1. Is Climate Change the Problem?

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Is Climate Change the Problem?

LET’S BE CLEAR: climate change is the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced. In fact, its implications are so momentous that the term climate change and its cozy cousin global warming become euphemisms for what is better described as a climate emergency. This book looks at the climate crisis through a Buddhist lens and also reflects on what that crisis means for how we understand and practice Buddhism today.

But is something even larger at stake than the climate emergency?

Despite persistent attempts by special interest groups to obfuscate the issue, the evidence provided by numerous scientific studies is conclusive and will not be debated here. Human civilization developed during what climate scientists call the Holocene era (the last 11,700 years or so), during which the climate has been generally stable and mild. Coincidence or not, agriculture began about 11,500 years ago, when crops such as wheat, barley, peas, and lentils began to be cultivated in the Levant. The Holocene is now ending, due primarily to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (now well over 400 parts per million, in contrast to preindustrial levels of about 262 ppm) and in the oceans. This increase is mainly due to human activity: burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and methane gas. We are now living in the Anthropocene era, from anthropo, the Greek word for 20“human being.” And, barring an unexpected natural catastrophe such as a meteor strike or the eruption of mega-volcanoes, it looks like the future of the biosphere for many thousands of years will depend on what humanity does (and does not do) in the next few decades — or is it the next few years?

Instead of repeating what most of us already know, let me just emphasize two fundamental points about the climate crisis. First, it is not an external problem that is happening to us but something we are doing to ourselves — though of course, some people and some societies are more responsible than others. About one-sixth of the world’s population is so poor that they produce no significant amount of greenhouse gases. Tragically, it is such people in less-developed nations, mostly in Africa and South Asia, who have been suffering the most from climatic changes, whereas those living in the overdeveloped nations of North America and Europe have so far experienced relatively little disruption. We will return to the ethical implications of this difference, but my point here is simply that Homo sapiens sapiens cannot blame any other species, or natural disasters, for what is happening. Imagine how we would react if alien spaceships appeared and began pumping carbon dioxide into our atmosphere! Unfortunately, the root causes of our problem are not so easy to identify and attack. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo said during the Vietnam War, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

My second point follows from the first: our collective response to the climate crisis, although not negligible, remains far from adequate. International conferences continue to be held and specific commitments have been agreed upon (and sometimes reneged upon), yet we are still not doing what needs to be done to reduce carbon emissions sufficiently. Given the extraordinary implications of the problem, we must ask: Why not?

Again, let me be clear: the overwhelming urgency of climate breakdown — no longer just a threat but something that has begun — requires our unwavering attention and wholehearted efforts. Nevertheless, we also need to realize that particular emergency is only part of a much 21bigger ecological crisis. “Climate change” is not the fundamental issue that confronts us today. I mentioned above that the climate crisis is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, that we are doing it to ourselves, and that our response so far has been far from adequate; all three of those points describe just as well the larger ecological challenge that is even more daunting.

It is necessary to emphasize this because many people assume that if we just convert to renewable sources of energy, our economy and society can continue to function indefinitely in much the same way that they have been doing. One problem with this way of thinking is that it takes up to a generation for the warming effects of new carbon emissions to register, which means that we can expect many more years of intensive climate disruption, with increasingly serious social and economic consequences that are very difficult to calculate. But the deeper problem is that the climate crisis is only the tip of an ecological iceberg that has more profound implications for the future of human civilization. From that broader perspective, we have so far been doing little more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic — a tired metaphor that nonetheless seems all too appropriate, given the increasing number of icebergs now calving in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Consider, for example, what is happening to the oceans. Of course, a lot of it has to do with increasing carbon emissions. Up to now, over 90 percent of the additional heat that has been generated by fossil fuel combustion has been absorbed by the oceans. Without that heat sink, average air temperatures around the globe would already have increased by a staggering 97 degrees Fahrenheit, by some calculations, and we would all be toast. The absorption of increasing amounts of carbon dioxide has also been acidifying ocean water (already more acid than any time in the last 800,000 years), disrupting the ability of mollusks and plankton at the bottom of the food chain to make their shells out of calcium carbonate. Most obviously, the potent combination of warming and acidifying water is bleaching coral reefs (which are home to a quarter of all marine species). According to the 2017 22film Chasing Coral, the world has lost about half its coral reefs over the last thirty years, and almost all of the remaining coral is expected to die off during the next thirty years. Events in 2016 and 2017 severely damaged two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, and oceanographers are not hopeful of a recovery.

