Filed in Environment

The Path of Recovery

We're on a road headed for a cliff. How can we veer back to the path our ancestors took?Clark Strand

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We are headed for a fall as a species, and it seems that all we can do is watch. Some say our imaginations are not big enough to take in the full scope of the catastrophe—the extinction of up to one half of Earth’s plant and animal species by century’s end. Others claim that we can’t help ourselves. We’re sick, addicted to everything from petroleum products to that ubiquitous soporific we call “media.” They’re killing us. Still, we remain stuck to them like glue. Of the two explanations, addiction seems more apt. Our imaginations are better than ever. They tell us that we can invent our way out of this problem, that by digging the hole of human progress just a little deeper, somehow we will come out on top.

Humanity is drunk, blind drunk, and even now is in the process of spending all the money and burning down the house. It blacks out after its worst excesses and can’t remember a thing. Faced with the wreckage in the morning, it will sometimes admit to itself “I did this” and feel some remorse. What follows, invariably, is a feeling of shame and the desire to compensate in some way. But that only adds more human culture to the mix, which in turn further feeds our addiction. We write books or make movies; build faster computers or better phones; try to cure cancer, hunger, or poverty; and hold summits of various kinds—anything to deny the certain knowledge that lies like a dead weight at the bottom of everything we say or think or do: This addiction is going to kill us in the end.

Why is that? It is easy nowadays to blame the demon oil. But oil is not the problem and never has been. A defect of character underlies our common addiction, a defect that throughout history has always masqueraded its symptoms as solutions—agriculture, mass production, petroleum, consumer-based economies, it hardly matters which. And what is the underlying character defect shared by modern human beings as a whole? It is the belief in a destiny apart from Nature— a veering off the path established by our ancestors on the long green road through time.

In the beginning the departure was not a great one—or at least not in terms of environmental impact. To understand why this is so, we have only to type the words “population curve” into Google Images and click on the first item that pops up—a Wikipedia graph charting the growth of the species Homo sapiens over a very small but decisive portion of its extremely long history—the period from the dawn of agriculture down to the present day. It’s like watching the slow burn of a long fuse as it inches toward the bomb.

For 10,000 years the line hugs the bottom of the graph, indicating a world population still measured in the lower millions. Then, about the time of Shakyamuni, it suddenly doubles to 100 million. Over the thousand years that follow, it doubles again, and then again, rising steadily from there until the time of the industrial revolution, at which point it tops a billion. Then it goes straight up.

Few people expect to be shown a graph like this when they show up to learn Buddhist meditation, but I have found that it is incomparably the best place to start. If we want to follow the way of the bodhisattva, first we have to be able to find it. If there is a better, more honest place to begin looking for a way to save all beings, I’d like to know where it is. The path we are on now as a species is not the path of the Green Bodhisattva—or, for that matter, any kind of bodhisattva. View it upright, and it’s headed off the charts. Lie it flat and lengthwise (like a path you might be tempted to walk down), and it’s headed anywhere but forward through deep time. Something like that must have been at the back of White House “science czar” John Holdren’s mind last year when he introduced an ominous metaphor to describe the future of our species. I can imagine him looking at some version of the Wikipedia graph, along with the statistics on greenhouse gas emissions, and suddenly realizing that he wasn’t looking at a growth curve at all, but at a deranged and profoundly upsetting map. “We’re driving in a car with bad brakes in a fog and headed for a cliff,” he told reporters, in words that came out sounding more like a revelation than a political calculation. “We know for sure that cliff is out there. We just don’t know exactly where it is.”

For the Green Bodhisattva, it doesn’t matter where the cliff is—how close or how far. All that matters are two urgent questions: How did we end up on a road leading to a cliff? And how fast can we get off it and back to the path we came on, the one traveled by our ancestors of old? To question the fog, the brakes, or the speed we are going is quite pointless, when the very road we are traveling on lies at a hard right angle to Nature. Where do we think we are going? To ask that question is to become a Green Bodhisattva. To answer it is to become a buddha.

Clark Strand is a contributing editor to Tricycle, author of the book How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not, founder of the Tricycle Green Bodhisattva Alliance, and the author of the weekly “Green Koans” column at

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Joseph Rogers's picture

Clark, thank you for discussing this topic which is so relevant to people of all faiths and practices. As Maha Ghosananda said, we must leave our temples (or meditation centers) to enter the temples of human existence where there is so much suffering.

I do think that we must bring awareness to this issue as a start, but it certainly must not end there. I was surprised that you didn't speak more to what we can do as Buddhists to address environmental collapse more directly, especially as it relates to overpopulation and consumption. I think of the intention of renunciation as being especially important in directing my actions of environmental responsibility. There is no better place to practice renunciation as a Westerner, in my mind, than around being mindful of my consumer consumption. I practiced buying nothing new for one year (except food, medicine and toiletries) and felt absolutely freed. I connected more with my friends, spent more time reading (from the library), sat more, and generally enjoyed not keeping up with the Joneses. I continue to this day to be especially mindful of buying only what I need, and attempt whenever possible to buy nothing new.

Perhaps, with the New Year coming up, this could be a Buddhist holiday tradition, buy nothing. Give our time, our hearts, our extra stuff, a charitable donation, or plant a tree. There is so much we can do to connect our practice toward the goal of environmental healing, but the work begins with us.

gzaven's picture

Clark, your graph is out of date. We just topped 7 billion.

Mat Osmond's picture

I would probably be for staying with 'Bodhisattvas', but a brief consideration of what the word implies for me brought up Returners, or Descenders Anonymous. Neither of which is very catchy...
I was very struck by your image of returning the graphline to a gradient that points once again into deep ecological time. As well as being the heart of the issue confronting us is this context, I suppose 'returning' has a rich cluster of associations within both Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions.

ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks, Mat. You've stated the rationale for this approach very succinctly. We've considered calling it Bodhisattvas Anonymous, but since we've been meeting for eleven years now (albeit for most of that time feeling our way along blindly, without understanding what we were really about) we're in no rush to have a definitive name for it quite yet. It's a working title. Still, I'd be interested to hear what others have to say about it.

Bodhisattvahood is, in many ways, the biggest idea Buddhism has to offer in terms of time and mission, so it seems up to the task of turning a species around--in other words, it's a big enough thought to rally around. At the same time, the notion of bodhisattvahood routinely transcends Buddhism, as the term is applied to anyone working for the greater good as an individual, especially when facing seemingly overwhelming odds. I'm reminded of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, each of whom I have seen used as an exemplar of bodhisattvahood. It would be a way of honoring the roots of this movement in Buddhism, but without limiting it to Buddhist ideology or Budddhist concerns. Still, maybe it's too Buddhist for a movement that needs to be highly mobile, moving from one spiritual context to another, religiously based or not.

Mat Osmond's picture

I find this apparently bleak assessment invigorating and strangely uplifting Clark. It is such a relief to hear it said, and said baldly.
To own the desperateness of the situation is not to despair - the real despair is in the (increasingly unsustainable) denial that would 'fix the problem' with just a bit more effort, progress, development. We are the problem, root and branch, and without rubbishing the important work of technology shifting, neither solar panels and carbon trading will save us from ourselves.

Many thanks,

dascmo's picture

I don't have an answer to the question you ask. I live with these issues as a constant background noise in my mind, an ominous droning that invades every space and experience. The dismal prospects for our species and the lovely green world we live on leaves me with a feeling of deep impermanence - on physical, ecological, and spiritual levels. It inspires small good works - attempts to connect people to each other, to the green earth, to the future they and their children will experience. It brings desire to disconnect from popular culture and society, despite the need for "all hands on deck" to deal with myriad issues and crises. There is a push and pull between retreat and re-engagement in politics and discourse.

We want to live lives of purity, where everything we do contributes only to the betterment of all beings. But we are constantly pulled back into the impurity of living in this world, through all the ways we participate in speeding our collective course off the cliff. Eating, driving, building, procreating, computing, turning on the heat...working, not working. I feel irrevocably caught and conflicted by all the choices and avenues of action offered in this society. We are essentially living like amoebas in a dish, reproducing and consuming along the population curve as fast as possible, while our resources are progressively drowned in our wastes.

This is why I am a Buddhist. We need a radical evolution of consciousness, and I know of nothing as radical as Buddhism. Our mindless technical cleverness has done nothing but speed our course toward oblivion. We cannot solve our problems with the level of consciousness that created them. I feel that we must take the radical path against the grain of all we know, and trust that we will find insight and be of genuine aid to a world in distress.

Thanks for your clear exposition of this crisis. May it inspire mindful action and compassion.

ClarkStrand's picture

What you wrote here is quite moving, Dascmo, especially the following: "This is why I am a Buddhist. We need a radical evolution of consciousness, and I know of nothing as radical as Buddhism. Our mindless technical cleverness has done nothing but speed our course toward oblivion. We cannot solve our problems with the level of consciousness that created them. I feel that we must take the radical path against the grain of all we know, and trust that we will find insight and be of genuine aid to a world in distress."

What would you think of being involved in a group that gave voice to these concerns, offered a format for meeting to discuss them, and a path that led (however gradually) toward ecological sanity? A lot of it would be focused on individual recovery, and then a lot more on service to others who wished to do the same. And so forth and so on...person to person, one individual at a time.

dascmo's picture

Hello Clark,
I am sorry my reply is so late in coming. I only just saw the letter I wrote in the magazine, and was checking to see if it was online as well. I would be love to participate in the kind of group you suggest. I feel these issues deeply, and I find it difficult to orient my life in a way that is genuinely beneficial. This is precisely the sort of community I seek. You have been meeting for eleven years? I am glad to hear of such a longstanding group.

ClarkStrand's picture

Why don't you email me at and I'll send you the meeting format and script for our Friday morning phone meetings. Or you can simply call the number listed at the bottom of the second Green Bodhisattva column and input the access code. Our second meeting is this Friday at 8 a.m. E.S.T. I'm giving a talk on the 12 Steps of Ecological Recovery in Berkeley on Sunday at the Jodo Shinshu Center as part of a conference, and then again the following Friday (the 25th) at Judson Memorial in Manhattan. Face-to-face groups are likely to form in both places, although we don't have a schedule or location for these meetings at present. In the meantime, the weekly phone meetings will help for those who don't live near these locations. They'll also help to keep everybody on the same page, as it were, with what we are doing and how we are doing it.

For anyone else who wants to dial in this Friday morning (or on any subsequent Friday) the info is below:

To begin working the Twelve Steps of Ecological Recovery, join our Friday 8 a.m. E.S.T. phone meeting by calling (712) 775-7400 and inputting the code 472474 followed by the # sign. Meetings are free and last for one hour, with time for fellowship afterward.