Jain Principles and the Green Movement
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Posted by: Pooja Jain
Jain Principles and the Green Movement
by Mausmi Pravin Mehta, Ph.D.
Living in Berkeley, California, one can't help but be influenced by the green movement, which encourages us to reduce the footprint we leave on this planet by limiting our consumption of resources, recycling, eating food that has been locally and sustainably grown, and rejecting pesticides and other chemicals in our kitchens and the environment. Thinking carefully about these ideas, I have realized that the green movement is essentially a reincarnation of the Jain principles of Aparigraha (which means to limit possessions to what is necessary) and Ahimsa (which means to do no harm).
Defying the American culture of consumerism is the ultimate act of Aparigraha: do you really need that latest cell phone, the bigger television, or those expensive shoes? If everyone took a few minutes to think about what they really need in order to live a simple but fulfilling life, they would realize that they already have more than enough stuff. And when we dig a little deeper to find out how these products are made, we discover that the manufacturing process often exploits workers in other countries and pollutes the environment around the world. In order to keep costs low and profits high, employees may be forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions and yet not be paid a livable wage. Electronic goods like cell phones and laptops require rare metals that have to be mined from the earth, which not only destroys the local ecosystem, it also produces toxic waste as a byproduct. Furthermore, these products are often replaced every couple of years when the newer model comes out, or when they break, because it is cheaper to just buy a newer product instead of getting it repaired. Old and broken electronics usually end up in a landfill or being recycled in China or India, again exposing workers and the environment to toxic chemicals that end up in household dust, soil and groundwater.
One of the toxic chemicals found in electronic goods (as well as furniture, carpets and mattresses) is called PBDE, which interferes with normal brain development, growth, sexual development, and has been linked to infertility. PBDEs have also been detected at extremely high levels in the breast milk of American mothers. As a new mother, I find this extremely disturbing – what effect will these chemicals have on my son? Mothers do everything they can to make sure their children are safe while in the womb, and it is our right and responsibility to keep PBDEs from contaminating our breast milk and other harmful chemicals like BPA and phthalates out of baby bottles and children's toys.
The green movement also encourages vegetarianism and veganism, which is obviously an important way to practice Ahimsa. But Ahimsa should extend to the insects that also enjoy the vegetables we eat. In addition to killing insects, pesticides harm farm workers, contaminate groundwater and are thereby ingested by all of us, even if we eat organic fruits and vegetables. Methyl iodide is a known carcinogen and neurotoxin that causes late-term miscarriages, and is sprayed on strawberry fields in the United States. In Kerala, India, an insecticide called endosulfan is sprayed on cashew plantations and is responsible for deforming hundreds of children whose parents worked on these plantations. Although endosulfan was finally banned in 2011, exemptions were created for India where it can be used for 10 more years.
What can be done until dangerous pesticides, PBDEs and other chemicals like BPA and phthalates are banned? Educate yourself and demand action from our elected officials. Simplify your life – buy fewer, higher quality items that will last a lifetime. Use natural products like glass and cotton instead of man-made ones like plastic and foam. Buy products that were made locally by hand instead of in a far away factory. If something breaks, have it repaired. Get rid of things you don't need, but don't just throw them away – give them to someone in need, or recycle them responsibly. Examine the products that you use on your body, clothes and house and eliminate items with artificial fragrances and other chemicals. Did our grandparents in India use antiperspirants, perfumes and dryer sheets? No, they didn't – and you don't need them either. Technological advances should help us, not harm us. According to the Jain principle of Parasparopagraho Jīvānām from the Tattvārtha Sūtra, human beings are inextricably connected to the earth, air, water, and all other life forms – and all souls render service to one another. It is therefore our responsibility to protect the environment. By doing so, we are also protecting ourselves. As the noted Jain leader Dr. L. M. Singhvi states in "The Jain Declaration on Nature,":
Mahavira proclaimed a profound truth for all times to come when he said: "One who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, air, fire, water and vegetation disregards his own existence which is entwined with them."