Buddhism, Big science, Truth claims and Climate crisis

Crisis? What Environmental Crisis? Finding an Authentic, Skilful Response to the Planetary Debate

presentation by Gabriel Lafitte to Global Buddhist Congregation environment panel stream, Delhi November 29 2011

The first responsibility of a Buddhist, before anything else, is to know what Buddhism is, to understand and appreciate it, in its vastness and completeness, its capacity to respond effectively to any aspect of the natural human condition. Unless, as Buddhists, we defend Buddhism, who will?

Conversely, our responsibility is to not take bits of Buddhism and insert them into the grinder of daily political contention, presenting our chunk of Buddhism as the answer to the current need of the hour. At best, this reduces the interrelated powerfully transformative methods of Buddhism to a quick fix, an add-on to the urgent issues of our times, and the true depth of Buddhism is forgotten. At worst, it reduces Buddhism to just another –ism, an ideology, in the competitive world of right and wrong, good and bad, me or you. Buddhism is not an –ism, that is one of the many ways European languages do disservice to the teachings of the Buddha, which deconstruct all –isms at their root.

The way to understand Buddhism in its richness and effectiveness in dealing with all circumstances, even extreme circumstances, is of course to practice it, to deepen experiential understanding, to live it. This will always be the most fundamental responsibility of the Buddhist.

The problems of the day, of our era, of the planet exist, even if no one can agree about what to do, who bears most responsibility, who should act first, who will bear the cost of changing the way we live so that we can share this planet with wildlife, habitats, biomes and a global climate which is itself a single system, vulnerable to human interference.

It may well be that we are in a crisis, which is nothing new, especially after the most violent century the world has ever known. Because we apprehend crisis, we reach for whatever tools we can find, to awaken people. If we are Buddhists, we reach for Buddhism to teach the world interdependence, universal responsibility and compassion.

This is good, but it is not all of Buddhism. If we feel the situation is urgent, critical, deeply dangerous, then it may be that we have not realized emptiness, we have not yet been able to deconstruct the seeming solidity of scientific data, of facts presented ex cathedra as objective truths above the din of neurotic confusion, facts that command us to act. We may have been unable to see in all those statistics, extrapolations, projections, simulation models of future climate patterns, as hopes and fears, alarms and excursions embedded in numbers.

If we do understand the scientific discourse of environmental crisis as one form of storytelling, we do have a wealth of Buddhist storytelling to contribute. Buddhism has never held politics to be so dirty and corrupt that Buddhist should avoid it. At the other extreme, Buddhists have always been careful not to let Buddhism be captured by a political faction, which seeks to claim sacred sanction for its own policies. Buddhism must not allow itself to be factional property, a weapon in the ideological competitions of the day. Buddhism is reduced if it becomes merely an instrumental tool for achieving the governmental aims of popular compliance with regulatory regimes to change behaviours that impact on climate, or wildlife conservation.

Between the extremes of reducing Buddhism to a tool, or of total aversion to politics, is the middle way of engagement. This too is easy to say, harder to do. Engagement with the issues of our times must be more than Buddhist bandaids, more than a selective embrace of partisan positions, and more than proposing Buddhist solutions that put all emphasis on compassion and interdependence, with insufficient emphasis on transcending right and wrong, good and bad, hope and fear.

When Buddhists engage with politics, it cannot be partisan, captive to the intellectual fashions and factions of the day. It must question the questions of the times. It must deconstruct the categories which make everything so urgent and intractable. Buddhist interventions in politics must come from a deep confidence that all situations are workable, because they are all insubstantial. This is a very different starting point, a deeply empowering way of cutting through the clamour of urgency that seeks to conscript Buddhism to this or that cause.

This does not mean we need to lecture everyone on emptiness, just when they are most passionate about their particular issue. But if we are ourselves grounded in the insubstantiality of all phenomena, we have a wider perspective, a more long term view, better able to intervene skillfully, in a timely way that fully recognizes those moments of auspicious coincidence when change can happen, if we seize it.

Buddhism is an inner strength, which enables the exercise of power to be done dispassionately, with equanimity, excluding no-one. The hunter, the polluter, the commodity speculator, the hoarder must be the object of unconditional compassion as much as the prey, the soiled, the poor and exploited. This is what the Buddha taught us. With inner strength and insight, we coax the exploiters out of their selfish and destructive habits, and with humour, that comes from encountering them in their humanity.

Of all the Buddhist traditions, the one I am most familiar with is the Tibetan, which not only saw politics as workable, but overtly embraced politics as one means of achieving socially beneficial goals. Historians, who have a deeply ingrained tendency to assume that any political leader who professes sympathy for Buddhism is merely making instrumental use of rhetoric for instrumental purposes of statecraft, usually judge Buddhist rulers badly. That is a matter for debate: whether the rulers used Buddhism for bad ends, or the Buddhist used politics constructively. Clearly the record is mixed, and we cannot escape that complexity by pious platitudes that Buddhism is never violent.
But the opportunity remains, to intervene in the crises of these times, in ways that are deeply Buddhist, deeply skilful, fruitful and productive. This does not mean simply slotting into the standard problem-and-solution logic that frames all crises these days.

