Things that won’t save us from global warming: (5) Technology

Technology is one of the key factors in climate change. It is technology that has brought us to this point. It began with industrialization, or if you like even earlier with the mastery of steel, or earlier still, with the mastery of fire, which allowed us to start bending our environment to our will. Technology is a set of tools for altering nature. The better our technology becomes, the faster, easier, and more powerful it becomes to do what we want. In many ways it seems that the problem is that our technology has outstripped our capacity to use it responsibly. Our hands overreach our hearts.

Despite this, it is to technology that many people look for salvation. I think this is because, of all the aspects of our society, technology is the one thing that seems to change persistently and in a good way. Tech gets better, while politics, economics, and religion stay pretty much the same. So sure, it has cause a lot of damage, but we can change the direction and make things better.

And there is truth to this. We have already seen a lot of positive changes. More economical cars, less use of plastic bags and excessive packaging, recycling, efficient light bulbs, and on it goes. We have cleaned up a lot of skies and rivers. And on a bigger scale, we have seen the dramatic drop in prices of renewables, especially solar photovoltaic, which has dropped over 50% in a decade, and is still going down. The skilful application of technology sits at the heart of the discussions of our energy future.

Let us be clear: I think it is perfectly possible to avoid runaway climate change by using suitable technologies. There is no need for any particular breakthroughs, they exist now. The barriers are political and economic. But this is essentially meaningless. If they are not actually going to be used, then they may as well not exist.

If technology is going to save us, we need more than the potential. We need something compelling.

What do I mean by a compelling technology? Well, the most obvious example is the mobile phone. Most of us have one. We don’t use it because of political corecion or economic necessity. We use it because it is so much better than any alternatives.

If we look around us, most of the things we use are such compelling technologies. Doors. Bottles. Shoes. Paint. Toothpaste. These were all, in their day, radical solutions that completely outclassed what we did before. There may be some cases where our adoption of technology was driven by corporate interests or some nefarious plot, but on the whole we use things that work.

And then we keep using them. Almost all the technologies that I use on a daily basis are pretty much the same as the things I used when I was a kid. Of course, we normally don’t notice this, because we only notice the things that have changed. But the things that have really changed—computers, phones, etc.—are few, and the things that stay much the same are many.

A car today is a bit better than one from the 70s. More efficient, more comfortable, quieter. But if we were all to swap our cars with models from the 70s, it wouldn’t make all that much difference. We’d still get to work and back again, and fit the shopping in the boot. And that is despite the billions of dollars of R&D that are poured into the auto industry.

Really radical, compelling breakthroughs are rare and often unpredictable. We dreamed of flying cars and jetpacks, and got smartphones and tablets.

So if technology were to save us, it would require new compelling technologies. Not just an electric car, which offers advantages (marginally less air pollution, quieter, cool) and disadvantages (cost, range, disposal of batteries—but something so much better that we all want to stop using cars. Teleportation!

But there doesn’t seem to be anything like that on the horizon when it comes to the big problems like energy production. Fusion might do it, but it’s still a dream. Thorium reactors, maybe, but still untested. Solar and wind are unreliable. Geothermal seems promising, but little explored. Nothing is so much better than what we are doing that people are rushing to adopt it worldwide. We don’t need a better lightbulb, we need something that is as much of an improvement over a lightbulb as a lightbulb was over a candle.

Moreover, if new compelling technologies appear, the likelihood is that they will be harmful, not helpful. Most technology R&D goes into making money, not saving the planet. The big tech companies, for example, are competing to bring in wearable tech: watches, glasses, and so on. Because of demand? No. Because they will use less resources than phones and tablets? No. Because we already have phones and tablets, and they need to introduce a new product category so that we we buy even more. More tech, meaning more extraction, more energy, and more toxic landfill.

And we don’t just need one kind of compelling technology, we need multiple kinds in many areas: cars, planes, electricity, cement and steel manufacture, farming, to name a few. In most of these areas the technology we use is old, works well enough, and there is no real sign of radical change.

So we need multiple new compelling technologies in diverse fields that help the environment, with no new compelling technologies that have adverse affects. I’m not seeing it.

And this still underestimates the problem, because even “green” technologies harm the environment. Take solar panels as an example. You have to mine diverse minerals from different parts of the world. Then they must be transported to other parts of the world for processing. Then transported again for manufacturing. Then again for assembling. (Repeat as needed.) Then again to be distributed, and finally installed. Solar panels use energy while they operate, for maintenance and so on. The very existence of “green” power encourages us to use it, with various kinds of devices which all similarly require extraction, manufacture and so on. Then the solar panels (and the devices, of course) reach the end of their life and have to be disposed of, which takes even more energy and creates toxic waste. And meanwhile they have helped maintain a culture dependent on cheap energy, and will therefore have to be replaced by something else.

Why, then, are these things touted as the solution? It’s not because they don’t cause harm, but because they cause less harm than the current solutions. A lot less harm. The exact figures vary a lot depending on context, but as a ballpark figure, the lifetime emissions of greenhouse gases for renewables and nuclear is less than 5% of that of coal. (Gas is, or was, around 50%, although that is probably closer to 100% now that we know that the fugitive emissions are so much greater than expected.) Here’s the table from Wikipedia.

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by electricity source.
Technology Description 50th percentile
(g CO2/kWhe)
Hydroelectric reservoir 4
Wind onshore 12
Nuclear various generation II reactor types 16
Biomass various 18
Solar thermal parabolic trough 22
Geothermal hot dry rock 45
Solar PV Polycrystaline silicon 46
Natural gas various combined cycle turbines without scrubbing 469
Coal various generator types without scrubbing 1001

That’s a massive improvement, which is why most commentators are confident that existing technologies can serve in a low carbon future. Of course there are many other practicalities to consider, but the basic figures are there.

So while technology doesn’t offer a silver bullet, we can certainly use it in more skilful ways, which may well give our planet the breathing space to heal itself. But it is unlikely that the technology itself will drive this transition. What is needed is a change of mind.

