Healing Ecology: A New Spiritual Perspective on the Challenge of Consumerism
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Healing Ecology
A New Spiritual Perspective on the Challenge of Consumerism

David R. Loy

Healing Ecology, un article de David R. Loy dans sa version originale anglaise. Il s'agit du texte d'une conférence donnée le 18 mars 2008 à l'Université Vanderbilt de Nashville (Tennessee). David Loy est l'auteur de nombreux ouvrages et articles consacrés à la critique du consumérisme dans une perspective bouddhiste.

Vous pouvez écouter l'enregistrement vidéo de la conférence (disponible sur YouTube, attention la vidéo dure plus d'une heure).

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness. – Thich Nhat Hanh

I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars. – Dogen

Does Buddhism offer any special perspective on the ecological crisis? Do its teachings imply a different way of understanding the biosphere, and our relationship to it, at this critical time in history when we seem to be doing our utmost to destroy it? This article is motivated by the realization that there are extraordinary parallels between our individual predicament, according to Buddhism, and the present situation of human civilization. Does this mean that there is also a parallel between the two solutions? Does the Buddhist response to our personal predicament also point the way to resolving our collective one? Perhaps the ecological crisis is as much a spiritual challenge as a technological one.

The Individual Predicament

The four noble truths are all about dukkha, for the Buddha emphasized that his only concern was ending dukkha (usually translated as "suffering"). To end my dukkha, however, I need to experience anatta – my lack of self – which seen from the other side is also my interdependence with all other things.

Buddhist teachings explain anatta in various ways, yet fundamentally it denies our separation from other people and, yes, from the rest of the natural world. Of course, each of us has a sense of self, but in contemporary terms that sense of self is a psychological and social construction, without any self-existence (svabhava) or reality of its own. The basic problem with this self is its delusive sense of duality. The construction of a separate self inside is also the construction of an "other" outside – an objective world that is different from me. What is special about the Buddhist perspective is its emphasis on the dukkha built into this situation. Basically, such a self is dukkha.

One way to describe this problem is that, since the sense of self is only a mental construct, it is always insecure. It can never secure itself because there’s nothing real there that could be secured. The constructed self is better understood as a process – in fact, a work in progress, because it is never completed. Processes are always temporal, necessarily impermanent, but we don’t want to be something that’s changing all the time, vulnerable to illness, old age and death. We want to be real! So we keep trying to secure ourselves, usually in ways that just make our situation worse.

This is the core of the ignorance that Buddhism emphasizes. We spend so much of our time and energy attempting to stabilize something that cannot be stabilized – our delusive sense of self. We try to do this mainly by identifying with things "outside" us that (we think) can provide the grounding we crave: money, material possessions, reputation, power, physical attractiveness, and so forth. The tragedy, from a spiritual perspective, is that such attempts to solve the problem usually end up reinforcing the actual problem – the sense that there is a "me" that’s separate from others, that needs to become more real. This means that, no matter how much money, etc., I may accumulate, I never seem to have enough.

The Buddhist solution to this predicament is not to get rid of the self. That cannot be done, and does not need to be done, because there never was a self. We just need to "wake up" and see through the illusion of a separate self. This realization doesn’t instantaneously solve all our personal problems, but it reveals how the sense of self needs to be reconstructed, so that it becomes more "permeable" and we relate to others in a less dualistic fashion, with the understanding that our own well-being ultimately cannot be distinguished from their well-being.

The bodhisattva path is often presented as a personal sacrifice: a bodhisattva could choose to leave the world and become a Buddha, yet he or she sticks around to help the rest of us. But there’s another way to understand it. Following the bodhisattva path is simply a more advanced stage of spiritual practice. The sense of self needs to be deconstructed and reconstructed. When it "lets go," we awaken to realize our true nature: I am not inside, peering out at the objective world out there. Rather, "I" am what the whole world is doing, right here and now. Everyone else, too, is such a manifestation of the whole, although only a few people seem to realize it. Taking care of the whole, then, is as natural as taking care of my own leg.

To summarize: the sense of self is not something self-existing and real but a psychological construction, which involves a sense of separation from others. Our deepest dukkha is that we feel disconnected from the rest of the world, and this feeling is always uncomfortable, because insecure. We do many things that (we hope) will make us feel more real, yet they often have the opposite effect: they reinforce that sense of separation. No matter what we have or do, it’s never enough. While we cannot get rid of a self that doesn’t exist, we do need to "wake up" and realize it is delusive. This resolves the existential question about the meaning of one’s life: realizing my nonduality with the world frees me to live as I choose, but that will naturally be a way that contributes to the well-being of the whole.

