By Patricia Dines

Published in The North Bay Bohemian

COLUMN -- Dec. 31, 2008

PDF VERSION OF THIS COLUMN (Click here if you need a PDF reader)

Divine Intervention
China's Taoist masters are mobilizing for the sacred earth

By Patricia Dines

For years, environmentalists have been watching China's rapid economic growth and industrialization with alarm. The country's understandable desire to bring the West's modern lifestyle to over 1 billion Chinese is expected to help push humanity's cumulative environmental impact far beyond the earth's capacity. While some Chinese people are enjoying new conveniences, others and the environment are suffering significant harm, even outside China's borders.

The specifics are staggering. Imagine what it's like to live in a country where two-thirds of household sewage and one-third of industrial wastewater are released untreated. Nearly 700 million Chinese people drink water contaminated with animal and human waste. Discharges pollute China's major rivers, poisoning farms along the banks, pushing fish into extinction, and rendering key fisheries unusable. Acid rain from coal-fired power plants falls on one-third of China's agricultural land, damaging crops and contaminating foods. Unfettered development, deforestation, and overgrazing are spreading the Gobi Desert by 1,900 square miles annually. Cancer and premature deaths from respiratory disease are increasing dramatically. China's air and water pollution are contaminating other countries too, even the United States, and its hunger for natural resources is devastating habitats around the globe.

This environmental damage is costing China an estimated 8 to 12 percent of its annual $3.4 trillion GDP. The global economic downturn is expected to slow China's growth somewhat, from 11.9 percent in 2007 to 9 percent in 2008, but this level is still ecologically unsustainable. In 2005, a vice minister of China's State Environmental Protection Administration warned, "The [economic] miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace."

Amazingly, even in this repressed country, Chinese citizens have been taking to the streets, with an estimated 450,000 environmental protests in 2007, some with up to tens of thousands of protesters. Most gatherings are suppressed by force.

China's government has taken some positive steps, including setting ambitious environmental targets and cleaning up Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. However, government programs often fail because of corruption and competition from the country's economic aspirations. A poll found that only 18 percent of Chinese companies "believed that they could thrive economically while doing the right thing environmentally."

That's why I was intrigued to hear of a very different type of action being taken to shift China's ways. Just recently, Taoist masters gathered from all across China to agree on their own seven-year environmental action plan. Can they really have an impact? In a recent UN Dispatch article, Olav Kjorven of the United Nations Development Program acknowledges that the challenge is significant. Still, he says, traditional "Taoist values and beliefs continue to hold enormous sway in Chinese society" and are being welcomed back into policy-level discourse. Government officials actively attended this event, asking for Taoists' help in building a more environmentally harmonious and sustainable country.

Taoism brings a key asset, says Kjorven: its 5,000-year tradition of emphasizing alignment with nature and "environmental stewardship as a sacred duty." Most importantly, he says, "Taoists are walking the walk," installing solar panels on their thousands of temples, and "providing comprehensive guidance on all aspects of environmental and climate stewardship." Their perspective is long-term: "to change the course for generations to come."

In this work, Chinese Taoists are not alone. Numerous world religions are developing seven-year environmental plans, with the assistance of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), founded by Britain's Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II. Back in the 1980s, Philip was wondering how to engage more of the world's population in environmental action when it occurred to him that religious leaders could reach many people, encourage them to care for the natural world created by their particular deities, and speak in a way aligned with their unique traditions. Thus, says its website, ARC was created "to link the secular worlds of conservation and ecology with the faith worlds of the major religions."

In November 2009, a few weeks before the world's crucial Copenhagen climate meeting, ARC's 11 member faiths will officially present their plans and commitments. "This is no small contribution," Kjorven says. "These 11 faiths represent in some way or another roughly 80 to 85 percent of humanity. Perhaps that's enough to bring us to a global, political tipping point. In the end, it may just be what is needed to convince even the most stubborn and reluctant of policy makers that the time to secure humanity's future is now."

May it be so.

© Copyright Patricia Dines, 2008. All rights reserved.

NOTE: Original published copy of this column is online at


"I absolutely loved reading this article! It's so refreshing to hear what's hopeful in today's dreary eco/econimic situation. What an incredible topic to cover. The title "Divine Intervention" captured my attention and then kept me reading through the devastating issues with China just to find out what hope the title could possibly deliver. How fortunate for China (and the rest of the world) that despite all of the spiritual and religious oppression (ie Tibet) that Taoism would (of course!) have a stronghold, it's the proverbial shoe in the door. I have hope to hear about the many thousands of green activists reclaiming their country and lives. May the hopes of these individuals be realized! Good for the Chinese government to be including Taoist masters in their discussion of policy. It's about time!!! Thanks to these masters for setting a the green example and taking action. It's a gleam of light to the rest of the world. If China can get green, who won't?" -- Rachel Balunsat, Wedding Photojournalist & Portrait Artist


* United on climate change: Obama's Chinese revolution, Feb. 8, 2009. US President wants the world's two biggest polluters to form a partnership in the battle against global warming. www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/united-on-climate-change-obamas-chinese-revolution-1604027.html

* "Is God Green?" Bill Moyers documentary, first aired October 11, 2006. "A new holy war is growing within the conservative evangelical community, with implications for both the global environment and American politics." www.pbs.org/moyers/moyersonamerica/green/index.html

* The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) is at www.arcworld.org. I find it quite inspiring to read its coverage of various religions' eco-activities around the world. More about ARC's program to assist religions with their specific seven year plans is at www.arcworld.org/projects.asp?projectId=358.

