Text from a talk given at the Buddhafield Festival 2006
“I have been reading predictions of the future by those who believe they can predict what the world of tomorrow is going to be like. In all cases, the future of which they speak is merely a grotesque extension of the present…”
– Rene Dubos, New York Times 1982
Nature is a teacher. So, perhaps the ecological crisis we are currently facing will help us to realise just how deeply mistaken has been our confidence in economic growth, history as progress, and technology, to solve the malaise of human existence. So far-reaching is the crisis, and so co-extensive with the nature of our industrial-growth civilisation are the problems, that for anyone who has the courage to look deeply it becomes clear that any solutions that fail to take account of the existential – even spiritual – factors conditioning the history of our civilisation will be sorely and disastrously inadequate.
At the end of the historical project of modernity we do not find ourselves standing upon a glorious summit. Rather we find humanity swinging and kicking at the end of a rope. Woven out of the strands of progress, economic growth, rationalism, bureaucratisation and technology, the noose is rapidly tightening around our throats. Perhaps the ecological crisis we now face has the potential to fray and sever that rope, releasing us from its strangling noose into the freedom of the deep breathing fresh air of evanescent realities. Beneath this drive of the industrial growth economy there are powerful forces, yearnings, which need to be brought clearly into consciousness.
We need to respond simultaneously on many levels and address many issues. We need to resist further erosion and destruction of the life-systems of the planet; we need to further develop our analyses of the nature of the problems we face and understand the systemic socio-economic factors at work; we need to create new sustainable technologies while also drawing on the past to renew our ways of living; we need to develop global perspectives which recognise the links between social justice and ecological degradation, and foster concrete and local actions. But all of these necessary forms of resistance and renewal need to be informed at the deepest level by a shift in consciousness, a profound change in our assumptions, beliefs and understanding of our relationship with the world.
This shift amounts to a revolution quite as far reaching as that which marked the other two great revolutions of human history: the Neolithic-Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Some have called the revolution we now require the Sustainability Revolution, others the Great Turning from the industrial growth society to a life-affirming society. Whatever names we might apply the implications for our understanding of who and what we are and our relation to the world we live in is just as profound as the radical systemic re-organisation thrust upon our species by the first two great revolutions of our history. We require a great revolution of the spirit, both individually and collectively.
Drawing upon the points of intersection between the Buddhist Dharma and the insights offered by the explorative movement known as Deep Ecology, I suggest that this revolution of consciousness includes an understanding that escapes the dualistic modelling of the sacred and the secular, or of the spiritual and the material, which underpin our religious and secular systems. It includes a critique of both the eternalist transcendental fantasies and the nihilistic materialist reactions to these fictions, between which our collective histories and personal dispositions tend to oscillate. It includes a rejection of the over-estimation of what it is to be human found at the heart of our all too anthropocentric culture, while simultaneously resisting the impoverished view of humanity as a virus like and intrinsically flawed aberration. Alongside this we require a rediscovery of our embeddedness in nature and the celebration of our deep rootedness in the mineral and organic. With these shifts comes also a thorough re-evaluation of our predominant conceptions of time, and the possibility of freeing ourselves from the confused and damaging future orientation of our civilisation.
The Crisis of Our Time
We live in the midst of an ongoing environmental crisis. As the technological power of humankind has increased, as our capacity to exploit the earth and one another has been extended, the tragic and painful consequences of actions based on the greed, hatred and a lack of awareness press upon us inexorably.
In recent months the incontestable evidence of global warming and its link to carbon dioxide emissions has finally (after around a quarter of a century of warnings from ecologists) been taken on, albeit inadequately, by the global political community. And stories and information on the theme flood the public awareness. The urgent need to address this specific issue is clear, but it is only one of many such factors many of which we continue to deny and avoid just as we have the issue of global warming these past decades.
Our civilisation is a population-economy-environmental system exhibiting exponential growth patterns, currently accelerating past many significant thresholds of sustainability and non-negotiable environmental limits. It seems likely that we will not be able to stop our damaging social behaviour patterns in time to avoid catastrophic collapse of ecological systems. Our civilisation appears unmanageable!
There are so many aspects to this experience of crisis that it is extremely difficult to open up to the immensity of the problem. It hurts to do so, and so we repeatedly we shy away. We glaze over when we hear that evolutionary biologists refer to the present time as the 6th Great Extinction – 17 animal species are eradicated every hour! We avoid digesting the information available to us that many resources, essential to our way of life, such as copper, nickel, zinc, and lead are rapidly depleting. We hold out hope in technological fixes in the face of the suggestion that oil reserves, the black gold of our fossil fuelled economy, are being sucked dry and production is predicted to peak and slump right now.
Our denial is compounded by our sense of hopelessness, variously compounded by our experience of political disempowerment, social alientation and economic injustice. Repeatedly finding our own values compromised by our socio-economic conditions wears us down. The difficulties of building lasting connections with others in movements for change keeps us stifled in social atomisation. systems.
