Friday 17 April 2015

Right ecology: look after the house!

Five of us were in a minibus heading for the Whanganui National Park; we were bound for a canoeing/camping trip. One of the men wanted to take note of a phone number; as it happened I was the only person to be carrying a pencil and notebook. I made this notebook out of paper that had been used on one side, cut up, hole-punched and kept in a binder that I made out of a sheet of old plastic. I hate to see things go to waste, so, although I don’t make many notes, I keep reams of old paper ready to replenish the notebook, which contains notes going back over twenty years. So I flipped the book open for an empty page, and what immediately caught my eye was a note that I had made some time ago. It consisted of a series of statistics:
‘Woodland the size of Denmark is destroyed every year’; ‘Brazil has lost 50% of its forest’ ; ‘135 species of plant and animal become extinct each day’; ‘90% of fish stocks have been destroyed since 1940s’; ‘23% mammals, 47% fish, 12% birds are endangered.’ The figures were from Green Dharma 1 a book written in 2008. I imagine the authors did some accurate research, and I don’t know what the figures are now. But in 2008, for example, the Aral Sea, the fourth largest lake in the world, still existed; now what remains are a couple of small lakes that occupy 10% of a saline desert. The headwaters of the Aral have been diverted in Uzbekistan to water the crop of introduced cotton; this kind of cotton is very thirsty: it takes an estimated 2,700 litres to produce enough cotton for one shirt.

I imagine you've read many uncomfortable environmental reports, notably around climate change. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is above the safe maximum, thus causing a 'greenhouse' warming effect. Consequently the Arctic ice-cap is melting and the Siberian tundra is thawing, releasing methane, a gas that has a greenhouse effect thirty times more potent than CO2; consequently sea-levels are rising and some island nations, and polar bears, are threatened with extinction. If all the oil and other fossil fuels that the earth holds are extracted and used, the CO2  thus emitted will so raise the mean temperature of the planet that most of the earth will be desert or ocean. Meanwhile, as California enters its fourth successive drought year, the oil companies are looking to extract more oil… And so on.  Maybe you see the reports and predictions, boggle long enough to feel alarmed (or dismissive) and, as a sense of helplessness arises, your attention shifts.

I let the feeling move through, gazing at the page for a few seconds, then looked out the window at a lovely day in pastoral New Zealand: green fields, trees and a few farm buildings. All seemed well, because I wasn’t here two hundred years ago when this was all forest crammed with birds. Yes, beautiful New Zealand has been ravaged by humans too: the Maori ate their way through twenty-eight species of moa bird, and the European settlers cleared huge areas of forest for pasture, burning it down where it was too difficult to extract. And together we brought the rats, the pigs, the deer and the possums that have transformed the local biosphere. Nowadays, New Zealand is one of the most conservation-conscious nations in the world – but in some cases this is too late. And in general there still remains the dilemma of how humans can exist on this planet without destroying it. Because, low-populated, nuclear-free and green as it is, New Zealand is a great country for meat production … and the global results of the livestock industry are also chilling.

Apart from the consideration that 53 billion animals are slaughtered every year (2010 figure2) to feed our appetites, the amount of woodland that has been and is cleared every year to support these animals is colossal. Rearing meat is also a far less efficient way of producing food than vegetables – The World Health Organisation estimates that whereas twenty-two people could live off a hectare of potatoes and nineteen of rice per year, that same hectare will only provide enough beef for just one person, or lamb for two. These animals also produce methane: according to the UN, in its 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow 3, livestock account for 18% of all human-caused greenhouse gases; more in fact than the transport industry.

I mention this aspect of the problem that faces all of us because it is the one we could easily address. To be simple to the point of simplistic, the more of us that stop buying meat, the less the meat that is produced. As with climate change, it's a matter of cause and effect, the classic Buddhist teaching. And it’s not that there’s a shortage of food (after all, an estimated 30%-50% of food is thrown away4), but that we're conditioned to eat, and waste, the wrong stuff. But to widen the focus: what underpins the livestock industry is what underpins the oil industry - the economy. Alternative sources of food and energy are available (and could be developed if we put our minds into it – no excuses, we can smash sub-atomic particles and send a spaceship to Pluto), but the global economy is structured around an exploitation that the planet could cope with two hundred years ago, but that is unsustainable today.

