Healing Ecology

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 17, 2010

Healing Ecology

David R. Loy

This paper was the subject of discussion at the American Academy of Religion national meeting in Atlanta, October 31, 2010 on “Nondualist Ecology: Perspectives on the Buddhist Environmentalism of David Loy.” Co-hosting were the Buddhist Critical-Constructive Reflection Group and the Comparative Religious Ethics Group.

Read article

8 thoughts on “Healing Ecology”

  1. Grace Kao makes the point that the ecological crisis we are facing does not grant us the luxury of waiting for a collective awakening to “our nonduality with the rest of the biosphere,” and she rightly notes in a footnote that David Loy is not suggesting that practical action in response to the crisis needs to wait until that awakening. Indeed, in his paper and other writings David advocates an array of actions, many of which dovetail with the actions advocated by non-Buddhist ethicists and activists. I wonder which proximate actions at this historical moment David would regard as most effective as a response, as most likely to have an ameliorative effect (however small), given his Buddhist analysis of the cause of the crisis (in terms of the dualistic sense of separation from nature, the accompanying “poisons” of greed and ill-will, and other causes he has sketched elsewhere in his writings).

  2. Thanks to Chris for his question, which is of course the important one: “So what does all this mean for what we should be doing?” My essay does not imply that we should stop the great variety of efforts that people are making individually and collectively: reducing our carbon footprint, shifting to renewable energy sources, constructing more energy-efficient buildings, negotiating international treaties, and so forth. We need to continue and redouble such activities, making them more of a priority.
    The main implication of the essay, however, is that such efforts by themselves will not be enough without a collective transformation in our worldview and attitude, which leads to a collective transformation in our way of living. Insofar as our present economic system institutionalizes the greed of “never enough” (as I’ve argued elsewhere), it is incompatible with the new worldview that is needed, which acknowledges our nonduality with — and responsibility to — the rest of the biosphere. Another issue is population: it’s questionable whether the earth can sustain seven billion people with an acceptable quality of life that, in the long run, is compatible with the well-being of its other species.
    So how do we promote a more nondual worldview? I think this brings Buddhists back to the chicken-and-egg question: is it sufficient to focus on transforming oneself, in the belief that this also influences those around us; or do we need to focus on institutional transformation, given the way social power is concentrated, and public attitudes are manipulated with sophisticated propaganda? Remember the old sociological paradox: people create society, but society creates people. I understand this to imply that we need to work on both levels. This does not mean a separate Buddhist movement, rather a role for Buddhists (and other like-minded spiritual activists) within a movement for social and ecological justice that is already widespread but too often (because of its historical roots) anti-religious. One of the most exciting things about Buddhism today is that its encounter with modernity brings together the traditional Buddhist concern for personal transformation with the traditional Western concern for social transformation (for a more just society). To address dukkha (suffering) most successfully, we need both.

  3. Lovely essay, David, really. Thank you. Sorry I couldn’t be there this year.

    I’ve a few comments/questions. My first and chief concern (not with the paper but one I share with you) is with the problem/difficulty of promoting a “religious worldview” in our postmodern world. As a long-time practicing Buddhist, I’ve come to see the deep wisdom in the worldviews of my many Christian friends (granted, these are mostly folks with a non-exclusivist theology and with progressive social values). But I have many friends/acquaintances who despise Christianity (some of whom are former Christians) and seem, as a result, to think that all religions bring more harm than good. I’m sure many readers here are familiar with such a secular attitude today. Note the preference for being “spiritual” over being “religious,” even among Catholic nuns that I know.

    This said, I know that David Loy is not proposing “returning to religion,” for heaven’s sake (or Sukhavati’s sake).

    But he is proposing, or promoting, the adoption of a worldview (and following Geertz, an accompanying ethos) that grows from a religious tradition. To be clear here, I applaud his efforts and wish for the same.