But there are other issues with the oceans. Global marine catches have been declining since 1996, and a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science predicts that the oceans will be commercially fished out by 2048. According to a 2016 World Economic Forum report, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish, which points to another problem that cannot be attributed to carbon emissions. Less than half of the million plastic bottles purchased around the world every minute are recycled, according to a 2017 study reported in the Guardian, and annual consumption is predicted to exceed half a trillion by 2021. Since the 1950s approximately one billion tons of plastic have been discarded, and another 2015 study reported in Science calculated that eight million metric tons of it make their way into the oceans each year. The 2016 World Economic Forum report also estimates that there are over 165 million tons of plastic in the oceans today, much of it in an enormous vortex of microplastic debris in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (and there is another in the North Atlantic). Unlike organic material, plastic does not biodegrade; it simply disintegrates into ever smaller pieces, which are often ingested by marine organisms, even in the deepest Pacific Ocean trenches — and by us. A 2017 scientific study found tiny plastic fibers in 83 percent of global tap water samples. The highest contamination rate was in the United States, with 94 percent.

There is also a worldwide problem with hypertrophication, when chemicals such as fertilizers and detergents run off into lakes and rivers, degrading the water quality and eventually leading to massive “dead zones” in bays and estuaries. Algal blooms, which are toxic to plants and animals including humans, are common and can cause fish kills and loss of species. A 2013 global assessment identified over six hundred such coastal zones around the world. One of the largest is at the 23mouth of the Mississippi River, which varies in size but is generally expanding; in the summer of 2017 it covered a record 8,776 square miles, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In sum, human activity is radically and rapidly altering the chemistry of the oceans, with ultimate consequences that are difficult to predict but unlikely to be beneficial either for marine life or for us.

And there are many other challenges.

Agriculture is the lifeblood of civilization as we know it, but in most places most people no longer live on family farms. The priority of industrial agriculture is maximum productivity at minimum cost, which requires intensive use of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, such as Monsanto’s notorious Roundup pesticide (glyphosate), now believed to be toxic to humans as well as honeybees and many other species. Yet there is a more basic problem, which the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures labels “catastrophic”: a third of the world’s arable land has been lost over the past forty years, at a time when the demand for food is soaring. “The continual ploughing of fields, combined with heavy use of fertilizers, has degraded soils across the world, the research found, with erosion occurring at a pace of up to 100 times greater than the rate of soil formation.” Because of this deterioration, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that the world on average has just sixty more years of growing crops, given present agricultural practices. To keep up with global food demand, the FAO estimates that about fifteen million acres of new farmland will be needed every year, but instead about thirty million acres are lost each year due to soil degradation. As if that were not enough, a 2014 study published in Nature found that increasing CO2 in the atmosphere has led to a significant decline in the nutritional value of crops, especially protein, iron, and zinc.

As a Zen practitioner, I have often recited the bodhisattva vow “to save all living beings.” And from a Buddhist perspective, perhaps no issue is of greater concern than the fact that we are now well into what scientists are calling the earth’s sixth mass extinction event, when there is a widespread decline in biodiversity as many plant and 24animal species disappear. There is a wide range of views by biologists on how fast the extinction rate now is, but it is usually estimated as between one thousand and ten thousand times the “natural rate” — the rate at which extinctions would occur without human impact. According to a 2010 UN Environment Program report, one in four mammalian species, one in eight bird species, one in three amphibian species, and 70 percent of all the world’s plant species are now endangered, mainly due to deforestation, agriculture, urbanization, and global warming. More recently, a 2016 World Wildlife Fund report concluded that populations of wild vertebrates fell 58 percent between 1970 and 2012, with losses on track to reach 67 percent by 2020. A study of German nature preserves found that insect abundance fell by 75 percent between 1989 and 2017. Most ominously, the eminent biologist E. O. Wilson of Harvard University has warned that by 2100 half of all plant and animal species on earth could become extinct or be so weakened that they will disappear soon after.

