environmentalism_header
Broken stones scrathced white, Andy Goldsworthy, Morecambe Bay, Lancashire, January 1978

IN THE SUMMER OF 1992, the Louisiana Pacific Lumber Company decided to cut several stands of old-growth forest on land it owned on the Albion River, in Mendocino County, California. The forest and associated meadows were much loved in the community, and a group of local people responded by occupying the forest for two months until a court order to stop the cutting could be obtained.

Fifteen people lived in the trees. Hundreds of others came every day to stand at the property boundary, held back by sheriffs. It became a celebration joined in by Alice Walker and many others from all over Northern California. So deep a sense of community was formed that the two-month occupation of the forest was dubbed The Albion Nation, and its protest was successful. But such a confident uprising and such success are all too rare.

 There has never been a greater need for a positive vision of the future. We face a growing consensus that our ability to live sustainably upon the earth is diminishing rapidly. Ignorant of the consequences, we have seriously depleted natural resources, and continue to do so. We have set in motion global cycles of warming, ozone depletion, and overpopulation, the effects of which we are only now beginning to understand.

Frightening images confront us. Forty thousand children a day die of preventable diseases related to malnutrition, the result of overpopulation. In Australia sheep now go blind from solar radiation let in by the ozone hole. Worldwide, we are snuffing out species at a rate unprecedented since the extinction of the dinosaurs.

How can we be confident and positive in face of the facts? Anger and despair often seem apropos, and have played a central role in the environmentalist response to the crises. But it may be this very anger and despair that has kept environmentalists from offering a vision attractive enough to draw society into an enduring relationship with the earth.

The only sane response to the facts is radical confidence. Radical because it emerges on the other side of despair, after you have confronted the facts and accepted your feelings about them. Confidence because you come to the realization that it is not too late to act meaningfully.

The limitations of environmentalism—in all its forms—can be overcome through a sustained access to wisdom. There are three main approaches to environmental thought and action in this country: mainstream environmentalism, Deep Ecology, and grass roots activism. Among advocates of each are a great many passionate and intelligent people, and any generalizations will fail to capture the texture of individual experience. Yet one can discern distinctly different forms of thought among those who work on the relationship of human society to the earth.

While grass roots activism is of real importance, its significance lies in confronting extremely localized situations rather than in the development of a unique point of view. It would be fair to say that the deep ecologists are the theoreticians of the grass roots. For this reason, this discussion will focus on the mainstream environmentalist and the deep ecologist. The move to radical confidence is needed by all activists alike.

Mainstream Environmentalism and its Limitations

Mainstream activism, the dominant form, is at home in the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund. These organizations, which have a combined membership of several hundred thousand people, work to counterbalance the influence of industry and its lobbyists in Washington, in state legislatures, and in the courts. Their salient characteristic is technical expertise combined with a resilient, savvy pragmatism.

Over the past twenty-five years, the mainstream movement has put enormous effort into passing such federal legislation as the Clean Air and Water Acts, designed to establish complex, technology-intensive regulatory programs whose ultimate aim is to provide clean air, pure water, and so on.

To a degree, this approach has been successful: national standards were enacted for air, water, and a variety of other resources. The air and water are cleaner than they would have been were it not for all the effort. Yet mainstream activists are facing a crisis of success. After twenty-five years, everyone in this country claims to be an environmentalist: the adversary has joined up without being defeated.

Moreover, during the past ten years, problems of peculiar complexity have emerged, such as global warming. Global problems are only beginning to be addressed, and are of a scope beyond those addressed by any of the movement’s prior strategies or controlled by its successes.

There is the growing feeling that the mainstream movement has nibbled the edges of the problems and been unable to address root causes. We have placed certain restrictions on air and water pollution, slightly modified our use of resources, and regulated a few toxic substances. Our environmental problems, however, require much more fundamental solutions. We have created a society that is thoroughly unsustainable in its use of resources and in the ways it disposes of pollutants. We have placed controls on some of our drainpipes, tailpipes, and smokestacks. But we haven’t even begun to talk about, let alone build, an infrastructure flexible enough to meet the reasonable needs of an advanced civilization and at the same time fit into the ecosystems in which it finds itself.

Over the past fifty years, for example, we have become heavily dependent on highly toxic organic chemicals, which we produce in phenomenal quantities. We use them to make things we have been trained to find essential, from pesticides to fast-food packaging to Nintendo machines. Organic chemical plants and their products introduce prodigious quantities of toxic materials into the air, and water, into groundwater, and into landfills. The Bhopal disaster was a bad day at an organic chemical plant.

