One often-mentioned phenomenon is the recent rise of the environmental evangelical movement in the United States. Everyone probably remembers the classic “What would Jesus drive?” campaign, and just this February, 86 evangelical leaders signed a statement calling on their followers to fight climate change. The environmental community has slowly begun to realize that the religious community is a potentially powerful ally.
That’s why I was particularly interested to read an article on the influence of religion on the environment in China. Obviously the religious scene is very different here – Buddhism is the dominant religion in China, but after the cultural revolution, many people (especially in major cities like Beijing) have abandoned religion. Nevertheless, according to this article,the Daoists and Buddhists have managed to make significant efforts towards environmental conservation. Specifically, sacred mountain sites have managed to survive with a more intact environment than other mountains. Mountains with active religious communities still on them have been particularly well preserved because the monks protect them against illegal logging and poaching.
The Buddhist and Daoist communities are also becoming environmentally active outside of protecting their traditional spiritual sites. The government has enlisted their help in educating the public about environmental problems:
“in April this year, the Buddhist Association of China, in conjunction with the Chinese government, held a unique gathering of Buddhists from all over the Chinese world on the theme of social issues, and the environment was one of the key topics. Arising from this is a new range of projects and commitments by Buddhists across China to address issues such as deforestation, urban sprawl, waste, energy and moral values related to the environment.”
The fact that the Chinese government is asking for help from religion in addressing China’s environmental crisis is quite remarkable, especially for a country which did its best to stamp out religion 50 years ago. I cannot see this ever happening in the United States, nor do I necessarily think it should, given the controversy that always surfaces whenever church and state mix too closely. But it could perhaps be seen as symptomatic of how seriously the Chinese government is taking its environmental crisis. One could argue that China’s environmental crisis – and the world’s – cannot be solved without fundamentally changing the way in which people value material consumption and enlisting the help of religion in re-thinking how we satisfy our spiritual needs.