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A New Buddhist Ethics

 Copyright Robert Ellis 2008. Also available as a paperback book or pdf download.

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Chapter 5: Environmental issues

Attitudes to “Nature”

Like all the other moral issues discussed so far, environmental issues affect us constantly in our everyday lives, not just on certain occasions. For the “environment” in its broadest sense, consists of all the conditions in which we live. Our whole existence depends completely on those conditions, and we ignore them at our peril. The Middle Way also fundamentally requires us to address conditions around us as well as within us, so that to suggest that Buddhists could ignore environmental issues would involve the strangest of narrow assumptions. We cannot ignore the environment that supports our bodies any more than, when meditating, we can ignore our bodies and simply dwell in our minds. The environment constantly affects our bodies just as the body affects the mind.


The key metaphysical idea which tends to affect our attitudes to the environment is that of “nature”. For some reason we traditionally tend to see the world beyond human beings as acting in a coherent, orderly, even intelligent way that we label “natural”. This type of belief has taken many forms, from the Natural Law first promoted by the Stoics, the Christian version in which Nature is designed by God and is a reflection of his glory, through to modern versions such as the Gaia Hypothesis, where the world is likened to a single organism, and Deep Ecology, which accords the natural world an inherent dignity.


All of these are dogmatic metaphysical constructions which have no relationship to the Middle Way, for all of them involve constructing an idea of “Nature” which is in fact in our image, whether that is to say that it was made for us or to say that it is other than us. Whenever we start relating to an idea of “nature” rather than simply to a set of specific conditions, there is a constant temptation to over-generalise and to apply our idea of “nature” dogmatically. If there is a cycle of predation whereby different species live on each other and support each other in a stable mutual dependency, this is not due to a “Balance of Nature”, for we have not seen the whole of nature, only this particular stable mutual dependency. If traditionally we have been able to live so far by consuming both animals and plants, it does not make it “natural” to eat both rather than just one or the other, nor does it indicate that things were designed to be that way by God. If foxes eat rabbits, this is not because “Nature is red in tooth and claw”, it just means that foxes eat rabbits, and perhaps that we are mildly shocked by observing violence between animals which is beyond our personal experience. Similarly, if we see a mountain at sunset and find the sight majestic, this does not mean that the mountain has some sort of “natural” personality enabling it to have personal majesty, only that we are awestruck by the particular experience we encounter when mountain, light, and our receptive observation come together.


Belief in “Nature” can provide support for unreflective exploitation of resources on the one hand, or sentimental attachment to them on the other. For many centuries the dominant Western attitude to the environment has involved the assumption that “Nature” has infinite resources and can be exploited indefinitely. This had a tendency to prevent people examining the effects of their actions on the environment, blithely unaware that resources like metal ores, oil and coal are finite and non-renewable and others like timber, fish and soil still finite and fragile even though renewable. Pollution of all types was also blithely assumed to be simply absorbed by Nature. The idea of Nature as a Mother perhaps reveals the psychological tendency behind this: when immature we simply assume that mother will always provide for us, will always be there to help, and can lovingly absorb whatever tantrums we throw at her. But Nature is not a Mother. Nature does not even exist.


On the other hand, the idea of “Nature” is a rallying point for many environmentalists who feel that Nature needs to be defended against a human onslaught. Yet we are in no position to defend Nature in general, only some tiny part of it. Unfortunately the part we want to defend tends to be a part we are already sentimentally or aesthetically attached to, and “Nature” becomes the basis of mere conservatism, resisting change even when this would have positive effects. For one example, many people believe that it is “natural” for the uplands of Northern England, Wales and Scotland to be mainly sheep pasture, despite the fact that this is an entirely human-made landscape created after the destruction of earlier forest, and that sheep farming is only made economically possible by huge subsidies. These areas are highly suited to the erection of wind turbines, which could generate useful electricity without pollution or resource loss, yet huge campaigns are under way in many of these areas to prevent turbines being erected because of attachment to this landscape, where a narrower conception of what is “natural” takes precedence over the bigger picture.


As a starting point for the resolution of problems in environmental ethics using the Middle Way, then, I propose that we begin by entirely expunging the terms “Nature” and even “natural” from our thinking, certainly not using them in any way as a source of value. When we are tempted to talk of “nature” we should simply ask ourselves what we really mean and put things in more precise terms. For environmental issues are just that: a whole series of (very serious and interconnected) issues, which we should look at one by one by examining the specific conditions at work as much as we can, not by making sweeping judgements either for or against “nature”.


Buddhism particularly helps to highlight that there are psychological conditions at work here as well as physical, chemical, biological, geographical, sociological and political ones, and we need to address these just as much. There is no value in simply stating that we “ought” to recycle, stop polluting etc if our ego-identifications are wholly set against doing so, for we need to work with adapting these as well as the physical conditions. Nor, given the limited scope and influence of law in a modern democratic society, can we simply claim that political action to save the environment is needed without taking responsibility for our personal role.


In the remainder of this chapter, I will be looking at a number of areas of life in which environmental issues arise, and suggesting a general approach for their resolution given the Middle Way. As always this will not allow absolutely complete answers in particular cases, and solutions to specific environmental problems often depend on detailed scientific knowledge which is far beyond the scope of this book. However, in a general book about ethics like this it is possible to sketch out the likely course of a justifiable moral balance in relation to the environment as in other areas.


Farming and food


Human beings need food, and a large proportion of that food depends on farming. Although fishing still provides a major alternative source of food, this is nearly always supplementary to farmed food, and hunting and foraging for wild plants now provide only a tiny proportion of the food eaten by the world’s population. So, we are enormously dependent on the world’s farmers, and their task is perhaps the most important one in human society.


