Named by Audubon Magazine as one of its One Hundred Champions of Conservation of the twentieth century, biologist Michael Soulé is the author of 9 books and over 160 articles on ecological subjects and themes. One of the founders of both the Society for Conservation Biology and The Wildlands Project, he has stood for over thirty years at the forefront of the global effort to restore sustainable wildlife habitat and prevent species extinction. Soulé began studying Buddhism in 1971 under Taizan Maezumi Roshi and continues his Zen practice today with his former wife, Jan Chozen Bays Roshi. In March, Tricycle contributing editor Clark Strand spoke to Michael Soulé about his views on Buddhism and environmentalism.

You’ve written that 30 million different species depend on only 5 or 6 percent of the Earth’s land set aside specifically for protected wilderness. Now, presuming the other 95 percent is set aside for human beings, it hardly seems fair. What can we do to begin to address that kind of inequity? Well, that’s been the question for the last twenty years in the conservation movement, because even with so much publicity about tropical rain forests, protected areas have been stuck at this 5 or 6 percent level. Given the population explosion, our natural favoritism to our own species, and corporate hegemony over public policy, it’s proved to be practically impossible to increase that ratio. And the problem with having only 5 percent set aside for the rest of creation is that then the laws of island biogeography come into play. And those laws tell us if you only have 10 percent of the habitat, sooner or later you’re going to lose 50 percent of the species.

So, in layman’s terms, what’s the scenario? It’s a collapse scenario. Think of the metaphor of a city park. You start off with a lot of native trees and birds. But people around the park have cats, and they subsidize the diets of raccoons and skunks, which then become superabundant. And, of course, they plant exotic plants and weeds. The cats and other subsidized predators eat the native species, so after a while you don’t hear bird songs any more. Meanwhile the native plants aren’t reproducing very well, because they can’t compete with the exotics. And so pretty soon you’ve got just another patch of weeds that exist all over the world and aren’t unique to that particular region. This is what’s happening everywhere in the world. We’re losing the local species, and the species that are winning are the starlings and the pigeons and the house mice and the grasses and weedy plants from Eurasia and South America.

Michael Soulé on his property on Stucker Mesa in western Colorado with the north fork of the Gunnison River valley and the West Elk Mountains behind him, ©J.T. Thomas
Michael Soulé on his property on Stucker Mesa in western Colorado with the north fork of the Gunnison River valley and the West Elk Mountains behind him, ©J.T. Thomas

 So you’ve argued for “megasystems” to replace our model of the small, protected ecosystem, right? Yes. We realized almost twenty-five years ago that the problem is habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. We’re making islands out of what used to be wilderness areas and are now becoming patches of natural habitat too small to survive. The solution would be to reconnect the patches that are still relatively undisturbed, to reestablish the arteries and nerves and blood vessels that would keep the system viable. That’s the mission of the Wildlands Project.

Would it be fair to say it’s a case of not understanding how it works till it’s gone?
That’s exactly right, although nowadays we know enough to begin protecting it. Take the role of large predators as an example. For a long time, we couldn’t understand why the aspen trees in Yellowstone National Park hadn’t reproduced for eighty years and why the beavers had disappeared. Well, it turned out it was because it had become policy throughout the United States during the 1920s to get rid of large carnivores, including wolves. When they took the wolves out, the elk looked around and thought, “Oh boy, free at last!” The elk population went from five to twenty thousand and they ate everything, including the food of the beaver and the regenerating aspen suckers. As soon as we put the wolves back in 1995, the aspens started reproducing and the beavers came back, even though wolves ate beavers—it’s kind of paradoxical.

That’s just one example. We have this kind of data from all over the world now and it’s convinced ecologists of the need to maintain the connectivity between patches, because that will ensure the survival of the large carnivores who are keystones of the ecosystem, acting as protectors of the wild and sustainers of species diversity.

So what about us? I know it’s not the way most Buddhists think of themselves, but aren’t we large carnivores? Yes. In some cases, hunters have replaced some of these functions in the ecosystem, but not nearly as effectively as the natural predators, because they usually kill either too little or too much. All over the world, humans are destroying the large animals in the systems for bush meat in the tropics or for the pet trade. It’s gotten so bad that almost anywhere you fly over the Amazon in a plane, even though you see green, green, green hour after hour, if you actually go down and look, you’ll find yourself standing within ten miles of a river or a road. Wherever you’re that close to a river or road, the forest is silent because humans have gotten in there with shotguns and basically taken all the big stuff. So, yes, we are the dominant carnivore on the planet.

