We cannot change the natural cycles of life, nor can we escape the unavoidable suffering of death. We can, however, resist the avoidable suffering caused by damage to the biosphere by acting now to restore Earth's carbon cycle.
A woman, whose only child had died, was unable to accept her loss. So she went to the Buddha seeking a cure. He sent her out to gather mustard seed, requiring that "the mustard-seed must be taken from a house where no one has lost a child, [spouse,] parent, or friend."1 As the grieving woman went from house to house, she found that every family had lost a loved one. Suddenly, she realized that death is part of life and that continuing to grieve was selfish as well as futile.
A man, angered by the suffering of his people, asked Jesus to explain God's reign. "It's like a mustard seed," Jesus replied, "the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky."2 The people suffering were Jews ruled by Romans. Working in the fields, they would welcome the shade of a plant large enough to shelter birds, but the land-owner would uproot the plant to keep birds away. Yet, mustard seeds continue to fall into fields and grow, and the crucifixion of Jesus by Roman rulers did not end faith in the reign of God. Acts of love, though fragile, are not futile and may flourish.
When we experience unavoidable suffering, we can let go of our grief and live with compassion for all sentient beings. When we experience avoidable suffering, we can find in life and love the faith to resist what is wrong and make some things right. To respond creatively to our environmental crisis, we have to set aside our sorrow for the devastation of nature caused by our industrial economy and take steps to reduce our "ecological footprint."3 Once we are aware of our dependence on the ecosystems that sustain life, then we may change our way of living to restore the ecological balance of the earth's biosphere.4
Moved by our awareness and the compassion of others, we can create hope by the choices we make.
The Buddha rejected the ascetic life, but counseled restraint in eating and other pleasures. Saint Francis is an exemplar of simplicity in the Christian tradition, and Sufis represent this way of life in Islam. Simple clothing, modest meals, fasting, physical work, and contemplation are the distinctive practices of such a "religious" life.
John Muir founded the Sierra Club because he found God in nature. "The Song of God, sounding on forever," he wrote. "So pure and sure and universal is the harmony, it matters not where we are" for "as soon as we are absorbed in the harmony," then "plain, mountain, calm, storm, lilies and sequoias, forests and meadows are only different strands of many-colored Light-are one in the sunbeam!"5
As a child Jane Goodall was inspired by Dr. Dolittle stories, and in 1960 she began living in Tanzania with chimpanzees. The Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) pursues her vision of "creating healthy ecosystems, promoting sustainable livelihoods and nurturing new generations of committed, active citizens around the world." One JGI initiative gives us the ethical choice of buying coffee grown in Gombe Stream National Park. "Those who purchase this high-quality coffee are supporting cultivation of a sustainable, chimpanzee-friendly crop grown by farmers in the impoverished Kigoma region of western Tanzania. The coffee is shade-grown (meaning trees aren't cut down). What's more, because chimpanzees don't like coffee beans, they don't raid the fields, thus avoiding human-wildlife conflict-an increasing, life-threatening problem in areas where human and wildlife live in proximity." Goodall grieves the loss of wildlife due to economic development, but urges that we "try to replace impatience and intolerance with understanding and compassion. And love."6
Realizing how ecosystems sustain all life may also inspire us to live more responsibly. Within an ecosystem, "every species is bound to its community in the unique manner by which it variously consumes, is consumed, competes, and cooperates with other species. It also indirectly affects the community in the way it alters the soil, water, and air."7 Bacteria, the most abundant form of life on earth, play a crucial role in every ecosystem. Trees and other plants that sustain all animal life depend on nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil.8 And to digest the food we eat, we rely on hundreds of millions of bacteria living in our intestines, stomach and mouth.9 The astounding fact is that the great majority of cells in our bodies are not our own but belong to other organisms, which makes each of us an ecosystem!