However, farmers are directly in contact with some of the environmental conditions on which we most rely. Any kind of crop needs varying quantities of sunlight, water and fertile soil, and in the absence of sufficient of these three things farming is unsustainable. Crops are also vulnerable to competition from other plants (weeds), consumption by insects and larger animals, being spoilt by adverse weather, disease or fungi, or poisoned by human chemicals. Even when farmers have overcome these obstacles (as they often do) through care and ingenuity, they can still find that the market for their crops is insufficient to make them economically viable. Although we still grow enough to feed the world’s population at present (despite localised famines in some developing countries), our doing so depends on all these fragile conditions continuing to operate.


Our agriculture is seriously threatened in the long term by a combination of many changing conditions: limited soil fertility, widespread soil erosion (often associated with deforestation), salinisation, desertification, droughts, too much human demand for water, new influxes of weeds and pests which have spread around the world, diseases threatening vital pollinating insects such as bees, extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes and floods, unpredictable changes in consumer demand, public reaction against poisoning of crops and water by herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers, and dependency on government subsidies which may be withdrawn. Farmers that keep animals also have further problems of animal diseases, the effects of widespread over-grazing on pasture, and the moral backlash against the cruelties of modern animal farming in some sectors of the population (there will be more discussion of this in the next chapter, which focuses on animals).


Added to all these problems is the major issue of land use. The more land that is used for other human purposes, or made unusable for agriculture by changes of the kind mentioned above, the more pressure there will be on remaining agricultural land, increasing the likelihood of it, too, being degraded by unsustainable use. Increasing population adds to the pressure, as does increasing consumption of meat and dairy products in the world, for animal husbandry takes up huge amounts more land than crop-growing (in the case of grain-fed cattle for example, about ten times more land is required to produce the same amount of human food, because of the amount fed to the cattle).  


To farm successfully in the long-term means addressing a whole host of conditions. Notonly do farmers have to make a living from the land whilst maintaining all the positive conditions for growth that their crops or animals need and fending off negative conditions, but they also need to do so sustainably whilst not reducing the long-term fertility of the land or harming other conditions important to creatures on the earth. If we add to this some consideration of the sustainability of the task for the farmer, including his or her psychological health in a job involving many pressures, insecurity and often very long hours of work, we get an extremely demanding profession.


So, should a Buddhist be a farmer? Unquestionably yes, for farming is a right livelihood on which the rest of human society absolutely depends. To earn that livelihood, the farmer certainly has to protect his/her crop, which certainly means some destruction, of plants if not of animals. Traditional Buddhist objections to this seem to be based on considerations of purity rather than on Middle Way ethics, for far from recognising the conditions at work in the growing of food to support human society, they create an irresolvable conflict with those conditions by (at least theoretically) requiring absolute non-violence. Farmers need to exercise skill, balance and wisdom in their use of violence, but even arable farming is impossible without some violence against living organisms. Buddhist farmers should not store any residual or even theoretical guilt about this.


However, to be a farmer whilst extending ego-identification beyond the mere immediate earning of a livelihood demands that a Buddhist farmer also address sustainability issues. Crop growing needs to be held in balance with other uses of land which enable a sustainable climate and supports wildlife (such as pollinating and pest-eating insects) on which farming depends, so the further destruction of forests, hedges and other wildlife habitats for the sake of short-term efficiency is unlikely to be supported by the Middle Way. It also seems safe to suggest that a Buddhist farmer should farm organically, since organic farming is indefinitely sustainable and avoids unnecessary pollution and resource-wastage in the wider environment.


Why should a farmer do these things, when the job is difficult enough already? The strongest answer is that in broadening his/her identifications from mere present needs into the future, the farmer will develop and grow in character. Addressing the future in some ways makes it easier to address it in others: for example, organic production makes it much more likely that the farm will be fit to pass on to the farmer’s children. Openness to the environment creates awareness and enjoyment of it which is its own reward, in contrast to the closed mind of the farmer who only looks at his/her land in short-term economic terms.


This kind of openness to the wider environment and future human welfare might also require a farmer to think much more radically about the best use of his/her land than is customary. For example, should it be in agricultural production at all? Would it be better used for forestry or recreation? Tradition in a particular area dictates that land is used in a particular way, for example, sheep grazing in upland areas: but the best use of that land might involve a complex mixture of forestry, crops, orchards and recreation according to the exact nature of the land. Bio-fuels and wind turbines might offer other new possibilities for profitable and sustainable use of the land. This alternative use might actually increase sustainable human food production by making more effective long-term use of the land and supporting agriculture elsewhere, e.g. pasture turned into forest is helping to prevent deforestation and preserve water supplies needed in other areas, instead of requiring grain to be grown elsewhere to provide supplementary feed to animals.


So, the key moral requirement for farmers following the Middle Way seems to be an open consideration of the complex environmental factors at work, rather than being under the power of convention and habit in farming practices. Naturally an appreciation of wider environmental conditions also needs to be balanced with the immediate needs of earning a livelihood, but in the longer-term livelihood and wider concerns are likely to be much more in harmony.


Any farmer who takes on a farm will do so in specific concrete circumstances which then need to be worked with. Adaptation from inappropriate and short-termist farming practices to long-termist ones may take a long time, so one cannot be too closely prescriptive about what the farm of a Buddhist farmer should be like. However, one would certainly expect that from whatever starting point, it would be moving towards more organic forms of crop-growing, phasing out animal husbandry (which will be discussed more in the next chapter) and diversifying habitats. In some conditions, especially where heavy government subsidies work against these tendencies, there may be strong contrary conditions and it may take a very long time to make progress in these directions, but one would expect some progress to be being made.


