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SCIENCE

Background: Climate & Evolution
by John Stanley

Our Climate in Crisis

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A constellation of powerful factors is undermining the global ecological system that supports and integrates all living species with the land, water and atmosphere of the Earth. Our climate system has provided the basis for human civilization for the last 12,000 years. Yet it is only now that it is breaking down that we are beginning to recognize the depth of our interdependence with it. With every passing year, personal observation and scientific research show us more signs of dangerous climate change. Unprecedented chaos is being unleashed by our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. If we fail to undertake corrective action, we will devastate the living world and commit to collective passive suicide.

On the upside, all the clean energy technologies we need to avoid this outcome already exist. On the downside, a hugely wealthy corporate sector derives its profits from fossil fuels and has corrupted most of the world's governments. It is the primary block to remedial action. The climate emergency is unforgiving and fast-moving. If we drift through a climate tipping point, natural feedbacks will become additional large-scale drivers of warming. Humanity will then be unable to intervene further or halt the geophysical processes concerned.

The Science section of this website covers the origins, dynamics and implications of the crisis. It is complemented by a Solutions section focused on appropriate technologies, policies and actions required to move forward. A unique section of the website is devoted to Wisdom as a special resource. Absent human wisdom, how could we solve a profound existential crisis like the climate emergency? Buddhism, of course, does not have a monopoly on wisdom. As C.G. Jung pointed out, the human psyche is itself spiritual in nature. And in every culture, the accumulated wisdom of its elders is a vital feature for the survival of the whole group. 

Ours is a profoundly challenging period of time, so we are fortunate that Buddhism is vibrant enough to  produce wise elders like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. We wholeheartedly agree with the former [1]  that Buddhism must accept the facts--whether discovered by science or by meditative contemplation:

In one sense the methods of science and Buddhism are different: scientific investigation proceeds by experiment, using instruments that analyze external phenomena, whereas contemplative investigation proceeds by the development of refined attention, which is then used in the introspective examination of inner experience.  But both share a strong empirical basis: if science shows something to exist or to be non-existent, then we must acknowledge that as a fact.  If a hypothesis is tested and found to be true, we must accept it. Likewise, Buddhism must accept the facts—whether found by science or found by contemplative insights. If, when we investigate something, we find there is reason and proof for it, we must acknowledge that as reality—even if it is in contradiction with a literal scriptural explanation that has held sway for many centuries or with a deeply held opinion or view. So one fundamental attitude shared by Buddhism and science is the commitment to keep searching for reality by empirical means and to be willing to disregard accepted or long-held positions if our search finds the truth is different.

Shakyamuni Buddha summarized the central principles he had discovered as Four Noble Truths. Thich Nhat Hanh [2] has re-stated them like this:
 
The First Noble Truth is that suffering exists. The Second Noble Truth is that suffering has causes. The Third Noble Truth is that happiness is possible. The Fourth Noble Truth is that there is a path that leads to happiness. We have to distinguish between the first truth and the third one...We don’t need to be afraid of suffering; we can confront it. If you run away from it you will never have a chance to transform it.

The collective suffering unfolding as the climate emergency has a specific cause---fossil fuel-driven economic growth. Governments and media still present this to us as a collective raison d'etre. Closer examination reveals that it is a form of self-destruction driven by mass manipulation and consumerism. We have no choice but to confront it now. Psychological denial will never be capable of transforming it. And climate change provides more evidence every month that the living world and our civilization are destined to collapse unless we act. As Thich Nhat Hanh points out [3]:

If we can accept the death of our own human bodily form, we can perhaps begin to accept the eventual death of our own civilization. This is just one civilization, and one day it will have to die in order to make room for another to arise. Many civilizations have already come and gone. Global warming may be an early symptom of the death of our current civilization...If we don't know how to stop our over-consumption, then the death of our civilization will surely come more quickly. We can slow this process by stopping and being mindful, but the only way to do this is to accept the eventual death of this civilization, just as we accept the death of our own physical form. Acceptance is made possible when we know that deep down our true nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death.
 

1. Dalai Lama XIV [2005] Universe in a Single Atom
2. Thich Nhat Hanh [2007] The Art of Power
3. Thich Nhat Hanh [2008] The World We Have

 

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