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Environmental Ethics: 
A Comparative Study of Christian and Buddhist Ideals

Brooks Marks

It becomes more and more apparent every day that the whole planet, and not just the human race, is facing an incredible environmental dilemma. I say that the world, and not just the human race, is facing an environmental dilemma, because it is very easy to contribute to the dualism which separates man from nature, and forget that we are nature as much as any other organism or non-living object. In fact, to say that one is going to go be one with nature, like on a vacation, is rather ironic, as one cannot separate oneself from what he/she is. What one can separate oneself from however, is what is natural, or what I would say is necessary to maintain the stability of the earth and all it inhabitants. One could of course argue that since we are a part of nature, then what we do must certainly be natural, but I would have to disagree. That is because when I think of nature I think of opposing forces which come into a balance to even allow for the existence of the world. For example, living organisms die and they are born, there is day and there is night, there is hot and there is cold, and the list could go on forever. All of these things are what we call opposites, but it is as if they are opposites heading in the same direction, for when they meet, they form a balance that as far as we know, is necessary for the existence of life. In other words there is change, but not universal destruction. Almost all living organisms can maintain this sort of balance with their environment, but the human race on the other hand cannot, at least not since major technological innovations and the drastic population increase. Instead, the human race only seems to move in one direction, which leads to the destruction of the world on which all living organisms depend. Anyone who even occasionally watches the news or reads a newspaper knows of the depletion of the ozone layer, air and water pollution, endangered or extinct animals, and the list goes on and on. Basically, as Lynn White says, "surely no creature other than man has ever managed to foul its nest in such short order."(1, p.41)

The question then, is whether or not these are problems, how did they arise if they are, and what can be done to solve them? In regards to the first part of the question, it seems apparent that we are facing an environmental dilemma, but this surprisingly is not obvious to everyone. Taking it to be true that we are facing environmental problems though, I am led to the last part of the question, or the question of what can be done to solve these problems. This in turn leads me to the second part of the question though, for in order to even begin to know how to solve a problem, you must first know how the problem arose. Therefore, in order to even begin to know how to solve our environmental dilemma, we must first find the spark that started the fire so to speak.

In discussing environmental dilemmas, one topic which has come up is that of religion. That is because religion is often times a major source of a cultures system of ethics. Religion tells us why we are here, where we came from, and how we are supposed to live. It then helps give us our place or position in regards to the rest of the natural world. Religion has been telling us these things since it was founded, or one might even argue that religion was founded to tell us these things. Regardless, it could not be more apparent that the long histories of religions, or that different religions within different cultures, have had an enormous impact on the way of life in these cultures. In other words, religion is often a major part of the foundation of a cultures system of ethics, which often includes some sort of environmental ethic.

Just as there are various systems of ethics in various religions, and in various cultures, there are also various systems of environmental ethics in various cultures and religions. The question then in regards to religion and environmental ethics is whether a religion contains an environmental ethic, and if it does, whether this ethic contributes to the benefit or demise of nature. This question is important, because as the major world religions were started long ago, as they have apparently had a great effect on a cultures system of ethics, and as we have an apparent environmental dilemma, it seems possible that certain religions' environmental ethics, or lack their of, could be the root of this present environmental dilemma. For example, one argument as to what set off this pattern of environmental degradation points to Christianity, and asks whether Christianity is responsible for our ecological crisis. As mentioned before, this type of argument is particularly interesting in that every culture that can be viewed as having been dominated by a particular religion in the past, or that still is in the present, can be seen to be greatly influenced by that religion. Also as mentioned before, this is not odd, since all religions have a system of ethics, or ways in which we ought to live. Does it then follow from the west having been predominantly Christian, and the west having an apparent environmental crisis due to how we live, that Christianity is responsible for how we live, and therefore for the crisis?