We sometimes retreat into the perverse security of the apparent uncertainties surrounding the future implications of our damaging behaviour. But the bunker of denial is being rent apart in a relentless slow motion explosion of facts, experiences and information. The consequences are not in the future. Many are here right now in our face – mapped, studied, analysed and lived. Over fishing has reduced some fish populations by 94% in only 20 years. Despite our apparent wealth 40,000 children die every day of preventable diseases connected with malnutrition. The human population continues to grow with out any obvious regard for the limited capacity of the planet to support us. Deforestation has occurred at a rate almost impossible to conceive of, destroying complex ecosystems and displacing indigenous people into urban slums. We have experienced the reality of ozone depletion, while water and air pollution are invisible poisons infecting the tissue of our collective social body and consciousness.
As long ago as 1982, Johnathan Schell put it clearly enough:
“Taken in its entirety, the increase in mankind’s strength has brought about a decisive, many-sided shift in the balance of strength between man and the earth. Nature, once a harsh and feared master, now lies in subjection, and needs protection against man’s powers. Yet because man, no matter what intellectual and technical heights he may scale, remains embedded in nature, the balance has shifted against him, too, and the threat that he poses to the earth is a threat to him as well.”
Really we shouldn’t require statistics or scientific evidence. The evidence for ecological crisis is not ever far away. We are an ecological crisis. Everyday lifestyles of frantic and neurotic consumption, bristling alienation, extraordinarily convoluted means of securing basic nutrition, the social pathologies which we pass off as culture, all point to an utter devastation of our own nature. And as we are indeed part of the environment, that crisis of humanity is also in itself an ecological crisis. If we do this to ourselves, is it not consistent to assume that we are also doing this to the wider ecological systems of which we are a part.
A Limited Response
It is true that there is a growing concern and an increasing will to do something about the perceived problem, but this response is generally very limited in both scope and understanding of the problem.
A good example of this might be, the then UK Chancelor, Gordon Brown’s comments following the much heralded Stern Report which made clear the economic implications of global warming. Acknowledging that for all too long the priorities of economic policy had been employment and economic growth, Mr Brown admitted that in the light of the report a re-evaluation was indeed necessary. But what did this re-evaluation amount to? For the future, he said, the priorities would be employment, economic growth and the environment – merely sticking environmental concerns on as an adjunct to the old model. The basic assumption seems to be that business as usual is the desired outcome, but with a nod in the direction of some minor adjustments taking the inconvenience of environmental impact into account. There is no willingness to really address the uncomfortable, if all too obvious, possibility that the continuation of a growth based economy is likely to be irreconcilable with an environmentally sustainable society.
Amidst the emerging limited responses there are many things to be glad of. The scientific arguments about the role of CO2 in global warming are coming to rest, the evidence has been stacked up. There is a growing awareness of the need for sustainability. The idea has entered the mainstream – even if this is only poorly understood, and the term largely co-opted in the name of further development. There is growing concern about the impact of pollutants, the limits of oil reserves and the need for new technologies, new industrial approaches, new legislation and new consumer mentality. There have even been major international achievements, like the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion.
But all of this remains extraordinarily insufficient. Unable to take on board the seriousness of the situation, we all too often look to technological and social fixes within the existing framework, which are inadequate and shallow. Often we find beneath these responses that we remain stuck in old ways of thinking. In particular, there almost always remains a root pre-occupation with the impact on our separate selves and our separate humanity. When our politicians and social commentators pay lip service (occasionally more than lip service) to the danger of climate change it is usually in terms of its effect on human civilisation, our habitats being flooded by rising waters, our crops failing because of drought. When we discuss pollution we most commonly worry about smog in our cities. We obsess about nitrates in our water and so buy bottled spring water trucked in from mountains a thousand miles away, despite the obvious fact that this releases yet further poisons into the body of the planet. We worry about the pesticides in our food, and those who can afford to begin to feel better about ourselves by buying expensive luxury organic products, with little thought of the increased class division this exacerbates as neighbours can still only afford the cheapest loaf white sliced bread from Costcutters, or in some cases simply go without. Perhaps we think that an organic revolution will sweep through the world if only the poor could get their spending priorities right!
Our responses remain limited by the predominant assumptions and conditions of our time. Perhaps we need to look a little more deeply. We find an example of this in Green and Ethical Consumerism. While acknowledging that these consumer tendencies have a positive impact in a number of ways, perhaps we also need to go deeper in our analysis and ask whether the transportation of trinkets and trash, or luxury food items like coffee and chocolate from distant continents is really sustainable or ethical; we might do well to wonder whether the attitudes implicit in an economic system that regards the natural world as so many resources to be bought, sold, and commodified is really reconcilable with a truly ecological sensibility; we might wonder if the mediation of human ethical relations and values by a price tag and the transformation of productive work into wage labour is finally compatible with social justice and honouring the life potential of others.
