Written by Treothe Bullock, Portland OR. – An ecological milestone event was recorded in Hawaii for the first time as The Dalai Lama hosted – Environmental Summit – began. U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Dalai Lama and shared that for the first time global CO2 levels, as measured in Hawaii, reached 400 parts per million. Best estimates say it has been about 10 million years since the planet has had such high levels of atmospheric CO2 . Modern humans have only been around 1 to 200,000 years and this represents a fundamental game change for our existence. Besides the Dalai Lama, the panel included Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber; Andrea Durbin, executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council; and David Suzuki, a scientist and host of the award-winning Canadian Television series, “The Nature of Things.” David Miller, host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud,” moderated the panel discussion, part of the Summit on Spirituality and the Environment.
To be honest, this writer was shocked at the level of consensus and clarity in seeing the challenge we face and pathways of meaningful response that came out through the panel. It was heart lifting.
The Dalai Lama began by talking about his own biography, which began in a time when every wild stream in his experience could be directly drunk from. The idea of pollution was not existent. This has changed dramatically in a world where human population in our lifetime is predicted to shift from 7 to 10 billion. If India and Asia aspire to the levels of carbon based consumption represented by the USA we are on a path of mutual ecological destruction. We must accept the truths of sincere science and the fact that we live in a time in which old patterns no longer match the truth of our reality. He likened the economic activity by which we meet our needs as humans to a donut. On the outside of the donut is the environment, which we all depend on. On the inside of the donut are those among us who are most vulnerable – be it because of age, health, class or…. An economics of truth and compassion has responsibility to a practice, which is sustainable and affirming to the diversity and ecological integrity of the environment. It also has a responsibility to raise up those human beings among us who are most vulnerable.
Andrea Durbin reinforced some of these points in repeating the EPA statistics about the levels of known toxic chemicals and hormone disruptors that are currently in our environment. We have 80,000 human produced chemicals in our modern environment and only 200 are tested and 5 controlled. Unlike in Europe, in the USA chemicals are introduced to the environment until harm is proven. Human mothers have over 45 know harmful chemicals, which cross the placenta blood barrier into their children before birth. We are engaged in a huge toxic experiment. Our political system in broken and most of Oregon’s historic positive environmental legacy stands on the work of Governor Tom McCall, a Republican who was able to put common values ahead of partisan politics for the benefit of a common future – 30 years ago. Her group is currently working on passage of a bill that would at least demand full disclosure of the chemicals in the clothing and toys etc., which are made for use by children.
David Suzuki addressed how it has come to this. A century ago most of humanity was still living rurally in agriculturally based economies where biological realities were at the forefront of our common experience. As cities have moved into the center of the majority of our collective human reality the economy has become central to how most of humanity perceives it’s needs being met. The biological context of the economy has receded to the background of direct experience.
The Great Depression of the 1930’s taught a generation the importance of gardening and helping our neighbors and saving for a rainy day. WWII gave a huge lift to the economy despite its horrors. After the war it was largely decided that the nature of economic activity was not as important as the growth of economic activity. This has led to a blind faith in growth economy as the most important collective ideal for our mutual success. Oil spills and wars are good for this economy as they increase activity.
And here Governor Kitzhaber stepped in with very matured insight. He pointed out that the metrics of our economy are driving the current problems and that what we need to develop, in the next few years, is a new set of metrics for our economy. He implied we need metrics that include debits for the externalizations of ecological degradation and credits for responsible and sustainable innovations. We need metrics that show debits for generating class inequities and injustices and credits for development that lifts the most vulnerable up. An example of this is the Oregon Health Plan, which rather than simply funding care for the ill, invests in the fundamental health of all so there are less ill in need of care. He also shared a model for creating political will to make new agreements in the Oregon Watershed Councils which brought together Forestry, Environmentalists and local interests to collaborate on local decision making processes which generate new solutions for all stakeholders.
David Suzuki called this last example out as a failed model, based on similar round tables put in place in BC during the Crown Timber Lands crisis of the 1980’s, unless certain fundamental agreements exist. He spoke of the two most fundamental biological needs of the living. From our first gasp at birth we need air. We need air, which has not been poisoned. We need air, which is clean. As beings that are almost 70% water our second fundamental need is water. Water, which has not been poisoned. We need pure water. These agreements are not yet in place. We are still in a model that regulates the amounts of a very limited range of the current known toxins and hormone disruptors and there are many more we do not yet comprehend or protect ourselves from. We need a fundamental commitment to our basic biological needs and then we can go forward with a round table or council based process. It is meaningless without such fundamental agreements.
Andrea Durbin called out the reality that until we can change the funding of our democratic process so that our legislatures are responsive to communities rather than the corporate donors their reelections depend on, there may not be an effective political response to our challenge. We need to address campaign finance.
In addressing the problem of how we begin to leverage changes in our behavior the topic of carbon caps and taxes came up as both California and British Columbia have entered into implementing these programs. While taxation is taboo in the current political climate Kitzhaber pointed out that we already pay a carbon tax. We are paying in the form of environmentally caused illness and disease, in the failing of ecosystems, flooding and erosion of coastal areas, destabilization of climate…. We must be less passive in how we are taxed and use a more conscious responsive approach to the truth of our situation.
The Dalai Lama responded by suggesting we need to solve these problems while simultaneously decreasing population growth and practicing a socialism that is protective of the most vulnerable. He joked a bit about the socialist claim and then paired it with Freedom. He stressed the essentiality of freedom, which ennobles humanity and leaves the space for our creativity. He spoke of how each individual is precious and that if we are mired in the rhythms of our biological necessities we cannot develop our humanity. A humanity that has an inner life with qualities of empathy, compassion, self awareness and analysis, creativity & discipline that brings us into the social connections, and cultural and self awareness’s that foster true happiness and protect us from the depressions and addictions that social isolation and inner poverty make us vulnerable to. He also joked about his own lack of modern education as he promoted a renewal of education as fortifying for our humanity. An education which is based not only in the study of the truth’s of our moment but enables our youth to interact with these truth’s in ways that motivates them to action and gives them direct experience with the world. Education that connects truth, reality and social connection is a foundation to understanding which generates culturally realistic responses to our shared challenge.
The work is only just beginning. It is hopeful to hear political leaders who are able to articulate many of our challenges and meaningful directions of response. Each presenter shared how they are making personal changes to reduce their personal ecological impacts – recycling clothes, buying foods without packaging, bicycling more, sharing tools and vehicles. The Dalai Lama shared the Buddha’s teaching that the nuns and monks should be planting trees – that subsequent generations will have forests to care for and be cared by. He also admitted that many of our religious traditions are not in pace with the reality of our time. Regardless of belief, we can all choose to live with a compassion that brings forward precious life.