“Water is sacred”

In an essay titled “Jain Ecology,” Satish Kumar records a “water sutra” taught to him by his mother:

Waste no water
Don’t ever spill it
Water is precious
Water is sacred
The way you use water is the measure of you
Water is witness
Water is the judge
Your wisdom rests on your careful use of water.
(Satish Kumar, “Jain Ecology,” Jainism and Ecology, ed. Christopher Key Chapple [Harvard Univ., 2002], p. 187)

This sutra expresses an ethic that is removed from Western thinking. Most Westerners would agree that humans are sacred, in some sense of the word”sacred.” Some Westerners would argue that animals are sacred. Maybe a few Westerners would contend that plants and fungi are sacred. But as for inanimate objects — or bacteria, archaea, and eukaryota aside from plants, animals, and fungi — I think only a very tiny minority of Westerners would consider these to be sacred.

If water, earth, and air are sacred, it would much easier to advocate for treating them with respect. But since they are not sacred in the West, then if you want to protect them from pollution or wastefulness, you wind up arguing from a selfish point of view — we should protect water, earth, and air because to do so is to protect our own health.

This represents a big difference in the ethics of ecology.