Challenging ourselves (and one another) on our carbon footprints

Reducing carbon emissions is going to take profound changes in behavior – especially among those of us who live in wealthy, high emissions societies. On a per capita basis, we in the United States are the highest emitters of all. Public policy will help, but alone it cannot be enough. Each of us will need to make a personal effort to adapt. Which is where Buddhist mindfulness can have a powerful role……

Speaking for (and about) myself: I know that my carbon footprint is high, and know the actions that I could take to bring it down. These include: (i) cut back on eating meat; (ii) drive less, and take the subway to work; (iii) get my home energy audited, and then invest in energy saving actions; (iv) purchase carbon offsets to make my electricity consumption wind-based; (v) put time into advocating for climate change legislation; (vi) move out of the suburbs. But, even knowing this, my actual changes in behavior remain very modest. Why?

Mindfulness practice points to the places to look: (i) the quality of my intention, and (ii) the habits, desires and aversions that lead me not to act on my good intentions. But here’s the thing: It would be nice if the act of mindfulness were enough to produce changes in behavior. But my experience tells me that it is not – that we (or more precisely, speaking again for myself “I”) need to be challenged. There is a gap between good intention and wise action. I need to look beyond my asserted “lets address global warming” nice-sounding sentiment – and probe more deeply. Am I truly serious about the sentiment? Where is the disconnect? How to address it?

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. My sense of our WBPF conversations this past year on climate change is that, for all the intellectual stimulation that comes from talking about climate change, bringing mindfulness to the ‘single step’ of our own carbon footprints is the potentially unique contribution of a Buddhist perspective: Examining the intentions and habits that lie behind what we do, and do not do – and doing this collectively, challenging and sharing as we learn.

Sangha offers a superb platform for this mix of introspective search, challenge (of and by ourselves, and of and by others), and mutual reinforcement. Some of us who have been part of the Washington Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s climate change initiative over the past year met on Saturday, December 5 – and agreed that we would focus more of our time together, and our contributions to this blog, on practices of the kind outlined above.

May all beings bring mindfulness into our daily lives -- and, through that mindfulness, learn to cultivate wise action, for the benefit of ourselves, our communities, and our planet.


  1. Thanks, Brian. I think you've captured a dilemma that many of us confront. Why am I not doing more to change my personal habits of consumption when I know--as best as I can know--that my actions do make a difference... that the cumulative effect of millions of individual actions can change a situation that will cause great harm to millions of people and other sentient beings around the world?

    Our habit energy is very strong--as the Buddha's teachings emphasize--and the fact of 'knowing' something cognitively is not in itself enough to change ingrained habits and behaviors. I'll come back to this.

    It's also hard to see in a clear way the impact of my actions on the outcome that I desire (a lowering of carbon emissions to a sustainable level, etc.) and that can help me stay in a kind of trance of individual and collective consumption...

    Two specific ways in which the Buddha's teachings can be helpful in addressing the 'why am I not doing more?' question are:

    1) Our 'knowing' needs to go deeper than the cognitive level to bring about real change in habits and understanding:

    When the Buddha taught the 4 Noble Truths of the existence of suffering; the origin of suffering in craving; the end of suffering--letting of of craving/Nirvana; and the path to the end of suffering--the Noble Eightfold Path--he taught three insights for each of these truths:
    (i) we need to understand (cognitively etc) the existence of suffering, the origin of suffering...
    (ii) we need to develop a deep experiential knowing of suffering, origin of S, end of S...
    (iii) we need to really know that we know in a transforming way. (There's a good discussion of these insights in Phillip Moffitt's book on the Four Noble Truths, 'Dancing with Life')

    I would posit that in so far as we are not walking our talk, we have not moved beyond the cognitive understanding--and we can deepen our awareness and change our habits through coming to know more deeply the connections between our individual actions and the harm they are causing to others and the earth.

    We can deepen this understanding through meditation practice--through reflection on our interconnectedness, and loving-kindness or tonglen practices--and also, very importantly through investigation and dialogue--learning more about the situation of climate change and learning from the practices of others on and off the cushion.

    So the path that WBPF is proposing of engaging in dialogue online and meeting on a regular basis to discuss our actions and learn from and challenge each other is a very positive way to go.

    Another quality that is worth reflecting on in regard to the 'Why am I not doing more?' question is determination or resolution, which is one of the ten parmamis or perfections in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition. Skillful determintation is a quality that we can investigate the presence or absence of, and cultivate to help us align our actions with our deepest values. Exploring this quality of determination together might be a helpful practice in these coming months.

    With metta to all.

  2. Brian's insightful post resonated with me and I appreciate Hugh's comment that draws on teachings from the Buddha. I heard a story on "All Things Considered" yesterday that supports the notion that what I do as an individual matters. Here is a link to the story (How Consumers Can Affect Climate Change):

  3. In the NPR interview that John Butler gave us, there's mention of a December 6 Washington Post OpEd by Chesapeake Climate Action Network Executive Director, Mike Tidwell, "To really save the planet, stop going green", . Actually, the two articles seem more complementary, and less contradictory, than their titles might suggest.

  4. After reading these comments and checking out the article and news story referred to, I'm very nearly on the verge of not commenting here at all for the same reason that I often don't act; I feel overwhelmed. My mind is going into fifty directions with thoughts and ideas, and with my focus dissipating like that, nothing solid can form. But I want to briefly write a few thoughts that I had as I read:

    I totally believe that one of my primary reasons for not acting is that my understanding doesn't go deeper than the intellectual. I'm a very analytical person who likes to know the facts, so it's interesting to contemplate that facts aren't enough to make me act, that facts might be so overwhelming that I feel powerless to act.

    I've been thinking about why my understanding doesn't lead to action, but now I'm starting to think about what happens that does lead to my acting. I have acted to make changes that reduce my carbon footprint. What caused that action? I do think the cause was having my intellectual understanding finally reach my heart or my gut. It's difficult to say what causes this shift. Sometimes it's hearing or reading something that causes me to just feel the issue and act without pondering too much. Other times, it's probably just constant exposure to the issue that causes a trickle from my mind to my heart. But I want to be more mindful of what does actually prompt my action.

    I'm guessing that Tidwell wrote his op-ed in the way that he did to get our attention. It is always good for those of us who are trying to do individual voluntary actions to lessen our carbon footprints to be reminded that we need to keep pressure on our government to make the regulations and set the targets that we are incapable of making or setting as individuals. If one reads carefully, he does say that those of us who do care should make those changes to reduce our personal carbon footprints. But I worry that some might not read all that carefully. I would bet that an individual who has taken some sort of voluntary action toward reducing her carbon footprint is more likely to lobby his congressional representative or her president for more forward-thinking policies on the environment than an individual who hasn't.