Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How Can Humanity "Get Out of This Mess"?


"The earth is contaminated everywhere by human activity," Colin Soskolne, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Albert, Canada, told the audience last Friday during a conference on "Buddhist Virtues in Socio-Economic Development."  Vesak 2011 was organized by my school, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist University, and featured two days of events at the campus in Ayutthaya, Thailand, and one at UN headquarters in Bangkok.

At the day-long panel on "Environmental Preservation and Restoration," fifteen professors, monks and environmental activists from ten different countries echoed Dr. Soskolne's sentiment in different ways, telling horror stories about deforestation, water pollution, overfishing of the world's oceans, harm from invasive species, damage to sites sacred to Buddhists in India, cultural disruption in Ladakh, and the devastation caused by war and too many cars.  They offered examples from the Buddha's life to show how he lived in harmony with his surroundings and established rules for his sangha of monks to prevent pollution, insure hygiene and protect nature.  Most of the panelists spoke of Buddhism's core values of interdependence, moderation, respect for all beings, and restraint of desire, in order to argue that these values are necessary to solve the world's environmental crisis.

I was not convinced.  As secretary of the environmental panel, I've been working for the last month to make sure that everything ran smoothly.  I read all of the papers, which have now been published in a 732-page conference volume, and I gave advice to the panel's chief moderator, Dr. Colin Butler, a researcher in epidemiology and public health at Australian National University, for the final report that he presented to the plenary session at the UN on Saturday.  Despite the optimism of some panelists, there was little of hope in the report, but this absence did not make it into the final Bangkok Declaration issued by the organizers of the conference.  As we saw it, the seriousness of the environmental crisis was not lessened by new sources of alternative energy being developed or by ethical principles for behavior such as those contained in the Earth Charter.

There does not seem to have been much change in thought since I left the fields of environmental history and philosophy in 2004.  One of our speakers discussed Deep Ecology, a philosophical fad among radical ecologists I thought had been long discredited for ignoring economic and political factors.  Other panelists spoke of the affinity of Taoism and Confucianism with Buddhist values in an attempt to show that virtuous people would not treat the earth unkindly.  But this is demonstrably untrue.  China's air pollution is notorious, Japan kills dolphins and whales, and deforestation is a serious issue in Southeast Asia (even though logging is outlawed in Thailand, it continues illegally).  Vegetarianism advocated by a monk from China (one speaker pointed out that this was animal-centric and ignored the intrinsic value of plants), freeing caged animals, and planting trees around monasteries is simply not enough to stop the structures of power and violence that are ransacking the planet for profit.  There were no engaged Buddhists at this year's conference to speak of collective action and the need to stop the wheels of "progress."

The narrative of environmentalism too often focuses on individual behavior. If we recycle, reuse, and reduce our consumption, garbage, etc., everything will be ok. Bullshit.  In the last ten years the environmental crisis has only gotten worse, despite Rio, Kyoto, and Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth."  In the U.S., deniers of global warming and climate change have taken positions of power.  Factories pollute the environment more than people, wars waged by governments are particularly destructive, and dependence on fossil fuels by the corporate economy is more damaging than the harm that individuals do through their profligate lifestyles. Reemphasizing religious values and ethics will do little good whatsoever if people, as the Buddha taught 2500 years ago, are driven by ignorance, greed and anger.  Buddhism is not a self-help action plan.  The most we can do is offer compassion to each other for the suffering that humans have brought upon the earth.

