Nirvana in climate chaos and peak oil

February 28, 2011 By Andrew Durling


Medicine Wheel

How can Buddhism help us deal with fear and anxiety as we face of the converging issues of peak oil and climate change?

One way is to understand that the reality of climate change is inseparable from the actual, specific experiences of living beings here and now.

Climate change is not some external, impersonal phenomenon that exists separately from all other phenomena, and especially from people. It’s actually a dimension of our daily experience, an aspect of the suffering that is an inexorable part of our lives.

In recognizing that climate change is suffering, and that climate change is a pervasive and an increasingly pressing part of our lives, then we have to face up to it in the same way that we have to face up to that ultimate dimension of our suffering: our own death and the loss of all we are and have.

Death be not proud

Facing up to our own death is a good analogy for how we have to learn to face up to climate chaos.

Recognizing the reality of global warming and the horror and fear that it induces offers a moment of clarity. We can then use that clear-eyed recognition to strip away what is meaningless and trivial from our lives and re-focus on what will help us to move with a renewed sense of purpose, beyond the fear, to meaningful action.

So many people who find out that they have a terminal illness go on to fill what time they have left doing what they always really wanted but never got around to. Ironically, overcoming the often overly suppressed (but often mentally disruptive) fear of death can be the prelude to a more joyful and fulfilling life, as philosophers, psychologists and religious teachers have told us through the ages.

In the same way, helping ourselves and others to overcome the denial or suppression of the reality of climate change can help to create the motivation to engage in ways of living that are more fulfilling and creative than before.

Money can’t buy me love

Take, for example, how most of us live in the industrialized world. The greed of modern industrial societies for purely material wealth above all things is enshrined in the obsession with Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

This is where Buddhism can really help.

Buddhism has combined its socio-economic ethics with modern scientific research into positive psychology and economics and helped to develop the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index. The GNH has actually been implemented as state policy in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, a deeply Buddhist country.

The Buddha did, in fact, talk a lot about socio-economic matters. He had many conversations with some of the kings of the areas of India that he and his followers traveled through. These kings often asked his advice concerning the correct governance of their kingdoms. The Buddha was especially keen to point out how gross inequality harms the moral and spiritual life of a nation by leading inevitably to increased poverty, then increased crime, and ultimately the breakdown of civilized values generally.

The pursuit of happiness

The Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta of the Pali Canon reviews the duties of an ideal ruler. One of them is to prevent poverty from arising, as poverty is the main source of crime and disorder as well as of greed.

Bhutan’s GNH index is so detailed and developed that it is the subject of much study by researchers and government officials from major industrialized nations. The GNH index has nine dimensions:

* Psychological well-being
* Health
* Use of time
* Community vitality
* Education
* Culture
* Environment
* Governance
* Standard of living

Measuring these dimensions using the latest techniques from social science obviously shifts the focus away from a fixation on simply what is materially produced by a society and towards an awareness that what is materially produced might impact adversely on what influences the quality of life, such as the environment.

In Bhutan, the world has the example of a Buddhist country at the forefront of a completely new way of measuring human progress objectively.

It’s a way which is increasingly being explored worldwide, including by the UK and French governments, among others. Economists from many countries have now been to conferences on the GNH index held in the Bhutanese capital Thimphu, in 2004 and 2008, to learn from the Bhutanese example.

According to Frank Dixon, a Harvard Business School graduate, “The evolving concept of GNH could well be the most significant advancement in economic theory over the last 150 years.”

Even the present UK Prime Minister David Cameron said recently that “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general well being.”

If countries were to move away from gross domestic product as the main measure of economic progress, this would be perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Buddhist-inspired economic thinking to help counter the paradigm of endless growth in material wealth and consumerism that a narrow focus on GDP encourages.

As Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz says, “What you measure affects what you do. If you don’t measure the right thing, you don’t do the right thing.”

The hungry ghost

Beyond that, Buddhism teaches a way of life in which “less is more,” and “small is beautiful.” The ideas is that true happiness lies within one’s own mind, which can be enjoyed at any time if the mind is free from craving and from uncontrolled desire, regardless of one’s external circumstances and material standard of living.

This kind of teaching always reduces materialism and consumerism. And of course buying and using less stuff can help us cut carbon emissions and save energy at the same time.

Above a certain basic level of material wealth, quality of life and personal sense of well-being is usually inversely correlated with affluence. Once the necessities of life are covered and a few extra comforts are thrown in, being richer doesn’t necessarily make you happier.

The Middle Way

Buddhism teaches that going within to meditate is not a retreat from the world, not a selfish desire to attain personal salvation only for oneself, but an opportunity to make one’s own mind calmer, clearer, and more positively energized.

When emerging from meditation one is able to re-engage with the world and living beings with full attention and in a maximally constructive and productive way, for the benefit of all. Incidentally, mindfulness meditation surely counts as a zero-carbon activity, which also happens to be completely free, and has only positive side-effects!

The unique challenges of peak oil and climate change represent the perfect opportunity for anyone inspired by Buddhism, especially those who aspire to be reach the altruistic idea of the bodhisattva, to help all living beings right now by helping to preserve the biosphere in which they all live.

The compassion of true bodhisattvas is so great that they cannot bear living beings to suffer at all and want to bring all suffering to an end right now if they could. What better way of helping to do that than by helping to prevent, or mitigate, the destruction of the biosphere?

There’s a self-interest angle too. Start with reincarnation. If after our current life we may look forward to many future lives — hopefully some of those will be as human beings — then we’ll need a viable planet like Earth to which we can return and continue our journey towards enlightenment.

I’m aware that some Buddhists teacher, such as Stephen Batchelor, now downplay the rebirth side of Buddha’s teachings. But even if you just focus on this present life, the quality of the years to come in this life for both us and other creatures and plants depend critically upon the care we lavish upon the biosphere now.

With the sort of mental training that wisdom teachers such as the Buddha provided, it is possible to face any situation in life, even the dire threats of peak oil and climate change, with a calm, peaceful, fearless, happy mind that seeks only to help others with compassion and loving-kindness, and to guide and inspire others to do the same.

People with such minds become perfect “warriors for the working day,” able to engage in the ceaseless, Sisyphean struggle of repairing and rebuilding this world even when all hope seems lost. They are able to rebel, as Albert Camus would perhaps argue, against all that threatens life, acting against those threats with moderation and without becoming violent revolutionaries or lapsing into nihilistic despair.

That’s the kind of Middle Way that excites me!

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