Much of the current economy is based upon converting what might be described as the earth’s gifts (the planet didn’t charge us anything) into money. Animals are converted into money; as are oil, water, minerals and trees. Yet we don’t innately own or have rights over these aspect of Nature; all these are taken, without recompense, and often in the most brutal and environmentally abusive way. The resultant kamma, the effect of that, is evident. A lake of toxic sludge in Inner Mongolia is the result of extracting 'rare earth' minerals used in mobile phones. The tar sands of Alberta (oil again) is a poisoned landscape the size of England and Wales. Yet this exploitation doesn’t only affect the material world.

People also – their talents, their learning, and even their bodies – are converted into money. Those people who can find work are working more hours than ever. This benefits the economy. But what we also notice is that the economy regularly puts people out of work (cost-cutting) and that the chief beneficiaries of the economy are in the minority. A system that results in eighty-five people having as much money as the poorest 50% of the global population5 is clearly unbalanced and productive of poverty, illiteracy and consequent violence and delinquency. When most wealth accrues through investment rather than productivity6 the economy also supports such gross anomalies as having eleven million empty houses in Europe, while four million remain homeless. On a human level, this doesn't make sense, but from the economy's point of view, building companies make money, and desirable properties are a good investment. If you're wealthy, buy a mansion, leave it empty, then sit back and watch the money grow.

The human mind or heart is clearly losing its moorings in awareness of ourselves as a collective. That as individuals we can only exist dependent on others. We depend on other human beings for birth, weaning, moral and intellectual education, and friendship; all are irreplaceable for life. And for our material needs we depend on the Earth. In this interdependence, what we humans can produce is ethics, love and wisdom. Every material thing is sourced from the ore, wood, water and minerals of the Earth, a planet that doesn't belong to anyone, but is occupied in common with many forms of life. And those forms of life, from bacteria to plankton to trees and carnivores regulate the gases, the soil and the rainfall as a collective biosphere. So care for this biosphere is not sentimental; we need it to maintain the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil we both walk on and farm. We and all material things are part of this commons, and any claim to ownership and rights that do not respect the commons amounts to piracy.

At this time then are ecology and economy seem opposed (although both words derive from the Greek for 'house' - 'oikos’). And we have to choose: which house is our real home? Currently neither oikos is in good shape. The economy, literally 'house management', itself periodically crashes because its wealth is a fiction: the economy runs on debt, promises and speculation. It abuses life because it is lost in its own aims and views and not related to human reality. Yet we are pulled along by it. How many of our needs are based on the need to perform in the competitive world, or to save for the future, or to meet the bills that the non-sharing economy presents us with? Our house is becoming uninhabitable. It’s not just one room, or a few pretty curtains that are at stake; the house is on fire.

However as the overview of the problem - that the economy is unbalanced - becomes clear, so does an overview of the solution. We need to allow a different, life- and human-based economy to develop. Our human collective amounts to seven billion people, all potentially capable of learning and helping. Why not use the good heart that is the only thing we do own, and see where that takes us to?

This is where Buddhist understanding plays its part. The Buddha knew the basis of the heart-mind. This mind is conditioned to dependently arise within the cosmos; it is relational. We are affected and respond, especially with reference to other humans, and we want to get those responses right. If allowed to, our societies and moral understanding continue to grow towards a greater degree of empathy and moral conscience. When IS beheads someone these days, it is regarded with moral outrage; in seventeenth century England, beheading was considered more dignified than hanging and reserved for the nobility. Burning people alive on religious grounds was widespread; unthinkable nowadays. And in 2004, when the tsunami hit Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, the response from common people was greater and swifter than that from governments. Empathy and moral conscience precedes law and order. So when governments are bogged down in politics or fear losing influential backing, the lead in integrity has to come from elsewhere. Just as slavery was abolished because it became morally repugnant to many people (even though at the time, abolition 'threatened the economy'), so, toxic exploitation of the planet and the biosphere has to be known in the heart, with an alternative that comes from the heart. When that is the case, cause and effect kicks in again; as the heart turns, people turn, and the economy has to turn with them. As the Buddha's teachings make clear, acknowledgement of suffering and its origins is a life-changer.

