Should environmentalists support conservation projects that also serve to bolster right wing nationalist agendas? This was one of the questions that was discussed last month at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, in San Francisco. I spoke on a panel organized by the Religion and Ecology section which featured a vibrant discussion on this very issue.
One of the key points of discussion that came up was the way in which the alliance of religion and ecology is not necessarily compatible with left / liberal politics. In North America we tend to associate environmental issues with left / liberal politics, and religious organizations that advocate on behalf of environmental issues similarly tend to get associated with those similar politics. As an example of this, at the Forum on Religion and Ecology lunch just a few days earlier, it was quite evident from the conversation that scholars involved in environmental issues largely fell into the left / liberal camp. But just because this is the normative cultural expectation in North America does not necessarily make this the case everywhere else in the world.
George James from the University of North Texas, for instance, noted the way in which the right wing nationalist politics of India BJP opposed the Sethusamudram shipping canal between India and Sri Lanka not because of environmental reasons but because the proposed shipping channel would cut through the causeway known as Rama’s Bridge, which is identified in the Hindu sacred mythology of the Ramayana. Here was a case in which the alliance of religion and ecology did not conform to the typical expectation of the left-liberal North American academic.
My own paper, on the alliance of Daoist religion and ecology, similarly made the point that the state has particularly supported the conservation of Daoist sites where this has accorded with nationalist politics. This is the case at Maoshan, a designated AAAA tourism destination, which is also a red tourism site, associated with the 4th Army’s role during the 1937-45 war with Japan. It was also the case for Wudang shan during the Ming dynasty, which ordered a local garrison to prevent local deforestation, in part because of the national significance of the site to the Ming emperors.
Here were two examples, then, of the ways in which religious efforts at the conservation of sacred sites were aided by nationalist agenda rather than a green agenda. In these cases, environmental efforts were local, rather than global, and subsumed under the question of national identity.
This discussion was also continued with reference to Suzanne Armstrong’s paper on the Christian Farmer’s Federation of Ontario, which demonstrated a range of theological opinions regarding the alliance of religion and agriculture that could be classified politically anywhere from conservative to liberal. Similarly, Elizabeth Allison’s paper on “brown” environmental issues in Bhutan raised the question of whether a technocratic approach to environmentalism bolstered a statist agenda, that is, empowered the government to strengthen its control over a wide range of issues in people’s lives.
The conclusion we reached, I think, is that just because environmental issues are perceived as being left/liberal issues in North America does not mean that this is necessarily the case in other cultures. We should not expect environmentalists to hold the same colour of political opinions, and we should also expect that there are instances where local environmental issues will bolster conservative orthodoxies and right wing agendas. Does this mean that we shouldn’t support environmental efforts where they also serve to bolster political ideologies that we don’t agree with?