“The Earth is our home, and our home is on fire.” — His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama*
As we continue to see hope and light at the end of the tunnel of this global coronavirus pandemic, one of the topics that is most on people’s minds is when exactly we can expect to return to some kind of normalcy. However—as numerous scientists, health officials, and spiritual leaders have argued—there should be no return to normal.
Our home is on fire. The vaccines that are saving lives—and will save many more in the months to come—cannot extinguish the underlying fire. They have merely covered it, thankfully, for a moment. What we have experienced this past year has been just a taste of the suffering humankind will experience if we do not change our course of action.
In an interview this month with Derek Muller, host of the YouTube channel “Veritasium,” Bill Gates observed that pandemics are the number one threat to humankind for which we need to better prepare. Gates said that his greatest worries now are climate change and the threat of human-made viruses leading to bioterrorism. When asked how we can prepare for further pandemics, Gates suggests significant investment in field research—teams who can respond rapidly to emerging diseases around the world—and in the research and development of rapid diagnostic tools and vaccine technologies. This work can hopefully help to ensure that the next fire is not as bad as this one, albeit only one small step in what must be a larger societal or species-wide shift.
There can be no return to normal. The path ahead must be a new one, marked by a deep realization of our interconnectedness as a species—as well as with other species and with our planet as a whole—and with drastic changes to our behaviors and habits. If we fail to accomplish this, we will see yet larger fires, larger even than the disastrous bushfires of Australia a year ago and those in the Amazon and California before them. We will see more extreme cold fronts as well, as people in Texas and neighboring states are experiencing this week, underscored by startling photos of ice inside homes as uninsulated water pipes burst and refreeze.
Changing weather patterns like these are a hallmark of the climate crisis that scientists have been predicting for decades. And yet, until now, the vast majority of us have had the privilege of burying our heads in the sand—ignoring the imminent crisis as we enjoy goods and produce shipped from around the world, lavish vacations, large temperature-controlled homes, and easy access to the latest gadgets, computers, cars, and more.
One area in which we can most clearly make changes, small and large, is in travel. Globally, emissions from transportation amount to around 14 per cent of total annual emissions and around 25 per cent of CO2 in particular. Of greater concern is the fact that transportation emissions are on the rise as more of the world reaches levels of affluence to purchase vehicles and to travel internationally.
Traditional capitalist ideals suggest we can purchase, produce, and innovate our way out of the problem. However, as most psychologists and Buddhists today can tell you: there is no end to human desires. Electric cars are good, but they do not solve the underlying problems such as the overreliance on cars that many people have. As long as there is a growing need for cars, there will be more desire and thus more wasteful consumption. We will still need more roads, more parking garages, more mining to keep up with battery demand, and so on. Likewise, innovations in lighter and more efficient aircraft help slightly, but do nothing to solve the underlying craving and consumption that will drive us into the next pandemic or other climate-related disaster if we do not address the rapid rise in long-distance travel.
Six years ago, Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi was a signature on the “Call to Action for US and World Leaders to Proactively Address the Adverse Psychological and Social Impacts of Climate Disruption.” In 2019, he again addressed the problem of climate change before the United Nations in New York City:
The discourses of the Buddha speak of the causal origins of suffering primarily in the framework of the individual quest for liberation. They show how the mental afflictions damage our personal lives and how, as individuals, we can free ourselves from them today. However, as the world has been integrated into a single interdependent global order, we have to examine how this process of causation operates at a collective level, and then based on this investigation we must determine the kind of changes we must make in our societies, political institutions, and global policies to avoid the adversities we face as an international community. We can call this a global application of sati sampajañña, of mindfulness and a clear comprehension of all the dangers we face together today. The most formidable, the most all-embracing, and the most threatening is the one usually called climate change, but which perhaps might be more accurately called climate destabilization or climate disorientation.
While travel to some extent might be essential to a life well-lived, we need to discuss just how much of it we need. Just as protein or even water is essential, too much of either will quickly make us sick. Our planet cannot absorb all of the traveling we are doing today and we are making it ill.
The age of fancy destination retreats must be put behind us as we consider the power of ultra-local retreats and practice. The pandemic has made it clear that we can deliver high-quality teachings over the internet. After the pandemic, we can use our tools of interconnectivity to find like-minded individuals nearby to join for meditation, chanting, study, tea, and discussions.
Our current age is marked with not only growing international travel, but growing distraction and un-ease with our lives as they are. Central to Buddhist practice is letting go of this need to change, manipulate, and control the world. As the Buddha’s own life made apparent, sometimes what must be done is to simply concentrate one’s energy and sit. Sit through the mental aversions which arise. Sit through the desires to be doing something else, somewhere else, perhaps with someone else.
Paradoxically perhaps, it is through this process of simply sitting that we might raise our heads out of the collective sand and see, truly see, our interconnectedness and the need to care more for one another.
* Dunne, John and Daniel Goldman (eds.). 2018. Ecology, Ethics, and Interdependence: The Dalai Lama in Conversation with Leading Thinkers on Climate Change. New York: Wisdom Publications.
I Asked Bill Gates What’s The Next Crisis? (YouTube)
Everything You Need to Know About the Fastest-Growing Source of Global Emissions: Transport (World Resources Institute)
Call to Action for U.S. and World Leaders to Proactively Address the Adverse Psychological and Social Impacts of Climate Disruption (The Resource Innovation Group)
Rethinking travel in a post-pandemic world (Nature)