Ecology, Ethics, and Interdependence reviewed

Books Dalai Lama Eco Action Engaged Buddhism Environmental Issues Ethics

Ecology, Ethics, and Interdependence

The Dalai Lama in Conversation with Leading Thinkers on Climate Change

Edited by John Dunne and Daniel Goleman
Wisdom Publications (October 2018), 344 pages, ISBN: 9781614294948

ecology ethics interdependence sumeru

When I first heard about this book, I was excited to have the opportunity to read and review it. The topic of engaged Buddhism and sustainable development in the face of climate change is of great importance to all of us, and I wanted to know more about what insights, advice and examples might be discovered from His Holiness and the other Buddhist teachers assembled in Dharmsala for the 23rd Mind and Life Conference.

As the book subtitle makes clear, experts from the secular world were also there, giving their own perspectives on the matters at hand, and so I was also happy to see that we Buddhists are open to scientific findings and ways of thinking.

Getting into the book was not easy. As a printed record of conference proceedings, it is presented as a lightly edited collection of conversations, and that proved to require a different type of mindset from a typical scholarly book. However, I found that when I read passages out loud and embraced the conversational style of the speakers, it became a lot easier. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do that for the entire book, once my brain figured out how to read it.

There have been a number of doomsday-type books released in the past two years, describing our imminent civilizational collapse and ecological demise in gleeful detail. Ecology, Ethics, and Interdependence is positioned as a reasoned exploration of the scientific facts (indeed grim), with some explanation of how we got into this mess, the fresh paradigm we must embrace to get us out of it (congruent with Buddhist ideas, naturally), and a few examples of what that looks like in action. The tone is serious but upbeat.

Since I have been an environmentalist since the 1970s and have worked for a number of environmental activism organizations over the years, the ideas presented in the book were not new to me; in fact, I often felt the book was preaching to the choir in some respects, or at least not breaking any new ground in terms of radical approaches.

Once I was well into the book, I found it hard to keep reading for that reason. My mind would wander as I thought to myself: “We don’t need another position paper telling us we have to care for the planet. This is not taking me to the next step.” Perhaps the action part would come later?

So, I started peeking ahead to see what was coming up. What I found was more participants working hard at making sure the brickwork of the foundations of ecology from a Buddhist perspective was being put together as solidly as possible. As it turned out, there were very few examples of actual environmental programs described by the Buddhist teachers there, and certainly none that would be transferrable roadmaps for Buddhist community leaders around the world.

Furthermore, very little reference was made in the book to the many interfaith organizations working on sustainable development initiatives with secular partners. This is an area where Buddhists are sorely lacking; they are members of few such organizations and take a leadership role in even fewer.

In this critical time, it is imperative that every Buddhist teacher and community leader become an activist in environmental issues. Every Buddhist organization needs to articulate their environmental mission statement front-and-center, and they also need to incorporate a fully realized environmental policy into their charter. Beyond that, I would say it is equally important for Buddhist teachers and community leaders to participate in interfaith and secular organizations dedicated to sustainable development, not just as advocates (although I am sure their contributions will be gratefully received) but also as students and colleagues of those other spiritual friends and like-minded individuals. 

In that regard, every contribution is to be valued, and so this book deserves respect. The more we all talk about our near-future ecological prognosis, the more likely we are to come up with a plan to mitigate it. At this point, avoiding it is highly unlikely. Consider, for example, the backlash to Greta Thunberg’s July 2019 address to the French parliament, or Canada’s commitment to oil sands export for the next 40 years by buying the Transmountain Pipeline for $4.5B before it is even approved or a route agreed upon by the many indigenous communities through which it is destined to pass on its way from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia.

I would humbly suggest that those readers who take to heart the message of Ecology, Ethics, and Interdependence would do well to investigate some of the websites of organizations dedicated to degrowth and post-growth agendas. This is the way forward, although I almost never hear that mentioned.

Folks, we have got to take this seriously, and we can’t expect the luminaries to do the heavy lifting for us. This book is a great first step on that journey, but it certainly should not be the last word, and chances are that if you were interested enough to read it, you already know that’s basically what it says. So much is changing, so fast, that a year after its publication, it feels a bit like yesterday’s news.

Given the frequency with which the degradation of our biosphere now makes the evening news, I’d say we all know we’re in a mess. Those in positions of power and privilege, with profits on the line, may deny it. The vast majority of us will feel powerless to stop it. But some of us are holding fast to the Bodhisattva ideal of helping save the planet, or at least being beacons of light in the darkening sky. 

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