As for the rest of us, we have a strong responsibility to support farmers in these moves by increasing demand for food which is produced in a sustainable way and decreasing demand for unsustainably-produced food. Without this support, farmers will struggle in vain to earn a livelihood whilst changing to more sustainable production. Since it is farming which actually has an impact on the land and hence the condition of our environment, it is the impact of our food choices on farmers which are important rather than their purity.


The key decisions we can make here will be familiar to many: we can buy locally-produced food to avoid the huge expenditure of resources in transporting food huge distances, we can buy organic food which encourages organic production, and we can buy plant produce to avoid the destructive environmental effects and massive direct and indirect land use involved in animal husbandry. In opening up our sensitivity to all these conditions we help to broaden ego-identification, but if we become attached to an ideal of purity in relation to any of them it can begin to close down again. Such purity is in any case difficult to achieve in today’s complex food markets. We nearly always have to trade off different factors in deciding what food to buy, since some of the available organic food may have been imported some distance, or some of the food available as an alternative to animal produce may not be organic. To take a simple example, vegetarians and vegans often consume large amounts of soya products, but soya cannot currently be produced economically in the UK and thus is always imported. Given the huge advantages of soya as a flexible, nutritious, and sustainable food source, perhaps it is worth making that trade-off for UK vegetarians.


However, the reasons why demand for organic, locally-produced and vegetarian food is now growing rapidly throughout the Western world often has little to do with the environmental reasons I have outlined. Many people buy such food either because of beliefs about its health benefits or for aesthetic reasons: fresh, local, organic food tastes better. Whilst there is nothing intrinsically bad about either of these motivations, they are less likely to involve us in widening ego-identification than the environmental benefits. It is quite possible to start with either of these motivations and to widen them into environmental concern - a process which should be encouraged - but to stay with them alone can lead to a hardening of identification and to a culture of exclusivity. Rich gourmets who enjoy organic food, for example, might not be too concerned that the price of it goes down enough to allow others to buy it, and might even continue to support industrial agriculture to keep the masses happy.


Improving our food-buying habits also involves trading environmental concerns with convenience. The use of supermarkets, which are very convenient for consumers but exert huge economic pressures on farmers, is a highly debatable issue: should we be encouraging supermarkets to stock the right products or boycotting them entirely? Similarly, the use of packaged convenience foods which save time but create rubbish can be debated. If you suddenly decide to do all your shopping by bicycle or on foot, only use small shops, and only buy fresh whole food, as well as only buying organic, vegetarian or vegan, and locally-produced food, you may find that not all of these moral desirables can be put together in your neighbourhood, at least not without considerable expense and inconvenience. Again, it is more important to maintain some moral awareness in all these areas and to take opportunities to make progress in them than to achieve purity.         


So, overall, environmental sustainability needs to be an important factor in the choices we make in relation to food, whether in relation to producing it or to consuming it. The Middle Way suggests that we should give the wider addressing of conditions involved in addressing the environmental impact of food production higher priority than narrower concerns such as those of health or taste, though there is rarely any conflict between these concerns. The Middle Way also suggests that it is maintaining awareness of a wide range of ways we can improve our food ethics, and maintaining a balance between them, rather than aiming for purity in one respect or another, which aids progress in addressing conditions.



Mining, minerals and fossil fuels


Digging things out of the ground is an important condition for our civilisation. We extract oil, coal, gas, metal ores, gems, stone and clay for a variety of purposes. Any rapid survey of a typical room in the developed world will probably yield a huge range of mineral sources for objects: for example, the computer I am writing on is made from a variety of metal ores, plastics made from oil, and glass made from sand, whilst the electricity which powers it is probably derived from burning coal or gas in a power station. Meanwhile, the house I am sitting in is built of brick, which is made from clay, again extracted from the earth.


What any of these mineral materials have in common is the fact that they are finite and non-renewable (or at least, they take millions of years to be renewed). Once the available minerals of that type in the earth have run out, we will be unable to use this resource any longer. The only possible alternatives, of mining minerals in outer space or of somehow technologically speeding up the process of mineral formation, seem rather impractical and certainly not to be relied upon as alternatives.


This fact simply places a constraint on our use of minerals, creating yet another of the many environmental conditions that we need to take account of in our lives. The fact that resources are, practically speaking, irreplaceable, does not make using them intrinsically wrong, but it can give us a reason for being cautious. An analogy might be that of spending capital. If you have a substantial legacy from a relative that you then spend (especially if you spend it wisely), the money is then gone and can no longer be used for other purposes. There are great advantages to investing it rather than either simply spending it all or leaving it safely stored (see the earlier section on investment). As I argued previously, investment is not necessarily for narrow egoistic ends, but may well serve the Middle Way by using resources to provide greater benefit in the future. Whilst we could think of using resources as taking them away from future generations, if our use of resources has the quality of investment at the same time we are also benefiting future generations through our positive achievements.


Similarly, we can think of mineral resources as a finite benefit to be invested for the future. This means that turning it into useful things like houses and computers may well be justified, but wasting it by then throwing away the materials out of which these products are made (see later section on waste and recycling) is less likely to be. If we have doubts about the justification of this, it may help to apply a Kantian test. Would we have wanted previous generations to use up resources in the way we are doing? Probably the answer is, when these resources are being wasted, no, but when they are being invested, yes. Do we really begrudge our ancestors the resources they needed to build up scientific research, medicine, and education in ways we now benefit from?


