Old World Order
By Karen Armstrong
10 September, 2005
the eighth century BCE, the Chinese became concerned about a disturbing
change in their environment. Hitherto the Yellow River valley had teemed
with wildlife: elephants, lions, tigers, rhinoceroses, monkeys and all
kinds of game had inhabited the woods and swamps. After a hunting expedition,
the king and his nobles consumed hecatombs of beasts in huge, drunken
banquets. But now they discovered that aggressive deforestation had
destroyed the natural habitat of these animals, and that their hunters
returned almost empty handed.
The Chinese had
assumed that their resources were inexhaustible, so they had plundered
the countryside and slaughtered its animals with no care for the morrow.
Now they realised that this brutal insouciance could not continue. Aristocrats
were forced to curtail their hunting, which had been their chief pleasure
- almost their raison d'être - and an extensive ritual reform
regulated every detail of their behaviour. Gradually this religious
discipline transformed their mentality, so that a spirit of moderation
and self-control replaced the former wasteful excess. Even warfare became
a courtly game in which it was considered bad taste to kill too many
of the enemy.
It did not last,
alas. In the fourth century BCE, the Chinese had an industrial revolution,
and restraint went out of the window. With greedy abandon, princes cut
down forests, mined mountains, drained swamps, and their savage internecine
wars reduced the great plain to a desolate wilderness. But religious
reformers, such as Confucius and Lao Tzu, called upon their rulers to
conform to the basic laws of existence, to the way (dao) things ought
The Chinese knew
enough about human selfishness to realise that external directives alone
would not save their society; there had to be a fundamental change of
heart. We are facing a similar dilemma today. As we gaze aghast at the
devastation that Hurricane Katrina has wreaked upon the southern United
States, some have asked whether this catastrophe was intensified by
global warming. Whatever the answer, the question betrays a deep and
widespread anxiety. Environmental catastrophe has replaced the apocalypse
predicted by the prophets of the past and many now watch for signs of
approaching cataclysm as nervously as our forebears looked for portents
of the end of days.
In recent years,
there has been a growing awareness of the damage we are inflicting upon
the planet, at both the public and private levels. Recycling, for example,
which 10 years ago was regarded as an expensive, eccentric pursuit,
is now commonly enforced by most local authorities. But there seems
little point in punctiliously recycling our wine bottles and waste paper,
while as a society and as individuals we continue to burn fossil fuels
with impunity. And if the United States, the principal polluter, refuses
to control its emissions, anything anyone else does is doomed to failure.
Many people prefer
to deny that there is a problem because the implications are too alarming;
it is easier to concentrate on "clean and green" concerns
that do not challenge our way of life. But would we seriously be prepared
to give up our cars and aeroplane travel? If the danger became more
acute, would governments have to impose a ban on activities and appliances
that we now take for granted? And how would this cohere with democracy
and our much vaunted freedom?
In order to prevent
further damage to their environment, the Chinese were for centuries
prepared to give up their favourite pursuits and submit to constraints
that most of us would find intolerable. We too may have to make sacrifices
and this would require some kind of spiritual reformation. By this I
do not mean that everybody should join a church or submit to an orthodox
doctrinal position - quite the contrary. But it may become necessary
to create within ourselves a readiness to subordinate our personal comfort,
convenience and prosperity to the common good - an attitude that is
at odds with much of the current ethos.
In the ancient world,
religion helped people to develop a holistic vision. There was no ontological
gulf between heaven and earth. Gods, humans, animals, plants and other
natural phenomena all participated in the same divine life; all were
subject to an overarching order that kept everything in being and shared
the same predicament. Even the gods had to obey this order and work
with humans to preserve the cosmic energies, which were not inexhaustible
and, if not replenished, could easily lapse into primal chaos. Humans
offered sacrifices to recycle the energies that these deities expended
in maintaining the order of the universe.
was central to the religious practices of most ancient societies, perhaps
because people were more directly exposed to the unpredictable power
of nature and knew how easily it could wreck the precarious artefacts
of human culture. In our technologically cocooned existence, it takes
a mammoth catastrophe such as Hurricane Katrina to shock us into an
appreciation of our civilisation's fragility.
It is neither possible
nor desirable to recover the old holistic world-view in its entirety,
but we could try to cultivate its underlying attitudes. First would
be the awareness that everyone, without exception, was in the same boat:
to destroy or maim the part endangered the whole. Second, there were
no fantasies of omniscience or omnipotence: everyone was equally vulnerable.
Third was the sense that everyone was responsible for the cosmos, and
had to do his or her bit. Fourth, the natural world was not simply a
resource but was revered as sacred. Finally, there was the conviction
that human behaviour could affect the environment for good or ill, and
that a society that did not respect the natural rhythms of the cosmos
could not survive.
This insight was
not abandoned but redefined in the later, more ethically based traditions.
Jains cultivated an attitude of friendship towards all beings and took
care not to trample on the tiniest insect; Buddhists were exhorted to
extend their love and benevolence to every single creature on the face
of the earth; and the Chinese continued to urge people to conform to
the way. The first chapter of Genesis may have commanded humans to "subdue"
the earth, but it also insisted that every single one of God's creations
was valuable and blessed.
The ubiquity and
persistence of this attitude of committed concern for the well-being
of the earth suggests that it once came naturally to humanity. It used
to be essential to the way we related to the world but it has clearly
become problematic in the technologically driven economy of modernity.
It is no use hoping for the best or waiting until "they" have
discovered a cleaner form of energy. In the ancient world, assiduous
religious ritual and ethical practice helped people to cultivate their
respect for the holiness of the earth. If we want to save our planet,
we must find a modern way to do the same.
· Karen Armstrong
is the author of A History of God