Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world. A United Nations report has warned that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are at a record level, “without any sign of slowing down”. Many countries experience extreme weather conditions, higher average temperatures and rising seas. Meanwhile, the first wave of increases in the number of climate refugees shows how a changing environment will reshape human life.
Climate change may have been caused by previous and present generations of adults, but future generations will face its worst effects. Today’s children will play a vital role in protecting the environment.
Dealing with the crisis will require a lot of change – and education is an urgent first step.
Taiwan provides an example of how to teach children to take care of their environment.
Environmental attitudes in Taiwan
In the early 1990s, rapid economic development had led to environmental degradation in Taiwan, an island in the China Sea that is home to nearly 24 million people. The air quality in the cities was dangerous, a third of the rivers were polluted and the garbage often did not reach the landfills.
Today, however, Taiwanese take pride in their island’s natural beauty – from coastal wetlands to lush green mountains – and their success in protecting the environment.
Taiwan is best known for its high recycling rates and elaborate sorting systems that even include a category for food waste destined for pig manure. According to self-reported figures, Taiwan now recycles 20% more than the United States – and any visitor can attest to the seriousness of the recycling efforts.
Like a Chinese Buddhist specialist, I have studied how religious groups approach contemporary issues, including environmentalism, in children’s literature.
In Taiwan, more than a third of adults identify as Buddhists, more than any other religion, which makes it an important cultural force. Buddhist groups have been at the forefront of efforts to take care of the environment. Included in their effort is Buddhist literature for children that reflects environmental concerns.
Picture books on this subject take two approaches: in one, bodhisattvas – wise and powerful supernatural beings who can appear in the world to help human beings – serve as role models for children in how they protect the environment.
For example, in the book, “Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s Great Battle Against the Garbage Monster», Published by the Buddhist organization Dharma Drum Mountain, the first page of the story presents a bodhisattva who wants to transform the polluted world into a pure world.
This bodhisattva meets a young boy who tells him that he has nightmares about a monster made of garbage. Turns out the monster appeared because the boy’s room is a mountain of messy garbage. When he cleans it, the Bodhisattva invites him to sort out everything he throws, reflecting actual practices.
Then the little boy decides to become a “little pioneer of global environmentalism”, and accompanies the bodhisattva in cleaning up parks and beaches. In this story, the little boy’s concerns grow from his own room to the larger world, with the Bodhisattva modeling compassionate action.
Historically, bodhisattvas have been called upon to help people in times of dire need (such as a storm at sea), and intervening for the good of the environment updates their role for contemporary times.
In this case, Buddhism is at the center of the story, and the cleansing of polluted spaces becomes a metaphor for spiritual cleansing. The reader turns to a Bodhisattva or a Buddha as a guide and is inspired to act.
Take care of the environment
But in other cases, Buddhist organizations do not use personalities like bodhisattvas to teach environmentalism.
The stories do not feature bodhisattvas as characters, and the narratives may not be overtly Buddhist, but offer an environmental education in the context of a larger Buddhist education. To be a complete Buddhist, in other words, means knowing and respecting the environment.
They can use stories about plants and animals to teach children about things like the life cycle of smut and the symbiotic relationships between animals, like that of rhinos and oxpeckers, which are usually supposed to eat ticks. and other insects, although Reality is more complex.
Children learn about biology and how living things are interconnected. It lends itself to holistic thinking about the environment, and these stories often prompt children to view the world from the perspective of other living things.
Published by a large Buddhist organization, the book “Record of wanderings of a plastic bagGoes a step further by presenting other perspectives.
A plastic bag is initially a toy for a baby and then becomes a place for the cat to take a nap. The grandfather of the family asks for him to collect tomatoes, and when he’s finished, he washes the bag and hangs it up to dry. A little later, he uses it to carry worn shoes to be repaired, at which point the bag flies away.
He happily travels on the wind accompanied by a leaf and candy wrapper, but is eventually carried away in a trash bag. A dog tears up the trash and the bag flies away again, to be retrieved by a child with a stick who treats it like a toy. After being abandoned by the child – very sadly for the bag – it is collected, recycled and transformed into a shopping bag. It’s a happy ending, reflected in the bag’s happy smile.
Author Liu Rugui writes that she used the bag as a character in hopes of stimulating compassion in children, making them cherish the items they use. “Cherishing”, according to Liu, leads to a deeper understanding of environmentalism.
There is a connection between being able to take the point of view of a plastic bag – involving both intellectual and emotional responses – and valuing that object, which otherwise might be considered waste.
Young readers are invited to take the perspective of these non-human characters, changing the way they think about the world and their own actions. This ties in with the Buddhist teachings of karma and reincarnation, which means that every intentional action has a consequence.
Equally important, although one cannot be reborn in the form of a plastic bag, one can be reborn as an endangered insect or animal. On another level, taking the perspective of a plastic bag helps readers understand how all the elements of the universe are interconnected, a teaching that takes its most sophisticated philosophical form in Huayan Buddhism.
Impact of children’s literature
Although studies on the long-term effects of children’s literature are limited, there is some evidence that this approach is effective in raising concern and management of environmental problems.
For example, a study in Australia found that anthropomorphism, which attributes human traits to animals and things, increases children’s concern for certain parts of the environment, as does their emotional investment in stories. That is, certain types of books seem to change children’s attitudes.
As I discovered in my research, this is something that Buddhist organizations also recognize and incorporate into their educational mission. Growing up Buddhist means growing in environmentalism and global citizenship.