Buddhism, Nihilism, and Deep Ecology

July 23, 2008 |

Carbon-sucking trees. Mirrors in space. Biochar. Some of the proposed solutions to climate change seem better suited to the annals of science fiction. Geo-engineering -- along with nanotechnology and bioengineering -- belongs to a class of scientific innovation that many fear will threaten the integrity of life as we know it. Humans have been innovating new technologies since the first forward-thinking caveman used a rock to crack a nut from its shell, but new technologies still sometimes manage to weird us out. Certain technologies -- fertilizing the oceans with urea, for example -- just don't seem natural. Environmentalists of the deep ecology school fear that a tech-heavy approach to climate change glosses over the real issues (human greed and overconsumption), and could drive us toward a future more Blade Runner than ecotopia.

Deep ecology sees the environment as governed by a complex natural order superior to any human artifice. When faced with the challenge of climate change, deep ecologists believe that we must restore the world's natural balance, and that overly technical solutions are an arrogant attempt to improve upon nature. Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, and others have pointed out that many technological solutions address problems that were themselves created by technology, and that we're ignoring the simple solutions that nature has already provided.

In her seminal book "Biomimicry," Janine Benyus imagines nature as the best problem-solver the world has ever seen: "Our planet-mates (plants, animals and microbes) have been patiently perfecting their wares for more than 3.8 billion years...turning rock and sea into a life-friendly home. What better models could there be?" Nature may well offer some inspiring solutions, but it just as often produces processes that we wouldn't want to emulate: taste of these bright red toxin-laced berries, anyone?


Proponents of biomimicry assume that nature will always act favorably toward humans, when just as often, nature dishes out problems and we must use our uniquely human ingenuity to solve them. No one today is criticizing nature for smiting us with floods, fires, and diseases, but plenty of people take issue with new technologies. The Buddhist philosopher John McClellan finds much of this criticism arbitrary:

Deep ecologists seem to have the same fear and loathing toward today's out of control technology as humans have had until just recently toward Uncontrolled Nature, with her savage, untamed wastelands. They call technology inhuman, cruel, and heartless, using the same words we once used to describe cruel wilderness - and like humans of the 19th century waging war on wild nature, environmentalists today long only to conquer technology, to subdue and control it, as we have nature herself.

Nature is no wiser than technology, and claiming adherence to nature's laws is an attempt to bypass the messy business of ethics and values. When environmentalists urge us to follow nature's way, they are referring to a mythical nature that never changes, that is necessarily always in balance; that is the root of all things good. But this conception of nature is nostalgia masquerading as values. This nature has no place in politics; it belongs in a museum. And of course, a true museum of the planet's history would contain a catalog of horrors: long stretches without oxygen or anything green; obliteration after obliteration; Edward Abbey's jagged desert monuments miles underwater. Nature, like technology, follows one prime rule: change. As the natural and technological scenery changes, it transforms politics, economics, and society with it.

For all the environmental movement's talk about the need for societal change, many environmentalists are deeply conservative in their attachment to a certain idea of what nature is and should be. But as any good Buddhist or mildly observant person can attest to, we live lives of constant change. Just as surely as the Mesozoic gave way to the Cenozoic, our country's agrarian past is giving way to a information-based future. Attachment to a single idea of nature is nihilism; it denies whole worlds of future possibilities, and carves out a world utterly devoid of value.

Nietzsche argued that emulating nature means living a life of indifference:

"According to nature" you want to live? O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain all at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power--how could you live according to this indifference? Living--is not that precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living -- estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative "live according to nature" meant at bottom as much as "live according to life"--how can you not do that? Why make a principle out of what you yourselves are and must be?

Since nature isn't rational, it's absurd to try and model our lives after it.

Technology -- though it belongs to that hallowed realm of human rationality, science -- is not rational either. Inventions frequently end up solving entirely different problems than they were intended to address. Thomas Edison didn't set out to increase opportunities for women, but that was one of the major impacts of his electricity transmission system. Cheap, widespread electricity streamlined the grueling household drudgery that women were disproportionately responsible for. The Internet began as a military project, but ended up transforming every aspect of our daily lives. To be sure, these advances created new problems, but few would advocate we return to life without electricity, the Internet, or any number of the innovations that have transformed our lives.

