Environmental Activism



By Rita Morbia


It Is Paryushan In Toronto. I am at the city's Jain Temple, formerly and old Christian church, made of red bricks and subsequently renovated to suit the Jain community needs. It is a modest building. To its right lies the parking lot and to its left a yard with some playground equipment. The yard is sparsely carpeted with a type of lawn: clover, plantain, quack grass and perhaps even a blade or two of Kentucky Blue. It is and antithesis of the thick, monotonous lushness coveted by many North Americans, unlikely to win any praise from the local chemical lawn care company. The yard is also fenced in and growing along one section of the green wire is a milkweed plant in the genus Asclepias. It is has somehow felt a bit of compassion for this poor, persecuted plant listed on the City of Toronto's noxious weed list or perhaps no one really  noticed it.

Species of Asclepias are the principal food source for endangered Monarch Butterfly. A growing threat to these stunning orange and black-flecked creatures is the anthropogenically-induced decline of native North American milkweed species. I thought it fitting that the Jain community in Toronto would give refuge to plant others seek to destroy, one that would feed the delicate and determined creatures as they followed their incredibly long and arduous migration routes. The fruits of ahimsa are not always apparent but they are far-reaching.

There is no discord between protecting nature and being a Jain. In fact, as a practicing Jain and an ardent environmentalist, I have learned that the two movements have much in common and that their philosophies are mutually reinforcing. I worked at the Sierra Club of Canada as their biodiversity Campaign Director for three years and the struggles we engaged in were not difficult to reconcile with my spiritual beliefs. In fact, they were essentially Jain struggles. In the course of my job, I tried to :

*    convince the government to pass strong legislation to protect endangered species,
*    force forestry companies to cut Canada's forests without decimating entire ecosystems in the
*    setup programs for younger Canadians to value what is left of their spectacular wilderness,
*    and generally plead, beg, entreat, inspire and mobilise the general public into acting on behalf of
      the environment.

Such a job was frustrating at times, but rely it was sheer karmic luck. I've heard it said that all Jains are environmentalists and all environmentalists are Jains, but in reality there are discrepancies in philosophy and actual practice between the two. Still, I have learned much about being a Jain from environmentalists and environmental movement. I think that environmentalists can learn much from the Jain tradition about protecting he earth. However, to be both things at once, requires a vigilance against complacency and passivity. They are lifestyles achieved only through activism.

Jainism's greatest contribution to the environmental movement is in the philosophy of ahimsa. Although one could debate the particulars of direct Jain influence in Western environmentalism, there are some striking examples of environmental practice in everyday Jain life. The most apparent is, of course related to vegetarianism which is extremely eco-friendly. No only do we practice this ourselves but we have also helped to spread it. There is a growing awareness and practice to veganism among Jains as well.

Another unique connection between Jainism and environmentalism arises via Gandhian thought. The influence of Jainism on Mahatma Gandhi is well-documented, and his development of non-violent protest and civil disobedience technique has given environmental activists of today an important and powerful tool. Individual and organizations can employ 'direct' action as a method to increase awareness, disrupt for the social and environmental good. We saw these tactics at work in the 1960s as US citizens marched for civil rights and more recently, in Seattle at the World Trade organization meeting, and in Prague. These demonstrations were for the most part civil and non-violent.

Over 900 people were arrested in 1993 when they engaged in civil disobedience to non-violently protest and blockade the logging of Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island in Canada's west coast. This area contained one of the world's largest tracts of pristine temperate rainforest and before this point most people did not even know that rainforests existed in Canada. In the summer on 1993 there was a determination among Canadians the likes of which had never been seen before. Today Clayoquot important smaller environmental protests around the globe is also interesting to note that Gandhi was an avid reader of Henry David Thoreau, an early founder of the North American environmental movement.

Another principal tenet of Jainism is aparigraha, literally and awkwardly translated as 'non-possession'. From an environmental viewpoint, it is in this area where the philosophy and the practice of Jainism are at their greatest level of disconnect. Every act of buying and consuming has environmental implications. I think my grandmothers understood this best. When they died, their possessions amounted to a pittance. It is enough to put their supposed environmentalist granddaughter to shame. The majority of Jains in the West in the East are typical consumers. The capitalist system has more often than not worked for us and as a group we are comfortable. This is somewhat paradoxical because despite being vegetarians and abhorring waste, our ecological footprint on the planet is often as large, if not larger than our non-Jain neighbors'. This is where the environmental movement has something to teach Jains about the practice of Jainism.

We can relearn the practice of aparigraha. There is much that we can do from not buying large house that contribute to suburban sprawl or rejecting Sport Utility Vehicles to relatively disposable products. We can limit our consumption and we can invest in ethically and environmentally responsible companies. Each step is important and makes a difference.

We can also support environmental activism by increasing our awareness of the issues, and become part of the greater environmental movement around us through joining organisations, writing letters to elected representatives and  showing up at rallies for environmental causes. We are being native if we think that we shouldn't be 'political'. The very act of living is political, particularly if we are endowed with a Jain awareness of the world around us.

We can also learn to enjoy and respect nature. Knowing the name of a particular tree or catching a glimpse of a certain wild creature in its natural habitat can inspire even the most urban amongst us. I am lucky because I live in a country where nature is never far away. Truly, it can usually be found much closer than one would think and it is always worth the effort.



Source : "Jain Spirit" Jain Magazine Published from London


Mail to : Ahimsa Foundation