Perhaps there is a bigger problem when resources are scarce or in danger of running out altogether. In the case of wildlife species, plant species or trees, for example, the extinction of the resource prevents it renewing itself and permanently reduces diversity. Minerals are non-renewable, but unlike living things they are also fully recyclable. If we run out of silver that we can extract from the ground, there will still be plenty of existing silver objects. Slightly different considerations apply to fossil fuels here. When we have burned up all the oil in the ground, we will not be able to recycle the oil out of the dispersed energy and carbon dioxide we have turned it into, but we can still argue that the use of oil may have helped us reach the technological point where we can use renewable energies instead.


However, so far I have been discussing only the problem of minerals being used up as a finite resource. There is one other major problem connected with the use of minerals, however, which is pollution. There is now widespread awareness of the problem of air pollution created by the burning of fossil fuels, and of the gathering evidence for the role of increased carbon dioxide levels from fossil fuels in global warming. Added to this, however, we can consider the pollution created by the extraction of minerals. Huge amounts of other material are dug up together with the mineral required, and often the side effect of the extraction of the desired mineral is toxic chemicals which pollute groundwater. Tighter regulation of mining might reduce this in many cases, but tight regulation makes mining less economic, so some degree of water pollution from mining is very difficult to avoid.


Pollution is one of the biggest challenges to the narrowness of our egoistic identifications, for pollution generally consists in a great many minor actions, each harmless in themselves, contributing to an overall harmful effect. If I simply weigh up the effects of actions that cause pollution as a small side-effect, taking them in isolation, it does not seem worth changing my actions. Why should I give up using a steel knife and fork because of its minuscule contribution to supporting iron mining, with water-pollution as a side-effect? Similarly, why should I give up driving to work because of its minute contribution to global warming? In each case, however, I need to give up seeing my action in isolation or according to a conceptual scheme which only considers the effect of my action apart from the effects of others’.


When we look more closely even at the effects of our own actions, they are not as sealed off as we may have initially thought. Whatever I do influences my total context. If I do something eccentric others may not imitate me immediately, but it brings alternative ways of behaving to the attention of others. I may think of “myself” as distinguishable now, but I shall change in the future, though my habits may continue to influence the future being that bears my name. So I am responsible not just for the actions of this moment, but for the way I influence my future self and others in the present and the future. Not only that, but my future selves and others in the future may in their turn influence others.


Considering the ethics of pollution, in effect, provides a clear application for the Buddhist teaching of no-self or anatta, pointing out the limitations of the conception of myself on which my ideas of the acceptability of polluting behaviour depend. To extend my ego-identifications I need to look beyond this conception and try to re-conceive my polluting behaviour as part of a wider context in which I am still intimately concerned.


What does this mean in practice? Probably not that I totally give up using objects made of minerals, or the use of fossil fuels. As with other issues, there are also a great many social, psychological, and economic conditions to deal with. However, ceasing to make excuses as to the limitations of “our own” contribution is a good start in increasing our awareness of the environmental conditions. Ceasing to make excuses may be the key to gradually and deliberately changing our polluting habits.


I cannot refrain from using a knife and fork in a Western country without turning myself into the kind of social being that no longer needs to use a knife and fork. This being is a long way down a line of gradual and sustainable change, beginning perhaps with not unnecessarily buying new knives and forks. Similarly, avoiding the use of fossil fuels involves a number of practical issues which I shall be considering in more detail in the later sections on industry and transport. The general principles, however, will be those of sustainable change, avoiding excuses for conventional behaviour based on unnecessarily fixed concepts, as well as premature attempts at complete purification from the use of minerals or fossil fuels where their use also has some good effects in the shorter term. In any case, I would argue from the discussion above that it is generally the pollution generated in the use of these mineral resources that is much more problematic than the resource use, and we should feel more comfortable about the use of minerals where they are clearly being used effectively for good long-term ends and we can demonstrate that the resulting pollution is non-existent or minimal.


I have argued solely in terms of those who use mineral resources above, but the question of livelihood also needs to be considered here. Should a Buddhist be involved in mining, the oil business, or any kind of mineral processing that is dependent on mining? These activities seem neither more nor less blameworthy than the use of minerals themselves. We should not prematurely leap to a position where we continue to use minerals but blame those who extract them for us. As a useful service to society, it might broadly be considered that these kinds of activities are right livelihood, but that those involved in mining should not try to artificially stimulate demand for their products when it is falling, especially when they are contributing substantially to pollution. A Buddhist involved in mineral extraction might make full moral use of that situation if they contribute to the minimisation of resulting pollution and to concern about such pollution in the industry.  



Forestry and timber


In contrast to minerals, timber is a resource that is renewable within a few decades. Harvested sustainably, there is no reason why trees should not continue to supply us with timber and paper. Even wood used for burning, though it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, if replaced with new trees soaks us the carbon dioxide that has been released.


The difficulties with forests arise from unsustainable exploitation, for example through the clear-felling of forests without replacement, for short-term economic gain either from timber or from agricultural use of the cleared ground (which in tropical regions often does not maintain fertility for long). Most current deforestation occurs in tropical regions, although we could also consider past forest loss in temperate countries like the UK. Such deforestation can be very harmful both globally and locally, leading to global warming, drought, soil erosion and desertification.


If we are to take account of these conditions, this again involves some extending of our ego-identifications. By using unsustainable timber products or working for a company that produces them, we are locking our ego-identification into the short term, failing to identify ourselves with the longer-term effects of deforestation. “I” and the effects of my actions are not limited to the short-term, as I have argued above in relation to minerals. Third world farmers suffering drought and soil erosion are related to me, and myself in future, or other future people, who will suffer from the effects of global warming are also not separate from me. It does not require a mystical insight to appreciate this, just an examination of our current assumptions.