Debate has thus far accepted that we want a vast organic chemical industry and has centered on details, such as the levels at which dioxin causes cancer. These are important details, to be sure. But policy analysis of the standard sort is not well suited to asking the more basic question of how we can move beyond our societal addiction to toxic organic chemicals. If we are to fashion a sustainable society, we need to move to this deeper level of analysis.

Why has the mainstream movement focused on cleaning up the mess we’ve made, rather than on designing a new society? Mainstream people are pragmatists who work in the difficult arena of practical politics, where heroic efforts often lead to merely incremental changes. In the realm of practical politics, any discussion about dismantling the organic chemical industry and building a more benign successor would be viewed as wild dreaming. And yet the need to stay in the arena has perhaps driven vision too far from the work of mainstream activists, who, like mandarins, sometimes forget that there is a world beyond the capital.

The Limitations of Deep Ecology

Frustration with the aims and actions of the mainstream movement gave birth to Deep Ecology. Deep Ecology started with a philosophical side and an activist side. Much of the philosophical work was done by the Norwegian Arne Naess and the Americans George Sessions and Bill Devall during the seventies and eighties. On the activist side, the best-known organization is Earth First!, co-founded in 1980 by Dave Foreman.

radicalconfidence1
Celestial maiden from the Lion Rock Cave, Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, fifth century, courtesy of Alistair Shearer

Deep Ecology has grown many branches. It is now a family of views and practices, ranging from ecofeminism to grass roots activism, from ecophilosophy to ecotage. What unites them is a core idea: that humans are not separate from and superior to the rest of living beings. Instead, we are seen as one of many animal species interdependently living together in ecosystems on earth.

If one adds to this deep ecologist view the notion that there is a hierarchy of possibility for realization, and that humans, having the possibility for greater realization than, say, insects, also have a responsibility for taking care of all life, one comes very close to the Mahayanist view of things. In some cases deep ecologists are aware of parallels with Buddhist thought. One sees this clearly, for example, in the work of Arne Naess. At times, forms of thought that seem Buddhist to a Buddhist manifest directly from the experiential practices that Deep Ecologists favor.

Direct action has been central to the work of Deep Ecologists. While mainstream activists go to court to stop the logging of an old-growth forest, Deep Ecologists are more likely to chain themselves to trees at the edge of the forest where the logging is scheduled to start. People who engage in this sort of direct action often experience a deep connectedness with the living system they protect. They will go beyond the feeling of their everyday self, for example, and feel that they are the conscious part of the forest.

Many ideas that can be of real value in building a sustainable society have already come from deep ecologists. One of the most helpful is the notion of bioregionalism. The bioregionalist sees the landscape, undivided by political jurisdictions, as a congeries of watersheds. Within watersheds, the areas drained by river systems, species of plants and animals have evolved over aeons into the organic wholes we think of as ecosystems. The bioregionalist then moves from an appreciation of watersheds to a normative view. The argument runs that humans in any bioregion should take their lead from animals, and from our human ancestors, and live only in such numbers and in such ways as can be supported by the bioregion in question.

Bioregionalism is the ultimate grass roots point of view. For the bioregionalist, Los Angeles should be replaced by a much smaller community that could be supported by a fragile desert ecosystem.

There is a brilliant utility in many of the deep ecologists’ views. But Deep Ecology has not yet had a significant role in shaping social policy or in influencing the views of the mainstream environmental groups. This is due partly to the nature of a critical movement and partly to the fact that deep ecologists have not always been skillful publicists for their ideas.

The very name “Deep Ecology” was set in contradistinction to “shallow ecology.” Mainstream environmentalists were put on notice that they had devoted their lives to the practice of the shallow way. Right from the beginning, the term Deep Ecology thus alienated many mainstream activists who might otherwise have been more inclined to listen. After all, if the core of Deep Ecology is the view that humankind is only one of many interdependent species, all of whom have a valid claim to life, many mainstream people are closet deep ecologists.

So there has been shock value in the presentation of deep ecologists’ ideas that has alienated many from the call to a sense of connectedness. There has also been shock value in some of the deep ecologists’ practices. There are strands of practice in the deep ecologist community that are in tension with its central theme of interconnection, notably the practice of ecotage, described with tremendous joie de vivre in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Ecotage includes destroying heavy construction equipment being used to build roads through wilderness, and the spiking of trees—driving metal spikes into trees—to sabotage loggers’ saws, which can result in the injury of loggers.

Anger motivates ecotage, and the anger is understandable. It has been given public voice most notably by Earth First!. Ecotage has generally been used as a last attempt to protect wilderness from development, where all else has failed. Its justification is the notion that any methods may be used to protect a valuable living system from what is seen as a violent assault on it. But has ecotage helped move society away from its violent impulses toward nature? Since ecotage answers violence with violence, it is doubtful that it has.

