The good news is that many people as individuals and as parts of organizations of
many kinds are beginning to formulate creative responses.
Today the media are full of news bemoaning the extent of the environmental crisis that we now face. Although these problems have been building for a long time - in fact, their seeds lie in the Industrial Revolution and subsequent patterns of economic growth, urbanization, and "development" that dominated the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries - a curious culture of denial has prevented us from seeing the depth and extent of the massive and interconnected and historically unprecedented challenge that humanity and the rest of the biosphere now critically and unavoidably face. Although we have known about growing environmental problems for some time, a kind of paralysis seems to have gripped our leaders and opinion makers, in part, of course, because admitting to these problems and beginning to rapidly adjust the economies of, in particular, the already rich countries would have major effects on industry, on patterns of consumption and transportation, and on work. But while economic short-term self-interest is one major factor, at the root of the problem is the nature of our civilization itself - that we have allowed to emerge a form of human society that is deeply anthropocentric and cut off from its intimate integration into the rest of nature. In fact, for many people, nature is simply a place for recreation and a source of raw materials, not the root of our being and the context in which we enter into the deepest relationships with our true selves and with the myriad other entities that make up the total biosphere of which we are actually, only a small and very dependent part. Unfortunately, however, despite our minority status in the universe, we are a highly intrusive species with the unique power to transform and even destroy that very biosphere on which we ultimately depend for our food, air, water, and psychological and aesthetic satisfaction.
The result has been human intervention on an unprecedented scale in the carefully balanced web of relationships and resources that make up the environment, so much so that some people are now arguing that we have reached the tipping point---the point of no return beyond which unknown and uncontrollable changes will begin to take place that will have massive effects on the human societies that have caused them in the first place. Whether we have actually reached that point is as yet unclear, but what is certainly the case is that we are suddenly facing as a species and as a civilization a set of interlocking and major environmental challenges that in their scale and complexity no past civilization has ever had to face before. It is important, then, to sketch out the nature and dimension of these challenges before we turn to the vital question of possible responses to them.
Sketching the Environmental Crisis
A huge body of technical literature now exists on many dimensions of the fast-emerging (or already-arrived) environmental crisis, but it is important here to give a holistic picture of the interlocking nature of what at first glance seem to be separate events or processes. After all, the notion of ecology itself is a system of interrelated parts, and it is essential to keep this totalizing picture in mind. This also gives us a model of how these problems have come about. It is easy in retrospect to assign blame, but in fact many environmental experts now argue that what we are witnessing is what they are calling "creeping environmental problems"---problems that have emerged in often tiny increments, at first largely invisible until they suddenly reach a critical point. As the environmental scientist Michael Glantz, who has done much to popularize the idea of creeping problems, argues, the destruction of a small part of a mangrove forest somewhere in Southeast Asia to create a shrimp pond does not signal a stage in the destruction of a whole forest ecosystem. But when, as has happened in Thailand and elsewhere as a result of demand for shrimps and prawns in the high value-added markets of Japan, western Europe, and North America, huge numbers of such ponds are constructed in the same locale, then a whole ecosystem is rapidly ruined, with the loss of the biodiversity that it contains and the removal of a natural coastal protection leading to the rapid increase in salinity of the soils immediately inland, and with a corresponding impact on rice and fruit cultivation, coastal erosion, and an increase in storm damage, as was dramatically and tragically demonstrated by the Southeast Asian tsunami, which did far less damage to areas still protected by their natural belt of mangrove forest.
Let us now attempt to characterize the nature and extent of the looming global environmental crisis and the major categories of problems where we are clearly on the threshold of ecological degradation or even collapse.
1. Global Warming and Climate Change
It was recognized by some concerned scientists as early as the 1890s that the burning of fossil fuels could alter the global climate in unknown ways. As scientific knowledge has advanced and the isolation and identification of the so-called greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons, the substances used as propellants in aerosols and in refrigeration]) that trap heat in the earth's atmosphere has become possible, it has also become slowly evident that human activities, and in particular our addiction to fossil-fuel-burning forms of industry, transportation, and heating, are altering the climate in ways that are likely to have serious consequences for life on the planet.
