Historian Prasenjit Duara says religion can be helpful in promoting environmental protection

Historians in the News
tags: religion, China, Prasenjit Duara

Prasenjit Duara is one of the most original thinkers on culture and religion in Asia.

A 66-year-old historian of China, he was born in Assam, India, and educated at the University of Delhi, the University of Chicago and Harvard. He later taught at the University of Chicago, Stanford and the National University of Singapore and now teaches at Duke.

Professor Duara began his career with a pioneering study of Chinese religion: “Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900-1942.” This work, published in 1988, helped redefine how many people thought of Chinese religion, showing it to be one of the most powerful forces in traditional Chinese society. His subsequent books reflect a broadening of interests to include topics such as nationalism and imperialism. His latest work, “The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future,” brings many of these strands together, along with issues such as climate change.

In a recent interview in Beijing, Professor Duara discussed Buddhist environmentalism, what aspect of religion most alarms the Chinese government and the South Manchuria Railway Company.

Most people would have no problem accepting the first two premises of your new book: that we have an environmental crisis and that it is due to recklessly fast economic growth. But more counterintuitive is your argument that there’s a solution beyond nongovernmental organizations and international frameworks like the United Nations. You think faith has a role, too.

We need the NGOs and the U.N., and we also need bioengineering and market mechanisms. But one of the most important factors that has emerged in the past 10 or 20 years — slowly, but catching on — is that the most effective communities are in some ways the most traditional, too. They have integrated ideas about nature and community that are faith-based.

In Taiwan, for example, I’ve been very interested in “fojiao huanbao” — Buddhist environmentalism. I was there this summer, and there are large-scale Buddhist groups that have taken to saving the environment.

Can this apply to China, too? Can the return to traditions help motivate people?

China is more difficult in some ways. But there are efforts at Taoist environmentalism, like at Maoshan [a sacred mountain in Jiangsu Province]. They depict Laozi as a green god. Some villagers seek to protect their local ecology through revived temple communities. ...

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