Conservation and Society

: 2004  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 204--208

Book Review 3

Ann Grodzins Gold 
 Department of Religion and Department of Anthropology, Syracuse University, 501 Hall of Languages, Syracuse NY 13244, USA

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Ann Grodzins Gold
Department of Religion and Department of Anthropology, Syracuse University, 501 Hall of Languages, Syracuse NY 13244

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Gold AG. Book Review 3.Conservat Soc 2004;2:204-208

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Full Text

Vivek Menon and Masayuki Sakamoto (eds), Heaven and Earth and I: Ethics of Nature Conservation in Asia. New Delhi: Penguin, 2002, 223 pp., Rs 240. ISBN: 0-14-302929-0.

Heaven and Earth and I is a collection of brief articles loosely focused on relationships among religion, society, politics and the natural environment in Asian nations and cultures. The editors' initiating interest, and a dominant sub-theme in a number of chapters, is animals. That is, the book explores a range of behaviours and attitudes various religious tradition-including Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism and Islam-hold ethical regarding human treatment of non-human creatures. The pieces in this collection are of uneven quality and the volume itself lacks genuine coherence. Nonetheless, it contains much of interest and value.

Co-editors Menon and Sakamoto trace their project's genesis to 1997 when they both sat listening unhappily to Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe at the Tenth Conference of Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Both felt that Mugabe's central message regarding wildlife-'every species should pay for itself'-was 'false and ominous' (p. 4).

In their introduction, the editors point out that they come from countries. India and Japan respectively-positioned on different sides of 1997's particularly contested debate over elephants. As they put it, their countries may appear to reside at opposite ends of 'Asia's ethical ladder' when it comes to commerce in wildlife (p. 9). Yet their individual views were harmonious enough and passionate enough to inspire this fruitful collaboration. In gathering articles for this book, the editors sought to sample a variety of countries and traditions as well as view-points on nature, culture, religion and governance. The authors assembled here include 'religious leaders, monarchs, political leaders, monks, philosophers, scientists and conservationists' (p. 9). As Menon and Sakamoto put it, poetically, 'both the theologian and the scientist are like two corks bobbing on the same wave' (p. 10). This wave I take to be planet Earth in the throes of ongoing ecological crisis.

Menon and Sakamoto claim: 'As the journey of putting this book together progressed, it became less about elephants and ivory and more focussed about a certain way of human life. Spiritual ethics, we discovered, are the basis of conservation throughout Asia' (p. 7). Fortunately, they did not insist that their contributors agree with this conclusion or demonstrate its validity. Thus, while all contributors share a concern for sustainable environments in our planetary future, they have cacophonous views on the role religion has played, or might play, in bringing this about. A few critique the value of religious approaches to environmental problems, or bluntly deem it irrelevant; others clearly feel some kind of spiritual value system can and should play a critical, dynamic and positive part in care for life on Earth.

Panov, for example, whose chapter treats religion and environment in Russian history, concludes that in a country dominated by atheism as Russia is today, 'manipulating the consciousness of people' would be neither ethical nor practical (pp. 73.74). Representing the opposite extreme here might be the well-known Thai activist and scholar, Kabilsingh, who claims that ecological attitudes may be enhanced by breathing awareness in meditation:

Watching one's own breathing, inhaling and exhaling, one is reminded that life depends on this process which one tends to take for granted. But when one mindfully watches it, one realizes that death takes its toll as soon as breathing is interrupted. Hence impermanence becomes the key concept. (p. 84)

Most views presented in this volume lie realistically between these poles. These contributors explore some of the ways religion broadly defined has influenced and can continue to affect human behaviours toward the environment some of the time. They equally acknowledge the practical limits of this influence.

Heaven and Earth and I is divided into six parts. The opening segment consists of 'messages for conservation' from four public figures-the Aga Khan, Dalai Lama, Queen Noor of Jordan and, perhaps slightly out of her league in terms of status and name recognition, but on the other hand, more experienced and professionally conversant with environmental issues, India's Maneka Gandhi. Besides Queen Noor, another royal author appears later in the volume. This is King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev of Nepal. His contribution is one of the book's more peculiar items. He suggests, among other things, that the rich may be better equipped than the poor to achieve 'noble' ends in life, and that local tribal communities should be tapped for 'undercover informants' who can identify poachers in their midst.

The main body of the book, its four central segments, are ordered by region: East Asia, South-East Asia, South Asia and West Asia. As the editors acknowledge, they have stretched their map of Asia somewhat idiosyncratically-to encompass Russia and the Middle East-but there is no reason to complain of this inclusiveness as it provides some of the more fascinating material. The final section or 'Endpiece' treats Deep Ecology and its convergence with Buddhism.