George Lakoff, the linguist turned progressive political strategist, recently wrote that because of the Bible’s injunction to human beings to have dominion over the earth and all its creatures, “to fill it and subdue it,” American Christians have this idea that nature is there for their profit. He compares it to a bank account you can draw from whenever you want. So my question is this: As a religion, can Buddhism offer a corrective to that kind of delusion? Well, Buddhism can, but the trouble is getting from the principles of Buddhism to the ground. The same thing is true in Christianity. Whatever the narrow fundamentalist interpretation of certain biblical verses, there are still plenty of passages in the Bible requiring us to act as good stewards of the Earth. The Rev. Leroy Hedman, who is part of the Green Evangelical Movement, even has a name for it. He calls it “creation care.”

But I agree, fundamentalism is a problem. If Armageddon’s just around the corner and the Rapture’s going to happen any day now, why worry about the natural resources? Why worry about evolution continuing if you don’t believe in it? This cavalier attitude toward nature is now being used to justify destroying all the environmental legislation passed during the seventies and eighties. In the next year or so, the administration plans to gut the Endangered Species Act, the first law in the history of Western civilization to recognize the existence rights of other species. If you want an example of sin, that’s it.

And yet I’m wondering if it’s wise to place as much emphasis on evangelical Christians as Lakoff does, because when you get right down to it, the lifestyle of an evangelical Christian and a Buddhist aren’t that different in their environmental impact—provided they’re both Americans. I have a monk friend who is as green a Buddhist as I’ve ever met. He lives in a hut powered by solar energy, eats one meal a day, and consumes almost nothing in comparison to me, but we got on a website the other day where you could calculate your ecological footprint on the Earth, and the results were this: To sustain everyone on the planet at my level of consumption would require 4.6 planets the size of our earth, while his would require 4.2. I’ll bet that was because he consumes a lot of jet fuel traveling around to teach the dharma.

Soulé at his home, ©J.T. Thomas
Soulé at his home, ©J.T. Thomas

Exactly. So given the difficulty of taking these wonderful Buddhist ideals like interdependence and “putting them on the ground,” how much are we deceiving ourselves when we think of Buddhism as a green religion? That’s such a complex question. It’s true that there is a creation-honoring tradition in Buddhism that goes back at least to Ashoka, the first Buddhist king in India. His pillar edicts against deforestation were unprecedented. And then there are wonderful teachings in the Buddhist canon, the Metta Sutta, for example, which says:

Even as a mother protects with her life,
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings,
Radiating kindness over the entire world,
Spreading upwards to the skies
And downwards to the depths.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.

And so we find all this wonderful, beautiful, evocative stuff that brings tears to your eyes, but the reality is that Buddhist countries are now subject to the same demographic and economic pressures that we experience in the West. They’ve done a little bit better in protecting nature, in spite of civil wars and military dictatorships, but it isn’t nearly enough. No Buddhist country has been able to withstand the pressures of technology, population, and globalization—not to mention the race to the bottom for low wages and resource extraction. Nowadays everybody has to be part of the global economy to survive—even if they don’t want to.

So it turns out that interdependence is a lot more complicated than we think. On the one hand, we talk about being interrelated and interconnected, and that gives us Buddhists a warm, glowing feeling. On the other hand, we’re interconnected economically as well, which creates all kinds of intractable problems as far as production and consumption are concerned. Correct? Exactly. But there’s another problem, which is the denial of nature’s dark, violent side. The danger with such illusions is that they can lead us down the path of smug romantic certainty about the way the world works. For example, Buddhists may want to perceive balance, harmony, and nonviolence in ecosystems because such a view would seem to justify nonviolence in human communities. But murder and infanticide are common in mammals. Consider the fact that when younger male lions drive off the older males and take control of a pride of female lions, the first thing they do is kill all the baby lions. Biologically, this makes sense because it brings all the females into heat, and reproduction is the prize in the evolutionary race.

The same kind of violence occurs in invertebrates. Spiders and praying mantis females often kill and eat their mates because it gives them a big dose of protein for producing more and healthier eggs. So in these cases violence is adaptive: it helps to spread the genes of the mother-murderer and the father-victim by increasing the number and the vigor of their young.

Should this be a model for human behavior? Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, even though it might be adaptive in an evolutionary sense. So there’s this false romanticism, too, in contemporary Buddhism, this feeling that everything is mutualistic and synergistic and interconnected.

A friend of mine calls inter-being “inter-eating.” That’s a good way of putting it. When you look at nature from a Buddhist point of view, you have to accept the whole package, not just look at the things you like about nature, its beauty and grace, and forget the rest.

So it seems to me that you’re calling for a much more unflinching look at nature and at our own lifestyles than up to now we’ve been willing to entertain. Yes. But it’s important not to go too far. We can beat ourselves over the head about how much of the Earth’s resources we consume in North America, and yes, it’s true we’re a major part of the problem. But then, guilt is an afflictive emotion that often leads to despair and depression and inaction. So it would be a mistake—a spiritual, psychological, and political mistake—to indulge in too much self-flagellation.

I think it’s healthier to recognize that we are not just Californians, or New Yorkers, or Americans, or North Americans. We’re all part of a nested set of relations that spans the geographic scale from local, to landscape, to regional, to global, to cosmic. And so we should aspire to heal the world at all these levels and not think of ourselves as bad or guilty because we find ourselves embedded in this very materialistic society. You do what you can to think about Delta, Denver, and Darfur.

I’ve been to Denver, and I know there’s a genocide going on in Darfur, but what’s Delta? Delta is the closest town with a Wal-Mart. It’s about twenty miles away from where I live. And so, from my perspective on the universe, Delta is local, Denver is regional, and Darfur is global. I just keep going up and down that scale and see what I can do today to help those three places.

Where do conservation biology and Buddhist teaching as you understand it overlap? In other words, what common ground can you find between your movement and your Buddhism? To use an expression that Arne Naess, the founder of the Deep Ecology movement, used a lot, Buddhism is a “total view”—a view of all of the cosmos, all of reality, and all of our internal and external operations and their interpenetrations. Conservation biology, on the other hand, is concerned with just a part of this whole. Its job is to provide tools that conservationists or activists can use to protect nature. It doesn’t deal with the many levels of existence that Buddhism does. Nevertheless, both are concerned with liberation, because the more we are liberated from our narrow, little selves, the more effective we can be in saving all beings.

Buddhism starts out with certain principles, like suffering, impermanence, dependent origination, and emptiness, which it then uses for the sake of liberation. It offers an amazing toolbox that can be used by anybody in any movement, whether for conservation, animal rights, peace, or social justice. By contrast, the tools developed within scientific fields like ecology are much more limited. You don’t hear too many people in the sciences talking about the need to develop wider and deeper compassion, because they’re not comfortable talking in such religious terms. But a Buddhist can feel very comfortable talking that way. I find that being able to communicate at that level, as well as at the technical scientific level, opens up a lot more doors into people’s hearts.

You’ve written about the need to think bigger, in conservational terms. I’m wondering, can’t Buddhism, with its much larger view of cosmic time —measured in kalpas, as opposed to the traditional Judeo-Christian view, which is measured in millennia—offer that bigger, long-term ecological vision? Yes, but it’s a double-edged sword. Getting stuck in the idea of “deep time” or infatuated by concepts like kalpas can lead to callousness about the present. For example, many scientists who don’t have a Buddhist or Christian view nevertheless do have a paleontological one, which is similarly vast because it’s measured in hundreds of millions of years. And so you can get seduced into an attitude that goes something like this: “Well, it doesn’t make any difference if we destroy most of the life forms on this planet, because the bacteria will survive in the rocks, and out of those bacteria will come, eventually, protozoans, and from protozoans will evolve invertebrates, and so we’ll get to conscious life eventually. Why worry?” Unfortunately, quite a few prominent scientists, including Steven J. Gould, have supported that view, which I think is unconscionable. It’s the side of the sword of time that leads to complacency about what we’re doing to the world right now.

As long as humans are here on this planet, our species is going to have hegemony over it, and therefore have responsibility for it. Of course, it’s always possible that human consciousness will evolve to the point where we’re suddenly all very responsible and work locally, don’t shop at Wal-Mart, and consume only foods produced within fifty kilometers of us. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. In the meantime, we’re destroying the potential for the planet to recover by turning all the habitat into farmland with rapidly eroding soil and depleted aquifers. The only way the planet would ever recover is if this superabundant large primate species left and went someplace else.

Meaning us? Yes. But that’s not likely to happen. We’re much more likely to destroy the planet’s potential to support most of its existing species, as we’re doing with the climate right now. I don’t mean to sound completely negative about the future; at the same time, it’s important to realize that Buddhist thinking can lead people to a state of excessive passivity and complacency about the world.

What do you think it would take to shake up that “Buddhist complacency”? One thing would be for us, as Buddhists, to embrace some of our shadow stuff— for example, our fierceness, and even our violence. There’s a tendency to repress and filter out this kind of psychic material, and that’s doing us damage, because when you bury things under the rug, they come back out in ways that you don’t expect. I think that Buddhists have to be realistic about the reality of violence and fierceness, and its creative potential. And it’s always had creative potential.

