Home » Discussion » "Buddhism and Environmental Politics" by Paul Wapner

"Buddhism and Environmental Politics" by Paul Wapner

10 March 2010

Environmentalists work hard to change the world. We wish to inspire others to care about environmental dangers, and alter structures of power that produce or intensify environmental problems. Buddhism offers us the chance to approach this work from the inside. Our inner lives, and the way we conduct ourselves day-to-day, and even moment-to-moment, become the route toward genuine environmental well-being. Buddhism enables us to see that how we engage environmental problems is intimately connected with any results we may bring about. Indeed, it suggests that the ways we live our lives in general—how we think, speak and act—fundamentally determine environmental affairs.

To environmentalists, this orientation should come as both a relief and inspiration. It is a relief in that it invites us to let go of the fruits of our actions. It says that we can invest ourselves fully in working on behalf of environmental protection, but not get hung up on the outcome of our efforts. For too long I have focused on the ends of actions as the measure of their worth. I’ve often wanted to know exactly how my labors would matter before I was willing to undertake them. This didn’t stop me from carrying out small and large measures—for example, reducing my personal ecological footprint or lobbying my representatives—but I frequently justified such actions as a matter of moral gesturing rather than genuine environmental engagement .

Buddhism provides a deeper meaning to such actions. It suggests that environmental commitments—from the smallest personal efforts to the broadest political ones—are not simply seeds sowed in the service of environmental protection, but are the very essence of environmental well-being. That is, the environment is not simply something “out there” that needs to be fixed, but something also “in here” that invites us to live our lives animated by the energy of love, compassion, understanding and beauty. It is as if an inner ecology is at the heart of the outer ecology that we wish to protect.

I find this message inspiring because it implies that our environmental work is not a professional vocation, social obligation or casual concern but rather the work of our lives. How we place our feet on the ground, the ways we open or close our hearts, the extent of our generosity, and the sense of connection we feel toward the whole of life: these are the essential building blocks of environmental action. This means to me that we need not be experts in ecological science, engineering, environmental ethics, technological design, or nature literature to be ecological stewards. Rather, our environmental work begins and ends with stepping into our lives with all the mindfulness we can, and taking that mindfulness seriously.

When I am most deeply mindful, I feel the connection with my ancestors and progeny, and almost spontaneously work to protect life as a way of honoring my forebears and loving my children. When I am most deeply mindful, I viscerally experience ecological interdependence, and almost instinctively treat the more-than-human world with respect, love and concern.

The challenge, of course, is cultivating such mindfulness and letting it rip through us in a sustained way that honors such insight and action. Too often my awareness drifts; too often I forget. Too often, then, my environmental actions ebb in the haste of my occupations.

Buddhism is fundamentally about helping us to stay awake. It reminds us that our day-to-day thoughts, words and actions are not simply animations that spill out of us with little consequence, but rather represent the means by which we place our signature on our lives, and enable that signature to enhance love, goodness and care throughout the world. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls this a “beautiful continuation.” The beautiful continuation is that wider and broader sense that our actions matter because they are in a historical and cosmological stream that links us to the past, projects us into the future, and links us even more broadly with all of life—now, and forever. Transcending our lifetimes, the beautiful continuation places us in an almost infinite context that underlines the preciousness and significance of each moment. It also connects us to the wider-than-human world, and lets us know, at the deepest level, that we are not separate from, but intimately braided into, all that is.

Buddhism reminds us that environmental politics starts and ends at home—in the present moment.

From Thich Nhat Hanh, World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology:

When we look at an orange tree we see that season after season it spends its life producing beautiful green leaves, fragrant blossoms, and sweet oranges. These are the best things an orange tree can create and offer to the world. Human beings also make offerings to the world every moment of our daily lives, in the form of our thoughts, our speech and our actions. We may want to offer the world the best kinds of thought, speech, and action that we can—because they are our continuation, whether we want it to be so or not. We can use our time wisely, generate the energies of love, compassion, and understanding, say beautiful things, inspire, forgive, and act to protect and help the Earth and each other. In this way, we can ensure a beautiful continuation.

Paul Wapner is an Associate Professor and Director of the Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University and the author of Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism. This August, he will be leading a special summer program on Contemplative Environmental Studies in San Cristobal, NM (http://www.acmhe.org/ces.html).

  • National Endowments for the Humanities
  • PBS
  • Corporation for Public Broadcasting
  • The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation

Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.