Wednesday, February 21, 2007

In defense of the Orient

I wanted to respond to something said in class by Professor Tantillo on Romanticism and the Orient. Professor Tantillo and others argued that some environmentalist wrongly look towards Buddhism and other Oriental religions as models of ecological behavior. Tantillo brings up the point that the Communist government in China had a better track record on the environment than its predecessor.

I believe Tantillo’s argument against Oriental philosophies in class (whether that was his belief or just explaining what others have argued), as well and Lynn White’s arguments against Christianity are flawed because they do not separate two important factors: (1) What religion teaches us to believe/think/do and (2) What is actually believed/thought/done by the practitioners of religion. Christians and Christian societies often do not carry out Christian ideals and teachings. Likewise, not all Buddhists accurately practice Buddhist philosophy in their actions. Are the religions at fault for ecological (or any) harm done by the followers? I would say people are the cause of ecological damage, not religion. There are few (if not no) examples of environmental degradation that is the result from following the teachings of Christ or the Buddha.

That said, I believe Buddhism and Christianity are excellent philosophies for living in harmony with nature. If everyone practiced these religions accurately, the environmental crisis would be much less then it is today. However, I do agree with Tantillo, that religion cannot be depended on to solve environmental problems. But to say that the China’s environmental problems before Communism was a result of a failure in the Buddhist lifestyle is oversimplifying the problem.

And on the side, Communism has probably been the most unsuccessful system in its dealings with the environment, considering countries like Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and the rest of Eastern Europe.


Jim Tantillo said...

Just to be clear on one point:

Tuan does not in fact argue that "China’s environmental problems before Communism was a result of a failure in the Buddhist lifestyle."

His point is merely to examine the evidence for the argument that Buddhism somehow automatically guarantees environmental protection. (He concludes that the evidence for such an argument is empirically lacking in the specific example he studies.)

That is a very different thing from saying degradation is caused by "a failure" of Buddhism.

The historical reality is that the degradation is/was probably caused by a whole host of different and complex factors.

Stephen Zelno said...

Thanks for the clarification.

And I had forgotten Tuan's name in my post, so instead I used Tantillo's.

I would agree that Buddhism does not automatically guarantee environmental protection. I apologize for confusing things in my post.

However, it is Lynn White's arguement that Christianity is the cause of environmental degradation. Which I think is absurd.

Stephen Zelno said...

One more thing...

"failure" is the wrong word. I would edit my original post, and say: "China's environmental problems before Communism were a result of the Buddhist lifestyle"

Jim Tantillo said...

fair enough. I think Tuan's argument is that China's pre-communist environmental problems (or post-communist environmental problems for that matter) could just as easily be attributed to poor soil quality, say, than to any specific aspect of the "Chinese worldview." That, I take it, is his main point.

Kendra Liddicoat said...

While I do not doubt that China had its share of environmental problems in the 1800s and early 1900s and realize that we may have a romantic view of the "Orient" and its philosophies, I would encourage any of you who are interested in this topic to also check out Judith Sharpiro's book "Mao's War on Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China" (2001, Cambridge Univ Press). It makes a pretty convincing argument against the idea that Chinese communism was good for the natural environent.

mjb255 said...

Stephen, I'd like add that to say communism has probably been one of the most unsuccessful systems in dealing with the environment, you forget two important factors: (1) What communism (or any ideal) informs people to believe/think/do and (2) What is actually believed/thought/done by the practitioners of "communism".
-Matt Ball55

Jim Tantillo said...

I want to thank Kendra for the citation to Shapiro's book--in the "Never too early to start thinking" department, this would make a great paper topic.

Just another point of clarification, however.

Nobody that I know of (not Tuan, nor anyone here--at least not yet) is making the argument "that Chinese communism was good for the natural environent."

Tuan's point is a much more limited one: using the very specific case example of deforestation and reforestation (the "mist of green" mentioned in class), he observes simply that deforestation happened under a Taoist and Buddhist regime, whereas reforestation (an environmental good) happened under communist leadership.

Again, his argument is NOT the global claim "that communism is good for the environment," per se, but rather the more limited claims that (a) environmental good is not necessarily inherently guaranteed by Taoist and Buddhist values, and (b) environmental good can occur (for complicated reasons) under any number of conceivable alternative worldviews that we might possibly imagine.

By the way, the entire "mist of green" quote is on the lecture outline on the course web page. In hindsight I should have read the full quote in lecture. It reads as follows:

"The unplanned and often careless use of land in China belongs, one hopes, to the past. The Communist government has made an immense effort to control erosion and to re-forest. . . . A visitor from New Zealand reported in 1960 that as seen from the air the new growths spread 'a mist of green' over the once bare hills of South China. For those who admire the old culture, it must again seem ironic that the 'mist of green' is no reflection of the traditional virtues of Taoism and Buddhism; on the contrary, it rests on their explicit denial" (Tuan, 248).

Hope this helps. Great discussion!