Author, Zen Buddhist practitioner/teacher, and professor David R. Loy on how a “new understanding of the self” is what will be required of us in order to turn our planet’s climate crisis around.
“We need a kind of collective awakening. There are among us men and women who have awakened, but it’s not enough; most people are still sleeping… If we awaken to our true situation, there will be a change in our collective consciousness. We have to do something to wake people up. We have to help the Buddha to wake up the people who are living in a dream.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, in A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency
As I sit down to write these words, the most important meeting in the history of humanity is going on. Yes, I know that sounds hyperbolic – if you don’t know what’s at stake. Delegates and concerned citizens from every nation on earth have gathered in Copenhagen to determine our collective response to climate change, the greatest threat ever to our species. Unfortunately, it looks unlikely that they will agree to do what needs to be done to address that challenge.
What does the Copenhagen conference have to do with Buddhism? In May this year Wisdom Publications released a book that I helped to co-edit, A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency. It includes original contributions from many important Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. As the cover blurb put it, “Never before have so many teachers from all Buddhist traditions – Zen, Vajrayana, Theravada, Vipassana; from the West and the East – come together to offer a unified response to a matter of utmost urgency.” Because of this urgency the book was put together quickly, and the immediate response to our request by so many busy contributors was heartening.
I don’t want to say anything more about that book, which is readily available, but here I’d like reflect on a remark in the book by Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted above, that we need a “collective awakening.” If he is right – and I think he is – our collective situation is more dangerous than we have realized, and perhaps the only solution that will actually work requires something much more profound than political horse-trading or limits to carbon emissions. Let me explain.
Right now most (though not all) of the official delegates in Copenhagen are involved in the usual political stand-off: trying to reduce one’s own CO2 emissions as little as possible, while trying to get other nations to cut their emissions as much as possible. An important part of this game is the “cap and trade” system: if you reduce your emissions more than legally agreed, you can sell the difference to others as “pollution rights” – thus giving them the right to emit the CO2 that you didn’t.
This way of “commodifying” carbon emissions fits nicely into our economic system, which tends to commodify everything into something that can be bought and sold. But what if commodification itself is the problem, rather than the solution? Most climate scientists emphasize that, to avoid “tipping points” that would lead to runaway global warming, we need very drastic cuts in our collective carbon emissions. According to James Hansen, perhaps the world’s most respected climate scientist, we need to stabilize the amount of atmospheric carbon at approximately 350 parts per million – yet emissions have been increasing over the last decade and we are already up to about 390 ppm, which means we even need to find ways to sequester some of the carbon that is already in the atmosphere. Given the severity of our situation, we should focus on helping each other reduce emissions in every possible way, not salivate over the profits to be made from selling CO2 pollution rights.
This seems obvious to me; why, then, is it so difficult to see, and to respond accordingly? Because it requires a new worldview – perhaps nothing less than the “collective awakening” that Thich Nhat Hanh refers to.
The basic difficulty about responding to the “climate emergency” – and a host of related eco-crises such as desertification, and what is happening to the world’s oceans, and mass extinction (half of the earth’s plant and animal species may disappear by the end of this century) – is that climate change requires us to notice something we normally prefer to ignore or resist: that we are not separate from each other, but interdependent, and that we must therefore also assume responsibility for the well-being of each other. This involves a very different way of thinking and acting, and probably requires a new international political and economic order. Radical stuff, to be sure, yet global warming may be making such a transformation inescapable.
We know that atmospheric carbon respects no borders. If developed countries drastically cut their emissions, while China and developing nations do not, then the problem will not be solved, and we will all fry together. The argument of the poorer nations is that they didn’t create the problem; it is the wealthy nations who emitted that fossil-fuel carbon as they industrialized, and why shouldn’t developing nations be able to escape their desperate poverty by modernizing in the same way? The fact that 6.8 billion people cannot possibly enjoy the same affluence as most people in the United States may be scientifically conclusive – the earth does not have enough resources — yet it is not morally persuasive in the face of an inequitable global economy that continues to benefit a few at the cost of the many.