These include not only higher average temperatures but also a whole range of effects that stem from them, including melting of the polar ice caps, which leads to rising sea levels; loss of habitat for polar creatures, such as seals and the polar bear; changing and unpredictable weather patterns, as evidenced by the rise in the number and intensity of hurricanes (typhoons and cyclones) in the Caribbean, the South China Sea, and the Bay of Bengal; changes in seasons and unseasonable storms (as experienced in western Europe in the last several years); drought (as seen in the severe conditions prevailing in southeastern Australia for more than five continuous years); changing disease patterns (as formerly tropical diseases move into temperate zones); implications for agriculture, as growing seasons expand in some places (such as Canada) and decline in others; and unusually intense rainfall (as in southern India in March 2008, leading to widespread destruction of the ready-to-be-harvested rice crop). The consequences of such changing climate patterns are immense for low-lying coastal regions and cities and especially for the small island states of the Pacific and Indian oceans and for countries such as Bangladesh, in which flooding and increasing salinity of croplands combine with poverty and a fast-rising population to create a rapidly ticking social time bomb. Climatic change has of course occurred in the past, as witnessed by the periodic ice ages that have punctuated the earth's history. What is unique about the present situation is that, for the first time, it is humanly induced and its consequences for a crowded planet are formidable in the extreme.
2. Water: Scarcity and Pollution
At the moment, the world's attention seems to be fixed on oil as the scarce resource, the lack of which will have major implications for industrial civilization. This deflects attention, however, from what is rapidly becoming the really scarce essential resource---water. We can live without oil, although this would involve huge changes in lifestyle and economy, but we certainly cannot live without water. Yet, unknown to much of the world, it is precisely water that is becoming the scarcest vital resource. There are a number of reasons for this---increasing demand as populations grow and as industry expands, especially in the developing world; the intensification of water use in agriculture not only to feed growing populations but also because of the shift to water-demanding crops to feed consumer markets in the affluent societies and in the new middle classes in the developing ones; and the move to the growing of water-intensive crops as biofuels as a shortsighted solution to the growing energy crisis.
At the same time climate change is bringing about droughts, urbanization is increasing globally and water supplies are shrinking. The great aquifers under the central areas of the United States, for example, are being depleted by agricultural and industrial use and by domestic demand in the cities at a rate far higher than replenishment rates. The Aral Sea in central Asia has declined more than fourteen meters (forty-six feet) since the 1960s as a result of water from its two main feeder rivers being diverted to irrigate expanding cotton production. Not only is there a growing absolute shortage of usable water in the world (the extraction of freshwater from seawater being an expensive and energy-intensive process), but industrial and consumption activities are making the situation even worse. International soft-drink industries moving into the Indian market, for example, have in some conspicuous cases drawn off so much water from local resources that they have caused immense damage to surrounding farmers, whose wells have run dry as a result of the drink manufacturers, pumping up groundwater from great depths in large quantities. Domestic usage in the growing cities---bathing and the huge amounts of water used in flush toilets, for example---likewise puts pressure on resources and often diverts supplies from the surrounding countryside to the urban areas. Furthermore, a major problem concerning water is not only the growing shortage but also the pollution of freshwater supplies---by the dumping of effluents into lakes and watercourses by industry, in particular, but also by the disposal of domestic wastes. The average housewife in Japan, for example, probably does not think about where her detergent goes every time she washes her dishes or does the household laundry. In fact, such detergents, many of them nonorganic or nonbiodegradable, are a major source of freshwater pollution in all the developed countries.
3. Desertification and Deforestation
Forests are one of the vital components of the earth's ecosystem. They are its lungs, the location of the richest biodiversity, the source of fruits and medicinal herbs, and one of its greatest beauties. Studies have even shown that "forest bathing," or prolonged exposure to a forest environment, has a very positive effect on the recovery rate of human cancer patients. The massive loss of forest cover that the world has experienced in the last century as industry has used its timber, with the expansion of arable and grazing-land forms of agriculture and with timber-intensive forms of consumption (for houses, furniture, fuel, toys, yachts, and any number of items), has a number of consequences. These include accelerated climate change (trees are natural air conditioners and forests are natural "sinks," or absorbers of carbon dioxide, one of the major greenhouse gases); soil loss, as topsoils are rapidly washed or blown away after the removal of forest cover; loss of the biodiversity of plant and animal life that forests nurture and represent; and, in the long run, in many areas such as the boundaries between the Sahara Desert and the north-central African forest belt, desertification as tree cover declines and overgrazing of the grasslands that replaces them takes place. The loss of biodiversity is especially hard to calculate in terms of its possible long-term implications. In addition to the irreplaceable loss of plant and animal species that will never again appear on the earth, little is known about the effects of this on the total ecology or about the loss of potentially beneficial medical plants or other resources.
