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Ecology and Sustainable Development

by Ven. Sulak Sivaraksa

The environmental crisis is evident to anyone who cares to look. There is an overwhelming amount of information detailing the disastrous impact of human activities on the biosphere. Human activities are changing the global climate. Natural resources that have taken hundreds of millions of years to accumulate are being used up in a few centuries and for what purpose? Most of these resources are being used for wasteful, utterly useless ends.

One of the Buddha’s most important teachings is interdependent co-arising. Nothing is created or exists in isolation and like the Jewel Net of Indra, each individual reflects every other living being infinitely many times. Things do not exist in and of themselves; Thich Nhat Hanh says things inter-are. This is also the understanding of the science of ecology. Life is not made up of independent organisms existing in isolation, but is in fact a complex web of interactions where each organism forms part of a greater web of life. With a proper understanding of this one cannot unsustainably exploit the Earth’s natural resources or continually pollute the Earth. One would know that because things are interconnected that acting in such a way is foolish.

Humans and nature are interconnected. However, consumerism and modern, urban life cuts people off from experiencing and understanding nature. While people might be able to see wildlife from Africa on their television screens, they probably remain unaware of the wildlife in their own backyards. If people are able to better understand nature then they can live in harmony with it rather than trying to dominate and exploit it.
In recent times capitalism and consumerism have come to dominate the world. Capitalism gives value only to the accumulation of material goods and monetary profit. It promotes greed and individualism at the expense of sharing and community. People come to see their value as individuals solely in terms of the money they can earn or the products they can buy. Instead of seeking to help their neighbours, people try to get ahead of their neighbours and they will employ whatever means necessary to achieve this. The idea of development being merely focused on material progress is at odds with the Buddhist idea of development. The ever-increasing accumulation of money, material goods and power is dependent upon fostering greed and hatred. Instead the idea of development in Buddhism is overcoming the three poisons of the mind: hatred, greed and delusion. So Buddhism offers an alternative view of development. While consumerism nourishes greed and desire, Buddhism promotes the antidotes to these emotions.

I would like to give some examples of how Buddhism can promote development that is truly beneficial and sustainable. In Surin province in the northeast of Siam an abbot recalled that when he was young the people seemed happier. The villages were surrounded by jungle and elephants roamed freely. Although the people were poor they managed to produce enough food for their families and the monks. They had the four essentials of food, clothing, shelter and medicine. The abbot witnessed that over the past forty years there had been constant development and construction, the jungle and the elephants had disappeared and the people were suffering. He saw that local products were going to Bangkok to be exported by multinational corporations.

He told the people that meditation must not be just for personal salvation but for the collective welfare of all. Initially people just listened out of respect. He said to the people that they need to try alternative ways and look to the old traditions that supported the community for many centuries. He used words like communal farming which were very controversial because of strong anti-communist feelings that prevailed at the time. However, when a monk who is pure in conduct spoke this way, he aroused the interest of the people. He encouraged people to farm together and share their labour. He explained that ambition and competitiveness had only bought them more suffering.

He suggested starting rice banks. Whatever was cultivated that was left over was given to the temples. The grain was then kept to give to anyone in need, free of charge. He also established a buffalo bank. The only conditions were that the buffaloes had to be treated kindly and that fifty percent of the offspring had to be returned to the bank. This abbot’s approach to development based entirely on traditional values and practices is innovative and exemplary.

The efforts of Thai monks to protect the forests are also of note. For example, Phra Prajak who took the radical action of “ordaining” trees. This challenged people to change their thinking about the value of the trees and the forest and out of respect for the sangha people refused to cut the trees down. Phra Prajak also took time to educate the villagers about the value of the forest and alternative methods of development.

Another example of the effects of material progress is Ladakh, in the north of India. Helena Norberg-Hodge, an Englishwoman, lived with the Ladakhi people for more than twenty years. When she first went to Ladakh in the 1970s the people there had had little contact with the outside world. They were poor but they were self-sufficient and the people were happy. When the Indian government built roads up there, tourists began to arrive, and Ladakhis tried to imitate their ways of life. Whereas previously the people had been content with their way of life, they began to see themselves as poor.

Helena Norberg-Hodge wrote a play about some Ladakhis who went to New York and then returned to Ladakh. When they returned people asked what it was like, and they reply that in New York the poor people want to dress fashionably. They eat white bread like the Indians sell to the Ladakhis. But the rich people like to eat natural foods like our forefathers did. They wear cotton clothes, buying a lot of it from this part of the world.

This demonstrates that development is a two-way street. The educated, more enlightened people in the West are beginning to realise that development is not purely material; they reject many of the things promoted by the consumer culture. They feel respect for nature. These things can be found in the traditional culture of countries like Siam, but many people have been brainwashed by advertising. The most important thing is for us to help people get back in touch with their roots.

The mainstream education system encourages cleverness but it does not teach people to think holistically. It promotes monocultures of the mind and indoctrinates people with the values of consumerism. There is a real need to encourage and promote alternative forms of education. Education that develops the mind and the heart and is holistic rather than compartmentalised. I would like to talk about the work of the Spirit in Education Movement (SEM) in Siam and how it seeks to counter the culture of consumerism and instead educate people to be compassionate, productive members of society.

The Children’s Village School in Siam is an alternative education community for children who have been orphaned or come from very poor families, some of which are abusive. The founders of the school believe that each child can thrive and blossom when given enough love, attention, freedom, and the assurance that their basic needs will be met. Instead of a narrow focus on intellectual reason and skills for employment, alternative education engages the whole child, including will, heart and mind. The capacity for intellectual reason is only meaningful within the context of understanding and compassion for one’s community and the environment. The children at the school learn about self-government and environmental education through hands-on activities. The self-government system allows them to settle their own disputes, to propose, amend or annul rules and to decide on everyday matters of living together. Through natural and organic farming they learn about the balance of nature independent of any attempts to control and mismanage nature. The teachers at the Children’s Village School live, work and play with the students in a cooperative environment.

Another activity of SEM is the Grassroots Leadership Training (GLT) courses. These courses aim to empower communities to be self-reliant, to maintain their cultural integrity and protect their environment. They aim to give community leaders from marginalised communities the skills and knowledge to help their communities resist the negative effects of globalisation. Few of these community leaders would otherwise have the opportunity to obtain a higher education. The GLT courses offer appropriate in-depth education, with substantial follow up and community support.

The top-down model of development is a form of violence. It destroys both the environment and the community. It is only really interested in maximising economic growth and it externalises social and environmental costs. In no way is it sustainable. Instead it is necessary to promote a bottom-up model of development. Such a model of development is nonviolent and promotes harmony, both socially and environmentally. Working at the grassroots and local level communities can be empowered to find appropriate forms of development and resist the impacts of consumerism and globalisation. Education is a very important part of this process. We need people who can think in alternative ways to the Western paradigm and also have confidence in their own traditions.

We need a vision for the future that is spiritual and ecological, not just economic. If we can develop in this way the future will be bright.

This article was first presented in the WSCF/CCA joint program, SELF, in Chiangmai 2001. Sulak was the resource person for the module on Ecology.