Things that won’t save us from global warming: (4) Capitalism

Two economists were stuck down a well. One says, “We’re doomed! This is it!” The other says, “I think I have a plan.” “Okay, what is it?” “First, assume we have a ladder…”

An old one but a, if not good, at least apt one. For many of us the idea that an ideology built on the idea that “greed is good” could be our solution is so absurd it is not even worth considering. To make it even vaguely plausible we have to invent a whole raft of assumptions that bear no relation to how capitalism has actually worked through history. Yet at a Dhamma talk I gave recently on this topic, one fellow was quite adamant that capitalism would save us. People will stop using fossil fuels and the change in demand will drive the company away from coal towards renewables. I didn’t argue with him, it’s not seemly at a Dhamma talk!

There’s a couple of points I’d like to make here. First, check this out: the list of greatest annual corporate profits of all time. Inspiring, right? Number one: ExxonMobil. Number two, ExxonMobil. Number three, ExxonMobil. Number four… I think you’re getting the point. In fact 37 out of the 64 greatest annual profits were by fossil fuel companies. Many of the rest were by companies closely related, like automotive or banking, while all of these companies absolutely depend on the power, transport, and other goods provided by fossil fuels.

So there’s lots of money in fossil fuels. Lots and lots and lots of money. Yummy, yummy money. And this is not theoretical money, which could be made by potential renewables industries at some hypothetical point in the future. This is real money that you can use right now to buy watches, yachts, and governments.

Kittens and money!

And kittens, I guess.

So where do these profits come from? Supply and demand, right? We all need energy. But hang on: we all need lots of things, more than we need fossil fuels. Food, houses, medicine, clothes: these things are much more basic human needs. How come they’re not so profitable?

Okay, so here’s the basic equation: revenue – cost = profit. Something like that, anyway. We’ll keep it simple here: I’m reaching back into my high school economics! So the company makes a product, sells it for a certain amount, deducts costs like wages and capital, and there you have it.

Except for one little thing, which is mentioned in passing in basic economics, but you hardly hear mentioned elsewhere: externalities. Remember them? The costs of economic activity that are borne involuntarily. So, as typical example goes, if a company pollutes a stream, the cost of that is not borne by the company. Unless, of course, the Government taxes them to clean it up. So usually this is seen as a fairly minor, easily managed, consequence of a few bad companies.

But in the case of the fossil fuel industry, it’s much more than that. Their entire industry is based on the idea of using up the energy accumulated by the earth, by nature herself, over millions of years and concentrated in the form of oil and coal. They don’t make anything, they extract: taking what is not given. Then the true costs of their economic activity are effectively shunted anywhere outside of the company: the air, the sea, the land, our lungs, our future.

And when someone, like the Australian Government last year, introduces a tax to recover a tiny percentage of that cost, cost which is created by that industry and which is the very basis of their obscene profits, all hell breaks loose.

And that is why the fossil fuel industry is the most profitable rort ever devised. Of all industries, it has most successfully externalized its costs, so that in the end, the very future of civilization becomes an externality. And this is why they have fought, and will continue to fight, against any realistic response to climate change, using any means fair or foul, as long as they draw breath.

But the problem is deeper than that. Fossil fuels are not just another industry that capitalism happens to do. They are the very foundation of industrial production. They power the capital that gives capitalism its name. Modern capitalism, and the environmental disasters that follow it, was made possible by the industrial application of fossil fuels.

Industrial pollution, 19th century England

So no, capitalism isn’t going to save us.

But what about all the wonderful environmental startups and initiatives. Aren’t they great? So many fresh ideas and wonderful promises!

Sure. But look around you, what do you see? What is the overwhelming, undeniable force that drives virtually all capitalist activity?

Consume. Consume more. Consume until you are sick. Consume until it kills you. Then consume some more.

Even so-called green products are just about getting you to consume, only it’s something that is, hopefully, a little less damaging to the environment.

Greed isn’t good. Greed is bad. It will kill us all.

You know what’s good? No greed. That’s good. And that is also the end of capitalism.

Things that won’t save us from global warming: (3) Politics

Given the current level of cynicism around politics in Australia, this seems a little redundant. Probably most of you know more about politics than I do, so I’ll keep this short. But there’s a few points I’d like to make.

Climate change has been on the political agenda since the 1960s. (It’s been around in scientific circles a lot longer: the basic science was first proposed in 1824 by Joseph Fourier.) And after all the speeches, policies, conferences, and pledges, basically nothing has happened. The CO2 keeps going up, and the planet keeps accelerating, not slowing, in its path to destruction.

George Monbiot commented in an article written during Copenhagen that he was witnessing the nations of the world arguing, not about how much of the planet they could protect, but about how much they could get to ruin. And that right there is the nub. No-one in any mainstream party is saying, “How fast can we phase out fossil fuels?” “How quickly can we develop renewables”, “What is most we can possibly do to reverse our catastrophic trajectory?”. They’re all about how much we can dig up and sell before its too late. Which is why, under Labor as well as Liberal (that’s “conservative” for overseas readers) governments of the past few years, Australia has been engaged in the most rapid expansion of coal production in history.

Given that our current political leaders are not doing the job, what would it take to effect meaningful change? Could anything short of a fascist One World Government, the bogeyman invoked by denialists, really give us a solution?

I think politics could give the answer. But it would take something like this. Imagine Government by a party who were genuinely committed to solving the global warming crisis; who focussed on stopping fossil fuel production as quickly as possible; who made this their central platform and did not get distracted by trivialities and petty squabbling; who had a clear and safe mandate; and who were internally competent and unified. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary or impossible about this proposal. It could in theory happen within our current political systems.

But: it has never actually happened even in one country. And to make a real difference it would require all or the vast majority of the Governments of nations that are the major contributors to climate change. In other words: it’s not going to happen.