Enough already? Not quite. The list of human-induced problems is long; a few more follow, more briefly cited:

Lester Brown’s research into groundwater highlights the fact that freshwater depletion is a worldwide problem, especially serious in Asia and the Americas. According to the FAO, global per capita freshwater availability is less than half of what it was in the early 1960s. Falling water tables and the over-pumping of aquifers threaten to end agriculture in arid regions such as the Middle East and the southwest United States.

In the last century many thousands of new chemicals have been created and marketed, but very few of them have been evaluated for their effects on humans or the environment. One category that has been researched is persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which do not naturally degrade but bioaccumulate, often with toxic effects. Some of them are endocrine disruptors causing developmental defects; others are known carcinogens or cause other chronic illnesses. And virtually all of us have at least traces of POPs in our bodies. So far, efforts to address this problem have focused on stopping the production 25and use of new POPs, since no one knows how to remove the POPs already in the environment. Recent research published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution has found “extraordinary” levels of POPs even in organisms that live in the deepest places in the oceans, the Mariana and Kermadec trenches.

Most of us are aware of the catastrophic 1986 nuclear explosion at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, which released enormous amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere, and some of us remember the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania — but there have also been serious accidents at Kyshtym in the Soviet Union in 1957, at Windscale in the United Kingdom in 1957, at Chalk River in Canada in 1952, and at Tokaimura, Japan, in 1999. In March 2011 a magnitude-9 earthquake off the coast of Japan generated a tsunami that caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors near the coastal city of Fukushima. Six years and many billions of dollars later, the situation remains out of control. The damaged reactors continue to generate high levels of radioactive waste (mostly contaminated water) and efforts to solve the problem have barely begun. As of late 2017, the plant’s operator, Tepco, still had not been able to determine the exact location and condition of the melted fuel. Tepco expected the cleanup to take thirty to forty years, but Shaun Burnie, a Greenpeace nuclear specialist stationed in Japan, has said that such a decommissioning schedule was “never realistic or credible” because the challenge is “unprecedented and almost beyond comprehension.”

In addition to such nuclear disasters, and the likelihood of more, almost 13,000 tons of highly dangerous waste (what Joanna Macy calls “poison fire”) are produced by the world’s four-hundred-plus active nuclear power plants each year. The United States has at least 108 radioactive sites designated as contaminated and unusable, some of them involving thousands of acres. The lifespan of some of the radioactive materials on these sites is very long: plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, and, despite nuclear industry disinformation, no one really knows how to store this waste safely for the extremely long periods necessary.


And then there’s overpopulation — an issue that no politician ever wants to talk about, because there are no votes to be gained by telling people that they should have fewer children. As of early 2018, world population is 7.6 billion, well over three times what it was at the end of the Second World War in 1945. The Global Footprint Network has calculated that the earth could sustainably provide only about two billion people with a European standard of living — and considerably fewer with an American lifestyle. This points to an essential concern, which we will return to: ecological stresses cannot be separated from social justice issues.

With only one exception that I’m aware of (about which, more below), all the world’s major religions are pronatalist: they encourage people to go forth and multiply. That was understandable when our total impact was so much smaller. World population at the time of the Buddha was probably about 100 million people, about 1.3 percent of the current population, which continues to grow exponentially. We have solved the problem of perpetuating our species — so well, however, that our well-being, and perhaps our survival, are now threatened by our success. It is difficult to imagine how ecological sustainability could be achieved without a massive reduction, intentional or not, in our numbers. It is almost as difficult to imagine how that reduction can be achieved in a democratic and equitable manner.

The one religious exception to pronatalism is Buddhism. As far as I know, no traditional Buddhist teachings encourage families to produce many children. In some Buddhist societies the emphasis on celibate monasticism has had the opposite effect, tending to limit population growth.

One could go on and on, but this litany of ecological disaster is long enough. Perhaps the best summary of our situation is provided by James Gustav Speth, in the opening pages of his book The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability:

Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an 27acre a second, and has for decades. Half the planet’s wetlands are gone. An estimated 90 percent of the large predator fish are gone, and 75 percent of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity. Almost half of the corals are gone or are seriously threatened. Species are disappearing at rates about 1,000 times faster than normal. The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in sixty-five million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared. Desertification claims a Nebraska-sized area of productive capacity each year globally. Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in essentially each and every one of us.

