Book review: Tread Lightly on the Earth – religion, the environment and the human future, by C. G. Weeramantry (A Stamford Lake Publication, 2009)
Posted on November 18th, 2009

 Come down to earth, warns Judge Weeramantry

H. L. D. Mahindapala

Part 1

The marked and recurring theme in Judge C. G. Weeramantry’s legal philosophy has been to resurrect and elevate religions and traditional values to the highest level in the global agenda as a guide to the future. He demonstrated his commitment to his principles when, as a member and later as Vice-President of the International Court of Justice “”…” the highest judicial institution in the world “”…” he wrote some of his judgments based on essential religious philosophies propounded for the preservation of posterity. In returning to religion he decisively branched away from the father of international law, Hugo Grotius, who secularized international law by “divorcing of legal principles from religious teachings which has characterized it to the present day.” (p.9)

Judge Weeramantry’s revolutionary approach is to bring law back to its basics in religion and sacred traditions. In his latest book, Tread Lightly on the Earth, he returns once again to the underlying principles in the five main religions “”…” Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism — as the primary sources that can halt the precipitous slide down the path into an early environmental grave which continues to be dug by the relentless, ruthless, exploitative and chrematistic forces of modernity with utter disregard for future generations.

Cynics may ask whether there is anything new in this approach. Religions have been touted as the panacea for all ills plaguing humanity down the ages. But Judge Weeramantry’s approach to religions is not to go down the beaten track of rituals, prayers, and institutionalized mantras. He moves away from the conventional “doctrinal issues, issues relating to religious rites and practices, issues relating to virtuous conduct, issues relating to duties to family, tribe or nation, issues relations to obedience to the law, issues relating to peace and justice and so forth” (p.25) and stresses the dynamic “”…” but neglected — principles in religions as the gateway to the future of humanity threatened by the environmental degradation.

This is an integral part of his multi-ethnic, multi-religious approach to global issues. The return to religious values was first expressed cohesively in The Lord’s Prayer “”…” Bridge to a Better World, a masterly study of the politico-legal meaning in a spiritual text. He lifts the Lord’s Prayer out of the narrow interpretation given by the Church and places it in the wider socio-political context. In it he teases out the legalistic and moral principles which are applicable to all times in all cultures.

He argues that the human condition has not changed that much from the time of Jesus to the present day. The socio-political problems that confronted Jesus continue to haunt man to this day. Jesus was a victim of the oppressive regime of the imperialist Romans who denied the fundamental human rights to the Jewish people. Jesus also stood up for the poor and the marginalized outcasts of society. He rebelled against the “whited sephulcres” in the Jewish establishment working hand in glove with the Roman powers. Eventually, he discovers that the most dangerous thing on earth is to work for the good of mankind. He, in fact, is crucified for doing just that.

The Ecclesiastes “”…” one of the most profound chapters in the Bible that comes closest to Buddhism “”…” underlines the perennial condition of man when it said: “So I returned,” says Ecclesiastes (Chapter 4 -1) “and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.” This penetrating analysis predates Marxism. The multifarious political and religious manifestos have yet to save mankind. Marx, for instance, is nothing more than another secular messiah of the Judaic tradition (his father was a Jew who converted to Protestantism to practice law in Germany) who promised to eradicate the power of the oppressors and establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.

He failed to establish his secular kingdom on earth. The greatest symbol of the vanguard of his revolutionary force “”…” the workers’ hammer “”…” ultimately was used eventually to bring down the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the power of the Marxist oppressors. Besides, Marxism was no different from capitalism in that both forces agreed on structuring a cornucopia of goods and services by exhausting the limited resources of planet earth.

In Lord’s Prayer Judge Weeramantry attempts to build a bridge between the Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of Earth.  In his thesis he weaves his way to equate religious principles with legal and human rights principles. With this bold approach he makes the Lord’s Prayer relevant to all cultures. Perhaps, the most profound principle expressed in Western religio-political texts is contained in the revolutionary line of Jesus: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” If this principle is fulfilled to the letter by all neighbours collectively who needs states, armies, police and nuclear weapons for security or survival? 

