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Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinkingby Stephanie Kaza
With all the attention on living sustainably, the one thing missing from the conversation is how to find a personal connection with green living that will sustain us on our green path. While practical approaches to an eco-responsible lifestyle offer important first steps, it is critical that we ground these actions in broader understanding so that we can effect real change in the world.
In this book, Stephanie Kaza describes what she calls the "green practice path." She offers a simple, Buddhist-inspired philosophy for taking up environmental action in real, practical, and effective ways. Discover new ways to think more deeply about your impact on the natural world, engage in environmental change, and make green living a personal practice based in compassion and true conviction.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
“Stephanie Kaza is one of the wisest, kindest, and most sensible people I know, and this book is a perfect distillation of all those qualities. It will be of immense value to anyone looking for ways to live less in opposition to the forces of nature and community (which is the way of our consumer society) and more in their embrace. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.”—Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy
“Kaza, a biologist and professor of Environmental Studies at University of Vermont, combines Zen Buddhist practices and teachings with her forty years as an environmentalist for this guide to enlightened environmentalism, proposing a belief in the interdependence of people and nature as the genuine way to “go green”: “When we come to see ourselves as part of the green web of life... we are naturally drawn to respond with compassion.” In three parts, she guides readers through the principles of Buddhism as they apply to taking responsible action toward the earth: reducing harm, understanding suffering, seeing the big picture, letting go of desire and being in the moment. In parts two and three, she advises practical steps for joining in and taking action in everyday life and community. Kaza’s measured, focused text and clear command of Buddhism and ecology should shore up convictions and commitment in the newly green, and help secular environmentalists connect with their spiritual side.”—Publishers Weekly
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One: Reducing Harm
To get our bearings on the path, it is helpful to have some compass points for orientation. The first three chapters of this book consider principles that provide an ethical foundation and a pragmatic direction for the green path. Foremost of these is the commitment to reduce harm wherever possible. We begin by looking at the nature of environmental harm and exploring choices to reduce that harm. Offering kindness becomes a core practice of non-harming, a way to be with the suffering of the natural world, hard as this may seem. To gain a wisdom perspective on harm and suffering, the third chapter takes up the deep view based on interdependence. With ethical principles and systems thinking to guide us, we can have a certain measure of confidence in setting out on the path.
The Dalai Lama often opens his speeches by saying, “Everyone wants to be happy. No one wants to be unhappy.” Stemming from this statement is much of the world’s moral and religious philosophy. Another way to put this is, “Everyone wants to be unharmed. No one wants to be harmed.” All beings, from baby grasshoppers to giant redwood trees and people the world over, would prefer to be safe, to be free from harm, injury, violence, and suffering, to be allowed to live their lives in peace. Nobody really wants to be hurt, abused, or threatened in any way.
The Christian principle of reducing harm is contained in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In 1993 the Parliament of the World’s Religions proclaimed this moral code of reciprocity or mutual respect to be the common basis for a global human ethic. For Hindus, this is expressed as the practice of ahimsa, or non-harming—that is, taking up the path of not causing harm. In Buddhism, monks and laypeople take vows to “save all sentient beings from suffering.” Reducing harm through mutual respect is a central ethical principle in all religious and ethical traditions because it is fundamental to keeping human societies functional and not self-destructive. It is difficult for people and their support systems to thrive if everyone is hurting each other all the time.
This same logic can be extended to human relations with ecological systems. It is difficult for ecosystems to thrive and for people to thrive in them if plants and animals, groundwater, streams, mountains, oceans, and air are constantly under assault. Damaged support systems don’t work as effectively as healthy systems. They are less resilient, less capable, and less functional overall. Human beings trying to live in damaged or ailing ecosystems don’t do well either. They pick up waterborne disease from polluted streams. They struggle with asthma from poor air quality. They are vulnerable to extreme weather events from climate change.
So what does it mean to reduce harm? How can such a principle work when applied in a practical situation? How would one use such a guideline to be a good ecological citizen? As you would imagine, most environmental questions do not have simple answers. We don’t always know when harm is being done, and even when we can see there is harm, we don’t always know what the cause is. And further, there may be many reasons why it is difficult to reduce the harm that is happening. Choosing the ethical path of reducing harm turns out to be a complex and demanding practice. But that should not discourage us. Many wisdom traditions have prepared the way for this practice, and we can work with well-proven methods to help us along the path.
Degrees of Harm
In any given situation, people try to work out a way to get what they need without causing too many repercussions. We are constantly evaluating trade-offs and potential risks to minimize harm to ourselves as well as others with whom we have ongoing relations. We learn to do this in our family settings as we cope with household stress while keeping our safety intact. We maintain polite protocols to be good neighbors even if we disagree on politics. This balancing act reflects our evolutionary development as social animals; there are many good sociobiological reasons for being well-practiced at evaluating the potential for harm. Those who do this well assure both their own well-being and the well-being of their kin. Since this process of discrimination is already well developed, we can use it to help us on the green practice path. In order to reduce environmental harm, we must be able to identify it and then evaluate our own contribution to that harm.