With evidence stacking up of ecological and social crisis, we are just fiddling with the problems. How is it that the momentum of the industrial growth economy is actually increasing and that there is virtually no political or social will to oppose it?
Perhaps we are simply not prepared to look deeply enough at the problems. Instead of just technological or social fixes in terms of our current world views, Deep Ecology points out that we need solutions that begin by looking at the heart of the problems in the depths of our own understanding of our relationship to the natural world.
As Aung San Su Khyi, the Buddhist Burmese pro-democracy campaigner, pointed out:
“The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in the mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a society’s development. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces that produced the iniquities of the old order will continue to be operative.”
In part the problem can be traced to the underlying world views which have conditioned our moment in history, which continue to condition both the political/social response and our own individual responses. And beneath these views we need to identify the existential drivers which in turn condition them. So, it is important for us to make conscious the factors that drive our civilisation, the deep seated views, beliefs and commitments that appear to over determine our world.
The Dominant Western World View
What are these conditioning views? Sociologists William Catton and Riley Dunlap have provided a useful analysis of the dominant western world view or the modern world view in terms of four basic assumptions.
- People are fundamentally different from all other creatures on Earth, over which they have dominion (defined as domination).
- People are masters of their own destiny; they can choose their goals and learn to do whatever is necessary to achieve them.
- The world is vast, and thus provides unlimited opportunities for humans.
- The history of humanity is one of progress; for every problem there is a solution, and thus progress need never cease.
Now, you might argue that these views have been supplanted by post-modernism, that in the face of contemporary crisis and failure of the human project, we have lost faith in these ideas. But there are several things worth bearing in mind. Firstly, many of these views are not held consciously, but have become inscribed within our way of seeing the world to such an extent that they simply constitute our underlying assumptions about reality. Secondly, that while many people may well experience personal anxiety about the failure of these views to match reality, whatever our personal response, these views remain thoroughly enmeshed within our social-economic, political-judicial and technological systems, in a way that nevertheless highly determines our lives. And thirdly, these views may just be a lot more prevalent than those of us who associate with like minded people can imagine.
I recently conducted a series of interviews with teenagers in one of England’s most prestigious private schools. I asked a series of questions about their expectations of the future and the environment. These were kids whose parents are highly influential, political class, captains of industry, extremely wealthy individuals. With a very few exceptions they all believed that what is referred to as the environmental crisis is exaggerated hype, that economic growth and improvement of standards of living across the world will go on indefinitely (driven by the free market), and that we will find technological solutions for any problems that might arise. Their biggest concern was the shift in balance of power they envisaged with the economic development of China and India. One of them did admit to believing in some limits to technological progress, namely that the aspirations of the Japanese robotics genius, Hiroshi Ishigura of Kyoto, to create a robot football team capable of beating the winners of the 2050 world cup would probably not succeed!
These four constituents of the modern world view are deeply conditioned and constitute a powerful trajectory in our civilisation. Let’s take a brief stop to look at some of the historical roots to help us to get a sense of just how deeply they run. As Milan Kundera has said – “the struggle of people [against power] is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” So, let’s do a little remembering.
Historical trajectory of human relation to the natural world
Let’s take a brief look at a highly generalised account of how some of these assumptions came to be so prevalent in the dominant western paradigm. The way in which we have come to view ourselves as above nature and in a position to dominate and control ‘her’ (as the androcentric tradition would have it) may originate in the Neolithic revolution, find itself articulated in the dualistic tendencies of ancient Greek philosophy, reinforced by the Christianity of the Middle Ages, and become codified by scientists and philosophers of the seventeenth century.
1. The Neolithic revolution (9000-7000BC)
Let’s start at the beginning. Most of us are familiar with the idea that in terms of the geological timescales of the life of the planet humans and our immediate relatives have been around for the briefest of moments. Now, if we look only within the timeframe of human and homo class animals we find that our way of living is an incredibly recent development. Hominid class species have lived stably for hundreds of thousands of years practicing small scale hunting and gathering. This long stable period was followed by an apparently instantaneous efflorescence of technology and society. ‘Stratigraphically,’ the origin of agriculture and thermonuclear destruction will appear as essentially simultaneous.
With the Neolithic revolution from hunter-gatherer modes of subsistence to one based on agriculture, the explosion of civilisation is ignited. It marks a crucial shift in our relation to the world. In particular we should note the extension of our capacity to manipulate and control the natural world – and to accumulate surplus, expand social groups, and through settlement increase the speed of technological development.
Looked at in broad evolutionary and deep historical terms, we may need to face the fact that this departure may have been a mistaken and catastrophic detour for our species. Depending on our response to the present crisis, we may find that contrary to all our assumptions of progress, there is nothing to suggest that the unfolding of the history of our species is for the better.