This question leads me to inquire into whether or not Christianity is an ecologically bankrupt religion, and that leads me to compare Christianity to Buddhism. I choose to compare Christianity to Buddhism in this regard, for the simple reason that one, being Christianity, represents a major portion of the foundation of western thought, and the other, being Buddhism, represents a major portion of the foundation of eastern thought. It has been argued by people such as Lynn White Jr. and Wendell Berry, though in different ways, that our current ecological crisis can be attributed to Christianity. It has also been argued though, by people such as John Passmore, that contrary to popular thought, there is no more of an ideal environmental ethic to be found in Buddhism than in Christianity. The question I therefore seek to answer, is whether an environmental ethic can be found in either Christianity or Buddhism, and if so, is the Buddhist or the Christian environmental ethic more ideal? I propose to examine this question with the help of Wendell Berry, Lynn White Jr., and John Passmore, and I will argue that with the help of Buddhism, the Christian tradition could gain much insight into creating an ideal environmental ethic. My goal here is not to directly point the finger at any particular religion, but rather to find which religion we have the most to gain from in regards to an environmental ethic. In doing this I will defend my argument by appealing to Wendell Berry, who is actually a Christian thinker, as he says, "Buddhism, for example, is certainly a religion that could guide us toward a right respect for the natural world, our fellow humans, and our fellow creatures. I owe a considerable debt myself to Buddhism and Buddhists. But there are an enormous number of people- and I am one of them - whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity."(2, p.95) 

The first notable attack against Christianity, or at least the most familiar in regards to our ecological crisis, was probably that of Lynn White Jr. in his essay "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis". In his essay, White suggests that Christianity is to blame for this crisis. White gives his reason for making such a claim when he says, " What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to the things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny- that is, by religion."(1, p.48) White then points out his belief that our culture, that is western culture, is dominated by Christian thought, and therefore wants to ask what Christianity has led people to think about themselves in relation to their environment. White's conclusion is that "Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen, and that Christianity not only established a dualism of man and nature, but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends."(1, p.49) 

This line of arguing from White is based on passages from the Bible such as Genesis 1: 27-28. In these passages God said that only man was created imago dei, or in the image of God, and said, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." White, along with many others, believes that this command by God for man to have dominion over the earth has led man to "dominate and exploit creation." In other words Christianity created a dualism of man and nature, which White says is also a result of destroying pagan animism. He says "The spirits in natural objects, which formerly had protected nature from man, evaporated. Man's effective monopoly on spirit in this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled."(1,p.49) Therefore, when it was written that only man was made in the image of God, this not only created a dualism, or separation of man from the rest of nature, but created a hierarchy in nature, in which man rules. As White says, "he is not simply part of nature : he is made in God's image."(1. p.49)

For White, Christianity having established man in a higher position above nature, paved the way for man's technological and scientific innovations. Men became masters over nature, as in being commanded to rule over it, it was up to man as to how to rule over it. The idea then, is that man therefore naturally looked for ways to benefit himself, such as with technology and science. Technology would be created to better man's way of life, and science would be created to better understand the world, and thereby better man's way of life. Technology and science would then fuse together, as many technological innovations became based around what we believed to be our understanding of the world. For example, the way people farmed the land, and what they used to farm the land, was based on a belief in understanding how the land worked, or how it could best be used. White says, "Thus, distribution of land was based no longer on the needs of a family but, rather, on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth. Man's relation to the soil was profoundly changed. Formerly man had been a part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature."(1, p.48) Overall then it can be said that White wants to conclude that the joining of technology and science "gave mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control, and that our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes towards man's relation to nature."(1, p.50) According to White it is now our duty to look to a new religion, or reevaluate Christianity. With this in mind White says, "The beatniks, who are the basic revolutionaries of our time, show a sound instinct in their affinity for Zen Buddhism, which conceives of the man-nature relationship as very nearly the mirror image of the Christian view."( 1,p.51) It is therefore apparent that White, along with Berry, feels there is much to be gained from a Buddhist understanding of man's relationship to nature. 

The view, created by essays such as White's, that "since the root of the West's troubles are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious", is one that has been commonly accepted.(4, p.4) It is often believed that placing Christianity in the shadows, "man will need to look, rather, to Hindu and Buddhist faiths."(4, p.4) It is also of course believed though, that people such as White have misrepresented Christianity, or rather that Christians have. For instance, in his essay "Is Christianity Responsible for the Ecological Crisis?", Steven Bouma-Prediger says, "More exactly, in so far as Christians have in fact misread the Bible, and the Genesis texts in particular, and on that basis engaged in ecologically destructive or exploitative actions, we Christians have much to repent of."(3, p.150) Here then, contrary to White, is a defense of there being an environmental ethic within the Genesis texts of the Bible, with the problem being attributed only to people's misinterpretation of the texts. After all, does dominion over the earth equate with domination of the earth? Many defenders of the Christian faith ask this question when facing criticism of the Genesis texts. They believe that to have dominion over the earth and rule over it, means to care for it, since it is God's creation. It therefore seems that whereas some believe the Genesis texts to contribute to the ecological crisis, others believe these texts to contain Christianity's essential environmental ethic.

