October 10, 2013

Preserving the Fecundity of the Earth

Climate change poses the single greatest threat to the world’s food supply. But we can stop it.Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Among the many things that the Buddhist principle of conditionality teaches us, three are particularly pertinent to any endeavor to diagnose and alleviate suffering on a global scale. The first is that events and processes that appear remote and disconnected from one another may be intimately connected through subtle chains of influence operating subliminally across the systems that generate them. The second is that conditions that appear slight and insignificant on their own can converge to produce effects massive in their impact. Third is that human volition is an important factor in the web of conditions and can thus transform even processes driven by the weight of physical laws.

These three principles are evident with startling clarity in the acceleration of climate change. As to the first, science teaches us the basic chain of conditions involved in anthropogenic global warming. We use coal to generate electricity, burn petroleum derivatives to power our vehicles, ship goods across continents, raise cattle for food, and thereby release gases that trap heat and warm up the planet. The second principle, too, is readily discernible. We know that individual actions—taking a pleasure ride in the country on a summer’s afternoon, burning gas to heat the house, cutting a patch of forest to cultivate crops—won’t have any substantial influence on the climate. But when millions of people around the world engage in the same actions, and when fossil fuels become the power source that propels the global economy, the aggregated impact can escalate global temperatures to dangerous heights, instigating extreme weather events and compromising the Earth’s ability to support life. This same reflection shows us the relevance of the third principle. Climate change is not inevitable; it is not the result of uncontrollable forces of nature. It is the result of human choices, of an intersection of decisions, policies, and practices adopted by people around the world. Thus by changing our perspectives, making different choices, adopting new technologies, voting and lobbying and putting pressure on our governments, we can even hold up a process as mighty as climate change.

These three principles link climate change and hunger in a mutually reinforcing relationship. Climate determines the productivity of agriculture, and the methods of agriculture in turn affect climate. When we engage in behaviors that alter the climate, we risk diminishing the fecundity of the Earth and exhausting the world's food supply. We thereby, even without knowing it, condemn millions to a life of hunger and malnutrition, even to premature death.

Yet that is exactly the predicament into which we have been drifting. To sound the alarm about the risk that a hotter and wetter planet poses to the world’s food supply is not to be an alarmist. It is, rather, to adopt a hardheaded realism rooted in the overwhelming consensus that prevails among respected climate scientists and policy experts concerned with food security.

Just last week, the anti-poverty organization Oxfam released a briefing that sums up the impact climate change is likely to have on efforts to combat world hunger. The 16-page report—“Growing Disruption: Climate Change, Food, and the Fight against Hunger”—begins by underscoring a hard truth: the challenge that climate change poses to efforts to combat global hunger no longer lies in the remote future—it has already arrived. Over the past few years, droughts and floods, triggered or intensified by a hotter climate, have been ruining harvests and ravaging verdant land in places as far-flung as Nebraska and Pakistan. If we continue business as usual, such events will only multiply and intensify. We've delayed too long deluding ourselves with sugarcoated fantasies. There is no time left to procrastinate.

The report specifies four “pillars of food security” where the link between climate change and hunger becomes critical: availability, access, utilization, and stability. As our world heats up, each of these pillars is eroded, thereby increasing food insecurity. Hunger on a global scale can ignite food riots, spur regional conflict, and cause states to collapse. It can also incite resentment and violent reprisals against those living in relative affluence. To forestall such problems we must stop talking and start to act, for “in the absence of urgent action, [climatic instability] will load far more significant challenges onto already stressed food systems.”

Availability of food depends on production and distribution, both of which are jeopardized by global warming. Climate change impacts production in two ways: sudden and gradual. First, a warmer climate precipitates dramatic weather events—severe heat waves, droughts, and floods—that diminish harvests and drive up food prices. In the long run, however, the slow yet inexorable increase in global temperatures may prove more deleterious, for as temperatures pass a certain threshold, the yields of major grains decline. This trend has already started, and by 2050 crop yields could decline by 10–20 percent in the tropics and subtropics, with even steeper reductions in sub-Saharan Africa. The need to feed a world population that is expected to increase by over two billion during this period, mostly in the global South, should alert us to the urgency of curbing global warming.

