Scientific predictions of environmental change are difficult for ordinary human beings to comprehend fully. We hear about hot temperatures and rising sea levels, increasing cancer rates, vast population growth, depletion of resources, and extinction of species. Human activity everywhere is hastening to destroy key elements of the natural eco-systems all living beings depend on.
These threatening developments are individually drastic and together amazing. The world’s population has tripled in this century alone and is expected to double or triple in the next. The global economy may grow by a factor of five or ten including with it extreme rates of energy consumption, carbon dioxide production, and deforestation. It is hard to imagine all these things actually happening in our lifetime and in the lives of our children. We have to consider the prospects of global suffering and environmental degradation unlike anything in human history.
I think, however, there is good news in that now we will definitely have to find new ways to survive together on this planet. In this century, we have seen enough war, poverty, pollution, and suffering. According to Buddhist teaching, such things happen as the result of ignorance and selfish actions, because we often fail to see the essential common relation of all beings. The earth is showing us warnings and clear indications of the vast effects and negative potential of misdirected human behavior.
To counteract these harmful practices, we can teach ourselves to be more aware of our own mutual dependence. Every sentient being wants happiness instead of pain. So we share a common basic feeling. We can develop right action to help the earth and each other based on a better motivation. Therefore, I always speak of the importance of developing a genuine sense of universal responsibility. When we are motivated by wisdom and compassion, the results of our actions benefit everyone, not just our individual selves or some immediate convenience. When we are able to recognize and forgive ignorant actions of the past, we gain the strength to constructively solve the problems of the present.
We should extend this attitude to be concerned for our whole environment. As a basic principle, I think it is better to help if you can, and if you cannot help, at least try not to do harm. This is an especially suitable guide when there is so much yet to understand about the complex interrelations of diverse and unique eco-systems. The earth is our home and our mother. We need to respect and take care of her. This is easy to understand today.
Caring for Our Earth
We need knowledge to care for ourselves, every part of the Earth and the life upon it, and all of the future generations as well. This means that education about the environment is of great importance to everyone. Scientific learning and technological progress are essential for improving the quality of life in the modern world. Still more important is the simple practice of getting to know, and better appreciate, our natural surroundings and ourselves, whether we are children or adults. If we have a true appreciation for others, and resist acting out of ignorance, we will take care of the Earth.
In the biggest sense, environmental education means learning to maintain a balanced way of life. All religions agree that we cannot find lasting inner satisfaction based on selfish desires and acquiring the comforts of the material things. Even if we could, there are now so many people that the earth would not sustain us for long. I think it is much better to practice enjoying simple peace of mind. We can share the earth and take care of it together, rather than trying to possess it; destroying the beauty of life in the process.
Ancient cultures that have adapted to their natural surroundings can offer special insights on structuring human societies to exist in balance with the environment. For example, Tibetans are uniquely familiar with life on the Himalayan Plateau. This has evolved into a long history of a civilization that took care not to overwhelm and destroy its fragile eco-system. Tibetans have long appreciated the presence of wild animals as symbols of freedom. A deep reverence for nature is apparent in much of Tibetan art and ceremony. Spiritual development thrived, despite limited material progress. Just as species may not adapt to relatively sudden environmental changes, human cultures also need to be treated with special care to ensure survival. Therefore, learning about the useful ways of people and preserving their cultural heritage is also a part of learning to care for the environment.
Just Have a Good Heart
I try always to express the value of having a good heart. This simple aspect of human nature can be nourished to great power. With a good heart and wisdom, you have the right motivation and will automatically do what needs to be done. If people begin to act with genuine compassion for everyone, we can still protect each other and the natural environment. This is much easier than having to adapt to the severe and incomprehensible environmental conditions projected for the future.
Now on a close examination, the human mind, the human heart, and the environment are inseparably linked together. In this sense, environmental education helps to generate both the understanding and love we need to create the best opportunity there has ever been for peace and lasting coexistence.
Reprinted from EPA Journal: A Magazine on National and Global Environmental Perspectives, Published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Washington D. C, September/October 1991, vol. 17, Number 4.