Friday, April 23, 2010

You Can't Save the Planet, People!

After the short Earth Day post I made yesterday, I came across this essay, which tracks some of the history of Earth Day and the all too easy slide it has made into "green consumerism" as world savior approach. This isn't a happy piece of writing, but let's face it, neither is it a happy thing what we've collectively been doing to the planet.

Here is a particularly provocative paragraph to chew on:

Today, right-wing pundits depict environmentalism as an elite hobby that threatens jobs, while many progressive environmentalists cite the potential for “green jobs” to help reignite economic growth. Both views are sorely missing a central element of what has made environmentalism such a compelling counter-hegemonic worldview ever since the 1970s: the promise that reorienting societies toward a renewed harmony with nature can help spur a revolutionary transformation of our world.

I've long found the argument that technology will save us a tired, doomed to failure view. No amount of wind turbines, "green fuels," or "flex" vehicles will make a major dent in the damage being done. Certainly, some of this stuff provides some benefit, but without a completely different individual and collective mindset shift, it all amounts to whipped cream covering a decidedly bad tasting cake.

This morning, I ran across this commentary by Nella Lou over at Smiling Buddha Cabaret that addresses some of the deep structures that need to change in order for radical environmental action to truly occur. I'm not sure I agree with every last point Nella Lou makes, but I think much of what she says is pointing in the right direction.

Here's an introduction to what she addresses in her post:

Thanks to openbuddha on Twitter, this link to an essay by Leo Babauta called society, reimagined came to my attention. Another person Everett Bogue: Putting Leo Babauta’s ‘Society, Reimagine’ Into Practice has taken up the thought as well.

Leo Babauta has given some provocative and interesting ideas for what society “could” be if we were to start from scratch or reimagine a few things.

I’d like to take up his thoughts and add a few of my own. Leo takes a few areas and outlines a little bit about them. Everett Bogue, a person on a minimalist mission of sorts, adds a couple more.

* The car, junked
* Schools, erased
* Sharing vs consumerism
* A digital world
* Health Care, reimagined, in practice.
* Agriculture, reimagined, in practice.

To these I would like to add such meta-categories as:

* Political structures
* Economic systems and structures
* Relational or marriage structures
* Religious structures
* Ecological considerations and nature

If we are going to reimagine society it needs to be at a structural level. Merely shifting around a few things and essentially maintaining much of the status quo will engender the same kinds of problems that now appear but in different arenas. And deep societal structure are intimately tied together.

So, what do I want to say? I guess I'm interested in the way people who call themselves "Buddhists" address, or don't address, these issues. What I find curious is how often people who are dedicated to examining how their minds work, and how their actions impact their relationships and the world around them, often shut down completely when it comes to social concerns like the environment. Or how they sit in dharma centers day after day, year after year, hearing lectures about interconnectedness and how we aren't isolated, solitary selves, and yet when it comes to social issues, it's every man or woman for themselves. "Green consumerism" seems to be enough for many people who say they are Buddhist. In fact, some argue that it's all any one of us can do, and politics and/or social action are no place for spiritual involvement or application. In other words, spiritual practice is separate from social engagement.

I've written about this a lot in the past. Probably have pontificated enough on it in fact. But it continues to baffle me how easy it is for people to minimize, deny, and blame others (to reference Foucault)for problems which they, by the very fact of being human, are complicit in to some degree.

This isn't to say that everything happening on Earth is a result of human misbehavior. Even though Global Warming deniers tend to go to hysterical lengths to make arguments that are basically designed to defend the greedy, sloth-like lifestyles that many of us have developed over the past 100 years or so, they still are right to point out that the planet is much more than the sum total of human action or inaction. One of the things I have learned from socially engaged Buddhist leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh is that those who you would hold as "enemies" also have truth in their stories. It might be deeply, deeply buried, but it's there, somewhere, and being open to finding it together is a road to peace.

At the same time, from a Buddhist perspective, it's beyond foolish to assume that human behavior has either no impact, or a minimal impact on the planet. The few times I've met or spoken with people who say they are Buddhist, and also view things like Global Warming as complete lies, I've found myself at a loss. One could say these people aren't Buddhists, or have no idea what Buddha really taught, and that might be true. But it's too easy of a dismissal, and doesn't help much in terms of addressing the much broader issues that come from the population of dharma folks that see their practice as an individual effort, and who think "going organic" is going to save the planet.

