Book Bits

The Problem With Business As Usual – On Interconnectedness and the Climate Crisis

“Interdependence means we’re not separate from nature, and we’re not separate from each other, and any civilization that runs against the reality of interdependence is delusional and, well, no wonder it can’t hold up.”

– Susan Bauer-Wu

Inspired by a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Greta Thunberg, Susan Bauer-Wu’s new book, A Future We Can Love, offers practical and spiritual guidance to face the climate emergency. Herself a clinical scientist, and mindfulness teacher whose lifework has been dedicated to alleviating suffering and fostering well-being through contemplative wisdom, Bauer-Wu’s book reflects her deeply personal concern for the earth and her admiration for the figures leading efforts to action against the current crisis. In this excerpt, she delves into the Buddhist image of Indra’s Net which upholds the interconnectedness of all forms of life and warns against the ignorance of cause and effect and the ways in which our blindness to the consequences of our actions reaps suffering.

The first time I saw the Dalai Lama, I didn’t. This is not a koan. Recently divorced and back in school, in Chicago, I had next to no money to spare for a ticket to see him speak. But I really wanted to go. I asked the organization that was hosting the event if I could earn a ticket some other way. “Please,” I said, “I’ll volunteer, I’ll do anything.” But they said they “don’t do that.” I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I should be there, so on the night of the Dalai Lama’s appearance at the landmark Chicago Theater, I paid more for a scalped ticket than I would have in advance and climbed to the very back of the very top of the steep-set seats to find that mine was positioned squarely behind a large structural column. I couldn’t see His Holiness. I couldn’t even hear.

Fast-forward twenty years later, the Dalai Lama and I were in a small room together in India and he held my hand. Thirty-something-Chicago me did not expect this, any more than Greta planned to Zoom with His Holiness when she first sat with her protest sign outside the Swedish Parliament House. Like the Buddha himself observed, nobody knows the future. Nobody ever has. But can we talk about the particular uncertainty that is coming to define our time, the loss of certainty in the ongoingness of life on Earth?

Recently my friend Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s longtime English translator as well as my colleague at Mind & Life, was talking with a couple of us about an ancient visual metaphor for interdependence, a central insight of Buddhism. The image, Jinpa said, is from a scripture called the Avatamsaka Sutra, or “Flower Garland Scripture.” It sounded beautiful, and I was picturing some kind of kaleidoscopically colorful mandala unfurled from an ancient parchment scroll. Another colleague had never heard of it.“

Google it, Jinpa said. So much for romantic archaeological fantasies.

What Jinpa was referring to is known as Indra’s Net. I found a translation by the Buddhist scholar Francis H. Cook describing it like this:

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net that has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in all dimensions, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.

Interdependence, as depicted by Indra’s Net, sounds like an especially sparkly representation of systems theory. Jinpa says the point is not so much the sparkle (another scripture gets at the same idea with dust) as the fact that everything and everyone are interconnected. There is no center; we are all in it together, depending on one another—“we” being everything in the universe, and “it” being an infinite web of cause and effect. “Of course,” says Jinpa, “there is no way for the human mind to be able to grasp all the points of interconnection; for that we would need to be omniscient. ”Seeing that we humans, as individuals and as a species, aren’t really separate and certainly aren’t at the center helps us assume a wider, longer-term, and critically humbler and less selfish perspective. Jinpa says recognizing interdependence also lets us see beyond the immediate and obvious to underlying patterns, like the difference between noting today’s weather and understanding our role in climate feedback loops.

Greta agrees. Feedback loops, she says in conversation with the Dalai Lama, “show how complex everything is, that our actions have consequences. We have such a lack of respect for nature and for the environment that we just think, ‘Oh things, they will work out in the end.’ We don’t seem to think about our actions having consequences.” Karma and interdependence work in tandem.

And the Dalai Lama, speaking with Greta, also asks us to expand our sense of cause and effect, to think beyond the “very small circle” of ourselves and our own families. Even thinking in terms of countries, he says, is not big enough. “The reality is, individual human beings’ life depends on the community. In today’s world, the entire seven billion human beings are one human community. So now the time has come, we have to think in terms of all humanity. In ancient times, we lived in small circles, but according to reality now, small circles are unrealistic. So, seven billion human beings depend on each other.”

Interdependence means of course our actions have consequences, and of course the more of us there are to act on this planet—a number that has grown exponentially in the past decades and centuries and has now passed to eight billion—the more and greater consequences we will have. Interdependence means we’re not separate from nature, and we’re not separate from each other, and any civilization that runs against the reality of interdependence is delusional and, well, no wonder it can’t hold up. Denying and disrespecting our interdependence, no wonder we’ve created, on the one hand, societies of people who can’t get enough, and on the other hand, people who truly don’t have enough. No wonder the Arctic is melting, land is flooding, species are dying, and the Earth is burning. Interdependence means of course we cannot carry on with business as usual and not expect to be affected by the consequences of our own actions or by the actions of every other jewel in the universe in response.

