The Buddha spoke often of the rarity and preciousness of human life, describing it as rare as a blind or one-eyed turtle. This mystical creature surfaces every century and inserts its neck into a single hole in a wooden yoke that is floating on a vast ocean. The likelihood of this curious set of events happening is less rare than a human rebirth. Centuries later, the Vajrayana tradition built on the Buddha’s idea by developing the meditation on a precious human rebirth using a threefold schema. First, we recognize the eight freedoms and 10 fortunes of a human rebirth. Second, we reflect on the importance, meaning, and purpose of a precious human life. Third, we should employ these thought training practices into meditation so that our minds grow accustomed to this wholesome and sacred outlook.
Reflecting on this precious human life is a powerful motivator to practice. Imagine Buddhism’s urgency and value placed on a single precious human life. Now imagine the totality of humanity, estimated to be 7.75 billion as of 2020—meditation on the preciousness of human life on Earth, the very notion that 7.75 billion individual lives with unique hopes and fears are possible because of this green and blue planet’s ideal natural conditions. This meditation, which is in truth nothing more than a reminder of a profound reality that has always been before us, should be the most urgent spur to action on the climate crisis.
Glasgow is currently hosting COP26 (26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties), which is touted as a crucial juncture for contemporary humanity’s well-being and survival on planet Earth. “We are in roughly the same position, my fellow global leaders, as James Bond today,” British prime minister Boris Johnson said, referencing how the fictional hero must always disable a doomsday device. But, as we know, the climate crisis is not a day out at the cinema: “The tragedy is this is not a movie, and the doomsday device is real.” (The New York Times)
Earth, even if uninhabitable, will continue to orbit the Sun without humanity, as it has done for 4.5 billion years. Homo sapiens, having barely enjoyed 5,000 years of true civilization, will not be fine without a habitable planet. The planet is not only more resilient but will respond to further environmental degradation with natural disasters that could dwarf COVID-19 and destroy humanity even before our present path renders Earth unlivable for ourselves. As James Lovelock, who first put forward the “Gaia theory” to explain that our planet is a self-regulating organism, notes: “We are entering into a heat age in which the temperature and sea levels will be rising decade by decade until the world becomes unrecognizable. We could also be in for more surprises. Nature is non-linear and unpredictable, never more than at a time of transition.” (The Guardian) We have no other planets to inhabit, despite the grand proclamations of Bezos, Musk, and others. Mars is not a feasible alternative, even for the few billionaires who can theoretically afford to escape Earth, and we have little hope of accomplishing space travel if we cannot overcome the climate crisis as a species.
Therefore, the best shot humanity has is salvaging its position on this planet. As the cliché goes, in crisis there is opportunity, and this is how the coming few days should be seen. The metaphor of James Bond in mortal peril, unfortunately, obscures the fact that “villainy”—participating in climate change—and “heroism”—trying to mitigate it—are not so clear cut in our non-fictional world. There are other temptations to simplify the narrative about the causes climate change, which can obscure the politically inconvenient action points that are nevertheless necessary. For example, while we all play a role in climate change and can do our part to consume responsibly by going vegetarian or vegan, and recycling diligently, some parties should shoulder the blame more than others. According to the Carbon Majors Database in 2017, “Over half of global industrial emissions since human-induced climate change was officially recognized can be traced to just 25 corporate and state producing entities.” (The Carbon Majors Database) The private sector, in all its diversity and complexity, must be part of the solution. In his speech at COP26, Britain’s Prince Charles laid out a plan that would secure the private sector, emphasizing the need to unite world governments, businesses, and non-profits to the common cause of tackling the climate crisis. “We need a vast military-style campaign to marshal the strength of the global private sector. With trillions at its disposal.” (Sky News) Finally, it is well-known that not all countries are equal in polluting. The United States and China are the two largest polluters, and the Global South rightly expects the Global North to bear a greater burden in emissions cuts and renewable energy development.
The planet’s ability to sustain human life should be, to us human beings, the most precious and important thing of all. COP26 is a unique opportunity to take stock of the fact that human civilization, for all its accomplishments, is fragile. We only need to recall how in the past two years a microscopic virus has brought whole countries, and the global supply chain and economy to its knees. We are reminded that what nature gives, nature can take away. The fact that we have reshaped the world through agriculture, urbanization, laws, nation-states, culture, and art can lull us into complacency about our place in the universe. All of this is delicate and can easily be lost.
Every human life—and non-human sentient life—is precious. The totality of the human presence on Earth, as even the most powerful and influential world leaders acknowledge, is brittle and by no means a certainty. The almost Sun Zi-like allusions to “war” and “marshalling” are actually fitting, not simply in relation to the sheer urgency and gravity of the situation, but also to the idea that generals and strategists are always on the lookout for an opening or a chance and turn a crisis into their advantage. The window of opportunity is narrow, but humanity has little choice but to respond as an embattled community does to an inevitable, fate-deciding battle.
Precious human rebirth (Thubten Chodron)
Leaders Warn of Climate ‘Doomsday’ as Old Rifts Divide Summit’s First Day (The New York Times)
COP26: Prince Charles to tell world leaders they need to be on ‘a war-like footing’ to tackle climate crisis (Sky News)
Beware: Gaia may destroy humans before we destroy the Earth (The Guardian)
CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017 (The Carbon Majors Database)