A New Year’s Resolution for the Planet

Nadia Colburn looks at how Buddhists and environmental activists can keep moving forward after the Paris Climate Conference.

Nadia Colburn
8 January 2016
Eiffel Tower, Paris, COP21, Climate Change, Buddhism, Nadia Colburn
Days before COP21, the Eiffel Tower rises from behind trees in Paris. Photo by jean-pierre chambard.

Nadia Colburn looks at how Buddhists and environmental activists can keep moving forward after the Paris Climate Conference.

As we start 2016, let’s first look back at 2015. In a public sphere often full of bad news, it’s important to take some time to reflect on our steps in positive directions.

Thich Nhat Hanh often talks about “watering positive seeds.” Our actions are like seeds; some grow into sweet, fruit-bearing trees, and some grow into poisonous vines. If we want the sweet fruit trees to grow, we must water them and give them proper growing conditions. And if we don’t want the negative seeds to grow, we must not water them.

The Paris Climate Summit agreement, signed less than a month ago, is a notable accomplishment, and is a positive and important seed that I hope we can all water in 2016.

Though the agreement is very imperfect, and called “too little too late” by some, it is nonetheless significant in that leaders from around the globe were able to put their differences aside and come together to set goals for the planet — aspiring to keep the climate increase to 1.5 degrees and agreeing, for the first time, that we must move away from fossil fuels.

This is a landmark moment—an acknowledgement that we must change the direction of our industrial society, and a sign that the will to do it is there.

Now the challenge for 2016 is to stay focused on this issue and to keep on watering this seed. For what will heal the planet is not the agreement itself, but our steady, continuous attention and actions.

How will we stay focused? How will we keep people engaged?

The mainstream news certainly does not focus on the environment. Our psychology draws us to stories of violence and discord, but not to environmental issues, which are deeper, more long-term, and more complicated. Even COP21 was covered only for a few days, and now the media’s attention has moved on. On the other hand, if people are too overwhelmed, they can throw up their hands in despair.

While there aren’t clear answers to these challenges, Buddhist practices can be helpful in addressing them.

First, meditation helps train our mind and focus our attention. In the contemporary world, our attention is increasingly divided. We flit from site to site or app to app. Meditation helps to hone our awareness. We train ourselves to become more steady. As we gain focus, we are more able to see the big picture without getting distracted. We can see more clearly the interconnectedness of our actions. We become aware of the ways in which our actions now have consequences today and years from now. We can see, for example, how the fumes coming out of our cars affect the air, the climate and our bodies, or how the meat we eat requires forests to be cut down.

Second, Buddhist practices also can help us remain engaged with uncomfortable and potentially scary topics. When we sit, we practice meeting whatever arises with equanimity and awareness. We learn to breathe into fear rather than run away from it. By facing fear, we begin to identify how we can respond to it in a positive way. .

Perhaps it is no surprise that, because spiritual practices teach us to sit with what is, whatever uncomfortable emotions arise,many of the people who are most outspoken about the environment are spiritual figures; Thich Nhat Hanh and Joanna Macy have spoken for decades about the need to protect our environment, and Pope Francis recently called the world to collective action in his environmental Encyclical.

When we stay focused on the challenge of environmental degradation, we know we need to shift energy use and agriculture practices away from fossil fuels, and care for the earth and oceans. Much of the technology and the techniques we need are already available, if we can come together and decide that we are ready for real change.

Six years ago, when leaders gathered in Copenhagen, the conference closed on a note of disharmony. But COP21 signaled that world is waking up to this issue and ready to work together.

I believe that Buddhists and people who are spiritually aware can be some of the most effective leaders of this movement as we continue to help others stay focused and meet fear with equanimity and pragmatism. This moment is a beautiful opportunity for the world to come together.

I hope that in 2016 we can address this issue — not necesarily out of fear, but out of love. We love the earth, the trees, the oceans, the animals, and the people, and we want to honor and protect them. To care for our earth is to water the most beautiful and positive seed that we have.

Nadia Colburn

Nadia Colburn

Nadia Colburn is an OI Aspirant in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Tradition, a coach and creative writer. She holds a PhD in English from Columbia University, is a founding editor at Anchor Magazine: where spirituality and social justice meet, and has been published widely in such places as The New Yorker, Yes! Magazine, and LA Review of Books. Her coaching business, AlignYourLight, helps clients and groups live with alignment, integrity and fullness from their deepest knowing in a culture so often out of alignment and full of contradictions. See more at www.nadiacolburn.com.