Will our planet survive us?

Recently I’ve been asked to give a talk on any subject of interest to me to a group of undergraduate and postgraduate students at Oxford University. After some deliberation, the subject revealed itself: it is how we act upon and are acted on the natural world. And there is ‘how’ to consider, but also ‘why’. Our stance is conditioned by many factors, starting from cultural, economic, societal… Where to begin?

As I intended this talk to be an introduction to a wide discussion, I’ve chosen a Buddhist viewpoint to start. I often repeat that Zen is experiential, no teachings are taken on face value – however there is some guiding principle of our actions. This can be traced back to the Buddhist cosmology, which defines humans’ place in the universe. Briefly, there are six realms: gods, semi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell. They are interconnected and beings transmigrate from one realm to another in an endless cycle of birth and death. Until, through ardent practice, they reach enlightenment which frees them from suffering.

Does it imply no special standing of humans in the natural world, no special powers over animals, no free ticket for limitless exploitation? Yes, but with a caveat: it’s only humans who can reach freedom from suffering through application of their moral and mental faculties. Does it follow that humans should multiply without any consideration for other species? No, because buried more deeply is understanding of interconnectedness between humans, all sentient beings and the universe. In practical terms, it can be interpreted as having only as many children as a family can raise without condemning them to life in poverty. Such life would be counterproductive, as for too many it would mean fight for survival and lack of consideration for other humans, sentient being and the environment.

The reverence for nature and conservation of resources is an integral part of Ch’an (Chinese) and Zen (Japanese) traditional monastic training. It has influenced the way of life in the East for many centuries.

The ensuing discussion was lively as we looked at various facets of living in harmony with Nature – or eventually transforming Nature beyond recognition through domination of single species, humans. I was truly impressed by the respect that participants had for other than theirs point of view. I was encouraged by how the pieces of a complex picture started to fit together, and it became obvious that each one of us can play a role in doing good for the sake of others. Provided we start small, start from ourselves and hope that a shift in attitudes will save the Earth.


I’m indebted to ‘An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics’ by Peter Harvey (Cambridge University Press, fourth printing 2004),  especially Chapter 4 “Attitude to and treatment of the natural world”