Technology is one of the few human endeavors that has the power to transform the world as we know it. If we are to stand a chance against climate change, perhaps the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, we must embrace technology, and harness its power to the best of our ability. We will never be able to predict all the ways technology will change the world, but that mystery is part of what it means to be human here on earth.


I think you just crossed the line from respectful engagement with ideas to disrespectful personal judgments. And, while this makes me feel like you won't actually be reading to comprehend this response, I will do my best to reply.

"We obviously don't have to count on everyone being only virtuous, but if we can explain to a large part of the population the *actual* workings of their minds, they will surely act differently"
This statement is a fallacy. The environmental movement has been operating under the assumption that more awareness (about humans, about "nature," about non-human life) will necessarily dictate that people change their behaviors in a positive and productive way. This is only true to an extent--when I become aware that flame burns, I do keep my hand away from the fire. However that awareness is linked to immediate physical well-being. Awareness (esp. about the things you think people need more awareness of--the human mind) does not always dictate a "positive" behavior change, largely because what is "positive" in this case is much more subjective then whether or not it is good to put your hand in a fire. If awareness necessarily dictate the right course of action, we would all, as we grew up and became more aware, become more and more similar. This is clearly not the case. Take, for example, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Both of these philosophies came about at around the same time and place, but they defined existence differently and placed widely different emphases on different parts of life.

Even more important than this, I think you are being incredibly narrow in your thinking if you believe that changing overconsumption patterns in upperclass America is going to solve the energy/climate crisis. There are a few million Americans who do need to consume less, but overall, the vast majority of people on this planet need more access to more energy and the things that accompany it--increased health, increased mobility, increased education opportunities.

I agree with your point that close attention to psychology(amongst many other things) will help advance progressive solutions to the problems humanity faces. However, we at Breakthrough recognize that no set of data will ever necessarily dictate a particular course of action. Science is a means of understanding, not motivating.

p.s. I'd be happy to send you our reading list here at BTGen, which may help elucidate my points.

By Adam Zemel on 2008 07 25

Lindsay, with all due respect, I don't think you know what you're talking about.

We obviously don't have to count on everyone being only virtuous, but if we can explain to a large part of the population the *actual* workings of their minds, they will surely act differently, and quite likely in ways that will help us move towards sustainability faster. They'll put their work hours into more worthwhile efforts, and will choose to do more worthwhile things with the money they earn.

Right now, I think Breakthrough has very strong and well thought out positions on energy and framing of policies, but not so much on human nature and a desired state of affairs.

I want to give you all some advice from my heart:
Go back to the drawing table NOW. Please send this through to Nordhaus and Shellenberger. I guess they are at least more well-read than you.

Don't forget that the subtitle of the Breakthrough book reads "from the Feath of Environmentalism to the *Politics of Possiblity*", emphasis mine.

P.S. I'd be happy to consult with you, free of charge. Otherwise, my bookmarks may be of help to you.

By Meryn Stol on 2008 07 24


I think it's nostalgic and naive to imagine that greed and short-sightedness are modern phenomena, and that there was some bygone age when benevolence, wisdom, and harmony reigned. There have always been greedy people, and I believe there always will be; I don't want my strategy for solving global problems to rest on the eradication of these afflictions.

I agree that it's important to take a psychological approach to these problems, but I also think that positive psychology can focus on happiness at the expense of fulfillment. Humans are capable of joy, despair, elation, frustration, and these full range of emotions create a full life.

By lindsay meisel on 2008 07 24


I agree with all that you're saying. It's just that most of the time, a nuanced position like you take does not show up in the essays here. And this time, Lindsay mentioned the opposite, while not explaining Breakthroughs - quite moderate - position.

I've read the Breakthrough book, so I know you understand the complexity of the human mind. Certainly with regard to why our lifestyles and consumption habits come from in the first place, you could provide far more attention to this. It's relevant. For example, if people would understand that they don't get that happy from more stuff, they would far more easily forgo consumption in turn for increased energy investments.

