February 04, 2014

The Earth as Witness

An international dharma teachers' statement on climate change

Today humanity faces an unprecedented crisis of almost unimaginable magnitude. Escalating climate change is altering the global environment so drastically as to force the Earth into a new geological age. Unprecedented levels of suffering for all life on Earth, including human, will result. Significant reductions in greenhouse gases and other actions will be needed to reduce climate change to manageable levels. But more fundamental changes are also needed, and this is where we can draw guidance from the rich resources of the Buddha’s teachings, the dharma. This statement briefly describes core Buddhist insights into the root causes of the climate crisis and suggests ways to minimize its potentially tragic consequences.

As a starting point, the dharma states that to formulate meaningful solutions to any problem we must first acknowledge the truth of our suffering. As shocking and painful as it may be, we must recognize that without swift and dramatic reductions in fossil fuel use and major efforts to increase carbon sequestration, global temperatures will rise close to or beyond 2 degrees Celsius. This increase will lead to injury and death for millions of people worldwide and the extinction of many of the Earth's species. Millions more will experience severe trauma and stress that threaten their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. These stresses will, in turn, trigger social and political unrest. In a grave injustice, low-income communities, poor nations, and people systematically subjected to oppression and discrimination, who contributed little to climate change, will initially be harmed the most. Even worse, as frightening as it is, if we fail to make fundamental changes in our energy, manufacturing, transportation, forestry, agricultural, and other systems along with our consumption patterns with utmost urgency, in mere decades irreversible climate shifts will occur that undermine the very pillars of human civilization. Only by recognizing these truths can we adopt a meaningful path toward solutions.

The dharma teaches us the origin of our suffering. The majority of the world's climate scientists are unequivocal that on the external physical plane climate change is caused by the historic and ongoing use of fossil fuels and the greenhouse gases they generate when burned. Destructive land management practices such as clearing forests also contribute by reducing nature's capacity to sequester carbon. The dharma informs us, however, that craving, aversion, and delusion within the human mind are the root causes of vast human suffering. Just as these mental factors have throughout history led to the oppression, abuse, and exploitation of indigenous peoples and others outside the halls of wealth and power, craving, aversion, and delusion are also the root causes of climate change. Climate change is perhaps humanity's greatest teacher yet about how these mental forces, when unchecked in ourselves and our institutions, cause harm to other people and the living environment. Led by industrialized nations, the desire for evermore material wealth and power has resulted in the reckless destruction of land and water, excessive use of fossil fuels, massive amounts of solid and toxic waste, and other practices that are disrupting the Earth's climate. However, by acknowledging and addressing these internal mental drivers, we can begin to resolve the external causes of climate change.

The dharma offers hope by teaching us that it is possible to overcome the detrimental forces of craving, aversion, and delusion. We can use the climate crisis as a catalyst to acknowledge the consequences of our craving for more and more material wealth and the pursuit of power and realize we must change our assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors. We can use the climate crisis as a catalyst to educate ourselves about planetary processes so we understand that the Earth has ecological limits and thresholds that must not be crossed. By learning from our mistaken beliefs and activities, we can create more equitable, compassionate, and mindful societies that generate greater individual and collective well-being while reducing climate change to manageable levels.

Finally, the dharma describes a pathway of principles and practices we can follow to minimize climate change and the suffering it causes. The first principle is wisdom. From this point forward in history we must all acknowledge not only the external causes of climate change, but the internal mental drivers as well, and their horrific consequences. To be wise we must also, individually and as a society, adopt the firm intention to do whatever is necessary, no matter what the cost, to reduce the climate crisis to manageable levels and over time re-stabilize our planet's climate.

The second dharma principle is ethical conduct, which is rooted in a compassionate concern for all living beings in the vast web of life. We need to make a firm moral commitment to adopt ways of living that protect the climate and help restore the Earth's ecosystems and living organisms. In our personal lives, we should recognize the value of contentment and sufficiency and realize that, after a certain modest level, additional consumption, material wealth, and power will not bring happiness. To fulfill our wider moral responsibility, we must join with others, stand up to the vested interests that oppose change, and demand that our economic, social, and political institutions be fundamentally altered so they protect the climate and offer nurturance and support for all of humanity in a just and equitable manner. We must insist that governments and corporations contribute to a stable climate and a healthy environment for all people and cultures worldwide, now and in the future. We must further insist that specific scientifically credible global emission reduction targets be set and means adopted to effectively monitor and enforce them.

The third dharma training, and the one that makes all of the others possible, is mindfulness. This offers a way to heighten our awareness of, and then to regulate, our desires and emotions and the thoughts and behaviors they generate. By continually enhancing our awareness, we can increasingly notice when we are causing harm to others, the climate, or ourselves, and strengthen our capacity to rapidly shift gears and think and act constructively. Mindfulness increases awareness of our inherent interdependency with other people and the natural environment and of values that enhance human dignity rather than subordinate people, animals, and nature to the craving for more material wealth and power.

