The major faiths could work together on the urgent, essential task of protecting
and restoring the threatened forests of the world.
The Japanese word mottainai (wasteful, but often translated as "What a waste!") has been popularized by Dr. Wangari Maathai, who in 2004 became the first Kenyan woman and the first environmentalist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The word is now known and understood by many people around the world. The way mottainai has been adopted by people in many countries is perhaps one indication of how they have come to fear the serious consequences of the environmental problems that have followed in the wake of the growth of modern civilization's pursuit of material abundance and convenience.
Japan must be counted as one of the leading nations in the practice of pursuing material abundance and convenience. As a result, however, it seems that the daily lives of the Japanese are now being driven toward wealth-induced poverty and convenience-induced inconvenience in the midst of overflowing garbage and industrial waste, global warming-induced climate change, and other threats to the environment.
Every day I am struck by how things that make life more convenient when we have them are usually things we could do without. Convenience products are certainly nice to have. Not having them, however, does not usually mean inconvenience to the point where we find it hard to function.
Therefore, we can just stop using those things we can do without---but the trouble is that action on the individual level alone will not bring about a solution, and in this lies the difficulty of environmental problems. I call this "systematized wastefulness." If we are to lead lives that are to a certain extent civilized, we are bound to be involved in social systems that are systematically wasteful.
For example, individual good intentions and efforts will not suffice to stop supermarkets and convenience stores from handing out plastic bags, or department stores from wrapping customers' purchases in multiple layers of packaging. Fundamental solutions to these problems will only be possible when systematically wasteful social systems change.
Thus, the ramifications of environmental issues are expressed in a multitude of ways, from problems on the daily-life level right through to those that are global in scale. As a result of the energy and food supply strategies adopted by many of the world's nations, the power of immense capital is causing forests, for example the rain forests in the Amazon basin, to be cut down at a furious pace and converted into fields of wheat and corn. It goes without saying that the Amazon's primeval forests play a significant planetary role in supplying oxygen and putting the brakes on global warming.
What kind of approach can religions take in relation to such global-scale environmental problems? As Buddhists, we should try on an individual level to live without using an excess of material goods and in a way that is long on ingenuity and short on greed, while devoting our energies into environmental education for the younger generation.
Our environment can be roughly divided into three sets of factors: the human environment, the social environment, and the natural environment. What types of environmentally conscious action can we take in these spheres in order to build the kind of harmonious world advocated by Buddhism? I think that we are approaching a new dimension, not only in the seriousness of environmental issues, but also in the ways we as Buddhists live and communicate the Buddha's teachings.
In July of this year, the Group of Eight (G-8) summit meeting will be held beside Lake Toya in Hokkaido, Japan. The Japanese government will give top priority at this meeting to discussing measures to deal with global warming. The World Conference of Religions for Peace, in which I am also involved, will take the opportunity to hold a conference at about the same time in nearby Sapporo entitled "Religious Leaders Summit for Peace: On the Occasion of the Lake Toya G-8 Summit." As I write this it is not clear what kind of declaration the leaders of different faiths intend to make in the name of religious cooperation. It is my hope, and I think it will be borne out in the future, that the major religions will join in declaring "green" cooperation for the protection and restoration of endangered forests.
Isao Fukada is director of the Ome Retreat Center of Rissho Kosei-kai in Tokyo and is a member of the Commission on Development and Environment of the Japanese Committee of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2008 issue of Dharma World.
back to this issue's table of contents