Over the years, since our first arriving in exile, I have taken a close interest in environmental issues. The Tibetan government in exile has paid particular attention to introducing our children to their responsibilities as residents of this fragile planet. And I never hesitate to speak out on the subject whenever I am given the opportunity.
In particular, I always stress the need to consider how our actions, in affecting the environment, are likely to affect others. I admit that this is very often difficult to judge. We cannot say for sure what the ultimate effects of, for example, deforestation might be on the soil and the local rainfall, let alone what the implications are for the planet’s weather systems. The only clear thing is that we humans are the only species with the power to destroy the earth as we know it. The birds have no such power; nor do the insects; nor does any mammal. Yet if we have the capacity to destroy the earth, so, too, do we have the capacity to protect it.
What is essential is that we find methods of manufacture that do not destroy nature. We need to find ways of cutting down on our use of wood and other limited natural resources. I am no expert in this field, and I cannot suggest how this might be done. I know only that it is possible, given the necessary determination. For example, I recall hearing on a visit to Stockholm some years ago that for the first time in many years fish were returning to the river that runs through the city. Until recently, there were none due to industrial pollution. Yet this improvement was by no means the result of all the local factories closing down. Likewise, on a visit to Germany, I was shown an industrial development designed to produce no pollution. So, clearly, solutions do exist to limit damage to the natural world without bringing industry to a halt.
This does not mean that I believe that we can rely on technology to overcome all our problems. Nor do I believe we can afford to continue destructive practices in anticipation of technical fixes being developed. Besides, the environment does not need fixing. It is our behaviour in relation to it that needs to change.
I question whether, in the case of such a massive looming disaster as that caused by the greenhouse effect, a fix could ever exist, even in theory. And supposing it could, we have to ask whether it would ever be feasible to apply it on the scale that would be required. What of the expense and what of the cost in terms of our natural resources? I suspect that these would be prohibitively high.
There is also the fact that in many other fields – such as in the humanitarian relief of hunger – there are already insufficient funds to cover the work that could be undertaken. Therefore, even if one were to argue that the necessary funds could be raised, morally speaking this would be almost impossible to justify given such deficiencies. It would not be right to deploy huge sums simply in order to enable the industrialised nations to continue their harmful practices while people in other places cannot even feed themselves.
All this points to the need to recognise the universal dimension of our actions and, based on this, to exercise restraint. The necessity of this is forcefully demonstrated when we come to consider the propagation of our species. Although from the point of view of all the major religions, the more humans the better, and although it may be true that some of the latest studies suggest a population implosion a century from now, I still believe we cannot ignore this issue.
As a monk, it is perhaps inappropriate for me to comment on these matters. I believe that family planning is important. Of course, I do not mean to suggest we should not have children. Human life is a precious resource and married couples should have children unless there are compelling reasons not to. The idea of not having children just because we want to enjoy a full life without responsibility is quite mistaken, I think. At the same time, couples do have a duty to consider the impact our numbers have on the natural environment. This is especially true given the impact of modern technology.
Fortunately, more and more people are coming to recognise the importance of ethical discipline as a means to ensuring a healthy place to live. For this reason I am optimistic that disaster can be averted. Until comparatively recently, few people gave much thought to the effects of human activity on our planet. Yet today there are even political parties whose main concern is this. Moreover, the fact that the air we breathe, the water we drink, the forests and oceans which sustain millions of different life forms, and the climatic patterns which govern out weather systems all transcend national boundaries is a source of hope. It means that no country, no matter how rich and powerful or how poor and weak it may be, can afford not to take action in respect of this issue.
As far as the individual is concerned, the problems resulting from our neglect of our natural environment are a powerful reminder that we all have a contribution to make. And while one person’s actions may not have a significant impact, the combined effect of millions of individuals’ actions certainly does.
This means that it is time for all those living in the industrially developed nations to give serious thought to changing their lifestyle. Again this is not so much a question of ethics. The fact that the population of the rest of the world has an equal right to improve their standard of living is in some ways more important than the affluent being able to continue their lifestyle.
If this is to be fulfilled without causing irredeemable violence to the natural world – with all the negative consequences for happiness that this would entail – the richer countries must set an example. The cost to the planet, and thus the cost to humanity, of ever-increasing standards of living is simply too great.
This is the second of a two-part article.