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Miroku Butsu, (the Buddha of the future) with right hand raised in the “fear not” gesture, the abhaya mudra, Japan, ninth century, wood. Courtesy Todai-Ji Temple, Nara, Japan.

How can we engage in action on behalf of earth and not get consumed, not go crazy? We who have aligned ourselves with this effort to transform a civilization so that complex forms of life can continue are faced with something very different from the kinds of challenges that our foremothers and forefathers faced.

I’d like to begin by reflecting on some peculiarities of our situation in the twilight of the twentieth century here on planet earth. Six occur to me. First of all, there is the staggering range of the crisis, from the soil to the forest to the air to the seas to the rivers to the spasms of extinction. It’s overwhelming for any single pair of eyes.

Second and concurrent to that, there is an overwhelming amount of data. You never know enough. Every time you hear mention of a new development, you think, “I’d better bone up on that too.” When can you draw a free breath?

Third, it appears that our chances of pulling through are slim. We recognize this, but we don’t say it much. For example, the chlorofluorocarbons we’ve already put into the biosphere will still be eating the biosphere for the next fifteen years. How do you find the energy and motivation to act when it may be too late?

The fourth and related peculiarity is the taboo against acknowledging the situation—aside from the occasional letter from Nobel laureates on the thirty-fourth page of the newspaper—against speaking out and naming what we’re doing to ourselves. It still feels inappropriate to acknowledge this in polite society. On one level we really intuit the severity of the crisis we’re in, and on the other we’re just going along with business as usual. The press helps us by treating everything as if it were separate—wars and hunger, radiation and AIDS, the floods in Bangladesh and the floods in the Midwest.

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