A short sutta in the Udāna (§59) opens when the Buddha is sitting outdoors on a dark night while oil lamps are burning in front of him. Many moths are circling around the lamps and some fly straight into the flames, where their bodies are burnt to a crisp. The Buddha then utters an “inspired exclamation,” declaring that like the moths, people who are “attached to forms and sounds” head straight for their own destruction.
This short sutta can be read as a parable for our global climate crisis, with the image of people heading for destruction expanded to planetary proportions. From this perspective the dream of limitless prosperity functions as the fiery attractor and we ourselves are the moths. A small corporate and financial elite, bent on limitless wealth, subtly seduces us with the message that our salvation lies in unfettered economic growth, to be powered by burning ever more fossil fuels. We thus pump more carbon emissions into the atmosphere, putting our common future at risk.
The danger to the moths circling the Buddha’s lamp was not external but came from their instinctual attraction to the flames. Analogously, the biggest obstacles we face to averting global climate disruption are rooted in human nature itself: in our belief that material commodities are the key to happiness; in our attachment to our comfortable lifestyles; in our capacity for self-delusion; and in our submission to a cancerous economic system. The big question each moth must have faced was whether it would turn back before it was scorched by the flames. The big question we must face is whether we will change direction before we fly into our own flames.
The most frail link between accelerating climate change and major catastrophe is not forest fires or more vehement hurricanes but a diminished food supply. If the world’s food system fails to produce enough food, hundreds of millions of people, mostly in Asia and Africa, will be condemned to hunger. For millions of children, malnutrition will result in stunting, brain damage, disease and premature death. Food shortages will set off riots and cause unstable states to collapse, giving demagogues the chance to seize power. Migration will increase from poor countries to more affluent ones, triggering resentment among settled residents and perhaps unleashing more waves of terrorism.
The changes needed to avert climate catastrophe must be made both in the external domain of public policy and in the internal domain of consciousness. Changes in policy to mitigate climate change are imperative, particularly in the two critical areas of energy production and agriculture. We must make a rapid transition from carbon-based energy systems to renewable sources of energy. Population growth must also be controlled, since an expanding population exacerbates the problem of food scarcity. But changes in agriculture are needed as well. Despite its productive power, modern industrial agriculture has been one of the major drivers of environmental damage. It not only degrades ecosystems, releases toxic pesticides into the environment and sucks up vast amounts of fresh water, but it also emits massive quantities of carbon—on current estimates, between 25% and 40% of emissions, even more than the transport sector. In a recent report, Olivier De Schutter, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, advocates a conversion from the industrial agricultural model to “agroecology,” which comprises a range of techniques that align agricultural production with natural processes, maximizing resource efficiency while reducing dependence on external inputs. Surprisingly, its yields in food productivity have been found to equal and even surpass those of industrial farms.
While industrial agriculture exacerbates climate change, the latter rebounds on agriculture, disrupting production both suddenly and gradually. As the climate warms, such periodic phenomena as long droughts, blistering heat waves and torrential floods become more frequent, reducing harvests and pushing up food prices. In the years ahead, violent fluctuations in the weather are expected to become “the new normal,” further lowering yields and increasing world hunger. But gradual climate change, the slow warming of the planet, may be even more insidious, the more so because it occurs beneath the threshold of perception. On current projections, virtually all of Africa, Latin America and southern Asia will witness reductions in fecundity. Large swaths of the U.S. grain belt and the California fruit-and-vegetable belt will become less fertile, increasing hunger at home.
The crisis of climate disruption not only poses an imminent danger but also offers an opportunity—a call for us to reappraise the template of values that guide policy decisions and shape our major institutions. Though we veer ever closer to calamity, collapse is not inevitable. We can still pull back from the brink—if we act promptly and decisively. The climate crisis represents a juncture where the inner and the outer meet, where transformations in consciousness and a radical revisioning of public policy converge on a common center. Using the categories of classical Buddhism, we might describe the inner change needed as an endeavor to restrain the influence on human behavior of the three “root defilements”—greed, hatred and delusion. However, while Buddhist psychology provides an insightful theoretical tool for understanding our predicament, it is precisely here that a shortcoming in the traditional Buddhist understanding of practice becomes apparent.