There are therefore several things to examine within this discussion of environmental ethics and religion. First of all, there is no doubt that Buddhism has a strong environmental ethic contained within certain aspects of its texts, as this is even acknowledged by many Christian thinkers such as Berry. That is not to say that the Buddhist environmental ethic flourishes in practice, but simply that it is there. There is also a belief though, that there is an environmental ethic to be found in the Genesis texts of the Bible, which is also acknowledged by Berry, as well as Bouma-Prediger. But, aside from this, there are also criticisms of both religions' environmental ethics. For instance, White believes that mainstream Christianity has no environmental ethic, and John Passmore believes that even if Buddhism has a more ideal ethic that we can learn from, that it is too rigid, and could never be applied to the western way of life. Having then looked at the criticism of the Genesis texts, and having noted the belief that some people misinterpret these texts , it is important now to look at the Buddhist environmental ethic, and Passmore's belief that, even if we can gain something from it, it could never be applied to Western cultures.

Certain aspects of the Buddhist environmental ethic, if one were to adhere to them strongly in practice, are very demanding. Part of the reason for this, is that the Buddhist environmental ethic is an essential part of the entire religion. That is to say everything in the Buddhist religion is so interconnected that to grasp other aspects of the religion, one must grasp the environmental ethic, and vice versa. In fact, throughout its entire history Buddhism has strongly emphasized the need to respect and protect the natural world. This belief stems from the acknowledgment that humans depend on nature, and as part of the interconnected natural community, must therefore respect it. In order to understand Buddhist environmental ethics though, one must first understand many of the principles that make up the foundation of Buddhism and its teachings, since all aspects of Buddhism are fundamental in the quest for enlightenment.

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of Buddhism, or that around which all others are based, is that of the four noble truths. The first truth is the realization of dukkha, or suffering, and that suffering is ever present in this world. There is pain in the natural world, and living beings die, get hurt, and contract illnesses. This is the suffering that cannot be avoided. There is also the suffering that can be caused by humans though, and this applies to the second truth, which is that there is an arising of this suffering which can be attributed to desire. This then is the suffering which Buddhism seeks to stop, as it is within human control. The third truth, then, is that there can be an end to this suffering, and the fourth truth is that there is a way, or spiritual path that can lead one away from this suffering. From this notion of dukkha then comes the ethics of Buddhism. That is because we ought to live to alleviate suffering. The belief then, is that once one recognizes the suffering in the world, which comes from recognizing one's own suffering, one will become compassionate and understanding, and this compassion and understanding will lead one to alleviate the suffering. As mentioned before though, one must first know what gives rise to this suffering before one can alleviate it. 

In regard to what causes this suffering, Buddhism has the notion of patticca-samuppada, or conditioned origination. This refers to the conditions from which suffering originated. There are twelve of these preconditions which give rise to the condition of suffering, with the first precondition giving rise to the second and so on. The basic idea is that ignorance leads humans to have a consciousness of themselves, and that with this consciousness of a self, comes recognition of sensations. With sensations then comes craving; craving for good sensations, and not for bad. Craving then leads to grasping, or what with craving could be called desire, and from desire then comes suffering. The suffering that results from desire is the suffering of the entire natural world though, not just human suffering. For example, the desire for meat obviously leads to the suffering of animals, as Buddhists point out that animals love their life too. They claim that an animal's love for life can be seen by an animal's reaction to danger. For instance, why would an animal get scared if it did not have a desire for life? In other words, the fact that in certain situations one can notice an animals apparent fear shows us that they love life as we do, and we should respect that.

It can also be seen that man's desire for material things leads to suffering as well. For example, if man had no desire for machines that need oil, then the Exxon Valdez catastrophe off the coast of Alaska would not have killed thousands of animals. There would have been no catastrophe at all. There would also be much less air pollution without such a desire. The general belief then, is that to have uncontrolled desires is immoral, and that "the morals of humanity influence not only the psychological make-up of the people but the biological and physical environment of the area as well. Thus humanity and nature are bound together in a reciprocal relationship with changes in one necessarily causing changes in the other."(5,p.21) Once one looks at patticca-samuppada, or the origin of human suffering, and then recognizes this reciprocity, one can see how humans cause the rest of the natural world, and therefore themselves, to suffer. The goal, therefore, is to avoid the preconditions which lead to the precondition of desire and, thereby, alleviate suffering. 

