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Jainism’s Role in Climate Justice

Updated: Jun 8, 2023


Hotter temperatures, extreme weather, thinning ozone, climate refugees, soil depletion, air and water pollution...it might be too late to roll back the effects of climate change but at least action can decrease the extremity of the consequences. Is Jainism a part of that plan? Could the people in white robes lend a hand? Could the naked folk be of help? Well in the end, Jains are Jains although the Digambaras might fight for differentiation.


Religion is one element on which all humans can relate. The notion of where we come from is viewed from many vantage points including some that are monotheistic, polytheistic, atheist, and others that fit in between. Religion can be the step we are missing in climate justice. Jainism is the religion of non violence practiced in one’s diet and lifestyle. Jainism can be a functional tool and strategy from which to view environmental problems.


First, Let’s Understand the Stakes: Background in Climate Change


Local Climate Change

In southern California, temperatures are expected to increase leading to a greater frequency and intensity of heat waves, greater greenhouse gas emissions, and sea level rise among many other wide reaching effects. The coastal regions will also be affected but to a lesser degree due to ocean temperatures. The days over 95F will increase, however still in proportion to the nonuniform rising of temperatures between inland and coastal. The predicted temperature increases will happen over decades and centuries. The UCLA publication for climate change in the Los Angeles Region project is working with future dates of 2041–2060 and 2081–2100 for the dates of when the predicted temperature rise will come to fruition (Union of Concerned Scientists). In the next 100 years, climate change projections are predicting a 3-4 degree average increase in temperature (UCLA 2012). The changes are slow but more and more permanent as the building blocks are stacked higher and higher. The first blocks put in place decades ago are becoming more permanent while further neglect towards climate change action remains, the potential impacts on our ecosystems and health are becoming apparent.

The steady increase in all around temperatures will and has already amounted to some detrimental levels of heat with increased durations, as shown by the graph above (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2012). The ‘higher emissions’ describes 21 days per summer with temperature highs above 92°F between 2020 and 2060, and 59 such days between 2070 and 2099. This striking temperature high is more than 14 times the historical average. Under the lower-emissions scenario, the number of dangerously hot days would decrease up to 50%. The ‘higher emissions’ scenario would result in high death rates of elderly and/or those with compromised health. The graph depicts a bleak future for business as usual.

Another repercussion of rising temperatures is thermal expansion. These rising temperatures in the atmosphere will also bring rise to ocean temperatures especially because the oceans sequester heat from the atmosphere. Too much heat sequestration causes seawater to expand, increasing sea level. The combination of thermal expansion and the polar ice caps melting will increase sea level by 7 to 19 inches from 2000 to 2050, and 20 to 55 inches by 2100. Concerning specifically the Los Angeles region, researchers project a 5 to 24 inch increase by 2050 and 17 to 66 inches by 2100 (Waterboards). Extreme tides, flooding and beach erosion will become increasingly common.

Precipitation is a huge question and pulsing topic concerning specifically the Los Angeles area. Los Angeles’s average rainfall is low and should stay relatively the same in the coming decades according to Science Magazine, who acknowledges the current drought. As the temperatures rise, the precipitation, which is most pertinent on the Sierra Nevada mountains, will arrive less in the form of snow and more in the form of rain. Even the precipitation that arrives in the form of snow will melt faster than before. Therefore, those relying on water from the Sierra Nevada mountains will experience significant decreases in supply. If heat trapping emissions such as carbon dioxide increase, the Sierra Nevada snowpack will decrease between 32%-79% (cayan et al. 2008). This prediction has confirmed the need to cease the use of distant water sources and instead increase the use of local water. Santa Monica has vowed to source only local water by 2020. As we can see from the chart above (Waterboard), many things are affected by rising temperatures. Everything is connected. Through a tickle down system, change to one element, initially affects change to countless others.

Between 2010 and 2020 improvements have been made in respect to air pollution in the Los Angeles region. However, Los Angeles does have one of the worst air pollution rates in the nation. Air pollution is caused by nitrogen oxides and organic compounds from car emissions and fossil fuels which are then heated by the sun producing air pollution/smog. Wildfires also add to Los Angeles’s increasing dilemma with air pollution. As more houses are built where wildfires easily erupt, wildfires will increase in frequency and duration. The bigger the fire, the more smoke and ash is released into the air worsening air quality.

