Buddhist Ecology and Environmentalism as Spiritual Ecology
The subject of Buddhist ecology and environmentalism is only part of a much broader and more diverse
intellectual, spiritual, and practical arena of activities focused on the relationships between world
religions and nature that is sometimes called spiritual ecology (Sponsel 2001a). To better understand
Buddhist ecology and environmentalism, including some of the controversy it entails, the larger subject of
spiritual ecology must be considered.
Ecotheology and Environmental Ethics
While spiritual ecology has ancient roots (Kinsley 1995), at least in the realm of modern academia a
convenient starting point is a provocative article by Lynn White, Jr., titled "The Historical Roots of Our
Ecological Crisis," which was prominently published in the prestigious journal
in 1967. It quickly
became a classic and is debated to this day. [White (1907-1987) was a history professor at the University
of California in Los Angeles and a specialist on medieval Europe (Hall 1988, Nelson 2001)].
White's (1967:1205) mentalist thesis is that: "What people do about their ecology depends on what they
think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs
about our nature and destiny--- that is, by religion." [See Eckberg and Blocker 1989, Holm and Bowker
1994, Proctor and Berry 2004, Tuan 1968, 1974]. White (1967:1206) continues: "More science and more
technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis until we find a new religion or
rethink our old one" (cf. Mander 1991, Postman 1992).
Accordingly, White pointed to two possibilities to help resolve the environmental crisis, rethinking
Christianity in the light of St. Francis (see below), or considering other religions which might be more
environmentally friendly (e.g., Suzuki 1953). In his entire essay White devoted only two sentences to Zen
Buddhism as one alternative, but six paragraphs to St. Francis as the Christian alternative. This is what
White (1967:1206) wrote about Zen:
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 of the Christian
view. Zen, however, is as deeply conditioned by Asian history as Christianity is by the experience of the
West, and I am dubious of its viability among us.
That last phrase, plus the relative amount of attention to Zen compared to St. Francis, makes White's
choice of an alternative for the West clear. This is not surprising, since besides being an extraordinarily
astute and bold historian able to examine the larger picture and pose questions as profound as challenging,
White was also a Christian. His father had been a member of the clergy, and White earned an M.A. from
the Union Theological Seminary. He also held the M.A. and Ph.D. in history from Harvard University.
Nevertheless, in a follow up reflection, White (1973:55) mentions an incident that impressed him about