    My question then is how can we promote such without appearing “religious”? Personally, I am OK with being religious (I call myself so), and I’m OK with the religiosity of many of my Christian friends. I know that religion can be a powerful force for the human evolution–or hydrogen evolution–of which David Loy writes, in spite of the many problems that “religion” might have caused. Maybe there is good religion and bad religion, though I don’t assume to be an arbiter. I just know there can be good religion. Regardless, a part of my question here is how we can help “give religion a better name.” Is this a doomed project? I pray not.

    Then related is the perhaps more important question of–if we acknowledge the religious roots of David Loy’s proposals–how can we promote them without invoking the wrath of our anti-religious human colleagues on the planet? Must we disguise the religious elements and make Buddhist ideas appear “scientific”? I don’t think this tack has enough force since science, in general, does not possess the same driving concern for individual and collective transformation that David’s proposals, their values and visions, carry. In a word, it is not “spiritual” enough, or perhaps just not religious enough. Not yet. And we can’t wait until it becomes so.

    Do you see the quandary here? In spite of David’s dead-on assessment of the need for a Nomos in any human being or community (even if only a provisional one), so many people today resist adopting any Nomos at all (of course there is great irony in holding to the Nomos of being anti-Nomos…). As we know, this tension is present in Buddhism, maybe especially in Zen, and in American Zen where I think sometimes, sadly, devoted practitioners are unwilling to admit that there is something deeply religious about their identification with the tradition and adoption of its ideals, even the antinomian ones.

    My own weak response to these questions is that we just need to keep plugging away in the middle of these thorny matters. Of course I am not myself aiming solely to “give religion a better name,” though I do have this concern. Whether we call our passions here religious or not is not a pressing matter. What matters is to get people passionate in similar ways, and I don’t care whether they call such orientation religious or not. But I know that when the language comes from religious traditions, even a “cool” one like Buddhism, we run into resistance. So I think we need to plug away at “making sense” of the visions herein, of pressing for recognition of their health and healing virtues. And we need to be creative in using whatever language works toward this end. Very creative.

  4. Thanks, David, for this thoughtful response. Needless to say, I share your concerns. You are quite correct that I’m not proposing a “return to a religious worldview” – for the simple reason that in my opinion we’ve never left it. Some years ago I published an article in the JAAR [65/2] on “The Religion of the Market,” which began: “If we adopt a functionalist view and understand religion as what grounds us by teaching us what the world is, and what our role in the world is, then it becomes obvious … that function is being supplanted – or overwhelmed – by other belief-systems and value-systems.” As you say, an anti-Nomos is also a Nomos. From that perspective, the beliefs and values of a secular worldview are on the same level: consciously or unconsciously we choose among stories – whether ostensibly religious or non-religious – that tell us who we are and what we should be doing.
    Of course, that in itself doesn’t address your main concern, which is how a worldview of the sort expressed in my article might be promoted. But it opens a door. When religious and secular worldviews are not distinguished in the usual way, how should we evaluate them, to help us choose among them? Well, one thing we need to do is compare their consequences, both individual and collective. How satisfactory are consumerism and “growthism,” as our main value-systems? On a personal level they are becoming increasingly questionable, which often motivates a quest for a better worldview to live by. And collectively it is also more and more obvious that they are failing, leading to economic, social and especially ecological crises that are going to get much worse. We can’t know what effects these crises will have on individual and collective worldviews – and people don’t always think clearly when they’re fearful – but it is important that at such times alternative stories are available, which offer a diagnosis of where things went wrong and how we might make them right.

  5. I would like to add a few things. First of all, thank you David for the paper. It tied together many ideas that I have been working with but have had difficulty connecting (e.g., the idea of unending progress and how that relates to human suffering on both a psychological and societal level, as well as how the personal and collective selves connect).

