Since it’s Blog Action Day and since I’m supposed to be writing about the environment and since this is a “buddhist blog,” I thought I make some rather loosely connected observations which may or may not make any sense at all. So here goes.
There’s a common refrain in some circles of Buddhism that says something about the rarity of being born as a human being, that given the multiplicity of possible rebirth options, being a human is the least likely. At the same time, being born as a human gives you the greatest opportunity at attaining enlightenment. So, in short, don’t waste it. Don’t waste your time by not practicing. Get to it, in other words.
While this always struck me as rather anthropocentric, the older I get the more I see the practicality of this world view. I mean, imagine being a religious teacher and trying to motivate a group of young monks or nuns who fervently believe in reincarnation and telling them, “Hey. Listen up. Next time around you’re a bug. So make good use of your time!”
It also seems practical in the sense that, well, after all, we are human beings. I’m sure that right now somewhere there’s a group of Buddhist rats living down in a BART station, and the head Buddhist rat is telling his followers that being born as a rat gives them the best chance for enlightenment. But, as always, I digress.
What I think is relevant here for our current purposes, the environment, is not so much that we should focus our attention on people to the exclusion of other beings in the biosphere or even the biosphere itself, but that we should change the way we speak about environmental issues. As a case in point, I give you the spotted owl.
Back in the early 1990’s, while I was living up in Humboldt, there was big to-do about the spotted owl, how its was endangered, and how its endangered status was the reason we needed to preserve great swaths of redwood trees. This polarized the local population into radical Earth Firsters and radical redneck loggers. I know the value of the spotted owl and the value of great swaths of redwood trees not only from a scientific point of view but also for their intrinsic value. But I can also understand the straightforward need of a working-class logger to being able to work, to put food on the table for his or her family. And how easy it is to scapegoat the spotted owl as the reason why you can’t do that.
The loggers don’t care about owls. They care about the land because the land is what feeds them and their families. No amount of science can convince them to stop logging because this need to feed and protect ourselves is something much more powerful and base than rational science.
But you can make an argument for sustainable logging practices which doesn’t say squat about owls, or even sustainability, that will help the loggers change their practices. It’s a argument about how logging and caring for the land carries with it the benefit of caring for their families for generations to come. The whole you can give man to fish or teach him to fish argument. In short, an argument that highlights the connection we have with the environment makes people understand why protecting it is a good idea for people.
Because let’s face it: people are pretty self-centered. And for most people, polar bears stranded on melting ice flows in the Arctic is meaningless, no matter how cute those polar bears might be. On the other hand, a hurricane made that much stronger by global warming that displaces tens of thousands of people in Gulf Coast is real and tangible and because they’re people, we have an instant connection with them even if we don’t live in the Gulf Coast.
I believe that we do need to change our behavior. I also believe that we need to get other people to agree with us and change their behavior. And the sure-fire way to that end is to appeal to their humanity. To remind them that protecting the environment is something we do not only for the environment but, more importantly, for ourselves. Without a sustainable environment, we can’t sustain ourselves as a species. If we destroy the environment, we’re not destroying it for good. The earth will bounce back. It might take a few millennia, but on a cosmic scale, that’s barely the blink of an eye. If we destroy the environment, we’re destroying it for ourselves. We’ll make the planet uninhabitable for us. For people.
So that’s my environment rant. Happy blog action day!