Buddhism and the Fate of the Species

Another externality dismissed in market systems is the fate of the species. Systemic risk in the financial system can be remedied by the taxpayer, but no one will come to the rescue if the environment is destroyed. That it must be destroyed is close to an institutional imperative. Business leaders who conduct propaganda campaigns to convince the population that anthropogenic global warming is a liberal hoax understand full well how grave is the threat, but they must maximize short-term profit and market share. If they don't, someone else will. And this vicious cycle could well turn out to be lethal. --Noam Chomsky, Is the World Too Big to Fail? (2011)

The most pressing issue now facing our world is the state of the environment. If things are allowed to worsen, our world could turn into a hungry ghost realm. So we, as bodhisattvas, have the duty to protect it and promote its wellbeing. And the most useful way we can do so is by awakening as many minds as possible to the magnitude and urgency of this issue. --Sakya Trizin Rinpoche (2010)

In Buddhist mythology, the world of the hungry ghosts is one of the six realms of conditioned being depicted in the Buddhist "wheel of life." Its three higher realms are inhabited by gods, titans and humans. The three lower realms are those of animals, hell beings and hungry ghosts. In the first quotation above, an eminent Buddhist master warns that our global ecological crisis could lead to the Earth degenerating from a biosphere that supports an extraordinarily rich variety of human (and other animal and plant) life into a world populated by hungry ghosts.

A traditional Buddhist belief is that self-realization is possible only on the biological basis of a human body. So Sakya Trizin points out that global ecological collapse could also eliminate the possibility of enlightenment from the Earth. Understood more metaphorically, the collapse of human civilization, which has become a very real possibility, might leave only a few humans desperately struggling to survive on an impoverished planet, preoccupied indefinitely with finding their next meal and unable to focus on anything else.

Dr Gabor Maté, a psychiatrist working with hard drug addicts, sees the wheel of life as a mandala revolving through six realms, populated by different aspects of human existence. In the animal realm we are driven by basic survival instincts and appetites; in the hell realm by states of unbearable rage and despair. The hungry ghost realm is the domain of addiction where we endlessly seek something outside ourselves to satisfy an insatiable yearning for fulfilment. The street addicts in his care spend almost all their time in this state. But many of us move back and forth between realms, even in the course of a day. Maté considers that "post-industrial" capitalism has created a society addicted to shopping, work, drugs and sex. If we ask how such a "hungry ghost society" would treat its ecological inheritance, perhaps we should study those street addicts.

Of course, this state of affairs also has everything to do with leadership. How do we address the type of psychopathology among leaders that recommends we follow "business-as-usual" to the bitter end of ecological collapse? We all understand homicide. Thanks to the 20th century, we also recognize genocide. But we haven't yet agreed on a word to denote what the human species is doing now: killing great ecosystems like the world's oceans, destroying the stable climate system upon which agriculture itself depends or driving more than half the species on Earth to extinction. We are not witnessing a failure of imagination, but rather the triumph of propaganda. It is especially the case in the world's most powerful country, America, where the media that have become our "collective nervous system" are concerned not to inform us, but to sell our eyeballs to advertisers.

An important part of genuine education is realizing that many of the things we think are natural and inevitable (and therefore should accept) are in fact conditioned (and therefore can be changed). The world doesn't need to be the way it is; there are other possibilities. The present role of the media is to foreclose most of those possibilities by confining public awareness and discussion within narrow limits. Our society is now dominated by a power elite composed of governments and large corporations which include the major media outlets. People move easily from each of these institutions to the other because there is very little difference in their worldview or goals -- primarily economic expansion. As John Dewey put it a long time ago, politics remains "the shadow cast by big business over society." The role of the media in this unholy alliance is to "normalize" this situation, so that we accept it and continue to perform our required roles, especially the frenzied production and compulsive consumption necessary to keep the economy growing.

Meanwhile, weather-related disasters increase every year and the world begins to burn. Our best scientists have carefully researched and published their findings in authoritative professional journals. But as Chomsky points out, the scientific consensus itself has been drowned in a high tide of corporate propaganda. The very fate of our species is being treated as a mere "externality" by free market ideology.

Ban Ki Moon, secretary-general of the U.N., warned at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year that our model of economic growth has become not merely obsolete, but a global suicide pact. We have mined our way to growth, burned our way to prosperity and believed in consumption without consequences. In the 21st century, all resources are running short and the one we are most clearly running out of is time -- time to build a new sustainable economic model for survival. That is why Sakya Trizin alerts us to another grave dimension of climate change: that it may lead us to the extinction of the human spirit, of wisdom and of the lineage of enlightenment itself.