Because of the extended time frame over which they occur, human-induced environmental changes—increased temperature, rising sea level, high-energy storm patterns, desertification and drought—are out of sync with human lives lived in an age of short attention span. The violence exacted on all living beings by these changes poses real representational challenges to our abilities to address it. Are there any tools within Buddhist view and practice that can help us work progressively at the intersection of violence and environmental degradation? How can Buddhism facilitate the work of awakening human beings to violence that is potentially catastrophic, but so slow that it’s difficult to discern and counter?
The Realm of the Eternal Moment
From perches that encompass great swaths of space, geologists view changes of landscapes over vast sweeps of time. In outcrops of rocks, forgotten fossils, and minute mineral fragments, they find evidence of earlier events on Earth. It is a cultivated skill that requires patience, grown from sitting still or walking slowly in the field, and watching nothing happen rather than observing processes in “real time.” Yet geoscience can also elucidate the interrelation of all existences and phenomena, enriching a compassionate, time-transcendent vision and Buddhist-inspired systems thinking.
Mircea Eliade retold how Indra, King of the Gods, came to understand the importance of engaging compassionately with the responsibilities of the historical moment, while keeping in mind the perspectives of Great Time. That time and timelessness can lose their apparent opposition has a geological resonance, for in some ways geologists experience the flow of time differently than other people. They let the earth teach them. I have walked up arid slopes on the Caribbean island of Barbados that reveal that the land underfoot once was beneath the sea. Old coastal features some distance above the modern coastline tell of tectonic uplift, changed climate, and sea level fluctuations that caused the extinction and succession of coral reef colonies. A mountain exemplifies equanimity, because it remains unwavering amid the tumultuous activity of atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and biosphere. Those coral reef paleo-communities also display geological equanimity and tenacity.
In the 13th century Zen master Dogen devoted The Time-Being, an important fascicle of his Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, to the recognition that “time itself is being, and all being is time.” For him, time consisted not of the past, present and future so much as events, moments and movements: “See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time… Do not think that time merely flies away… In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments.” It is in the realm of eternal moment that the thinking of geology and Buddhism overlap.
Slow Violence & Environmental Degradation
Robert Nixon has written evocatively about slow violence, acts whose “lethal repercussions sprawl across space and time;” oblique, unspectacular and amorphous. Its results are “attritional calamities” with “deferred consequences and casualties” that “pose formidable imaginative difficulties…(since) they star nobody.” The most ominous example is the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and consequent climate change.
Slow violence is synonymous with global environmental degradation in general. How do we bring to life catastrophes that are “low in instant spectacle” but “high in long-term effects”? They pose overwhelming representational challenges, and we must summon exceptional creativity. It is out of sync with human lifetimes, difficult to represent, and presents motivational challenges—yet we must render slow violence both actionable and visible.
Norwegian peace scholar Johan Galtung pointed out that personal violence entails an immediate connection between the perpetrator and recipient of violence, but structural violence involves no direct relationship between perpetrators and recipients. It is built into economic, political, or social systems at multiple levels. It occupies the interstices of a system’s framework, often manifesting as unequal power and unequal life chances.
Galtung also described a cultural violence that obscures both personal and structural violence. This operates through norms or ideologies that promote a culture of impunity among perpetrators: as in racism, sexism or homophobia. The slow violence of creeping environmental degradation endures because it is supported by cultural violence. Here we are talking about an ideology asserting that greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change are “inevitable” products of modern society.
Scientists have been heard most loudly on the subject of global warming, and because of a professed divorce of head from heart in the scientific enterprise, ethical conduct has not been at the forefront of the conversation. But compassionate heart, a fundamental element of Buddhism, is important for people to attend fully to the slow violence of climate change. Society today also requires startling icons to vivify environmental degradation, and narratives that communicate urgency. A film like Avatar imaginatively, if imperfectly, communicates the slow catastrophes of deforestation, extreme resource extraction and ecological collapse.
Awakening to the Anthropocene
In 1990, I worked with colleagues to geologically map part of the Karakoram Range in North Pakistan. There I saw Nanga Parbat, at 26660 feet, the ninth highest peak in the world. The Raikot glacier yawned beneath its north face. The glacier, more ice than moraine, was healthy and frozen so that we could walk across portions of it in search of outcrops that would give us clues to the history and rate of uplift of the Karakorams.. Twenty years later, I drove from Lhasa to Shigatse, just north of the crumpled zone where the Indian subcontinent smashes into Asian lithospheric plate and saw the glaciers of the Himalaya once again. I dared not approach the Kharola glacier. Feeble in extent, this shrunken and dripping remainder of a once sturdy sheet of ice and rock manifested the slow violence exacted by human beings on the planet. We need no further data to confirm what is visibly evident. We must awaken to it.
With the greatest concentration of glaciers outside the poles, and rising at geologically rapid rates (near ten millimeters per year) to the highest elevations on Earth, geologists call the meeting of mountain ranges of the Karakoram, Pamir, Hindu Kush and Himalayas the Earth’s Third Pole. Its height affects atmospheric circulation, the breath in and breath out of our planet. How shall we, with head and heart, regard the melting glacial reservoirs of fresh water for the great rivers of the world?
A skillful approach to our environmental woes can emerge from combining scientific knowledge with compassionate ethical conduct. The first decade of the 21st century gave us record-breaking temperatures and huge breakaways from continental ice sheets. Yet the Copenhagen climate conference produced no signed agreement—the distance between the expectations of developing and developed countries was purportedly too great. That nations are so far from one another when it comes to the ethical conduct of right speech, right action, and right livelihood is itself a manifestation of slow, structural, and cultural violence.
In geological terms, we are living in the Holocene epoch which began with the ending of the last (Pleistocene) ice age. Some have suggested that we have moved into another epoch called the Anthropocene, after the dominance of human effects on this planet. The Hindu concept of Kali Yuga suggests that we live in the fourth and last of a complete set of cosmic cycles of periodic creations and destructions of the Universe, in which humans and society reach the extreme point of disintegration. The 21st century already provides us with many examples of disintegrative power: Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean and Japanese tsunami, the Haiti earthquake, and the disastrous “technological accidents” of Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima-Daiichi. If we are to counter slow violence with skill, courage and creativity, we will need to combine the discipline of “beginner’s mind” with wisdom learned from modeling the Earth system and with heartfelt ethical conduct.
Originally posted at — and published here with thanks to — Ecological Buddhism.