A Life Line for the Green Movement?
I’ve been thinking recently about what, for the purposes of this post, we can characterise as “the optimism vs pessimism debate” within the “green movement”. I will sketch the two debaters as the hardcore straw-man optimist, with the view that “every little helps” – our individual actions alone are the inevitable path to salvation – and the straw-man pessimist, with the view that “we’re all doomed” – the problems coming are serious, will wipe out most humans alive today and there is nothing we can really do about them. So, where do you fall on the spectrum between fear and love?
Now of course this spectrum, between a sappy optimism and a nihilistic pessimism, is a false dichotomy (rather like the whole “left vs right” thing is in politics) and an over-simplification of human motivations. Neither position is healthy. We cannot ignore the very serious problems that those alive on the planet today will face in the coming decades, problems that will require organised collective action to tackle, not merely every individual switching to energy saving light bulbs, eating organic food and wearing jumpers more. Nor should we acknowledge the reality of these coming problems only to see them as a cause for abject despair.
This post is intended for those that have acknowledged the reality of the coming problems, have seen in their minds-eye the possibility, perhaps the likelihood, of a great deal of human suffering in the coming decades, and would like an alternative to both “sappy optimism” (which they reject as fake) and “nihilistic pessimism” (which they reject as unhelpful). One book I’ve read recently that was actually helpful in defining such an alternative is Thich Nhat Hanh’s The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology. Being a Buddhist monk, perhaps it is not surprising that he succeeds in identifying a “middle way” between two extreme doctrines! You might call it “realism”.
In a chapter titled “overcoming fear”, Nhat Hanh acknowledges the gravity of the problems we face:
“If the human race continues on its present course, the end of our civilisation is coming sooner than we think. The way we drive our cars, the way we consume, and the way we exploit and destroy the planet’s natural resources are speeding up the end of our civilisation. Global warming may be an early symptom of that death. If we continue consuming in the way we have, the majority of the plant’s human beings may die and our ecosystem will be damaged to such an extent that it will be difficult to support human life as we know it. The world has known many other civilisations before ours and many civilisations have already perished. Everything is impermanent.”
Sappy optimism is off the cards then. So how do we avoid nihilistic pessimism? In a lovely passage from a chapter called “overcoming fear”, he advises us to let in and accept the impermanence of our civilisation:
“A rising wave has a lot of joy. When the wave is falling there is some anxiety about the ending of the wave. Rising always brings about falling. Birth gives rise to death. But if the wave practices meditation and realises she is water, she can collapse and tumble with joy. She may die as a wave, but she will always be alive as water. The teaching of the Buddha helps us to touch our true nature and receive the insight that will dissipate all kinds of fear. It is possible to die smiling, without fear, without anger.”
I first realised this as a scientist. When we die our bodies might rot, our atoms might dissociate, but they do not disappear. One form of being merely becomes another. Parts of your bodies were once, and will again be, parts of an animal, a plant, a rock. We can’t really separate ourselves from the rest of the universe. There are atoms of you and atoms of the room you are in, but it’s all just atoms; taking different temporary forms, continually being interchanged. For example, we shed about a million skin cells every day. You are not the same “you” as you were last year. We really are waves – forms of atoms – persisting a little while before we dissociate, returning to water.
It seems that there is more than one way to realise this. But Nhat Hanh encourages us to go beyond merely intellectual acknowledgments of impermanence:
“Perhaps you agree intellectually that things are impermanent, but in your day to day life, you act as if things are permanent. Impermanence is not a theory or philosophy: it’s a practice. We should practice the concentration on impermanence. Looking at a flower, you see that it is impermanent. Looking at a person, you see that he or she is impermanent. All day long, wherever you look, whatever you hear and see, concentrate on it with the insight of impermanence. It is the concentration on impermanence that will save you, and not the idea of impermanence. With mindfulness we can keep the insight of impermanence alive and that will protect us from producing wrong thinking or wrong speech.”
The point of cultivating such acceptance is not merely to cope however:
“Restoring mental health does not mean simply adjusting oneself to the modern world of rapid economic growth. The world is sick, and adapting to an unwell environment cannot bring real health. Many people who need psychotherapy are really the victims of modern life which separates us from each other and from the rest of the human family.”
This is reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr’s plea for more of us to become “creatively maladjusted” to present social conditions. Or Krishnamurti’s teaching that “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”. Rather, Nhat Hanh argues that it is important to cultivate acceptance so as to be able to take actions to change society; but actions borne out of compassion, not anger:
“To bring about real change in our global ecological situation our efforts must be collective and harmonious, based on love and respect for ourselves and each other, our ancestors, and future generations. If anger at injustice is what we use as the source of our energy, we may do something harmful, something we will later regret. According to Buddhism, compassion is the only source of energy that is useful and safe. With compassion your energy is born from insight; it’s not blind energy. Just feeling compassion is not enough; we have to learn to express it. This is why love must always go together with understanding. Understanding and insight show us how to act.”
I do think this is an important point to take to heart: perhaps if more political activists had “counted to ten”, so to speak, our world would be in better shape today? In today’s sick society, many of us can act like a wild animal caught in a trap: we thrash about, causing ourselves further harm. We aren’t helpful to ourselves, or others caught in similar traps; it would be better to lie still while others work to free us. As the airline safety advice goes: “secure your own mask before assisting others.”
When compassion arising from mindfulness is the basis of our interactions with our fellow human beings, we practice what Nhat Hanh terms Engaged Buddhism; his prescription for the “collective awakening” we require to avert the death of our civilisation. How will our individual actions translate into such a collective awakening? What impact can we really have, as just one person facing such huge problems? Nhat Hanh has the following advice:
A student asked me, “There are so many urgent problems, what should I do?” I said, “Take one thing and do it very deeply and carefully, and you will be doing everything at the same time”.
Can the enlightened individual – for whom society looks like so many lemmings going over a cliff – really make a positive difference? I think Voltaire said it best:
“God is not on the side of the big battalions, but of the best shots.”
With God on our side, we might just win.
My title for this post was both playful and serious. In Donnie Darko the “Life Line” was a Procrustean Bed for the full complexity of human motivations, similar to the “optimist vs pessimist” or “left vs right” spectrum people will often, bizarrely in my view, try to stretch or squash themselves to fit (I found my escape from the “left vs right” spectrum here, by the way). We should reject this “Life Line”. The “Life Line” we should accept is the offering of a practice for seeing the world as it really is and leading us to act out of compassion to change it for the better. This “Life Line” offers us a way to live free of either self-delusion or despair.