My wife, Faith Morgan, and I have been meeting with Rob Content, a long time climate change collaborator and his partner Diane Dillar, on the topic of Near Term Extinction or NTE. NTE refers to a theory promoted by scientist Guy McPherson suggesting that the results of climate change will be species extinction, including mankind. McPhereson argues that no mediation programs, either in place or planned for, can alter this direction. Our interest has been the relevance of Non Violent Communication (NVC) to this topic. NVC was invented by Marshall Rosenberg as a way of identifying people’s needs and addressing them in such a way as to build relationship and compassion. Dianne is a certified NVC practitioner. I have practiced Buddhism for a long time and began to see its relevance to the situation.
My efforts began studying Buddhism in more depth in early 2016. In late 2015 I received negative news about the status of my heart, which caused me to think deeply about my time remaining on the planet. This led to a more detailed effort to strengthen my Buddhist practice, which has been part of my life for 30 years. In October 2016 I also experienced sudden kidney failure and spent five days in the hospital. I appear to have recovered but am reminded that at a certain age, which I may have passed, it’s a sure bet that some organ failure will occur that will likely lead to death.
My health crisis affected me mentally and physically for two weeks. I recovered in both areas but my mental perspective underwent a change. I suddenly realized that personal NTE (a.k.a. death) is a fact for me personally. It is also in the cards for Rob, Dianne, and Faith, and in fact for all of us. The question that I am pursuing here is how my awareness from these illnesses affects my longer-range view of the effects of climate change and either the end of the human species or something somewhat less drastic, such as a vague “collapse of civilization.” Stimulated by this health crisis I have renewed my efforts to come up with some new direction for myself.
Shortly after I left the hospital I heard about a new program called EcoSattva put together by some well-known Buddhist practitioners including Joanna Macy and Bhikkhu Bodhi, a well-known U.S. monk and author who spent many years in Asia (https://oneearthsangha.org/programs/ecosattva-training/. The program began with a 2-hour session on Sunday, October 16, 2016, mostly devoted to a talk by Bhikkhu Bodhi. I have long been a fan of his writings and have probably read his 1999 small book (32,000 words) The Noble Eightfold Path – The Way to the End of Suffering at least a dozen times (available at http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/noble8path6.pdf). I was curious to hear a recent Buddhist viewpoint on climate change from such a senior cleric.
Somehow in my mind, my personal health crisis is conjoined with the planetary climate crisis. Having worked in the climate field for 15 years, written books, made documentaries, held conferences – and at the same time maintained a spiritual practice – I am seeking some new perspective that can make a contribution.
There are many words being used to describe alternative viewpoints about climate change. The most well known is sustainability followed possibly by resilience and then maybe localization. These words have not been satisfactory for me since there are almost no meaningful metrics that can determine their contributions to lowering CO2. The word I have come to use is curtailment, the principle theme from my book, Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change, published by New Society Publishers in 2008. This refers to a voluntary decrease in energy consumption and CO2 generation, which inevitably means a lower standard of living. Voluntary poverty is sometimes used as a descriptive term and it certainly caries the concept of curtailment within it.
Not surprisingly, this idea has not gained a following. The current world views can be summarized as a Plan A (also known as business as usual or simply climate change denial), Plan B, which is focused on machine efficiency and renewable sources of energy (in other words, we will find a way to fix the problem with technology), and Plan C, which calls for a lifestyle change. Plan B, the predominate plan in the world at this time, is supported by massive investments in solar panels and wind turbines. The growth of these technologies is spectacular but in no way can they offset the ravages of continuous consumption of fossil fuels to support continuous economic growth.
After listening to the Ecosattva lectures by Bhikkhu Boddhi I reread his book on the Noble Eightfold Path. I noticed how many times I had turned down the corner of a page or how I had underlined his section on initial Right View and Right Intention. These are two aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path, which also include the three moral components of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood along with the three meditative components of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. In recent months Right Intention has taken on somewhat of a new meaning or a new significance for me. My health crisis and knowing my time on the planet is short increased my focus on this.
Right View and Right Intention, as described by Bhikkhu Boddhi, are the initial considerations of the Eightfold Path. First Right View holds the cosmological perspective of Buddhism dealing with gods, worlds, afterlives, karma, virtue, etc. Buddhism does not assert a permanent soul but rather a mind-stream that will be reborn at some point with a progression from life to life based on the effects of virtuous and non-virtuous thoughts, words, and deeds. This topic alone is vast and I will skip over it to talk about Right Intention.
Right Intention has three major components including the intentions of Renunciation, Good Will, and Harmlessness. The latter two deal with our relationships with other beings and can easily be mapped to the Buddhist practice of Loving Kindness and Compassion. These two are similar to many religions based on love of one’s neighbor. Although they are developed differently in Buddhism they are similar enough to get some idea of the Buddhist psychological posture to other forms of life. It leads to cooperating rather than competing, which is at odds with the western capitalism orientation of everyman for him or her self.
