon the earth - Religion and ecology
22 September 2007
(c) The Economist Newspaper Limited, London 2007. All rights reserved
Whether they like it or not, ecologists and clerics need each other
In many parts of the world, religious groups and environmental scientists are teaming up—albeit sometimes reluctantly
“THERE was a functioning bridge until 1470 AD,” says Praveen Togadia, a Hindu fundamentalist, smoothing out his dhoti. “Due to natural calamities, it was disturbed, and parts went into the sea.” To modern, secular eyes, at least, the “bridge” is a 30-mile (48km) chain of sandy shoals across the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. But millions of Hindus see the shoals as physical proof of their beliefs. The Ramayana, a Hindu text, says a bridge was built by monkeys at the behest of a Hindu god, Ram—who duly crossed over to wrest his wife Sita from a Sri Lankan demon. The shoals are known in India as “Ram Setu”, or “Ram's Bridge”.
Now take a deep breath and consider the conflict over a plan by India's Congress-led government to dredge the strait for a shipping canal. While Hindus loathe the project on spiritual grounds, ecologists have different objections. At the junction of the deep, cold Indian Ocean and the shallow, temperate Arabian Sea, the strait is an ecological prize. So far, 377 endemic species have been found in nearby waters.
On this issue at least, the devoutly religious and the greens are on the same side. But the former, it seems, have more clout than the latter. On September 12th the government told the Supreme Court that the Ramayana was not proof of the existence of Lord Ram; and that science suggested the shoals were made by sedimentation, not monkeys. On the same day, the World Hindu Council, headed by Dr Togadia, staged protests across the country. On September 14th the government, at the behest of Sonia Gandhi, the (Catholic) leader of Congress, put the canal plan on hold: a setback for a government which wanted to save ships from a 24-hour loop round Sri Lanka. With elections due next year, Congress feared giving its Hindu foes in the Bharatiya Janata Party a new slogan.
India's greens have little love for their accidental allies. “I'm not protesting against this project for religious reasons but for environmental ones,” says Kushal Pal Singh Yadav, of the Centre for Science and the Environment, a Delhi think-tank.
In many other parts of the world, secular greens and religious people find themselves on the same side of public debates: sometimes hesitantly, sometimes tactically, and sometimes fired by a sense that they have deep things in common.
One more case from India: ornithologists who want to save three species of vulture (endangered because cattle carcasses are tainted by chemicals) see their best ally as the Parsees, who on religious grounds use vultures to dispose of human corpses.
In China, organised religion is much weaker and conservationists also feel more lonely. But Pan Yue, the best-known advocate of green concerns within the Chinese government, says ancient creeds, like Taoism, offer the best hope of making people treat the earth more kindly.
Other tie-ups between faith and ecology are less obvious. In Sweden, the national Lutheran Church, working with Japanese Shintos, recently held a multi-faith meeting on forestry. They agreed to set a new standard for the care of forests owned or managed by religious bodies—in other words, they said, 5% of the world's woods.
This month, representatives of many faiths, including a local Lutheran bishop and a shivering Buddhist monk (see above) gathered in Greenland to talk to scientists and ecologists. Patriarch Bartholomew, the senior bishop of the Orthodox Church, led his impressively robed guests in a silent supplication for the planet.
The terms of the transaction between faith and ecology vary a lot. In places like Scandinavia, where religion is weakish, a cleric who “goes green” may reach a wider audience; in countries like India, where faith is powerful, spiritual messages touch more hearts than secular ones do. That doesn't stop some environmental scientists from saying they are being hijacked by clerics in search of relevance. But Mary Evelyn Tucker, of America's Yale University, says secular greens badly need their spiritual allies: “Religions provide a cultural integrity, a spiritual depth and moral force which secular approaches lack.”
Martin Palmer, of the British-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation, says faiths often have the clearest view of the social and economic aspects of an environmental problem. In Newfoundland, he notes, conservationists put curbs on cod fishing—and left the churches to care for families whose living was ruined.
Still, one selling point often used by the religious in their dialogue with science—the fact that faith encourages people to think long-term—may be a mixed blessing. The most pessimistic scientists say mankind has a decade at most to curb greenhouse gases and fend off disastrous global warming; that doesn't leave much time to settle the finer points of metaphysics.