Some 30 years ago, wildlife biologist E. O. Wilson wrote in his book The Diversity of Life (Harvard University Press, 1992) that humanity was systematically destroying the bounty of biodiversity into which we have emerged as a species. He noted that 600 million years of growth was suddenly being reversed as humans cut down, burned, paved, trampled, and poisoned countless ecosystems.
That same year, scientists warned of an “irreversible loss of species” occurring around us. And in 2017, scientists again offered a “second notice,” this one clearer than ever: “We have unleashed a mass extinction event.” (The New Statesman)
Every one of us today participates in this mass extinction event. Some simply by trying to survive, others by actively choosing which section of rainforest will be the next to be destroyed.
The Guardian newspaper warned this month: “Earth’s wildlife populations have plunged by an average of 69 per cent in just under 50 years, according to a leading scientific assessment, as humans continue to clear forests, consume beyond the limits of the planet, and pollute on an industrial scale.”
Experts agree that this mass extinction event, labeled as the sixth such event, is caused almost entirely by human activity. Not since the time of the dinosaurs, who died off 65 million years ago, has life on Earth disappeared so precipitously.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of humans on the planet remain unaware of this mass extinction and the causes behind it. Tanya Steele, chief executive at the World Wildlife Fund of the United Kingdom (WWF-UK) lamented: “Despite the science, the catastrophic projections, the impassioned speeches and promises, the burning forests, submerged countries, record temperatures and displaced millions, world leaders continue to sit back and watch our world burn in front of our eyes.” (The Guardian)
Steel continued: “The climate and nature crises, their fates entwined, are not some faraway threat our grandchildren will solve with still-to-be-discovered technology.” (The Guardian)
Despite this threat, which many call “existential” in scope, we are preoccupied with myriad concerns, from getting our children into the best daycare or university, to the rise and fall of gasoline prices, not to mention global calamities such as the Russia-Ukraine war, disastrous droughts across Africa, and political instability in several countries in South and Central America, spurring waves of refugees streaming northward.
With so many pressing issues, we are often numb to news that the climate change we are causing is making virtually all of these crises worse. Scientists even tell us that the COVID-19 pandemic was, in part, started due to climate change. Further, they say that “pandemics will be more frequent in the future and more severely impactful, unless climate changes are mitigated.” (Frontiers in Medicine)
We might say that the pandemic has invited us to marvel at how extensively interconnected we are with the planet and all living creatures. Will we though? Will we pause from our busy lives and consider the damage that our activities as a species are causing to the world? As Buddhists, this pause should come almost naturally. Whether we meditate, chant, or simply bow observantly before an altar, Buddhism in its various forms invites us to pause regularly and deeply.
This pause allows space for the world’s troubles and suffering to settle in our hearts. We may not have taken the bodhisattva vows or chanted the metta sutta with heartfelt earnestness, but it’s quite likely that we know of them and the great aspirations contained within each. We realize that our actions today have consequences, for ourselves and for the world around us, and we see more and more that mitigating and reversing our climate impacts must be part of our decision processes.
Robin Freeman, head of the indicators and assessments unit at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), has said that humanity is clearly eroding the very foundations of life on Earth and that urgent action is needed. “In order to see any bending of the curve of biodiversity loss . . . it’s not just about conservation it’s about changing production and consumption—and the only way that we are going to be able to legislate or call for that is to have these clear measurable targets that ask for recovery of abundance, reduction of extinction risk and the ceasing of extinctions at Cop15 in December.” (The Guardian)
Cop15 (15th Conference of the Parties) is a meeting organized by the United Nations that will be held in Montreal from 7 December. There, leaders from around the world will discuss biodiversity goals. The conference meets just after the better known Cop27, which will focus on climate and take place in Egypt. As of yet, zero goals from past biodiversity conferences have been met.
For its part, the WWF offers several areas of action needed to curb human impacts on biodiversity.
The first is to increase efforts to meet agreed carbon emission limits as set in the Paris Agreement in 2016. That agreement is aimed at reducing global emissions, with wealthier nations leading the way, in order to limit global warming to 1.5º Celsius—a point at which scientists believe the most devastating climate changes will manifest.
The second thing we can work on, according to the WWF, is to support efforts like USA’s 30×30 plan to set aside 30 per cent of US lands and waters by 2030 for conservation. Britain, Costa Rica, and France are already leading this effort. Other countries, including Bhutan, Botswana, and Norway, are innovating with their own conservation projects. Every country can contribute in its own way, from the development of green steelmaking in Sweden, to water conservation and reuse in Singapore.
Another area for change is in grassroots actions. Here, you can be creative. Many sanghas are reassessing their environmental footprint and seeking ways to support climate solutions in their communities. One Earth Sangha, co-founded and directed by Kristin Barker,* serves as an important global hub for Buddhists everywhere who are seeking to bring their Buddhist practice to the climate movement. Extinction Rebellion Buddhists, of whom BDG columnist Satya Robyn is an active member, also provide frontline efforts and support for willing activists. The options are, like the sands of the Ganges river, virtually limitless.
Another avenue, perhaps ideal for young people entering the workforce, is to seek out climate-related employment. Seeing the need to be part of the solution—and perhaps reckoning with their own collective karma—many companies are creating offices and positions dedicated to supporting nature and biodiversity. The roles range from logging to agriculture as well as in businesses that focus on chemical manufacturing, consumer products, tech, and more.
The new Swedish electric vehicle company Polestar, for instance, places sustainability at the center of its mission. They pledge a climate-neutral car by 2030, meaning that every step of the manufacturing process is either powered by renewables or mitigated through carbon offsets. They are investing in better batteries, and pledge to audit the full life of their cars. And they are working to ensure that all of the materials that go into their cars are ethically sourced and produced.
There is always concern that this and similar movements by businesses—and governments—are mere “greenwashing,” but that is yet to be seen. It is up to us, as citizens, consumers, and agents in our society, to hold those in power accountable even as we work to minimize our own destructive footprints.
Meanwhile, we might take spiritual comfort in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, who advised us that even if we do go down the road of a sixth mass extinction, we must still breathe in and breathe out:
We have to learn to touch eternity with our in breath and out breath. Extinction of species has happened several times. Mass extinction has already happened five times and this one is the sixth. According to the Buddhist tradition there is no birth and no death. After extinction things will reappear in other forms, so you have to breathe very deeply in order to acknowledge the fact that we humans may disappear in just 100 years on Earth.(Plum Village)
* “Touch the Earth The Power of Local Community Based Action” by Kristin Barker, for BDG’s 2022 Buddhist Voices in the Climate Crisis Conference (YouTube)
On the eradication of species (The New Statesman)
The Sixth Mass Extinction: fact, fiction or speculation? (Wiley Online Library)
Did Climate Change Influence the Emergence, Transmission, and Expression of the COVID-19 Pandemic? (Frontiers in Medicine)
There’s a Global Plan to Conserve Nature. Indigenous People Could Lead the Way. (The New York Times)
Your next corporate job: Protecting biodiversity (Green Biz)
In 100 years there may be no more humans on planet Earth (Part 1) (Plum Village)
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