* Taoism -- "The Way" for Climate Action in China?, By Olav Kjorven, UN Dispatch: November 6, 2008 is at www.undispatch.com/archives/2008/11/taoism_--_guidi.php. Olav Kjorven is Assistant Secretary General and Director of Development Policy at the UN Development Program.

* Copenhagen 2009, Climate Conference in Copenhagen, November 30 - December 11 2009. "In 2012 the Kyoto Protocol to prevent climate changes and global warming runs out. To keep the process on the line there is an urgent need for a new climate protocol. At the conference in Copenhagen 2009 the parties of the UNFCCC meet for the last time on government level before the climate agreement need to be renewed." www.erantis.com/events/denmark/copenhagen/climate-conference-2009/index.htm

* Revolutionizing China's Environmental Protection, by Jianguo Liu and Jared Diamond, Science magazine, January 4 2008. Analysis of China's current state of environmental protection and suggested remedies. Diamond is author of the best-selling book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. https://moodle.presidiomba.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=29983

* The Great Leap Backward?, By Elizabeth C. Economy, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2007. This article has great information about China's environmental problems. www.foreignaffairs.org/20070901faessay86503/elizabeth-c-economy/the-great-leap-backward.html.

* China after the Olympics: Lessons from Beijing, Greenpeace, July 28, 2008, ("Did Beijing meet its Olympic green promises?") offers Greenpeace's eco-assessment of China. www.greenpeace.org/china/en/news/green

* In China City, Protesters See Pollution Risk of New Plant, By Edward Wong, New York Times, May 6, 2008. The background on one example protest. "Residents took to the streets of a provincial capital over the weekend to protest a multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant backed by China's leading state-run oil company, in the latest instance of popular discontent over an environmental threat in a major city." www.nytimes.com/2008/05/06/world/asia/06china.html?fta=y

* China's Environmental Crisis Catalyzes New Democracy Movement, by Jianqiang Liu, World Watch, June 19, 2007. www.worldwatch.org/node/5149

* Increase in environmental protests causes instability in China, Green Clippings, September 6, 2006. "Environment-related riots, protests and disputes in China increased by 30% last year to more than 50,000, as pollution-related unrest becomes a contagious source of instability in the country. Riots in Huashui in April 2005 resulted in battles between an estimated 10,000 police officers and desperate villagers, but it also proved a rare case in which citizen outrage prevailed over deeply vested interests. "Without the riot, nothing would have changed," said Wang Xiaofang, a 43-year-old farmer. "People here finally reached their breaking point." The Chinese people are taking to the streets to demand an end to the birth defects, polluted water, dead crops and murky air that are robbing them of their livelihoods and lives. A government study released in mid-July found that 81% of the nation's chemical plants were dangerously near population centres and sources of drinking water." www.greenclippings.co.za/gc_main/article.php?story=20060906170952367

That Green Clippings webpage summarizes the original article As China Spews Pollution, Villagers Rise Up, By Mark Magnier, September 03, 2006 at http://articles.latimes.com/2006/sep/03/world/fg-enviro3. "They're getting wealthy on the backs of poor people like us," he said. "If there was the least bit of concern for ordinary people, this riot never would have happened."

* The Lessons of Harbin, By Elizabeth Economy, Time, Nov. 27, 2005. "The environmental disaster that has unfolded over the past two weeks in the northeast Chinese city of Harbin has the makings of a great story: explosion at large petrochemical plant releases toxic pollutants into major river, threatening millions; local officials attempt cover-up; panic ensues; wiser voices prevail; corrective action is taken. Unfortunately, the real story remains largely untold. China's rapid economic development, endemic corruption and highly decentralized political system have produced a life-threatening environmental crisis for hundreds of millions of Chinese."

* Anger in China Rises Over Threat to Environment, By Howard W. French, New York Times, July 19, 2005 www.nytimes.com/2005/07/19/international/asia/19china.html?ex=1279425600&en=2319c5dae21c9ab8&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss

* The China Syndrome and the Environmental Kuznets Curve, By Steven F. Hayward, December 21, 2005, Environmental Policy Outlook.. Interesting overview information and analysis, though I have some concerns about their controversial economic model. www.aei.org/publications/pubID.23617/pub_detail.asp

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