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.