An Unfortunate, Untimely Failure of Orthodoxy


How has Orthodoxy impacted our environment?  In other words, can Orthodoxy be credited with any positive or negative developments in our historic relationship with Earth and its natural resources?

In this sense, when I use the term, “Orthodoxy,” I mean the theory and practice of well-researched and well-thought-out accepted norms, particularly in religion.  This definition excludes those “professions of faith” deemed as cults or fringe societies by conventional belief systems.

Recently, I asked these questions of my environmental studies students during a review of the world’s major religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and even indigenous faith-practices.  My students quickly summarized that each approach has had its positive and negative aspects.  For example, Christianity heralds its Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of ecology while, simultaneously, includes strictly anthropocentric and fundamentalist elements that seem to ignore long-term stewardship because of a perceived imminence of the Parousia.  Even spiritual practices such as Buddhism and Native American customs that appear more benign and Earth-connected than most in their approaches to the natural world also have had devastating impacts.

Trich Tri Quang, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk once wrote, “The Buddha manifested a complete compassion and is respectfully seen as the compassionate protector of all beings.”  Yet, in the same article, he continued, “[Humans] have seen themselves as the smartest species of all beings.  [Yet] they have misused and abused their power and selfishly destroyed animals, forests and mountains, natural resources … reaping the results as their own destroyed environment.  The external environment is seriously polluted because the internal environment in the mind is seriously damaged.”  Trich Tri Quang, as well as numerous other practitioners of Orthodoxy, whatever its ecumenical flavor, provides a consistent message about humankind: the adherents to any particular belief-system do not always honor the teachings of its founder, the mitzvot of orthodox practice, and ignore the limitations of Earth’s bounty to meet our insatiable appetites.  Humans represent only 0.05% of the world’s consumer biomass yet use 32% annually of the land-based net primary productivity with hotspots throughout Asia, India, the Atlantic coast of the United States, and other locations overrun by humans.  How is this sustainable?  Historically, Orthodoxy has had little positive influence on our collective craving for the planet’s finite resources.

How do we turn this around?  For starters, we must accept a few pointers from the sciences.  First, humans are a product of evolution like all other biodiversity on the planet.  Thus, we are a part of, not apart from, Earth’s ancient systems.  Second, our basic nature is a consuming animal, no matter the layers of governing Orthodoxy.  And, third, practitioners of science and Orthodoxy need to provide common ground for their followers, deal with their issues honestly, and stop their silly squabbling.  No one embraces geocentrism or a flat Earth these days; it’s time to put the nonsense about “creationism” (a la Duane Gish and his ilk) in the same pile of discarded myth.  Next we must accept a few pointers from Orthodoxy such as its emphasis on high-order stewardship – this, despite the day-to-day contrary habits of its errant followers.  This means that we can never excuse the deliberate extinction of any species or ecosystem on Earth, no matter how diminutive or seemingly useless to human values.  As the great land ethicist Aldo Leopold wrote in the early 20th century, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Orthodox faith-practices such as Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are only two or three millennia old as compared to the uninterrupted lineage of every species of orchid or fish on the planet.  Every extant species on Earth, estimated at 30 million different kinds of living things, has a pedigree at least 3.5 billion years old.  Imagine: 3 thousand years compared to 3.5 billion years!  As venerable as these orthodox practices may be, they represent only one one-millionth of the age of the planet.  That awesome fact should humble every prophet of modernity.

At a point of crisis in humanity’s relationship with Earth – global climate change and mass extinction among our most pernicious issues – Orthodoxy seems to have lost its voice of leadership.  Where are our priests, rabbis, pastors, and imams when old-growth forests disappear from the Pacific Northwest or Amazonia?  Where are they when whales and dolphins are haplessly slaughtered in Asia or when environmental toxins bioaccumulate in loons and songbirds in New England or in Central America?  Where are they when giant icebergs break off from Antarctic glaciers because of the planet’s rising temperature?  Where are they when inconsiderate citizens throw their trash and cigarette butts out of car windows along our highways?

As Buddhist monk Trich Tri Quang warned, “The external environment is seriously polluted because the internal environment in the mind is seriously damaged.”  If our minds and hearts are not trained properly, we will continue to act uncaringly toward Earth and its natural resources.  Though not too late, Orthodoxy seems to have failed us in our relationship with an ailing planet.  It’s time to demand the attention of Orthodoxy, not only for the human soul, but especially for the soul of the planet.

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.,
Ecologist, Educator, and Explorer
[email protected]