But maybe the fact that you're in the core a political think tank explains your attention to "core needs and values", which I think will generally come down to accepting what the average American says is important. Why not provide real leadership, and show them how happy they can be with a collective effort to make our economy sustainable and solve social injustice at the same time?

The need for "framing issues in ways that people care about" (I hope I got that right) is one truth you understand very well, but it's not the only way to go about things.

By Meryn Stol on 2008 07 24

In regards to your call to "look at the psychological side of things," I call your attention to our "Fear and Politics" series on the blog. As it says on the Breakthrough About page: "We believe that any effective politics must speak to core needs and values, not issues and interests, and we thus situate ourselves at the intersection of politics, policy, philosophy, and the social sciences." These sentences explicitly state that we at BTI do seek to understand and think about social and ecological problems and crises in an expansive light.

With this in mind, I disagree with your statement, "the real issues are human greed, short-sightedness and overconsumption" for a variety of reasons.

One of these reasons is that humans are NOT fundamentally rational beings of cold reason. If this were true, then perhaps the solution would just be to explain to people, and that once they see the reasoning, they will be swayed. Humans are both rational and irrational, motivated by a variety of needs and desires, some consciously recognized, some subconsciously pursued. The environmental movement's tactics have long been to aggressively educate the public about the issues, the assumption being that this will help garner support for tackling environmental issues. As this Gallup poll shows, this is not the case.

This brings me to the second reason. Overconsumption, greed, and shortsightedness do not come to be cultural norms in a vacuum. Things like economic anxiety, a heightened sense of mortality, and fear politics all drive us towards behaviors and impulses that are isolationist, selfish, and hostile to that which is foreign. But there are two sides to every coin. If we take great care, we can create a society that appeals to human altruism and compassion.

And so, in regards to your last paragraph, and your fear that Breakthrough "accepts our current way of living without question - treats this as a given - and only looks for technological fixes to support this lifestyle," I would say, "fear no more." This is not the belief or intention of BTI, BTG or anyone in the office. At the Breakthrough Generation Blog, and on this blog, the BTG Fellows have written extensively about the social and cultural changes we are working for, in addition to the social and cultural shifts we are hoping to trigger as we work towards a clean energy America.

By Adam Zemel on 2008 07 23

"Environmentalists of the deep ecology school fear that a tech-heavy approach to climate change glosses over the real issues (human greed and overconsumption)"

Well, I'm not an environmentalist of the deep ecology school, I don't even really know if I could be considered an environmentalist, but I do think the real issues are human greed, short-sightedness and overconsumption, and what kind other widespread psychological pathologies you could think of.

If we were a little "ecological" conscious (e.g. sustainability is not optional), and if we all understood a little more about our psychology - especially what is gonna make us happy and what isn't: surprise, it's not more stuff - than we would solve our energy problem, which is merely a symptom of these times, far more easily.

You're right that there's not a good reason to idolize nature, but this should not be used as a kind of funny way to move along the issues of these "deep ecologists" you mentioned at the start. For this essay to be complete, you should have addressed these concerns. I think that if you would have done that, you would surely have painted a more nuanced picture of the situation.

I think you could really learn from reading up on positive psychology: Lyubomirsky, Gilbert, Seligman, Csiksczentmihalyi, etc. You will see that most humans don't know much about what is gonna make them happy. That has nothing to do with an ideology, it's science.

Sometimes I'm scared that "Breakthrough" accepts our current way of living without question - treats this as a given - and only looks for technological fixes to support this lifestyle. I believe that we have more than enough scientific understanding of the world to conclude that we could better look at the psychological side of things to. It will make us better off.

By Meryn Stol on 2008 07 23

Jacob Bronowski often described how humanity's more significant adaptation was that of using technology to reshape the environment rather than simply adapting to it as other life forms have done [he even compared the harnessing of the ox to that of using nuclear fission...].

Certainly we must apply technology with care, but technology is as inate to the human condition as trees are to a rain forest. grin

By R Margolis on 2008 07 23