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Aug 2017
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Reducing the Buddha’s Carbon Footprint

Kunda Dixit

Akalman is a shy and soft-spoken engineer carrying on his ancestors’ traditional occupation to use small and simple technology to harness Himalayan rivers and streams — power plants that are affordable and locally designed and can be maintained by villagers who help in the installation. Today there are more than 3,000 microhydros serving more than 10 percent of Nepal’s 28 million people. Akalman’s philosophy of doing a lot with little is unknowingly inspired by E.F. Schumacher, whose book Small Is Beautiful, published in 1973 laid the groundwork for appropriate technology solutions. Schumacher’s ideas about development and technology themselves were deeply influenced by Buddhism. He was inspired to think small and be happy with little after spending six months in Burma in 1955 as an adviser to the newly formed United Nations. But, like all non-conformist thinkers, Schumacher was dismissed as a starry - eyed hippie. His ideas were regarded as utopian and impractical.

But Schumacher was trained as an economist and knew what he was talking about: the problems of poor countries could not be solved only by the marvels of science. It was rampant technology that got us into the mess in the first place. Schumacher writes in Small is Beautiful: ‘Greed and envy...the two forces which drive men into conflict. How do we even begin to disarm greed and envy? Perhaps by being much less greedy and envious ourselves, perhaps by resisting the temptation of letting our luxuries become needs, and perhaps even scrutinizing our needs to see if they cannot be simplified and reduced.’ Schumacher predicted the global climate crisis we are seeing today long before it became fashionable to do so. He took a common sense spiritual approach to the environment that was deeply influenced by Buddhism. Inspired by his own spiritualism, he saw frugality and compassion as guiding principles to save the planet. Greed and wasteful consumption were at the root of the global environmental crisis, and he saw “business as usual as being inherently unsustainable.”monks

Others have come to the same conclusion. Mahatma Gandhi spoke about there being “enough in the world for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed”. He said this in the aftermath of the Bengal famine in 1941-1942, long before scientists had even started talking about the global warming. Similarly, His Holiness the Dalai Lama often speaks in his sermons about the effect of climate change, especially on the Tibetan plateau, which has been called the” water tower of Asia” or the “Third Pole” because the water stored there as ice feeds into rivers like the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawady, Mekong and the Yangtse that irrigate onethird of humanity. This gigantic storage system is now threatened by global warming because of which glaciers and snowlines are receding. Historical emissions of carbon dioxide by the industrialized countries is the main culprit, but increasingly the problem is the economic growth models followed by China and India. The struggle to reduce global warming will be won or lost in Asia. The Buddha’s footprints are often worshipped in many parts of the subcontinent. It is now necessary to reduce the Buddha’s carbon footprint. As far back as 1990, long before it became fashionable to talk about climate change, His Holiness had told the Kala Chakra function in Bodhgaya: “The harmful effect on the atmosphere brought about by chemical emissions in industrialized countries is a very dangerous sign…it is the responsibility of us, who speak of the welfare of all sentient beings, to contribute towards this.” This goes to the heart of the holistic approach to solving global environmental problems: the global climate crisis is not just a threat to humankind, but to all living things, to nature and creation itself.1 In 1972 the secretary general of the United Nations, the Burmese diplomat, U Thant, warned that the world’s problems were so serious that countries had only 10 years to start to set them right. “I do not wish to seem overdramatic,” he said, “(but) if a global partnership is not forged within the next decade, then I very much fear that the problems will have reached such staggering proportions that they will be beyond our capacity to control.” U Thant was 20 years ahead of his time in warning about the seriousness of resource depletion. But today there aren’t too many signs beyond rhetoric that politicians and governments have risen above national interest to heed the call. But scientists, economists, futurologists, and sociologists are taking a paradigm leap to ensure that the improvement in humanity’s living conditions is based on ecological equilibrium, a global consciousness, social justice, and equity. It represents a shift to a new “Earth Ethics” that lays out new rules not only to set things right, but also to make society’s future activities less damaging to nature. Economics, therefore, is shifting from the industrial-information age to a biological age that recognizes the limits of what ecosystems can sustain. And, in a sense, all religions preach the same message of “live and let live”. By their very nature, ecosystems are linked in an intricate web to natural processes and human factors all over the planet. 2But mainstream economists still analyze development in a fragmented and mechanical manner. As alternate economist Hazel Henderson says: “The effect of this mindset in journalism and media is the compulsive reporting of events, however trivial, at the expense of examining deeper processes and trends that underlie them.” To trace our beliefs, we have to go back to the cultural processes that has conditioned our thinking. It all began with the philosophy rooted in ancient Greek anthropocentric thinking that the world had human and nonhuman segments, and nature was provided for humans to exploit for their betterment. In her classic book on the ecology and feminism, The Death of Nature, Carolyn Merchant argues that the rot set in when the Scientific Revolution viewed the planet as a passive machine to be exploited. This was a major change from the earlier reverence in most indigenous cultures for the Earth as a living organism with her own mother spirit. Treating the planet as a lifeless rock legitimized the reckless exploitation of the biosphere by the dominant sex of a greedy species. So, we have come a full circle in the need to perceive the Earth’s biosphere as being the thin skin of life on this planet that humanity must share with other living beings. This brings us back to re-examine the animistic view of the earth, soil, fire and water as the sources of existence. The Gaia hypothesis formulated by scientist James Lovelock in the 1970s proposed that all life on the planet belong to one “super-organism” that is selfregulating and maintains the ecological balance needed to sustain the planet. The biosphere and the interaction of living things therefore are a crucial link in the maintaining global climate stability. For some scientists, anything that cannot be explained by rational Newtonian physics is quackery. But as the planet plunges headlong into a climate dystopia, the Gaia theory is finding more and more adherents. So, in his little workshop on Kathmandu, Akalman Nakarmi is working towards reducing the Buddha’s carbon footprint. In a way, Gaia goes beyond existing religious teachings about environmental conservation, beyond organized religion to add a spiritual dimension to the universe and our place in it.

Kunda Dixit is the publisher of Nepali Times and author kundanof several books, including the trilogy on the conflict in Nepal: A People War, Never Again and People After War.
Last modified on Monday, 13 August 2012 06:08