I once spent a month in a monastery in the mountains of Bhutan. It sounds romantic, and the pristine beauty lived up to the image. When I left a mule driver came to take my belongings and watched bemused as I tried to attach my refuse bags to the animal. The mule driver made to throw them – plastic, tins and all – into the undergrowth with the thought, it’s just rubbish. The natural scene was so vast, dwarfing us so completely, that he couldn’t see that it was also fragile and that enough rubbish bags would destroy it.
The lesson of the unintended consequences of our actions is one we’re all learning. This week a group of geologists recommended that scientists declare that we’ve entered a new era. They call it the anthropocene – a period in which humanity has the decisive influence on the Earth. CO2 emissions, pollution and mass extinctions show that the effects of human behaviour are global and fundamental to the processes governing the planet. Not everyone agrees that a new geological era is merited – some think it’s politically motivated. But for a Buddhist the idea of the anthropecene is valuable because it challenges how we usually consider our behaviour and prompts us to think in the longterm perspective of geological time.
The Buddhist understanding of the human condition is that our habits, needs and beliefs drive us to act in ways that we think will bring happiness. But we fail to see that these are partial and short-term solutions, often tinged by emotions like craving and fear. In fact, the world is complex and interconnected, and everything we experience is impermanent. Reality doesn’t bend to our desires.
What Buddhism adds to other accounts of cause and effect is its focus on the role of the mind. Behind every action is an intention, Buddhism says, and ultimately, our intentions and states of mind determine the world we experience. The mind constantly reshapes itself, making us kind or cruel, content or aggressive; and Buddhist teachings stress the need to cultivate ‘skilful’ states of mind like kindness and wisdom, that tend to have helpful consequences.
The idea of the anthropecene shows that human intentions are now also shaping the planet itself. That’s a weighty responsibility and I think it calls us to reflect not just on how we act, but why we do so. Whatever practical measures we take for the sake of the planet, we should also consider the root of its problems: our minds.