climate change

Letter from Thich Nhat Hanh

Before the retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in October, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) wrote a letter to the sangha. He describes an interview with a reporter from Time Magazine, in which he talked about the situation in Burma, the Iraq war, and the environment. Here is an excerpt about global warming. For the full letter, go to www.orderofinterbeing.org/docs/TNH_Letter_October_2007.pdf or the Plum Village website. mb47-Letter1

About global warming, Thay recounted to Time Magazine the story about the couple who ate their son’s flesh — the story told by the Buddha in the Son’s Flesh Sutra. This couple, with their little child, on their way seeking asylum had to cross the desert. Due to a lack of geographical knowledge, they ran out of food when they were only half-way through the desert. They realized that all three of them would die in the desert, and they had no hope to get to the country on the other end of the desert to seek asylum. Finally, they made the decision to kill their little son. Each day they ate a small morsel of his flesh, in order to have enough energy to move on, and they carried the rest of their son’s flesh on their shoulders, so that it could continue to dry in the sun. Each time when they finished eating a morsel of their son’s flesh, the couple looked at each other and asked: “Where is our beloved child now?”

Having told this tragic story, the Buddha looked at the monks and asked: “Do you think that this couple was happy to eat their son’s flesh?” “No, World Honored One. The couple suffered when they had to eat their son’s flesh,” the monks answered. The Buddha taught: “Dear friends, we have to practice eating in such a way that we can retain compassion in our hearts. We have to eat in mindfulness. If not, we may be eating the flesh of our own children.”

UNESCO reports that each day approximately 40,000 children die because of hunger or lack of nutrition. Meanwhile, corn and wheat are largely grown to feed livestock (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.) or to produce alcohol. Over 80 percent of corn and over 95 percent of oats produced in the United States are for feeding livestock. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equivalent to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people, more than the entire human population on earth.

Eating meat and drinking alcohol with mindfulness, we will realize that we are eating the flesh of our own children.

Report from the United Nations

In 2005, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) began an in-depth assessment of the various significant impacts of the world’s livestock sector on the environment. Its report, titled Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, was released on November 29, 2006. In the executive summary, Henning Steinfeld, chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch, asserts that: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency.”

Land Degradation

Presently, livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet. Forests are cleared to create new pastures, and it is a major driver of deforestation. For example, in Latin America some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. From these figures, we can see that the livestock business has destroyed hundreds of millions of acres of forest all over the world to grow crops and to create pasture land for farm animals. Moreover, when the forests are destroyed, enormous amounts of carbon dioxide stored in trees are released into the atmosphere.

Climate Change

The livestock sector has major impacts on the atmosphere and climate. It is responsible for “18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, which is a higher share than transport.” This means that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. The livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. It also emits 37 percent of anthropogenic methane, most of that from enteric fermentation by ruminants. This is an enormous amount, because every pound of methane is twenty-three times as effective as carbon dioxide is at trapping heat in our atmosphere. The meat, egg, and dairy industries are also responsible for the emission of 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, most of that from manure. Nitrous oxide is about 300 times more potent as a global warming gas than carbon dioxide (296 times the GWP of carbon dioxide). It is also responsible for about two-thirds (64 percent) of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute largely to acid rain and acidification of the ecosystem.

Water Scarcity and Water Pollution

More than half of all the water consumed in the U.S. is used to raise animals for food. It requires 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat. Meanwhile, it takes only 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of grain. Livestock in the United States produce an enormous amount of animal excrement, 130 times more than human excrement; each second the animals release 97,000 pounds of feces. “Most of the water used for livestock drinking and servicing returns to the environment in the form of manure and wastewater. Livestock excreta contain a considerable amount of nutrients [nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium], drug residues, heavy metals and pathogens.” These waste products enter streams and rivers, polluting water sources and causing disease outbreaks that affect all species.

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The Solution Is Simple

Just as the Buddha cautioned us, we are eating the flesh of our children and grandchildren. We are eating the flesh of our mothers and our fathers. We are eating our own planet earth. The Son’s Flesh Sutra needs to be available for the whole human race to learn and practice. The U.N.’s recommendation is clear: “The environment impact per unit of livestock production must be cut by half, just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its present level.” We need to reduce at least 50 percent of the meat industry products, and to do that we must consume 50 percent less meat. The U.N. also reports that even if cattle-rearing is reduced by 50 percent, we still need to use new technology to help the rest of cattle-rearing create less pollution, such as choosing animal diets that can reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane emissions, etc. Urgent action must be taken at the individual and collective levels. As a spiritual family and a human family, we can all help avert global warming with the practice of mindful eating.

Going vegetarian may be the most effective way to fight global warming.

With love and trust, Thay

Sources Steinfeld, et al., “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options” (available at www.fao.org/docrep/010/ a0701e/a0701e00.htm)

“Rearing Cattle Produces More Greenhouse Gases than Driving Cars, UN Report Warns,” UN News Centre, 29 Nov. 2006.

“Fight Global Warming by Going Vegetarian,” article from www.goveg.com.

