On Doing Nothing: Reflections on Environmental Action

by Ray Grigg

Buddhism, in its original historical sense, was never is a religion but a psychology and philosophy. As an exploration of the human condition and the complications of consciousness, it provides some insightful notions about the relationship between thought, action and consequences, a subject that seems particularly relevant as we wrestle with all manner of environmental problems and wonder how we can address them by changing our individual and collective behaviour.

Sobering environmental news, worrisome scientific studies and disturbing media coverage urge us to action. But how do we move from concerned awareness to corrective action? How do we, as individuals and communities and nations, respond to an enormously complex problem that seems to require our urgent attention? Buddhist thinking has a thoughtful answer to all these difficult questions.

Don’t do anything.

Given the seriousness of our environmental problems, such advice may seem so dismissive and inadequate as to be nonsensical. But some wisdom can be garnered from a deeper understanding of the Buddhist meaning of the word “do”.

In Buddhist thought, everything arises from awareness, the source of both thinking and doing. Awareness changes thinking. We don’t have to force a change in our thinking, we just have to increase our awareness and our thinking effortlessly changes to become more subtle, comprehensive, inclusive and sophisticated.

Increased awareness changes doing in exactly the same way. No particular effort is required. Learning that bees perform complex communication dances that direct other bees to nectar supplies changes our response to bees. Discovering that trees communicate with each other via chemical pheromones makes forests into living places. Knowing that orcas are inseparably bonded in matrilineal families, each with unique dialects, increases our appreciation and alters our behaviour regarding them — it now seems inconceivable that we once shot them with 50-caliber machine guns. Awareness increases empathy and compassion, radically altering our response to everything from species and war to poverty and gender, thus making the world a more caring and civilized place.

Awareness promotes the intimate and personal by diminishing the distinction between this and that, self and other, human and nature, thereby confirming the connection of everything to everything else in a vast network of inseparable interrelationship and mutual belonging.

Just as awareness confirms that nothing is separate, alone or isolated, it also reveals that actions have consequences that can be noted. In the Buddhist sense, however, this awareness is purely itself, unburdened with any judgment that then manifests as conscience and guilt. Buddhist awareness possesses an easy grace that is weightless and illuminating. Uncluttered by complications, it is an opening and a freeing that allows us to find quiet amid tumult, balance amid disorder, and peace amid chaos. The process of opening and becoming aware initiates behavioural change without requiring any apparent effort.

In our changing world, environmental issues are going to impress themselves on our awareness — whether we invite them or not. Rising temperatures, extreme weather, acidifying oceans, disappearing species and degraded ecologies will become ever more commonplace inevitabilities that will forcefully impose themselves on our awareness. If Buddhist thinking is correct, we will change in response. Whether we change soon enough is another subject.