In response to high heat, the energy demand for air conditioning will increase. The low

levels of water will decrease the amount of natural energy produced by high-elevation hydropower reservoirs at the state level. The situation will exacerbate in the summer months when electricity demand will be highest. The image (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2012) shows the areas most prone to wildfires (red) which also possess transmission lines bringing power to the metropolitan area. Increasing temperatures plus an increasing electricity demand will augment the risk for more industry caused fires. The vicious circle continues as more fumes enter the air furthering air pollution, increasing temperatures and wildfire risks.

Although the past choices of state heads have already permanently impacted today’s environmental situation, actions taken today can mitigate the effects of climate change on the second half of the century (2012).


Climate Change Around the Globe

Around the world, industry has its eye on producing for the masses due to economic incentives being low selling prices and high profit incomes. However, this strategy is immensely destructive for every living being.

As the chart demonstrates, carbon emissions have been steadily increasing since the industrial revolutionary period which began in Britain and then abruptly increased as Europe, Russia, India, Japan, North and South America also industrialized. This meant the level of production could increase with the same amount of workers and soon even less workers. Industrialization meant the harvesting of fuels such as coal, oil, and gas found deep in the earth from centuries of pressure otherwise known as fossil fuels. The process through which these fuels are combusted and used for energy or heat is that which is most harmful. The combustion of fossil fuels “has exacted an enormous toll on humanity and the environment—from air and water pollution to global warming” (Denchak, 2018). The “most significant undesirable by-product of fossil fuel combustion is carbon dioxide, the primary cause of the greenhouse effect” (Last et al., 1998). The greenhouse effect is that dance between the sun and the gas to retain heat from the atmosphere. Due to the high amount of gas such as carbon dioxide which has increased by 30% in terms of its atmospheric makeup in the past 100 years, is released from industrial processes keeping more heat in the air (1998). This leads to the effects mentioned such as greater frequency and severity of weather, a higher sea level, melting ice etc.

Naturally, carbon dioxide is emitted by humans and absorbed by plants. On a grander scale, there are carbon sinks or reservoirs for carbon dioxide that re-release the gas as the atmospheric balance deems necessary. These sinks include forests and the ocean. However, forest reservoirs are diminishing by the day due to industrial commodification for products such as timber and industrial agriculture. Not only is climate change perpetuated by further industrialization but by past industrialization as well because the ocean soaks up carbon and then when it freezes into ice, the carbon remains within that ice. The cyclical cycle exists when atmospheric temperatures are so warm that ice in the coldest parts of the world is melting, releasing stored carbon dioxide in tandem.

People are the environment and the environment is people. The environment, with this understanding has been defined as all the places people live, eat, work, play, and pray. The environment is not elsewhere but where you are right now, and we, human beings are the environment itself. Humans are germs, a congregation of small organisms working in tandem. The health of the environment is, therefore, a direct reflection of the health of those who live within it. As we’ll learn about in Jainism, everything is connected and violence to any part is, therefore, violence to many other parts. Excessively high temperatures have already reared ugly results such as in “1995, a heat wave killed several hundred people in Chicago, and several thousand people in Uttar Pradesh, India, and parts of central China” and in 1998 these heat waves were “accompanied by forest fires, death and property loss” (1998). Relying on artificially made cold spaces to combat the heat is a decision made on little scientific comprehension. Since air conditioning refrigerants are given their cooling power by fossil fuels, using more would only exacerbate the already cyclical problem. Heat waves also increase smog which is due to “increased atmospheric temperatures and/or ultraviolet radiation levels enhance[ing] the photochemical reaction that produces ground-level ozone and secondary organic particulates” (1998). Smog is invited to reside over cities due to the amount of gas, especially carbon dioxide emitted capturing heat and particulate matter often from cars and factories. Cities like Los Angeles, New York, New Deli, and Beijing are a few timeless examples of industrial inevitables.


What is Jainism?