Finally, I want to just confirm your darkest fears. I was in Canberra a few weeks ago as part of an interfaith delegation on climate change with ARRCC. We visited some 35 politicians of most parties; I personally saw around 6 or 8.

And yes, many of them do not have a basic grasp of the underlying science. (Remember, this is essentially science from the 19th century. It’s not that hard.)

Yes, some of them just repeated ignorant denialist talking points like, “CO2 is not a pollutant”.

Yes, they were ignorant about the actual environmental impact of the policies they were promoting. One MP we spoke to was promoting natural gas as a bridge fuel. I referred to the recent findings in the US that fugitive emissions of methane from gas production were in fact double that previously estimated based on industry estimates, which, together with other problems with gas, has effectively ended any role that methane could play as a “bridge fuel”, and I asked him whether these findings applied in Australia. He had no idea.

Yes, Greg Hunt repeatedly said “Trust me” (!) as he insisted that Direct Action would work. He promised to send us the studies that showed how effective his plan would be. Needless to say, he hasn’t. On a hunch, I asked him whether there was any conversation in the Government on climate change; he replied, “I think about these things every day.” Which is as clear an answer as any. But when I asked another Liberal MP, he straight out confirmed that there has been no discussion on climate change in the party since 2010.

And yes, the members of Labor party all seemed to have a better grasp of the facts and more sincere commitment to doing something about it, until it came to what really matters: coal. When I asked Mark Dreyfus whether they had any policies to leave the coal in the ground, he became notably less confident and positive, and spoke vaguely about clean coal and sequestration and unicorns. (He didn’t really say unicorns, I just made that up.)

Our Prime Minister has built his career on rubbishing climate change. He has effectively poisoned the waters so that it is hard to imagine a rational policy emerging in the foreseeable future. So, hey, that’s not very far, and things can change fast. But this series of articles is all about empiricism: what are the facts, and what can we reasonably infer from the facts. And it seems to me that the most reasonable inference is that politics is not going to save us.

Things that won’t save us from global warming: (2) Spirituality

If religious institutions won’t save us, then what of the thing that underlies the institutions? The energy that originally inspired them? What if humanity could ascend to a higher spiritual plane, so that harmlessness became the guiding light of our behaviour, and higher consciousness for all became a reality? What, in short, if there were a hundredth monkey moment?

That would be wonderful. Sadly, though, the hundredth monkey effect is woo, not reality. And the popularity of the story in spiritual circles is yet another example of the credulity of those who espouse a spiritual solution to our woes.

Once again, I am not a cynic. I actually believe in spiritual evolution. Not just for an individual: this is the basis of Dhamma practice, of course. I mean for humanity as a whole. Our ethics are becoming more refined. We are more aware of what is happening in different parts of the world. We are less tribal. We are more flexible and open in our beliefs. We are less violent. We have changed, genuinely changed, in our acceptance of people of different colors, religions, and sexual identities. Moreover, we are moving more and more towards meditation; probably more people meditate now than ever before. All of these things are a genuine and very positive manifestation of a real spiritual growth.

As a species, and as a planet, we are becoming more conscious. Even as a gross physical fact this is true: there is more brain matter on our planet than at any time in history. In fact, we can see the whole environmental mess we are in as the result of reshaping our planet to service the growth of brains.

I believe it is possible that this spiritual growth could save the world. But I don’t think it’s going to. Why not?

For a start, it’s too little, too late. Much of the world is still enmired in gross ignorance. The future is here (as William Gibson said in another context)—it’s just unevenly distributed. Spiritual growth is hard, patchy, and slow for an individual, how much more so for human culture as a whole? Even those who have been meditators, or otherwise engaged in genuine spiritual practices (as opposed to the brainless woo that discredits much of what we think of as spiritual) still progress very slowly, and for a long time can keep following destructive patterns.

To have a breakthrough in awareness, a new way of seeing, is a rare and precious thing, and it doesn’t by itself guarantee any particular changes to one’s lifestyle. Plenty of spiritual practitioners find themselves feeling more content, wanting less, living simpler lives. But plenty don’t. There’s nothing really wrong with this, it’s just how these things go. But it does imply that we can’t expect spirituality to lead in a genuine transformation of how people live on a massive scale in the near future.

Moreover, spirituality has often gone over to the dark side. Any New Age or “spiritual” festival is full of shysters selling ridiculous cure-all water or miracle foods. Rather than showing us a world beyond reason, much popular spirituality is a retreat beneath reason. Again, this doesn’t show that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the spiritual path, just that most people are not very good at it yet.

But these things are trivial. At a deeper level, spiritual practices, even the good ones, can, and frequently are, active contributors to the problem. There is no clearer example of this than the recent disruption of a Google “corporate mindfulness” event by San Francisco residents calling for a stop to evictions.

There’s some good commentaries on this at various places on the web. I don’t want to be too hard on how the Google people handled this particular event; the security guy was out of line trying to pull the banner away, which seemed pointless and, I guess, attempted theft, since it was their banner. But he just acted spontaneously, and you can’t blame the company too much for that.

What is really striking for me is how Bill Duane, the Google exec running the show, immediately shifted attention back from the events to “mindfulness of the body”, saying to “check in with your feelings”. This is, of course, straight out of the mindfulness/vipassana playbook, and it seems churlish to criticize him for merely repeating what his teachers have said.

But it is exactly the wrong thing to do: it is straight up elevationism. What he should have done is to directly address the actual issue. Talk about the evictions, explain Google’s policy, and make a commitment to meet the protesters personally later on and discuss solutions. But also to tell them, this is not the forum: you’ve had your moment, now let us get on with what we’re here for. Instead, he used “mindfulness” to avoid the issue, treating a social problem with a cure meant for personal suffering.

Why expect anything else? Of course Google is going to use mindfulness to further its corporate interests. And still, it’s better than not using mindfulness. But there’s just no way that in such a context we can expect that spiritual practices will lead to genuine transformation.

