Interdependent Ecology

Author Daniel Goleman interviews a Buddhist lama on why it's essential to be mindful of our sacred earth.

We live in what geologists call the “Anthropocene Age,” an era dating from the Industrial Revolution where human activity has been steadily eroding the ecological niche essential to sustain human life (not to mention thousands of other species). As a psychologist, I’ve been trying to understand the mental forces that create a collective blindspot about how our daily habits drive this destruction – a conundrum I’ve written about in Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy.

I had come to a peaceful retreat center in California’s Mendicino County – where this destruction was witnessed by the absence of the giant sequoia trees that once covered the hills – to study with the Tibetan Lama Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. Over breakfast I told Rinpoche about the key ideas in my book Ecological Intelligence, and asked him to talk about this crisis from a Dharma perspective.

His comments brought a new perspective to my thinking, one informed by Buddhism’s deep understanding of the connectedness of all things, and the ethical basis for compassionate living. And I found remarkable parallels to his views in new ideas emerging from ecology. Here are Rinpoche’s insights, and my own thoughts on them.

Rinpoche: Buddhism teaches that all that we experience is empty and arisen in interdependence. Nagarjuna explains:

Apart from what originates dependently,

There are no phenomena at all.

Therefore, apart from emptiness,


There are no phenomena at all.

In this way, every entity or event is dependent on something else. The outer world, the beings that inhabit it, and all the experiences of those beings – all is interdependent.

Daniel Goleman: Interdependence in the material world is a basic premise of ecological intelligence – that from the smallest scale of molecular interaction to the largest dimension of Earth’s biogeochemical systems, we inhabit a web of connection. A new field, industrial ecology, has found precise ways to measure the impact of human systems like manufacturing on natural systems. This lens on our stuff, for instance, sees 1,959 discrete steps in the life cycle of a glass jar; at each step there are numerous impacts on the environment, health, and the people involved. From this perspective the glass jar is not a product – it’s a process.

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Ecological Intelligence
By Daniel Goleman