Amazing, this Buddhist account of the individual’s predicament corresponds precisely to our ecological predicament today. 

Our Collective Situation

The issue is whether "separate self = dukkha" also holds true for our biggest collective sense of self: the duality between us as a species, Homo sapiens sapiens, and the rest of the biosphere.

We not only have individual senses of self, we also have group selves. I’m not only David Loy, I am male, American, Caucasian, and so forth. Just as one’s individual sense of self tends to be problematic, so collectives senses of self are often problematical, because they too distinguish those of us inside from those who are outside: men from women, American from Russians (or is it now Chinese?), etc. and, of course, those of us who are inside are better than those outside.

For there to be a parallel between the individual sense of self and humanity’s collective sense of self, the following must be true:

1. Human civilization is a construct.

2. This construct has led to a collective sense of alienation from the natural world, which causes dukkha.

3. This dukkha involves a collective anxiety about what it means to be human – that is, a fundamental confusion about what we as a species should be doing.

4. Our response to that alienation and anxiety – the collective attempt to secure or "self-ground" ourselves technologically and economically – is making things worse.

5. We cannot "return to nature" because we have never left it, but we need to realize our nonduality with the rest of the biosphere, and what that implies.

6. This will resolve our collective existential problem about what it means to be human. With us the biosphere becomes self-conscious. Our role today is to heal it, and thereby ourselves.

The first claim, that human civilization is something we have constructed, is a truism today, yet it is not something most pre-modern, traditional societies understood. The West owes that insight to classical Greece, which distinguished nomos – the conventions of human society (including culture, technology, etc.) – from phusis, the natural patterns of the physical world. The Greeks realized that, unlike the natural world, whatever is social convention can be changed: we can re-organize our own societies and in that way (attempt to) determine our own destiny. Plato, for example, offered detailed plans to restructure the Greek city-state in two of his dialogues, the Republic and the Laws.

Today it is difficult for us to understand that traditional societies didn’t realize this distinction between nature and social convention. Without our sense of historical development, and therefore future possibility, most premodern peoples accepted their own social conventions as inevitable, because just as natural as their local ecosystems. Rulers might be overthrown, but new rulers took their place at the top of the social pyramid, which was also a religious pyramid: kings were gods or godlike because they had a special role to play in placating the transcendent powers that supervised the created world. Often humans served an important function in keeping the cosmos going: the Aztecs, for example, required mass human sacrifice because blood was needed to keep the sun-god on his correct course through the heavens.

Understanding one’s own society as natural justified social arrangements that we now view as unacceptable. But there was nevertheless a psychological benefit in thinking that way: such cultures shared a collective sense of meaning that we have lost today. For them, the meaning of their lives was built into the cosmos and revealed by their religion, both of which they took for granted. For us, in contrast, the meaning of our lives and our societies has become something that we have to determine for ourselves in a universe whose meaningfulness (if any) is no longer obvious. Even if we choose to be religious, we must decide between various possibilities, which diminishes the spiritual security that exclusive religious affiliation traditionally provided. While we enjoy freedoms that pre-modern societies did not provide, the price of that freedom is losing their kind of "social security": the basic psychological comfort that comes from knowing one’s place and role in society and in the world.

In other words, part of the rich cultural legacy that the Greeks bequeathed the West – for better and worse – is an increasing anxiety about who we are and what it means to be human. Loss of faith in God has left us rudderless, collectively as well as individually. Thanks to ever more powerful technologies, it seems like we can accomplish almost anything we want to do – yet we don’t know what our role is, what we should do. What sort of world do we want to live in? What kind of society should we have? If we cannot depend on God or godlike rulers to tell us, we are thrown back upon ourselves, and our lack of any grounding greater than ourselves is a profound source of dukkha.

To sum up, our collective sense of separation from the natural world has become an ongoing source of frustration. The stronger our alienation from nature, the greater our anxiety. What has been our collective response to this predicament?

Remember how we usually react to our individual predicament. I try to make my anxious sense of self "inside" more real by becoming attached to things in the "outside" world, such as money, fame, and power. But no matter how much of them I may acquire, I never seem to have enough, because they cannot allay the basic anxiety, which stems from the inherent insecurity of the sense of self. Such "solutions" reinforce the problem, which is the sense of separation or distance between myself and others . . . Is there a collective parallel to these sorts of compulsions?