In fact, ecotage has often obscured the great power of non-violent deep ecologist work in the lineage of Gandhi and King. The media has generated sympathy, for example, for the loggers that have been injured through tree spiking. Tree spikers are painted as a dangerous fringe. The public then confuses two very different activities: chaining oneself to a tree in a Gandhian attempt to keep it from being cut, and the more violent act of spiking trees for the same purpose. Confusion is heightened because Earth First! has used both types of protest. The mistaken notion arises that all deep ecologist protests are equivalent to tree spiking, with the result that it becomes harder for the deep ecologists to communicate the core idea of interconnection.

Deep Ecology as a movement has combined profound insight about the interdependence of life with a wild anarchic creativity, sometimes tinged with an equally wild anger. It is this anger and its expression in speech and action that have made both mainstream activists and the general public wary Earth First! activists protest the timber industry’s clear-cutting of old-growth forests, Jackson State, California and less willing than they might otherwise have been to acknowledge the positive inspiration from which Deep Ecology springs.

Radical Confidence

While this criticism of the environmental movement may be severe, it is a severity born of love. I have spent my professional life in the movement, and I see in it the seeds of the new global civilization we need to build if we and much of the rest of life are to survive and have a life worth living.

The essential strength of the environmental movement is that it encompasses two widely different dispositions. It is made up of people, mostly in the mainstream groups, possessed of a pragmatic political activism on a global scale, and of people, mostly deep ecologists, with a mystical sense of the interconnection of all life. Until now these dispositions have often remained separate, but there is no essential reason that they should remain so.

One role that the Buddhist activist might play would be to demonstrate through classic Buddhist techniques and teachings that what appears to be contradictory—the two dispositions—is not. This could also give a helpful impetus to the Buddhism of the established schools. Too often I hear Buddhists laud the experience of the cushion and denigrate the work of activists. Too often I hear people say that we need only to change our consciousness and the world will follow, implying that social activism is somehow less valuable than meditation. It is all too easy to use meditation as an escape. All the meditation in the world will not change the structural problems of our society, problems for which we, as members of the society, are fully responsible.

Being fully responsible, how do we crash through to a view that will pull society forward into a sustainable relationship with the earth? I asked this question of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in May 1992, and since then have taken his answer as my study. “As an environmentalist,” he said,

You already have the right view. What you need to do is to become confident and positive, and help other environmentalists to become confident and positive. The long-term solutions we need for our global problems can only arise from the confident and positive mind. They can never arise from the mind of anger or despair.

It is all too easy, particularly for the full-time activist, to work from anger, come into despair, and know no way out. The more one knows about environmental problems and the social reality from which they emerge and that they express, the more likely it is that anger and despair will arise. One begins to get the sense that one must fight for the good against all odds, knowing beforehand that one will fail. This burden blunts creativity, reduces vision to the limits of the problem at hand, and blocks the joy that spontaneously arises out of compassionate action. This may be why the environmental movement has tended to preach in strident, negative tones.

radicalconfidence2
Earth First! activists protest the timber industry’s clear-cutting of old growth forests, Jackson State, California, © Michael Schumann/Saba

The Move Inward

How does one come to a confident and positive view that is not naive, given the state of the world? By walking through one’s own anger and despair and emerging into serenity.

I would like to sketch how a confident and positive view can emerge in one’s own inner life, and how one may move from the experience of one’s own inner life to a confident and positive view of the world. This view does not solve the world’s problems, but it is out of this view that solutions can emerge.

As one turns inward, one begins to encounter, tentatively at first, the spacious nature of one’s mind and one’s heart. After practice, the sense of spaciousness becomes durable, palpable, and more and more firmly established. With spaciousness of mind come equanimity and its companion, humor. Humor tempers equanimity and keeps it flexible. 

As the sense of spaciousness becomes more firmly established, moments or days of withdrawal from it, times of closing down, become more and more painful by contrast, and less and less necessary. To close down and lose the sense of spaciousness is to identify completely with a particular pattern of thought or feeling. Let me use anger as an example, because it plays so central a role in the experience of activists. Depression, greed, and all the rest behave similarly.

I suddenly find myself angry, allow my thoughts unconsciously to follow the course of anger, dwell on how justified my anger is, and allow a variety of remembered incidents to accrete around the original feeling, elaborating and deepening it. At this point there is no spaciousness, no equanimity, and certainly no humor. I am reduced to the narrow ambit of my anger.

