Special Issue "Religious Environmental Activism in Asia: Case Studies in Spiritual Ecology"

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444).

Deadline for manuscript submissions: 15 June 2019

Special Issue Editor

Guest Editor
Prof. Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel

Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI 96822 USA
Website | E-Mail
Interests: Spiritual Ecology; Religious Environmentalism; Buddhist Ecology and Environmentalism; Sacred Places; Sacred Caves; Thailand

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

Environmental issues and problems are serious, some are getting worse, and periodically new ones are still being discovered. A multitude of diverse secular approaches to environmental concerns from the local to the global levels certainly have made important progress and are vitally indispensable, such as in the environmental sciences, technology, and conservation as well as in the environmental agencies, laws, and regulations of governments. Nevertheless, secular approaches have proven to be insufficient, this in spite of, among many other things, more than four decades of annual Earth Day celebrations to enhance environmental information, awareness, sensitivity, and responsibility in the USA and other countries. Most secular approaches only treat specific superficial symptoms, rather than the underlying root causes of the unprecedented global environmental crisis as a whole. Also, secular approaches have been insufficient because most ignore the fact that ultimately the environmental crisis as a whole is a spiritual and moral crisis, and that it can only be resolved by radical transformations in the ways that industrial capitalist societies in particular relate to nature. This must involve a profound shift in environmental consciousness and actions which has variously been called the Great Awakening or the Great Turning.

Religious organizations like the Vatican, secular ones like the Worldwatch Institute, and hybrids like the Alliance of Religion and Conservation are exploring and implementing into action ideas about the relevance of religion and spirituality in dealing with environmental issues and problems. Hopefully, these and a multitude of diverse other initiatives engaged in spiritual ecology may help to at least reduce, if not completely resolve, many environmental concerns thereby turning the global environmental crisis around for the better to replace the Anthropocene with the Ecocene, although this may take decades or even longer. Clearly religion and spirituality can be extremely influential for the better at many levels and in many ways through their intellectual, emotional, and activist components.

During this new era recognized by geologists, ecologists, and others as the Anthropocene, with so many grave and urgent environmental problems from the local to the global levels, there are also a multitude of diverse practical initiatives in religious environmentalism addressing the challenges which offer significant potential, hope, and achievements.

This special issue of Religions focuses on providing a set of captivating essays on the specifics of concrete cases of environmental activism involving most of the main Asian religions from several countries. Particular case studies are drawn from the religions of Animism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Islam, and Jainism. Countries include Bhutan, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Thailand. Thereby this issue offers a very substantial and rich sampling of religious environmental activism in Asia.

This is a relatively neglected subject in the journal and anthology literature which deserves far more attention. Thus, this issue of Religions begins to help fill a strategic gap. It reveals collectively a fascinating and significant movement of environmental initiatives in engaged practical spiritual ecology. Accordingly, this issue should be of special interest to a diversity of scientists, academics, instructors, and students as well as communities and leaders from a wide variety of religions, environmentalism, and conservation.

Prof. Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel
Guest Editor

Manuscript Submission Information

Manuscripts should be submitted online at www.mdpi.com by registering and logging in to this website. Once you are registered, click here to go to the submission form. Manuscripts can be submitted until the deadline. All papers will be peer-reviewed. Accepted papers will be published continuously in the journal (as soon as accepted) and will be listed together on the special issue website. Research articles, review articles as well as short communications are invited. For planned papers, a title and short abstract (about 100 words) can be sent to the Editorial Office for announcement on this website.

Submitted manuscripts should not have been published previously, nor be under consideration for publication elsewhere (except conference proceedings papers). All manuscripts are thoroughly refereed through a double-blind peer-review process. A guide for authors and other relevant information for submission of manuscripts is available on the Instructions for Authors page. Religions is an international peer-reviewed open access monthly journal published by MDPI.

Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charges (APCs) of 550 CHF (Swiss Francs) per published paper are partially funded by institutions through Knowledge Unlatched for a limited number of papers per year. Please contact the editorial office before submission to check whether KU waivers, or discounts are still available. Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI's English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.


  • Religious environmental activism
  • Spiritual Ecology
  • Asia

Published Papers

This special issue is now open for submission, see below for planned papers.

Planned Papers

The below list represents only planned manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts have not been received by the Editorial Office yet. Papers submitted to MDPI journals are subject to peer-review.