We are accustomed to think we know what we have gained. But can we possibly know what we might have lost? The Brazilian photographer Sebastio Salgado recently spent 6 months with a group of primal people in the Upper Xingu Basin of the Amazon. As he left, looking out of the airplane window at those he was leaving behind, he wondered why he, and mankind in general, had chosen the modern way of life over this one. In response to leaving he said: “I felt desolate.”
Walking naked through the mountains with your dogs, foraging, finding wild fruits, gathering mushrooms, the dogs flushing out deer and wild pigs, kneeling in mud to drink clean water from springs seeping from beneath a stone – how much more alive does that feel than adrenaline soaked football hooliganism? How much more connected than at an MDMA fuelled rave? How much more yourself than any new and perfectly chosen designer outfit, despite your friends insistence that “it’s so you darling…” We don’t need to romanticise the ways of primal people to realise what we have lost. Last week I took a city based friend of mine out picking wild cherries, after which he wrote a new song which starts, “if only food grew on trees…”
2. Judeo-Christian Anthropocentrism
With settled agriculture came a spiritual shift, notably a shift form matriarchal to patriarchal, from earth gods to sky god, pantheism to monotheism. The seeds of both anthropocentrism and androcentrism were sown, latter to become important features of the dominant forms of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is well known that Genesis articulates the anthropocentric idea of the special and privileged place of humanity, our position of dominance:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image and likeness to rule the fish in the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all wild animals on earth, and all the reptiles that crawl upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image […] God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase, fill the earth and subdue it, rule over the fish in the sea, the birds of heaven, and every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1.26-31)
“And fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air; and upon all that moveth on the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hands they are delivered.” (Genesis 9:2)
This idea that humankind are special, closets to God, and (later) ensouled in a way that the rest of the world is not, supports a world view that seems to entitle humanity to use, exploit and dominate an increasingly disenchanted world which has been provided especially for them.
3. Greek rationalism [and the great chain of being]
The ideas of ancient Greece had a significant influence on the development of Christianity during the medieval period. The classical ideal of certain knowledge placed a very high value on human consciousness and our capacity for reason to understand the world. The search for permanence and certainty led to Plato’s idealisation of a pure transcendental realm which was the measure of truth. And we can note how Socratic homocentrism is amplified in Plato, where God, the Divine Artificer’ is a perfected and magnified version of the human soul, an all powerful soul free of the encumbering body.
Although Aristotle began to return to an interest in nature (for him nature is animate), his project lays the foundation for gaining rational knowledge and thereby control over nature (rather than to maintain harmony with it). He proposed an Earth-centred finite universe, wherein humans, by virtue of their rationality, were differentiated from, and seen as superior to, animals and plants. And we also find there the promotion of the concept of the “Great Chain of Being” in which (as Aristotle expounds in his Politics) nature made the plants for the use of animals, and animals were made for the sake of humans (Politics I.88).
This hierarchical scheme and anthropocentric tendency was later absorbed by Thomas Aquinas in his medieval synthesis of classical and Christian traditions – particularly into the Christian version of the Great Chain of Being, the hierarchical ladder that leads from God to angels, from angels to men, from men to women and children and on down to animals, to plants and the apparently inanimate.
4. The new science (16th and 17th centuries)
These influences underpinned the new science of Galileo, Bacon, Descartes and Newton. With the scientific project and ‘instrumental rationality’, we find the origins of what sociologist Max Weber calls ‘the disenchantment of the world’. Combined with the strict delineation between mind and matter and linear mechanistic causality, (basics of the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm) the scientific project was intended, in the words of Bacon, “to place nature upon the rack and torture her until she reveals her secrets”. It marks a shift from an organic view to a mechanistic one, which would, as Bacon believed, offer humanity the power to “exercise over the nature of things the authority that properly belongs to it.”
The attitude to the natural world which underpinned the origination of the scientific project is clearly articulated by Descartes in his Discourse on Method (1637), where he says:
“(My discoveries) have satisfied me that it is possible to reach knowledge that will be of much utility in this life; and that instead of the speculative philosophy […] we can find a practical one, by which knowing the nature and behaviour of fire, water, air, stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies which surround us, […], we can employ these entities for all the purposes for which they are suited, and so make ourselves masters and possessors of nature.”
5. The first industrial revolution
This scientific revolution paved the way for the first industrial revolution, (1785-1830), actually only a few generations ago, during which we see the enclosure of common lands, the displacement of rural communities, the shift from self-sufficiency to the rise of labour and wage slavery. Here also is the birth of consumerism and the manufacturing of needs. This again marked a very significant break with traditional relationships to the land and a shockingly increased rate of urbanisation. Implicit in that revolution – to which we owe so much of our way of life – was the betrayal of community and the natural world – as John Muir would say about (industrial and economic) developers of the West:
“These Temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.”
