College of Liberal Arts

The Earth's Keepers

Mon, Apr 22, 2019
Photo by Sadham Yathra, Pixabay.
Photo by Sadham Yathra, Pixabay.

If you knew in the next life you’d become a tree, you might hesitate before you cut one down.

Or if you were to become one of the ocean’s fish, perhaps you’d be more careful about how you dispose of certain plastics.

That’s Karma, at least as it’s applied in an environmental context, which might be a productive way to think about the decisions we make that contribute to the looming environmental crisis. 

Nearly 80 percent of people around the world identify with a religious group. And whether those religions believe in reincarnation or an afterlife, they each have a wealth of insight on humans’ relationship and duty to the natural world that can help guide our future actions to protect and preserve the Earth.

In a 1992 address in New Delhi, India, the Dalai Lama spoke about nature: “If we exploit the natural environment in an extreme way, today we might get some other benefit but in the long run we ourselves will suffer, and other generations will suffer.”

In Buddhism, humans are just one form of sentient beings that are on a different level but are not fundamentally different than animals, plants or ghosts. So, modern Buddhists argue that not harming living beings means not harming any other living thing on Earth, be it forests or whales. 

“Harming other beings creates bad Karma. So, in your next life, you’re born on a lower level,” explains Oliver Freiberger, an associate professor of Asian studies and religious studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

The goal, he says, is not to be reborn as something seemingly greater than human, but to escape this “suffering” world by overcoming our desires. Extending compassion to all sentient beings helps to achieve that goal.

“The modern world of capitalism and overconsumption is driven by desires,” Freiberger explains. “And succumbing to these things fosters egotism and impedes the escape from the cycle of rebirth and redeath.” 

Sure, we can be reborn again and again. But what if the Earth won’t be around for our next life, or the one after?

“In the past, thinking about the earth in the past wasn’t a thing,” Freiberger explains. “The concept of ‘nature’ is very young. And today, religious scholars and leaders are looking to their old traditions for answers.”

Read perspectives on how religion can guide environmentalism from UT Austin experts on Life & Letters

Bookmark and Share