By Tom Levitt
The Risk and Our Response
The acclaimed Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh talks to the Ecologist about the loss of biodiversity and why human vulnerability is not something we should despair about.
Do you believe humans can avoid a global ecological collapse, or are we driving ourselves towards one?
The National Wildlife Federation tells us everyday that 100 plants and animal species are lost to deforestation. Extinction of species is taking place everyday. In one year there may be 200,000 species going into extinction. That is what is happening; that is not the problem of the future. We know that 251 million years ago there was already global warming caused by gigantic volcanic eruptions. They caused the worst mass extinction in the history of the planet. The six time increase in global temperature was enough to wipe out 95 percent of the species that were alive. Global warming already happened 251 million years ago because of volcanic eruptions, and 95 per cent of species on earth disappeared.
Now a second global warming is taking place. This time because of deforestation and industrialization; man-made, maybe in 100 years there will be no more humans on the planet, in just 100 years. After the disappearance of 95 percent of species on the earth by the mass extinction the earth took 100 million years to restore life on earth. If our civilization disappears it will take some time like that for another civilization to reappear. When volcanic eruptions happened the carbon dioxide built up and created the greenhouse effect. That was 251 million years ago. Now the building up of carbon dioxide is coming from our own lifestyle and our industrial activities.
If 6C degrees take place, another 95 percent of species will die out, including Homo sapiens. That is why we have to learn to touch eternity with our in breath and out breath. Extinction of species has happened several times. Mass extinction has already happened five times and this one is the sixth. According to the Buddhist tradition there is no birth and no death. After extinction things will reappear in other forms, so you have to breathe very deeply in order to acknowledge the fact that we humans may disappear in just 100 years on earth.
You have to learn how to accept that hard fact. You should not be overwhelmed by despair. The solution is to learn how to touch eternity in the present moment. We have been talking about the environment as if it is something different from us, but we are the environment. The non-human elements are our environment, but we are the environment of non-human elements, so we are one with the environment. We are the environment. We are the earth and the earth has the capacity to restore balance and sometimes many species have to disappear for the balance restored. Maybe the flood, maybe the heat, maybe the air.
The urban population across the world is growing. What, if anything, is lost by our increasing switch towards being an urban species?
Well the life in the cities and the life in the countryside are connected because we have to feed the city and that is why the countryside has to change and why it is being contaminated by many things. The countryside has to use a lot of antibiotics, insecticide in order to provide the city with the food and things like that.
So the countryside is no longer safe for us. Even if we go back to the countryside and continue the same kind of consumption, there is no solution. Whether you are in the city or the countryside we are losing a lot. Even now in the countryside we have more chance to touch nature, to touch the earth. It is a little bit easier to hear ourselves with the practice of the touching the earth in the countryside, but the countryside is losing itself for the sake of the cities.
Most environmentalists narrow down the problems we face to two issues: over-consumption and over-population. Where do you stand?
Of course we have to consume in such a way to reduce the suffering of the species on the earth, this is very clear. But you have to reduce population also and to be a monk is to be one of the ways to reduce population, so I am calling for you to join us as monks. If you can create small communities and establish schools and you can take care of the children of other couples then you don’t miss our children. So basing it on my own experience as a monk I have not deprived myself of anything in life. I have a lot. Even though I don’t have blood children, I feel I have a lot of children. They give me a lot of joy and freshness and I think you have to act on two levels. You have to go down in consumption and go down in population and this is possible and we don’t have to deprive ourselves of anything including the children in our lives.
What’s the hardest part of the lifestyle you’ve chosen to lead?
I don’t think I have lost anything in life by choosing to be a monk. In fact I enjoy the life of a monk. For instance when we follow a vegetarian diet we are happy because we can do so. You don’t suffer when you follow a vegetarian diet. You don’t suffer because you don’t eat meat. It is very fortunate not to eat meat because you don’t have to eat the flesh of other species in order to stay alive. You can protect life by eating. You have to learn to eat in such a way to preserve our planet and reduce the suffering of living beings and that is why eating vegetarian can be a great joy, especially when you know how to cook. We have produced a cookbook to tell people they will get a lot of joy by eating vegetarian.
We have come to learn that the life of a monk is much easier than the lay practice. As a monk you live in the community and you follow the community in sitting mediation, walking meditation, eating on time, it is so easy. The easiest to learn is to be a monk. We don’t deprive ourselves of anything, we have a lot of joy together. We have time to build brotherhood and sisterhood. A romantic joy cannot last as long as a brotherhood or sisterhood, and our suggestion is that we should not continue to rush into the cities, but we should try to create communities in the countryside.
You can create a lay community and it’s not necessary to be a Buddhist community. Share cars and tractors. The presence of children in communities is very wonderful and you don’t have to be a mother or father to enjoy the presence of young children.
I became a monk at the age of 16 and I don’t feel that I suffer because I have so many spiritual children and lay children. In community even if you don’t have children you can look upon other children of couples as your children, you can establish your own school, you can share apartments, houses...living in a community with 100-200 people you use less cars, you have community cars. You can share refrigerators, you can share tractors, build a garden together, a school or park and share the children of other couples.
How do you attract young people to follow you?
We don’t try to attract young people to follow at all, they just come because when they come to our retreats and our temple they see there is brotherhood and sisterhood and that is what we need the most in our lives. Many of the young people have experienced romantic love and have suffered and when they come to our temple they see brotherhood and sisterhood and we can be ourselves and we can be nourished by that energy of brotherhood and sisterhood.
That is why to create a community and build brotherhood and sisterhood as a nourishment is a very important thing. You can devote your life into doing so. So instead of going to big cities and having to breathe that kind of air that is so polluted, we can organise so that you can create many communities in the countryside and try to live in such a way that can help protect our mother earth and protect the environment. We can work and we can also garden and we can do it together and you can use your talent in order to serve the community in building brotherhood and sisterhood, an alternative lifestyle.
So if the young people come to us, not because we offer, it is the joy, the happiness generated by brotherhood and sisterhood. Our daily practice is to generate the energy of love in brotherhood and sisterhood. There should be a political party that is capable of generating brotherhood, liberty, and fraternity. We know that fraternity brotherhood is important, but we don’t know how to generate fraternity. If there is a political party that knows how to generate fraternity then we will join that political party, but many people will just talk about it. Establishing small communities like that we will truly generate the energy of brotherhood and sisterhood. The young people they are capable of seeing that and many of them will devote their lives in this in order to generate energy that you cannot buy in supermarkets.
This interview was first published by the Ecologist on March 22, 2012. The second half of the interview, devoted to the possibility of happiness without buying new things all the time, is available here, where you can also download an audio file of the interview.