Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Indulging ourselves to death

The Chinese Daoist author Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) looked around the world in which he lived some twenty-five centuries ago and asked “Why are there so many boats on the river? Why are people building bridges just so they can easily get to the other side of the river? What is wrong with people that they can't be happy where they are?”

Do you have an answer to his question? Do you understand your own Wanderlust, your own compulsion to travel, whether by bicycle or automobile or airplane or virtually by serfing the Web? What is wrong with you? What is wrong with me?

One thing that is wrong with both you and me is that we are part of a network of enterprises that are destroying the only planet available to us and to our descendants. One Quaker writer, Marshall Massey, has argued that our current willingness to live in a way that destroys the earth that our children's children will inherit is morally equivalent to slavery. The people who founded the United States of America benefited from the labor of slaves. This was not much less true of those who did not own slaves than it was of those who did. People in colonial times enjoyed goods and services produced in an economy that depended heavily on the involuntary labor of captured human beings, people who would never enjoy all the things that their forced labor made possible. Today we look back on slave enconomies and find them deplorable. We feel a sense of justifiable smugness about our own moral superiority to our ancestors (or to those who enslaved our ancestors, as the case may be).

And yet we ourselves are enjoying goods that are, in effect, being stolen from future generations. We are living comfortable lives by depleting the resources of the earth, thereby making it impossible for our descendants to enjoy what we enjoy—perhaps even making it impossible for them to survive at all. Our oblivious insensitivity to the effects of our lifestyles reaches a scale of immorality—of evil if you prefer that term—that makes slavery look like a charitable institution in comparison.

Our generation is certainly not the first to live an unsustainable lifestyle. History is full of civilizations that have so destroyed their environments that the civilization fell into a state of ruin. In the Mesopotamia, the so-called cradle of civilization (in what is now Iraq), both the Sumerians and the Babylonians had enough people living such lavish lives that the environment eventually collapsed, bringing the human cultures down with them. The Romans had a similar effect on the environment of northern Africa during the times when rich and powerful people in the Roman Empire were living in luxury. The Easter Islanders, the Mayans of Guatemala and southern Mexico, and various other indigenous peoples in North America lived beyond the sustainability of their environments. People have been in the business of indulging themselves beyond the capacity of their environments to sustain their greedy pursuits for a very long time.

What makes modern times different from these past examples of environmental collapse, of course, is that nearly everyone everywhere is participating in a pursuit of pleasure and comfort that puts severe strains on the environment. When people destroyed their environments in the past, they could migrate to a new location. In the world in which we now live, the human population has grown so large that nearly all habitats that can sustain human life are filled to overflowing with human populations. The effect of the world-wide degradation of the environment is cumulative, both across space and through time. Environmental scientists have made the following observations:

  • 20,000 species a year are going extinct, most of them because of degradation of the environment due to human activities.
  • Human beings collectively consume approximately 20% more resources than the earth can produce.
  • As a result, 60% of the earth's ecosystems have been severely compromised.
  • At current rates of extinction, it is estimated that 12% of all bird species, 25% of mammal species and 30% of all amphibian species are likely to be extinct by the end of the 21st century. If you are a parent with young children, your grandchildren will live to see all this extinction —provided your children and grandchildren live as long as human beings now live, which may turn out not to be the case.
  • 90% of the total weight of the ocean's large predators (such as tuna, swordfish and sharks) have disappeared in recent years.
  • Degraded plastic is now found everywhere in the earth's oceans, and biologists report that all species living in and near the ocean have significant traces of plastic in their systems. Plastic is not bio-degradable, has no nutritional value, and often impedes the normal biological processes that keep a species healthy. Its toxic omnipresence is slowly strangling all the lifeforms on our planet.

While nearly every intelligent and well-informed person shows at least some level of concern about our relationship with the environment, few are both willing and able to see what radical changes would be required of all of us in how we live, what we buy, how and where and how often we travel.

It is as if we all believe that our own personal projects are so important that we can be excused from adjusting our lives. (For example, I am using the energy-guzzling medium of the Internet to disseminate this message. Does the fact that I am writing about the environment somehow lighten my share of the burden that is being placed on the weary earth? Does the fact that you are reading this message reduce your impact on the environment? You and I both ahve some thining to do.)

Every man woman and child, whether he or she is a Buddhist, a Christian, a Hindu, a Humanist, a Jew, a Muslim, a Sikh or a Wiccan, owes it to the rest of the human race and to future generations to give some thought to these questions.

  • Why are we individually and collectively so blind and deaf to the effects our personal decisions have on other human beings, on animals and on plants?
  • If we would like to put this into the language of Asian systems of thought, why are we so oblivious of our karma and its ripening?
  • If we would like to put it into the language of the Abrahamic religions, why are we so unwilling to be custodians of God's creation and to preserve it for our descendants? How can we be so sinfully scornful of the creation of which we are a part?
  • To put the matter in a language anyone can understand, how did we descend into such an abysmal ignorance and insensitivity that we fail to see the obvious?
  • How can we change? If so, when do we start? Why are we waiting?

There is an environmentalist named Kurt Hoelting, who draws upon both Christian and Buddhist sources of inspiration, as well as upon scientific literature. He stresses our need as human beings to be in touch with wilderness. By losing touch with wilderness, he writes “we have placed our own psyches on the endangered species list.” The destruction of the environment is not only the consequence of our collective insanity; it is the cause of further forms of insanity. We have lost touch with something fundamental to who we are. We have lost touch not only with our animal natures but with what some would call our divine natures, namely, our ability to reason and to imagine courses of action other than the ones to which we have become habituated. This is nothing new, of course. The Chinese Daoist philosophers asked the provocative question “Of all the ten thousand things in nature, why is it that only human beings have to ask themselves ‘What is the Way?’” While the situation is not new, it is arguably more critical now than it has ever been before. We are now at the point where we cannot afford to be insane any longer.

To a human being in touch with wilderness, and with that part of nature that is not dominated by human obsessions with comfort and with pleasure, it is perfectly obvious that the individual self is a pure fiction. None of us are individuals. No one is independent. No one is free. No one can be secure. To pursue such fictions as individual rights and freedoms, and autonomy and freedom and security is to chase phantoms of one's vain imagining. We are all in this together—you and I and the chickadees and the mice and the salmon and the ladybugs and the juniper trees. Not one of us is free of the others or independent of the others—all of them.

When we lose touch with nature, we gain something, but what we gain is an illusion, an impossible dream that may begin with a seductive pleasantness but that sooner or later turns into a nightmare. We gain the delusion of individual selfhood and autonomous agency, and with that acquisition we take on the full brunt of the calamity of modern human life: the competitiveness, the greed, the insensitivity to others, the narcissistic isolation that manifests itself in constant struggle at the personal level and in warfare among peoples. When each of us is living in a way that depletes the available resources of material goods and energy, it is inevitable that we eventually feel justified in fighting to the death over them. We convince ourselves that we are entitled to live as we wish and that those who have the resources we need to do so are somehow undeserving to be living on the land that has the resources we crave. We turn them into demons. We invade their land. We kill them. Then we cannot understand why they resent us, and we turn their resentment into further evidence of their moral inferiority. This story is as old as history itself. But it is not the only story told in human history.

Ever since the dawn of recorded human history, there have been people offering us alternatives to the madness of personal and collective greed. In every part of the earth and in every culture there have been those who have invited us to learn to be content with having just what we need to survive, to be content with going no further than walking distance from our homes, or to be content to have so few possessions that we can easily carry our homes on our backs. Few people, especially in groups of people who pride themselves on being “civilized” accept the invitation. We may delude ourselves into thinking we are following the Buddha or Jesus or Muhammad, but how many people actually manage to live their lives as these great men lived theirs? There are a small handful of people who actually follow the examples of simplicity manifested in the lives of the Buddha or the Christ, but there are billions who imagine they are doing so.

You have read this. Now, what do you propose to do?