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We face many environmental problems today. So many that the situation can appear overwhelming. For some, the tendency may be to act like an ostrich, by “burying one’s head in the sand”, and ignoring it. Others can choose to do the opposite, and rush around in a frenzied mayhem, attempting to address every single issue.
Those falling in the first camp may end up only further contributing to the situation. This is because they choose to block out their concerns by chasing consumerist rewards (i.e. a new car, big house) that further tax the planet. They may also choose careers that harm the planet, justifying their actions with the attitude that “If they don’t do it, somebody will.”
As for those in the second camp, while they may make some progress in the short-term, eventually they will likely become burnt out. In the process, they leave the strands of many unfinished projects in their wake. Which can leave those who were working with them feeling more discouraged than when they started. This is because all their efforts would seem for naught.
So where is the balance? How should we respond while avoiding the problems of both the “ostrich” and the frenzied project organizer? I cannot claim to have all the answers, but as a starting point I strongly recommend reading Stephanie Kaza’s inspiring book, Mindfully Green. In this book, she advocates following the “green practice path.” A Buddhist inspired text, undertaking this path is explained to basically involve 1) gaining a wider view of how our actions may be harming the planet and 2) finding ways to reduce this harm.
Kaza gives the example of how this relates to food. Eating food such as meat can cause water pollution, cause animals to suffer, harm the consumer through the causation of heart disease and cancer, and so on. However, it may be that for certain reasons (e.g. living in a colder climate, or I would add having a certain body type) you may find it necessary to consume at least some meat.
The key thing is to start asking the difficult questions about how much you can realistically do to lead a more ethical life. Embarking on this process is something that Kaza informs us is referred to as a “koan.” Based on Zen Buddhism, this is a continually unfolding puzzle that takes more than mental effort to answer. “You live with a koan,” she says, “you wrestle with it, you get stumped by it, you have sudden breakthroughs with it…”
Food as well as other basic daily activities, such as water consumption and waste production also cited by Kaza, can be a valuable starting point. After all, we all eat, drink, and make purchases.
However, I would suggest there are many other applications. For instance, how do the relationships that we form, and how we interact with others, affect a desire to not inflict harm? How do our choices about whether to have a family affect the planet? And one that I referred to earlier and that I often grapple with is, what impact does my chosen career have on the earth?
These are difficult questions and one cannot expect to come to answers immediately. “If you come to answers too quickly, you will have missed the deeper insight hidden in the questions,” she says. By the same token, do not expect to find absolute answers to all your questions. Instead, quoting poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Kaza reminds us that we must “learn to love the questions.”
There is much else I could say about Kaza’s book. Such as the need for self-care, to ensure that we have the energy to carry out our work (e.g. balancing the need to put bread on the table with a desire to help the planet). The helpfulness of considering joining a group, where others may have answers to the questions you are seeking. And, finally, the importance of commitment, or in other words taking a “vow”, to prevent harm to others and the planet. For, as Kaza states, “the pledge…helps to strengthen that intention.”
If you wish to learn more about the green practice path, I would strongly recommend reading Kaza’s book. However, for my purposes here, I would like to end by saying I feel it is important that we consider taking up this path. We may not have all the answers or know where it will lead. But what can be more important than reducing harm to this planet and its inhabitants? It may be frightening, taking that first step. But once started, I believe many shall find that it is essential to finding a truly meaningful and rewarding life.