In the past Western nations could use their technologies (including weapons, of course!) to dominate the rest of the world and exploit its resources, but suddenly we find ourselves in a new situation, where each nation is now directly dependent upon the good intentions of other nations, whether developed or undeveloped. We have to pull together if human civilization as we know it is going to survive the next few centuries. But why should the poor people in poor countries pull together with me in the U.S.? What’s in it for them? Bare survival, perhaps, but not much more, unless those of us enjoying a comfortable life in wealthy nations start thinking in a less self-centered way. It’s no longer enough to act in ways that (seem to) benefit us personally, or benefit our own group or nation. We are called upon to “wake up” and realize that what is good for me can no longer be pursued at the expense of what is good for everyone else.
“Everyone else” includes the whole biosphere, not just other human beings. This realization must involve a deep appreciation of the fact that humans are part of the biosphere, and the responsibility that implies. Our unique self-awareness does not “liberate” us from the earth, any more than having a brain frees the head from the rest of the body. It simply means that with human beings the biosphere has become conscious of itself. This implies that the human species also has a unique responsibility: like it or not, we are stewards of the earth, and the first and foremost responsibility of humanity is to cherish and take care of the earth, because that is how we take care of “ourselves.”
The earth is much more than a home to us: it is our mother, in fact more than a mother, because our umbilical cord is never severed. The air and water and food that circulate through me are part of the great circulation that encompasses the whole biosphere. This means that all its self-replicating life-forms, including us of course, are really part of each other – something that the climate crisis forces us to realize, and adapt to.
This implies, among other things, a new international order emphasizing cooperation and mutual assistance rather than a competitive “zero sum game.” Up to now, human history has largely been a story of ruthless competition, aggression and exploitation. Unless those of us in powerful countries prefer to accept a world dictatorship prepared to ruthlessly trample on democratic principles and human rights everywhere, that game is just about finished. We need a new story.
What I’m really talking about, of course, is a new understanding of the self. This is where Buddhism comes in, because Buddhist teachings critique the usual understanding of ourselves as separate from others, and emphasize instead the interdependence of everything. What the “climate emergency” does is up the ante, considerably. Suddenly a lot more is at stake – maybe everything. Up until now, Buddhism has been largely an individual path of spiritual development. A few people here and there have awakened, and some societies have become more compassionate than they would have been without the dharma and the sangha. But now we must reconsider whether that’s enough.
If Thich Nhat Hanh is correct that we need a collective awakening, we’re in a new ballgame. Because of what we’ve done to ourselves, by doing it to the earth, humanity is now called upon to take another step, perhaps a step as significant as what happened about ten thousand years ago, when agriculture was developed. If so, Buddhism and other religions are also called upon to take another step, from traditional focus on individual salvation to a more collective transformation.
That leads me to some final speculations.
What is most distinctive about Buddhadharma, it seems to me, is the connection emphasized between dukkha (suffering or “unsatisfactoriness”) and the delusion of self. Fundamentally the (sense of) self is dukkha, and to awaken is to realize the nonduality between oneself and the rest of the world. As Dogen put it, “I came to realize clearly that mind is nothing other than rivers and mountains and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.”
In other words, our normal sense of self-consciousness is the delusion at the root of our chronic unhappiness, because it involves a misunderstanding of what the self really is. But this type of dualistic self-awareness is what has distinguished homo sapiens sapiens from the other primates, and has been responsible for our extraordinary evolutionary success. Today, however, we can also see more clearly than ever before the limitations of such deluded self-awareness, and the collective need to go beyond it.
Nietzsche said that “man is a rope across an abyss.” For him this rope stretched between the animal and the “superman.” If we replace “superman” with “being awakened,” perhaps Nietzsche was on to something. Is Thich Nhat Hanh pointing at the same thing, by calling for a collective awakening?
I am struck by the image of an abyss that yawns beneath us, threatening to swallow us up. Is there something inherently unviable about the dualistic type of self-consciousness that we human beings normally have? Is the dukkha that accompanies that limited kind of awareness too much for us to cope with? Is that the source of our self-destructiveness? Is that why we’re smart enough to create immensely powerful technologies, yet not smart enough to use them wisely?
Then are enlightened beings harbingers of a more nondual way of understanding and living, one that urgently calls to all of us today? Not necessarily a new species: genetically-coded biological evolution is not the only kind of evolution. There is also cultural transformation. Has some such collective development become necessary, if human civilization is to survive and the biosphere to thrive?
These final thoughts may be a “speculation too far,” but critical times require something beyond our usual ways of thinking. In any case, it’s becoming clear that the worldview responsible for this crisis will not survive it. That brings us back to Buddhism, which has a lot to contribute to the new worldview that humanity is groping toward.