When you get down to it, a large part of the problem probably is tied to the idea of "saving the planet" itself. This mantra, the often unconsciously driving force behind "Green" activities, assumes a separation. It's like the misreading of the Bodhisattva vow to "Liberate all beings," where one thinks there are countless beings they must go out and free. The planet is a completely interdependent, dynamically functioning life of which we are embedded in. There's no way to step outside of it, at least at this point, in order to "do something" to "save" it. Why? Because "it" is always changing, always evolving, and thus any efforts we make to benefit "it" as a whole must be also in accord with what the earth is today, and not what we think it is.

Maybe all of this is terribly depressing. It might even sound like I'm suggesting that efforts are futile, like grains of sand running through your hands. Well, that's not my intent. In fact, it's not even my intent to suggest that activities such as recycling, building wind turbines, and eating organic food should be abandoned. They have their place in all of this. What I am suggesting is that Buddha's teachings are repeatedly pointing us back to those deep structures that lay behind our collective behaviors as humans, and by failing to address these structures both individually, and collectively, we are simply trying to put the cart before the horse.


Adam said...

Personally, I'll keep speaking up about the issues that I feel need addressing. But I know that won't do a whole lot.

My real goal is to get off the grid as much as possible. Create my own energy, grow (most) of my own food, and either junk the car or find better means of transportation. This is not an end-of-the-year goal. This is a "next couple of decades goal", one in which we will make continual small steps in that direction. I'm sure we'll meet with failure along the way, and who knows what the world will look like in 5, 10, or 20 years.

Our first step is to buy a home with property so that we can make this happen. I don't see that happenng for another 5 years or so, but that's another story altogether. The sad fact about sustainability and being "eco-concious" is that it's expensive! That's why people object to buying organic most of the time. That's why people aren't running out to put solar panels on their roofs or convert their engines to run on bio-fuel. You have to be rich (or at least live in a place where land is really cheap) to be sustainable in this country. Kinda of screwed up, isn't it?

Nathan said...

"But I know that won't do a whole lot." Maybe, maybe. You never know what can happen.

I hear you about costs. There are definitely economic privilege issues to take into account when it comes to "greening" one's life. Even getting a little land to grow food on is often a privilege - something co-operative farms, community gardens, and other approaches are trying to address. Things are happening, in my view, it's just not enough at this point. And it all still points back to those deep structures people take as givens, and which are not givens at all.

Daniel @ Campinas said...

Here are some comments/ views from Earth Day 1970. Still waiting for them to true..

“We have about five more years at the outside to do something.”
• Kenneth Watt, ecologist

“Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”
• George Wald, Harvard Biologist

“We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation.”
• Barry Commoner, Washington University biologist

“Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”
• New York Times editorial, the day after the first Earth Day

“Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
• Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist

“By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.”
• Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist

“It is already too late to avoid mass starvation.”
• Denis Hayes, chief organizer for Earth Day

“Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.”
• Peter Gunter, professor, North Texas State University

“Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”
• Life Magazine, January 1970

“At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.”
• Kenneth Watt, Ecologist

“Air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.”
• Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist

“We are prospecting for the very last of our resources and using up the nonrenewable things many times faster than we are finding new ones.”
• Martin Litton, Sierra Club director

“By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate…that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, `Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, `I am very sorry, there isn’t any.’”
• Kenneth Watt, Ecologist

“Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.”
• Sen. Gaylord Nelson

“The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”
• Kenneth Watt, Ecologist

Nathan said...

Yes, Daniel, overly dramatic stuff. The timescales tend to be off in all of the predictions, now and then. I get it.

So what?

Maybe it might be helpful to spend some time in the Arctic talking to indigenous folks, or how about those living on disappearing islands, countries becoming deserts, and/or place where rainforests are disappearing by the second.

Even if none of what those folks said in 1970 comes true, do you really feel people are "in right relationship" with the planet?


Adam said...

Well Daniel, if you look at the data they were dealing with in the late 1960's, you'd see why their predictions looked this way. They also predicted a world population of 7-7.5 billion, and totally failed to predict how successful the Green Revolution would be in feeding the world's hungry. They also didn't have the requistie data on things like aerosols, so you can also understand why their atmospheric predictions were off as well. The fact is, while the number might be off, a gigantic boom in popluation over the last 50 years IS having a detrimental effect on our planet and ecosystem. One only needs to look to India and China to see the effects of such population growth.