6. Second Industrial Revolution
Combined with the free market economy, with its laissez-faire doctrine, the industrial revolution and run away technological development has rapidly careered into what some now call the second industrial revolution – in which, as historian David Noble puts it:
“capital is moving decisively now to enlarge and to consolidate the social dominance it secured in the first industrial revolution,” now only on a global scale and with the new technolog[ies] as a weapon… in the quest for more potent vehicles of investment and exploitation… Once again the machines of industry have taken centre stage in the historical drama, as the drive for ever more automatic processes becomes a historical stampede.”
The free market puts technology in the saddle riding humanity. Even back in 1933 the sign above the entrance to World’s fair in Chicago, with out any intended irony, said:
“Science explores: Technology executes: Man conforms.”
And with this comes a frighteningly rapid exponential increase in our alientation: Alienation, from nature; from each other; from the decision making within our societies; from the past and our sense of history; from the sense of continuity and tradition… all of which we need to fight to restore.
There are long discussions and arguments to be had about the role of technology. But it does seem reasonable to stand with Herbert Read when he says:
“Only a people serving an apprenticeship to nature can be trusted with machines.”
Can we, in our alientated state, be trusted?
The Overdetermination of Alientation
And so we arrive in the present, in a state which we might call The Overdetermination of Alienation!
This trajectory of anthropocentrism, dualism, and increasing patterns of domination is deeply embedded in our socio-economic systems and within our own psyches and attempts to make sense of the world. They do so to such an extent that we have reached a point where our alienation and isolation from the natural world is only vaguely recognised. Our displacement from nature is so pervasive that we scarcely notice it.
We are mostly so enveloped in the urbanised human-created and human-centred environment, that we have forgotten that the world is actually wild. We have forgotten that we are actually wild and natural, that we can live on this planet without clothes or shelter or much complication. Throughout the whole of Europe there is not a hedgerow into which we haven’t intruded, scarcely a woodland we haven’t felled. We have even come to think of a place like this (the Buddhafield festival where this talk was delivered), that we call the countryside, as being in nature. While it seems to offer a relief from the urban sprawl, these pleasant fields and pastures have been entirely reformed as an adjunct to the cities and towns around which our culture coalesces.
As civilisation drives to control the wild world more thoroughly, the more frantic, complex and extended are the means of control, and the more thoroughly alienated we become. Unable to remember that food grows on trees, that clean drinking water flows out of the ground, that excrement gives life back to the earth… we needn’t look far to see that we are an environmental crisis! Our current condition of alienation is itself a destruction of nature in ourselves. So, what can we do?
As I said we need a shift in consciousness, a turning away from the views which have underpinned our successive destruction of the world. To do that we need to face the existential roots of those views. Let’s look at this briefly in relation to these 4 aspects of the Modern World View.
1. People are fundamentally different from all other creatures on Earth, over which they have dominion (defined as domination)
This is what we can call anthropocentrism, the forgetting and denial that we are just animals, that we are just the same stuff as everything that is here around us. It is the idea that people are fundamentally different from other forms of organic life, somehow separate. From a Buddhist perspective this is like an extension of the delusion of a separate permanent self to our identification with our species.
In the same way that the dharma helps us to let go of the limiting and false sense of a permanent, separate self we need to break free of the sense of a separate permanent species. We need to immerse ourselves more fully in the non-human world, to cultivate a deeper evolutionary understanding, to feel and recognise our animalness and our mineralness.
As environmental activist John Seed expresses in his essay ‘Anthropocentrism’:
“We need to remember our childhood as minerals, as lava, as rocks[?] Rocks contain the potential to weave themselves into such stuff as this. We are rocks dancing.”
While we may be unique, as all things are unique, we are not special in the way we often like to think. The longer one spends immersed in the natural world, in the mountains, surrounded by the wild, the more one realises that the planet doesn’t need us, the universe doesn’t need us.
This is not nihilism, it is about opening up to reality. Achieving intimacy with the way things are. Not trying to dress up experience in shrouding fantasy. We find it hard to endure the disorientation of reality, the non-centredness of things. We use ideas about our specialness, our importance, to shield ourselves from the impingement of reality and the impenetrability of the world.
In meditation we simply try to be open to how things are without contrivance. If we can carry this approach into a sense of ourselves and our collective history as a species we can begin to see that the whole trajectory of our civilisation is built on premises which attempt to deny reality, running away from it in a misguided search for salvation – into both the false promises of transcendentalism and the lure of salvation through ever more acquisition and consumption.
We can free ourselves from the constructed assumptions of anthropocentrism. As Buddhists we can use the dharma to help us to let go of the limiting and false sense of a permanent, separate individual self, and to break free of the sense of a separate permanent species.