As we each awaken to our responsibility to follow the path described in the dharma to help us protect and restore the planet and its inhabitants, we may feel awed by the immensity of the challenge. We should take heart, however, in the power of collective action. Buddhists can join with others in their sanghas, and our sanghas can join hands and hearts with other religious and spiritual traditions as well as secular movements focused on social change. In this way we will support each other as we make the necessary shifts in perspectives, lifestyles, and economic and institutional systems required to reduce climate change to manageable levels. History shows that with concerted, unified, collective effort, changes that at one time seemed impossible have time and again come to pass.

When we come together to celebrate our love for the natural world and all of the beings that inhabit it, and when we take a stand to counter the forces of craving, aversion, and delusion, we reclaim our own inner stability and strength and live closer to the truth, closer to the dharma. Together, we can seek to ensure that our descendants and fellow species inherit a livable planet. Individually and collectively, we will be honoring the great legacy of the dharma and fulfill our heart's deepest wish to serve and protect all life.

Over the past several months, a coalition of Buddhist teachers spread out across four continents have worked together to draft this collective Buddhist statement on climate change. Already a large number of dharma teachers and Buddhist practitioners have endorsed the statement and the number is growing rapidly each day.

Endorsement of the statement is sought from other dharma teachers as well as Buddhist practitioners worldwide, in the hope that by signing the statement Buddhists will make solutions to climate disruption a central focus of their personal and collective activities. Signers may also use the statement to describe a Buddhist perspective on the causes of and solutions to climate change in interfaith dialogues, policy debates, and other public forums.

If you agree with the spirit of the statement, you can add your signature as well as your responses to its content and implications as well as ideas for its use within and beyond the Buddhist community. To add your signature, click here. Through this link you can also see which Buddhist teachers and Buddhist practitioners have already signed. 


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enlacorriente's picture

Suffering as a compassionate bait.
How delusional is wanting something impermanent to be permanent. Change, impermanence is one of the marks of existence. It is sad to see all those dharma teachers against impermanence and change. Ahhh the self. The human self .. . . . ¿is the agent causing the change?. OMG! Another misunderstood mark of existence!
Good intentions pave the way to hell
No wisdom at sight

Tim_in_VA's picture

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference."

Shall we look, each of us, to the suffering that we can alleviate, measurably, in ourselves and in those within our physical and emotional reach? Or shall we expend unfathomable stores of money and spiritual energy to effect little more than political bickering, bureaucratic corruption, self-deception, and delusion about our ability as a divided human community to change the planet's atmosphere? What is the return on investment for choosing the latter? Or of choosing the first?

Hayduke2000's picture

I find the comments here more enlightened and informed than the article.

I'm disappointed in this "international dharma teachers' statement on climate change." I find it opportunistic, misinformed and decidedly "un-Buddhist." The statement displays a naive acceptance of what is popularly perceived as human caused climate change, ignoring very real natural climate variation that occurs of itself, with no intervention from human greed and attachment.

Spreading our understanding of human suffering and its source will not change natural climate variation in the slightest, nor will it change continuing effects of natural climate variation on all life. Part of our understanding of the All That Is, is understanding our place in the great change that is life.

Climate, as all things material, is never static, an ever-changing dynamic equilibrium. Climate change is not good or bad. It is.

Danny's picture

Yes, I'm with you, Hayduke2000. They (we) are terribly misinformed! Who cares what the 97% of climate experts with decades of peer reviewed research are telling us? The truth is to be found in the writings and opinions of a handful of ideologically driven non-scientists, talk-radio entertainers, and politicians heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry.

KnowThankYou's picture

Climate change is not a new thing; it is a normal state of affairs. With no human life on Earth there would still be climate change. The pace of climate change is normally very slow, occurring at a gradual pace that allows many forms of life to adapt to the changes over time. This evolution has lead to the wonderfully complex abundance with which we share this planet today. Human activity has sped up the pace of climate change though, and we now face a world that may be changing faster than any of us can keep up with. We are making our only home increasingly toxic, and potentially causing our own extinction. As Buddhists we have an understanding of the temporary nature of all things, but to contemplate this on the level of entire species - particularly our own - can be alarming.

Humans aren't the only animals to use tools, but we may be the only ones to power those tools with anything other than our bodies. This has changed our species, many others indirectly, and has clearly impacted the environment we all share. When humans first powered our tools with fossil fuels, only positive impacts were known. Negative impacts such as pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change were not understood. But now that we do understand the cause the negative effects, right action is required.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The 3 innate poisons of greed, belligerence and ignorance can be managed through each individual's practice of Buddhism. Multiply that by as many individuals yet to be informed of the Law.

william allred's picture

The earth, an active rock, at the mercy of a nearby star, witnesses the heat of hydrogen fusion, the crackling surface of thin tectonic skin, footprints of humans and ruffling of feathers-too small to be felt, life, too faint to impress the stony heart and iron soul of a grain of sand so small the sun won't sense it's passing...the moon gazes on, a silent spectator to a brief history of a short and local time...cinders vanish in the furnace of a black hole...circling the event horizon...then dropping away, in a forever without clocks or historians or light...on the deck of HMS Titanic, strollers plan for spring