The intention of Renunciation is what I am currently contemplating. The Buddha has been quoted as saying that renunciation is giving up those things in life that are harming you. This is very different from my Catholic upbringing that suggests giving up the things that offend God. This is the idea of sacrifice of something pleasant for the good of God. But the Buddhist intention of renunciation counters the intention of desire, which is at the heart of our fossil fuel consuming society.
Bhikkhu Boddhi states that understanding the Buddhist Four Noble Truths, which are: 1-all beings suffer; 2-there are causes of suffering; 3-there is the cessation of suffering; and 4-the Noble Eightfold Path, is critical to alleviating or reducing suffering. In relation to my own life and work on climate change, seeking to understand this has given rise to a focus on the intention of renunciation – the abandoning of craving or attachment to things. As I study this I see how our climate’s suffering seems to derive from our various attachments and cravings since they depend on consuming, which depends on fossil fuel consumption and is part of our growth culture.
When I apply this understanding of suffering to other living beings, I see that, like me, all other living beings want to be happy and are subject to suffering. This has nurtured in me the growth of goodwill towards other people everywhere and a desire to develop harmlessness in my actions. In other words, when I consider that all of us seek happiness it has caused thoughts of goodwill to arise – the wish that they be well, happy, and peaceful, and it has caused me to develop more compassion towards others.
The Buddha describes his teaching as running contrary to the way of the world. The way of the world is the way of desire, and the average person is pursuing the objects in which they imagine they will find fulfillment and happiness. The Buddha’s message of renunciation states exactly the opposite: the pull of desire is to be resisted and eventually abandoned. Desire is to be abandoned not because it is morally evil but because it is a root of suffering. Renunciation, turning away from craving and its drive for gratification, becomes the key to happiness, to freedom from the hold of attachment.
The tool the Buddha holds out to free our minds from desire is understanding. Bhikkhu Boddhi notes that real renunciation is not a matter of compelling ourselves to give up things still inwardly cherished, but of changing our perspective of them so that they no longer bind us. When we understand the nature of desire, when we investigate it closely with keen attention, desire falls away by itself, without need for struggle. My first experience of this came after I had a heart attack and open-heart surgery. I learned that there were foods to be avoided. Faith noticed almost immediately that neither of us liked the taste of whole milk with its high fat content any longer.
How would we apply this concept to climate change and consumerism? Our consuming lifestyle of bigger homes, bigger personal cars, and thousands of goods, requires a large quantity of fossil fuels to maintain; consumerism has become our national religion. It develops and intensifies and then satisfies all our longings. It replaces religions and churches. With the advent of the Internet and smart phones, the average consumer is in constant contact with forces driving him or her to consume more. The fulfillment of consumer desire is made possible on a massive scale by the use of fossil fuels. This leads to larger and faster and more powerful cars, to a long distance tourist industry supported by kerosene for airliners. It leads to larger homes with more and more appliances, consuming natural gas and electricity generated from coal and natural gas power plants. It has led to more and more of our consciousness in constant contact with screens on TVs and smart phones, which creates more and stronger desires for fossil fuel based goods and services. And underneath this is the ever-growing specter of climate change, which has reached the point where, without knowing it, the average person can contemplate the possibility of the end of the species in his or her lifetime. In this sense the suffering from consumption is deadly. Like unfiltered cigarettes the inevitable end is death from a painful disease.
Contemplating the suffering inherent in consumption is one way to incline the mind to renunciation. Another way, also pointed out by Bhikkhu Boddhi, is to contemplate directly the benefits flowing from renunciation. To move from consumerism to renunciation is not, as might be imagined, to move from happiness to grief, from abundance to destitution. It is to pass from gross, entangling pleasures that don’t build lasting happiness, to a deeply rooted happiness and peace from living a life of compassion and connection with all of life on the planet. It is moving from a condition of servitude to things and consumption to one of self-mastery. Unlimited desire is leading us ultimately to great suffering, fear, and sorrow from the devastation looming from runaway climate change, but renunciation can lead to fearlessness, hope, and joy.
When we methodically contemplate and understand the dangers of desire and the benefits of renunciation, we can gradually steer our mind away from the domination of consumerism and materialism. Attachments can be shed like the leaves of a tree, naturally and spontaneously. This change does not necessarily come suddenly, but when there is persistent practice, there is no doubt that the change in perspective will happen. Through repeated contemplation one thought knocks away another, the intention of renunciation dislodges the intention of desire. Caring and compassion for all life on the planet, for other people in other countries replaces only being concerned with my country and myself.