[The United States] is losing 6,000 acres of open space every day, and 100,000 acres of wetlands every year. About a third of U.S. plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. Half of U.S. lakes and a third of its rivers still fail to meet the standards that by law should have been met by 1983. And we have done little to curb our wasteful energy habits or our huge population growth. . . . All we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in human population or the world economy. Just continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in. But human activities are not holding at current levels — they are accelerating, dramatically.

It’s worth mentioning that Speth’s book was published in 2008, which means that the problems he emphasizes have accelerated since he wrote about them. Our ecological situation continues to deteriorate, dramatically. Please note that what Speth emphasizes, and what I’ve written about overfishing, plastics, eutrophication, topsoil, species extinction, water depletion, POPs, nuclear waste, and overpopulation are all related to the climate crisis — because everything is, in 28one way or another — yet none of them can simply be reduced to it. Climate issues are receiving the most attention, and arguably are the most urgent, but they are nonetheless only part of a larger ecological crisis that will not be resolved even if we successfully convert to renewable sources of energy quickly enough to avoid lethal temperature increases and the other climate disruptions that will cause.

There is another dimension to the eco-crisis that needs to be emphasized. I have already alluded to it a few times: the “intersection” of environmental challenges with social justice concerns, especially racism, ethnicity, neocolonialism, gender, and class. The point of intersectionality — a more Buddhist term would be interrelationship, or interdependence — is that the ecological problems I’ve highlighted, and the inequitable and hierarchical structures of most human societies, are not separate issues. It is no coincidence, for example, that African Americans and other disadvantaged people in the United States are much more likely to live near waste dumps and other polluted sites. The lifestyles of the world’s 500 million wealthiest people are responsible for almost half of all global carbon emissions, and some of that wealth is, of course, spent insulating themselves from the consequences of the climate crisis, which less fortunate people are already suffering from.

“Like the sinking of the Titanic, catastrophes are not democratic,” said Henry I. Miller, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “A much higher fraction of passengers from the lower decks were lost. We’ll see the same phenomenon with global warming.” Justin Lin, chief economist at the World Bank, has estimated that 75–80 percent of the damage caused by global warming “will be suffered by developing countries, although they contribute only about one-third of greenhouse gases.” Africa, for example, has been the source of less than 3 percent of global emissions since 1900, yet its 1.3 billion people (as of late 2017) are threatened by some of the biggest risks of water supply disruption, including drought and desertification.

“The inequity of this whole situation is really enormous if you look at who’s responsible and who’s suffering as a result,” according to Rajendra Pachauri, former chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental 29Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet Michael Glantz, who studies climate hazards at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and has called for more research into adaptation to warming, is doubtful that much will be done to help poorer countries: “The third world has been on its own, and I think it pretty much will remain on its own.”

Nonetheless, growing awareness of the relationship between the eco-crisis and social justice is opening up new possibilities. The Standing Rock movement in North Dakota in 2016, which brought together Native American “water protectors” from many different tribes with nonindigenous groups such as war veterans, was an important event in the consolidation of ecological and human rights issues. Rebecca Solnit writes:

What’s happening at Standing Rock feels like a new civil rights movement that takes place at the confluence of environmental and human rights and grows from the last 60 years of lived experience in popular power and changing the world. . . . Many involved in the climate movement see it as a human rights movement or a movement inseparable from human rights. Indigenous people have played a huge role, as the people in many of the places where extracting and transporting fossil fuel take place, as protectors of particular places and ecosystems from rivers to forests, from the Amazon to the Arctic, as people with a strong sense of the past and the future, of the deep time in which short-term profit turns into long-term damage, and of the rights of the collective over individual profit.

Of course, many other social issues should be added here: most obviously, the rapidly growing gap between a small, very wealthy global elite and everyone else, enabled by so-called democratic systems of governance deeply corrupted by a few powerful individuals and institutions. We should not be surprised that at the same time most of the world’s “advanced” nations are experiencing skyrocketing usage 30of antidepressants and other drugs both legal and illegal, an unprecedented epidemic with consequences that are often fatal.

