Religious Roots of the Ecological Crisis

No less an authority than world historian Arnold J. Toynbee identified in a paper in the International Journal of Environmental Studies "monotheism" as the root cause of our environmental crisis. Referring specifically to Genesis I, 28 ["Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it. Be masters of the fish in the sea, the bird of heaven and all living animals on earth" (The Jerusalem Bible, p. 6)]. Toynbee not only questioned the right of humans to use and abuse the earth but also challenged the authority of the one who supposedly had given this command, asking: "Has nature no rights against this autocratic creator and against man, God's aggressive licensee?" Recalling ancient European traditions of nature worship, he concluded: "Monotheism, as enunciated in the Book of Genesis, has removed the age-old restraint that was once placed on man's greed by his awe. This primitive inhibition has been removed by the rise and spread of monotheism." Eastern religions, like the pre-Christian European, "counsel man even when he is applying his human science to coax nature into bestowing her bounty on man" (Toynbee, 1971, p. 141).

Toynbee's charge expanded and sharpened a thesis proposed in 1967 by Lynn White Jr., a historian of mediaeval technology. White had called Christianity "the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen," through whose influence "the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled" and suggested -paradoxically - to name Francis of Assisi the patron saint of environmentalists (White, 1967).

In response to accusations like these, a great number of monographs and learned papers were published, not only defending "monotheism" by offering alternative interpretations of Genesis I, 28, but also highlighting the ecological potential of the world's religions. A series of major conferences were convened at Harvard University in the 1990s, whose proceedings appeared in a series of ten impressive volumes published by Harvard University Press under the title Religions of the World and Ecology, covering virtually every living religion from tribal traditions to Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, Shinto, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Out of these conferences developed the International Forum on Religion and Ecology, co-chaired by John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, editors of several of the volumes in the series.

Harold Coward, Director of the Center for Studies in Religion and Society at Victoria University, B.C., arranged in 1993 a high-powered workshop at Chateau Whistler, B.C., where religion scholars interacted with specialists from various sciences and economists to address questions of (over-)population, resource consumption, and the environment (Coward, 1995).

The environment was also a central topic at the 1993 meeting of the World Parliament of Religions in 1993, where Hans Kung tabled a document on Global Ethic and Responsibility (Kung, 1991).

As far as literature is concerned, the Internet offers numerous bibliographies on Religion and Ecology in general as well as more specific ones, such as Hinduism and the Environment (Noyce, 2002). The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology (Gottlieb, 2006) is a useful one-volume reference work for the field.

If Toynbee and White had identified the Abrahamic religions as the root of the world's ecological crisis, Anil Agarwal, an Indian engineer turned journalist and ecological activist, made Hinduism, India's majority tradition, responsible for India's ecological malaise. "Hinduism," he says, "is a highly individualistic religion: the primary concern is to do one's own dharma for the sake of one's own well-being. Under the onslaught of modern-day secularism this has brought out the worst type of individualism in Hinduism" (Agarwal, 2000, p. 165).

Going one step further, W. Ophuls sees the ecological crisis as "primarily a moral crisis in which the ugliness and destruction outside in our environment simply mirror the spiritual wasteland within." And "the sickness of the earth reflects the sickness of the soul in modern industrial man, whose life is given over to gain, to the disease of endless getting and spending" (Ophuls, 1992).

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