Environmentalism has clearly failed.  If Mark Hertsgaard is right in his new book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, it's too late to stop global warming which already is causing serious climate change, and which may even have something to do with the recent rash of major earthquakes. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus declared "The Death of Environmentalism" (pdf)  in a 2004 essay which was expanded into the book-length Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility three years later. The authors argue in their book and web site for a "post-environmental" politics that abandons the traditional stress on nature protection and "the politics of limits" to focus on creating a new sustainable economy.  Political strategies that worked for smog and acid rain will not work for global warming, they write.  Rather than defend nature, as if it's an all-powerful god outside ourselves, Shellengerger and Nordhouse urge environmentalists to abandon doomsday narratives that scare rather than persuade people to give up things they enjoy, like cheap oil and food, and jobs in industries that pollute.  For this a new inclusive politics is needed.  Environmentalism needs to be reframed as a global issue.  Environmental historian Richard White once wrote an article called "Are You an Environmentalist, or Do You Work for a Living?" to illustrate the vast gulf between elite proponents of wilderness preservation and protectors of rare bugs and the working people whose interests are largely ignored by them.

George Monbiot wrote recently in the Guardian of London: "All of us in the environment movement – whether we propose accommodation, radical downsizing or collapse – are lost. None of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess. None of our chosen solutions break the atomising, planet-wrecking project." He expanded on this pessimistic appraisal with details in "Our Crushing Dilemmas," and he asks how environmentalists can "fight without losing what we're fighting for?" Paul Kingsnorth co-founder of  The Dark Mountain Project writes that “the green movement has torpedoed itself with numbers” and is now trying to save the world “one emission at a time.” Environmentalists “feel obliged to act like speak-your-weight machines just to be heard.”  He calls for new stories in "The Quants [number crunchers] and the Poets," because "the whole squabble between world views is not about numbers at all.  It is about narratives," and which ones can help or hinder.

I intend to study these critiques and proposals in the hope that they will deal with the crucial problem of priorities.  Developing countries prioritize industrialization over pollution limits, and politicians prioritize jobs in resource extractive industries (oil, mining, timber) over controls to protect the environment.  By the time the world is completely developed and everyone is fully employed, there will be no place left in which to live. Perhaps the earth was doomed when hunter gatherers ten thousand years ago first discovered how to control nature by pruning trees and bushes to grow more fruits and nuts, and learned that planting seeds would guarantee a steady supply of food. This allowed the population to blossom beyond the carrying capacity of the land and it's been onward and upward ever since. Human actions contaminating the planet today are simply an extension, with the aid of technology, of the manipulation of nature practiced by our ancestors.

Polls show that concerns about the environment are not high on people's list of priorities.  Even the endless war on terrorism falls behind the economy and jobs.  Most of us are more concerned about supporting our family.  In addition, we want to be good people, honest and worthy of respect.  We learn from our family, culture and religious tradition what it means to be a good person.  In a Buddhist country like Thailand, this means to follow the five precepts, to avoid killing, stealing, lying, intoxicants and sexual misconduct.  It also means to pay respect to monks and others in authority and to practice generosity to accumulate merit.  Despite these rituals and guidelines, corruption in business and politics is widespread here and often accepted as normal.  Although I have been fascinated by philosophy, ethics and religion for much of my life, I am perplexed by the observable disconnect between values and behavior.  Even the best of people are very often hypocrites (e.g., the recent revelations about Gandhi's sex life).  This leads me to conclude that the environmental crisis is not caused by a crisis in values.  It is the direct consequence of structures of power and violence embedded in our economic and political systems.  But I despair of every turning this around.  Humanity cannot get out of this "mess."

So, what do we do?  Be kind to each other, I suppose.  And condemn the corporate behemoth (which we are powerless, really, to stop).  The Buddha's First Noble Truth of suffering applies to the world as well as to living beings, and all we have to offer each other and the planet is compassion.


Anonymous said...

I'm not really a Buddhist, but it seems to me that the emphasis in Zen on simply experiencing the present moment without judging it is the best that any of us can do.

I teach cello to kids. I'm very aware that those kids will live in a world of deteriorating opportunities. So why teach them to play music? Not because music may console them in the future, but because they can enjoy it today.

--Jim Aikin

Sam said...

As Douglas Adams says: "Don't worry about the earth. The earth can take care of itself. Worry more about what you are doing to ensure the earth can continue to sustain you