The scope of the environmental crisis may leave us feeling overwhelmed and helpless to do anything about it. According to Joanna Macy, it is necessary to let ourselves feel the full impact of grief and anger that may arise. Then, after we have sat with the truth of both the larger global threat and our personal experience of it, we must move into action. We may not be clear, though, on what we can do to support transformation toward an environmentally sustainable culture and how to discern what actions are truly helpful. The Buddha’s teachings on Wise Effort offer guidance on how to navigate these questions and ultimately contribute to the solutions to climate crisis.
Wise Effort is one of the concentration factors of the Eightfold Path. Contrary to the vigorous output of energy we may envision when we hear “effort,” the Buddha was pointing toward the effort we make to transform our own heart-minds toward freedom. This effort rests on four endeavors, which we may also apply to our personal approach to environmental engagement and use to focus our advocacy for broader systemic change.
These endeavors are to:
1. Prevent the arising of unwholesome qualities
2. Abandon already-arisen unwholesome qualities
3. Cultivate wholesome qualities
4. Maintain wholesome qualities
Considered one at a time, we see ways to work toward a sustainable future. For instance, we may need to prevent the arising of thoughts based in our root craving for comfort, aversion to exertion, and fundamental delusion about the extent of our ecological peril. Our minds may try to tell us that we won’t be alive to face the worst of climate destruction so we can use as many resources as we want, or that it’s useless to try to solve the problem. We practice seeing clearly, and then working with releasing the roots of such thinking. On a grander scale, we may take action to prevent potentially harmful endeavors such as a development project planned in our community without adequate environmental impact review, or to advocate against proposed legislation weakening the protection of habitat for endangered animals. These are personal and institutional examples of how we may prevent the arising of the unskillful in regards climate change.
When we find that some of these destructive qualities have already taken root, the Dharma directs us to actively abandon them. We may challenge ourselves directly in our pleasure-seeking, where we habitually consume more than we need as we try to maintain our own comfort and ease, even at the expense of the Earth. This is a courageous effort, to go directly to the heart of where we rest in greed or delusion with the intention to move toward clear-seeing and compassionate action! On a societal level, we may engage with others to challenge entrenched corporate practices that continue the degradation of the climate, for instance demanding that companies clean up their sourcing of raw materials and manufacturing processes. In these ways, we actively seek to abandon unwholesome behaviors already arisen.
In cultivating qualities which are rooted in harmlessness, we begin to feel that we are part of a positive solution rather than just trying to stop things from getting worse. We may seek out additional education to more fully understand the extent of environmental threat, and institute composting and rainwater catchment in our own homes as ways to enact this endeavor. We also cultivate compassion toward those who have been directly affected by climate devastation and forgiveness toward those who do not yet understand the gravity of the challenge and thus continue to wreak damage. More broadly, we may work with organizations that plant gardens to ensure access to fresh, wholesome food for all or engage with our local government to develop a strong recycling program in our neighborhoods. These types of efforts are like planting the seeds from which the fruits of a more sustainable world may grow.
Even now, there are places where we are already aligned with the path of Wise Effort, and we seek to maintain those thoughts, behaviors, and habits that promote ecological sustainability and healing. An example may be the transformation in our own hearts which leads us to a plant-based diet, clearly understanding the environmental benefits that accrue from consuming more plants and fewer living beings. Likewise, when we find ourselves carrying our own water bottle everywhere to refill rather than purchasing bottled beverages whose packaging must later be discarded, we know we are maintaining Wise Effort on a personal level. As a society, too, we must celebrate and continue those aspects of eco-awareness that have taken root, such as commitments in our cities to maintain strong public transportation systems, or use of solar energy to run our public buildings. Reflecting upon and committing to maintain these skillful approaches can also provide an arena for gratitude in the face of our climate challenges.
Wise Effort is an apt lens through which to view the environmental crisis which grips our world. It helps us move from a place of overwhelm and paralysis to a position of engagement that alleviates despair. In full acknowledgement of the depth of our concern, we find the energy to engage on behalf of all beings. When we exert ourselves to move away from the unwholesome and toward the wholesome, on an internal and personal level as well as an external and societal level, we participate with a broader sangha of beings in transforming and healing the world.
Macy, Joanna, and Molly Young Brown. 2014. Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work that Reconnects. Gabriola: New Society Publishers.