An important aspect of escaping anthropocentrism involves freeing ourselves from the prison of residual dualistic understanding of the sacred and the everyday, the spiritual and material. From the Buddhist perspective there is no discontinuity between the sacred and the everyday. It is here in the everyday world that we make the choice to turn away from reality, to close our heart, or the choice to open our heart. We face this choice in every moment. In Buddhism there is no distant heavenly realm, or state of salvation to which we can escape. The conditions for liberation are an everyday matter.
Our anthropocentrism is propped up by our belief in the specialness of human consciousness. A useful antidote to this conceit is to reflect on the way in which it is only one aspect of consciousness, one dimension of mind in the world. As the systems theorists point out, mind is immanent in every feedback system – plants, weather systems, climate regulation. Our consciousness is just one manifestation of that. It is a momentary ordering of stuff, which in an emergent form manifests as that which we experience as our mind. Our individual consciousness is a contingent evanescent phenomenon, just a particular window on becoming, which may not last very long.
An mind is not only present within ourselves. Rather, as systems philosopher Ervin Laszlo says, ‘mind pervades the natural world as the subjective dimension within every open system, however primitive.’ There is simply no dualism between mind and matter. As Gregory Bateson puts it:
It is ubiquitous in the circuits of information, or feedback loops, guiding every relationship. The mind-body dualism is a fundamental underpinning of the western world view and anthropocentrism. It creates an adversarial relationship between self-and-other, engendering myopic pride and a kind of moral blindess we can no longer afford. If we continue in terms of a Cartesian dualism of mind versus matter, we shall probably also continue to see the world in terms of God versus man; elite versus people; chosen race versus others; nation versus nation; and man versus environment. It is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology and this strange way of looking at its world can endure.
The everyday distinction between our mind and body is challenged by the Dharma. When we claim the specialness of human consciousness, of our self-awareness, we need to remember that the mental and the physical are neither ultimately identical nor different. They are related, as two sides of a coin. In the early Buddhist scriptures we find:
“Where, brother, there is the view: ‘mind and body are one and the same,’ or the view ‘mind and body are different things,’ there there is no divine living. The Tathagata teaches neither of these two extremes; he teaches a Middle Way.” (Samyutta Nikaya, II.94-97)
If we can really begin to penetrate the non-duality of mind and body we begin to free ourselves from unhelpful ideas about what is spiritual and what is not, and we begin to escape from our aloofness from the world, and rediscover our intimacy with things. We begin to inhabit the world with love, like the Buddha says of the ardent practitioner:
[Cut section on Teleology: “refering to liberation as the natural state towards which the process of all life tends”.]
“Of all things that have form or life, there is not one that he passes by or leaves aside; he regards them all with mind set free and filled with deep-felt love.” (Digha Nikaya II.443)
We can outgrow our anthropocentrism, and begin to touch the wild and savage irreducibility of life. Escaping anthropocentrism involves learning to let things be, no longer asserting our self’s desperate strategies to create meaning. It demands, not that we save natural resources so that we can continue to live comfortable and sustainable lives (or even practice dharma), but that we learn to love the world for itself. It involves bringing intimate awareness, love even, to each particular of one’s experience. This is a facet of love with which we can live different lives. We can be more human, more honest about our place, enmeshed in the natural world. We can learn that separation from our evolutionary past strangles our life blood. We can learn that our denial of daily dependence on soil and plant and sun is a sickness. And through this we can come to know that the earth and mountains and rivers are, as the Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253) said, ‘non-other than myself.’
2. People are masters of their own destiny; they can choose their goals and learn to do whatever is necessary to achieve them.
This is an enormous overestimation of our capacity to influence the world and to understand it. This tendency is driven by the existential fear of the unknown, the uncertainty and the wild and untameable nature of reality. Of course we can take a significant degree of responsibility within our lives, but we cannot ultimately know the world, contain it within our systems, or control it for our own good.
In ecological terms we find this expressed in the idea that – it is not just that ecological systems are more complex than we think; they are more complex than we can think. The world is ultimately untameable, filled with uncertainty – as they say – “nothing makes the Gods laugh more than the plans of men.” And yet we continue to attempt to pin it all down, to bring it under our control.
The Buddhist emphasis on impermanence reminds us that whatever we tie down will become loose again, whatever we build up will collapse. Despite the ever more shiny the materials we build prestige offices with, despite the operating systems of our machines becoming ever more slick, death and messy decomposition will remain. Despite the increasing perfection of cosmetic surgery, and the ever higher levels of hygiene and cleanliness – we still need to shit out of our arses, and clean the puss from an infected wound. The world will not be fixed technologically. The world will never conform to our rationalised interpretations. It will never be sanitised of ugly, awkward, painful, incomprehensible things!
Closing ourselves up in a world of greater and greater technological control, controlling the environment we live in so that we need only experience a few degrees of difference in temperature from summer to winter – we are already on the way to ending up like factory farmed pigs, which are so hybridised that they cannot survive outside of the temperature controlled environment of the factory farm.
