Right Hope

Economist and ecodharma activist Clair Brown calls on Buddhists to join the fight against climate change. What helps when the future looks bleak is the right kind of hope.

Clair Brown
26 July 2022

The world is out of balance. Mother Nature is crying out to us, and yet we ignore her even as we suffer from wildfires, flooding, heat waves, and insufficient water. We are slowly killing ourselves and the hopes of future generations because of an economic system that creates toxic pollution, wasteful overconsumption, and immoral inequality.

Humanity faces an existential climate crisis. All people who care about each other and our planet must come together to create the systems transformation required to stop the cause of the problem—greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel energy and industrial agriculture. We need to put climate at the top of our agenda in response to “Code Red for Humanity,” the UN Secretary General’s call to drop everything and take action to save the planet.

Our activities can make a difference, locally as well as globally.

What do we as Buddhists, who strive to relieve suffering, have to contribute to the global effort to stop using fossil fuels and create a sustainable, equitable economy? For as David Loy teaches, if Buddhists can’t respond appropriately to the ecological crisis, or don’t want to, then Buddhism isn’t what the world needs right now.

Being an ecodharma activist means making climate activities part of our practice and daily life. Our spiritual practice teaches us that we should do this work within a sangha, a community. Unfortunately, in my own journey as an activist I learned that my community in this work is not my Buddhist sangha.

In my own sangha and others, I have found practitioners and teachers focused on meditating to relieve their own suffering, without acknowledging that their pain is interdependent with the suffering of all beings and the planet. Many do not think that climate activism is part of how to practice Buddhism. When I asked a Tibetan meditation teacher if he would include climate issues in his teachings, he told me that karma will determine how climate change progresses and there was nothing he needed to add to his teachings.

When I reach out to Buddhist practitioners to encourage them to integrate the climate crisis into their practice in a meaningful way, they often reply that it seems fruitless. They have lost hope and feel powerless to stop humanity from using fossil fuels and factory farming.

In response, I take heart in the wisdom of engaged Buddhist teachers who know that ordinary hope, which is based on fear and desire for what we want in the future, only causes suffering. Instead, they recommend “wise hope,” as Roshi Joan Halifax calls it, or what Joanna Macy calls “active hope.” These are not based on fear or desire but on the bodhisattva path of relieving suffering and healing nature. “Wise hope,” Halifax tells us, “is not seeing things unrealistically but rather seeing things as they are, including the truth of suffering—both its existence and our capacity to transform it.” Macy’s “active hope” is about finding and making our own unique contribution in the collective transition she calls the Great Turning.

This kind of wise and active hope motivates us to get up off our meditation cushion and address suffering right now, to ask ourselves, “What is the right thing to do, regardless of the outcome?” during this time of chaos and crises. Climate science helps us answer this question. We know that nature is changing and the future of our climate is dynamic, even with the certainty of global warming. Yes, life for all beings on earth is being harmed, but human destruction of ecological systems is not linear and certainly not “all or nothing.”

Our activities can make a difference, locally as well as globally, even if we do not know how much and how quickly. Realism does not have to lead to hopelessness, but rather to acknowledging impermanence and acting with loving compassion without desiring specific outcomes.

For Buddhists, that means undertaking activities in our daily life that connect us with others to care for each other and the planet. As an ecodharma activist, I have joined an organization that shares my values and motivation to relieve suffering and heal the earth. Only a few of my climate activist friends practice Buddhism, yet almost everyone is compassionate, kind, and not egotistical. Working with them helps me be in touch with my inner buddha, and supports my hope and courage to fight the forces of evil that are overheating the planet. The challenges are urgent; facing them is life-affirming.

If you are an engaged Buddhist, be courageous and join a climate justice group to heal the planet and reduce the global suffering caused by climate change. Each of us has talents to offer, and the deep insights drawn from our practice. Together, we can make a difference as we progress along our Buddhist path.

As a Buddhist, my practice is to continue on the path of healing the earth, even as I remind myself not to become attached to the outcome. Many times a day, I repeat to myself a gatha in the style of Thich Nhat Hanh. I hope you will join me in this aspiration:

May we heal the earth, as we heal ourselves, for the benefit of all.

Clair Brown

Clair Brown

Clair Brown, PhD, an economics professor at UC Berkeley, is the author of Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science. She practices engaged Buddhism in her climate justice activism with several organizations working on California climate policies.