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Touching the Earth for Ecological Regeneration

By T. Ambrose Desmond mb63-TouchingEarth1Touching the Earth, I open myself to this beautiful planet and all of the life that is here.

[BELL]

[ALL TOUCH THE EARTH]

With heart and mind open, I see that there is no separation between my body and the body of the Earth. Every mineral in this flesh and bone has been stone and soil and it will be again. Looking into one calcium molecule in my bone, I can see that it used to be part of the body of a green leaf. Before that, it was part of the living soil in a garden. Long before that, it was a shell in the sea. I see the continuation of this calcium molecule in so many forms and now in my bone. I can see that the Earth element in me will return to the soil and manifest as other forms of life in the future.

I know that every drop of my blood has been the rain, rivers, and ocean, and it will be again. I can see the life of a water molecule in my blood extending back to before the non-beginning. I can see the water I drink becoming part of my body. Looking back further, I can see that water has been part of every river and every ocean since the beginning of the Earth. I can see that the hydrogen and oxygen that make up this water have been in existence long before the Earth formed. Although my blood feels so much like a part of “me,” I know it will continue in many forms forever.

The air that gives life to every cell in my body has lived in trees and other animals and in the vast sky, and it will again. I see the air element in me—the air that I can feel going in and out of my lungs and the air that is carried throughout my body, keeping me alive. I know this air is part of the vast ocean of the atmosphere moving in and out of all people, animals, plants, and microorganisms. I see we are all breathing together.

The warmth of my body is the warmth of the sun. I see the sun’s warmth radiating through space to the Earth and connecting with a green leaf. That leaf miraculously transforms the energy into sugar. As I take that leaf into my body, I transform the sugar back into warmth. I can see that the sun is alive in me.

I can see clearly that the Earth is not my environment. It is my body and there is no separation.

[THREE BREATHS]

[BELL]

[ALL STAND UP]

Touching the Earth, I open myself to all of the suffering that is present in the Earth.

[BELL]

[ALL TOUCH THE EARTH]

With heart and mind open, I see clearly that the Earth and I are one body. With tenderness and love, I bring my awareness to the suffering that is present in this collective body. I see the mineral element that is stone becoming soil, becoming vegetation, becoming flesh and bone, becoming soil again. I also see the suffering that is present in the mineral element. I see the toxins we have made creating sickness and cancer in living beings, and the pesticides and fertilizers poisoning the soil. I know that the suffering of the mineral element is my suffering. I embrace this suffering with tenderness and love.

I see the water element. I see the ocean becoming cloud, becoming rain, becoming drinking water, becoming blood, and returning. I also see the suffering in the water element. I see thousands of children without clean water to drink, and the toxins we have allowed to be released in streams, aquifers and oceans, and all of the suffering they cause. I know the suffering of the water element is my suffering. I embrace this suffering with tenderness and love.

I see the air element. I see the one ocean of air circulating through all life and through the vast sky. I also see the suffering in the air element. I see pollution in the air and the sickness it causes. I know the suffering of the air element is my suffering. I embrace this suffering with tenderness and love.

I see the fire element. I see the energy of the sun warming the Earth, turning into sugars when it touches green leaves, and those leaves becoming my body. I see that the heat in my body is the heat of the sun. I also see the suffering in the fire element. I see the ocean levels rising, the polar ice caps melting, and all of the destruction caused by global climate change. I know the suffering of the fire element is my suffering. I embrace this suffering with tenderness and love.

[THREE BREATHS]

[BELL]

[ALL STAND UP]

Touching the Earth, I open myself to the enormous capacity for healing that is present in the ancestors and in the Earth.

[BELL]

[ALL TOUCH THE EARTH]

With heart and mind open, I see the Earth herself as a living body. I see her capacity to adapt and heal herself. I know that she is strong and that she has a miraculous capacity to transform a toxin into a resource in the same way I can transform suffering into compassion.

I can see the Earth billions of years ago, when she was covered with single-celled organisms that could breathe only carbon dioxide. These single-celled organisms produced oxygen as a waste, and the increasing amount of oxygen in the atmosphere threatened to end life on Earth. I see that in that moment, the Earth began to manifest new single-celled organisms that breathed oxygen and restored the balance in the atmosphere.

I see that this creativity is still alive in the Earth and in human beings. I know all of the solutions to our environmental problems already exist. I know my ancestors have discovered ways of harnessing the power of the wind and sun and water to provide for all of our needs. I see intentional communities, permaculture food forests, electric trains, and compassionate conflict resolution. I also see my own capacity to embrace suffering with mindfulness and love, transforming it into compassion.

Looking deeply, I see that all that is needed for global healing is present within me and all around me. I feel immense gratitude for this miraculous power of transformation.

[THREE BREATHS]

[TWO BELLS]

[ALL STAND UP]

mb63-TouchingEarth2T. Ambrose Desmond is a psychotherapist, student of Thich Nhat Hanh, and member of the Order of Interbeing. He offers therapy and consultation through honecounseling.net.

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