Peter Matthiessen, Daniel Goleman, Stephanie Kaza, Others Discuss Buddhist Environmentalism at Symposium

“I wrote about vanishing wildlife 50 years ago. I wish I could say we’ve made more progress,” remarked the naturalist, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and Zen teacher Peter Matthiessen during a panel discussion on the environment held at the Zen Peacemakers’ Symposium on Western Socially Engaged Buddhism on Thursday, August 12. “We’ve made some progress, but there are more extinctions now than ever in the history of our planet.” That in itself is deeply alarming. But in addition, Matthiessen said, “Things that affect wildlife almost always impinge on people. And generally,” he stressed, “poor people are the first affected.”

That includes native peoples, whose cultures are exceptionally rich but whose economic resources may be scant. Matthiessen spoke of traveling to an Arctic region west of the Brooks Range, “the last refuge of Ice Age megafauna — all three kinds of bears, and wolves; glorious — and a tremendous variety of migratory birds. There are no roads at all. The Indian people there are hanging on to their culture, they depend on the caribou, and they’re resisting the bribes of the oil companies. The oil companies call that area ‘the 10-02’; the native people there call it ‘the sacred place where life begins.’ It’s so sacred they won’t walk there. The oil company wants it.”

People living in the Arctic, Matthiessen continued, “are our first global climate change victims. Whales stay next to the icepack, and as the ice recedes farther out to sea, the people have to go farther to reach them. At the same time, the permafrost is melting. As usual, our government is not taking good care of our native people. The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is very serious, but the Arctic is so much worse. The oil doesn’t break down in very cold water. And the oil companies themselves say there’s at least one spill a day.”

Matthiessen quoted a tribal elder who said, “God may forgive you, but your children won’t.” The problem is complicated enormously by the fact, Matthiessen contended, that “Big Oil owns the country. They own Congress and the White House. Greed is their true nature.”

Greed, however, is the good news for Daniel Goleman: “We can use it for dharma ends,” he told the audience. Goleman, psychologist, science journalist, and bestselling author, argued that “greed motivates — it can motivate businesses to do good things. Shell and Mobil do what they do because they can make money selling to us.” Thus, he implied, corporations will become environmentally responsible if it promotes their public image and if they can profit from it.

Moreover, he continued, “it’s a half-truth” for people concerned about the environment — including Buddhists — to protest that “it’s not us” who cause the problem. “We have everything to do with it.” By disseminating information about alternatives, however, we can help to create “a business case for doing the right thing.”

We also can practice what Goleman called “industrial ecology,” looking at the complex interrelationships of the many constituent parts of a manufactured product and their relationship, in turn, with the larger environment at every step of the production and distribution process. This allows us to do a “life-cycle assessment” of a product and its impact at every stage of its existence.

As one example, Goleman said, “look at a glass bottle, in the 1,559 steps starting from sand to making glass.” When we perform such assessments, we may realize that “green,” as its commonly understood and marketed, “is a fraud. You clean up one or two of those 1,559 steps and call it ‘green.'” We need to assess at every step, he said — otherwise “we don’t see the harm we do in our everyday lives.”

New information technology will provide the means for us to perform such assessments, he explained. Scanning a product at the checkout counter will reveal a score. That score will indicate the product’s impact on the environment and on health — as well as the product’s social consequences — at every point in its manufacture. This “opens the door for mindful shopping,” asserted Goleman.

Such measures have become urgently necessary, he stated, because we now live in the “Anthropocene Age — the era that began with the Industrial Revolution, when human activity began to drive natural cycles in the wrong direction. We’re all caught unwillingly in a web of complicity in harming the earth.”

Paul Gorman vividly detailed some of that harm: more than a billion people hungry, forest cover lost, 425 dead zones in the oceans, carbon dioxide levels higher than any time in the past two million years, and every 20 minutes another animal species lost forever to extinction.

Against this global panorama of doom, Gorman — executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment — juxtaposed an image from astronaut Rusty Schweikert, who from his orbit of the moon saw “Earth as a small fragile thing, white and blue in the black of an infinite universe. You can block it out with your thumb. And right there is all that means anything to you: art, poetry, love, tears, joy, death, birth. You realize there’s something entirely new here.” God, Gorman added, saw that it was good.

To save this planet, Gorman said, we must awaken to our “natural resources of mystery, awe, and wonder” and to the interdependence of life. In short, “we must change the sphere of human consciousness.

Buddhists have a role in this effort, averred Stephanie Kaza, professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont. She listed “Eight Transitions to Sustainability,” including:

1. a stable or smaller world population

2. eliminating mass poverty

3. developing environmentally benign technologies

4. establishing environmentally accurate pricing

5. green teaching and learning

6.global environmental cooperation

The remaining two transition steps, she said, are especially suited to Buddhists:

7. limiting consumption

8. transformation of consciousness

This eighth step — which echoes Gorman’s plea, mentioned above — calls for a “massive enlightenment of consciousness,” Kaza said, “which sees the earth as a whole, and as interrelated systems.”

Buddhists have much to offer the environmental movement, she emphasized, including a virtue ethic and the practice of precepts, the teaching of restraint and discipline, and the Four Noble Truths. Monasteries and Zen centers offer models of silence, of less consumption, and can “show what contentment and satisfaction feels like. Buddhism,” she concluded, “has lots of ‘Green Wisdom.'”

Moderator Ken Kraft , professor of Religious Studies at Lehigh University, expressed a similar view. “Environmentalism is the oldest Socially Engaged Buddhism in the West,” he declared, mentioning Gary Snyder‘s “Smokey the Bear Sutra” in 1969. “And it goes back much farther, to Shakyamuni Buddha touching the earth. That’s the best-known image of enlightenment we have. For Buddhists, that Buddha was in touch with the earth at the moment of his enlightenment is wonderful. This moment in the environmental crisis is a teachable moment,” he maintained. “The realization that there is no boundary between us and the environment: this is a contribution that Buddhists can make.”

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