The environmental crisis of our times is increasingly presented by Buddhists as a crisis of ethics, which makes our messages prescriptive, moralistic, even legislative in tone. Understandably, this generates resistance; is this the skilful way forward? A relaxed Buddhist alternative, that does not require rhetorics of urgency, is needed. The alternative, grounded in the Buddhist understanding of the nature of reality, accepts the long term view that the world is not going to forego consumption and adopt austerity overnight.

In the name of two of the most powerful forces of out time –science and reason- we are asked to mend our ways, drastically alter not only our behavior but our hopes and ambitions, for the sake of the planetary climate.
Science and reason hold themselves pure, objective arbiters of truth, above the din of confusion, of grasping and scheming in a world governed by short-sighted greed. Reason and science present themselves as the pure logic of necessity, the farsighted vision of those who see beyond the horizon, urging us all, from their lofty mountaintop, to trust we who dwell in the smoggy, polluted cities that their panoramic perspective is what we must trust.

We must abandon our hopes of a more comfortable material existence, instead frugally leaving only a modest footprint on the earth. We must abandon fossil fuels and the dream of mobility, comfort and ease they promise to fulfil. We must eat local produce, cut emissions for generations so drastically that the global atmosphere returns to a maximum concentration of CO2 of 350ppm, the level of a century ago.

What kind of world does this elite inhabit? Do they live in the ordinary world the rest of us inhabit? They proclaim certain knowledge of a grim future not apparent to most of us in daily life, and expect to be both believed but accepted as ultimate authority overriding all everyday concerns with getting ahead in life. From their pristine altitude, all is clear to them: the world must act, and Buddhists have a major role to play in awakening the world to its impending self-destruction. Buddhism, some say, has an especial responsibility to awaken us from our preoccupations with comfort and advantage, to realize the folly of our ways.

This is the new legislative voice of our times, the latest claimant to speak from direct access to objective necessity. But there are other, equally prescriptive voices, in the present and in our collective memories, which pull us in quite different directions. It is not so long ago that communists claimed to have unique insight into objective truth and necessity, and even now the Chinese Communist Party routinely claims to discover “laws” of development and progress that make full-speed industrialization an objective necessity.

While communism’s truth claims are eclipsed by the poor record of communist parties in power, other legislative voices are more powerful than ever, notably the market fundamentalism of our times. When democratically elected governments in Europe fail to appease speculators driven by greed, “technocrats” are appointed to run Greece and Italy, because they will do what is objectively necessary. They do what must be done, obeying the “laws” of economics, which require that government social safety nets for the poor, the sick and elderly be slashed, while underwriting corporate profit levels, making citizens pay for the greedy follies of banksters.

Although modernity is supposed to be a new world of relativism, comparison, plurality and thus disenchantment with old truths, there are new truths that insistently claim to be more equal than others. The dominant new truths of the climate scientists and the market’s magical price signal feedback mechanism, pull us in opposite directions. Market fundamentalism insists that economic growth is essential, ever-expanding production and expansion are the only way to ever afford to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The climate scientists instead would have a world government of wise sages who legislate for all of us, at whatever stage of economic development, a frugal future. All else must take second place to reducing consumption.


Some climate scientists turn to Buddhism to promote the agenda of frugality because Buddhism teaches us to find joy and fulfilment within, not from dependence on consumption. Inner contentment and modest demands on the physical world are ingrained in Buddhist tradition. This is good, practical and helpful. It could do much to ensure, from the ground up, that families and individuals reduce their footprint and their carbon emissions.

But does this mean that the grounded choices of Buddhist families should somehow become the legislative solution for the planet? How does the mindfulness of the individual Buddhist become the moral prescription for all? Is such a leap possible, or desirable?

The apostles of reason and science feel a great sense of urgency, so they seek short cuts to awaken us all from slumber, to accept their truths. Buddhism is one of the short cuts they turn to, as tools of mass awakening, through a mass pedagogy they would legislate, in the form of a global treaty mandating deep cuts in emissions, in all countries that emit much greenhouse gas, whether newly industrialized or old.

As Buddhists, do we want to be part of this pedagogy, drawn in to legitimate a new curriculum of cuts to production and consumption, because it is in the long run good for us? Surely the danger is that Buddhism becomes a moralistic elite captured by one agenda, one set of values, that is just one of innumerable social movements that rise and fall.
The climate scientists, in their Olympian wisdom, have failed to study history or psychology of human minds. They fail to study how social change actually occurs, often precipitated by crisis, and a messy process of lurching shifts in what constitutes “the new normal.” Because the climate scientists fail to understand politics, seeing it only as dysfunctional and irrational, or as plain dirty, they turn to Buddhism for enhanced moral authority.

This is deeply dualistic, and a caricature of Buddhism. It reduces Buddhism to being right, in a world of right and wrong. Naively, they cry out for rationality to prevail, simply because it is necessary. They are even drawn to Buddhism because it seems to them to be a critique of human messiness, contradictions, greed, selfishness and delusion; and a way out that transcends confusion.