What worries me nowadays whenever I see it—and I see it often—is the tendency among Buddhists, when confronted, for instance, with an administration that is not just disinterested in human rights and environmental issues but actively hostile toward them, to draw within themselves, cultivating inner peace while the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Isn’t there some kind of Buddhist fire in the belly that people need in order to combat anti-environmentalism and social injustice? Liberal Jews and Christians had it during the civil rights movement. And people certainly had it with regard to slavery during the Civil War. Yes, that’s right. It’s like the distinction between ambition, which is ego-driven, and aspiration, which is not. What’s needed now is the aspiration to change the world in positive ways. But as Buddhists we need to do that nondualistically, without painting other people as the enemy. Because that doesn’t work either. It’s a poor form of communication, and it doesn’t allow us to talk in a deep way, or listen in a deep way, to other people. But there is this tendency, too, for people to see anything that’s violent or fierce as wrong. But fierceness is not the same as cruelty. Our fierceness is what gives us the energy to want to change things in a positive direction. It’s also what mothers feel when somebody attacks their children. And that’s a healthy thing.

We need to re-embrace that kind of fierceness and indignation, not from an egoistic point of view but from a compassionate perspective. We can’t let the world be destroyed, and we need to be fierce—not violent or cruel, but fierce about it. That’s where human energy comes from. It comes from that sense of feeling empowered and feeling that I can do this, and damn the torpedoes.

Thinking and Acting
“There’s nothing new about environmental activism on the Hudson,” says Bob Perschel, senior program director for environment with the Garrison Institute, a ninety-five-acre meditation and retreat center in a former Capuchin monastery in Garrison, New York. “In fact, those efforts are probably a case study of how to do it right.”

So why would the Institute want to get involved? Because it sees an opportunity to bring the faith community and the environmental community together in a way they haven’t come together before. Perschel notes that the two groups have certainly worked together at times. “But as far as a longstanding, lasting relationship built on good communication channels and trust,” he says, “we haven’t had that, and we think that the Hudson is a good place to do a model program.”

Bringing different communities together, especially different contemplative disciplines, lies at the core of the Institute’s mission, “to explore the intersection between contemplative practices and engaged action in the world.” Two of the institute’s newest environmental efforts are the Hudson River Caring for Creation project and the Heart and Mind of Environmental Leadership program. The Caring for Creation project, Perschel explains, is a vehicle for members of the faith community to get more involved in environmental issues. They may not have the expertise, he says, “but they have a deep-seated, emotional, religious conviction that something needs to be done.” The Garrison Institute is helping by planning steering committee meetings with representatives from environmental groups and identifying action projects of mutual interest.

The Environmental Leadership program seeks to redefine a model of environmental leadership, which in Perschel’s mind has lost the emotional and faith-based ideas it once had. “It’s not creating something new for the movement,” Perschel explains. “It’s more like going back to the roots of the movement.” In their meetings and workshops, the Institute aims to present meditation and contemplation in a way that will make sense to environmental leaders. “We think if we talk about these practices in terms of leadership and effectiveness and meeting our goals, then we have a better way of gaining attention here and making some progress,” says Pershel.

”We’re just trying to get to the point where we get the right people in the movement to say, ‘Hey-you know, we should look at this, this could help us.”

For more information, contact Garrison Institute, P.O. Box 532, Garrison. New York 10524; (845) 424-4800;

—James Keough

A Profitable Refuge
“One thing I’ve heard a lot,” says Leigh S. Lauck, executive director of Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in Taos, New Mexico, “is that when people come to Vallecitos, their activism is motivated by despair and by anger, but by the time they leave they’ve discovered that that’s not a place you can operate from.” For many of the participants, all of whom are activists with nonprofit organizations, the discovery can prove transformative.

Founded eleven years ago by two environmental activists who also happened to be students and practitioners in the Vipassana tradition, Vallecitos is a 135-acre wilderness ranch and contemplative retreat center high in the Rockies of northern New Mexico. “Just being on the land, even without the meditation and all the other practices, has such a profound impact on people,” says Lauck.

In its cornerstone program, the Refuge Fellowship, Vallecitos awards fellowships to outstanding public interest leaders for two-week contemplative retreats. A second major fellowship program is an annual retreat for scientists of color that was led for many years by Vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein and George Mumford, a Vipassana teacher and sports psychologist who worked with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. This is an eight-day silent Vipassana retreat in the wilderness, and for many of the participants it is their first encounter with both. “It’s pretty powerful, Lauck remarks. “The feedback that we’ve had from the people has been mind-blowing. This literally has been the seed of change in their lives.”

The refuge offers additional retreats every year, including four or five that are strictly Buddhist. But it welcomes other practices too, such as the indigenous traditions of the Southwest. Vallecitos also conducts retreats for nonprofit organizations, among them The Trust for Public Land, the Land Trust Alliance, and the Bioneers. “Basically,” says Lauck, “the retreats are designed to deepen the connection between contemplative practice and the natural world.”

Not surprisingly, renewed life and energy often spring from the depths of that connection. “You can’t care for others, you can’t work for positive change,” says Lauck, “until you learn to find ways to take care of yourself.”

For more information, contact Vallecitos Mountain Refuge, P.O. Box 3160, Taos, NM 87571; (501) 751-9613;

—James Keough

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