In short, even shifting one’s focus from carbon emissions to the whole ecological crisis is incomplete and one-sided. There is something even greater at stake. One way to make this crucial point is to revisit the iceberg metaphor mentioned earlier. If climate breakdown is the very tip of the iceberg, the rest of the eco-crisis, including the social justice issues just mentioned, is below that tip — but still visible, above the waterline. So what is below the surface? Everything I have discussed so far can be understood as symptomatic of a more fundamental problem: the predicament of a now-global civilization that has lost its way and, despite its amazing technological achievements, seems to be self-destructing.

Thomas Berry has aptly described our condition: “We might summarize our present human situation by the simple statement: in the twentieth century the glory of the human has become the desolation of the earth, and now the desolation of the Earth is becoming the destiny of the human.”

I locate this problem in the deeper, less visible portion of the iceberg, because we are normally unaware that our collective preoccupation with never-ending economic growth and consumerism — which have become in effect the most important goals of modernity, the meaning of our civilization — is incompatible with the finite ecosystems of the earth, of which we are a small part.


From a Buddhist perspective, many things can be said (and will be said later) about why this fixation on growth cannot provide the satisfaction we seek from it. But to understand better the relationship between the visible and the submerged parts of the iceberg — how the eco-crisis is a product of something even more problematic — let’s briefly return to the oceans and look at one particularly revealing example of overfishing: bluefin tuna.


As you may know, Japanese love sashimi (raw fish), and their favorite is bluefin tuna. Unfortunately, overfishing has made bluefin tuna a highly endangered species (though the Japanese government has lobbied hard to avoid making that designation official). The “solution”? The Mitsubishi conglomerate, one of the world’s largest corporate empires, came up with an ingenious response. It has cornered about 40 percent of the world market by obtaining as many bluefin tuna as it can, legally and illegally, despite its worldwide population plummeting toward extinction. Although this stock exceeds present demand, the tuna are imported and frozen at minus 60°C in Mitsubishi’s freezers, for they will soon command astronomical prices if, as forecast, bluefin tuna become commercially extinct — due, of course to continued overfishing by tuna fleets trying to satisfy the insatiable demand, a large part of which is Mitsubishi’s.

Ironically, when the 2011 tsunami struck Japan and destroyed the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, the electricity that supplied some of those freezers failed and thousands of tons of bluefin thawed and were lost. And exposure of illegal “harvesting” and smuggling has caused the reluctant Japanese authorities to impound some of the imports. But those have been only temporary setbacks.

From an ecological standpoint, Mitsubishi’s response to the diminishing supply of bluefin tuna — in effect, aggravating the problem — is immoral, even obscene. From a narrow economic standpoint, however, it’s quite logical, even clever, because the fewer bluefin tuna in the ocean, the more valuable Mitsubishi’s frozen stock becomes. And it is the nature of economic competition that corporations like Mitsubishi are sometimes encouraged or “forced” to do things like that. If they don’t do it, someone else probably will. In fact, Mitsubishi is not the only Japanese corporation freezing bluefin tuna, just the most conspicuous. That’s how “the tragedy of the commons” tends to play out on a global scale.

Why do I emphasize this particular example? Because it points so clearly to the fundamental problem with the relationship between modern civilization and the natural world: the perversity of any 32economic system that devalues the biosphere (which humans are part of, of course) into a means for achieving something else. This problem is not unique to our capitalism, for the same problem existed in the Soviet Union and pre-capitalist China. Nor is it unique to modernity, for many civilizations throughout history (in contrast to some low-population First Nation societies) have exploited their environments to the extent that their technologies allowed. What is unique today is the combination of extraordinarily powerful technologies, unprecedented population growth, and an economic system that needs to keep expanding if it is to avoid collapse.

In our case, the perversity that traps us subordinates the natural world to the goal of profitability. Corporate capitalism has been amazingly creative and, for many of us, a source of considerable freedom and opportunity. Yet it has nonetheless become very problematic. Here and elsewhere in this book, I want to reflect particularly on the relationship between means and ends/goals. Ironically, what is especially interesting about the capitalist version of means-and-ends is that the end that is sought — profitability — is . . . actually only another means.

