The Future Doesn't Hurt.... Yet

By Matthieu Ricard on March 10, 2009

Interdependence is a central Buddhist idea that leads to a profound understanding of the nature of reality and to an awareness of universal responsibility, as often pointed out by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Since all beings are interrelated and all, without exception, want to avoid suffering and achieve happiness, this understanding becomes the basis for altruism and compassion. This in turn naturally leads to the attitude and practice of non-violence towards human beings, animals and towards the environment.

Unchecked consumerism operates on the premise that others are only instruments to be used and that the environment is a commodity. This attitude fosters unhappiness, selfishness and contempt.

The vast majority of Tibetans have never heard of global warming, although it is a well-known fact that the ice is not forming as thickly as before and the winter temperatures are getting warmer. In parts of the world where there is access to information, most of us are aware of the impeding danger of global warming and of the lack of serious measures taken by political authorities to address it. Even the ‟Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change” that warned of the catastrophic economic impact of global warming had little impact on decision makers. It is not as if more facts are needed; the evidence is striking enough.

People react strongly to immediate danger but it is difficult for them to be emotionally moved by something that will happen in 10 or 20 years. They will rarely be motivated to change on behalf of something for their future and that of the next generation.  They imagine ‘Well we'll deal with that when it comes.' They resist the idea of giving up what they enjoy just for the sake of disastrous long-term effects. Their actions are based on not being inconvenienced now.  The future doesn't hurt — yet.

The Europeans are advancing with their renewable energy programs, but in the large Asian countries, change is barely beginning and will require major shifts in policies and financial investments.  It is difficult to expect poor truck drivers in Nepal to stop using their old vehicles that emit clouds of black soot exhaust. That would deprive them of their basic livelihood. Who will give free electric cars and efficient solar cookers to all these people?  Who is going to pay for all that? How are we to offer biogas to a billion people in India?

The Chinese government is building a super-ecological island where everything will be zero-carbon emissions, in an effort to show off their technology. Meanwhile, they are doing just the opposite in the rest of the country, buying SUVs in frenzy, and polluting the air and the rivers in such unprecedented ways that it even triggers popular revolts in cities where toxic fumes and waters are harming people.

Within ten years they could make substantial investments in renewable energy. As time goes on it will become less expensive. The oil billionaire, Boone Pickens, is a case in point. He has put several billion dollars into wind power.  Did he do it for the money? ‟Of course” he said, ‟the oil business is just mad.  Renewable energy not only makes sense but it can make money as well.” Even from the point of view of a hard-core Houston oilman, it makes sense. This kind of person can be an enormous help to shift perspectives in other business people's mind. If the USA begins to act, that could be a social tipping point for meaningful reduction of carbon emissions.