Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
As negotiators gather in Paris this week and next for the COP 21 conference, it is important to recognize that solving the climate crisis is not merely a matter of adopting new policies but of transforming our ways of relating to the world. It entails adopting a new sense of responsibility for the fate of humanity, for the planet and the entire global community. The realization that human activity is altering the earth’s climate assigns to human beings the gravest moral responsibility we have ever faced. It puts the destiny of the planet squarely in our own hands just at a time when we are inflicting near-lethal wounds on its surface and seas and instigating what has been called “the sixth great extinction.”
As an ethical issue, however, climate change cannot be viewed in isolation. To understand its ethical aspects adequately, it is necessary to recognize the close links between climate change and a host of other factors that initially may appear to have little to do with the disruptions affecting the earth’s geophysical processes. Today we face not merely a climate emergency but a single multidimensional crisis whose diverse facets—environmental, social, political, and economic—intersect and reinforce each other with dizzying complexity.
The crisis stems from distortions in our most fundamental perceptions and values, distortions that infiltrate our social systems and thereby drive predatory political, social, and economic policies. What we face, therefore, is actually a systemic crisis with moral and spiritual dimensions, of which the climate crisis is just one particularly ominous manifestation.
What underlies this multifaceted, interwoven, mutually reinforcing crisis in all its dimensions, even those that seem far-removed from climate issues, is a sweeping inversion of values that elevates the pursuit of financial wealth to a position of dominion over virtually all areas of human activity. This inversion allows purely monetary value to prey upon authentic, life-enriching value. It turns every other sphere of concern, social and natural, into a source of raw materials to be exploited to increase economic gain. As a result, we are undermining the stable natural order on which human civilization depends.
While climate change is just one manifestation of the underlying inversion in values, this particular issue has become, in a sense, the window through which we can see most clearly the distortions at the core of the dominant system. It reveals to us just how senseless it is to elevate symbolic wealth—mere mathematical figures represented by configurations of electrons—above the treasures of a bountiful planet and the shared well-being of the human community as a whole. Looking through this window may set off moods of despair, but it should also show us that we have a choice, that we have the capacity to recognize our folly and reshape our collective destiny.
The climate crisis demands of us that we choose the right above the expedient, the good above the profitable; it presents us with occasions where our own immediate benefit clashes with the need to safeguard the greater good of everyone, including ourselves. A rapid transition to an economy powered by clean and renewable sources of energy has the potential to combine social justice with ecological sustainability. What obstructs the transition is not shortages of funding but the powerful pressures exerted by the fossil fuel corporations and other major industries closely linked with the use of hydrocarbon energy.
To resist these pressures therefore calls for moral strength and political determination. That is why to facilitate the transition to a clean energy economy, we must make changes not only in our policy preferences but in the ethical perceptions that guide our decisions and plans of action. To implement these changes with the thoroughness required, we will have to envision new models of social and economic organization. To avert calamity, we’ll have to replace the reigning economic model—which narrowly focuses on economic growth, expanding profits, and concentrated political power— with a new paradigm of the good life that prioritizes other things than financial rewards and an expanding global market.
In place of the dominant worldview, which reduces every sphere of human activity to utilitarian value, we need a paradigm that affirms the intrinsic value of every person and the inviolability of the natural world. Such a paradigm would help us appreciate the diversity of life forms, restore to us a sense of awe for the beauty of the earth, and inspire reverence for the inconceivable majesty of the cosmos. Most challenging, it would affirm the dignity of the human person and thus repudiate the pernicious utilitarian mindset that reduces people to the role of mere workers and consumers.
Meeting this challenge requires re-envisioning the way the economy works. It involves replacing an economy premised on infinite expansion, geared toward endless production and consumption, with a steady-state economy governed by the principle of sufficiency, which recognizes the limits of material affluence in bringing personal and social fulfillment. Making the transition to a steady-state economy requires not merely outward change in institutions but also changes in the functioning of our minds. The greed, hatred, and ignorance that govern our accustomed ways of thinking are not private affairs. Rather, they spread out from their inward origins and shape our systems, institutions, and policies. To create a truly sustainable world, the principles and policies we adopt must be guided by wisdom and a magnanimous spirit of generosity and compassion, a willingness to put the interests of the whole above the claims of narrow and divisive self-interest.
Nevertheless, while in the long-run protecting the natural environment ultimately depends on a fundamental shift in values, to avert the worst and most imminent types of climate disruption we cannot postpone transformative action until a radical shift of consciousness takes place. Rather, we must start by making highly specific national and global commitments to curb carbon emissions. We have to push for a climate accord that imposes truly rigorous, binding, and enforceable targets for emissions reductions. Pledges and promises alone won’t suffice: enforcement mechanisms are critical. Beyond a strong accord, we’ll also urgently need to turn the global economy away from its dependence on fossil fuels and toward the employment of clean sources of energy.
Because the process of climate change is slow and gradual, the worst consequences of inaction can take decades to manifest. For this reason, it’s easy for policymakers to succumb to the temptation to maintain the status quo, or to implement symbolic cuts that don’t involve real self-sacrifice. But real sacrifice is called for, to avoid more painful sacrifices down the road. If we don’t act promptly, the biosphere itself will inevitably hit irreversible tipping points that will exhaust the earth’s capacity for self-regeneration.
Shifting to clean and renewable energy can reverse this trend, opening pathways to a steady-state economy built upon more humane values than profit and power. Policy changes, however, should be only the beginning of a long process of renewal that, at a more fundamental level, needs to be inspired by fresh visions of the purpose of human life on earth. While we must ensure that all enjoy a satisfactory standard of living, we must also elevate other values to a primary role. This means fostering human community, overcoming divisions based on nationality, ethnicity, and religion, and finding a deeper sense of purpose in our lives than the mere production of a never-ending stream of commodities. The resources for making the necessary transition are at our disposal. What has been missing is collective insight and unified will.
This is an abridged version of a longer essay, which can be found here.