Profit, of course, means money. Because we use money every day, we think we understand it, but because its usage is integrated so seamlessly into the rest of our lives, we do not usually appreciate the fact that money in itself is worthless. We can’t sleep under the paper bills in our wallets or eat the digital numbers in our bank accounts. At the same time, money is also the most valuable thing of all because it is our medium of exchange. It can be both worthless and the most valuable thing, at the same time, because money is a socially constructed (and legally enforced) symbol — arguably our most important one, for civilization as we know it could not function without it. It’s like water, the “universal solvent” that enables one thing to transform into another. We can use money to acquire almost anything we may desire, which encourages a second function: as a storehouse of value, because we can accumulate (i.e., save) it.

There is something distasteful about loving money itself (rather than the specific things it can buy) because that is attachment to a 33symbol worthless in itself. The anthropologist Weston LaBarre called the “money complex” a psychosis that has been normalized, “an institutionalized dream that everyone is having at once.” But since we unreflectively tend to equate the satisfaction of our desires with happiness, money psychologically, and perhaps inevitably, comes to represent the possibility of happiness. Money transforms into a “pure” means that swallows all ends: “abstract happiness” (as Schopenhauer put it) — therefore those unable to enjoy concrete happiness delight in accumulating it. Money becomes “frozen desire” — not desire for anything in particular, but a symbol for the satisfaction of desire in general. And what did the Buddha say about desire?

Ecologically, the problem is that our institutionalized fixation on profit and moneymaking now overshadows our appreciation of the natural world, which means that we have become obsessed with exploiting and misusing the actual treasure — a flourishing biosphere with healthy forests and topsoil, oceans full of marine life, and so on — in order to maximize numbers in bank accounts. We end up sacrificing everything real for a symbol worthless in itself, exchanging what is most valuable for something that in itself has no value whatsoever. And because of our collective preoccupation with that symbol, many of the things we want to buy with it may no longer be available in the future.

When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money. (Native American saying)

That points to why the whole eco-crisis is actually symptomatic of an even larger emergency, revealing the predicament of a civilization whose foremost obsession is incompatible with Buddhist values. The vicious logic I’ve just outlined implies that sooner or later our collective focus on profitability and endless growth — on ever-increasing production and consumption, which requires ever-more exploitation of “our natural resources” — must inevitably run up against the limits of the planet. “What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model 34demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature” (Naomi Klein). All the world’s economies are wholly owned subsidiaries of the earth’s biosphere, but we still don’t get it.

Many Buddhist teachings are relevant here and will be discussed throughout this book. As a foretaste, there is the traditional emphasis on interdependence and nonduality. Both individually and collectively, we often pursue our own benefit at the cost of others’ well-being in ways that the eco-crisis repudiates, because we’re all in this together, or (better) because we’re all part of each other. A planet carved up into over two hundred little gods (i.e., nations), each beholden to nothing greater than itself, yet bounded by the geographical limits and ambitions of the other gods around it, is always going to be problematic, and from an ecological perspective the nation-state system doesn’t function very well today. When China burns coal, the air pollution produced doesn’t remain only in Chinese skies, nor does radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear disaster stay inside Japanese coastal waters.

The ecological crisis is rubbing our noses into the basic fact we keep trying to ignore: like it or not, in the most important sense we’re all one.


I mentioned earlier that our present relationship to the natural world — exploiting it as a means to other ends — is unique because of our especially powerful technologies, explosive population growth, and the need for our economic system to keep expanding. Another important factor must not be overlooked: we abuse the earth in the ways that we do because the predominant worldview about nature rationalizes that misuse. It is our understanding of what the world is, and who we are, that encourages obsession with economic growth and consumption, whatever the ecological price.

Of course we need to use the natural resources that the world provides in order to survive and thrive — that’s what every other species does too, as well as it can. The ironic problem is that, even though 35we are completely dependent upon the natural world, humans feel separate from it. In believing ourselves to be the special species, we have objectified the world into an external environment that we just happen to be “in.” In contrast, consider the perspective of most indigenous traditions. Many First Nation peoples express gratitude to the animals they catch for allowing themselves to be caught and eaten. According to a Salish legend, for example, salmon intentionally enter the human world to offer their bodies as food. “Salmon are themselves a proud race. They are happy to come ashore each year and give their rich flesh to feed the people, but they must be treated with respect.” (Donna Joe, Salmon Boy) Invariably, a responsibili

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