In acknowledging the moral importance of the issue, no huge or sudden sacrifices are demanded from most us in relation to our use of timber products, only moderation and awareness of our consumption. We can avoid buying furniture or other wood products made from tropical hardwoods, which are more likely to be produced unsustainably, we can use recycled paper and tissues to help reduce the demand for timber from paper-mills, and we can try to ensure that all wood products we buy are made from sustainably-managed forests, by only buying timber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). All of this involves a slightly more aware channelling of our habits of consumption, but not a major renunciation. Once again, we must not underestimate the effects of individual action pursued in this way, as our actions always take place within a social context in which others are influenced and awareness is raised.


For those working in the forest, timber, furniture or paper industries, very similar points are likely to apply. The work provides necessary and useful goods for the public and therefore could be seen as a right livelihood, provided the goods are sustainably sourced. However, those directly or indirectly supporting the clear-felling of tropical rainforest are supporting what is increasingly recognised to be one of the greatest evils on the planet. Many companies in the industry may make moral claims which are ambiguous or not easily certifiable, which is why the clear chains of certification offered by the Forest Stewardship Council (an international body) need to be encouraged. As always, progress has to be gradual, and a Buddhist who worked for a less ethical company and helped to steer it towards FSC certification would probably be acting in a morally praiseworthy way, but in this area the adjustments required to reach a sustainable industry are not as great as in many other areas of environmental concern.




Central to the maintenance of the modern technologically-advanced and capitalist world is the efficient, high-volume manufacture of goods in factories. Such manufacturing uses vast quantities of raw materials (or manufactured components which are in turn made from raw materials) such as minerals and timber, as well as large quantities of energy and water. It also typically releases large quantities of pollutants into air and water. Most people in the developed world are surrounded by the products of industry and would have great difficulty living their lives without them. Though industry produces many wasteful goods such as pointless gadgets and cheap throwaway toys, it also provides many things which make people’s lives much easier or more fulfilling: washing machines, refrigerators, boilers, cars, trains, bicycles, furniture, shelving, computers, CD players, books, musical instruments, bottles, stoves, kitchen utensils, clothes, and many medicines and medical treatments.  


For Buddhists (perhaps particularly those in the developed world) the renunciation of the Buddha, and of monks and nuns in the Buddhist tradition, may provide a romantically attractive image. We may imagine that through the renunciation of possessions we can leave behind all the clutter, the mess, the exploitation and the guilt involved in industry and its products. If we cannot step back in time to the pre-industrial age, when we might imagine life in bucolic simplicity, then at least we might find a substitute in washing our hands of it and going off to lead a simple life. However, far from facing up to conditions, this move seems to involve a retreat from them, and far from practising the Middle Way, it involves the over-attachment to an idealised state of affairs which neglect the complexity of conditions, of the kind that we tend to find in eternalist traditions.


The idealised hermit in the forest will indeed lead a simple, pre-industrial life, though in doing so he or she will lack geographical mobility or cultural or educational stimulation, and will probably spend many hours each day washing clothes by hand, chopping firewood, preparing food without modern kitchen equipment or any prepared goods (which may mean, for example, grinding one’s own flour for bread and husking all seeds and grains). These activities may be done mindfully, and perhaps there may still be some time for study and meditation, but returning to a pre-industrial life would involve hardship, hard work, discomfort and a curtailing of leisure. This doesn’t mean that we might not be inspired by that ideal in some ways to simplify our lives.


If we do not choose to completely give up using its products, given full knowledge of its disadvantages and the psychological difficulties we might have in adjusting to it, then we are reliant on industry. Whilst the worst effects of industry can be alleviated by state regulation, often the effects of this are simply to move its dirtier manifestations to developing countries. It seems that if we accept industry as part of our lives, this will inevitably mean the acceptance of at least some of its heavy resource use and pollution. Mechanisation has increasingly begun to reduce the other traditional disadvantage of manufacturing industry, the employment of low-paid workers in dreary, repetitive tasks, but this remains to some extent another necessary element of industry.  


The Middle Way, then, probably involves first of all a full appreciation of the conditions, including both the merits and demerits of industry and its interaction with our personal lives. If we are to avoid dogmatic positions in relation to industry, we should avoid either romantic anti-industrialism or hard-headed exploitativeness. We can assist in the transformation of industry into as humane and sustainable an enterprise as possible, but also recognise the probable limitations of any such transformation.


I have already discussed the issues of the use of mineral and timber resources, much of which is mediated by industry. If the use of mineral and timber resources can be generally justified, then industry merely provides the essential service of turning these resources into useful artefacts. If, however, the artefacts produced are unnecessary and wasteful, the result only of highly narrowed concern (e.g. useless gadgets), environmentally destructive (e.g. many cleaning products), or socially destructive (e.g. recreational drugs) then it is probably fair to say that the resources are being misused.


Buddhists might thus well be justified in working for an industrial company that is genuinely working to reduce its levels of pollution, improve the levels of quality and usefulness of its products, or improve the sustainability of its resource use. They might also justifiably work for a company that is not doing these things where they believe they might be able to influence it into improving its policies. As always in business, improvements of this kind have to be balanced with economic effectiveness, but as I have already argued in the last chapter, an attitude of long-term investment and an active consideration of inter-dependence might help to stretch the attitude of self-interest inherent in capitalism.


It is a traditional Buddhist interpretation of the First Precept to claim that it prohibits manufacturing or trading in arms or poisons which are used to take life. The issue of arms manufacture requires a discussion of war, which I will turn to in Chapter 10, but at this stage perhaps it only needs to be noted that if war is ever justified, it would be contradictory to reduce the effectiveness of a justified war by refusing to take part in arms manufacture. However, in the vast majority of cases, weapons are made and sold with no clear knowledge of how they are to be used, and a precautionary principle can be urged if we are to have any identification with the victims of such weapons. Involvement in arms manufacture, as in that of other dangerous goods such as toxic chemicals, needs at least to be done with great circumspection, and the presumption against it is a strong one. The more we allow ourselves to knowingly contribute to the harm of others through such products, the more we are likely to narrow our egoistic identifications, indifferent to the suffering of others.