“Non-violence is the highest religious duty...all living creatures must help each other”

For a Jain, these motos are the pinnacle of what it means to be a Jain and even what it means to be a good human. Dundas says these brief statements are what “many Jains would regard...as encapsulating what their religion stands for” (Dundas, 2002, 160). When Jainism is melted down to it’s core, what can be taken is Jainism’s common referral to being the religion of ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence. A succinct and concise statement on the viewpoints that Jainism offers is as follows, a “time-test anchor of moral imperatives and a viable route plan for humanity’s common pilgrimage for holistic environmental protection, peace and harmony in the universe” (Chapple, 2002, 2). Jainism aspires for a certain integration of species, of human and animals, of the natural and the manufactured. The code of conduct for Jains has five pillars called vratas or vows. These include “nonviolence in thought, word and deed, to seek and speak the truth, to behave honestly and never take anything by force or theft, to practice restraint and chastity in thought, word and deed, and to practice non-acquisitiveness” (222).

There are two main groups of Jainism followers which are the Digambaras and the Svetambaras. The word Digambara translates as “sky-clothed” meaning they are naked being ultimately non-acquisitive. The word Svetambara translates as “white-clothed” which finds its monks and nuns in white clothing. Please remember that Jainism like any religion has followers of varying degrees. The monks and nuns are the ones whose “job” so to speak is the practicing of Jainism. Then the lay jains are more like everyday people who own cars, houses and have acquired other items. Of course the pinnacle vow(vrata), nonviolence(ahimsa) is understood by lay Jains in terms of being able to contradictorily justify the construction of a house and the using of a car in the face of Jainism because of practicality. Jainism is an impractical religion for the majority of practical people, therefore amendments are made with the recognition of the life of an everyday person compared to a monk or nun. Sometimes the principles of Jainism can be difficult to understand because they contradict each other but the Jains also understand this and understand accommodating the religion for many is necessary so they do not, for example abandon their family instead.


What are ways Jainism can offer solace/refreshing point of view?

Through a capitalist mentality, non-acquisition is not intuitive. Many argue this is one of the very reasons for the destruction of the planet because of its convenient, cheap, and quick consumption of resources that have become commodified. Environmental ethics found in religions such as Jainism advocate that “one of the greatest challenges to contemporary religions remains how to respond to the environmental crisis, which many believe has been perpetrated because of the enormous inroads made by the unrestrained materialism sexualization and industrialization in contemporary societies especially those societies arising in or influenced by the modern west” (Chapple, xxii). A society that is based on blind consumption is bound to be destructive in the creation of the path forward. Mass exports and imports of commodified items lead to reckless and uneducated consumption in terms of an awareness of the production process and its effects on the people, the countries, the habitats, where it is produced and ultimately the climate.

Traditional western religions are theorized to contribute emphasis on the idea of human domination over nature. A medieval historian, Lynn White “has suggested that the emphasis Judaism and Christianity put on the transcendence of God above nature and the dominion of humans over nature has led to a devaluing of the natural world and a subsequent destruction of its resources for utilitarian ends” (xxii). An understanding of the values highlighted by religion is important to understanding the origins of many modern views and relationships with nature. In my opinion, to be able to correct and enlighten individuals on a human-nature relationship that is productive is to comprehend from where current views arise. More evidence reassures the claim that the “environmental crisis and its perpetuation is due to the industrialization, secularization and ethical indifference present a serious challenge to the world’s religions” (xxiii). It seems a religious lens can often lend a sensitive, understanding perspective as opposed to a secular one. I want to make a distinction that secular views can, of course still be compatible with environmentalism but in terms of the corporate heads this combination of views is often lacking. For corporations, especially to gain a perspective tinted with Jainism is even more important than individuals because of the comparative footprint made by corporations.



How can Jainism affect our worldview/value system? Will popularizing Jainism infiltrate the corrupt exploitative capitalist mode of life?