Access to food, the second pillar, depends not only on production and market availability of food, but also on people’s ability to purchase it at affordable prices. Climate change impedes access to food by driving up prices beyond many people’s reach. Extreme weather events in major crop-exporting countries can cause shortages that spike food prices. In many developing countries, where food may claim up to 75 percent of the family income, such spikes can be harrowing, forcing working people to cut down on their intake of food—often meager to begin with—and even skip meals. Apart from temporary price spikes, long-term global warming will gradually drive up the price of food. Research shows that “in the absence of urgent action to tackle global warming, the average price of staple foods could more than double over the next 20 years, with up to half of the increase caused by climate change.”

Climate change also disrupts livelihoods, thus undercutting people’s ability to provide food for themselves and their families. In many traditional cultures, when food is short, it is usually women and girls who have to go without, even while they farm and do most of the housework. Nutritional deficiencies in women and girls can have an adverse long-term impact not only on their own health but also on the health of the children they bear. Hunger spurred by a changing climate thus initiates “a downward spiral of poor diet, poor health, and loss of strength and energy.”

Food utilization, the third pillar of food security, refers to the way the body utilizes the nutrients it obtains from food. Climate change undermines utilization by causing physiological damage to the crops themselves, which diminishes their nutritional content. For example, hotter temperatures can concentrate growth in the stem rather than the grain or fruit. In wheat, barley, rice, and potato, elevated levels of carbon, passing from the atmosphere into the plants, can result in lower quantities of protein. Extreme weather further impairs utilization by compromising people’s health and reducing their ability to obtain maximum benefit from the food they eat. Children are hit the hardest, since a hotter climate increases vulnerability to the three biggest childhood killers: diarrhea, malnutrition, and malaria.

Stabilization, the fourth pillar of food security, requires the enactment of measures to build a more resilient food system. The report insists that “the long-term prospects for eradicating hunger means cutting emissions, and fast.” This entails making deep cuts in emissions by 2020—and I add, not by 2050, an oft-cited date. This is to be achieved by expediting the transition from a carbon-driven global energy system to one powered by clean energy, such as wind and solar. Emissions must also be reduced from industrial agriculture, a major source of carbon pollution both directly—through machinery, livestock production, transport, processing, and storage—and indirectly through land clearance and deforestation.

But building a resilient food system is not merely a matter of developing new technologies. It is also a matter of social justice. Hence, the report proposes that countries implement legislative and constitutional provisions that guarantee the right to food for all, and that the international community address extreme inequalities both within and between nations. While the report specifies developing countries in this context, the current plight of low-income groups in the West, particularly the US, means that this proposal also applies at home, where right-wing elements in Congress have been pushing to slash funding for essential food assistance to the poor.

The report recommends that poor countries be given significantly more financial support for climate adaptation to reduce vulnerability and increase their resilience to the impact of climate change. We must remember that historically it is the wealthy industrialized nations that have been most responsible for the carbon emissions that are heating the atmosphere. Poor nations, though least responsible, bear the brunt of the crisis. Investment must also be made in small-scale, environmentally sustainable agriculture. This will help farmers, especially women, increase the amount of food available locally and protect their ecosystems, which are vulnerable to damage by the technologies employed by big agriculture.

Several omissions are noticeable in the report, perhaps due to the need for concision. First, the report makes no mention of the impact climate change is having on the global water supply, so essential to irrigation. Mountain glaciers are shrinking in a warmer climate, putting at risk close to a billion people in India, China, Southeast Asia, the Andes, and Europe who depend on snowmelt to water their crops. The increase in meat consumption as people become more affluent is another factor that contributes to both global warming and hunger. Cattle require six pounds of grain to yield a pound of beef, which shifts sustenance away from the plates of the poor to the supermarkets of the middle class. Cattle production is also responsible for 17 times more carbon emissions than wheat cultivation. Still a third omission with important ramifications for global hunger is the North’s reliance on biofuels as a way to cut down carbon emissions. The growth of crops to make biofuels means that corn and other grains that can feed people, especially in the South, are instead used to feed cars in the North. This is another blind alley in the quest to avert climate change, still pursued under political pressure because it pumps more profits into giant corporations.