Everyone has to eat, so this is a good place to practice looking for environmental harm and checking our participation in that harm. By “practice,” I mean engaging the questions around harming for a period of time and asking them over and over in different contexts. It is a form of discipline, remembering that this is what you are trying to do, bringing your attention back to the questions with a fresh mind again and again. Practicing with food presents an opportunity for mindfulness because so much of our time is spent in obtaining, preparing, and consuming food. When we stop to consider how much harm is involved in growing or making our food, we can make more informed choices about what we eat and what degrees of harm we will embrace.
Let’s explore several ways of evaluating degrees of harm in food. Looking at the broad picture, we can measure the various environmental impacts generated by the growing and processing the major food groups. Fortunately for us, the Union of Concerned Scientists has already done this research, laying down reliable benchmarks based on scientific analysis. These are outlined in their book The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices.
The authors considered 120 types of environmental impacts and then consolidated this list to six primary concerns: air and water pollution, land use, solid and hazardous waste, and climate change. They then examined U.S. national data for producing all of our food sources—fruits, vegetables, grains, meat. They were able to show which impacts were associated with each type of food production. Their study indicates that meat production is the leading cause of agricultural water pollution. This is because cows and hogs are fattened for slaughter in large feedlots and their manure runs off into the groundwater, polluting nearby streams and lakes. Production of grains and vegetables takes its toll on soil health and habitat biodiversity. So we can use factual data to measure the types and degrees of harming—in the arena of food production and other areas as well.
Another way to evaluate harm is to examine the impacts on individual plants and animals that we choose to consume. Many people are concerned about the treatment of animals in the industrial food system, which causes distress and suffering for the animals. Classic philosophical arguments for vegetarianism point out that animals have awareness and intelligence, that they experience physical and emotional suffering as we do.The infliction of cruelty and suffering—such as clipping hogs’ tails, cutting chicks’ beaks, or branding the hides of cattle—are standard operations in domestic meat production. Animals experience further anxiety and stress from being crowded in small cages or packed into trucks for long-distance transport. Calves and piglets are often traumatically separated from their mothers before weaning. If you eat meat, you can evaluate which of these types of harming is acceptable to you. If you want to reduce harm to the soil and groundwater as well as to individual animals, you can reduce the amount of meat you eat. The Union of Concerned Scientists strongly recommends cutting back on meat consumption to directly reduce both animal suffering and environmental degradation.
Evaluating harm to plants is more difficult because we don’t understand how plants experience harm. We know that poor soil, lack of water, and over harvesting can leave plants weak and nutrient deficient. But do plants suffer in the same way if their evolutionary integrity is altered through genetic engineering? Does mono-cropping harm plants or soils or both? With the rise of the organic farming movement, green consumers looking to reduce harm choose organic over conventional produce options. They reason that organic plants have been better nourished by the soil and perhaps also more lovingly cared for by the farmer, at least in small-scale operations. Workers on industrial-scale organic farms, however, may not hold such intimate relations with their crops.
Another way to evaluate degree of harm is in terms of the eater, rather than the eaten. Meat-intensive diets have been correlated with high rates of human heart disease and cancers of the digestive tract. Some vegetarians have turned away from meat to protect their health and avoid meat-associated medical risks. Studies now show that hormones used in beef production can affect human reproductive development, causing early puberty and male infertility. The heavy use of antibiotics in conventional meat and dairy operations is a human health concern as well, undercutting the effectiveness of these valuable drugs in treating human infection. Reducing harm to ourselves is a viable and important aspect of reducing environmental impact, reflecting the recognition that we too are part of the environment that is under siege.
We can also consider degrees of harm relative to spiritual well-being. In many world and indigenous religious traditions, abstaining from meat is a common practice in cultural ceremonies or as training in self-discipline. Practicing restraint requires constant vigilance and the tempering of deeply conditioned appetites. Buddhists and Hindus emphasize the merit gained from cumulative acts of compassion in relation to animals. They further believe that a meat-free diet generates a calmer mind, more disposed toward equanimity and patience and therefore less likely to harm others.
In the last few years a new criterion has arisen for evaluating harm: the distance a food has traveled from production to market. The harm, in this case, is to our climate, since long shipping distances contribute significantly to the carbon emissions impact of food products. Farmers’ markets across the nation have been promoting “locavore” campaigns, challenging people to eat 10 or 20 percent of their diet from local foods only. Authors Barbara Kingsolver and Gary Nabhan have taken on the experiment of eating 100 percent locally in their Midwest and desert regions, inspiring others with their stories. In this measure, degree of harm reflects the number of food miles associated with a specific food. We can choose to reduce our diet-related greenhouse gas emissions by eating locally and cutting down on food miles.
Meet the Author
Stephanie Kaza, Ph.D., teaches environmental ethics, the radical environmental movement, and ecophilosophy at the University of Vermont and the Institute for Deep Ecology.
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Very readable nor preachy.
I am glad I bought this book.