Creating Effects? Let's talk about food because food affects everyone. Agriculture is definitely one of, if not the most destructive industry on the planet. Can the world eat food in a way that creates less himsa? Yes! Small, local, agroecological farms. Agroecological farms evade monocultures and instead grow food in a mixed matrix meaning fruits, vegetables, root produce, and trees are mixed. These types of farms also use natural pesticides such as marigolds (this flower is a deterrent for many insects/pests). The use of natural pesticides is also relative to some plants being placed specifically next to other plants and their combination is one that is disliked by pests. The use of natural pesticides also cancels any water pollution because there are no chemicals creating runoff that exit into the local waterways. Matrix agroecological style farming is also a method to improve water retention in soil which decreases water waste. This method also decreases air pollution since big plots of land are not being harvested at once with a large motor vehicle. A theme to this healthy style of farming is an indigenous knowledge to the area of the farm and the crops grown on the farm. Indigenous knowledge of the geographical region of the farm is such as an understanding of the soil moisture/density, the weather, the humidity etc. It is ancestral knowledge. I also mentioned the importance of a farm that is small and local. That means international trade for the most part has to go. Maintaining the economic health of a nation in coherence with a nation's natural biodiversity is impossible if there is a continuance of exporting and importing goods as big corporate farms do. Each community/city should provide food and this way biodiversity of the planet can at least remain if not improve and diminish the effects of climate change. The economy of each nation improves with a reinvestment into itself. Small local farmers will ultimately be the best option for each nation's people and their respective economy.

How are Women and Other Marginalized Communities Relevant here?


Ecofeminism

There is a well known definition of Sustainable development that is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (IISD, 2020). This definition acknowledges change for the next generation, however it fails to recognize degradation being done now at disproportionate rates to different demographics. For instance, “racial, ethinic...economic and political disposition” are the biggest indicators of where toxic chemical waste processing facilities are placed (Chapple, 2002, 78). Click on the link to read more evidence on this unfortunate fact. This information makes it clear that “part of the answer to the environmental crisis...lies in addressing issues of inequity and injustice in the control and distribution of resources'' (78). Ecofeminism is a branch of environmentalism that widens the lens through which questions concerning the relationship between the divine, human, and nonhuman sectors are examined. Ecofeminism seeks to strengthen the understanding of the relationship between the social constructs such as gender and the environment and their ripple effects.

Ecofeminism pulls our attention to socially constructed roles and their reflection in everyday vernacular to emphasize what is expected of a particular gender, specifically female by the way of gendering careers and the social atmosphere. Social constructed phrases such as Mother Earth and Earth Goddess “and the distinction between ‘nature’ as feminine and ‘intellect’ as masculine'' play a role “in shaping our experience of reality” (77). For a current events example, I turn to COVID-19 and the powerful emerging statistic that countries led by women have had far better reactions, in terms of low death rates per capita and high preparedness (Anderson, 2020). Anderson writes about the importance of gender perception. She includes a study performed by Dr. Oliver at Georgia State University which “asked both men and women to identify a leader they admire and 80% picked a man.” Dr Oliver “replicates this experiment every year in her class and only about 5% of her students, both men and women, identify a female leader, and, ‘It is typically Mother Theresa’ (Anderson, 2020). Women are not in leadership positions at disproportionate rates; women, in fact only make up 7% of heads of state (2020). But why? Women have so clearly shown better leadership decision and judgement skills during this global pandemic only still to be treated as second class citizens? Solving this problem will take much more than credit gained during this global disease crisis. In Jainism and Ecology, Cort poses a thought stating is not the “androcentric oppression of women by men and anthropocentric oppression of nature by humans [an] expression of the same (or related) hierarchical expression of oppressive power, then might the redress of one form of oppression be linked to the redress of the other (Chapple, 2002, 77)?

