HANKIES OR KLEENEX?
While I agree with Susan Moon’s sentiments regarding joyful practice and the need to live by example, “Stop Shopping” (Summer 2005) left me with the lingering question: How and where do we find hope? The ideals of caring for Mother Earth and low-impact living and consumption have been around since at least the sixties. However, none of these efforts seem to have slowed down the acceleration of pollution or the increase of consumerism, nor have they led to any significant conservation of natural resources. Instead, the opposite seems to be true. People buy larger vehicles and houses, electronic and other consumer goods are made to be replaced rather than repaired, and meat consumption and genetically engineered food are steadily on the rise. I think that Moon’s contribution doesn’t take into account the gravity of the state of the world and it leaves me wondering if it really makes sense to focus on whether it’s better to buy Kleenex or use hankies. I’m more drawn to Michael Soule’s point of view (“The Whole Package,” Summer 2005). After almost two decades of relative ease, when we perhaps rested too much on the hard-won laurels of the sixties generation, it seems time again to get off our cushions and be “engaged”—otherwise there may not be anything or anybody left to share in our joyous practice.
—Travis Masch, Berkeley, California
IT ISN’T EASY BEING GREEN
I follow many of the practices, sometimes with difficulty, that Susan Moon presented in her article “Stop Shopping” (Summer 2005). However, I find nothing compelling about her injunction to “eat organic food and avoid genetically engineered food.” There is little justification for this practice, although she does encourage us to view a “compelling new film” on the “dangers of genetically modified foods, the corporations that patent them, and what you can do about it.” It looks like a case of “us” against the “corporations that patent them.” One of the first questions to ask is which corporations are the villains, the multibillion-dollar agribusiness corporations that hold these patents or the multibillion-dollar organic food corporations that support the “safe food” movement? Further, while it is convenient to see genetically modified (GM) foods solely as the product of corporations interested in the bottom line, they are also the products of scientists, many of whom have a deep interest in helping their fellow human beings and who see GM food as a means to alleviate hunger and to save the environment. What seems likely is that it will be very hard to find dispassionate views when so much money is at stake for both “sides” of this issue.
I sense a prevailing dualism among Buddhists about science and technology. On one hand, there seems to be a sense that somehow human intervention in the genome violates some natural law. On the other hand, there is a fascination with quantum physics because it seems to confirm our beliefs. GM foods are neither inherently evil nor inherently unsafe. Genes are naturally in a constant state of flux, and humans have meddled with them for at least the past ten thousand years. Much of the vegetable matter that we consume—organic or otherwise—is derived from this meddling. Mutation is neither good nor bad, it is simply an agent for change.
There is a large body of unsubstantiated and poorly supported beliefs about GM foods, whose advocates tend to cling to facts that support it and to reject anything that does not. GM foods have been wrapped around the Frankenstein myth, which, as noted by Jon Turney in Frankstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics, and Popular Culture, “hampers the necessary task of agreeing how to control the new technological powers now being developed in laboratories. It invites an all-or-nothing response on our right to choose some, and block others.”
We are currently facing a major crisis involving too much population and too little food to sustain it. Most land that can be farmed is being farmed. What more can we do? How are we going to sustain the pressing need for food and the equally pressing need to sustain what is left of uncultivated wilderness without finding improved means? We need to keep available a wide range of tools at our disposal to use with compassion and as much wisdom as we can muster.
For some, organic agriculture represents all that we will ever need to meet this looming crisis. But organic food is no panacea. As anyone who has visited an organic grocer knows, organic food comes at a higher cost. It requires more land to grow organic food (advocates sometimes fail to factor in the land needed to produce the organic fertilizers that are applied to these crops), and it also requires more hard manual labor. Where will the unused land come from? Where will we find the additional sources of labor and the fair wages to pay these laborers? The market for organic food exists in the wealthy first world, where we can afford to support inefficiency. Peter Raven, head of the Missouri Botanical Garden, has noted that “organic agriculture is essentially what is practiced in sub-Saharan Africa today, and half of the people are starving.”
Rather than seeing another “compelling” film that may agree with our comfortable state of belief regarding GM food, I would encourage the readers of Tricycle to read one of the well-written and well-documented books now available that try to capture both the pros and cons of this important technology. For a very complete discussion, I would suggest Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown ( Joseph Henry Press, 2004).
—Dave Bodycombe, Baltimore, Maryland
SUSAN MOON RESPONDS
To say that Buddhists like quantum physics but not genomics is misguided. The writer is confusing the science with the application. To this Buddhist, the dharmic teaching of the interconnectedness of all things resonates not only with physics but also with the study of genetics and genomics. I appreciate physics, not nuclear weapons. I appreciate genomics, not land wasted by pesticides and monoculture. And because we are all connected, what we do to the DNA of corn may ultimately affect our own DNA in ways we can’t anticipate. I expect most of the scientists who initially developed GM foods were trying to help feed the world, but many well-intentioned scientists’ ideas have resulted in undesirable applications. Furthermore, organic is not a sentimental, unscientific idea. There are specific benefits to the certification of organic: not treated with sludge, not treated with chemicals that we know are damaging to our health and the ecosystem. As to the cost, organic food is indeed more expensive to the consumer at the moment (although prices are coming down fast, as the industry gets corporatized). But a dollar-hamburger has many hidden costs that are borne by the public elsewhere, through government subsidies and environmental degradation.
IT’S UP TO US
Many thanks to the editor for calling attention to the front page New York Times photograph of religious leaders gathering in Jerusalem to protest a gay pride festival. I am a gay man who was raised Jewish and have been a Buddhist practitioner for many years. The picture of the event and what it represents hit me hard on many levels. What seems obvious is that this photo is another unfortunate reflection of the fact that rallying around a common hatred is easier, more fertile, and more politically expedient than any other approach in our present-day world. It is just personally a bit rattling to be its target. When I encounter a view that is impossible to reconcile with my deepest knowing of what I am, I go back to the Buddha’s instructions to the Kalamas: “You should decide, Kalamas, not by what you have heard, not by following convention, not by assuming it is so, not by relying on the texts, not because of reasoning, not because of logic, not by thinking about explanations, not by acquiescing to the views that you prefer, not because it appears likely, and certainly not out of respect for a teacher.”
—Lawrence Axelrod, Chicago, Illinois
WHICH WAY TO DALAIWOOD?
One of the requests I made on your recent survey form was for more and more detailed reviews of Buddhist films. Soon thereafter I was very pleased to discover Andrew Goodwin’s review of the International Buddhist Film Festival in your Summer 2005 issue. It was a very provocative and ultimately frustrating article, since one would have to have attended the film festival in order for Professor Goodwin’s remarks to be meaningful. If you have any idea how an average reader, without the wherewithal to travel to San Francisco or other such venues, might obtain copies of the films he mentioned—and if you would provide such a source listing for future films you review—your film-buff readers would be very grateful, I am sure.
—Barbara Lehman, Lake Oswego, Oregon
According to Gaetano Kazuo Maida, Executive Director of the International Buddhist Film Festival (IBFF), his organization will be launching a DVD store on their website, www.ibff.org, in October. The online store will include as many IBFF films as possible, subject to their availability in DVD format. (For many independent filmmakers, it can take up to two years to produce a finished DVD.) He also tells us that New York City will host the next festival, planned for fall 2006.
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