That is a caricature of Buddhism because it emphasizes only the notion of right path, and ethical living, without any deeper transcendence of all hope and fear, right and wrong, the opposition of samsara to nirvana. The climate scientists who would have the world take a Buddhist turn actually reduce Buddhism to yet another prophetic religion like Judaism, Christianity and Islam which feature righteous, truth-telling prophetic outsiders whose fate us usually to be ignored, but ultimately proven right. Those religions no longer enjoy the moral authority they once did, except among the faithful, but Buddhism appeals because it seems more universal, cool and even fashionable.

Buddhism is much more than this. Buddhism transforms lives profoundly, transcending the dualisms of right and wrong, samsara and nirvana. This world is workable and politics need not be dismissed as inherently dirty and corrupting. While there is a long history of greedy and even violent men using Buddhism as a respectable cover for their ambitions, there is also a long Buddhist history of enlightened rulers and antinomian yogis who cut through the pretensions of power, to remind us all to awaken. From Jayavarman VII of Cambodia to the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas of Tibet, there are many exemplary Buddhist political leaders who skillfully fostered social change similar to the changes needed to fully face the environmental crisis of our times. Awakened, enlightened leaders encourage others to awaken, to discover the infinitely playful variety of the world in its boundless manifestations. To practice is to discover the creative power of mind, that is no longer prisoner to anthropogenic concepts of good and bad, that does not shrink in horror at the self-destructive stupidity of a world bent on consuming more than the earth can sustainable support. In short, Buddhist training of the mind to awaken, is a training in discovering the workability of the world, rather than rejecting the world of political compromise and deals as inherently unworkable.

This Global Buddhist Congregation occurs at the same moment as the latest round of global negotiations for a livable planet, the Durban Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It seems almost certain Durban will produce nothing but blame and recrimination. Developed countries as a bloc demand all emitters, new or old, reduce emissions under the rules of a treaty that includes everyone, or no-one. Developing industrial giants demand, with equal logic, that countries which have emitted greenhouse gases for centuries bear a special responsibility to cut back; while China, India, Brazil and S Africa demand the right to catch up to a comfortable life first. The world is locked in claim and counterclaim, as usual. No-one wants to be the first to act altruistically. This is familiar. It is business as usual.

It is perhaps understandable that the climate scientists, like the prophets of the Torah/Old Testament, despair at the folly and wickedness of those who deny, confuse, obfuscate and prevaricate. But despair takes the world as a literal, solid truth, and the highly speculative, assumption-laden climate dynamics modelling of future climates as literal truth.


Solidifying a solid world with statistical modeling of worlds to come leads only to alarm, despair and extremes. Statistical extrapolation of China’s population, by Chinese rocket missile control scientists in 1980, persuaded China’s leaders to impose a mandatory one-child policy, by producing graphs showing China would have one square metre of land per person if population growth was unchecked. One cost of that policy is the killing of tens of millions of human beings in the womb, overwhelmingly girls. Today, we have scientists calculating the odds of the planet being destroyed by an asteroid. This is not always helpful, nor do extrapolations illuminate what we are working with, which is the human condition, as we experience it in the present.

Not surprisingly, this exasperates ordinary people, who feel they have enough in front of them to worry about, without having to take seriously the prospect of China running out of land or the planet destroyed by an asteroid, or crisped by global warming. The entire project of modernity, driven by the modern fact, relies on problematising some isolated aspect of existence, then generating solutions which, of course, can only come from experts. We have all experienced being bamboozled and battered by experts since, as Buddhist Laurie Anderson sings wryly, only an expert can deal with the problem.
Buddhism provides a radical alternative to this elaborate excursus into reification. Buddhism cuts through the solidity of all mental projections, and even through genetically preprogrammed privileging of self over other. Buddhism liberates us into a workable, playful, fluid reality where change is constant, where the mindful, confident and relaxed mind is able to turn other minds in fruitful directions, at auspicious moments. Buddhism is an invitation to become intimately familiar with how our minds actually work, and how much our fears are unhelpful mental projections. To become familiar with the workings of mind is to discover a deep inner confidence that enables us to deal with difficult circumstances as they arise, without taking them too literally. To awaken is to relax.

A more relaxed approach to the climate crisis of our times avoids the extreme of denial, and the opposite extreme of prescriptive urgency. It will take a generation before the world takes seriously the astounding proposition that humanity has, without noticing, attained the technical means of altering the climate of the whole planet, for the worse.

If we allow ourselves a generation to deal effectively with such a major change of direction, we start to see a way, rather than only seeing obstacles, denial and willful blindness. No doubt it is true that it would be far better to start reducing emissions now, and that the effort of effective action later will be greater. But, contrary to the hopes of the technocrats, it could never be done without major changes in our practices, expectations and definitions of the good life. The technocratic fantasy is that we can have it all, material opulence and low emissions, with no substantial change required. That myth will take time to collapse.

If we understand this as a process that requires a generation before it is taken seriously, and acted upon purposefully, we give ourselves time to discover ways in which Buddhists can contribute more than moral prescriptions. We can be profoundly effective in deeper ways.