In terms of Jainism, gender differentiation is found all throughout. Gender discrimination ties back to Jainism as being a fordmaker for climate justice because justice is for all people today not for some people tomorrow. As we saw above, the female perspective and way of governing is greatly undermined; even though, it is incredibly attuned. Cort writes, although “soteriological abilities of women have been debated for many centuries, many Jain texts of all sectarian traditions are highly gynophobic” (77). Cort tells us that a gender hierarchy has always been prominent in Jain culture however he also brings up in comparison to other South Asian traditions nuns at many times and places have also surpassed the number of monks by many multiples. However, I must still emphasize that the number of nuns is insignificant compared to the way nuns are treated compared to the monks. In the story of the Transfer of the Embryo that is the birth of one of the most infamous fordmakers in Jainism, Mahavira. In this story, the embryo of Mahavira is transferred from a brahman woman by the name of Devananda to a woman named Trisala of the warrior caste. The story is analyzed by Dundas on the basis of caste. However, analyzing the productivity and commodification of women for what they are seen as, the oven for which the buns to bake is my purpose here. Another way the story is interpreted it’s analogously to the “unusual births associated with hero figures of other religious traditions, such as Buddah who was born of his mother’s thigh or Jesus whose mother was a virgin” (Dundas, 2002, 26). These special hybrid mothers were new kinds of ovens able to bake the bun without opening the oven door. The stories of these miraculous births largely ignore the fact that women are not stationary machines, ovens, but people who have experienced a wealth of pain and discomfort during menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth. Romanticizing womens’ reproductive organs fraternizes with the idea that women do not experience pain during pregnancy because they are not independent, autonomous people but machines which further ingrains the notion that producing children is the literal job of all women. These dehumanizing thoughts further perpetuate gender discrimination and objectification in the face of women’s rights and environmental education and legislation.

Another point that is commonly overlooked is the heteronormative narrative (more information there). This is the notion that heterosexuality is the norm, the default which fails to recognize all those who are not heterosexual and their affects on the world. The point is these demographics are purposefully not recognized because they, for example a gay couple would not be able to provide the next generation without medical intervention (adoption does not count because the kid is still that of a man and a woman which further enforces heteronormativity). Another demographic not recognized are the women who are not able to have kids either naturally or because of a hysterectomy. This is because they are no longer "productive". The use of this kind of vernacular is clearly emulative of the exploitative capitalistic framing of everyday life and people. This is also the reason that reprocentricity, the notion that everyone wants kids, is always pushed. There are still ongoing debates today about the rights women have to their own bodies. The definition of rape is still pushed by many to include a smaller range of offenses. Birth control is treated as luxury when it is a right. One of the five lesser vows or vratas followed by layjains states “Jains must give up sex, if possible, after the marriage has yielded a son” (BBC, 2009). Again the importance of a certain gender being born to hold the weight of Jain traditions is disproportionate and puts an extreme amount of emphasis and pressure on Jain women by treating them as machines who by request are asked to make a certain product. This is not at the discretion of a little too much yeast which, by this vernacular, accidently yielded a girl. The making of a human is more out of human control.

Many components of healthcare and the judiciary process are still in crisis when it comes to women's reproductive health. In terms of the capitalist “productive” view, the health of the “ovens'' (a woman's uterus) has always been prioritized. The differentiation comes with the distinction between the care for a woman as a person and her freedom of choice compared to the care for the “machinery” women carry. The problem with the statement that sustainability is for future children is that it invalidates those populations who are unable or do not want kids. It also is a "get out of jail free card" so to speak for the discrimination committed today against queer people, people of color, women, the poor, those who don't speak english (immigrants exploited in factory farming and agriculture fields) as if it doesn't matter because sustainability is for the people of tomorrow not today.


What insights can Jainism give into Environmental ethics?

I think Jainism can make a dent in stopping, perhaps the biggest perpetrator of all of these violent industries, willful ignorance. Willful ignorance is the strongest pillar on which all of this exploitation and cheap, international trade rests. In the overseeing words of Gandhi, “earth has enough for one’s need but not for one’s greed” (Jain, 2010). As the optimistic person I am, I think that more education will pierce the bubble of ignorance like a needle, awareness will seep and diminish what once was willful ignorance and become pursued awareness. Change is the work of individuals but exists in the waves of many. The notion that concrete change happens slowly usually with a single origin but, with time and influence is contagious is the story of all big social movements. Isn't it? What is the story of women's suffrage? Of the civil rights movement? Of the LGBT right to gay marriage? Did not the majority of the population at each respective time believe or were indifferent or willfully ignorant to their current social constructs and to whom these laws/lack thereof were oppressing? In terms of getting there, the vernacular of this movement needs to be accessible. Jain states in his publication that “for the majority of Indians who speak, think, and read in vernacular frameworks, terms such as “global warming” or “biodiversity” have limited appeal and thus the rhetoric based on these terms will have limited appeal” (2010). These terms need to be adjusted to have grown within Jainism to elicit an appreciation for the terms from Jain communities.

