The Buddha's Footprint: An Environmental History of Asia

Gregory M. Clines

Johan Elverskog’s The Buddha’s Footprint: An Environmental History of Asia provides a timely and important corrective to the dominant, ahistorical narrative of Buddhism’s inherent ecological orientation. The author helpfully articulates his thesis in a tweet-style summary: “Elverskog overturns eco-Buddhism narrative by showing how Buddhists across Asia transformed the environment by commodification, agro-expansion, and urbanization” (p.119).

While defending this position, Elverskog simultaneously addresses larger theoretical and methodological problems that have contributed to the primacy of the pervasive and romanticized view of eco-Buddhism. There exists a disciplinary chasm, he argues, between history and religious studies: “historians of Asia know little about Buddhism, and scholars of Buddhism care little about history” (p.1). The 19th-century sociologist Max Weber serves as a focal point for discussing this chasm. Historians, Elverskog claims, do not take seriously enough Weber’s argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that religious ideas drive human action. Simultaneously, scholars of religion take too seriously Weber’s characterization of Buddhism as inherently world-denying. Participating, then, in what is now a decades-long critique of Weber, Elverskog highlights the centrality of the accumulation of wealth – indeed, excess wealth – to Buddhist thought and practice and demonstrates that the accumulation and consumption of excess wealth had far-ranging environmental consequences. More broadly, Elverskog warns that ignoring the fact that Buddhist actors and ideas influenced the historical trajectory of Asia in profound ways leaves us with an incomplete, perhaps even sparse, understanding of both the rise and development of Buddhism and the history of an entire continent.


After laying out this argument in the introduction, Elverskog divides the book into two parts, each of which contains five chapters. Part One, “What the Buddha Taught,” focuses on Buddhist thought as “the intellectual engine that drove Buddhists out across Asia, where their fortunes became intertwined with the exploitation and transformation of the natural world” (p.7-8). In this section, Elverskog constructs his depiction of Buddhism, or, more precisely, the Dharma, as a prosperity theology that not only depended upon but explicitly encouraged the laity’s accumulation of excess wealth. This began with Siddhartha Gautama himself, who was supportive of individuals abandoning traditional nomadic pastoralism in favor of participation in newly emergent market economies. The Buddha praised nature in terms of the commodities that could be extracted from it, and thus the wealth that could be gained from dominating it. Markets drove Buddhists across Asia, and for the laity, the goal of this participation was “to produce wealth to support the Buddhist monastics and thereby generate merit” (p.55). Elverskog thus centers the religious work of the laity – whom he later terms “entrepreneurial individuals” (p.74) – in his discussion of Buddhism’s environmental impacts. This in and of itself is an important contribution, as part of Buddhist studies’ Weberian inheritance has been a focus on the practices of monastics. Such an approach fails to provide a complete picture of the history of Buddhism and its relationship to nature, a point Elverskog hammers home with a powerful comparison: “Imagine trying to grasp Christianity and Christian history in its entirety through the mandates of Benedictine monks. No one makes this mistake with Christianity, and yet this categorical confusion shapes how many people understand Buddhism” (p.35).


Building on Part One’s ideological foundation, Part Two, “What Buddhists Did,” details the “specific large-scale processes that Buddhists enacted” that fundamentally altered the surrounding natural world, oftentimes negatively (p.8). As mentioned earlier, these processes involved exploitation of natural resources as commodities in the newly emergent market economy, agricultural expansion, and urbanization. The most illuminating and compelling of the chapters in this section is the ninth, where Elverskog examines the idealized Buddhist vision of social flourishing as occurring not in untouched nature, but in a highly controlled and cultivated metropolitan environment. While this vision might have first appeared in texts – Elverskog examines relevant passages from the Cakkavati-sihanada Sutta and descriptions of Sukhavati – it was also actualized in the urban landscape of Buddhist Asia. This deliberate program of city-building wreaked havoc on supplies of natural resources, and Elverskog is at his best when he describes the massive amount of resources necessary to build and sustain these large urban areas. Chapter Ten, “The Buddhist Landscape,” continues in a similar vein, demonstrating how the construction of Buddhist monasteries, temples, and monuments across Asia necessitated Buddhists’ destructive environmental practices. Elverskog provides examples from across premodern Asia, highlighting the ubiquity of such building projects undertaken by both state and non-governmental actors. “[A] Buddhist culture,” Elverskog argues, “was created through the alteration and exploitation of the natural world” (p.110).


Finally, Elverskog both begins and concludes The Buddha’s Footprint with reference to once being jokingly called a “Grinch” after speaking about Buddhism’s environmentally destructive history. For the modern reader, such a response is perhaps understandable. We live in a time of unprecedented climate and environmental anxiety, and Elverskog has pulled the rug out from under our feet. Buddhism, suddenly, no longer offers a nicely wrapped solution to our problems or fears. But while Elverskog is confident ­– and certainly correct – in his analysis of early Buddhism as focused on the accumulation of wealth and its subsequent environmental repercussions, he is also cognizant of many modern Buddhists’ changing attitudes towards nature and the necessity of its protection. This is, though, a radical and recent change, one that involves creative reinterpretation of Buddhist thought in response to specifically modern concerns about the role of the environment in contributing to human flourishing. It seems that we would do a disservice to those innovative problem-solvers not to recognize their work as such. Elverskog’s insistence that we not paper over Buddhism’s environmentally damaging past consequently helps us to better understand and appreciate the work of Buddhist environmentalists in the present. 


The Buddha’s Footprint, I am sure, will rightly find a home on many a college syllabus, including in my own courses concerning religion and the environment. Through clear prose and a consistent argument, Elverskog demonstrates that sophisticated thought need not be overly encumbered by specialist jargon. He thus delivers a book that is accessible to undergraduates while also providing valuable insight for specialists. The Buddha’s Footprint is thus required reading for anyone interested in the history of Buddhist environmental thought and practice or the history of early Buddhism and its expansion across Asia.