Ken Wilber gave a good explanation of why we make these kinds of confusions. He said that we use the word “spiritual” to mean two quite different kinds of things, without being aware of the difference. First, there are certain specific things that we call “spiritual”: meditation, ritual, and the like. But sometimes we use spiritual to speak of the integration of all the aspects of our consciousness. Quite simply, one does not follow from the other. You can meditate until the cows come home, but you won’t, just by doing that, become kinder, or more ethical, or more conscious of the effects of your lifestyle on the planet. This is why the eightfold path includes all the different aspects of life, and each aspect must be developed in and of itself. This is the essence of Bill Duane’s problem: right mindfulness is the solution to wrong mindfulness, not to wrong livelihood.

Now as always, those who are really embodying spiritual transformation are few indeed. There are many of us who try, and get some things right and some things wrong. With time, perhaps, we might learn from our mistakes. But we don’t have time. And the promise of spiritual evolution, rather than extending the possibility of a cure, becomes just another tragedy: humanity’s boundless potential destroyed by greed and thoughtlessness.

Things that won’t save us from global warming: (1) Institutionalized Religion

I would like to put in some kind of order my thoughts on global warming. In the past couple of posts I have expressed my view, which has become quite pessimistic, regarding our chances of surviving or adapting in any healthy way to the challenges we face. As a spiritual practitioner, I am mainly interested to articulate and develop a spiritual response to the situation, so I have avoided discussing the science and other issues. These are usually well covered in plenty of other places.

However what is, I find, less well documented are the reasons why certain approaches may or may not be successful. I think there is a tremendous pressure on scientists and environmentalists to emphasize that the problem is not too bad, and that our solutions are readily to hand. This approach is on the face of it perfectly fine. Yet at the same time, it doesn’t seem to be yielding actual results; and perhaps it is merely a façade so that we can live a little more comfortably.

In the next series of posts I’d like to briefly (I hope!) explain my reasons for rejecting various possible kinds of solution. In most of these areas I am far from an expert, so please jump in and correct my misunderstandings! I would love to be persuaded otherwise.

For the first topic, let’s consider institutionalized religion. For all its fading moral compass and dogmatic inertia, religion remains a powerful force in our world. I am neither an apologist for not a cynic regarding institutional religion. Personally I don’t like big institutions of any sort, but I recognize that they do perform many positive roles in society.

Some months ago I had a conversation with an activist who had just come from the Warsaw discussions on climate change. He told me that a senior figure from the UN had told him that they had given up on governments and corporations, and that they were looking to religion to save them. For a secular body like the UN to be looking to religion is a sure sign of their desperation.

There is something to this. Religious bodies and leading figures have done a lot. Many churches and other groups have strong environmental policies. The NSW Uniting Church, for example, has recently decided to divest from fossil fuels. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also called for divestment; and recently our interfaith body ARRCC, together with others, was published in the Guardian calling for Pope Francis to back divestment. (Article here, letter here.)

Buddhism has not been backwards in this either. Many of the most senior religious leaders in Buddhism, including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, have spoken often and powerfully on the environment. The connections between Dhamma and the environment have been explored deeply by such writers as Joanna Macy, and put into practice by such movements as Sarvodaya. Several Buddhist movements such as the One Earth Sangha and EcoBuddhism are working to raise awareness and make changes within the global Buddhist community.

So that’s great. But it hardly scratches the surface. The vast majority of the world’s religious activity goes on unabated, with little or no interest in the environment. The sacrifices continue, the rituals are repeated, the texts are intoned, and the followers believe that they are already doing the best thing they can possibly do. Why divert their precious time from the Absolute to care for a mere mundane, passing concern like the environment?

It is quite possible to employ religious language to justify ignoring the environment: “It is God’s will”, “It is kamma”, “We just get enlightened and leave all this behind”, and so on. This is what Ken Wilber calls the “elevationist” fallacy, the inverse of the reductionist fallacy. Take any problem and view it in light of the Absolute and it goes away. This misuse of religious philosophy is very common in Buddhism. When I was a young monk, I mentioned to one of the seniors that the path to my kuti was muddy, slippery and dangerous. He responded, “What a great chance to develop mindfulness!” No: mindfulness means recognizing the problem and fixing the path. Overcoming the elevationist fallacy is one of the great benefits of studying the Vinaya. The Buddha never does this. He invariable addresses the problem directly before him: fix the path.

Moreover, religions systematically redirect our attention away from such genuine pressing issues as climate change, and towards their own petty, self-interested concerns. Evangelicals are obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and what people do in the bedrooms; Hindus with working off their karma; Buddhists with offering things to monks so they can go to heaven; Muslims with railing against the injustices of the profane world, and so on. These are the mainstream content and direction of religious sermons, which create a climate and a conversation within the community.

It manifests in ways big and small. Monasteries are built to look like the ancient architecture in a far away country, regardless of the different environment and climate. When on alms round, I am regularly given environmentally destructive bottles of drinking water, because the hungry ghosts need something to drink.

We have, of course, seen this in the Buddhist context of women’s ordination. To grant women equal rights, and to recognize the importance of doing this within a religious sphere, is elementary. Any primary school child can tell you that it’s wrong to treat girls as lesser. Yet even this simple ethical change has proven impossible for many members of the Sangha. The Wat Pa Pong Sangha reacted hysterically to the reality of women’s ordination, with petitions, boycotts, delegations, press conferences, and a whole raft of other attempts to undermine ordination for women. The ordination immediately prompted calls for taking Bodhinyana monastery away from Ajahn Brahm, which of course reveals the self-interest underlying the whole problem. Many, perhaps most, of these monks were not sexist before they came to the monastery. They grew up in families with mothers and sisters and female friends. But the corrosive effect of institutional narrow-mindedness slowly erodes the capacity for moral courage and perspective.