Jainism in Government Policy

There is no denying that we have to come to terms with climate change. As stated in Jainism and Ecology, “Industrial growth, technological advancement, population overload, over exploitation of natural resources, and the brutality of the human community towards other life forms on the planet has caused an unprecedented environmental and ecological crisis” (Chappell, 2002, 159). But there is often a disproportionate amount of blame put on developing nations for their high pollution rates. For example, India is often condemned for the high amount of air, water, and soil pollution they create. However, that picture seems to crop at just the right point to deny that capitalism or America even play a role in India's pollution contribution. The notion that capitalism can be done nicely is incorrect because capitalism is inherently a competition. There is always a winner and always a loser. As the competition grows so does the gap between the exploited and the protected. A critique of the Jain notion of ahimsa to only harm one-sensed beings is to say “might in fact be environmentally disastrous” and a loophole through which Jainism is not so green. Industries such as strip-mining of granite or marble, unless habitat restoration accompanies the mining process” are some of the most disastrous, exploitative, capitalistic pursued commodities. Likewise, how many Jain industries contribute to air pollution or forests destruction or resulting water pollution? The development of a Jain ecological business ethic would require extensive reflection and restructuring (222).

The context in which exploitation and negligence flourishes is the filter that many (policy-makers, world leaders, and everyday people condemning the poor and marginalized etc) forget to add to the lens through which they see social problems. Education and advocacy are the two most important steps an individual can take to fight for a more just world. An international survey by Chatham House found “a huge gap in public understanding of the role of meat and livestock in climate change...83% of respondents agreed that human activity is contributing to climate change” but “only 30% identified meat and livestock as a significant contributor” (Stoll-Kleemann, Schmidt, 2017). In efforts towards ahimsa or non-violence, the jain community is largely vegetarian with an emerging vegan movement because of the greater understanding of himsa in factory farm by-product industry. If global vegetarianism became a reality “the projected need for cropland in 2050 could be reduced by 600 million ha” and “large-scale extension of pastureland to feed” grazing animals “at the expense of savannas or forests is highly problematic with regard to biodiversity loss” would drastically diminish if not disappear if everyone went vegetarian (2017). However, that is highly unrealistic and an account needs to be taken for the millions of people who work in the factory farm industry in terms of an economic plan to shift the labor force to a sustainable industry.

There is an enormous amount of pressure put on the individual to buy "greener" enabling a defocussing of the source and origin of the problem: corporate capitalistic enlargement. A community garden would teach a lot of things in terms of what food should taste like and the multiple benefits that come with growing local food such as cleaner air (pretty much all food desert/swamp communities have little to no foliage which increases exposure to air pollution(its likely they live next to a toxic waste facility too) and therefore rates of asthma or other respiratory illness are higher.), and happier dispositions. Studies have shown that people who have access to green space are on average happier, more productive, creative, and successful compared to those who have little to no access to green space.


Conclusion

Influence from other cultures can be a breath of fresh air. Others see things differently, interpret things through other lenses from how ourselves might do so. Jainism and its tenants emphasizing a healthy relationship with the natural world is refreshing to find in a religion. The fact that not everything beyond the horizon is for the taking and harvesting but instead for other creatures with whom humans share the land is a novel concept that is normally consumed by the patriarchal capitalist way of life never to see the light of day. Living in a metal city affects the disconnection between ourselves, our habits and the natural world. There is space for a lot more compassion in this world. Taking note of the pillars of Jainism would lead to a far more fruitful and less exploitative world. However, as was also noted climate change and environmental justice do not see a peachy world through the lens of jainism. There are still a couple of cracks in the glass. Most notably these include gender equality and a wider encompassing view of environmentalism. This piece pushes for an understanding of the interconnectedness between social constructs, political rulings, and economic systems in reference to the places and more importantly the treatment of the places people (and all living things: a Jainism amendment) live, work, eat, play and pray.



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