Title: “The hardest part is planting trees in people's minds:” a critical analysis of the efficacy of religiously-motivated tree-plantation efforts in Rishikesh, India

Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to explore contemporary, religiously-motivated, environmentalist movements in India which involve the distribution and planting of sacred trees at major pilgrimage sites in India, with a specific focus on environmental efforts in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand. Contemporary governmental initiatives prioritizing a “Clean, Green India” at pilgrimage and heritage tourism sites have inspired a multitude of temples, schools, ashrams, and environmental NGOs to distribute “vriksha prasad” (consecrated trees) and create public “tree plantations,” with the help of yatris (pilgrims), school children, sevaks (volunteers), and community members. This paper investigates the benefits and drawbacks of tree plantation projects which prioritize Hindu sacred tree species, offering several key takeaways meant to encourage the long-term efficacy and sustainability of such religiously-motivated environmental restoration efforts. Due to the diffuse and largely autonomous network of actors engaged in such plantation projects, it is difficult to assess with any accuracy the overall success of these projects at a nation-wide scale; however, participant observation with several religious organizations suggests that scholars should exercise caution regarding the overall efficacy of such projects in enhancing biodiversity or achieving major environmental restoration goals at the landscape scale. Lack of effective oversight, planning and follow-up all too often lead to the neglect and death of these trees, thus limiting the already small and localized nature of many such projects. Therefore, this paper cautiously suggests that, for such efforts to be ultimately effective, religious organizations would need to focus less upon highly visible and publicized plantation projects and distribution of vriksha prasad, and more upon long-term project oversight and maintenance of existing tree plantations on temple land holdings.

Title: Reflection on Environmental Movement led by Buddhist Monastics in South Korea

Abstract: Nearly three decades ago, a sharp increase in infrastructure development projects across Korea, specifically mega-dams and tunnels, catalyzed a Buddhist environmental movement of the 1990s. Led by Buddhist monks, this movement was motivated by concern that the macro-scaled infrastructure schemes threatened endangered species, as well as the surrounding environment of monasteries where monks and nuns meditated. Among these monks was Zen Master Venerable Sukyeong. He demonstrated particularly notable leadership in the Buddhist environmental movement and collaborative work with different religious groups. Venerable Sukyeong adopted a means of protest through prostration, bowing three times and taking one step. This quiet yet powerful protest resonated strongly with the Korean public, suggesting an emergence of pivotal strategies to engage Korean media outlets during this campaign. Zen Master Venerable Sukyeong made substantial contributions towards building a Korean interfaith environmental movement. His leadership introduced a broader scope for environmental activism in local Civil Society, which has struggled against growth-oriented development projects for over twenty years.

Title: Ecological Civilization and Resonant Localities: Animism, Vitalism, and Spiritual Environmental Activism in Tibetan and Han Communities

Abstract: The “spirit” in spiritual ecology is immediately active in a political sense when we see polity and ecology as mutually constitutive.  In premodern, preindustrial societies religion provided mediating narratives linking people and their environs. This piece explores Tibetan animism, as found in “animate landscapes” such as god mountains (Tibetan gzhi bdag, Chinese shenshan), and Han vitalism, as seen in village fengshui landscapes that include fengshui forests (Chinese, fengshuilin), in order to initiate a broader dialogue on how these two relational ontologies continue to animate the phenomenological spaces between body-mind, oikos, and polity. I argue that notions of religious and spiritual environmentalism will gain greater imaginative traction in contemporary political for a when we realize that animist and vitalist conceptions of the world are not archaic, but, on the contrary, extremely realistic from a scientific materialist standpoint informed by integrative scientific thinking rather than disjunctive analysis alone. I further argue that political thought requires imaginative synthesis and never simply scientific data or facts. Thus there is rich potential for a new political ecology inclusive of both cutting edge science and ancient ways of knowing and being. I conclude with a caveat regarding the imperfect fit between theophany and contemporary ecological projects; in short, geopiety cannot be reduced to the gods’ gifts to nature conservation. This warning serves to highlight the profound differences between property rights in post-enlightenment possessive individualist societies and those that coalesce around particular spirits and deities that define political identity and protect the oikos in specific places endowed with distinctive temporalities. Official PRC discourse on Ecological Civilization (Shengtai Wenming) provides a specific historical framework for analyzing the harmonies and conflicts that emerge when the contemporary nation state allows space for spiritual ecology in conservation discourse and practice.

Keywords: Ecological Civilization, anthropocene, ecocene, animism, vitalism, HADD (Hyper-sensitive Agency Detection Device), hierophany, theophany, kratophany

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