    In response to David Gardiner’s question on how to “promote a religious worldview without appearing ‘religious,’” I understand and sympathize with the notion that religion is important, critical for our current times, and that “appearing religious” might trigger old thoughts and patterns engrained from negative childhood experience with, but not limited to, oppressive forms of Judeo-Christianity, etc. However, religion is simply a human belief system and inquiry about who we are and how we fit into the world. I do believe the answer to our current crisis is that of a spiritual one. However, a collective awaking to this will take time. In order to “buy time” until an awakening can occur, we must attend to issues that are most pressing, and to me this is the environmental crisis.

    David Loy, I loved how you brought Brian Swimme into the conversation. As a response to the question “How do we promote a different value system?” I believe this will entail creating a new evolutionary worldview–bringing evolution into the conversation as a scientific truth. Once we realize that humans are at the tail end of a long succession of systems and species, some which have survived and some which have not, we as a collective might get a better idea of who “we” are and what we are doing here, both metaphysically and on the pragmatic level.

    I would also like to bring an ecofeminist perspective into the conversation relative to Grace Kao’s response. Although David’s use or misuse of gendered language may not sit well with some, the fact is that we live in a patriarchal society. Therefore, the forces and pressures in this male-dominated system to be successful and keep up are exactly this: a man’s game, or reflective of “male experience” to quote Kao. It is not essentialist to say that we must “return to our roots” or find a home in “mother earth.” There is a kinship that exists between woman and earth, reflected in the shared power to give birth and provide nurture. The social distinction of gender hierarchies is the problem, and where we should focus our attention to begin addressing current forms of oppression (i.e., patriarchy, speciesism, racism, environmental degradation), which is a point that Kao brought up. It is interesting to note that the same logic underlying the human/nature dualism is the same logic directing patriarchy (Val Plumwood’s logic of colonization). Therefore, addressing the issue of human’s disconnection from and exploitation of nature from a feminist perspective is quite necessary.

    In any case, Kao has a very good point in stating that we should “strategically work from within those paradigms.” From within a male-dominated society, feminism is a good place to start, as well as finding the language to communicate new forms of religion. I really enjoyed reading these responses. Thanks to everyone who contributed.

  6. Dear David,
    Thanks for posting this great article. I found your argument and main points compelling, perhaps because they resonate so strongly with those in my book, The Four Global Truths. Like Kimberly, I appreciate you bringing in the evolutionary piece, which is lacking in Buddhist (and other perennial) traditions but is key to understanding how individual delusions become collective and even institutionalized (think of the three poisons and their reflection in America’s military-industrial-media complex). Keep sharing the dharma and providing a collective wake-up call!

  7. Responding to David Gardiner’s concerns about overt religiosity: I think this is not a problem, and in fact I am always rather pleased when someone recognizes my religious agenda for the simple reason that it shows they have some familiarity with it. My part is to have faith, and dependent on that, I will perceive them as part of my faith. The barrier is only from their point of view. Just as the Buddha is not deluded by ignorant sentient beings, so my proselytizing is only as good as my personal convictions–and then I wonder why it would even be desirable to blur the source of my views. No, let them see where I gain my inspirations and let me be uninhibited in voicing them. We only think less of people who feel they have to hide their identity. And if they can’t accept the you that you have such faith in exposing, then how much better should your words fare?
    I might suggest that getting over this hurdle of accepting each other’s individuality is even more valuable for them, and for you, than any subsequent catechisms on ecology, or doctrine for that matter.

  8. I realize some of the ideas in my arguments below are not common enough to gloss, so please bear with the thrashing out of ideas.

    The issue of patriarchy is quite interesting. I see the Internet and particularly social networking as a characteristic of matriarchal protectionism. Facebook hasn’t been with us for long but it has completely revolutionized my own friendships. My workplace is a highly systematized environment, and this too shows matriarchal traits. Systems grows as a natural response to one-sided patriarchies. Bad / selfish leadership in politics and business, and also cancerous rational thinking as we’ve seen in the fields of nuclear physics, economics, etc. are examples. Once a leader has achieved some goal, once the scientist has discovered some pattern, they show no further interest in the aftermath. This is like getting a woman pregnant and then running away. They are renegades without a sense of responsibility. Alexandra of Macedonia made good leader precisely because he didn’t simply destroy cities and move onto further conquests. He established his rule, not by instituting new systems, but by sequestering those already in place. For a woman, the weapon of choice is often poison. She doesn’t attempt to attack a hostile system head on; poison requires one small point of entry and from there it can wreak systemic havoc.