When we ask the question in this way, the answer leaps out at us. What motivates our attitude towards economic growth and technological development? When will we consume enough? When will our mega-corporations be profitable enough? When will our Gross National Product be large enough? When will we have all the technology we need? Why is more always better if it is never enough?

The point is that technology and economic growth in themselves cannot resolve the basic human problem about the meaning of our lives. Since we are not sure how else to solve that problem, however, they have become a collective substitute, forms of secular salvation that we seek but never quite attain, because means have become ends. Since we don’t really know where we want to go, or what we should value, we have become obsessed with ever-increasing control.

Lacking the security that comes from knowing one’s place and role in the cosmos, we have been trying to create our own security. Modern technology, in particular, has become our collective attempt to dominate the conditions of our existence. In effect, we have been trying to remold the earth so that it is completely adapted to serve our purposes, until everything becomes subject to our will, a "resource" that we can use. Ironically, though, this has not been providing the sense of security and meaning that we seek. We have become more anxious, not less. That’s because technology (like its twin, economic development) can be a great means but in itself is a poor goal. Ask any dictator: once you crave power you can never have enough of it to feel safe yourself.

If these parallels are valid – an accurate description of our collective situation – something like the ecological crisis is inevitable. Sooner or later we must bump up against the limits of this compulsive but doomed project of endless growth and never-enough control. And if our increasing reliance on technology as the solution to such problems is itself a symptom of this larger problem, the ecological crisis requires more than a technological response (although technological changes are certainly necessary, of course). Increasing dependence on sophisticated, ever more powerful technologies tends to aggravate our sense of separation from the natural world, whereas any successful solution (if the parallel still holds) must involve recognizing that we are an integral part of the natural world. That also means embracing our responsibility for the welfare of the biosphere, because its well-being ultimately cannot be distinguished from our own well-being. Understood properly, humanity’s taking care of the earth’s rainforests is like me taking care of my own leg. Sound familiar?

Does this solution involve "returning to nature"? That would be like getting rid of the self: something neither possible nor desirable. We cannot return to nature because we have never left it. The environment is not merely an "environment" – that is, the place where we happen to live. Rather, the biosphere is the ground from which and within which we arise. In us and as us, nature becomes self-conscious. The earth is not only our home, it is our mother. In fact, our relationship is even more intimate, because we can never cut the umbilical cord. Individually, the air in my lungs, like the water and food that enter my mouth and pass through my digestive system, is part of a greater system that circulates through me. My life is a dissipative process that depends upon and contributes to that never-ending circulation. The same is true collectively. Our waste products do not disappear when we find somewhere else to dump them. The world is big enough that we may be able to ignore such problems for a while, but what goes around eventually comes around. If we befoul our own nest, there is nowhere else to go.

According to this understanding, our problem is not technology itself but the obsessive ways that we have been motivated to exploit it. Without those motivations, we would be able to evaluate our technologies better, in light of the ecological problems they have contributed to, as well as the ecological solutions they might contribute to. Given all the long-term risks associated with nuclear power, for example, I cannot see that as anything but a short-sighted solution to our energy needs. In place of fossil fuels, the answer will have to be renewable sources of natural power (solar, wind, etc.), along with a radically reduced need for energy. As long as we assume the necessity for continuous economic and technological expansion, the prospect of such a steep reduction in our energy needs is absurd. A new understanding of our basic situation opens up other possibilities.

How does this resolve the basic anxiety that haunts us today, because we must create our own meaning in a world where God has died? Like it or not, individual and collective self-consciousness distances us from pre-modern worldviews and the "natural" meaning-of-life they provided. Nor would we want to return to such constrictive worldviews – often maintained by force—even if we could. But what other alternatives are possible for us?

Following the Buddhist path frees us from the compulsion to secure ourselves within the world. We do not need to become more real by becoming wealthy, or famous, or powerful, or beautiful. That is not because we identify with some other spiritual realm. Rather, we realize our nonduality with this world when we are able to let go of such attachments.

How does that affect the meaning of one’s life? Although living beings are numberless, the bodhisattva vows to save them all. He or she assumes the grandest possible role, one that never comes to an end. Such a commitment is not compulsory, yet it flows naturally from realizing that none of those beings is separate from oneself.

So we conclude with one final parallel between the personal and the collective. Humanity discovers the meaning it seeks in the ongoing, long-term task of repairing the rupture between us and mother earth. That healing will transform us as much as the biosphere.