A Buddhist Perspective
On Ecological Responsibility
by John Stanley & David Loy
The institutions of our society co-arise with us. They are not independent structures separate from our inner lives, like some backdrop to our personal dramas. Nor are they merely projections of our own minds. As collective forms of our ignorance, fears and greed, they acquire their own momentum, enlist our massive obedience, and depend on our collective consent.
- Joanna Macy: World As Lover, World As Self
Sit, be still, and listen,
For you are drunk,
And we are at the edge of the roof.
The Buddha famously pointed out that our unhappiness is a result of craving. To end suffering, he proposed self-restraint, minimal consumption, sharing and other mindful ways of retraining our acquisitive focus on “I, me, mine.” These practices enlarge our capacity for empathy and contentment, for they recognize our interdependence; what Thich Nhat Hanh calls our “inter-being.” The sense of a self that is separate from the rest of the world is an illusion – indeed, it is our most problematic delusion. The world, as eco-theologian Thomas Berry noted, is not a collection of objects: it is a communion of subjects.
The greed, materialism and alienation from nature that are the hallmarks of our corporate-dominated world are supported by the supine attitude of “democratic” governments, which today are largely controlled by the economic institutions they should be regulating. They share the same worldview, which emphasizes endless economic growth no matter what the long-term consequences may be. This joint “corporatocracy” appears to be unchallengeable, despite the fact that its ecological consequences already include record-breaking droughts, floods, snowstorms, wildfires and tornadoes. Environmental scientist Lester Brown believes that large-scale crop failures are the most likely trigger of a collective awakening. They may create the necessary “social tipping point” that finally motivates us to truly address the ecological crisis. Evidently nothing less can wake us from collective narcissism.
There will be a variety of hells to pay, in either case. All the energy added to the Earth system by the industrial growth economy since the 1950s has already initiated dangerous climatic and geological transformations. Last month even the Economist magazine, that darling of conservative business, put the scientific news about the Anthropocene period on its front cover. They were just in time to anticipate the most recent scientific report on the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Driven by accelerating emissions from coal-fired industrialization in China and India, last year’s global increase of 1.6 parts per million (ppm) was the highest ever recorded, and took us up to 395 ppm. The “safe” level of atmospheric CO2 that characterized the last 12,000 years—the climatic period that allowed humanity to develop agriculture and civilization—was 350ppm. The current trend of the industrial growth society will be very difficult to stabilize even at 450ppm, the concentration science says would give humanity a 50% chance of limiting global warming to a “survivable” 2°C. Does anyone want to fly rough, with an airline that offers a 50% chance of arrival?
In his remarkable book Requiem for a Species, Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at the Australian National University, argues persuasively that our society has chosen not to act to protect itself from devastating climate change. Scientific facts have been defeated by power, money and bureaucratic inertia—and the exploitation of cognitive dissonance, whereby we are unable to acknowledge what we do not want to see.
One of Hamilton’s findings is that “green consumerism” has had the effect of shifting responsibility from corporations, which are accountable for most carbon pollution, and from governments that should be restraining them, onto the shoulders of private consumers—who are called upon to solve the climate crisis by changing consumption patterns. This disempowers us by denying our agency as citizens and political actors, and reinforces our identity as consumers. Again, it’s cheaper for corporations to change public perception of what they do, rather than actually change what they do. So a large percentage of global marketing and PR resources is now dedicated to persuading the public that fossil fuels are essential and benign. “Clean Coal” is the most cynical example of this Machievellian genre, “greenwash”.
As Buddhist elder Joanna Macy states above, institutionalized ignorance, fear and greed have acquired their own momentum and enlisted our massive obedience. But awareness of what is happening enables choice. The time has come for us to declare – and to share the news as widely as possible -- that they no longer command our collective consent. Alternatives are not only possible, they are necessary. We must insist that governments make it their top priority to stop the fossil fuel-driven collapse of functional agriculture and a liveable global ecosystem. And if, as Macy and Hamilton independently find, we must pass through despair and acceptance before we can act, there’s no better time to do so. Uncertainty and the breakdown of what needs to break down are factors that can encourage spiritual awakening. They can help us develop an awakened way of being in the world that acknowledges and celebrates our “inter-being.”
What is true for the person is also true for the culture, which is why Rumi’s lines are so appropriate now. We have drunk deeply from the virtual reality of electronic media, and now find it difficult to comprehend the increasingly uncomfortable reality we actually live in. Haunted by half a century of hidden persuasion, we are tottering together at the edge of the roof. A “perfect storm” of climate chaos is swiftly approaching. It’s time to get our feet back on the ground. The authentic way of being in the world now is to act to save ourselves—and our children—from the institutionalized forms of ignorance and greed that constitute our economic and political systems, and that cannot cope with what they have created.
The authors are director and advisor to this website project. This article was first published on Huffingtom Post in June 2011. John is a Buddhist scientist who also works in complementary medicine. David is a Zen teacher, author & workshop leader. In 2009 they co-edited the book A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency . Image courtesy shokai.blogspot.com