And of course, our efforts to control the environment also extend to efforts to control our society. When applied to the social realm an ecological sensibility tends towards an anarchist sensibility. I wonder if you can have a truly ecological sensibility and not end up an anarchist? Our ideas of domination and mastery of nature are also applied within our social relations towards one another, with damaging consequences for us all.
We try to create with technological and socio-economic fixes a controlled environment in which we are protected from the wild and savage irreducibility of reality. But to be whole, both deep ecology and the Dharma suggest, we need to embrace again the wild:
“the man of flesh and bone can maintain physical and mental sanity only to the extent to which he can have direct contact with a certain kind of reality not very different from the conditions under which he evolved…”
But to embrace the wild is not only to embrace the beautiful vistas of the mountains and the grandeur of the old growth forest. It is also to face the wild in the puss filled infection, in old age, in the fragile uncertainty of our short lives. In Huxley’s Brave New World, the character of the savage rejects the carefully managed and authoritarian utopian society. A representative of that utopian social order says to him:
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy… Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence. “I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
Giving up our conceited and desperate attempts to control and dominate the world includes facing up to the fact that suffering or dukkha is all pervasive. Dukkha is not resolved by tinkering with the conditions of existence, but by radically changing our attitude towards it. When we can do that, when we can embrace again the wildness of reality we find that “the world is as sharp as a knife,” and vibrantly alive with significance hitherto unguessed at.
When we learn to stop asserting our desire to control upon the world, our relationship to it brings a freedom and a renewed connection with reality. We become truly alive, truly life affirming, we enter into greater intimacy with things. We might begin to understand what Dogen is getting at when he says:
That the self advances and confirms
the myriad things is called delusion.
That the myriad things advance and confirm
the self is called enlightenment.
3. The world is vast, and thus provides unlimited opportunities for humans
Although we have a cartographic understanding of the finite dimensions of the Earth, and having seen it from space we know that in some way the Earth is rather small. But even now there are many people, usually with specific vested interests, who will argue that the limits to resources are far more remote than ‘scare mongering environmentalists’ would have us believe! And even those of us who have a strong intimation that we have gone beyond sustainable limits cannot deny that there is always some degree of uncertainty about exactly what the limits to world resources are.
However, a very useful framework for addressing this aspect of the ecological crisis is what can be called The Limits to Growth analysis. It follows a very robust logic and applies systems analysis to make a powerful case for urgent change. So, under this heading lets briefly look at the basic components of the Limits to Growth analysis; the ideas of throughput, carrying capacity, ecological footprint, and the mathematics of exponential growth.
Our way of life involves a throughput of energy and materials. There are clear limits to this. On the one side there are non-negotiable limits to the sources, the natural resources we use; and on the other side there are clear limits to the sinks, the capacity of the environment to absorb and process waste and pollutants.
These limits can be used to determine the carrying capacity of an ecosystem and ecological footprint of a species or civilisation: Our ecological footprint is the land and other resources needed to meet the demands for consumption of our society. And the carrying capacity is the limit of sources and sinks relative to the number of a particular species making demand on those resources.
It is obvious that when the ecological footprint of a species or civilisation within an ecological system, exceeds the carrying capacity it overshoots its limits. Sometimes in natural systems overshoot can results in an adjustment in behaviour or population size, in a way that allows a re-stabilisation or harmonisation with the environmental limits. Where the feedback loops and responsiveness of the species are adequate a kind of oscillatory harmonisation between ecological footprint and carrying capacity is maintained. But, sometimes the feedback loops are convoluted, the capacity to respond is sluggish, and the acceleration towards the limits creates too much momentum and insufficient foresight – and so then (instead of an oscillatory harmonisation) overshoot results in a crash.
Our civilisation is a population-economy-environmental system that does have serious feedback delays and slow physical responses, is accelerating its growth exponentially, and is already passing significant thresholds. It seems likely that we will not be able to stop our damaging social behaviour patterns in time to avoid a catastrophic collapse of ecological systems. Our civilisation appears unmanageable!
It is particularly important to realise the significance of exponential growth patterns in all this. It is in part the fact that our population, our production and consumption grows both rapidly and exponentially that causes such great concern.
- Linear growth is where a quantity increases by a constant amount over a given period of time.
- Exponential growth is when an increase is proportional to whatever is already there.
A graph line of linear growth and exponential growth show that a linear increase is more gradual and steady, whereas the sharp upward curve of exponential growth can easily take us by surprise. Consider the example of a lilly pad in a pond which grows 50% each day. It may take 100 days to fill half the pond, but the very next day the pond will be completely filled!
So whatever our position in relation to the evidence about the ecological crisis, the logic of the Limits to Growth framework and the mathematics of exponential growth should alert us to the extreme urgency with which we need to address our situation. Already a crash scenario seems highly probable. If we do not act to open up the channels of communication within our social system, and energetically respond to feedback about the limits now, it will almost certainly be too late. Conditioned existence just isn’t all you want it to be!
