A Buddhist perspective on eco-grief

I have no particular expertise in the fields of psychology or environmental sciences. I read what I can, and I feel the loss of wildlife and habitats as keenly as I’m sure do all of you. I also feel frustrated by the unwillingness, or inability, of governments and international organisations to confront, and take co-ordinated action, to tackle the global emergency of climate change. I’m going to offer you a ten-minute personal view, grounded in my work as an artist and writer, and fifty-five years of secular Buddhist meditation practice.

I’m going to suggest we consider eco-grief as one of many forms of suffering (dukkha in Buddhism) arising from the transient nature of existence and from our insatiable desires or attachments to things and sensations. I’ll look at two aspects of eco-grief: on the one hand, a feeling of loss at what is passing, dying or being degraded; and on the other hand, a deepening anxiety about a chaotic and fearful future. I’ll argue that we need to combine clear-sighted realism with a positive and creative attitude, in order to act in a mindful, wise and compassionate manner. I’ll suggest that we need to focus on what we can do now to change minds and behaviour, rather than allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by an imagined future, however bleak we may imagine it to be.

From a Buddhist perspective, grief at the death of a loved one, is a natural process – something to be accepted as a part of life. We experience it in all its intensity and then it runs its course – lessening in pain as we absorb what has happened and learn to live with our loss. Failing to accept what has happened, or resisting letting go of our loved one, is to prolong grief in an unnatural way. Being able to understand what is happening and to respond wisely is vital if we are to minimise suffering.

Eco-grief presents particular difficulties when seen from this traditional Buddhist perspective. This is because eco-grief is a complex term denoting a number of different experiences. Alongside the grief felt at the extinction of species, at deforestation, at habitat loss, at soil degradation and at shrinking glaciers – there is also a feeling of grief at what we imagine, or believe, the future holds. To the usual sense of grief as a response to what is passing (the past), is added a response to what is yet to arrive (the future). It is important to distinguish between these two modes of grief and to understand them in appropriate ways.

It is important not to become overwhelmed by what we might feel, or imagine, is a gloomy or catastrophic future, for this will lead to resignation, inaction and a sense that this is ‘our fate’ – something we can do nothing about. Whatever we may feel about the odds being stacked against us, it is important we do all we can to maintain a balanced view and to recognise that the future is never certain and is affected by what we do now. Rather than dwell unduly on an imagined future – however well researched our foresight may be – it is important to concentrate on understanding what is happening now, on what can be done to bring about change and to be open to all that this life offers.

From a Buddhist viewpoint, eco-grief is a form of suffering or dukkha. The traditional way of approaching suffering, in whatever form it takes, is first, to recognise it and accept that it is happening; then to recognise that our responses are often habitual, unconsidered and reactive, and to let go of these habits of response; then, free of habit, to pause and reflect in a considered way on possible causes and ways to ameliorate the suffering; and, only then, to act in a wise and compassionate manner that will help alleviate suffering, remove its causes, or learn to live with what is unavoidable.

The Buddha advocated a way of life that is grounded in three aspects of awareness: a clear and realistic understanding of how things are (dharma); a compassionate openness to others and to the world; and, a balanced attitude characterised by equanimity and composure. He recognised that all things are transient, and that this fact presents us with many of life’s difficulties and leads to suffering. The fact that all things come and go, grow and decay, are born and die, causes us pain and dissatisfaction. The transient nature of all things gives a poignancy to every moment of life – because every moment is passing even as it is arrives. It is important to learn how to enjoy and fully attend to things, without wishing to hang on to, or to possess, them. And by ‘things’ I also mean people, ideas, opinions and imagined futures. The Buddha advised us, if we are to minimise suffering, not to cling too rigidly to ourselves, other people and beings, or to ideas, beliefs and opinions. Understanding suffering, and its causes, including habits of desire, attachment and acquisitiveness, is the first step in learning how to cope with transience, dissatisfaction, pain and loss.

The Buddha argued that insatiable desire fuels dissatisfaction, restlessness, disturbance and conflict – we chase after novelties in the hope that our desires and wants will be fulfilled. But new things, experiences and ideas only reinforce our desire for more, taking us further and further away from peace, equanimity and wellbeing.

Capitalism, as the dominant current economic model, is grounded in greed and inequality – one group of people making money out of another, and all groups exploiting the earth’s resources in ways that are unsustainable. Capitalism sets out to exploit the earth and its inhabitants with no regard for the consequences. In order to do this, it nurtures desire and acquisitiveness in a myriad of forms, in the full knowledge that they are insatiable and self-propelling. The result of this is great inequality, enormous wastefulness and widespread suffering. Our intention must shift from making a profit out of others, to living within our means – that is, sustainably – ensuring the wellbeing of our planet. We must move to a post-capitalist or eco-capitalist economy – which maximises the ECO in economy – making the most out of the least.

Sulak Sivaraksa is a contemporary Thai social activist and founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. What he has to say can be quite hard-hitting: ‘According to Buddhism, there are three poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. …. Capitalism and consumerism are driven by these three poisons.’ If things are to change, he says, ‘…two realisations are necessary: an inner realisation concerning greed, hatred and delusion, and an outer realisation concerning the impact these tendencies have on society and the planet.’1

In a finite world with limited resources, unlimited insatiable desire and consumption, will inevitably be destructive of ourselves, of other beings and of the world we inhabit. The idea of ‘unlimited growth’ is a fiction, a delusion. All entities have limits to their growth, dependent on conditions in which they grow. But somehow, in economic and political spheres this fundamental truth is pushed aside in favour of a destructive ethos or fantasy. Somehow the delusion of unlimited growth and consumption has to be seen for what it is and replaced by an ethics of moderation, ‘make-do-and-mend’, wise and compassionate action, and care for the planet and all its interdependent inhabitants.

Sharing understanding and ideas, lobbying those in power, changing our individual habits and lifestyles – particularly reducing our insatiable desires – are things we can do now. Working together we can bring realism, hope and imagination to the challenges of climate change and environmental destruction – we can transform both our present and our future. It is important to keep our focus on the miracles of life, consciousness and self-awareness, and to use these gifts to do all we can now, to heal ourselves and our planet. Maintaining an openness to joy, hope, surprise, relationship and kindness, is vital if we are not to be overwhelmed by grief, resignation and inaction.

1  Sulak Sivaraksa, Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society, Parallax Press, 1992