Heaven and Earth and I is interspersed with charming illustrations by a twentieth-century Chinese artist and writer named Zikai Feng-who, according to translator Ping Mang, laboured between 1928 and 1974 to produce his sixvolume collection of sketches titled Love for Animals. This collection, rooted in a philosophy of 'compassion and benevolence', represents, according to Mang, 'the moral responsibility that we have to pass on to build a better future and a better world' (p. 13). Feng's pictures, accompanied by small stories with explicit ecological morals, are to me one of the highlights this collection provides. They exemplify the moving power of art and narrative-as opposed to grand abstract principles-to ground ethical lessons persuasively in everyday experiences and feelings.

Another signal virtue of Menon and Sakamoto's efforts is the inclusion of voices speaking from places on the globe we rarely find noted in works on religion and ecology: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Jordan, Mongolia and Myanmar, to mention a few. I also applaud the refreshingly accessible style found in most of the volume. Its authors may not always be conversant with recent academic debates, but they write in admirably direct and informative fashion.

The most helpful contributions sensibly combine an appreciation of environmentally friendly religious teachings and practices-especially related to religiously chartered protected areas-with an awareness of how such traditions are embedded in and subject to historical and political transformations. These chapters reveal the ways that oppressive social hierarchies including colonialism have had an impact on environmental conditions and behaviours in Asia. Yi Thon on the 'Role of Buddhist Wats in Environmental Preservation in Cambodia' and Xiyang Tang, whose chapter gives the book its title, 'Heaven and Earth and I: Green Culture in the Chinese Tradition' both offer such historically contextualised discussions. Tang presents many good examples of ecologically friendly engineering as well as art and poetry in Chinese history, while acknowledging the damage done in the same cultural milieu. After describing poets who adored plum blossoms and refused to keep caged birds, he reflects, 'Although the writings of many of those literary figures were well loved by the people and their love of nature found an answering chord in their readers, these ideas were never powerful enough to become a principle that could guide people in their practices' (p. 33).

Jayewardene's detailed consideration of wildlife treatment in Sri Lanka is also helpfully historical, although a bit more romanticised when it comes to the precolonial situation. Kumar's attempt to wed Edmond Wilson's socio-biology to Hindu and Buddhist teachings about compassion is eloquent if not exactly persuasive. Amr and Quatrameez, both based in Jordan, present a concise summary of powerful Islamic teachings on ethical requirements to treat other living beings with consideration. Although they find it difficult fully to reconcile these precepts with all cultural and political approaches to the environment prevalent in Jordan today, they envision positive future directions. Tserendeleg contrasts Mongolians' reverence for the 'Great Sky' and mountain spirits with the 'subjugation and conquest of nature' under Communism, but sees benign traditions re-emerging in the present.

In sum, Heaven and Earth and I is a somewhat odd collection, but should take a useful place next to other more ponderous works. There are now dozens of books devoted to ecological thought in various Asian religions, as well as many more on religion and ecology in other parts of the globe. [1] I would recommend this one for its charming tales and artwork, its attention to some lesser known nations and traditions, and its powerful sentiments about human responsibility and the ethical treatment of animals. In one chapter Clark, a wildlife biologist, presents a down-to-earth approach to protecting biodiversity, but is not opposed to spiritual consciousness if it will do some good. Based in Israel, Clark offers from that war-torn landscape, a poignant message relevant to all human beings:

It is now time for us to realize that we are very much in the debt of other species, and that we need their companionship on this planet. We must be prepared to accept the loveliness and grace of butterflies, the majesty and the mystery of the great whales, and glory and integrity of the elephants. We must learn how to live in peace with them. If we cannot learn how to live in peace with them, however, will we learn to live in peace with ourselves? (p. 171)[6]


1Bruun, Ole and Arne Kalland (eds) (1995), Asian Perceptions of Nature: A Critical Approach. Richmond, Survey: Curzon Press.
2Callicott, J. Baird and Roger T. Ames (eds) (1989), Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought: Essays in Environmental Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
3Chapple, Christopher Key and Mary Evelyn Tucker (eds) (2000), Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky and Water. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
4Gosling, David (ed.) (2001), Religion and Ecology in India and Southeast Asia. London: Routledge.
5James, George A. (ed.) (1999), Ethical Perspectives on Environmental Issues in India. New Delhi: APH Publishing.
6Nelson, Lance (ed.) (1998), Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology of Hindu India. Albany: State University of New York Press.