Ecoactivism Ecology as Religion

Greenpeace is probably the world's best-known association of eco-activists. What is less known is its religious background: Robert Hunter, its founder intended his movement to represent "ecology as religion," describing its ethics as one of "personal responsibility and confrontation." Hunter also believed that whales are the highest developed living beings on earth - higher than humans: this is the background to the highly publicized "Save the Whales" campaigns. The members of Greenpeace also believe that they are fulfilling a prophecy made by a Cree woman, "Eyes of Fire," who predicted that at a time of universal ecological devastation "Warriors of the Rainbow" would arise to end the desecration of the earth (Hunter, 1979, p. 28). Importantly, Greenpeace also draws an essential connection between care for the environment and peace among humans: the two are intertwined! Though they consider confrontation an indispensable part of their strategy, they advocate nonviolence in its execution.

Another eco-activist group -"Earth First" - founded in 1980 by Dave Foreman, is openly resorting to violence and illegal activities like the spiking of trees, to ruin the chainsaws of the lumberjacks. It also considers itself a religion at whose center is Mother Earth: "All the Earth is Sacred" (Kinsley, 1995, p. 201). Earth-First holds that nonviolence is unnatural and that violence is necessary to defend Mother Earth against her enemies.

"People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals" (PETA) claim - rather boldly - that Jesus was a vegetarian and that meat-eaters commit a "holocaust on their plate" (http://www.peta.org/). Their spectacular "events" to persuade people from wearing animal furs often enlist pop-stars and society persons. Supporting at least some of their ideas, the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals issues information, composes prayers, and organizes animal blessings in churches on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. A generation ago, Albert Schweitzer developed his theology of nonviolence on the foundation of the holiness of all forms of life.

Many of the over 800 contemporary grassroots ecological movements in India are religion-inspired, such as the Chipko, engaged in saving forests, the Mitti Bachao Abhiyan, a save-the-soil movement, the Vana Mahotsava, a tree planting organization, or the Braja Raksha Dal, engaged in protecting the hills connected with Krishna' early life from being mined for building materials - to mention only a few.

Interestingly, the religious movement that has done most for the Indian environment, Swadhyaya (literally "self-study"), founded by Pandurang Shastri Athavale in the 1940s, refuses to call itself an ecological movement and insists that whatever ecological benefits may follow from its activities, these are secondary. The primary aim had been from the very beginning a socioreligious reform of entire village communities: people have to learn to see their daily work as seva (religious service) and to regard nature as manifestation of the divine. Its, by now, several million members, living mainly in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, have planted orchards and forests on hundreds of thousands of hectares of land earlier considered useless. They have transformed vast stretches of barren countryside into gardens that produce vegetables for home consumption and market, and they have performed wonders in the areas of water-preservation and village sanitation. Above all, they have given an example of voluntary cooperation on a large scale, overcoming divisions of village against village and religion against religion. All these "ecological successes" are considered "by-products" of the teaching that God is appearing to humans in and through nature: The earth is their Holy Mother, to be thanked for her gifts and to be cherished. Vriksha mandiras, tree-temples are the focal points for their worship. Athavale cited many ancient Hindu texts to support his "nature dharma" and taught people to practice "devotional farming" (Jain, 2008, pp. 10-63).

Athavale followed in some ways the example of the Bishnois, disciples of a fifteenth-century saint Jambeshvara, living in the forbidding Rajasthan desert. Among the 29 rules that the guru laid down, eight have to do with the protection of animals and trees. Jambheshavara also got several large tanks dug as water reservoirs for the dry season, still in existence today. Deepening these reservoirs is considered a meritorious act that still continues to be practiced. Planting and conserving trees was another of his commandments. Jambheshvara is even credited with having revived a dead tree. He taught people not to cut off branches from trees to feed their animals, as they had been doing during the dry hot summers, but to care for the trees. Soon, pockets of lush forests developed in the desert. An eighteenth-century Maharaja of Jodhpur, desirous of building a new palace, sent out his officers to scout for timber: they located a source in Khedajali, a nearby village. When they came to cut down the trees, Amrita Devi, a resident of the village, tried to stop them. The workmen, however, killed her and 362 other Bishnois who opposed the cutting of their trees. The Raja, on hearing about it, immediately stopped the killing and the cutting of trees. Today, a monument in Khedajali commemorates the 363 villagers who became martyrs for their trees. Recent instances have been documented where Bishnois sacrificed their lives protecting animals from being hunted. They also maintain nursing homes for cattle and consider it religiously meritorious to provide fodder and medical assistance to them.

Indian eco-activists also take inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, who taught and practiced ecology long before it became fashionable in the West

(Torchia, 1997). India's traditions that never knew a hard and fast division between human life and other forms of lives make it easier for contemporary ecological movements to win adherents for their campaigns to save wildlife and protect the natural environment.

Among Thai Buddhists, a movement developed that performs the robing of trees to protect them from being felled: being robed, the trees become members of the Buddhist Sangha and thus inviolate.

Some Neo-Buddhist and Neo-Hindu communities in the West, such as the Green Gulch Farm and the Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in California, or ISKCON, present in many countries, also have a decidedly ecological agenda: they practice organic farming, take care to recycle as much as possible, and make reduction of consumption part of their religious routine.

There are also elements in the teachings and practices of older religions that are of ecological relevance: moderation in consumption, care in the use of resources, and sharing of possessions surely would help the environment if people followed these recommendations. Vegetarianism, enjoined by several of the major Asian religions, if worldwide adopted, would certainly be of immense environmental benefit. So would be the cultivation of charity, especially when extended to animals: it would result in a fairer distribution of resources, and also prevent wars, the source of much ecological devastation. Religions, by sensitizing people for dimensions of reality other than the grossly material, encourage "reverent thinking": teaching respect for nature rather than encourage its senseless exploitation (Skolimowski, 1989).

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