Awareness of the interdependence of life led conservationist Aldo Leopold to conclude: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."10 Natural events may disrupt an ecosystem without destroying its integrity, as ecosystems are resilient. But modern economic development has devastated nature, so we must now protect natural habitats to ensure biodiversity. "Earth, from here onward, will become increasingly a managed planet. If humans wish a society with integrity, such management, for the foreseeable future, continues to require integrity and health in ecosystems, keeping them stable in the midst of historical change."11
To learn how to protect the wilderness, Leopold suggested "thinking like a mountain."12 But we may have to think "like a field" to see that sustainable agriculture requires maintaining ecosystems. "Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease."13
Modern agriculture has replaced farm animals with machines, diverse crops and crop rotation with a single crop, natural fertilizer with artificial fertilizer, and grazing with barns and stockyards where livestock are fed grain laced with hormones and antibiotics to fatten the animals and resist the bacteria that thrive in these artificial environments. Raising cattle to produce beef has led to overgrazing, soil erosion, desertification, and tropical deforestation.14
Also, cattle emit almost "a fifth of the world's greenhouse gases" that are warming the planet.15 Cattle eat half the world's grain, and producing one pound of beef takes about seven pounds of grain as well as 2,700 gallons of water. In contrast, an acre of grains, using much less water and producing no greenhouse gases, may yield ten times more protein than an acre used to produce beef. An acre of legumes may yield twenty times more protein than an acre used to raise cattle.16 Modern agriculture and the production of meat, especially beef, are environmentally unsustainable.
Eating, therefore, can be an act of love. Most of the world's vegetarians are Hindus, for not eating meat in the Hindu tradition is a way of improving karma. Some Jews, however, are combining "traditional Jewish dietary laws with new concerns about industrial agriculture, global warming and fair treatment of workers."17 Supporters of "cruelty-free diets" oppose the suffering inflicted on animals raised for food. Whether we choose to be vegetarians or simply reduce our consumption of meat, deriving more of our nutrients from grain reduces our ecological footprint and increases the supply of food for others.
Our consumption may in other ways support environmental sustainability. Fair Trade-certified foods are a small but significant market, and demand for organic food has had a major impact on retailers.18 Consumers can also buy products and services "where the making and the use of the product are carried out in an environmentally friendly way."19 We can purchase more energy-efficient light bulbs, appliances, and automobiles, and some cities allow a switch to electricity generated without the burning of fossil fuels. Lumber from sustainably managed forests is now available, and European laws require manufacturers to bear the cost of recycling electrical appliances.
For too long the "metabolism" of cities has been linear. Food imported into cities is consumed and then "discharged as sewage into rivers and coastal waters. Raw materials are extracted from nature, combined and processed into consumer goods that ultimately end up as rubbish that can't be beneficially reabsorbed into the natural world."20 Awareness is growing, however, that our industrial and urban way of life must resemble the "circular metabolism" of nature "in which every output which is discharged by an organism also becomes an input which renews and sustains the continuity of the whole living environment of which it is a part. The whole web of life hangs together in a 'chain of mutual benefit,' through the flow of nutrients that pass from one organism to another."21
To resolve our environmental crisis, we must see each city as an ecosystem that provides "a sustainable livelihood, whose ecological footprint is minimal, and which interfaces with natural systems in a way that promotes ecological integrity."22 There are many examples of such "urban ecology." Austin, Texas, owns its electrical generating company, so it offers residents the option of receiving energy from renewable resources. Curitiba, Brazil, a city of two million in a metropolitan area of 3.5 million, relies for mass transit on buses that are used by 85 percent of the population. The city of Bristol in the United Kingdom transforms the annual sewage output of its 600,000 inhabitants into 10,000 tons of fertilizer used by nearby farms growing food.
In Vancouver, Canada, a new building has "nine composting toilets and three urinals that require no water. Gray water and rainwater are used for irrigation." These changes "save about 1,500 gallons of potable water every day."23 San Francisco is imposing "the country's most stringent green building codes, regulations that would require new large commercial buildings and residential high-rises to contain such environmentally friendly features as solar power, nontoxic paints and plumbing fixtures that decrease water usage."24 Chicago has planted over 400,000 trees since 1989, created 250 miles of bicycle lanes, and operates nine free trolley routes with trolleys using biodiesel fuel. Chicago also maintains a garden of 20,000 plants on the roof of city hall that "mitigates the urban heat island effect by replacing what was a black tar roof with green plants," and absorbs rainwater, reducing runoff.25
All these changes not only make ecological sense by conserving energy, but lower emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that have upset the carbon cycle. The biosphere of the earth maintained a level of about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere until the Industrial Revolution, but now the level has risen to 380 parts per million and is increasing by over six gigatons per year.26 This is largely due to burning oil, coal, and natural gas, as well as wasteful cultivation in industrial agriculture, which releases carbon from the soil, and the burning of forests to clear land for grazing cattle and cultivating cash crops.