4. Population, Resources, and Waste
The earth is already carrying a human population of six billion, and this figure is rising, especially in the developing world. While there has been a great deal of debate about the carrying capacity of the earth in terms of population, it takes little imagination to foresee the consequences of even higher population levels on a whole range of factors. These include intensive urbanization (with all of its attendant problems), huge stress on resources (water, fuels, food, space) and accompanying pressure on the few remaining areas of relatively unspoiled nature, increased social and political conflicts, and massive increases in the amounts of human-generated wastes. Already, waste disposal from industrial and domestic sources and from the throwaway consumer society is a major international problem, and waste disposal encroaches further on nature as more dumps are opened up, affecting water and air by way of pollution (waste entering groundwater or watercourses, or being burned), which poses an increasing health hazard that is unequally distributed socially---the poor and the marginalized being more likely to have waste-disposal facilities in their backyards than the affluent---a situation quite rightly called environmental racism. There are major political and social issues here too, about the fair allocation of finite resources and the disposal of waste products.
It is now a well-known and much-quoted fact that if world society as a whole achieved the so-called standard of living (actually standard of consumption) of the already overdeveloped areas of the globe (Japan, Australia, western Europe, pockets of South Africa, and North America), four more planets would be needed to accommodate this situation. If per capita car ownership in China or India reaches that of Japan, not only will most of those new car owners have nowhere to go, as the roads and parking lots will be utterly clogged with traffic, but the amount of fuel needed would accelerate the extraction of the last oil by at least a decade, would put a huge strain on other resources (steel, for example), and would massively increase atmospheric pollution and acid rain (which does not stay where it is generated), to say nothing of global warming, worldwide. But clearly it is not possible to simply tell the developing world that they can no longer expect to have the technology and gadgets that the developed world has enjoyed. Rather, sane alternatives must be worked out and spread fairly and equally around international society, something that we will shortly turn to in more detail.
5. Population and Food Security
Already the average housewife, even in the most affluent societies, has started to notice the rising prices of basic commodities, expensive vegetables, formerly easily obtainable items suddenly not available. In much of the developing world, the problems are far more acute---shortages are commonplace, and even a small increase in price puts basic foodstuffs beyond the budget of the very poor. Rising populations, erratic weather patterns, water shortages, and demand for luxuries in the developed world and among the affluent sectors of the developing nations are only going to intensify this pattern. Poverty remains the number-one problem in most of the developing world, and it is a scandal to think that one-third of the total world population lives at or below the poverty line, with the deprivation and constant malnutrition that that implies. India alone has three hundred million people (more than twice the population of Japan) living in absolute poverty. While the link between poverty and population is a complex one, it is clearly the case that rising global populations are going to place more and more stress on available food supplies and agricultural land (more of which cannot be opened up without further deforestation), while urbanization is eating into available farmlands, especially near population centers. Many countries are already dependent on imports of foodstuffs. Who is deprived by one country's consumption is then an important political question (Japan, for example, consumes 10 percent of the world's total fish catch), and the possible technological "solutions"---for example, genetically modified foods---are untried and carry major risks. Food, like water, is an essential. Its availability in sufficient quantities and of sufficient quality can no longer be guaranteed. Famine is still a real possibility for much of the world, and even the richest countries may no longer be immune from unprecedented food shortages.
6. Conflict and Militarization
It may surprise many to learn that collectively the world's militaries are the biggest and in many ways most dangerous polluters (more so even than industry). Not only do they dump, fire, explode, or drop huge quantities of materials, but many of these are highly toxic and/or dangerous in other respects. While the subject of conflict and violence is beyond the scope of this essay, the link between them and the environment is rarely made, and it should be. Not only does the militarization of the world misdirect scarce resources into unsustainable and in most cases pointless activities (using vast quantities of steel, rubber, chemicals, fabrics, and, of course, oil), but massive amounts of unrecorded pollution result from their use. Here again we need a holistic perspective that sees the links between the parts of a total world system.
For, in fact, all of these factors interact and intersect. This has led one commentator, the Australian environmentalist and former politician Colin Mason, to coin the phrase "the 2030 Spike,"(1) by which he means not only that all the factors that we have just discussed are active but that they are all converging. In his view, around the year 2030, all of these issues will peak---extractable oil reserves will be depleted, the population will be beyond carrying capacity, food and water shortages will have become critical, climate change will be irreversible, and warfare and militarization will be chronic features of the social landscape. Whether or not his exact date is correct is less important than the significant fact that he is correct in his main point---the convergence of numerous factors of environmental degeneration in a way that will fuel one another. This is a challenge that can no longer be ignored. The time of a culture of denial is well and truly over. The question then becomes: How can we collectively and individually respond to this growing crisis that will engulf us all, rich and poor alike, and for which we all bear a mutual responsibility?
Responding to the Crisis
The good news is that many people as individuals and as parts of organizations of many kinds are beginning to formulate creative responses to these issues. At the individual level, handbooks and newspaper and Internet articles are appearing that suggest basic ways of living more ecologically and simply. At an academic level, more and more books are appearing that alert people to and address the environmental crisis. Programs are appearing in colleges and in the form of publications and study centers (although still few in number) on ecological literacy. And, perhaps a little late but in this case certainly better than never, religious thinkers in many faith traditions have begun to seriously address these issues and to search for resources within their own scriptures that might suggest responses. Major collections of articles, such as that edited by Roger Gottlieb,(2) or textbook surveys such as that of David Kinsley,(3) have appeared on the bookshelves reviewing the contributions of different religious traditions responding to the environmental crisis. And since the pioneering work of E. F. Schumacher and his seminal book Small Is Beautiful, a large band of scholars and activists have begun to search for and propose ecologically responsible forms of economic organization and practice. Very encouragingly, many of these voices have come from within the international Buddhist community, where the notion of engaged Buddhism has now begun to be applied to ecological issues as well as to human-rights and social-justice questions.(4) What is also significant about a great deal of this new thinking is the convergence of religious traditions, on the one hand, and the convergence of this religious thinking and certain significant strands of thinking about the environment, in particular the so-called deep ecology.
Buddhism teaches the interrelatedness of all things. In the Avatamsaka Sutra appears the famous notion of the Jeweled Net of Indra, an idea that Thich Nhat Hanh has expanded into the practice of what he terms Interbeing.(5) When this foundational idea, which also constitutes the basic definition of ecology, is expanded, we find that it leads in a number of significant directions, starting with the notion of the ecological self, or the self and mind as embedded in a greater reality that in turn transcends the common idea of the restless striving individual, separated from nature and from other beings. When unpacked, this concept points us toward the perception of the sacredness or sheer miracle of nature and its myriad beings and complex and subtle processes and beauty, to the notion found in some schools of Mahayana Buddhism of the buddhahood of all beings (including plants and animals); toward treading lightly on the earth as Schumacher suggested with his idea of a Buddhist economics based on simplicity and the reduction of wants and its parallel implication of going beyond grasping to appreciation and substituting a nonviolent relationship to nature for one of greed, exploitation, and domination; toward a fundamental nondualism or holism that sees the whole of existence, including nature, as part of an undivided totality; and finally toward right livelihood, finding and creating ways of being in the world that allow us to respect and nurture the larger biosphere on which all of us are ultimately dependent. This is a viewpoint that can be shared by all religious traditions and indeed gives them a basis for dialogue and common collective action in response to what is now a truly global crisis.
(1) Colin Mason, The 2030 Spike: Countdown to Global Catastrophe (London: Earthscan, 2003).
(2) Roger S. Gottlieb, This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment (New York: Routledge, 2004).
(3) David Kinsley, Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995).
(4) Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft, eds., Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism (Boston: Shambhala, 2000); Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryuken Williams, eds., Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 1997); Allan Hunt Badiner, ed., Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990).
(5) Thich Nhat Hanh, Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1998).
John Clammer is advisor to the rector and director of international courses at the United Nations University headquarters in Tokyo. He was previously a professor at Sophia University, where he taught sociology and Asian studies. His current work involves studies of ecology-society relationships and the contribution of religious thinking to environmental issues. In this latter capacity he is executive director of ecology and sustainable development of Meeting Rivers, an NGO that promotes interreligious dialogue on environmental issues and a sustainable future.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2008 issue of Dharma World.
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