Then, of course, you have the massive investment among conservative religious leaders in actively opposing climate change. See, for examples, the deranged opinions of Cardinal Pell quoted at the bottom of the Guardian article I linked to above. In reality, religions are usually aligned with the most conservative elements in society, and routinely betray their transformative promise by undermining positive change.

When was the last time a major social change was driven by religion? Slavery? Apartheid? Women’s lib? Democracy? Overthrow of dictators? Arab spring? No doubt there have been religious figures in all of these movements, but the driving force has been secular-based ethical shifts, with religion playing an ambiguous role at best.

Religion promises us a higher way of being, a way that is in alignment with a sense of the highest good. And while many followers of religions experience this on a personal level, such experience does not manifest in the actions of the religious institutions. In practice religious institutions exist to maintain traditions, support communities, and ameliorate suffering through charitable works. Even seeing these things in the most positive light we can’t expect any movement towards a radical transformation. Religion institutions are simply too invested in the status quo.

Nature & Spirit

It is in nature that we feel connection. I remember my first spiritual experiences in nature, not in church. Church never had anything of the spirit for me (I was raised Catholic, and went to a Catholic school). But I remember lying on the grass looking at the sky and the sense of wonder at the stars. And I remember the stretch of marsh at the river’s edge, and the mysterious creatures that populate that space.

There is a special quality to the air in such places, and I am reminded that the “spirit” is, in its origin, just this same air, which we draw in, borrow for a time, and let go forth once more.

There is something about nature that escapes the instrumental. We have nothing to do there. Nothing to change or perfect. It is and grows as it always has. We clear it to build our Euclidean structures, but even before they are finished, nature colonizes them: insects and weeds, breaking the formalism of architectural geometry.

Why do we create forest monasteries? I don’t know, unless it has something to do with this connection. We are moved to contemplation, in the face of something so beyond us in time and space.

Yet for all this, we spend much of our lives battling nature. As soon as we see a cockroach, we want to get rid of it. Even the slightest, most harmless intrusion of nature’s apparent chaos prompts a swift response. Nature is an ideal for us, to be approached for a special experience, and otherwise kept at arm’s length.

And it is one of our practical problems that humans live most efficiently apart from nature, in cities. This has been pointed out by James Lovelock: ants solved the problem of high density housing of massive populations long ago. If we care about nature, we would live in massive tower blocks. We don’t need to save nature, just to get out of the way.

But of course, if we do so we cut ourselves off. City living creates alienation from nature. So the practical solution is spiritually deadening.

What to do? I have no answers. I live a twilight life, sometimes in the forest, sometimes in the city, not at home in either. Like the air that sweeps from the city to the forest, from the factory chimney to your lungs, I have no real home. I experience life as a guest, and try not to be intrusive about it.

It takes balance to live in between. To be like the breath, now part of the environment, now part of ourselves. Constantly dissolving the artificial distinctions between “self” and “other”, “artificial” and “natural”, “real” and “fake”.

People are crazy. They still argue about whether this bushfire was due to climate change, or whether that flood was. They monumentally don’t get it: everything is climate change.

Every breath you breathe in has been changed by human activity. It has less oxygen, more carbon dioxide; and it has a cocktail of substances that never existed before humans invented the factory. Every interchange in the vast surface area of your lungs is different because of climate change. Every cell in your body is different because of climate change. Every time you breathe out, you are adding more CO2 to the atmosphere. And when you die, your rotting corpse will add even more. Everything, forever, is different.

We can’t go back, and there may be no forward for us. There remains what is, and that is vanishing even as we watch. Our proud dreams of dominion will become nothing but dust. And the air will howl over the dust, but there will be no-one to listen.

The thing is…

I think we’re doomed. No, really. In the good old-fashioned apocalyptic sense. Not in the normal existential sense that death is a natural part of life. In the sense that we have taken this beautiful home and trashed it and soon it will all be gone.

I am talking about climate change. Sure, there are plenty of other sources of apocalypse—water depletion, pollution, peak oil, population—but climate change is the spectre that hangs over them all.

And I have struggled, and am struggling, with how to articulate this. I am, of course, not a scientist; so I want to avoid giving second-hand, inferior accounts of the facts. If you are wondering why I think this is so serious, when the mainstream media coverage hardly mentions the real problems, I cannot recommend a better article that Joe Rohm’s An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces. Read it, please. This is one of the few articles I have seen that unflinchingly looks at the actual scientific predictions, and considers the overall impact of runaway climate change. It is a little outdated now; but safe to say, things have not got better.

One of the knowledges the Buddha claimed to possess was that he could see “where all paths lead”. It doesn’t take any special powers to see that the path we are on leads to the end of civilization. We simply cannot survive in any meaningful way a temperature rise of 4 or 6 degrees, together with the myriad of other calamities wreaked by climate change. Civilizations collapse. It is normal. And they collapse because they overuse their resources. The difference is that we are doing it on a global scale.

So what are we to do? I have been involved in speaking out in conventional ways on this for a long time. But politics has failed us. Just recently I was part of an ARRCC interfaith delegation to Canberra where we spoke with Greg Hunt and a range of other politicians. It was depressing, as you might expect. Not a single one of the politicians, so far as I could see, was prepared to face the facts. I spoke to a series of them about this specific issue, saying that the course we are on leads to the end of civilization. Nobody said I was wrong on the facts, or too extreme. They were just unable to process the information. Even those most active on the issues, like Mark Dreyfus for example, simply had no intention to talk about making the kinds of changes that are really needed, like, say, leaving the coal in the ground. Many of those in the Government have simply no interest in or grasp of the basic science. We were told by a sitting member of the Liberal party that there has been no conversation on climate change in the party since 2010.

Our current government has launched what is probably the most single-minded, vicious attack on the environment and science of any Australian government in history. Yet we elected them.

The plain reality is that all of the activism that has been done for decades is a complete failure. No matter how many solar panels we put up, or how efficient our light bulbs become, the carbon in the atmosphere keeps going up, as fast or faster. Now we are at 402 ppm, higher than anytime in the past 800,000 years, at least. And so who cares? Who is actually prepared to change anything?