4. The history of humanity is one of progress; for every problem there is a solution, and thus progress need never cease.
“It is by the meaning that it intuitively attaches to time that one culture is differentiated from another.” Spengler, The Decline of the West
The dominant contemporary view of time remains (despite quantum physics!) an undifferentiated Cartesian-like grid upon which we map the affairs of the world. In traditional societies, time’s structure is basically religious. Where we tend to have a linear sense of time, the traditional societies (although not blind to the linear aspects of time) had a more cyclical experience of time. Rather than time being a neutral framework through which we pass, time is the patterning of the world. Instead of time being used to measure the passage of the moon through the sky, the passing of the moon through the sky is time. In traditional time harmony and salvation are found in respect for the patterns, re-enacting the natural processes. Whereas in the modern highly linear conceptions of time we find that more and more emphasis becomes placed upon the future as the location of salvation and the resolution of our problems.
To a large extent the foundations for this were lain down in Christian apocalyptic millenarianism, in which it was believed that the tension between this world and the supernatural will be finally resolved in the future when the transcendent manifests itself so completely that this world is purified and transformed.
The historian David Noble argues that during the 11thC the collective religious solutions to our existential dilemmas began to shift from otherworldly to this worldly dimension, an approach that no longer looked up to the heavens but forward to what could appear on earth in the future. It was a gradual shift, which implied new understandings of temporality, rationality, and technology itself – understandings now common sense and so oblivious of the spiritual motivations that formed them.
At first the emphasis was on creating the social and spiritual conditions that could hasten the return of Christ and the new millennium he would inaugurate. Eventually we became more confident about our ability to reshape society and the material conditions of our existence. The trajectory that would culminate in our cherished faith in progress was set.
“In fact, while today’s technologists, in their sober pursuit of utility, power, and profit, seem to set society’s standards for rationality, they are driven by distant dreams, spiritual yearnings for supernatural redemption… their true inspiration lies… in an enduring, otherworldly quest for transcendence and salvation.”
Our hopes for salvation, both secular and spiritual, remain largely locked in this future orientation. Everything is continually relegated to being a means to an end, and gradually we even forget what those ends were supposed to be. Of course those ends, those dreams of a perfect future are never fulfilled and the toll of such a perpetual future orientation is an awful abnegation of life.
In our own response to the current ecological and social crisis we need to shift our own sense of time away from a future oriented linearity. In part we need to honour the cyclical, but even more than that we need to honour the present, to realise that the present is not within time, but is time. Again it is Zen Master Dogen who says:
“The time we call spring blossoms directly as an existence called flowers. The flowers themselves, in turn, express the time called spring. This is not existence within time; existence itself is time.”
And looked at closely we might even come to realise the utter timelessness of experience, to free ourselves from the frantic compression of modern clock time and discover like William Blake that there is “Eternity in an hour.”
Accepting modern assumptions about time and progress into our response to the current ‘crisis’creates within us a drive towards ultimate solutions – but perhaps we must endure the idea that we will never get there! We perhaps need to accept that there is no perfect state from which we have fallen, and there is no perfect state towards which we are working. Only here in the present exist the potential for love, for truth, for connection. Like Dogen, when he asserts that practice is enlightenment, we need to value our acts to respond to suffering in the world are ends in themselves, they are affirmations of life and of love, and require no further justification. For our actions in the present to be free of the old patterns which continue to create the problems we perceive in the world, perhaps we need to learn to act for the world in a way which is free of either hope or hopelessness.
If we are to find solutions to our current problems, that will not simply repeat the same old stories of the trajectory of our current civilisation, we will need to get free of anthropocentrism, of the need to control, of the dualistic framework of the spiritual and the secular, and of the tendencies towards future orientation. We will need to face the existential fears and insecurities that condition our response, we will need to learn humility in relation to the world
When we de-mythologizes salvation, as Buddhism teaches us to do, the split between spiritual and the secular dissolves, the views and strategies for self-fulfilment are broken, and we meet more directly the reality beyond the narrow confines of our smaller controlled world. Then we can enter more fully into a nourishing and intimate appreciation the truly wild nature of reality, out of which connection with other unfolds as compassion and love, for each other, and for each and every thing in the world.
This may seem daunting, but in fact we can do that each moment by making choices to keep our minds clear and brightly responsive, alive to creative potential, and our hearts open to love. We do it in every step we take to go beyond our attempts to limit reality, to open up to the world that is beyond us. We do it in every moment of empathy with each other and with the world.
It does require both courage and humility. Both are restored within us when we recall that despite human vanity and our multi-millennial struggle to vainly assert ourselves upon the world, the wild irreducibility of reality will always fight back. The wild will always survive. The only question is whether we allow it to fight back within our own hearts.
This article originally appeared at ecodharma.com and has been included in the Society’s archives with the author’s permission.