Land transport

The use of cars, vans and lorries for land transport raises one of the biggest issues of our time. The substantial contribution made by the internal combustion engine to air pollution and depletion of oil and metal reserves is well-known. To the moral issues this raises we also have to add other effects of widespread car use: social isolation, urban congestion, relatively high accident rates, obesity, noise pollution, increasing areas of tarmac, and the undermining of localised shops and other amenities. The cultural and economic role of the car in the Western world is now deeply entrenched, and those without cars are often inconvenienced by sparse public transport, dangerous roads and amenities increasingly situated only for the convenience of car users.


On the other side we should credit some real benefits from the car. By making independent travel easier it enables friendships over a distance and the broadening of experience through travel. In many rural areas it provides a possibility of mobility that simply would not exist otherwise. It is also of particularly great usefulness for those who are disabled, elderly or have young children, who might not be mobile at all without it. There is nothing wrong with mobility, and to see its benefits we have only to compare the highly parochial perspectives of those people who have never travelled beyond their local area and the wider view those who have often done so. The fact that travel is not always sufficient to broaden the mind should not blind us its contributory usefulness in doing so, and broadening the mind is another way of talking of the extension of ego-identifications.


Should Buddhists use cars? Buddhists in the West are clearly divided on this issue, with a core of serious practitioners renouncing car ownership along with other economic status symbols. If one has longer and less convenient journeys and becomes more dependent on others, this is a good sphere for the practice of patience. There are many, though, who continue to use cars, though perhaps maintaining a sense of guilt about doing so.


It is this guilty reliance which needs to be avoided, as it undermines our capacity to make clear, balanced and deliberate decisions about issues such as car use. If we are using a car (or a van, or a lorry) with awareness of its effects, having taken all steps to minimise harm and convinced of the benefits, then we should feel confident about doing so. It is not “wrong” to use a car for good reasons, any more than it is wrong to do other things which use non-renewable resources or contribute to pollution: but it is wrong not to use the opportunities available to us to reduce the harm we cause through such activities.


There are many such opportunities around us, but those of us who use cars do not always take them, due to habit, custom, or inertia. Most people who are between the ages of about 15 and 70 and in reasonable health could cycle the large number of local journeys we all make of up to about 5 miles. In many cases this would not only add to our health and well-being, but be a quicker way of reaching the destination. If everyone in this category did this we would avoid enormous amounts of pollution and congestion. Many of those who cannot cycle can walk or use a bus or train.


Another opportunity, at least in countries where there is a reasonable train service between towns, is to use trains for longer journeys wherever possible. In many cases those who use cars simply do not consider this. If it is slightly more expensive or takes slightly longer, a small sacrifice of this kind does not require very much justification. Similar points may be made about the use of rail rather than road freight for businesses.


A third type of opportunity is that of considering what type of car we drive and how well we drive it. Many people needlessly buy bigger cars as they grow older and more prosperous, but their need for either space or speed has not increased. Apart from those with large families, those regularly carrying goods, or other special needs, there is really no reason why anyone should drive anything bigger than a small economical hatchback. Thanks to improvements of design, these cars already have a high level of performance in many respects. But opportunities are also already arising to use other, less polluting fuels, using hybrid engines or LPG, and the possibilities of these need to be carefully considered by those purchasing a car. However good the car, though, if one drives it wastefully or dangerously its virtues are wasted.


So, the Middle Way suggests that we need to be increasing our awareness and making effort in all these areas if we are involved in car use or car ownership. However, personal effort by itself can also neglect the political dimension of this issue, and the fact that the transport policy of governments provides or removes many of the opportunities I have mentioned. Voting and any other kind of political activity, then (see chapter 9 for more on this) provides another opportunity to extend our identifications in this area. Campaigning for better public transport or more cycle paths in one’s own area, or preventing more money being spent on roads, is a helpful and useful activity. But such facilities will not be helpful unless they are used, and the importance of example in helping others to do so must never be under-estimated.


As with most other environmental issues, it is often guilt or a sense of powerlessness that leads us into apathy. However, if we see the ethical task not as one of changing the world instantaneously to one which works on more rational lines, but rather working with the conditions we find with awareness and openness, effort will always result in progress of some kind. The fact that many of the conditions at work are psychological ones of sheer human habit and non-awareness is one that we need to take constantly into account, and chip away at with patience and compassion rather than attacking with impossible goals. Perhaps it is true that we will not succeed in achieving the environmental goals we might regard as crucial. Perhaps some people will continue driving four-wheel-drive vehicles half a mile on tarmac roads to the gym, and perhaps global warming will accelerate. However, any real progress on this is much better than impotent fuming at human folly because of our attachment to targets that are psychologically impossible. Not to be realistic is a betrayal of our ideals.


Air transport


Very similar dilemmas, but perhaps even less easily solved ones, attend the issue of long-range travel by air. Aeroplanes use large quantities of fossil fuel and release large quantities of pollutants. In addition to this, airports cover huge areas with tarmac, and the noise aeroplanes create can be a major problem for those living near airports. In spite of this, international mobility and the use of air travel, for business and holidays, plus the use of air freight, continue to grow prodigiously.


