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The Future Doesn’t Hurt.... Yet

Ven. Matthieu Ricard

Interdependence is a central Buddhist idea that leads to a profound understanding of the true nature of reality. Nothing in the universe exists in a purely autonomous way. Phenomena can only appear through mutual causation and relationship. The understanding of the laws of interdependence naturally leads to an awareness of universal responsibility, as often pointed out by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Ricard-2Since all beings are interrelated and all, without exception, want to avoid suffering and achieve happiness, this understanding becomes the basis for altruism and compassion. This in turn naturally leads to the attitude and practice of non-violence towards human beings, animals and towards the environment. The Buddhist idea of non-violence is not passive: it entails the passionate and compassionate courage to actively protect life and the environment. It nurtures a global vision of respect, care, and fulfillment.

Unchecked consumerism operates on the premise that others are only instruments to be used and that the environment is a commodity. This attitude fosters unhappiness, selfishness and contempt. On the other hand, the Buddhist view that all sentient beings are endowed with Buddha-nature and the universe in which they live is a Buddha field, shape a culture of harmony and contentment.

The vast majority of Tibetans have never heard of global warming, although it is a well-known fact that the ice is not forming as thickly as before and the winter temperatures are getting warmer. In parts of the world where there is access to information, most of us are aware of the impeding danger of global warming and of the lack of serious measures taken by political authorities to address it. Even the “Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change” that warned of the catastrophic economic impact of global warming had little impact on decision makers. It is not as if more facts are needed; the evidence is striking enough.

People usually only consider changing their way of living when they are forced to do so by circumstances, not by rational and altruistic thinking. But in the case of climate change, once the dramatic events have occurred, and people become motivated to change things, it will be too late.

Ricard-3People react strongly to immediate danger but it is difficult for them to be emotionally moved by something that will happen in 10 or 20 years. They will rarely be motivated to change on behalf of something for their future and that of the next generation. They imagine ‘Well we’ll deal with that when it comes.’ They resist the idea of giving up what they enjoy just for the sake of disastrous long-term effects. It is uncomfortable to drive a smaller car or be careful with water use or sunbathe judiciously. Their actions are based on not being inconvenienced now. The future doesn’t hurt – yet.

In Nepal, for example, it is generally known that an eight-magnitude earthquake could cause 50,000 fatalities in a few minutes. On a daily bases, no one wants to plan based on a reference to an earthquake that happens on average every 50 years, even though it is now 20 years overdue. So, houses keep getting built that are not earthquake proof, with no thought to the future eventuality.

The only solution to the climate issue is for governments to adopt powerful new policies, even though they will not be popular at the moment. This requires a trans-national consensus and political will. For instance, the governments of most civilized nations have abolished the death penalty because it has been shown to be inefficient as a deterrent to crime, even though opinion polls show that the majority of people still are in favour of it.

When I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2006, there was not much discussion about what might be done to prevent the Arctic from melting. In the last few years, however there has been a genuine increase of awareness about the causes and outcomes of global warming. There is now a substantial movement to recognize and take action on climate change. However it takes time for scientific knowledge to be implemented in public policies. It took 30 years from the time it was clear that smoking causes lung cancer to the point when political and legal action was taken to forbid smoking in public places in many countries. Still, in countries such as China, chain smokers can freely continue to poison everyone in a bus or a train, without the slightest restrain.

Ricard-4The Europeans are advancing with their renewable energy programs, but in the large Asian countries, change is barely beginning and will require major shifts in policies and financial investments. It is difficult to expect poor truck drivers in Nepal to stop using their old vehicles that emit clouds of black soot exhaust. That would deprive them of their basic livelihood. In Europe people change their cars every five years. In Nepal, they keep them for 25 years because they don’t have the resources to buy new ones. Who will give free electric cars and efficient solar cookers to all these people? Who is going to pay for all that? How are we to offer biogas to a billion people in India?

The Chinese government is building a super-ecological island where everything will be zero-carbon, in an effort to show off their technology. Meanwhile, they are doing just the opposite in the rest of the country, buying SUVs in frenzy, and polluting the air and the rivers in such unprecedented ways that it even triggers popular revolts in cities where toxic fumes and waters are harming people.

The Chinese government’s approach to environmental issues is most often ineffective and chaotic. For example, the authorities’ limited attempts at reforestation in Tibet are usually irrational. They plant trees on level land near rivers, whereby Tibetans engaged in agriculture are displaced. Mountainsides are not reforested, because it’s more difficult to do so. The wrong species of trees are used simply because it’s easier. This doesn’t halt the erosion of the slopes, but does deprive people of their crops. In the few remaining large forests, clear-cutting can continue. China might wake up to the implications of global warming and glacier retreat on the Tibetan plateau once the problem worsens.

Ricard-6The major constructive influence now on environmental actions is the European Community’s implementation of changes. If America joins this initiative, it would instigate overall change. A large-scale adoption of wind power and other alternative source of energies in the US could have worldwide significance.

Within ten years they could make substantial investments in renewable energy. As time goes on it will become less expensive. That’s how technologies evolve. A DVD burner cost $5000 when they first came to market. The oil billionaire, Boone Pickens, is a case in point. He has put several billion dollars into wind power. Did he do it for the money? “Of course” he said, “the oil business is just mad. Renewable energy not only makes sense but it can make money as well.”* Even from the point of view of a hard-core Houston oilman, it makes sense. This kind of person can be an enormous help to shift perspectives in other business people’s mind. If the USA begins to act, that could be a social tipping point for meaningful reduction of carbon emissions.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2012 05:04

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