    The late Ivan Illich, a dissident Catholic priest from Austria, says that we are living in the age of the system. The number of technological innovations and the speed of their discovery has created a great deal of tension in the human family. The social impact of economics in England’s industrial revolution is a good place to look. While the patriarchal layers of our human family have had the upper hand (politics and economics), the social and environmental systems have suffered. This seems to be changing now, as all things do. Facebook and Skype allow much easier communication between displaced families for instance. A migrant worker can travel overseas and still communicate with his family to a dangerous degree. People have lost their jobs because they couldn’t resist using social networking sites in office hours. Let’s not even go into the detrimental effects of mobile phones in the patriarchal domain of education.

    The systems that are developing in social networking have the potential to bind together the minds of our rapidly growing populations. They can also desensitize us (television). The revolutions happening in the patriarchal Arab world are a most poignant display of how a system, the Internet, that arachnid’s web of pagan (matriarchal) western ideals, can infect and affect millions of people to revolt against their patriarchies, at great personal risk. Before mobile phones and the Internet, these people simply didn’t have the resolve to act. They were suppressed, without a voice or a sense of integrity.

    Democracy has been the West’s political system of choice as it allows the open deployment of its own service-based hegemony into the target states. However, the Internet has even put aside the necessity for political reform and has become its instigator. These revolutions are the result of internal pressure, not external bullying. I don’t think we can generalize any longer about the west being in the clutches of patriarchal control. The church has been the chief patriarchal system, and its power has significantly declined. Politically, the monarchies have gone, replaced by a toothless round table, a system. Guilds and family businesses have turned into anonymous franchises. We talk endlessly about political/economic systems, but all of these have an abstract flavor to them, a patriarchal characteristic. We can’t pin them down. Show me a capitalist country without protectionism, or a country that has fully instituted the communist manifesto.

    There is a real danger in words that describe abstract phenomena. We are tricked by them — defined one way and executed in many others. In our rational age there are so many words particular to each field of study — “feudal fiefdoms” as Raulston Saul calls them. Unless you have a Ph.D. in whatever subject, the hyper-specialized elites will quickly dismiss your impudent intellectual poaching, and your opinions will be ignored. This situation has hampered true communication and perpetuated the patriarchal monopoly. In the field of software development the situation is quite different. Every brand seeks to distinguish itself through sloganeering. Why battle over the meaning of a word when you can create new ones? Buddha taught to teach in the language of the people.

    On the subject of ecology, it always seems to be the corporate and political entities, and never the individuals, that are blamed for the environmental crisis. Put anyone in the position of leading an oil company and you’ll find they will probably all make the same decisions. Either that or they won’t be the ones making the decisions anymore. Its no different in politics. A leader of a country is most often no more than a pawn who follows the rules of the system they inherit. What makes a good leader is their willingness to sacrifice themselves. This is the renunciation Lord Buddha spoke about. To leave aside a system that offers security and asks not for talent or initiative, but merely that you consistently take your place — as in an ant colony — what could be more alluring? Some / perhaps all of the greatest leaders were ascetics: Gandhi, Mandela come to mind. They lived humble lives, patient with the systems that found them threatening, appealing to the people directly. We today can also renounce systems and lead humble lives. Illich thinks it a dangerous thing to become involved in grand ideas of “helping” the world. Milarepa said the same. He placed personal liberation above all other concerns. The urge to fix a broken system is what we should guard against — or should we say relax into. Though you may not be the one flying the victory banner into the next battle for the environment, you can be sure your own composure is contributing to a revolution that will prove systemic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *