The 1960s cartoon series, Road Runner, featured a regular scenario in which the villain, Wile E. Coyote, pursues the protagonist, Road Runner, toward the edge of a cliff. Road Runner ducks under a slab of stone jutting out from the cliff, but Coyote keeps running until he overshoots the edge. Suddenly he pauses, looks down and realizes there’s nothing supporting him. Then BAM! he plunges to a crash landing.
This sequence can be read—almost but not quite—as a metaphor for the current crisis of global warming. As we keep running in blind pursuit of economic growth, we draw ever closer to the edge of the cliff, our planet’s finite sustaining capacity. The question is, Will we draw back before it’s too late, or will we, like Coyote, overshoot the cliff, a victim of our own excesses?
The most reputable climate scientists have warned us often enough that if we continue along our present track, we face a future of unthinkable disasters. The droughts, famines, floods and tornadoes we’re already experiencing pale in comparison to the dangers that lie ahead.
Can Buddhism help us avoid a plunge toward calamity? It won’t suffice to revel over how the Buddha was born and became enlightened under a tree. We’re traveling in uncharted waters and we need serious guidance, not nostalgic glances back to a bygone era. I suggest that Buddhism can offer two tools to help us navigate our way through the climate crisis. One is a sober diagnosis of the causal matrix from which the crisis springs. The other is a set of guideposts to avert calamity.
First, the diagnosis. The Four Noble Truths trace suffering back to self-centered craving, which in turn springs from ignorance. Ignorance can appear either as a blunt unawareness of essential facts or as cognitive distortion of the truth. The first is seen in our typical response to global warming. Since the heating up of the planet creeps up on us beneath the threshold of perception, we typically just coast along with a business-as-usual mind, oblivious to the need to change our ways.
However, the ignorance at the root of global warming is not primarily personal but systemic; thus simply changing our personal ways is nowhere near enough. The underlying dynamic lies in the prevailing paradigm of a global free-market economy that takes growth as the fundamental spur to economic activity and expanding profits as the goal. Since we presently obtain the energy needed for growth from coal, petroleum and natural gas, our economy pumps ever more carbon into the atmosphere.
Sources of energy, renewable and carbon-free, are abundantly available to us in the sun, wind and heat of the earth. So, given the risks we face, why aren’t we bending over backwards to adopt them? This is where the Buddhist causal analysis is especially revealing, and at the same time, deeply alarming.
In a nutshell, the key explanatory factors are greed, arrogance and ignorance. To begin with, fossil fuels are highly profitable. Mega corporations that stretch across the earth make billions of bucks off them, and they aren’t keen to renounce their exorbitant profits. Fossil fuel corporations, chemical companies, big agriculture and the meat industry also contribute to global warming. They’re in this together, putting profits above a stable climate.
They want not only profits reaching to infinity but also the clout to bend the system to their advantage. To consolidate power, they link up with other institutions to create a constellation of forces monstrous in their hubris. The three forces at the heart of this juggernaut are the corporations themselves, the political establishment and the mainstream media. All subscribe to the same premises; all promote mass consumption as the key to economic growth. They also launch campaigns of disinformation that blow smoke screens over the truth and keep the cogs of the power machine turning.
Now, when 97 percent of climate scientists trace global warming to our dependence on fossil fuels, one would think the corporate titans and their cohorts would heed their warnings. After all, these people don’t live on Mars but here on Earth, and thus their policies are undermining the very planet on which their own survival depends. Do they really want to live on a planet that’s been pillaged, ravaged and wasted? Is this what they want to leave to their children and grandchildren?
As I see it, what is at work here is a toxic marriage of greed and delusion, craving and ignorance, each feeding off the other. It would be unrealistic to expect the fossil fuel executives or their political cronies to acknowledge the dangers and march to a different beat. The past fifty years have shown that to preserve their hold on profits and power, they’ll fight regulation with ferocity and shocking feats of deceit. If changes are to occur, they’ll have to come from us, from ordinary people who realize that our future is under attack and our planet—the only home we have—is in serious peril.
Change must occur at three levels: the immediate, the long-term pragmatic and the systemic. Immediate changes naturally come first, and they must come fast. We must learn about the major issues, support responsible environmental organizations, and promote legislation to curb the destructive impact fossil fuels are having on our water, food, soil, air and health. Long-term pragmatic measures include climate mitigation and adaptation, especially a rapid transition to renewable sources of energy. However, we also need to break the grip corporations have on U.S. politics so that our government will be responsive to the well-being of people rather than to corporate demands.
Even such pragmatic changes, though, are insufficient. We need broader systemic changes, including changes in consciousness itself, and this is where the Dharma becomes relevant. Our current economic and social model is built on a fiction: the assumption that happiness is to be won by extracting the living riches of the earth and turning them into lifeless commodities. Such a project fosters a culture of death governed by two vicious practices. First, our corporate economy objectifies human beings, treating them as mere consumers or as workers to be exploited for what they are worth and then cast aside. And then it commodifies the natural world, devaluing its inherent goodness for the sake of producing goods.
Buddhism offers us an alternative scheme of values, which teaches us that true happiness cannot be won by gratifying the impulses of craving but by living a life rich in purpose and replete with meaning. While we need adequate material security, the springs of happiness lie beyond the material: in more intimate spiritual contact with the roots of our being, in family and friendship, in collaborative communities, in artistic creativity, in appreciation of the grandeur of nature, and in the cultivation of our spiritual faculties. Happiness flows from generosity, virtue, wisdom and love.
Buddhism can also remind us of our global responsibility. Our actions, both individual and collective, have an impact on the billions of people and other beings who share this planet with us. On environmental issues, our country’s practices have been egregious. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we use a disproportionate share of the earth’s resources and spit out 25 percent of global carbon emissions. Ironically, those who bear the brunt of climate change are those least responsible for causing it: poor herdsmen in Africa, the indigenous peoples of South America, peasants in India and Southeast Asia—all those who depend on regular weather patterns for their livelihood. Thus, if we truly have compassion for other human beings—to say nothing of the many species of animals and plants facing extinction—we must reshape the technologies and economic structures responsible for environmental degradation.
To draw back from the edge of the cliff and avoid the crash that follows, what we need most is a clear, honest understanding of our predicament and an ethic grounded in humility, compassion and a sense of global stewardship. We also need a worldview—a metaphysic, if you will—that ascribes intrinsic value to people, other beings and the natural world, affirming their right to exist without being sacrificed on the altar of material gain. If our moral trajectory does not bend to meet the demand of sustainability, eventually we’ll share Coyote’s fate: we’ll shoot past the edge and crash. If we bend to meet the demand, we can draw back and emerge intact.