Monday, 20 March 2017

Despair is not an option


I'm in the midst of writing a book about Buddhism and the environment. By 'environment', I mean just about everything material and immaterial that we're living in. This is because my sense of what constituted the environment changed as I started reflecting around the original core of the topic, the degradation of the natural world. My conclusion was that the 'environment' that we are involved in is an interconnected reality of internal and external fields, of mind and matter, that co-dependently arise. 

Huh? 

Well, as I researched, I kept wondering: 'Why, when there is so much evidence about our effect on the planet, and about 97%+ scientists agree that our actions are driving planetary life to extinction; why when the temperature rises every year, the Arctic is melting, drought and fires incinerate Australia, and floods, hurricanes are on the increase; why, when we have environmentally-friendly alternatives, do we persist in these destructive ways?' And one answer, or part of the answer has to be that the environment is stitched to the global economy; and that has become structured around directly using or trading in the potential to exploit planetary resources (and coincidentally pollute the air, water and earth); and that this economy exerts a huge influence on government. Money buys power. Moreover, ‘planetary resources’ includes not only everything that we can’t create (and which is in limited supply) but also includes people – as workers and consumers. The economy’s point of view is that it has to keep growing (?) and so it needs to keep people buying stuff (even stuff like water which falls out of the sky) in order to do that; and that it has to give them the wherewithal to do that buying. (In a world of growing inequality, where does that money go?) One tricky bit is that business grows best when it gets higher profits, so ideally it’s better to minimize wages. Hence automation, redundancies and poverty. Handling this set-up of giving people enough to spend while providing desirable objects must be quite an act; except that by privatizing necessities, such as water, and making other stuff necessary but with built-in obsolescence (such as smartphones), people more or less have to keep pumping for money. Hence ‘Jobs!’ becomes a political promise ( even though the economy requires and creates unemployment). Maybe I look at the wrong media, but could it be that this is what’s happening? Could it be that the mix of paranoid fantasy, promises and bellicose rhetoric in the political arena is to keep people distracted, blaming and fearful of ‘others’ – and therefore willing to accept a reduction in personal freedom? Hmmm. I recall seeing how a few wolves could panic a herd of bison so that they split up; then they picked off the most vulnerable member. Divide and rule: the politics of the wedge. 

Not that I’m an expert in these matters. But if I’m teaching people, I have to have some sense of what they’re involved with, and the long-term potential of actions and inactions. So, to put it simply, the inner environment of the human mind has always been prone to greed, hatred and delusion, and now we have the technology to go into mass-production. Thus an internal environment conditioned by fear and greed is bound to affect the systems by which we live – and that affects the biosphere. 

This is hardly news. In fact in his address to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago back in 1993, Ven. Bhikkhu Payutto, the most eminent scholar-monk in Thailand today, outlined the perceptions that he saw as the source of the social and environmental problems that face humanity:

• The perception that humankind is separate from nature, and that it must control, conquer or manipulate nature according to human desires.
• The perception that fellow humans are not our fellows; the tendency to focus on the differences between us rather than the common ground. 
• The perception that happiness is dependent on gaining and keeping an abundance of material possessions.

Such perceptions still seem to dominate the mainstream.

So, why bother to write another treatise on a theme that has been adequately covered already, and whose conclusions find inadequate response in the corridors of power? 

Well, I claim responsibility for one piece of the environment – that is, the ‘inner environment’. At least my mind. And as my mind arises in a context of sharing, virtue and trust, I have a responsibility to inquire into the collective inner environment. And be proved wrong if that’s the case. I agree that there is much that I don't know, and I would not imagine that a few words by a Buddhist monk are going to have much effect in the board rooms of global industry, or in the offices where the subsidies that support agro-business in its conversion of soil and trees into money are worked out.  It's not that I think that people should not protest, claim the power to vote on and veto measures that will affect the air, water and soil that they depend on; I would in fact consider that a realignment of the political status quo is a necessary support for the salvation of the planet. To a degree there is already a momentum in this: Occupy, grass-roots movements, local government initiatives and the creation of alternative currencies all indicate that people are tired of waiting for the centralized state to act.  But my own work has to be based on keeping this mind awake and responsive within the human community.