The IPCC claims that making the necessary changes would be incredibly cheap: the median annual growth of consumption over this century would decline by a mere 0.06%. Yet even this trifling sum is too much. To avoid paying it we have toppled governments and generated a whole new industry of denialism.

I simply don’t think that we will make the necessary changes. Of course, we can: that is not the issue. And perhaps we will. But I am an empiricist. I look at the evidence and try to make a reasonable extrapolation. And to extrapolate a survivable future, we have to assume a massive change in behaviour and values, and there is simply no evidence of this.

To forestall objections, I am not suggesting that we should do nothing. On the contrary, we should do much more. But I just don’t see any reason to think it will really make any difference, except that we get to make some good kamma. Which is reason enough, but is not the feelgood message that a good activist should be sending. So I’m not very interested in conventional activism, although I still do it. I think that we need to step back and look at the big picture, to realign our values.

In future articles I will go into details more. But here I want to just broach the basic issue. Regardless of what we think is the most likely outcome, there is at least a distinct possibility that we are headed towards the global collapse of civilization in our lifetime, or our children’s lifetime. We need to find a way to talk about this, to accept it as a reality. To ask: “What are our values, our lives, if this is where we are headed?”

And these are, at their heart, spiritual questions. I hope that we can have a sane conversation about this. And I hope that we can begin to find acceptance.

Just one final point: I will not be tolerating denialists on this blog. You will be moderated. You are most welcome to exercise your freedom of speech here, here, or even here.

Religions for Peace World Assembly, second day: more reflections

Once upon a time in a South American country (apologies for lack of details! I plead memory.) there were a lot of children getting sick with an illness that was preventable through immunisation (see above, re: details). The government, working with health organisations, came to the people with an immunisation program. But the people had homes to clean, meals to cook, jobs to do, and lives to live, so they were not interested. The government tried and tried, but only a few came for the program.

Then they sat back and thought, “How do we win the hearts of the people?” So they went to the Church. This being a Catholic country, there was a somewhat effective organisational structure. They met with the Bishops and other leaders and demonstrated the scientific value of the program. They asked the priests to say to their congregations, “Immunisation is as important as baptism”. And they did.

And the people started taking their children to be immunised. And the lives of millions of young children were saved.

This was one of the stories we heard on the second day of the Religions for Peace conference. It’s a beautiful tale, and it illustrates a crucial point: that religions, in much of the world, can have a powerful effect for good on the lives of the people. They retain a sense of moral authority that, for much of the world’s population, has never rested in government or in science. In the experience of all too many people, governments are reliably corrupt and brutal; and all they have seen of science is the poison in the river and the darkening of the skies. But the church has always been there; it has witnessed their birth, their growth, their marriage, and the death of their relatives. Churches are intertwined in the fabric of people’s lives like no other institution.

The question for much of the second day was, how do we shift from values to action? This played out in multiple spheres, and we could get an amazing sense for how suffering is truly universal. Delegates from Nigeria, Columbia, Myanmar, and many other countries spoke. Each time, while the details varied, we heard the same questions, the same underlying humanity. What people want is, for the most part, quite simple. Food, water, health care, a place to live, safety, education. We heard again and again of how these things were entirely doable. No-one is pushing any utopian visions. Just the basics. Yet the basics seem ever further out of reach.

In the previous post I quoted from the conference handbook some of the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals, including a reduction in global poverty. These blog posts are written quickly, and I didn’t check my facts: I should have. In one of the discussions on the second day, a delegate from South Africa talked about these, and said that the reports they had been hearing from governments all too often had no resemblance to what was happening on the ground. Her experience was not of decreasing, but of increasing poverty, and especially of increasing inequality.

So for every story of inspiration, we heard another of despair. The First Peoples from South America spoke of the interconnectedness of all creatures; from Kentucky we heard of vivid orange water flowing down from destroyed mountains into people’s taps; from Myanmar we heard of a Muslim leader and a Buddhist monk going to a torched village and rebuilding the school and health centre together; and from Senegal we saw laughing children living in chronically flooded villages, being taken with their priest to dry land, where they were taught how to plant trees.

One panel was devoted to the role of women in religion, and that was—predictably!—powerful and moving. Rape, domestic violence, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, maternal mortality: these are all-to-painful realities for many women; and meanwhile male-dominated religious morality obsesses about correct doctrine and stopping gays. The suffering of women is rarely featured in religious discourse, and as one of the delegates said, when it is mentioned it is tepid and equivocal. Yet, as those working in development know well, empowerment of women is the single most effective means of lifting countries out of poverty.

The lunch break on this day was intended as a space for the religions to gather and discuss among themselves. So we had a Buddhism section. Of course, since this is Buddhism, there was supposed to be a moderator, but they were nowhere to be seen. So after some casual chat, a few of us got up and had a short session. We heard about interfaith work in Hong Kong, which has been effective in the past several decades in maintaining harmony. I spoke of our concerns regarding increasing violence in our region between Buddhists and Muslims. A representative from the European Buddhist Union said that, while interfaith was essential, we needed to heal the rifts between the various Buddhist traditions.

Our final session discussed actions that we could take as religions to respond to our various challenges, including climate change. Some good ideas were floated; but I couldn’t help feeling a little depressed. For all the experience, enthusiasm and noble intentions, it seemed like so very little we could do. Skip a meal? I’ve been doing that for 20 years (as do thousands of other Buddhist monastics): I can’t see that it’s made a scrap of difference to the environment. The changes that are needed are so huge, and the responses so tiny.

And I had a growing sense that they seem to miss the point. For me, the potency of religion lies not in its social effectiveness, but in its depth. It points to the causes; but all we spoke of were symptoms. Underlying all this is greed, hatred, and delusion. The reason people are so obsessed with getting and having, with identifying as “consumers”, is because they are lacking something. What are they lacking? That is masked, hidden beneath delusion. And this delusion is actively fostered by the consumption industries. All advertisements say one thing: you are inadequate. To begin any kind of meaningful response, we need to start with the causes. We need to fill that space.