Buddhism regards social structures, ideologies and institutions as sedimentations or collective manifestations of consciousness, from which it follows that transformations in the social sphere depend on changes in consciousness. On the basis of this premise—quite reasonable in itself—a traditionalist would take personal practice to be the key to social transformation. Hence, from a traditionalist perspective, the best way we can help reverse the tide of climate change is by altering our personal habits and making a more determined effort to purify our minds and attain inner awakening. To this end, we recycle waste, use less energy, reduce our consumption and buy green. We keep watch over our thoughts and curb our defilements. If we feel troubled by the conditions of our lives, we’re told the problem lies within: we should not cling to our views and expectations. To maintain the purity of our practice we’re warned to steer clear of the political, a sphere of biases and turbulent emotions. Changes in the world will follow when we pursue our primary task, changing ourselves.
Such a view of practice, however, hardly equips us to meet the immensity of the challenge we face today, when the forces pushing climate change to the brink wield so much power and influence. While personal transformation is indisputably critical to any program of social revitalization, exclusive attention to the inner domain of mind cannot redress a crisis whose roots are systemic and ideological. What we urgently need is a wider, more comprehensive vision of practice that embraces the interpenetration of the spiritual, the social and the environmental. Though the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion may arise from within our minds, they do not stop there but spread beyond and assume concrete embodiments with political, economic and ideological ramifications.
Any effective remedy to our climate crisis must therefore seek to rectify the malignancies in our economic and political systems and the toxic ideologies that reinforce them. Although the political sphere might be riddled with corruption and deception, transformative ethics grounded in the Dharma must be willing to struggle within that sphere to enact its vision of the moral good. Today the political, in a broad sense, has become the stage where the great ethical contests are being fought. If the Dharma is truly to alleviate the disruptive consequences of the defilements, we have to apply its principles to tackle greed, hatred and delusion not only in our minds but in the institutions that embody them and in the ideologies that aim to cover their tracks.
The type of greed that poses the greatest threat to our future is not the simple desire for the basic enjoyments of life but the lust for profit and power that propels titanic corporations to devour the planet’s finite resources and spew out toxic waste without regard for the impact on the earth’s vital support systems. The most insidious manifestation of hatred is not necessarily ethnic or religious strife but indifference, the constriction of our concern to the private sphere of self, family and friends, which leaves us barely fazed by the floods in Bangladesh or the famine in Somalia, both traceable to our carbon-hungry economy. Delusion lures us into a shroud of complacency or a stance of denial, whereby we accept the misinformation churned out by the fossil-fuel propagandists and their political cohorts.
To effectively mitigate the influence of greed, hatred and delusion requires a global ethic that valorizes generosity, human empathy and social justice. These values should serve not only as guides to individual conduct but as the scaffolding for a new paradigm that can reshape policies and institutions. They must provide an alternative to the pernicious ideology of neoliberalism, which conceives people as atomistic selves primarily motivated by calculations of economic self-interest and responsible only to themselves. The new paradigm must affirm the intrinsic value of the person and the primacy of human solidarity. It must elevate mutual understanding and compassion over ruthless competition. The kind of compassion we need is not just personal kindness but a conscientious compassion wedded to a sense of global responsibility. Such compassion, bold and fearless, must inspire a willingness to act, even to take the radical political action needed to create a world that provides for everyone.
The threat of climate destabilization, with its potential disruption of the world’s food supply, has emerged as the overarching issue of our time. The risk that climate disruption poses to the world’s food system obliges us to make fundamental changes in agricultural technologies and modes of energy production. But we also must implement changes in consciousness, collective as well as individual. The question we face is whether we will make the changes called for in time, or, like the moths circling the lamps, fly straight into our own conflagration. To avoid that fate we need above all an ethic that empowers us to take responsibility for the flourishing of humanity and the planet as a whole. The world’s food system—our food system—is at stake, and that is an asset we cannot lose. In seeking to preserve a viable climate, our own best interests and the welfare of the world coincide.