To alleviate suffering, Buddhism focuses on anatta, or "not-self". The idea is not to recognize oneself as having an individual existence. Rather, one must recognize the reciprocal relationship between oneself and the natural community, and that one not only depends on, but has a great capacity to effect this community. Once one realizes this, one will no longer believe oneself to be more important than another, and will not believe that one's needs are more important than another's. One will realize that one's suffering is no different than that of the entire natural community, and then will see that one should not cause suffering that oneself finds unpleasant. This then is the understanding in Buddhism that leads to the compassion that is necessary for there to be a harmonious natural community, and only when we have this understanding can we practice loving-kindness. As a result of these aspects of Buddhism, the first rule, or precept, is to follow the principle of ahimsa. As ahimsa means non-harm, the first rule is that one should abstain from harming any living thing.

As a result, the positive counterpart to this precept is loving-kindness and compassion, which are qualities that can be seen to underlie most any Buddhist ethic. It must here be noted then, that in regards to the natural world, "loving-kindness and compassion extend to all living things: people, animals, plants, the earth itself."(5,p.4) It must also be noted, as mentioned before, that the basis for this is that "just as our own life is precious to us, so is the life of another precious to it."(5,p.23) Therefore, the ideal in Buddhism is not to harm or kill any living thing. 

There is one more aspect of Buddhism that must be looked at though in order to further understand the Buddhist environmental ethic. That is that another basis for non-harm is the Buddhist notion of karma, or the idea that one reaps what one sows, such as in rebirth. In other words, as Buddhists believe in reincarnation, one's status in one's next life depends on the karma in one's present life. It is then conceivable that in not practicing compassion and loving-kindness towards other living organisms, one might have bad karma, and could be reborn as an animal. The belief is that surely then, one would want human's to treat one with love and compassion. It is also conceivable though, that in the killing or maltreatment of other living organisms, that one is killing or maltreating one's own friends or family. What then should we do though, as can we really live and not harm any living thing? The fact is that to cause no suffering is impossible, so Buddhism then strives to alleviate as much suffering as possible. Vegetarianism for example, is therefore the ideal in Buddhism, as not only is one respecting another beings life, but one is also gaining merit and improving one's karma by practicing compassion and loving-kindness. 

From these aspects of Buddhism it seems hard to doubt that there is an apparent environmental ethic within the Buddhist religion. If anything, the Buddhist environmental ethic is too ideal, since it is impossible not to harm any living organisms. John Passmore is not therefore arguing that Buddhism does not contain an environmental ethic, but he is arguing against turning to Buddhism, along with other eastern philosophies, to find solutions for our environmental problems. Instead Passmore believes, as is seen in his book Man's Responsibility for Nature, that the Buddhist environmental ethic could not be accepted in the West, and that the Christian environmental ethic may be more ideal anyway. Passmore says, "certainly it would be fruitless to look further East for a tradition of stewardship. The ideal of an active care for nature forms no part of Eastern religion, whether Hindu or Buddhist. Such religions not infrequently teach that men should take all possible steps not to destroy any living thing. But the Western stewardship tradition goes farther than that. It demands from man an active concern for the earth's fertility, quite incompatible with an all-absorbing quest, in the Buddhist manner, for a salvation to be achieved only by freeing oneself from every kind of earthly bondage."(4,p.32)

Passmore believes that the command by God for man to rule over the earth, as seen in the Genesis texts, implies that it is man's duty to improve nature by co-operating with it. Passmore notes that the word nature is derived "from the Latin nascere, with such meanings as 'to be born', 'to come into being'. He says its etymology, or history, suggests, that is, the embryonic, the potential rather than the actual."(4,p.32) In other words, Passmore is saying that we should look at the earth as an unfinished project, and thereby have a new outlook of man's relationship to nature. Therefore, "to develop land is to actualize its potentialities, to bring to light what it has in itself to become, and by this means to perfect it. Just as for Aquinas God's grace perfects human nature so, on this view, man's grace perfects nature. Man's duty in nature, then, is to seek to perfect it by working with its potentialities."(4,p.32-33)