This is where religions should be the experts. But the sad truth is that we are not. Religions for the most part deal with semblances no less unreal than those of advertising. The semblance of holiness; the semblance of the sacred; the semblance of profundity. This semblance is the essence of all ritual, and of all religious doctrine. It is not an expression of meaning, but a substitute for it. It is the ashes of depth.

To re-awaken meaning we need to step out of the way. To have the guts to ask the hard questions, and let silence be an answer.

Religion for Peace Global Assembly, first day: some reflections

The 9th World Assembly of the global interfaith network Religions for Peace got properly underway on 20/11/2013. I say properly, because there were some pre-Assembly events that I didn’t attend. I’m here as a representative of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations (APRO), of which I am a member on behalf of the Australian Sangha Association and the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils. The theme of this year’s conference is “Welcoming the Other”.

I’ve been very kindly and warmly received in Vienna, firstly by some members of the local Buddhist community, who took me on my first ever tour of catacombs; an experience that was enlivened by the breezy humour of the tour guide, who took obvious delight in discussing of the plagues and wars that have populated the catacombs; and, even better, the growing pollution of rotting corpses that required the catacombs be emptied. Down there, among the piles of bones, the mummified corpses of long-dead bishops, and the distorted gargoyles of horror, I could not help but feel that I had discovered the unconscious of Freud’s Vienna.

My accommodations have been no less intriguing, with an equally easygoing acceptance of light and dark. I’m at the famous Capuchin Monastery, right in the heart of Vienna. There’s a lovely small community of Franciscan friars here, about 12 or so. Mostly they don’t speak much English, but there’s a couple of Indian monks who are quite fluent. But language doesn’t matter so much when the people are so warm and friendly. There’s plenty of smiles and laughter over breakfast, and a manifest feeling of contentment. The monks live very simply, especially considering the heritage of the monastery: some bread and cheese for breakfast; clean, basic accommodation; and a regular program of service for prayer. They very kindly invited me to take part in their services, but I declined, as I will mostly be away at the conference.

Perhaps it’s easier to be light of heart when you have under your feet the desiccated corpses of kings. This monastery is most famous as the resting place of the Hapsburgs, the rulers of the mighty Austrian Empire for 500 years. Now they have gone the way of all kings, succumbed to the one monarch none could overcome: Lord Death. They’ve been entombed in increasingly elaborate sacrophogi of tin; gorgeous figures, grinning skulls, angels and swords adorn them. Once rulers of the wide earth, now they are the objects of school excursions, with earnest teachers and bored, uncomprehending children more interested in making click-clack noise in the echoing corridors with their stone floors.

If any of the monks were dubious about the sudden arrival of this strange and very large Australian Buddhist monk, here to attend an event sponsored by the Saudis, they didn’t show it. But they were, so I was told, pleased to see that in the daily paper there was a message from Pope Frances, giving his blessing for our conference. So that’s all right, then.

As for the conference itself, it is held in the Vienna Hilton, and many of the attendees stayed there. The main organisers of the event are Religions for Peace, but the co-sponsors are the Kaiciid Dialogue Centre, sponsored by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. This centre was established here in Vienna as a world interfaith hub. Obviously, this raises some interesting questions. Saudi Arabia was one of 15 nations identified by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom as being a “Country of Particular Concern”. The report found that:

During the reporting period, systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom continued in Saudi Arabia despite improvements. More than 10 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the Saudi government has failed to implement a number of promised reforms related to promoting freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. The Saudi government persists in banning all forms of public religious expression other than that of the government’s own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam; prohibits churches, synagogues, temples, and other non-Muslim places of worship; uses in its schools and posts online state textbooks that continue to espouse intolerance and incite violence; and periodically interferes with private religious practice. There have been numerous arrests and detentions of Shi’a Muslim dissidents, partly as a result of increasing protests and demonstrations related to 2011 uprisings in the region, and Ismaili Shi’a Muslims continue to suffer repression on account of their religious identity. Members of the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (CPVPV) continue to commit abuses, although their public presence has diminished slightly and the number of reported incidents of abuse has decreased in some parts of the country. In addition, the government continues to be involved in supporting activities globally that promote an extremist ideology, and in some cases, violence toward non-Muslims and disfavored Muslims.

The report acknowledges the interfaith work done internationally by the King, while noting that since it began in 2006 it has not been reflected in any meaningful improvements in his own country.

So, we all know this: Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most repressive counties when it comes to religion and related matters. So what are they doing taking centre stage in the world interfaith space? Is this nothing more than a hypocritical attempt to whitewash their international reputation while avoiding the real problems? Or is it a genuine attempt to move towards openness, setting an example internationally for much-needed reforms at home? I don’t know, and it would seem that Religions for Peace is committed, for the time being anyway, to furthering a partnership. They’re smart people, with no illusions, and so I don’t dismiss it out of hand. At the same time, the Saudis have buckets and buckets of money, and that is the most basic corrupting influence on all genuine spiritual movements.

In fact the Saudi presence at the Religions for Peace conference is muted. This stands in contrast with the pre-conference event organised by Kaiciid, which some reports say was dominated by ostentatious displays of wealth, and platitudes by Saudi princes on how they will have to take the lead on interfaith.

There was none of this at the actual RfP conference. There has been a nicely representative mix of speakers, plenty of women taking part; perhaps a slight under representation of East Asian religions, which was acknowledged.

In the opening session, the delegates were asked to accept the new nominated committees. And a remarkable thing happened. The floor was invited to make suggestions, and one suggestion was: that the committee include a young person. And, astonishingly, the panel said, “Fine, let the Youth Group nominate their own representative.” Then there was another committee to elect, and the panel said, “Well, we’ll probably want a young person for that as well.” Then someone said, “But shouldn’t we have two young people on each committee, male and female”; and this was accepted just as readily. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such an accepting and meaningful display of genuine democracy in action. That, more than anything, gave me hope.

