Buddhist environmental ethics

Buddhist environmental ethics May 1, 2009

Samuel, aka the Buddhist Okie, posted this interesting set of questions in my recent discussion of Holmes Rolston III:

Hey Justin!

“Then, importantly, we must go on living this life we’ve created – hoping, helping to bring peace to others. Fighting the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion. Within, and without”

I don’t think a blog comment space is probably the appropriate forum for this question. But given the post relating to environmental ethics, and your charge to fight greed, hatred, and delusion….. if one had the ability to put a wind generator on their land for electricity generation, would that be an ethical thing to do?

I understand energy from an economics perspective, but I’m kind of clueless as to the environmental and ethical implications of conventional energy (coal, oil, gas). But based on the Buddhist idea of the inter-connectedness of all things; could it be argued that it would be a positive good to live off energy generated from wind opposed to coal, oil, and gas?

Would the action of one person actuallly make a difference?

The simple answer: yes! It would be a very positive good to use wind energy vs these non-renewable CO2 producers.

The basic environmental and ethical implications of conventional energy production focus on CO2 output.

(a quick and basic lesson on all of this): As you likely know, CO2 is a key greenhouse gas, in that it traps the sun’s heat in our atmosphere like a blanket. The more we put up there, the warmer our climate becomes. Living organisms like you and me and trees and dinosaurs ‘trap’ CO2 – trees take it directly out of the atmosphere in their breathing process, animals take it from eating the plants. When we die a lot of that CO2, now in the form of various carbons, goes back into the atmosphere in our decomposition. But some of it goes with us into the ground.

If we stay down there long enough, millions of years, those carbons can get crushed together in various ways to produce coal, oil and gas. These are amazing little bundles of energy, and today we are using them. We do this by causing the breakdown of the complex chains of carbon, releasing the energy, and the carbon, combining with oxygen in the breakdown process, back into the atmosphere.

The problem now is that we are causing the earth’s climate to warm back up to where it was millions of years ago. This might not seem so bad, but the resulting social and political chaos is actually quite frightening. Something like 2/3 of the world’s population lives at or near sea-level. With slow but steady rises in sea-level, those people will have to move, in some cases to other countries. Food grown there will have to move. People will starve. They will fight. Bad things will happen.

But that’s just the beginning. Humans can adapt pretty quickly. Other species, unfortunately not so much. Places that have been savanna for thousands of years are now becoming either deserts or forests (depending on direction of change in rainfall primarily); many species here in Montana for instance, that rely on niche-climates, are in decline. One case is the white-bark pine tree, which grows very high up in dry, rocky climates that are covered in snow 2/3 of the year. Well, with the rise in temperatures of the last 20 years, these areas are shrinking and moving up-slope. Pine trees can’t just uproot and walk to the better conditions. Now, the little animals and birds that live on the nuts from these trees are in decline too. And, who would have guessed, but the great grizzly bear is suffering too. Grizzlies rely on raiding the stores of pine-nuts that other animals work all winter to create so that they can get much-needed fat in the spring. No nuts = hungry, cranky grizzlies.

Similar stories are unfolding around the world.

We burn gas (etc), we heat the air, we lose the snow and trees and piss off big bears. How much more clearly ethical can it get!?

Seriously though. In order to take the Buddhist precept of non-harm or ahmisa seriously, we must work to minimize our environmental “footprint” in the world. Wind energy and hydroelectric both do this. Both have their flaws, but compared to carbon-based energy they are far better. More importantly though is the moves we all can make to reduce energy consumption altogether. Live simply. Be a conscious consumer; buy local, buy bulk, etc. Be active in politics as much as you can; email leaders urging them to conserve, to waste less, to consider the long-term in everything that they do.

Yes, one person’s actions does make a difference. Remember that your actions ripple out, like the air off of a butterfly’s wings that causes the proverbial hurricane. Even when we don’t feel like we’re making a difference, what is most important is that we keep trying. We keep trying to rid ourselves of greed, hatred and delusion and to act from our Buddha-nature, with the selfless care of a mother for her only child. Don’t worry if you feel like an insignificant peg in the massive wheels of life’s machinery. In a way, you are. But also in a way you are the grand result of all other pegs, the locus of all opportunity and possibility.

Sapere Aude!

Dare to know.


Carpe Diem!

Sieze the day.

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