Many people assume that if we just convert to renewable sources of energy, our economy and society can continue to function indefinitely in much the same way that they have been doing. But the climate crisis, urgent though it is, is only the tip of an ecological iceberg that has more profound implications for the future of human civilization. This much larger challenge includes species extinction, overfishing, plastic pollution, massive “dead zones” in bays and estuaries, topsoil exhaustion, freshwater depletion, hormone-disrupting POPs and other toxic chemicals, nuclear waste, overpopulation, and (add your own “favorite” here . . .), among numerous other ecological and social problems that could be mentioned. Most if not all of these disorders are connected to a questionable mechanistic worldview that freely exploits the natural world because it attributes no inherent value to nature—or to us, for that matter, insofar as humans too are understood to be nothing more than complex machines, according to the predominant materialistic understanding.
This larger view implies that we have something more than a technological problem, or an economic problem, or a political problem, or a worldview problem. Is modern civilization self-destructing because it has lost its way? If so, there is another way to characterize that: humanity is experiencing a collective spiritual crisis.
Traditional Buddhist teachings understand our fundamental problem in individual terms. My dukkha(suffering) is due to my own karma, craving, and ignorance, and therefore the path to resolve them is also individual. The idea of a civilizational crisis—of collective, institutionalizeddukkhathat must also be addressed collectively—is new to Buddhism but nonetheless unavoidable, given our precarious situation today. The challenge that confronts us is spiritual because it goes to the very heart of how we understand the world, including our place and role in this world. Is the eco-crisis the earth’s way of telling us to “wake up or suffer the consequences”?
If so, we cannot expect that what we seek can be provided by a technological solution, or an economic solution, or a political solution, or a new scientific worldview, either by themselves or in concert with the others. Whatever the way forward may be, it will need to incorporate those contributions, to be sure, but something more is called for.
This is where Buddhism has something important to offer. Yet the ecological crisis is also a crisis for how we understand and practice Buddhism, which today needs to clarify its essential message if it is to fulfill its liberative potential in our modern, secular, endangered world.
Does Buddhism itself need to wake up?
— from Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis, ch. 1.