The speeches themselves were for the most part unremarkable, and I felt that far too much time was taken with matters of too little substance. A great speech should be either informative or inspirational, and these were for the most part neither.

Pale Blue dotHaving said which, the presentations touched on some important matters. For me perhaps the most memorable was a speech by a Japanese delegate, who reflected along the lines of Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot. He noted that Voyager 1, which took the famous photo of earth, has now left our solar system. All around, for as far as we can see, space is cold, dark, and lifeless; the only place we can live is here. And we have disrespected and exploited our tiny precious planet, using up everything we can get our hands on: all for what, exactly?

One of the major themes, which was the focus of the excellent speech by RfP’s Secretary-General, Dr. William F. Vendley. He spoke about the challenges and development of interfaith in the decades since RfP’s inception; but the defining focus of his speech was the idea of a “rising tide” of hostility. He argued that since the previous conference in 2006 we have seen ever greater intolerance and religious divisiveness. He offered some troubling statistics: 3/4 of the world now live in countries with high levels of restriction on religion, with the percentage of countries with such high levels of intolerance rising for 29% in 2007 to 40% in 2011.

Worrying as this is, I was not convinced. In the same period we have seen great and meaningful progress, for example in the acceptance of same sex marriage, or the role of women in religious life. It seems to me that these trends are not separate. Our times are not characterised by a greater repression in religious matters, but a greater polarisation. The good get better, while the worse get worse; and the gulf between the two, which once we could hide beneath the formalities of ritual and custom, has become so vast as to paralyse, quite literally: think of the US government shut-down, the horrific morasses in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, climate change reform, or, within my own tradition, the continuing failure by some monks to accept bhikkhunis. In all these cases, and many more, we see an ideological gulf that has religion as a driving force.

And the source of the polarisation, underlying all these, is change. Accelerating, chaotic, destablizing change. Change that uproots everything, trashes all that is of value, and casually devastates family, faith, and culture in its blithe indifference. Modernity is experienced by all too many people as a waking nightmare: children continue to die in their millions due to entirely preventable causes. Those with the money and technology to make a difference waste it on guns and geegaws, obsessed with accumulating more and more. Why do we continue to be surprised that people cling so desperately, so irrationally, to an imagined past?

There was an unexpected contribution from one of the Islamic leaders. There had been some confusion earlier on the subject of circumsicision, whether it referred to male or female. Dr. Mustafa Ceric, who in good cheer and self-deprecating style, informed us that as the former Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and currently “Grand Mufti at large”, he had the authority to issue fatwas for all of us. And so he did, two of them. One, that female gential mutilation was wrong, that it contadicted Islamic principles, and that it should be banned everywhere; and two, that all Muslims should work for interfaith harmony. Those are my kind of fatwas!

The final session of the day was a commission on “Human Development that Respects the Earth”. This was far more satisfying than the plenary sessions; we had spilt into four different sessions, so there was much greater participation, and many interesting voices. An emerging theme was the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, for which the deadline is approaching in 2015. These have been partially successful, with a global reduction of extreme poverty by half (yay!), improved access to drinking water for 2 billion people, gains in the fight against malaria and TB, and more. Areas noted as needing improvement are the environment, HIV, maternal and child survival, and education.

But for me the most urgent presentation came from Dr. Nigel Crawhall, director of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee, who spoke on global warming; in fact he had just come from the discussions at Warsaw. (I chatted with him after the presentation; it tuns out he’s a Buddhist from South Africa, who’s connected with the community of my friend and sometime bloggist Thanissara.) It was fascinating to hear of the energy that is in this space at the moment; the desperation of the activists, the despair showing even in leaders like Christiana Figueres; and the glazed denial of the technocrats. Every time I get in a conversation with knowledgeable people on this topic, I hear numbers that are just unbelievable. But you hear them so many times, from such reliable sources, that they start to become normal. Like, for example, the UN report that predicted numbers of displaced people by 2020 at 250 million. Or the prediction that the oceans will be fished out by 2030.

The coming century will, I believe, see the end of our civilisation in any recognizable form. I simply can’t see any other outcome, given the dogged commitment to inaction on the part of everyone who matters. At last, Christiana Figueres has started to go beyond the polite fiction that having a little tax or sponsor some solar cells will save us. It won’t. The only thing that really counts is that we leave the coal in the ground. If we don’t do that, we’re finished. And, as crucial as all the other issues that we discussed are, none of it really matters if our environment collapses. None of us will have education, or health care, or reliable food and water, or jobs.

It is no longer a question of whether climate change is real. Nor is it a question that it it will go over the long-cherished limit of 2°C. Nor is it a question that this will be catastrophic. The only questions are how bad will it be, and what can we do to minimise it. The latest IPCC report suggests that we may well see a 4.5°C rise this century; I think this is too conservative; analysts not committed to the IPCC’s consensus approach frequently speak of 6°C this century, and this is by no means the maximum. And of course, that’s just this century: it keeps going up for a long time.

What can we do? I don’t know. For a long time I have wanted to write more on this subject, but it is so big and so overwhelming that I have not known how to start. But here’s one idea: go to a monastery and stay in a cave. It may turn out to be a useful survival skill.

Nigel said that the message they had received from the UN was that politics had failed. Decades of negotiations have led nowhere. Figures at the highest levels are now looking to religion for a solution. Despite all of the problems that religions have faced, and continue to struggle with, it is still the case that religions speak to the people in a way that no other can. And we have the potential, at least, to speak with a moral authority, to draw a line in the sand. One speaker spoke of the “madness, the madness!” of our world, in that we have allowed economics to triumph over life. For all the distortions of their tiny parochial moralities, their embarassing obsessions with controlling sex and women, at the heart of all religions there is the respect for life. And in that, perhaps, we may find hope.