As for setting down some ideas in print: it was in 2013, after a particularly chilling 'climate change' presentation by Bill McKibben (of www.350.org) to the Vipassana Teachers' Conference, the teachers were asked to consider: 'What support can you offer, what positive action can you contribute to the welfare of the planet and those who live on it?' Responses ranged from sending a petition to Barack Obama, to establishing ongoing internet communications, to the generation of a network, the Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (DANCE). (It's still going strong, see www.thedancewebsite.org). Most action centres around freeing the mind from negative reactions (depression, violence) to community support, to creating small grass-roots initiatives in farming, recycling and alternative technology, plus the occasional flash mob demonstration. It's a spreading response; it looks small, but it probably did contribute to the Paris 2015 Climate Change agreement. Which is a significant step – although inadequate unless implemented and steadily upgraded.

There didn't seem to be much else I could do: the monastery is pretty green already, but also resistant to a publicly-engaged response. But I decided that as an elder who sits in on Buddhist gatherings and teaches a few, I would at least say something; that I had that responsibility. Hence the resolution to include the theme in talks and also to write a book.  This has taken over 3.5 years so far, namely because I can only research and write what has now around 60,000 words when I have weeks of uninterrupted time: and then it therefore has to compete with my need for stillness and deep meditation practice.  The research itself also puts me in touch with a mountain of depressing statements and statistics. Here are a few: 'if current rates of degradation continue all of the world's top soil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said on Friday.' 'We are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming,' (Reuters, Dec 5, 2014) 'By 2050, at the current rate of dumping and overfishing, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.' (World Economic Forum, January 2016). (And plenty of that plastic will have travelled up the food-chain into human bodies by then; maybe cancer should appear on the menu.) It is at least comforting to note how mainstream is the platform on which the alarm bells are ringing. Surely something must shift. 

But I'm not pinning my hopes on that. Much of what was fresh, unique and regenerative will disappear; we will, if we work at it, be left with a percentage and a new way of managing it. People at the grass-roots level, and within the fields of science and technology are working on it; even the upper management of society is reckoning that it costs too much to have entire cities wiped out through flood damage, or have the workforce disabled by atmospheric pollution.  An optimist would say that the full picture of the environmental crisis has only received (almost) universal acceptance in the last decade, so maybe we need more time to find solutions and set things straight. Maybe so. In the face of my own mortality and personal impotence, I find only one option: to work on what I can find that is worthy. Frustration, despair and bitterness have always been inadequate responses to suffering.  So I work against the potential for these in a way that is suitable for awakening, and I extend that work wherever I can. 'With the ceasing of ignorance is the ceasing of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.' This practice is always worthy, and nothing need take that away.


It is good to realize the numbers of people who are now inquiring, challenging, discussing and creating new possibilities: the growth of renewables, the movement against plastic bags and bottles, the greening of cities, the emphasis on recycling. The transnationalism of the economy has generated an imbalance of wealth; it must be mediated by a transnational ethic of sharing and compassion. As for political change: things are pretty chaotic, and that might allow new ways of organizing our societies to come forth. There must be a turning point at which collective suicide becomes unsustainable. 

Whatever we're left with, and in whatever way we push back the wave of ignorance, we must sustain and gather round that which is worthy. As I am made aware by the goodwill, honesty and self-sacrifice of others, there’s that in the human mind.  How can such nobility be swamped by ignorance? There is a truth of the spirit to be sustained and dwelt in.

For those of you involved in meeting this world, here's a handy memo that I came across, somewhere in trawling through various sites for statistics and views: 
I will not be angry and violent
I will not be depressed
I will not feel loss of hope
I will not lose my energy
I will not stop listening to others who do not agree with me
I will not make people ‘others’
(Apologies to the author, I don't know where it's from.)

As today I can still walk freely under a blue spring sky into which the birch are poking their eager buds; as today I am supported by the freewill generosity of many people; as today I am given the opportunity to deepen into that awareness and view proclaimed by the Buddha, I am unbelievably blessed. I may perch on one corner of this rocky human raft for a while longer. Who knows where it’s going? But I offer my own road map:
Ignorance is unacceptable. Awaken the mind and respond to community. Despair is not an option.