But once spaciousness is tasted with awareness, it will return. And from the experience of the spacious mind, confidence can be born in a very particular way. After a while, one can rest in spaciousness when anger arises. Instead of letting oneself be possessed by the anger, or alternatively repressing it, one can trace its roots patiently and see where they go. Each time anger arises, one can do this. Each time one does this, one gains more knowledge of the archaeology of one’s own anger, previously buried. A picture begins to emerge, and eventually a complete picture, of the structures of thought and habit that underlie one’s anger. Before these structures are seen into, they restrict one’s possible experience to limited channels: in this kind of situation I will be angry, without knowing why.

Once the structures of thought and feeling underlying anger are understood, much can happen. These structures are different in each biography, and so the details of each understanding will vary widely. But the result of the understanding in each one is similar: it becomes possible to live rather than to react.

Specifically, it becomes possible to liberate anger, and so liberate oneself from anger in the moment it arises; at first consciously and then spontaneously, one can experience oneself as the spacious field of mind and heart, and when anger arises, feel it as a form of energy entering the field. Identified with this field, one feels the anger as other than oneself, and can choose to identify with it or to move it through the field. When one chooses to move it through and not hold on to it even for a moment, one does not become angry even for a moment, and equanimity is unimpeded.

When one remains spacious and moves the anger through, offering it to the source of one’s being, several things happen. One has just used anger to connect with one’s own source, turning an energy with the greatest potential for destruction into a moment of deep self-creativity. One has also created a moment in which judgment no longer has bite: there is no longer any need to judge myself for being angry when the anger itself connects me with my source, in which there is no judgment. Most remarkably, to return anger to one’s source is to experience bliss: the movement of anger’s energy through to one’s source leaves bliss as its afterimage.

As with anger, so with fear, grief, depression, despair, and all of the other states of mind that we are ordinarily prey to. One can work with each of them in this intimate way, each time returning to one’s source, each time being refreshed. Worked with in this way, one’s deepest fears realize oneself. After transmuting base emotions into bliss again and again, at first hesitantly and later with greater and greater assurance, thousands of times, one gains the confidence that it can always be done.

Not that it is always easy or always an instantaneous process, though it often is; but it is always possible, and it can always be done. The confidence, built on experience, that no thought or feeling is immune to this transmutation, eventually wears down fear. What, after all, can there be to fear if any thought, feeling, or experience, can be used to return to one’s source, and experience bliss? Mysticism turns out to be the most practical of life’s skills.

The Move Outward

How can we move outward and translate this inner confidence into a positive view of the world? The key lies in the Buddhist view that outer is a manifestation of inner.

Anger and fear shape one’s inner experience in primary ways until one lets go of them. The same is true of social experience. Whether we are critical of it or not, we participate in what might be called consensus mind: a structure of ideas, norms, and beliefs, tacitly held, that shape and help constitute the experience of being in our society. Unfortunately, much of this structure is maladaptive.

It is not difficult to see that the social problems we encounter result from the working out of these maladaptive ideas, just as my own personal neuroses are constituted and sustained by the elaboration of anger, fear, and so on. As a society we hold on to the idea of economic growth with the kind of unreflective tenacity that marks the presence of a deeply neurotic structure. Very few people—including very few economists—understand what growth means, and what its long-term implications are, let alone whether it is a wise concept to hold as a central social dogma.

If we do look into indefinite growth and understand its implications, we are at first daunted. We feel alien from and critical of our society. We see that our culture has been reflexively dedicated to a selfdestructive approach, and that we must live with the consequences. But the seed of liberation, of confidence, lies within this arresting realization.

It becomes possible to see that economic growth is a set of ideas, attitudes, and behaviors in the consensus mind. Deeply rooted as it is, it is no different from anger or despair in the individual mind. Moreover, the consensus mind is no other than my mind.

We reify the consensus mind and the ideas at play in it, and grant them a permanence and a concreteness that they do not have. Once I have repeated success with transforming anger and despair in my individual experience, confidence can emerge about the consensus mind as well. And when the ideas in the consensus mind change, new things can emerge in the world.

It will not be any easier to transform the consensus attachment to an idea like growth than it is to transform my own attachment to anger. But it is possible. Here is the source of radical confidence.

This is not naive idealism. The mere publication of a better notion than growth will not change the facts of life, any more than merely hearing that it is possible to transform anger changes our experience of it. But hearing that there is a way out of anger is a beginning of the Way.

Despair counsels that the game is already over. Effort is therefore either pointless or a heroic existential act. Radical confidence removes the drama of existential heroism, which is, after all, a tiresome and lonely pose. We can act meaningfully for change and, with little drama, either succeed in creating or fail to create a society in harmony with the earth. With the experience of transformation and the assurance it affords, we can move forward with the myriad patient acts of that creation. We focus in with lovingkindness on those acts and let the outcome be revealed by trust.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.