Divine Intervention

China's Taoist masters are mobilizing for the sacred earth


For years, environmentalists have been watching China’srapid economic growth and industrialization with alarm. Thecountry’s understandable desire to bring the West’s modernlifestyle to over 1 billion Chinese is expected to help pushhumanity’s cumulative environmental impact far beyond the earth’scapacity. While some Chinese people are enjoying new conveniences,others and the environment are suffering significant harm, evenoutside China’s borders.

The specifics are staggering. Imagine what it’s like to live ina country where two-thirds of household sewage and one-third ofindustrial wastewater are released untreated. Nearly 700 millionChinese people drink water contaminated with animal and humanwaste. Discharges pollute China’s major rivers, poisoning farmsalong the banks, pushing fish into extinction and rendering keyfisheries unusable.

Acid rain from coal-fired power plants falls on one-third ofChina’s agricultural land, damaging crops and contaminating foods.Unfettered development, deforestation and overgrazing are spreadingthe Gobi Desert by 1,900 square miles annually. Cancer andpremature deaths from respiratory disease are increasingdramatically. China’s air and water pollution are contaminatingother countries too, even the United States, and its hunger fornatural resources is devastating habitats around the globe.

This environmental damage is costing China an estimated 8 to 12percent of its annual $3.4 trillion GDP. The global economicdownturn is expected to slow China’s growth somewhat, from 11.9percent in 2007 to 9 percent in 2008, but this level is stillecologically unsustainable. In 2005, a vice minister of China’sState Environmental Protection Administration warned, “The[economic] miracle will end soon because the environment can nolonger keep pace.”

Amazingly, even in this repressed country, Chinese citizens havebeen taking to the streets, with an estimated 450,000 environmentalprotests in 2007, some with up to tens of thousands of protesters.Most gatherings are suppressed by force.

China’s government has taken some positive steps, includingsetting ambitious environmental targets and cleaning up Beijing forthe 2008 Olympics. However, government programs often fail becauseof corruption and competition from the country’s economicaspirations. A poll found that only 18 percent of Chinese companies”believed that they could thrive economically while doing the rightthing environmentally.”

That’s why I was intrigued to hear of a very different type ofaction being taken to shift China’s ways. Just recently, Taoistmasters gathered from all across China to agree on their ownseven-year environmental action plan. Can they really have animpact? In a recent UN Dispatch article, Olav Kjorven of theUnited Nations Development Program acknowledges that the challengeis significant. Still, he says, traditional “Taoist values andbeliefs continue to hold enormous sway in Chinese society” and arebeing welcomed back into policy-level discourse. Governmentofficials actively attended this event, asking for Taoists’ help inbuilding a more environmentally harmonious and sustainablecountry.

Taoism brings a key asset, says Kjorven: its 5,000-yeartradition of emphasizing alignment with nature and “environmentalstewardship as a sacred duty.” Most importantly, he says, “Taoistsare walking the walk,” installing solar panels on their thousandsof temples, and “providing comprehensive guidance on all aspects ofenvironmental and climate stewardship.” Their perspective islong-term: “to change the course for generations to come.”

In this work, Chinese Taoists are not alone. Numerous worldreligions are developing seven-year environmental plans, with theassistance of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC),founded by Britain’s Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II.Back in the 1980s, Philip was wondering how to engage more of theworld’s population in environmental action when it occurred to himthat religious leaders could reach many people, encourage them tocare for the natural world created by their particular deities andspeak in a way aligned with their unique traditions. Thus, says itswebsite, ARC was created “to link the secular worlds ofconservation and ecology with the faith worlds of the majorreligions.”

In November 2009, a few weeks before the world’s crucialCopenhagen climate meeting, ARC’s 11 member faiths will officiallypresent their plans and commitments. “This is no smallcontribution,” Kjorven says. “These 11 faiths represent in some wayor another roughly 80 to 85 percent of humanity. Perhaps that’senough to bring us to a global, political tipping point. In theend, it may just be what is needed to convince even the moststubborn and reluctant of policy makers that the time to securehumanity’s future is now.”

May it be so.

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