In this evenhanded book, Wexler (Boston Univ. School of Law; Tuttle in the Balance, 2015, etc.) chronicles his travels around the world in search of spiritual practices that threaten environmental stewardship.
As a law professor, the author approaches his subjects with clinical curiosity. Is it appropriate for Inuit villagers to hunt whales and eat their blubber, given that whales are so endangered? Should Native Americans be allowed to use bald eagle feathers, when the species teeters on extinction? Wexler is a self-described atheist and environmentalist, but he is remarkably sympathetic to worshippers and their age-old rituals. During a trip to India, he watched thousands of Hindus toss giant plaster sculptures of Ganesh into the sea. When he attended an eco-friendly alternative to the festival, he felt torn. “I wondered, not for the last time during my travels,” he writes, “whether the highly controlled, largely sterile atmosphere that the environmentalists had set up was really compatible with the vibrant religious practices of the fervent believers.” Wexler’s prose is clear and respectful, and he avoids both the shrill anger of a radical and the dry academic language of the law school classroom. He combines prescient legal anecdotes with self-effacing humor, such as when he brought a small plastic fork to carve a hunk of whale meat. Some issues are surprising, such as the widespread burning of palm fronds during Palm Sunday, which has caused devastating repercussions in the rain forests of Central America. Sometimes, the solutions are equally surprising: the National Eagle Repository collects dead birds, most of which have been killed by accident, and supplies them to Native American spiritual leaders. The book’s only major weakness is its brevity: the cover promises a “world-wide journey,” but the author focuses mostly on Asian and indigenous American peoples. One wishes he had spent more time in Europe and Africa, where his on-the-ground observations would have brought further local controversies to life.
Witty and engaging, this book simultaneously celebrates and challenges spiritual traditions.