Taoism — “The Way” for Climate Action in China?

By Olav Kjorven, Assistant Secretary General and Director of Development Policy at the UN Development Program

Something unprecedented happened in China in late October. It may not have been as glitzy spectacular as the Olympics in Beijing over the summer. It did not attract heads of state or world celebrities. But it possibly leave a more lasting imprint on the future of China and indeed the world.

Taoist masters from all over China gathered near the ancient capital of Nanjing to agree on a seven-year plan for climate change action. Anybody with minimal knowledge of China will immediately understand that this is more than a curiosity.

But the fact that it was the ancient, homegrown Taoist tradition that gathered their most revered teachers to discuss what climate change means for them and their country is more than exotic, whether one looks at it from a religious, an environmental or a political perspective.

But how can a gathering of Taoists be potentially transformative in a country like China? This is, after all, a country where relentless, carbon-fueled economic expansion and consumerism seem akin to doctrine and are deeply embedded into the very fabric of society. (In this respect Western societies are not that different, just a bit further along the same path). Wouldn’t you have to be something of a devout Taoist yourself, or a wildly optimistic and credulous climate warrior in order to believe that such a meeting could amount to much?

Possibly, but I am willing to accept the risk. Let me try to explain: First, the Chinese Taoists have been around for thousands of years. They have seen countless dynasties come, and go. But the Tao (which translates as “the Way”) has outlasted them all, proving its resilience and strength. Taoist values and beliefs continue to hold enormous sway in Chinese society.

Secondly, these values and beliefs are now welcomed back into the broader discourse of society, on matters such as economic, social and environmental policy. Taoism is no longer confined to the personal and family levels, and to festivals and rituals. Taoist temples and their masters are increasingly addressing politicians and business leaders at all levels about environmental and other challenges. This week’s gathering was actively attended by government officials. In their statements, they asked the Taoists for help in building a more environmentally harmonious and sustainable China. They had come to realize that in order to solve current challenges and secure a sustainable future, they indeed needed to mobilize all of society. Today, this includes religion, and not just the Taoists.

Third, and what makes this doubly interesting, Taoism probably has more on offer to the environmental cause in today’s China than any other major, organized religion. This is a strong statement, but anyone who has read key Taoist masters such as Lao Tzu knows to what extent this faith tradition emphasizes environmental stewardship as a sacred duty, something we simply must do in order to preserve our future and the balance of the entire world. Take climate change. The whole problem and challenge can be beautifully captured and explained through the concepts of Yin and Yang: The carbon balance between earth and sky is off kilter. This causes instability and disasters. It is truly significant that the current masters of Taoism in China have started to communicate precisely through this ancient yet new vocabulary.

Fourth, the Taoists are walking the walk. Over the last year or so they have installed solar panels on half of their thousands of temples around China and the job will be completed soon for all their sacred places. They are providing comprehensive guidance on all aspects of environmental and climate stewardship: water and land management, protection of biological diversity, energy efficiency of buildings, educational curricula, moral teachings, outreach through media and advocacy to business, etc. They will use their Seven-Year Plan to make a holistic and systematic contribution to climate responsibility and environmental stewardship in China. The perspective goes beyond seven years. The ambition is to change the course for generations to come. Because the Taoists plan to be around for quite a while longer, continuing their sacred cosmic dance that transcend time and space.

Could this be the kind of stuff that in the end will tip the scales in favor of decisive climate action in China and beyond? Well, even if you’re half-way convinced by the four points above, you’d probably still think that’s a tall order to place on the Taoists–and I would agree. The good news, however, is that similar things are now happening in all the 11 major religions in our world today. They are all coming up with multi-year plans for climate action, spanning all dimensions of who they are and what they do. They are greening their management of land, buildings and financial investments. They are articulating care for creation more strongly and clearly in their teaching and preaching. They are strengthening their climate advocacy towards society at large, but grounded in their own spiritual and moral traditions. By November next year, a few weeks before the crucial Copenhagen climate meeting takes place, these faiths will all present to the world their plans and commitments.

This is no small contribution–these 11 faiths represent in some way or another roughly 80-85 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.

Olav Kjorven is Assistant Secretary General and Director of Development Policy at the UN Development Program.

This Taoist meeting is one of many faith programs emerging from a partnership between UNDP and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) as they help faiths create long-term commitments to help protect the environment and tackle climate issues. To learn more, please visit the ARC website, www.arcworld.org