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Buddhism and Ecology

by Akuppa

Buddhism and Ecology
by Akuppa

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM731

Talk given at the Western Buddhist Order International Convention 2005

'Silent Spring' – Rachel Carson and the modern ecological movement

One morning, back in the late 1950's, a woman in Massachusetts looked out of her
window into a garden and saw a dead bird. After this dead bird she saw another dead
bird, and then another dead bird, and another dead bird, and she began to wonder whether
this had anything to do with the fact that, the day before, a state-hired aeroplane had been
over the local woodland, spraying chemicals to control mosquitoes. She was concerned
about this, and wrote to a friend of hers who was a biologist. Her name was Rachel

Rachel Carson spent a few years researching the link – the effects of DDT, the chemical
concerned. She was quite shocked at how extensive these effects were. The outcome was
the publication, in 1962, of a book called 'Silent Spring' which is commonly regarded as
the beginning of the modern ecological movement.

So the modern ecological movement isn't all that old – it's 43, which I like to think is
quite young.

So, what made that book so significant? Well, three things. Firstly, for the first time here
was a scientific perspective – Rachel Carson was a scientist – and it cut against the
prevailing idea of science as the technologically engineered control of Nature – science in
its most mechanical, reductive, materialistic form, insensitive to the complexity of
interconnections in the real world.

So it was perhaps the beginning of the end of the road for positivist science, for that kind
of mechanical science. Actually, after Jnanavaca's talk... perhaps the beginning of the end
had been some years previously. But it was certainly a turning point in the end of that
kind of science.

Rachel Carson concluded, in the last words of 'Silent Spring', that 'it is our alarming
misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible
weapons, and that in turning them against insects it has also turned them against the

She was the first one to say something of that kind.

So the second reason why the book was so significant was that it was also, as well as the
beginning of the end of one road, the beginning of another road – of what Rachel Carson
actually called 'the other road.' And this was 'ecology the science' – ecology as a
transformative idea and movement; an outlook that would actually change the
relationship between humans and their environment. Along this other road, science would
not be a blunt and brutal tool but something of an exploration – something that could
invoke an element of humility – or, as one writer has put it, 'something that can move us
to silent wonder and glad affirmation.'

The third reason why the book was significant was just, I think, its prescience, because
what was true of the technology of DDT has turned out to be true of the technology of
other chemicals: of the internal combustion engine; of the jet engine; aerosols; nuclear
technology; pesticides; chemical fertilisers; industrialised fishing; urbanisation, etc etc
etc. Again and again, in the last 43 years, we've been bumping up against the limits to
technological development and growth.

Ecology as the big idea of our times

So the result, now, almost 43 years on, is that if we ask ourselves: 'What is the prevailing
image of our time? What is the prevailing idea, the big idea of our thinking?' I would
contend that there could only be one answer, and that is ecology. The awakening to
ecology is the overarching reality that we live in, of the time that we live in. If it's easy to
miss that, it's only because it's so massive.

So we have this image of ecology, this metaphor of ecology, of interconnectedness. And
it's interesting to note that this truth hasn't dawned from the East. It hasn't come, in the
main, through Buddhism; nor has it been the invention of philosophy. It is a lesson that is
being taught to us loudly, clearly and urgently by nature herself... by reality itself. That
grand old anarchist Kropotkin once remarked: 'Nature is the first teacher of Man.'

How does Buddhist practice relate?

So what can it mean to practice Buddhism in times such as these? Are ecology and
Buddhism the same thing? Has it got anything to teach us as Buddhists? And have we got
anything, as Buddhists, to offer ecology and the ecological movement?

To begin to answer these questions I will be looking at so-called 'deep ecology', which is
the perceptual and emotional exploration of ecology. However, before I do that, I would
like to stay a while with ordinary ecology – the 'science of ecology' – just in case there is
something in 'ecology the science' that we might overlook on our rush for the deep
spiritual stuff.

Deep and scientific perspectives

So, first I will look at 'ecology the science' and what resonances we might find there.
Second, I'd like to say something about my own experiences of deep ecology – why I've
found them to be integral to my own Buddhist practice. And finally, I'd like to draw out
some of the implications for us as Buddhists practicing in Western or Westernising
societies, and in the Western Buddhist Order in particular.

The science of ecology

So first, then, the science of ecology – what is it? Well, the word 'ecology' was actually
coined back in the mid-nineteenth century by a German Darwinian scientist called Ernst
Haeckel, and he used it to refer to the study of organisms in their environment. 'Eco,'
from the Greek, means 'house' or 'household' – hence, 'habitat'.

Later on, ecology has evolved in meaning not just to look at the interconnection between
organisms and their environment, but also the interconnections between organisms – so it
is the study of 'ecosystems'. You could say ecology is the science of the
interconnectedness of living things.

So, while biologists had been concerned with life as individual organisms – usually
pickled (apologies to any biologists for that crude characterisation!) – ecologists saw
living things more in terms of their relatedness... and generally felt much less inclined to
pickle things. Pickled things don't really relate very well.

I think Buddhists are bound immediately to find a resonance here. An ecological
perspective is seeing things in their relatedness, and I think that naturally implies a deeper
understanding of conditioned co-production – seeing beings not as 'things' but as patterns
of relatedness.

Applying ecological views to ourselves

For Western thought generally, ecology marked one of the great steps forward from
narrow, positivistic materialism. And ecology becomes even more interesting when we
start to apply it to ourselves: it means learning to see ourselves as part of a set of
relationships. There is an Australian ecologist called John Seed who puts it that we need
to see ourselves not as isolated skin-encapsulated egos but as part of the larger body of
the Earth.

I'd also like to remind you of the quote from Albert Einstein that Jnanavaca finished with,
because I think that also puts it very well:

'A human being is part of the whole, called by us Universe. We experience ourselves –
our thoughts and feelings – as something separate from the rest; a kind of optical
delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our
personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free
ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living
creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is
determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the
self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.'

That was Albert Einstein, decades ahead of his time. This is an insight into connectedness
– it is an insight that Nature is teaching us loud and clear as a society. Our choice is
between trying to resist it, and facing the consequences, or embracing it – and embracing
truth is, of course, precisely the business of the Buddhist Path.

Indra's Net

The Buddhist symbol that is very often invoked as a description of ecology is, of course,
that of Indra's Net. It is a symbol that combines pure relatedness with pure individuality. I
must say that I've found Indra's Net to be a very powerful tool. I think somehow just as an
imaginative tool it has helped me to have a sense of feeling part of a greater web of life,
without plunging into the other extreme of nihilistic non-existence.

So Indra's Net is a very powerful image for ecology. This isn't to say that the natural
world ...

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