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  • Ecological Suffering:From a Buddhist Perspective
  • Sulak Sivaraksa

“There will be great suffering caused by our human-created climate change, but we may need to go through this process in order to see the ‘light.’”

—Nigel Crawhall (IUCN, CEESP representative, South Africa)

Ecological suffering is the result of centuries of abuse of our Earth and environment. It is the effects of numerous overlapping developments that are unsustainable for the most part. It results from violent actions, whether in the shape of colonialism, industrial development, wars, economic growth, the arms race, or capitalist competition between states. More importantly, it is a flaw inherent in the global capitalist system—which is nevertheless seen as the best system to organize human life—and will bring down both capitalism and human survival if we act as if we don’t know about it. I explicitly name capitalism because without doing so any critique will be simply abstract, moralistic, and toothless—such as blaming greed in general or on particular greedy individuals, on human nature, on civilization, and so on. No. Ecological suffering is the result of systemic violence rooted in the global political economy. Although our world cherishes diversity and choice, it is increasingly intolerant of any form of living that resists free market fundamentalism. Ecological suffering is happening on a daily level even if we feel that nothing is happening. Ecological suffering sustains the normalcy of our everyday life as we drive to work, eat our lunch, talk on our mobile phones, connect to the Internet, and so on. It is woven into our daily existence. As such, we don’t want our daily life to be disturbed and often act as if we don’t know about ecological suffering. But it is also experienced unevenly: the poor majority more so than the rich minority, who for now could still buy their way out of the problem; developing societies more than developed ones; and so on.

One thing is certain: Our ecosystem is crashing. What should be a circle of life, of interconnected life forms, has already started to work as individual parts going in different directions, leading to malfunctions and negative consequences in many parts [End Page 147] of the system. At the Inter-Religious Dialogue on Climate Change and Biodiversity Conservation in September 2012, a conclusion that was arrived at the conference was a simple but profound one: It is all connected; we are all connected. As I mentioned in my latest book, Wisdom of Sustainability,1 our world and nature works in the same way as the wheel of Dhamma. The wheel of Dhamma can be used to countenance the wheels of state and systemic violence. This is why tackling the environmental problem needs a religious or spiritual dimension.

Below, I will reflect on the problems and challenges we face in coping with the impending ecological catastrophe. I link the postponement of the crisis and sustainability with the cultivation of spirituality in ourselves—that is, to search for what has been uprooted and what we need to reclaim or retrieve. Bringing in Buddhist ethics, I will tease out how an interfaith approach to problem solving can benefit our environment by pointing to some concrete suggestions.

The starting points of this talk are drawn from The Wisdom of Sustainability and the conference overview of the Inter-Religious Dialogue on Climate Change and Biodiversity Conservation, and I will alternate between these two points, which also structure my talk. The dialogue was held in Sri Lanka in September 2012, at the Islander Center. It was organized by the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), the Sewalanka Foundation, International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Sri Lanka National Office, and Commission on Environmental Economic and Social Policy (CEESP). At this conference faith leaders, environmental and climate scientists, conservationists, and social activists from all over the world gathered to collaboratively explore the scientific foundations of climate change and biodiversity loss; its social, political, and economic drivers; the impacts of climate change on human societies and the environment; and the underlying human behaviors that contribute to climate change.2

The conference used three levels of engagement to frame the creation of a roadmap for action...