Caring for the Earth

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One of the central teachings of Buddhism, as we have noted, is the reality of interdependence: everything depends on countless causes and conditions for its existence. Today, that ancient analysis seems remarkably pertinent to an understanding of ecosystems and environmental values. If the air I breathe depends on oxygen-producing forests, then those forests are as crucial to my health as my own lungs. In a way, those forests are my lungs.

The cultivation of intimacy with nature is a central aim for many Buddhist environmentalists. Buddhist activist Stephanie Kaza, who has written about her "conversations" with trees, suggests other ways to develop empathy with the natural environment:

One may engage in relationship with the moon, observing its waxing and waning cycle, position in the sky, and effect on one's moods and energy. One may cultivate relationships with migrating shorebirds, hatching dragonflies, or ancient redwoods. One may learn the topography of local rivers and mountains. These relations are not one-time encounters; rather they are ongoing friendships.

What relationships such as these might you engage in?


Kaza approaches environmental problems from a systems perspective. When a mixed cord of wood is delivered to her doorstep, she discovers that some of the wood is from distant sources, and realizes that the local supply of wood is being over-harvested. Refilling the tank of her chain saw with a mix of gas and oil, Kaza continues to reflect:


Gas and oil from where? The Persian Gulf, Alaska, off the coast of southern California? Through what war zones or ice floes has this gas traveled before entering the chain saw? How much has it already cost in transportation and energy to produce this liquid gold?... The chain saw brings us to the point of intimacy, the hinge point around which all aspects of the story turn—fire, woodpile, oil, mind, danger, connection—each interpenetrating in the meeting place of our bodies.

The woodpile that gets replenished is itself a system. In this way, commonplace tasks can direct attention to the ever-present web of mutual causality.

The deepening sense of connectedness with our surroundings sometimes acquires an emotional intensity comparable to that of love or marriage. One practitioner writes, "This kind of in-love-ness—passionate, joyful—stimulates action in service to our imperiled planet. Walking in the world as if it were our lover leads inevitably to deep ecology."

In current parlance, an ecological awakening leads to a greening of the self. What could be a stronger foundation for environmental activism?