Discovering Ecological Wisdom in Ancient Texts

Stung by White's and Toynbee's criticism, the "monotheists" began to reread and reinterpret their scriptures from an ecological perspective. They discovered a great many texts that appear to provide support for contemporary ecological thinking. A recent edition of a popular English Bible translation marks all texts that refer to nature in green - all in all about a thousand.

Rabbi Sharon Joseph Levi sees an "ecological command" in the Talmud text: "God created Adam and led Adam through the trees in the garden. 'See my works, how fine and excellent they are. Know that all I have created is for your benefit. Reflect upon this and do not destroy my work, for if you do, no one will fix it after you'" (Levi, 1995, p. 94).

Walter Lowdermilk, a hydrologist with a Christian background, alarmed by the soil erosion that he had observed in China and in Mediterranean countries, suggested to add an 11th commandment to the Biblical Decalogue: "Thou shalt inherit the holy earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation. Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from soil erosion, they living waters from drying up, they forests from desolation, and protect the hills from overgrazing by the herds, that they descendants may have abundance forever. If any shall fail in this stewardship of the land, they fruitful fields shall become sterile stony ground and wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from off the face of the earth" (Quoted in Nash, 1989, p. 202).

Howard T. Odum, a professional ecologist, drew up "Ten Commandments of the Energy Ethic for Survival of Man in Nature" whose first rule is: "Thou shall not waste potential energy" ending with "Thou must find in thy religion, stability over growth, organization over competition, diversity over uniformity, system over self, and survival process over individual peace" (Odum, 1971, p. 244).

Christian theologians had for centuries left nature out from their considerations, concentrating instead on the "super-natural" as the proper field of their study. They too had to recognize the seriousness of the issue and began to reflect on how to "save the earth." The Catholic Hans Kung and the Protestant Wolfgang Pannenberg could be mentioned as pioneers in this field. Pope John-Paul's II 1990 message for the World Day of Peace calls the ecological crisis a moral crisis that demands the cooperation of all (Gottlieb, 1996, pp. 230-237). His successor, Benedict XVI, chose care for the environment as the focus of his address to the World Youth Festival in Sydney (Australia) in Summer 2008, and included "sins against nature" in a new catalogue of the traditional "seven deadly sins" - listed by TIME magazine among "The 50 Best Inventions of the Year" (TIME, November 10, 2008).

Conservative Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular were for a long time leery of connecting their interpretation of Christianity with an interest in nature - they considered ecology-enthusiasts as pagans and rejected them together with Wiccas and similar new religions. However, a recent "Statement of the Evangelical Climate Initiative" includes "An Evangelical Call to Action" and an apology for past in-action in that field ( statement).

Mawil Y. Izzi Deen, a Muslim scholar, interprets a Koran text that speaks of human vice-regency as divine entrustment of creation to humankind with the command to protect the earth: "The Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) considered all living creatures worthy of protection and kind treatment. He was once asked whether there will be a reward from God for charity towards animals. His reply was very explicit: 'For [charity shown to] each creature which has a wet heart there is a reward'" (Deen, 1990, p. 165).

Hindus, encouraged by Toynbee's praise, cite ancient Vedic prayers to Earth and Sun, Wind and Water as testimony to their tradition's ecological awareness. O. P. Dwivedi (1990), a Hindu scholar who has published extensively on this subject, quotes the ancient Laws of Manu prohibiting the pollution of lakes and rivers and threatening severe punishment to offenders. The planting of trees is commended as a religiously meritorious act in the Puranas, the "Bibles" of popular Hinduism. Krishishastra, India's traditional agricultural science contains practical advice on agriculture within a religious framework, linking sowing and harvesting with moon-phases and planetary movements as well as the popular Hindu festivals.

Buddhists refer to the Jatakas, stories about earlier incarnations of the Buddha in various animals, as evidence for the ecological sensitivity of their tradition.

L. G. Hewage, a prominent Buddhist scholar, criticized contemporary Western ecological thinking as too superficial. Ecology has also to address the "psycho-sphere" in which the roots of the ecological crisis are located: greed, hatred, and delusion: "The teachings of the Buddha contain adequate and appropriate information about the nature of this psycho-sphere and suggest empirically tested ways and means of understanding it and having full control over it at the final stage, by each individual who wishes to do so" (Hewage, 1982, p. 105).

Jains claim to be the oldest ecologists on record: their religion prescribes protection of all life. Ahimsa, not harming life, is their first and highest commandment. The Jain scholar Nathmal Tatia cites vegetarianism, practiced by all Jains, as a major contribution to the conservation of resources. Jains also established animal hospitals and shelters. Tatia's "Jain Guidelines to Meet the Ecological Crisis" include warnings against making the accumulation of wealth the aim of one's life (Tatia, 2002, p. 15).

While the majority of those for whom the Bible is scripture read Genesis I, 28, now as an entrustment of "stewardship" of the earth to humankind, there are still some who continue to see in it a license for large-scale human interference with nature. W. E. Fudpucker, an American Jesuit, sees in it a "technological imperative" to develop "technological Christianity" (Fudpucker, 1984). A former US interior secretary defended the destruction of large tracts of wilderness are as "Preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus." And an Editorial in The Christian Century reaffirmed a belief in the Biblical "Dominion Over Nature" by pleading for "Accepting the Risk" of further industrial development.

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