For Buddhism the innate dignity of human beings … stems … from the exalted place of human life in the broad expanse of sentient existence. Far from reducing human beings to children of chance, the Buddha teaches that the human realm is a very special realm standing squarely at the spiritual center of the cosmos. What makes human life so special is that human beings have a capacity for moral choice that is not shared by other types of beings. Though this capacity is inevitably subject to limiting conditions, we always possess, in the immediate present, a margin of inner freedom that allows us to change ourselves and hereby to change the world.
If we only changed the world by changing our ourselves, we would not be facing what the American Museum of Natural History, among others, calls “the Sixth Extinction.” In an exhibit embedded in the floor of its Hall of Biodiversity, the Museum asserts that this extinction event is “caused solely by humanity’s transformation of the ecological landscape.”
In her book The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert tells how the Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen came up with the name “Anthropocene” for the geologic era in which this mass extinction of thousands of species of animals is taking place. (One of the scientists who shared the Nobel Prize with Crutzen for their discovery of the compounds that deplete ozone in the atmosphere, “reportedly came home from his lab one night and told his wife, ‘The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.'” Kolbert 107)
Crutzen lists some of the “many geologic-scale changes” that humans have wrought upon the world:
- Transforming a third to a half of the planet’s land surface
- Diverting or damming almost all the world’s rivers
- Building fertilizer plants that make more nitrogen than nature does
- Removing more than one third of the fish produced each year in the coastal waters of the planet
- Using more than half of the water runoff that’s easily available
- Increasing carbon dioxide in the air by 40% in the last 200 years
- More than doubling the methane in the air during the same period.
The popular media have focused on the trends of the last 200 years. The role of burning fossil fuels in causing climate change has become a matter of political or even religious belief that trumps science for some people. But Kolbert takes a longer view. The mass extinction of other species caused by humans began long before the industrial revolution. As Kolbert (266) says,
What matters is that people change the world. This capacity predates modernity, though, of course modernity is its fullest expression. Indeed this capacity is probably indistinguishable from the qualities that made us human to begin with: our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and solve complicated tasks.
Another perspective that Kolbert adds to temper the popular doomsday rhetoric about the loss of biodiversity is that mass extinctions have happened five times before. Living organisms die. Living organisms change. New living organisms emerge. Some thrive, some die out. Living organisms are still here.
We are here because of some of these previous mass extinctions. It’s an open question, however, whether we will be here after the mass extinction that is our doing. Some might argue that “human ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion.” (Kolbert 268) Kolbert contends that “the fate of our own species … is not, in the end, what’s most worth attending to.” Yet she seems to turn right around and put the fate of all life back in our hands.
Right now … we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will be forever closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.
The key phrase here is “without quite meaning to.” Kolbert has already dismissed the idea that “the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices” because it “misses the point” that as long as we’re here we change the world. “Without quite meaning to,” what we have done has set and what we are doing keeps the Sixth Extinction in motion. Wallowing in shame and guilt, lamenting that the world would be better off without human civilization misses the point just as much as engaging in the hubris that “human ingenuity” can save the day.
One element is missing from Kolbert’s analysis of the Sixth Extinction. As long as that element continues to be ignored, we will continue in the quandary with which she ends. The Sixth Extinction is just an expression of the impact on other species of the political and economic systems that continue to exploit the poor and the powerless. If we are to find ways to keep “evolutionary pathways … open,” we will need more than scientific or technological ingenuity, we will need to open up our political and economic systems for all to participate and to share in the fruits and the consequences of human activity and decisions. To be more blunt, we need more than one day a year we call “Labor Day.” We need for the poor and the workers to share in the fruits of their production, and for the rich and powerful to share in the consequences of their bad decisions.
Bhikkhu Bodhi is correct that we can change ourselves. The question is whether we can change the way we live and work together.