The first installment of the fifth report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released September 27th, dispels all doubt about the human origins of the impending crisis. In an article titled “Alarming IPCC Prognosis,” climate policy expert Joseph Romm explains how the IPCC report underscores the urgency of our situation. With reference to the report, he points out that if we continue on our current course, by the end of the present century the world will heat up by 4°C (7°F). But the report also suggests that the US faces warming in the range of 5°C (9°F). That’s a big deal, especially given that the IPCC tends to be conservative in its forecasts.

The IPCC report also shows that the rise in sea levels is speeding up and is going to be bigger than expected. It’s now projected to be 28–97 cm by 2100, which is 50% higher than the older projection of 18–59 cm. Further, by the end of the century, the area of permafrost near the surface is projected to decrease between 37 and 81 percent. This could release massive bursts of methane, a greenhouse gas over twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide.

All these facts together should sound both a loud warning and an urgent appeal to our sense of responsibility, for ourselves and others. In a world that is 7°F hotter, vast areas that are now fertile will become wasteland and food shortages will be epidemic. Entire regions will turn uninhabitable, and mass starvation will descend like a flock of vultures on whole populations bereft of access to affordable food.

The future does not lie ahead but is in our midst. If we continue to drag our feet, beguiled by the doubts and denials of those who benefit from fossil fuel exploitation, we will consign both ourselves and our loved ones to a calamitous fate. Romm compares us to “a patient who, like most addicts, is self-destructive, very bad at listening, and focused on short-term pleasure over long-term health.” We have to start listening, we have to start putting health ahead of pleasure, and we have to give up our self-destructive addictions.

The Buddha says, "Protecting oneself one protects others; protecting others one protects oneself" (Samyutta Nikaya 47:19). This statement, originally made with reference to mindfulness meditation, is acutely relevant to our dealings with climate change, underscoring our twofold responsibility: to ourselves and others. For our own sake, for the sake of others across the globe, and for the sake of future generations who will inherit the planet we leave behind, we must cap and drastically reduce global carbon emissions. Moreover, we cannot settle for what the “climate psychologist” Margaret Klein calls “tokenism”—personal actions that express a belief in the need to stop climate change but don’t go beyond the sphere of private choices. Action requires more than personal decisions to consume less and be more mindful about one’s use of energy. It requires more than merely adopting a simpler and more natural lifestyle, turning off unused lights, lowering the thermostat, and driving a fuel-efficient car. Such measures are surely important, but they are simply not enough.

If we are going to stem climate change, it's necessary to get political—in the broad sense of the term. What is needed is a fierce compassion ready to stand up to lies and expose the truth, even at personal risk. What is needed is courageous action out in the field, action that can awaken minds and change hearts, that can startle people out of their complacency. What is needed is a demand that politicians stand up for humanity and not for fossil fuel interests. What is needed, too, is direct resistance on the ground to prevent giant corporations from feasting on the entrails of a supine population.

The principle of conditionality, as stated at the outset, is not tantamount to an irreversible determinism. The exercise of human will is critical to its operation, and this should give us hope. With the right view, right intention, and right action, we can change our trajectory. But the principle of conditionality also teaches us that to have a transformative impact, it’s often necessary for many small individual actions, widely distributed, to converge on a similar end. This means that it’s up to us, in exercising our collective moral responsibility, to unify our efforts to resist the forces pushing climate change. It’s up to us to stand together to preserve a viable future. The struggle won’t be an easy one, but with determination we can prevail.


Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a Theravada Buddhist monk originally from New York City. He is the former editor of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka, and has many important publications to his credit, the most recent being his full translation of the Anguttara Nikaya (Wisdom Publications, 2012). In 2008, he founded Buddhist Global Relief, a nonprofit sponsoring hunger relief and education in countries suffering from chronic poverty and malnutrition.


At the request of Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, the line "rabid right-wing elements of Congress are waging an assault on the poor" has been changed to "right-wing elements in Congress have been pushing to slash funding for essential food assistance to the poor," over concern that the line distracted from the thrust of the essay. (10/16/2013)

Images courtesy of Flickr/Artbandito.


Further Reading

A Moral Politics: Nourishing change in US food policy

Into the Fire: Food in the Age of Climate Change

The Attack at Home: A new bill threatens the food security of millions 

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Tharpa Pema's picture

From Thich Nhat Hanh, The Eight Realizations: "Practicing generosity means to act in a way that will help equalize the difference between the wealthy and the impoverished. Whatever we do to ease human suffering and create social justice can be considered practicing generosity. This is not to say that we engage in any political system. To engage in partisan political action that leads to a power struggle among opposing parties and caused death and destruction is not what we mean by practicing generosity."

I really like this excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh. I doubt that society can function without "any political system" or "power struggle among opposing parties". I tend to think of political systems as a given. I also accept that harsh speech in the service of political systems has always been with us and will continue be with us for the foreseeable future.

What I do appreciate about this statement is the reminder that the purpose of political activities is to promote generosity and well-being among all human beings. When political systems and parties cease to promote well-being for everybody--whether in the short-term or the long-term--I become ready to reassess the effectiveness of the political process. I get ready to try something different.

Of course we will each have our own point of view about which processes might be more effective. If we accept differences of opinion are the human condition, for me the emphasis shifts to how we manage our differences while moderating the damage we do to one another, whether verbally or physically.

For me it is also a given that HOW we speak with one another can make a huge difference in the effectiveness of our speech-acts in promoting well-being. Choice of words and nonverbal accompaniments of speech often do trigger chains of events that result in suffering for others. Hence my commitment to the Buddhist virtue of learning to moderate my own harsh speech.

More often than not in my own personal history, I have engaged in harsh speech for lack of training in more effective ways of being with my fear and anger. Having learned through Buddhist mind training techniques to react differently to my own emotions, the kinder speech habits have been much easier to cultivate.

Now that I have more awareness of my speech, and a different way of "metabolizing" afflictive emotions, i find kindness consistently produces better results than harshness. That has been my experience.

Tharpa Pema's picture

Just read the following excerpt in the article used for today's daily dharma. It seems an excellent response to the divisive political speech sometimes appearing in the Tricycle blog:

"One might find something that resonates with one’s being that comes through Jodo Shinshu and is true for oneself, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be true for somebody else. We can be true to our own basic insight of what we see as true, but we can embrace other people, knowing that they also may have their truth too, and we try to find where we can join together in common effort." Beyond Religion, Rev. Dr. Alfred Bloom

We can "embrace other people" and "join together in common effort" even when we disagree on political process.

wilnerj's picture

Tharpa Pema

Thank you,
With palms together bowing.

Tharpa Pema's picture

Winerj: You have skill in civil discourse. I am learning much from you. I appreciate that.

yourneighbor57's picture

This is a great call to action and a reminder that "...it’s up to us, in exercising our collective moral responsibility, to unify our efforts to resist the forces pushing climate change. It’s up to us to stand together to preserve a viable future."

I've found that the more I do see our frightening trajectory and act "...to preserve a viable future," the more I am confronted by my love of this world of ours and all the beings that live here. The more I feel that love, the more my heart breaks for the hurt humans cause one another, other creatures and the planet that is our home.

Perhaps others also experience this deep pain - or fear to feel it and close their hearts to the love. Maybe that's why they deny what is happening. Maybe that's how they can cause such damage in pursuit of money. If so, then it seems like political action can only get us so far. Eventually we will need to find a way to connect with those who empower "the forces pushing climate change" and destroy the very idea of opposing "sides" in this gigantic effort to "preserve a viable future" for all beings and our beautiful earth.

zumacraig's picture

That infamous statement is one of the few utterances of truth in these blog posts. Right Speech is antithetical to Faithful Buddhism as is validation of all points of view. May harsh speech wake you x-buddhist up!

Tharpa Pema's picture

It is very hard to return to true, beneficial, and timely speech, once we have indulged in harsh speech. Yet we see the vital importance of being able to do so demonstrated this very day at the highest levels of our government.