Against this we must set the importance of air travel for international contact and the ways in which it aids contact between cultures. Whilst contact does not necessarily lead to friendship, it is still a necessary condition for friendship. I am much less likely to be concerned about the poverty of many Africans if I have never met any personally, and much less likely to be tolerant of cultural difference if I have never experienced it sufficiently to know it is not a threat. Whilst there are plenty of examples of closer contact between different cultures creating more friction and conflict, we only have to compare the relative openness of today with the bigotry of the Middle Ages, or even of the nineteenth century, to see a broad picture of how increased intercultural contact can aid increased awareness and understanding. Air travel has played a major part in this process.


So, again, if our main means of moral progress lies in the extending of ego-identifications and breaking down of barriers to awareness, we do not need to condemn all air travel nor vow never to step on a plane. On the other hand to continue to use air travel regardless of its effects is equally negative. As with the use of cars we need to identify the opportunities and the working areas, and contribute to the reduction of the harmful effects of air travel through these.


One obvious working area lies in the elimination of unnecessary air travel. We do not need air travel for relatively short journeys of a few hundred miles, which could be done almost as quickly by train, and where air travel is only slightly more convenient. For example, we do not need to fly from London to Paris, or from London to Manchester. A little more time and expense is probably worth exerting to use the train for even slightly longer journeys. Nor is air travel needed for business meetings which could be done almost as well by video link.


Another working area could be our attitude to holidays. We might get enjoyment and stimulation by flying from London to Prague for a weekend, but perhaps almost as much by taking the train to Paris and saving Prague for a longer trip we could take more slowly. Here awareness needs to be brought to bear on our attachment to particular ideas of enjoyment and recreation. We may “fancy” a trip further afield to somewhere we haven’t visited before, but only a little adjustment is required to transfer that fancy to some other kind of fulfilment. This is not to say that air trips abroad for enjoyment or cultural broadening are not justifiable, but they should be planned in a way which is environmentally economical.


A further working area is that of air freight. By buying goods that have been unnecessarily air freighted for trivial reasons, we encourage the development of patterns of economic dependency on air freight. Fresh flowers do not need to be freighted thousands of miles from Africa to Europe, for example. There are flowers enough in Europe, and even in winter they can be grown in green houses. By encouraging poor African farmers to lock themselves into dependency on an unsustainable business, we are not aiding them in the long term.


If awareness is brought to working areas such as these by a larger number of people, great progress could be made in reducing the bad effects of air transport without undermining its good effects. Perhaps if everybody merely reduced their use of air transport in this way this would not be enough to offset its contribution to global warming as much as we would like, but it would make a substantial impact based on a realistic assessment of the total conditions.


One approach taken by some environmentalists, including concerned Buddhists, is to offset their carbon emissions through air travel by means such as paying for tree planting. Paying for tree-planting is obviously a good thing to do, and perhaps thinking about it in this way, as a sort of personal carbon account, is in some cases a realistic way to get people to take the problem seriously. However, there is some danger in thinking that we actually have some sort of personal carbon account in the Bank of Nature, in which credits (carbon sequestration through trees or other means) must be set against  debits (emissions of carbon through air travel, car use etc.). Perhaps thinking in this way can arise from an eternalistic interpretation of traditional Buddhist karma beliefs, as it is a short step from recording angels and cosmic moral bank balances (to be repaid at death) to their environmental equivalents. Such metaphysical beliefs, held explicitly or implicitly, merely distract us from facing the conditions at work.


Our effect on the environment cannot be meaningfully measured as that of a fixed self enduring over time, as it is part of a social context in which social habits are already entrenched, where individual contributions could be measured in all sorts of disputable ways. Am I responsible for carbon emissions made in the course of my job, or those produced by my children supported by me, or produced during a period when my responsibility for the effects of air travel had not yet, or only partially, been realised? More profoundly, am I responsible for all the carbon emissions used in creating the conditions I now enjoy? All historical emissions would be need to be counted for this, to account for all the past emissions from which I have benefited. No, how I respond to current conditions is the only moral working place. In some cases that might be a situation of huge carbon emissions, and in others very little. It is those who are in the best position to plant trees who should plant trees, not necessarily those who are producing most carbon emissions. The work of those who plant trees (and the contribution of those who fund them) should not pause at, nor perhaps even consider, their personal carbon offset requirements, but simply plant as many as possible to offset as much as possible. At the same time, the efforts of those who produce carbon emissions should perhaps first be focussed on reducing them as far as possible so that they do not need to be offset. A rich man who makes many unnecessary flights but offsets them through tree planting has not made those unnecessary flights any better by doing so, whilst a poorer person who makes one crucial flight from Britain to Australia to see a dying relative, but cannot afford the carbon offset, is not morally worse.


Housing and living arrangements


Another important aspect of our relationship to the environment concerns how we live. What sort of housing do with live in, with what sorts of social arrangements? Our use of land, energy, minerals and water can all be affected by the kinds of living arrangements we set up. Excessive use of any of these things contributes to the limitation of resources for other people, and the use of land removes resources needed by wildlife. The design and set up of our living spaces also affects the amount of pollution we create, as well as the quality of social relationships.


One traditional form of living arrangement promoted by Buddhism has been monastic: the shared use of a single building by a community. As more facilities are shared, this is certainly a more efficient way of living in environmental terms, especially when linked to simplicity of life and limitation of consumption. However, such communities are difficult to reconcile to family life, and even single people (at least in the West) often find their desire for independence incompatible with community living. Whichever social mode of living we adopt: community, single, couple, or family, there are further questions about how we set this up environmentally. Again, we have to balance the use of resources against the benefits of those resources, given the conditions around us.


We need to consider the use of land, the materials out of which the house is made, its energy-efficiency, its sources of power, its sources of water and sewage outflow, and the materials we use to furnish and equip it. I do not want to attempt a detailed survey of these here, but simply to point out some of the areas where awareness might need to be cultivated.