The Dalai Lama, speaking with Greta, also asks us to expand our sense of cause and effect, to think beyond the “very small circle” of ourselves and our own families. Even thinking in terms of countries, he says, is not big enough.

Vandana Shiva has become a hero of mine since I met her through this conversation. Trained as a physicist, she later shifted to interdisciplinary research in science, technology, and environmental policy; and in 1991 she founded Navdanya, a national movement in India to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources. With palpable vitality and a large bindi on her forehead at her sixth chakra (the seat of hidden wisdom and where her third eye would be), she tells a history of separation in the West that haunts me.

Vandana says that she has “read them all,” all of the fathers of modern science including Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, and in these readings she saw how “the intellectual architecture of disconnection was laid in that period.” She’s talking about that time—around the turn of the seventeenth century—when “people who continued to believe they were part of the Earth were defined as witches. Most of them were women.” Calling it a genocide, Vandana points out that this was happening at the same time as the genocide of Indigenous people of North America, and she says they’re related, since both were about “forced separation.”

“Bacon said that we have to torture nature and make her our slave,” Vandana reminds us of the violent language he used to describe the separation. Francis Bacon was the lord chancellor of England as well as the inventor of the scientific method, and he oversaw the witch hunts there, apparently. Vandana says Rene Descartes, for his part, claimed “I’m a thinking thing.” I can hear the incredulity in her voice. “He can’t say ‘being,’ because being means to be alive,” she says, underscoring the difference between being and thing. Descartes conjured a thinking thing without a body, effectively a person not of this Earth, says Vandana, “because the body connects us to the Earth. Just imagine that,” she shakes her head. “Just imagine!” According to Vandana, it followed from Descartes’s reasoning that others—other people who were seen as too bodily, and other beings, and nature herself now that she had been othered—didn’t think as well or didn’t think at all. This way of thinking, Vandana says, “didn’t just separate us from the Earth. It separated mind from body and created a very artificial idea of what the mind is, very Cartesian, very mechanical, very militaristic, and also very privileged. It denied intelligence to a living Earth and to every one of her nonhuman organisms, every plant, every microbe, every seed.” To some of her human organisms, too. Without blaming Descartes for the witch hunts, I take the point that this way of seeing the world and one another has had profound effects on how we relate.

Vandana understands things very differently—very interdependently. “All the way from the tiny molecule to a cell to organisms to ecosystems and the planet as a whole, there is creativity, intelligence, consciousness pervading. In all our spiritual traditions, we don’t just see ourselves as materially connected to the Earth. We get our food from the Earth, we get our breath from the Earth, we get our water from the Earth, but that consciousness is the currency of a sacred universe. And we are connected through consciousness. So, the desacralization of the Earth went hand in hand with the desacralization of the human being.”

Similarly, from a Buddhist point of view, ignorance of our interdependence is the delusion at the root of suffering—all kinds of suffering, from our daily dissatisfactions to colonialism, slavery, persecution, environmental self-destruction, and war. If my interest in what is “out there” only goes as far as how it serves my needs “over here,” I set myself up in a struggle to tame or dominate what is out there, whether it’s traffic that’s making me late or a group of people living on land that I see as a resource for my country. Not that these are comparable, but ignorance of interdependence forms the root of suffering at vastly different scales. Such delusion lets us spend our days fearing and fighting for our separate selves (or separate tribes, races, or nations) in petty and catastrophic ways, and it perpetuates itself in vicious cycles—feedback loops—that have put us increasingly at odds with one another and with nature, of which we are at the same time inescapably a part. Buddhists also talk about two other primary loops of human suffering—namely, craving and disliking (the latter often referred to as “aversion)—both of which arise from our ignorance of the way things really are and contribute significantly to the climate crisis.

“Ignorance of Interdependence has not only harmed the natural environment,” says the Dalai Lama, “but human society as well. Instead of caring for one another, we place most of our efforts for happiness in pursuing individual material consumption. We have become so engrossed in this pursuit that, without knowing it, we have neglected to foster the most basic human needs of love, kindness, and cooperation. This is very sad.”

This is very sad. This is suffering. Greta feels it, too. Reflecting on the deep depression of her early adolescence when she stopped eating and stopped talking, she says, “One of the reasons was I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that people didn’t seem to care about anything, that everyone just cared about themselves rather than everything that was happening with the world. . . . It made me sad.”

Permission to feel sad—I’m grateful for this. It’s an honest response, resonant with tenderness and appropriate in this moment. I wonder, if so much of the suffering that we inflict on others and on the Earth, and that we experience ourselves, comes from a misguided sense of separation, maybe it will help to come together and discuss. Specifically, let’s talk about these three human feedback loops that Buddhists sometimes call “the three poisons”: delusion, craving, and disliking. And let’s talk about how they drive climate feedback loops, leading us to the current crisis. I wonder, too, since our human feedback loops have consequences for the planet—given interdependence, of course they do—by the same token are they not opportunities for better consequences, if we intervene to turn these loops around?

From A Future We Can Love: How We Can Reverse the Climate Crisis with the Power of Our Hearts and Minds by Susan Bauer-Wu © 2023 by the Mind & Life Institute. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

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