The reason that Passmore defends this view, is that he sees it as a sort of mean between two extremes. The mean, as noted in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, is seen as a virtue, as it avoids both excess and deficiency. It is perfect so to speak. Passmore says, "The great virtue of the doctrine that it is man's task to perfect nature by designing with it is that it is a half-way house between the despotic view that he should seek, merely, to dominate over it and the primitivist view that he should do nothing to modify nature, since it is perfect as it is."(4,p.38) From this it seems that Passmore wants to attribute the "primitivist view" of nature to a Buddhist outlook of nature, since the Buddhist belief that one should not harm any living things, and the Buddhist view in general, does seem to imply that one should merely be one with nature, and that one should partake in a detachment from earthly bondage. Passmore therefore wants to criticize this sort of passive role of man towards nature that he believes Buddhism emphasizes, as for Passmore this passive role "reduces the potentialities of nature to so low a point that they constitute nothing more than the rawest of raw material."(4,p.39) 

Passmore criticizes Buddhist' views directly and indirectly in other ways as well. For instance, Passmore says that the solution to these problems is not within fixing moral problems, and this of course conflicts with the Buddhist view that, as mentioned earlier, "the morals of humanity influence not only the psychological make-up of the people but the biological and physical environment of the area as well."(5,p.21) Passmore criticizes this Buddhist view, since he believes that it ignores political problems. He says, "Even supposing we have satisfied ourselves that a particular device would be effective in solving a particular ecological problem, that its use is morally permissible and that, on balance, the benefits consequential upon its use outweigh its costs, we still have the task of persuading our fellow citizens that this is so. There is no point in our replacing an internal combustion car by a fuel-cell car, if we alone do so."(4,p.57) Passmore would therefore seem to conclude that the reciprocal relationship between man and nature, which is described in Buddhism, ignores other factors, such as politics, which contribute to our ecological crisis.

Passmore criticizes Buddhism more directly, when he says that its ethics cannot be applied to Western civilization. He says that the "principle never to act in a way which could possibly result in the death of a living thing is far too strong. We kill by remaining alive, as we are aware of the minute living organisms which everywhere surround us."(4,p.123) He also argues in regard to the notion of not harming living organisms that "We should not hesitate about giving precedence to human beings." He argues this, because he says that not all organisms can love, exhibit courage, or create ideas or works of art. Passmore, therefore, shows his disagreement with certain aspects of the Buddhist environmental ethic, and why he feels that it should not be looked to by the West. 

In Passmore's disagreement that man should turn to religions such as Buddhism for their environmental remedies, his main point is that man should take an active role towards nature. He believes that the command by God for man to rule over the earth is a command for man to use earth's potentialities to perfect it. Passmore says, "There could scarcely be a nicer example of the ideal of co-operative perfection-to grace nature, to complete her works, by realising their capabilities."(4,p.37) In conclusion Passmore says that man need not look to Eastern traditions for an environmental ethic. That is because, "the fact that the West has never been wholly committed to the view that man has no responsibility whatsoever for the maintenance and preservation of the world around him is important just because it means that there are 'seeds' in the Western tradition which the reformer can hope to bring into full flower."(4,p.40)

John Passmore makes some interesting points in his criticism of looking to an Eastern tradition for ethical guidance, but I disagree with his conclusion that a Western tradition such as Christianity could not, and therefore should not, look to Buddhism to gain support in regards to an environmental ethic. I do not, however, wish to point the finger at any religion as being the root of our ecological crisis. Instead, I wish to defend the fact that both Christianity and Buddhism have an environmental ethic, and defend the Buddhist environmental ethic as a possible solution to what seem to be discrepancies over Christian texts. I will therefore conclude that with the help of the Christian thinker Wendell Berry, both Buddhism and Christianity can be seen to have an environmental ethic. I will conclude at the same time though, that a Buddhist environmental ethic could contribute greatly to Christianity in dissolving some of the apparent discrepancies in its texts. 

In Wendell Berry's essay "Christianity and the Survival of Creation", Berry attempts to defend Christianity from being the source of the ecological crisis, and attribute the crisis to a misinterpretation, or inadequate understanding, of the Bible. At the start of his essay Berry says, "the indictment of Christianity by the anti-Christian conservationists is, in many respects, just. Christian organizations, to this day, remain largely indifferent to the rape and plunder of the world and of its traditional cultures. It is hardly too much to say that most Christian organizations are as happily indifferent to the ecological, cultural, and religious implications of industrial economics as are most industrial organizations."(2,p.94) Berry also feels though, that the indictment of Christianity in regards to our ecological crisis is unjust. He says, "I see some virtually catastrophic discrepancies between Biblical instruction and Christian behavior."(2,p.95) As mentioned before then, Berry believes that Christians often lack an adequate understanding of the Bible, not that Christianity lacks an adequate environmental ethic. 