Thankfully, Science is an ever-changing process, that is not only willing to admit it's mistakes, but by its very definition it must admit them. I'm really not sure what all of these quote prove, if that was your goal.

Daniel @ Campinas said...

I'm not saying we can run roughshod over the planet, but calling attention to the fact that just like at that time we had doomsayers saying "the end is near", we have over dramatization today. Perhaps if we lay aside the dramatics and address it clearly without the scare tactics, the message will be better received. What is it we study about the 8 fold path and Right View? Let's stretch it to Right Speech also. You want to spread a very important message, but are you being honest and forthcoming, or do you skewer the data and present it in a way to "scare" people into acting now before it's too late?

Nathan, about the rain forest: I posted this on my blog with a message I did not add here. I live in Brazil. I live close to an Indian Reservation, so yes I have spoken to them. I have worked there as an English teacher and with various soccer programs. When I was a kid (btw, I'm 39) the mantra was "a piece of the Amazon the size of Rhode Island disappears every day. When you kids grow up it will be gone." Sorry to say, the Amazon was still there the last time I checked. If you look up the data the deforestation has gone down substantially.
1 column is the year
2 column is remaining coverage
3 is annual loss
4 is percent of 1970 coverage remaining
5 is loss since 1970s
note: stats are km2, stats from Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais the INPE, or National Institute of Space Research here in Brazil

1988 3,723,520 21,050 90.8% 376,480
1989 3,705,750 17,770 90.4% 394,250
1990 3,692,020 13,730 90.0% 407,980
1991 3,680,990 11,030 89.8% 419,010
1992 3,667,204 13,786 89.4% 432,796
1993 3,652,308 14,896 89.1% 447,692
1994 3,637,412 14,896 88.7% 462,588
1995 3,608,353 29,059 88.0% 491,647
1996 3,590,192 18,161 87.6% 509,808
1997 3,576,965 13,227 87.2% 523,035
1998 3,559,582 17,383 86.8% 540,418
1999 3,542,323 17,259 86.4% 557,677
2000 3,524,097 18,226 86.0% 575,903
2001 3,505,932 18,165 85.5% 594,068
2002 3,484,538 21,394 85.0% 615,462
2003 3,459,291 25,247 84.4% 640,709
2004 3,431,868 27,423 83.7% 668,132
2005 3,413,022 18,846 83.2% 686,978
2006 3,398,913 14,109 82.9% 701,087
2007 3,387,381 11,532 82.6% 712,619
2008 3,375,413 11,968 82.3% 724,587

Remember the war on drugs, or the war on terrorism. Pot is a gateway drug that will destroy your mind!! Extremes and distortion of the facts may be used for a better good, but fingers get pointed with chants of "liar, liar, pants on fire". Why does one think it is wrong for some causes, but allow it for others?

If all those things we heard in the 70s proved to be a load of BS, why would anyone believe it now? Which leads to the problem: people won't head the message today. If they lied then, we should they listen now?

Kyle said...

I think like that post you pointed to shows, is that we need to seperate the enviromental aspect of social discourse from any political stance. It is much easier to defend a position based on just basic care for the eniroment instead of trying to defend a social agenda with it. Calling oneself a communist then setting out social and enviromental agenda's will only get ignored.

Nathan said...

Hi Kyle,

I think you're right in that placing partisan politics in the forefront just causes unnecessary problems. In the socio-political climate we're in, people are so ramped up that everything gets lumped in political agendas, even when that isn't what it's about. You post on the Oklahoma City Bombing anniversary seemed like a reasonable call denouncing extremism from all ends, but comments a few made seemed to turn it into some political statement. I see that all the time. I can imagine you do too. This is the reality we get to practice in - maybe it's a hot enough training ground to help us burn through our own muck faster.


Nathan said...


If there are scare tactics and doomsday exaggerations in my post, I can't locate them.

I grew up with those same comments about the end of the world possibly coming - I'm less than 5 years younger than you.

Wondering how closely you read my post in the first place.


Daniel @ Campinas said...

Nno, it wasn't that there were scare tactics with your post, just me saying that because of the use of scare tactics, the heart of the message gets drowned out and discounted. For example, Al Gore's recent work and statements smacks similar to those doomsayers in the 70s. And because of statements like those, the message gets ignored while discussing the details.