The use of land will often be controlled by planning laws, and in overpopulated countries like Britain the high cost of property is also likely to limit our use of land. On the one hand, high-density housing, such as apartment blocks, makes the most economical use of land, but on the other, the benefits of gardens and allotments in grounding and opening our experience can hardly be underestimated. Perhaps the key question in the choice between high-density housing in the city or a house with a garden in the suburbs or countryside is how well that extra land will be used. If a garden functions only as an extension of our need to control the environment (or alternatively is totally ignored) it is of doubtful value, but if wildness of some sort can be allowed within it, so that we use it as a space to open up our ego-identifications in an ambiguous zone of semi-control, it has obvious value. The Middle Way in any use of land suggests that although it must serve our own needs, these should be balanced with tolerance of what we do not identify with, such as “weeds” and wildlife.


The materials used in housing are of interest in relation to how far resources are being depleted, how far they serve a long-term environmental purpose, and for aesthetic and architectural purposes. Local stone, for example, not only gives architectural character to an area, but is a virtually indestructible material needing little transportation. Timber, on the other hand, needs careful sourcing (see above section). Questions about the sourcing of materials will need to be balanced with ones about their durability, maintenance, and energy efficiency (for example, their insulation properties in colder climates).


Builders, of course, have an excellent opportunity to address these kinds of concerns. However, like farmers, they need support from the rest of us. Even if we have to pay a little more for an energy-efficient house built of sustainable local materials, in paying that money we are encouraging demand for such houses that builders then become more likely to supply. Every time we move house, particularly, is an opportunity to apply awareness of these kinds of conditions and move forward by opening up our expectations. Also between moves, repairs and improvements offer further opportunities to apply similar principles.


The question of sources of power is one where we have a further opportunity to be unconventional and forward-looking. If we can use any type of sustainable power, an initial investment saves much money in the longer term and a powerful example is set. Solar panels and domestic wind turbines are options well worth exploring to see if they can fit your situation. Similarly, water-saving measures (such as showers as an alternative to baths) can be built into a property, as can adequate sewage systems which avoid local groundwater pollution.


If all of the above can be working points in the construction, purchase or rental of a property, there are many others in the way in which we interact with that property from day-to-day, Whether we save energy and water, whether we use biodegradable cleaning products and whether we use sustainable and organic practices in gardens are all part of a moral response to our immediate environment. Again, we do not need to do these things because they are or are not socially acceptable, nor because some authority urges it, but because in doing so we open up and develop our own nature, in accordance with a long-term good which we may not yet be able to fully quantify. In using opportunities to gradually improve our relationship to our immediate living environment rather than having unrealistic expectations about its total moral transformation, we are avoiding eternalism, but in not resting content with what is conventionally acceptable we are avoiding nihilism.


Rubbish and recycling


One implication of the belief in “nature” is the assumption that, like a doting mother, she will tidy up all our mess. It is only relatively recently that consciousness of our responsibility for our waste products has become more widespread. Unaccustomed as we may be to maintaining an awareness of the fate of our rubbish after we have thrown it out of the nest, such an awareness is now required of us as one of the conditions of our lives. One very positive feature of recent years is that governments in the West, national and local, have been taking recycling much more seriously, and the least we can do is to give them our full co-operation in this respect.


Nevertheless, in the UK, at least, a large proportion of rubbish still goes to landfill. There even biodegradable substances fail to biodegrade because of unsuitable conditions, and combine with non-biodegradable substances to form a toxic soup. Not only does landfill take up substantial amounts of land and leave a most unpleasant legacy for future generations, but it can pollute the groundwater. Whilst a small amount of landfill for a few non-recyclable, non-biodegradable substances may be inevitable, the vast majority of it could be avoided.


A further reason for taking recycling seriously is the way in which it conserves existing non-renewable resources. If our mineral and energy supplies are limited, recycling helps to make them last longer. Again, this depends on us extending our identification to future generations. Even better than recycling in this case is re-use, which prevents minerals even having to be broken down and re-manufactured.


An eternalist approach to rubbish might require us to make unrealistic psychological adjustments. That we never use any packaged goods at all, for example, or that we never throw away a single scrap of paper that could be recycled. However, practising recycling for most of our rubbish does not really demand very much of us, especially where the authorities have made recycling facilities easily available. The only slight modification to our habits which it demands is an awareness of the nature of each thing we throw away and the slight effort of sorting it appropriately. As a duty, it is not very onerous, and there are not huge social and psychological conditions working against the possibility of improvement (as there are in the cases of changing our means of transport, discussed above). It requires only a slight extension of our identifications. No Buddhist really has any excuse not to recycle, at least up to and preferably beyond the level encouraged by local government.


Re-use demands a little more effort, that of finding a person who wants to use an item that you would otherwise throw away, but in the process positive social links can be developed and other people can be given practical help. The freecycle network which has grown up in recent years (found on the web at is invaluable in this respect, using the web to link up unwanted items to those who can use them in your local area.


Of course, a more profound approach to rubbish is to avoid producing it in the first place. Rubbish can be much reduced by reducing consumption, and also by choosing goods with less packaging. For those working in industry and in a position to influence policy, moral duties in relation to rubbish perhaps extend further, as manufacturers’ choices of packaging have great implications both for the quantity of rubbish and for its recyclability. If those designing a new product have a choice between two types of plastic packaging, for example, one much more easily recyclable than the other, then the preference for the recyclable type is clear, even if there are other marginal advantages on the other side. Shop owners can also discourage the use of new non-biodegradable plastic bags with every purchase, and try to stock goods which do not have excessive packaging. Finally, any type of livelihood which engages in or encourages recycling, re-use or composting can be seen as a strongly right livelihood.



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