We cannot change the natural cycles of life, nor can we escape the unavoidable suffering of death. We can, however, resist the avoidable suffering caused by damage to the biosphere by acting now to restore Earth's carbon cycle. We can plant more trees and require sustainable forestry, which involves cutting mature trees and removing deadwood to maximize the net carbon dioxide absorption. We can make agriculture sustainable by reducing the use of fossil fuels to pump water, run combines, produce artificial fertilizer and pesticides, and truck food to distant markets, and by applying the lessons of nature in planting, cultivating, and protecting crops from pests. We can generate much more of our energy using renewable fuels, and we can fly and drive less. We can eat less meat (especially beef), recycle more, and buy and use products that will reduce our ecological footprint.
Acts of faith and love are needed to create hope and change. May we open our hearts to those who inspire us, and follow. . . .
. Paul Carus, The Gospel of the Buddha
(Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1894), http://www.sacred-texts.com/ bud/btg/btg85.htm. In the quote I've changed the word "husband" to "spouse."
. The Gospel of Thomas, p. 20. In the New Testament this parable is in Matthew 13:31-32, Mark 4:30-32, and Luke 13:18-19.
. Ecological footprint is "a resource accounting tool that measures how much nature we have, how much we use and who uses what," http://www.footprintnetwork.org.
. Robert Traer, Doing Environmental Ethics
(Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2009).
. John Muir, "Mountain Thoughts," http://www.sierraclub.org/ john_Muir_exhibit/writings/mountain_thoughts.html.
. The Jane Goodall Institute, http://www.janegoodall.org.
. Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life
(London: Abacus, 2003), p. 11.
. Lynn Margulis, "Power to the Protoctists," Slanted Truths: Essays on Gaia, Symbiosis, and Evolution,
eds. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1997), p. 79.
. Steven Rose, Lifelines: Biology Beyond Determinism
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 2.
. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, 1968), pp. 224-25.
. Laura Westra, foreword to An Environmental Proposal for Ethics: The Principle of Integrity,
by Holmes Rolston III (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), xiii.
. Aldo Leopold, "Thinking Like a Mountain," http://www.eco-action.org/dt/thinking.html.
. Michael Pollan, Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
(New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), p. 149.
. R. Goodland, "Environmental Sustainability: Eat Better and Kill Less," The Business of Consumption: Environmental Ethics and the Global Economy,
eds. Laura Westra and Patricia H. Werhane (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), p. 204.
. Mark Bittman, "Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler," New York Times,
January 27, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/ weekinreview/27bittman.html.
. Lester R. Brown, Full House: Reassessing the Earth's Population Carrying Capacity
(New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), p. 163.
. Alan Cooperman, "Eco-Kosher Movement Aims to Heed Conscience," Washington Post,
July 7, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/06/AR20070706020 92.html.
. Tony Cenicola, "Five Easy Ways to Go Organic," New York Times,
October 22, 2007, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/ 22/five-easy-ways-to-go-organic/.
. James Gustave Speth, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment
(New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 167.
. Herbert Girardet, "The Metabolism of Cities," The Sustainable Urban Development Reader,
eds. Stephen M. Wheeler and Timothy Beatley (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 125-26.
. James J. Kay, "On Complexity Theory, Exergy and Industrial Ecology," Construction Ecology: Nature as the Basis for Green Buildings,
eds. Charles J. Kibert, Jan Sendzimir, and G. Bradley Guy (New York: Spon Press, 2002), p. 96.
. Jessica Woolliams, "Designing Cities and Buildings as if They Were Ethical Choices," Environmental Ethics: What Really Matters, What Really Works,
eds. David Schmidtz and Elizabeth Willott (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 428.
. Celia M. Vega, "S.F. Moves to Greenest Building Codes in U.S.," San Francisco Chronicle,
March 20, 2008, http://www.sfgate. com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/03/20/MN7QVMJ5T.DTL.
. Department of Environment, City of Chicago, "About the Rooftop Garden," http://egov.cityofchicago.org. See also William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
(New York: North Point Press, 2002), p. 83.
. Bill McKibben, "Carbon's New Math," National Geographic,
vol. 212, no. 4 (October 2007): 33.
Robert Traer served as general secretary of the International Association for Religious Freedom from 1990 to 2000. He is the author of several books, including Faith, Belief, and Religion and Jerusalem Journal: Finding Hope, and co-author of Doing Ethics in a Diverse World with Harlan Stelmach. Dr. Traer teaches courses on ethics and religion at the Dominican University of California in San Rafael.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2010 issue of Dharma World.
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