So, an alternative: it's about right view and integrating that view into a way of life. In the Buddha's graduated exposition to learners, the track that the heart-mind moves along as it wakes up is described as the recognition of the skill and value of generosity (dāna), of moral integrity (sīla), and of moderating the pull of the senses (nekkhama).  And it is through tuning in to the clear and balanced mind that is thus revealed that we become capable of acknowledging and undoing the greed, hated and wrong views that cause suffering for ourselves and others. 

The basis of all of these practices is the view of mutuality. Aren't generosity and integrity movements of the heart-mind that have always been known as wise and conducive to happiness and trust? Why don't we share services and resources? It’s not so impossible: the commons centred around a rightly practising sangha does just that. Even here in ‘non-Buddhist’ New Zealand, it’s not unusual for contractors negotiating for work in the monastery to say ‘No charge.’ Or ‘I’ll offer my labour and just charge you for materials.’ And my experience in England is that a significant number of people first relate to the monastery not as a meditation centre, but through offering food, or coming to help out with the work. And of course, these monasteries are completely dependent on generosity. The places are open to all, you can sit down without buying anything, and the atmosphere and the people discharge stress. This allows people to come out of the ‘this costs that; compete/earn/deserve’ view, and a natural opening of the heart occurs. This is the economy of giving; everyone wins, nobody’s in debt.

So to come home, to manage a real house, means first of all touching in with human reality. Generosity becomes possible because of trust in each other, and moral behaviour supports trust. As you trust and feel secure, you can let go of owning and holding so much: renunciation. And as you meditate, your stress and consequent needs go down. So you keep your private dwelling as just what is needed for comfortable shelter, and share other facilities: this means less heating and maintenance. A community of twenty only needs one washing machine, one car or minibus, etc. And when you consider the damage of an unrestrained economy, with its overproduction, built-in obsolescence and mountains of trash (located where the consumer doesn't see them) isn't it liberating for example to say 'No thanks,' to bottled water and unnecessary plastic?  (After all, the five major ocean gyres are now a soup of plastic globules that go up the food chain into our bodies. So, 'No thanks' to eating fish either.). Renunciation is no more ascetic than not overeating or not poisoning yourself.

The culture in and around sangha makes renunciation liveable. Within our commons, generosity/sharing, morality/integrity and renunciation/moderation are the foundation, and practices we can all work on. Then the four noble truths - of suffering, its cause, its ceasing, and the practice-path to that ceasing - provide the means for cleaning the heart, and from there the home.

But a home is not an institution. This is living ‘grass-roots’ territory. So most sanghas fluctuate with people coming and going, and communities are gently chaotic (=human). But they do create the opportunity for each individual to establish right view. You learn that it’s normal and enjoyable to work together and share resources; looking to help out becomes the way you live wherever you go.

Whatever the long-term future for the planet is, my guess is that we're going to have to grow out of the old models, and that begins with making our home more balanced and less divided. It’s happening already: trans-national charities, some specifically dedicated to the welfare of the biosphere, are numerous and well-supported. Sometimes, it’s the local commons that gets active: in India, ten million families take part in roughly 100,000 'forest-management groups' responsible for protecting nearby woodlands. Consequently in India the percentage of woodland has increased since 2005. In Niger, poor farmers have ‘regreened’ 12.5 million desolate acres, supporting the growth of 200 million trees to complement their land’s productivity. Sometimes change is initiated through remarkable individuals: But also individuals just get going: a Kenyan woman, Wangari Maathai, set up the Green Belt Movement  to combat deforestation and promote women's rights; the Movement had enabled poor women to plant thirty million trees by the time she passed away in 2011. And even amongst those whom the economy has enriched, philanthropy is not an unusual trend; money is not the same as value. Too much money is destructive, but you can't overdose on values. This is the gold that enriches the heart and builds the home. And to extract this, you start right where you are.

1 Green Dharma: Georg and Brenda Feuerstein, Traditional Yoga Studies, Eastend, Saskatchewan, 2008 [free download from the Internet]
2 Kapil Komireddi: Aeon Magazine, June 26 2013
3 available on the Web. The conclusions of this report are contested on However, the broad conclusion – that livestock produces more greenhouse gas than transport is also asserted in the paper 'Tropical Forests and Climate Policy' Science Vol 316, #5827 (2007)
4 These figures, obtained from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, were reported by the BBC on 10 January 2013
5 according to an Oxfam report Working for the Few outlined in The Guardian Jan 20 2014
6 The conclusion arrived at by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2014