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.
Rinpoche: We speak about certain elements of the outer world - earth, water, fire, wind, and space - yet these are the same elements that make up the bodies of sentient beings, such as humans. Since our body is a compound of those elements, disturbances in the outer environment are also going to impact our body, causing it discomfort, pain, sickness, or even death. When the body is out of balance the mind is affected as well.
Daniel Goleman: Toxicologists try to track how the 80,000 or so industrial chemicals in use today end up in our bodies, and the damage they do. A blood sample from anyone on the planet will reveal which of several hundred toxic chemicals have accumulated in their tissue over the course of life – from things we drink or eat, the particles we breathe, the creams and shampoos we put on our skin. One theory is that this chemical stew stimulates chronic inflammation and other metabolic stresses that set the stage for major disease from cancer, heart disease and diabetes to a host of neurologic disorders.
Rinpoche: Ethically speaking, we are obliged not to exploit the environment based on a short sighted desire for financial gain. Whether we talk about deforestation or pollution of our crops and food supplies, when all efforts are directed at simply maximizing profits it is going to have very direct negative consequences for human beings.
Pollutants that cause degeneration, disease, or death pass from plants to animals, and from animals to humans. There are many examples of this happening these days. Things that at first glance seem to be helpful and enriching turn out to have lethal effects.
Daniel Goleman: The ways in which business and industry routinely attack the sustainability of the planet are countless, even if inadvertent and unintended. This is made starkly clear by the data coming from life cycle analysis, which documents the multiple costs to the environment and human health or wellbeing from even the most innocuous-seeming things – a toy car that harbors lead in its shiny paint; a cotton t-shirt in colors that give workers in dye houses high rates of leukaemia; can of processed food; carcinogenic fire retardants in our computers that shed molecules into the air we breathe. All these problems stem from the fact that today’s standard industrial processes and chemicals were invented in a day before we had a sound lens on their ecological impacts; now that industrial ecology can assess those impacts we have a unique opportunity and imperative: reinvent everything, so that our stuff does not do in our species – and others.
Rinpoche: The negative effects of pollution and abuse of the environment tend to accumulate if left unchecked, so problems are going to multiply with the passage of time. Farmers, suppliers, merchants, consumers, politicians – whoever we are – we need to take good care of ourselves. If we don’t do so now it may become too late. There are plenty of signs that time is running out.
Daniel Goleman: The present Anthropocene Age, some say, may herald the coming of the sixth extinction episode in the history of life on earth. A recent article in the journal Nature documents the steady meltdown of eight planetary systems essential to sustain human life – and all these meltdowns are the direct result of the daily habits of six billion people. The signs range from the build-up of toxic chemicals in nature (and in us) to the spread of dead spots (where there is no longer any oxygen) in bodies of water worldwide due to runoff of nitrogen-based fertilizers.
Rinpoche: We talk a lot about protecting and safeguarding the environment, about the importance of organic foods, and so on. The point, however, is not just to talk about it, but to make sure that we actually do take care of our environment. What we do will have very far reaching consequences, affecting even the most subtle forms of life on this planet. We need to prevent future disaster, and to do that we must first of all seek to understand what direction we are moving in. We must try to identify where things have gone wrong and discuss how we can best restore and improve wherever there are problems. In this way, we way we can make sure that the future is a happy one. If the outer environment is healthy and in balance, the physical well-being of all who inhabit it can also improve, and this, in turn, allows for peace of mind, kind heartedness, and brightness of the mind. In short, we can come to experience true joy and fulfilment.
On the other hand, what prevents this is, basically, human craving and selfishness: Having no concern for what may happen later; simply thinking that the elements are there to be exploited; for me to become as rich as possible - even if it means poisoning the world -- that type of selfish attitude. So what we think and do matters.
Daniel Goleman: While the challenge of altering humanity’s selfish attitudes requires a long-term solution (perhaps very long-term), in the meantime there is a short-term fix that uses the marketplace to police itself: ecological transparency. Some large companies are planning to start tracking the ecological impacts of the products they sell, and to give each item on their shelves an eco-impact score placed next to the price tag. This gives shoppers a chance to vote with their dollars for a better world; right now any of us can do this by using www.GoodGuide.com. Other companies have already started to seek out suppliers who have better ecological footprints; www.Earthster.org is an information system that helps them. To the extent we all make the effort to learn the ecological impacts of what we do and buy, and make improvements, the future should be brighter.
Rinpoche: This is important for us all to acknowledge. Thank you very much.
Daniel Goleman: And thank you.
Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche’s teaching schedule is at http://www.gomdeusa.org/
Daniel Goleman’s explorations of ecological transparency can be heard at http://www.morethansound.net/store/ecological-awareness/ecological-awareness-cd-set/prod_181.html