As a result of these discrepancies Berry does acknowledge that man could turn to Buddhism, since "Buddhism is certainly a religion that could guide us toward a right respect for the natural world, our fellow humans, and our fellow creatures"(p.95) Berry does not intend to turn to Buddhism, however. Instead, Berry's goal in his essay is to pinpoint these discrepancies between Biblical instruction and Christian behavior. He says, "a better possibility is that this, our native religion, should survive and renew itself so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as it needs to be."(p.96) In other words, in reassessing the instruction of the Bible, Berry believes that Christians can gain an entirely new outlook, or the right outlook, on man's relationship to nature.

In order to successfully reassess the instruction of the Bible, Berry says that Christians must keep two things in mind; Christianity and Creation. In doing this he says that Christians will then come to understand that the earth belongs to the Lord, as in Leviticus 25 : 23, the Lord says, "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants." He says "we will also come to discover that God made not only the parts of Creation that we humans understand and approve but all of it : for example, 'All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made'."(2,p.97) Berry also notes Psalm 104, which says, "Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created."(2,p.98) In other words, God is present in all creatures. Berry therefore says that in understanding the land to be the Lord's, and in understanding God to be present in all living creatures, that we will understand that "our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, but it is flinging God's gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them."(2,p.98)

Overall, Wendell Berry gives an excellent defense of there being an environmental ethic to be had in Christianity. Ideas such that "the holiness of life is obscured to modern Christians by the idea that the only holy place is the built church", certainly have truth to them.(2,p.100) After all, "Jesus' own specifications for his church have nothing at all to do with masonry and carpentry but only with people; his church is 'where two or three are gathered together in his name."(2,p.101) It therefore seems that in acknowledging Berry's perspective, and in reassessing the instruction of the Bible, such as with the passages regarding land and living creatures, that Berry has shown there to be an environmental ethic within Christianity. I still must conclude however, that the Christian tradition could gain much from certain aspects of the Buddhist environmental ethic , as it seems that it may help reduce these discrepancies.

There are several reasons I think as to why the Buddhist environmental ethic could be profitable to Christianity. The first reason is that this ethic seems to be more direct. It has been established that there is an environmental ethic to be found within Christianity, but that is just it, it has to be found. It seems that in order to find this ethic one has to find passages which are spread throughout the Bible, and then using logic deduce an environmental ethic. It is like a difficult puzzle, as all the pieces are there, but they are hard to put together. In fact, the discrepancies over how to interpret certain scripture is probably a result of what seems to be a lack of solidarity within the Christian environmental ethic. For example, the command to rule over the earth in Genesis 1: 28 must be combined with the notion that the land is the Lord's in Leviticus, the notion that we are to serve the earth in Genesis 2: 15, and the notion in Psalm 104 that God is present in all creatures, before there seems to be the foundation of an ethic. Even then though, what about the Christian notion that only man was created imago dei? There is certainly no discrepancy here in that humans are being placed in higher esteem than other living things. In trying to form an environmental ethic, can Christianity now "deny that men have a 'sacredness which animals do not possess? For my part I more than doubt whether Christian theology can thus reshape itself without ceasing to be distinctively Christian, whether it can bring itself to deny, in the light of its central theology, either that man is metaphysically unique-as a soul to be saved - or that in the end his survival is metaphysically guaranteed."(4,p.184) I would therefore conclude, that there is an environmental ethic to be put together in Christianity, but how much is there, and how to put it together, is questionable. 

This vagueness is not found in certain aspects of the Buddhist environmental ethic though. Buddhism directly states that man is in a reciprocal relationship with nature, that one should strive not to harm any living things, and that one should not act towards anything else in a way that one would find unpleasant oneself. Now how strictly people adhere to these ideals is another matter altogether, but as to any discrepancies about whether they are there, or what they mean, there are none.

