The Guardian: Buddha taught us to be happy with less. How does this apply to the climate crisis?

Some weeks ago, Nadine Levy invited me to co-author a piece on Buddhism and climate change for the Guardian. She’s written a number of Buddhist-orientated articles. It was a great experience! The article was pretty strongly simplified by the editor, but I think it still makes some good points.


Is it allowable to get the pre-edited version here?


Honestly not sure how that works, but I can share the main details.

We called ours “The Price of Craving”.

we are sold “green” solutions that promise us everything we want without having to pay the price. We can eat beef, just make it fake meat. We can keep our cars, just electrify them. We can keep using as much energy as we want, just make them recyclables.

We have been chasing this illusion for decades. The more we think we can have what we want without paying the price, the more we want.

to address the climate crisis, we must close the mines. Leave fossil fuels in the ground. But we’ve focused on the wrong things—tweaking lifestyle choices and embracing feel-good “solutions”—and, as a result, global atmospheric CO2 is higher than ever and accelerating.

There’s no technology, no breakthrough, no special moment that will make the difference. If we built an energy source a hundred times more efficient, craving would find a way to use a thousand times more energy.

we look at what we are creating and we fear it. We think of ourselves as subject to horrifying possibilities, as victims of the monster taking shape under our hands.

Also, we had fewer typos. :wink:


Thanks. You’ve made me think more about virtue signalling, and how we are manipulated into feeling good from inconsequential and sometimes self destructive actions.

We feel good that we are eating low fat low sugar low gluten food, despite the food being highly processed and full of preservatives and additives.

We feel good eating plant based meat even though that is also highly processed and possibly of questionable nutritional value.

We feel good driving an electric car that is powered from electricity generated by coal firing plants (70% of NSW electicity).

We feel good labelling ourselves with she/her pronouns, and we don’t feel a bit of the pain that a LGBTQIA+ person experience as part of their life journey.

And finally, perhaps some of us (hopefully, none in this forum) feel good calling ourselves Buddhists, taking the three refuges, and giving alms, when we have absolutely no intention of renouncing or giving up our defilements. We just want to be reborn into a better life.

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Climate change may be Samsara’s fault as much as human fault, if whatever conditions humans and their abilites and possibilities does not allow them to evade producing the effect.

So far in human history, two humans have not been able to agree on even how to set their air conditioning. How are they supposed to tackle climate change?

I also wonder…what is the principle that Dhamma can disappear> Why do people tend to become more extreme? Why is even the weather becoming more extreme?

Are we really the cause or are we as humans also subjected to a universal happening that somehow leads to extremes? Like something that balances disappears?

It almost as if this coarsening process is unavoidable. As if we cannot escape that Dhamma, wisdom, the subtle, disappears or somehow does not work balancing anymore.

But are we in controll or is their some universal repeating proces going on?

Even when science is now so advanced and we are so technically evolved , still things seems to become more superficial, easier tending to extremes. As if that what is balancing is gone.

I tend to see this as some universal development, maybe something cosmic. I believe, somehow, we are also subject or prey to this proces.

Of course we are conditioned and therefore limited. Otherwise we would all be all-encompassing and unbound (or, if you want, Gods). I believe this is what the concept of dependent origination is about in the end.

It would not surprise me that nothing can help to avoid the collapse of wisdom, love, compassion, not even a Buddha re-appearing in the world. Their just seem to be dark times in which love and wisdom cannot floorish. But why?

Ofcourse i do not want to stimulate some fatalism, but i think there is something going on that we do not understand. This is also not meant to denie that there are some obvious reasons for decline and extremism, but i think there is more going on too.

I think this is an interesting perspective on DN27. Another text I find relevant is the introductory story to Bu Pj 1:

At that time Verañjā was short of food and afflicted with hunger, with crops affected by whiteheads and turned to straw. It was not easy to get by on almsfood. Just then some horse dealers from Uttarāpatha had entered the rainy-season residence at Verañjā with five hundred horses. In the horse pen they prepared portion upon portion of steamed grain for the monks.

Then, after robing up in the morning, the monks took their bowls and robes and entered Verañjā for alms. Not getting anything, they went to the horse pen. They then brought back many portions of steamed grain to the monastery, where they pounded and ate them. Venerable Ānanda crushed a portion on a stone, took it to the Buddha, and the Buddha ate it.

And the Buddha heard the sound of the mortar. When Buddhas know what is going on, sometimes they ask and sometimes not. They know the right time to ask and when not to ask. Buddhas ask when it is beneficial, otherwise not, for Buddhas are incapable of doing what is unbeneficial. Buddhas question the monks for two reasons: to give a teaching or to lay down a training rule.

And so he said to Ānanda, “Ānanda, what’s this sound of a mortar?” Ānanda told him what was happening.

“Well done, Ānanda. You’re all superior people who have conquered the problems of famine. Later generations will despise even meat and rice.”

Of course, a blight is more temporary than climate change, but hardship is hardship. We are part of one of those later generations, which despise grains, and invent the Double Down.