Dear Tricycle: Can you facilitate a blog TODAY on teaching ourselves to recover from harsh speech?

buddhaddy's picture

"where rabid right-wing elements of Congress are waging an assault on the poor."
I'm saddened to see this kind of name calling from someone who should be tolerant of all points of view, and be more mindful of who is trying to make sense of these political struggles. The most rabid thing I've seen lately is the rabid shopping sprees that took place when SNAP/EBT cardholders went rampant upon discovery that there had been a "glitch", temporarily removing the limit on their cards. to take a political side on a subject, I suppose, can be accepted, even though actions speak louder than words. But to call such vicious names to a whole segment of people, without any direct knowledge of their intentions, is unacceptable.

Rob_'s picture

An entire article on climate change and the potential repercussions on food supply, and a couple people get upset at a less than tactful statement. That's for people who have nothing to say and can only nip at people's ankles.

And yet one more opportunity for you to speak about a topic so near and dear to your heart ... poor, lazy people. You really should give up that obsession.

aewhitehouse's picture

Sorry, but when a person purports as venerated and makes comments such as this, the only reason why you would dismiss it as a "less than tactful" statement is if you've drunk from the same pitcher of political Kool-Aid.

Dkblue's picture

Actually, this is the response of a disruptive shill, rather than a sincere Dharma practitioner or seeker.

Rob_'s picture

Your list:

1. Declare your viewpoint the supreme definition of reality.
2. Marginalize and invalidate the "opposition".
3. Completely dismiss and conceal any evidence not supportive of your agenda.
4. Victory! In your face!
5. Rinse/Repeat.

And than there's your methodology, the personal attack. If you're fixated on his title and what you feel it purports, by all means. I have no expectation of perfection as you seem to. As I pointed out and which you have avoided because you prefer the personal attack ... avoiding the content of a whole article to focus on one statement you dislike.

You could address many points in the article, but I don't think you have that desire. Snarky comments are your forte.

aewhitehouse's picture

Exactly. This type of divisive, idealogical language seems unbecoming a venerate.

Danny's picture

yeah-- but ain't he callin' a spade a spade?

aewhitehouse's picture

His comment and yours merely illustrate how infested Western Buddhism has become with grossly cliched, prejudiced and dogmatic political ideology..

zumacraig's picture

This is a classic response from one who is ideologically blind. I'd say Western Buddhism is infested with your delusion of some non-ideological, apolitical truth that spouts right wing cliches with no thought at all.

Incidentally, our government has no choice but to wage war on the poor. It is the government's mandate to funnel all money from the poor to the rich in a capitalist system (also, keep the masses just below the brink of rioting).

Rob_'s picture

One statement demonstrates the inadequacies of Western Buddhism! Now that's an argument for the ages. You're overreaching by a few thousand miles on that one. But at least you're consistent, more personal attacks.

jackelope65's picture

The first object of this article does not seem to be one of pointing a finger at the guilty parties. The first three points were interrelation of remote actions, minor actions being magnified, and the third was human "volition." Whether or not Tricycle has zero carbon footprint or the Koch brothers do not change course, has no relationship to what each of 7+ billion people do individually. A small step for each one of us may have a very large impact whether because of sheer numbers or the "butterfly effect." An individual strategy would be to ride a bike instead of a car. A national strategy would be to build bike pathways, or stop urban sprawl, higher taxes on gasoline, etc.( and, yes, I gave my brother my hybrid car and now walk, ride a bike.)

mahakala's picture

What gave you the impression I was even interested in following the object of this article? Whether or not you follow the object of my comments, has no relationship to what I do individually.

mahakala's picture

Does this mean that Tricycle has reduced the carbon footprint of their corporation to zero, and has started a lobby to reduce consumption of fossil fuels?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Back in the day they used to say "If you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem."

Alan Shusterman's picture

"What is needed is a fierce compassion ready to stand up to lies and expose the truth, even at personal risk. What is needed is courageous action out in the field, action that can awaken minds and change hearts, that can startle people out of their complacency."

Thank you Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi for these loving words. I hope you will continue to speak out and that Tricycle will continue to share your message with us so that we can pass it along to others.

colacino's picture

BBC published a documentary where many scientist denies that CO2 is the cause factor of climate change. It's a interesting point of contrary view in face of mass media and IPCC panels. See on youtube.

Dkblue's picture

Yes, the Manmade Global Warming due to carbon meme is probably the greatest hoax perpetrated on the human race, twisting our best intentions and love for our planet in order to bring forth ever increasing regulations, taxation, loss of freedoms and transfer of wealth from the 99 percent to the one percent. Please research the New World Order, Global Government and Agenda 21. See also Geoengineering for the real cause of climate change. Best wishes.

Danny's picture

You are funny, Dkblue. Probably the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the human race is the New World Order and Agenda 21 conspiracy theories. Good luck with all that.

Dkblue's picture

On Ah Hung Vajra Guru Pema Siddhi Hung. Labelling information that is outside of ones current knowledge as 'conspiracy theory' without actually investigating it, is pointless. My motivation is sincere, and I am well informed. Trying to dissuade others from also understanding the radical socialist agenda of the UN as laid out in their own words in the Agenda 21 document, demonstrates the will to conceal the relative political truth and therefore functions to actually harm others. This contradicts the most basic tenet of the Dharma; May all beings be free from suffering and it's causes.

Danny's picture

I have investigated it--and it's straight from the funny farm if you ask me. I have no doubt that your motivation is "sincere" and you are probably "well informed". but your information is all goofy. I wish you'd come around and consider redirecting your activism and energy back to reality on arguably the most pressing environmental issue of our time. Rather than wasting it and confusing folks with these absurd conspiracy theories.

Dkblue's picture

Weather Modification inc Solar Radiation Management is a verifiable fact and has been going on for decades through Governments and private defense contractors. There is abundant, verifiable data and evidence on the subject from the Dept of Defense, military personnel, FBI Director etc not to mention the personal experiences of vast numbers of people who observe the persistent, spreading contrails. Documantaries such as What/Why in the World Are They Spraying, Shade and the award winning Look Up Re a good place to start. Genuine seekers concerned by climate change will easily access vast amounts of critical information at www.geoengineeringwatch.org .Choosing to deny its existence can be a psychological response to information that doesn't correspond with one's current paradigm or is simply too threatening to the 'self'. See http://www.geoengineeringwatch.org/denial-hey-thats-my-story-oh-yours-too/
My energy and time is valuable hence I wouldn't waste it on fiction and I wouldn't expect anyone else to either. I have personal, documented experience of aerial spraying as do thousands of people worldwide and the argument it is contrails is ridiculous as anyone can observe and discover for themselves. Your debunking patronises the intelligence of others and there is no point in you continuing to publicly expose your denial and disinformation. The cat is out of the bag regarding global weather modification and you won't get it back in 'Danny'. Good luck.

Danny's picture

Ah, "Dkblue", you've discovered my ruse...of course you know I am Patrick Minnis, atmospheric scientist with NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia--deeply involved in secret chem-trail sprayings of aphrodisiac-fertility hormones for Big Foot monsters to eventually take over the world! Look out!
The US government is responsible for the events on 9/11, the moon landings were faked, Jesus and Mary Magdelene had a thing going on and Paul is dead.
My god, it must be truly exhausting to be a conspiracy theorist.

with metta

Dkblue's picture

You are a hoot Danny. Advice for a serial debunker, regarding 9/11, spend a little time at Abeldanger.net - you could waste the rest if your life trying to debunk that. Better just to watch the mind though.

melcher's picture

I'm pleased to see that the Los Angeles Times has made an editorial decision not to print letters in their comments section from climate change deniers, citing the reason that they will not print "factual inaccuracies."

aewhitehouse's picture

Because that's the way of modern discourse methodology:

1. Declare your viewpoint the supreme definition of reality.
2. Marginalize and invalidate the "opposition".
3. Completely dismiss and conceal any evidence not supportive of your agenda.
4. Victory! In your face!
5. Rinse/Repeat.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Declare your viewpoint supreme, marginalize and invalidate the "opposition", dismiss and conceal any evidence not supportive of your agenda: Isn't that how we got into Iraq?