But the neighbourhood is no longer populated with Good Samaritans. It is overpopulated with conspicuous consumers most of whom have invested in the market place hoping to grab a share of it. As insatiable consumers, doubling up simultaneously as greedy shareholders, they are inextricably intertwined as an integral part of the market forces that are jointly and severally responsible for the degradation of the environment. Secular Western ideologies, from Marxism to Friedmanism, have focused essentially on transforming the earth into a cornucopia of goods and services by either freeing or controlling market forces that gouge the wealth buried in the fertile soil.

Judge Weeramantry belongs to that growing army of Al Gorerians who are challenging the fashionable ideologies promoting the exploitation of the resources of earth with no moral limits placed to protect the future endangered by the money-making predators dictating from Wall Street without any regard for their victims in the Main Street. The ultimate goals of socialism and capitalism have been to reconfigure consumerism as the answer to the human condition.

This is symbolized in the architecture of the past and present. In the past monuments leaping into the sky were built to venerate spiritual values. In our time skyscrapers escalate to worship commerce and consumerism. The proliferating supermarkets are the modern temples in which the masses celebrate their endless craving for fleeting self-gratification.

The glittering market place is the sacrificial shrine of the acquisitive society offering the future generations to eternal damnation. The ever expanding market place devours not only the limited resources but also the protective values of traditions enshrined for the protection of all species and their only known abode in the universe “”…” the planet earth.  It is overloaded with products derived from the dwindling resources of the earth and worse still, shopaholics take home their goods in plastic bags which are guaranteed to pollute the earth for generations to come. So at both ends of receiving and disposing goods the market place degrades the earth.

Is the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness then to end in the supermarkets? Is the marketplace, driven by the grinding forces of globalisation, the final graveyard of humanity? In varying degrees the global community has adjusted their race, gender, political and some socio-economic relations. But have they adjusted their relations to the earth “”…” the primary source on which their survival depends?

Misled by the hubris of scientific and technological achievements it has taken a long time for the inhabitants of the earth to abandon the myth that the earth’s resources are infinite and inexhaustible. The urgent need is to seek a balance. The headlines scream of nightmarish scenarios which are already upon us. The snows of Kilimanjaro are vanishing, says one headline. The other shrieks of the droughts and the fires. TV screens focuses on the ice shelves in the poles crashing headlong into the seas. The sea levels are inching their way up threatening the land.

But not everyone is convinced that these new developments add up to any serious threat to the environment. At the World Economic Forum, in Davos, the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, expressed doubts about global warming and attacked former US Vice President and environmental activist, Al Gore, for failing to look at the complete picture in regard to the global phenomenon.

Klaus said: “I don’t think that there is any global warming, I don’t see the statistical data for that. I’m very sorry that some people like Al Gore are not ready to listen to the competing theories. I do listen to them.”

Despite the environment skeptics (and whether we are inclined to believe them or not) there is no doubt that the climate change is upon us. So have we the capacity and the knowledge to handle it? Is it too late for us to day anything now? These are two urgent questions for us, confronted by the grim reality of the environmental forces changing the planet as we know it. Can science and technology build super refrigerators in the poles to replace the disappearing ice shelves?

The rapidly deteriorating environmental conditions confirm the conclusions of concerned polymaths like Judge Weeramantry that we have the capacity to destroy the environment but not to repair it with the required speed for the survival of generations to come. The limited capacity of science and technology derived from mini-appliances to control the weather in limited spaces like fridges and bedrooms does not go beyond that to restore the global environment to its pristine security and glory. This poses a serious threat to the future of mankind.

So did the Luddites have a point in attacking the new inventions that were displacing their way of life and livelihood? Could the present plight of mankind, faced with an environmental crisis that is probably irreversible, be the hidden meaning of eating the forbidden apple of knowledge?  This is one of the issues canvassed by Judge Weeramantry. One of the questions raised in his book is: Is science, one of the primary forces that advanced the condition of humanity, now returning to undermine the very comforts it gave man? 

“The emphasis on nature and on the human future,” argues Judge Weeramantry, “is so marked that one begins to wonder how these primeval focal points of communal attention receded from the mental horizons of more developed societies.” (p.25). A fundamental facet of his moral argument is that modernity, dependent primarily on technology, science, and market forces driven by fashionable ideologies, have failed and humanity can find its way out of the “one-track way to disaster” (xv) only by returning to the traditional values that recognized the necessity of living in harmony with the environment.

To be continued

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