I think the pushback from the right against virtue signaling is more to blame. Recollection of good actions is praised in the suttas, and ‘being well received at assemblies’ is given as a legitimate motive for good deeds (e.g. here). There is / was an opportunity for, e.g. The United States Soybean Board to go full “Got Milk?” and make the perception in schools that veganism is cool and omnivory is cruel. Instead, there’s a stigma about even mentioning your positive lifestyle choices that applies everywhere. There’s car commercials telling you “you need this truck to be a man” and no bus commercials saying, “using transit makes you less selfish”. People signal their virtues of wealth, beauty, status, strength, etc. all around us. But the greater virtues are shunned and shrinking.

There’s a famous incident where President Jimmy Carter suggested Americans dial back on the heating gas and put on a sweater. It got more blow-back than most war crimes. But not long before that, we’d had popular support for Victory Gardens and an understanding of the need for rationing food, fuel, and more. It’s not that it’s impossible to have a culture that praises & promotes thrift, nor that it’s possible in other countries but not the anglo settler colonies - we just fumbled the ball. Lost a winnable battle.


I haven’t really seen this, but then I don’t live in the US and haven’t visited it for 20 years. Here in Australia there is a far right and a far left, but virtue signalling seems universal. People do want to feel good that they have done the right thing. And there is nothing wrong with that, but sometimes what is perceived as the “right” thing may not be that significant, or indeed relevant.

We do have commercials urging us to take public transport because it is better for the environment. And during the drought we had commercials urging us to conserve water. I don’t object to these, I think they are genuinely good. I do look askance at what I would consider to be “performative virtue signalling.”

I wrote a longer response on this, but I think I’ll save it for another time!

Right, that’s the main point we were getting at. It’s good to do all these things, to feel good about them, and to encourage others. But it’s not going to solve the problem.

One thing we can do by making lifestyle changes is to understand what it means, what has to be done, and what has to be given up. That gives us more empathy and better practical capacity for understanding change.

But for me the thing is, I was convinced of the moral importance of this when I was 18 and read Singer’s Animal Liberation. I’m not perfect by any means, but I became a vegetarian right away, and have always tried to live my life with minimum impact. I live in a small flat, the furniture here is largely rescued from the street, and my supporters in Sydney know that I always prefer to walk or catch a train than get a lift. I’ve been doing it literally my whole adult life.

And, well, here we are.


I agree, and its even more important in the context of trying to understand the Buddha’s teachings and to follow the path he advocated.

Even though I was exposed to the Buddha’s teachings at an early age and made the decision to embark on the path, in hindsight I did not really understood what the path was and it’s implications.

I am conceited enough to believe I “converted” my father to Buddhism (he was an atheist and brought us up to be at least agnostics), but the truth is my father was an intensely spiritual man and by being an adult and more mature than me he progressed much further and understood a lot more. He renounced when he turned 50 and devoted the rest of his life to achieving perfect understanding. I realise now that he has been trying to guide me along the path over my childhood, but as a child I did not really understand what he was saying or trying to do until now.

I now realise - renunciation is about psychology, and letting go of emotions, perceptions, the defilements and ultimately the sense of self. It is not about giving up material possessions, wearing an ochre robe, and going through ordination. Nor is it about secluding oneself from the world, going to the forest, meditating under the root of a tree. Sure, the Buddha advocated all that, but one can do all that and still have not conquered the khandhas or the defilements.

When my brother rang me to inform me my father had died, initially I was calm and tranquil. I realise from my brother’s description of the circumstances of his death, he had valiantly fought Mara till the bitter end, but achieved his soteriological goal hours before his death. I was pleased for him, and glad that there were no more rebirths for him, and congratulated myself that I had borne the news well and did not succumb to my emotions or clinging to my father.

However, I was wrong. After breakfast, it all came crashing down and I bawled like a baby. I realise then I still had clinging, love for my father, and emotions overwhelmed me. It was then I realised I still had some way to go along my journey.

When my mother died, I can truly say I feel nothing, I was completely calm and tranquil. Even though in my past I was attached to my mother much more than my father. From the description of the circumstances of her death, it was clear to me she too had achieved her soteriological goal - she went away peacefully and fully accepting of her situation. It was then I realised my mother in her own way was far more advanced than my father and I, she worked all this out a long time ago.

Sorry for this personal intrusion into the discussion. I just wanted to point out what often we only see negative things in this world, all the dukkha, and we forget to acknowledge wonderful things happen too.

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On the topic of virtue signalling, Bhante Sujato wrote this excellent response a while back.

Please keep being virtuous,

I’m glad you feel good sharing your pronouns. It really is a big support for the trans* and gender diverse ( TG/GD) community. By cis people sharing their pronouns, they are normalising the practice. This then allows people who have a gender different to that they were assigned at birth to share theirs with more confidence, Not all TG/GD people want to, or are able ‘pass’ as cis people, but people getting our pronouns right really does help to reduce suffering.


Thanks for explaining this, Venerable! :pray: