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Ecotheology: a paradigm shift

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money”

-Cree Indian proverb

I wrote this essay about five years ago and thought it might be a though proviking piece considering all the changes that have occured in this short period of time.

About 85% of the world’s population is religious, believing in God or a supernatural entity. Over the past few decades, strong movements have taken place to separate the state from religion. Today, some NGO’s and individuals believe that religion and the encouragement of religious authorities can play a crucial role in conservation.

Ecology is a science requiring an interdisciplinary approach incorporating a political, social and economical dimension to be successful. A fourth dimension integrating religious beliefs may be included in certain cases to encourage conservation actions. Religions provide a framework of values which govern the social and cultural functioning of human societies. The basic tenant of the Judeo-Christian religions advances an anthropocentric view; the world was created for the use of mankind. According to the first Genesis of the Bible that is recognises by both religions, God created the earth and its flora and fauna to be dominated by man. With the explosion of the human population, this use of resources has become uncontrolled and unsustainable. However, in certain cases, conservation actions from religious origins are not accomplished for the sake of conservation itself. These are actions undertaken to improve the living condition for a group of human beings.

Current assumptions are that oriental religions promote a greater respect for nature and the environment and are more in harmony with the natural world. This is due to their concept of rebirth and continuum of life and these religions are a priori more environmentally friendly. However countries like Thailand, where these religions are practiced predominantly have recently exploited their environment as ruthlessly as the West to further development. The relationship between indigenous tribes and their surrounding environment is emphasised by religious values. Be it the American Indians and the protection of fauna and flora species through totems, or the Indian sacred groves, the natural environment is perceived as a source of livelihood and is exploited in a sustainable way to ensure future consumption. However this protection of species and the environment based on ancient rituals occurs on a small scale and is quite localised. The propagation of moral conduct with regard to the environment must come from widespread religions to have a greater impact.

Buddhism, one of the world’s major religions integrates the living environment in its teachings. One of Buddhism’s basic moral values is to respect all life forms human and animal as both are closely related. The rebirth of a soul can be in a human or animal form reinforcing the connection of life forms. Plants are also valued as Buddha received his enlightenment when sitting under a Pipal tree Ficus religiosa.

In a modern world with extravagant necessities, even countries which are originally considered to have a natural reverence for the environment tend to be destructive. Tibetans in northern India and Nepal have played an important role in the wildlife trade specialising in trafficking tiger and leopard skins.

Today’s world is secular; the role of religion in conservation is minimal but religious leaders can have a considerable impact if they wield their power in this direction. In 2005, the Dalai Lama made a public appeal to discourage the use of tiger skins in ceremonial dresses. “Tibetans are basically Buddhists, and we preach love and compassion towards all other living beings on Earth. So, it is our responsibility to realise the importance of wildlife conservation. In Tibet, a dead tiger is worth more than a live individual. The respect and importance which he is accorded culminated in a successful campaign and a drastic reduction in the use of skins for Tibetan costumes.

A group of “environmentalist monks” started a tree planting campaign in Thailand in a bid to counter deforestation. These monks address current issues such as deforestation, polluted rivers which are caused by the government’s bid to increase development and export. While the effect of their actions is currently unknown, there is hope for the education of the masses and a decrease in unsustainable activities.

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