In regards to the direct and indirect criticisms of Buddhism, such as those brought about by John Passmore, they seem to result from a misunderstanding of what Buddhism is striving for. For example, Passmore says, "We can be confident that some day our society will run out of resources."(4,p.77) Passmore then says though, "it would be quite wrong to conclude that what Western societies should do is to shut down factories, let us say, rather than insist on their reducing, by technological means, their emission of pollutants. For that, too, involves risks. Closing down a factory may involve great economic and social risks."(4,p.49) To put these two claims together is quite ironic. In the first quotation Passmore acknowledges that we are depleting our resources. Why does he think this is happening though? Surely it is because humans, as they continue to desire a better way of life, increase technological innovation, and thereby the consumption of resources. It is obvious that the more things you desire, whether it be newer computers or more cars, the more resources will be needed to provide for these things. That is not to mention the fact that you need factories, which also require resources to be built, to create many of these things. These are then factories which in turn give off pollutants into the air, and in some cases the water, contributing to the ecological crisis. It therefore seems ironic to me that closing factories is the great risk. Granted we are at a point where we probably could not get along without many technological innovations which depend on these factories, but that does not mean that part of the solution to our ecological crisis is not closing them. The economic and social risk rather, is that there won't be anyone to experience an economic or social risk in the future. Cutting down on emissions only postpones the bigger problem, it does not solve it. The only thing that solves such a problem is controlling desire, as Buddhism acknowledges. If people did not desire so many things, and therefore the factories that are required to make them, we would not have such a pollution problem for example. Therefore, as Buddhism recognizes, desire leads to greater suffering, and we should therefore control and mediate it. That is because sadly enough, there are probably millions of examples of how desire leads to suffering aside from how our desire for many material things, which require factories to be produced, contributes to the building ecological crisis. Why then should we not, as Passmore believes, look to an ethic in an Eastern tradition which further tells us to control, and sometimes deny, these desires? The fact is that there is no reason not to, and it therefore only seems that we should look to religions such as Buddhism to help guide us.

I therefore conclude that it is because Buddhism is so idealistic, that it is an ideal religion in general, and that it contains an ideal environmental ethic. It is certain of course, that we cannot solve all of our problems, but it is also certain, that only in striving for the unattainable can humans hope to come close to what is most ideal. For example, surely we cannot, especially with the habits we have created today, avoid harming all living things. But in trying to, humans are certainly more likely to harm less living things than if they were to not try at all. 

It could not be more obvious from this then, that the morals of humanity, as we are in a reciprocal relationship with nature, greatly effect the natural world around us. Passmore tries to argue against this Buddhist notion by saying that in looking to moral problems, we ignore the political problems. He says that even if we find morally permissible ways to solve parts of our ecological crisis, that we must still persuade the rest of humanity that this is so. Should not morals be inseparable from politics though, as Aristotle so strongly emphasizes? Passmore therefore seems to be ignoring the ideal that morality and politics should coincide, and ignoring the purpose of religion. Passmore is correct in saying that if we find moral ways to solve our ecological problems, we must still persuade the rest of humanity that this is so, but is this not the entire purpose of religion. It seems apparent that the entire goal of religion is to persuade people to live in certain ways, with the belief being that if they do so, they might avoid such major problems as the ecological crisis. As simply mentioned before, religions have systems of ethics.

It is, therefore, fair to say that people and their desires are the root of the ecological crisis. Whether texts are not interpreted correctly, or whether people simply don't adhere to their principles, humans are involved in destructive behavior. It is not fair to say though, as Passmore does, that "a religion, or a morality, is pointless unless it actually governs man's conduct".(4,p.111) That is because religion provides a sort of idealism, without which humans could not realize there room to improve. In other words, realism without idealism will get us nowhere. I must say though, that as of now, " I more than doubt whether a concern for the ultimate future of the human race forms an essential part of human nature."(4, p.78) We are destroying the world on which we depend. Until we then realize that we are in a reciprocal relationship with nature, and that our uncontrolled desire will erase this relationship, we will continue this suicide. We must therefore allow ourselves to be open to the insight of religions such as Buddhism, and become humble, as only we can save us from ourselves. 

 

Works Cited

1. White Jr., Lynn. Science, Vol.155, No.3767 (March 1967), pp.1203-1207, 1967.

2. Berry, Wendell. Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. "Christianity and the Survival of Creation". Pantheon Books, New York. pp.93-109, 1992.

3. Bouma-Prediger, Steven. "Is Christianity Responsible for the Ecological Crisis?". Christian Scholar's Review. 

4. Passmore, John. Man's Responsibility for Nature. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 1974. 

5. Batchelor, Martine and Kerry Brown. Buddhism and Ecology. Cassell Publishers Ltd., 1992.

 

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