by guest author Christine Dann, writer, researcher, teacher and Green activist
October 24, 2009 is a day with a difference, one that will go down in history as the first international day of grass roots action on climate change.
Hopefully it will be the last such day, because the world leaders meeting at the December climate change conference in Copenhagen will get the message – stop protecting the profits of big business and start protecting people and other living beings by committing to big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions now.
All over New Zealand groups will be taking action – you can read about them at 350.
In Wellington, some members of Wellington’s Insight Meditation community plan to hold a space in meditation, contemplation and silent prayer for 350 minutes, and they are hoping to have 350 people participating throughout the day.
Why 350? Because 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the upper safe level for a stable climate. It is already at 387 ppm – and rising.
But what is the connection between meditation and stopping climate change?
Is it more than just a cute way to get publicity for a good cause? How could sitting still and being quiet ever change anything? Of course it won’t do so by itself, but think about this – when the 350 people who participate in this action in downtown Wellington on October 24 are sitting still, what will most of the other people downtown at that time be doing?
They will be engaged in acts of consumption – buying and selling things, eating and drinking things they have bought, filling cars with petrol, and so on.
Now up to a certain level, consumption is a good and necessary thing – everyone has to eat, and we also need clothing, housing, fuel for cooking and heating, transport, medicines, tools and cultural treasures. But at a certain point – the point at which the atmosphere went above 350 ppm of carbon for the first time in history – humanity reached a global tipping point where unfettered consumption ceased to sustain us, and has started to kill us.
By this point, unfortunately, the industries devoted to producing massive amounts of consumption goods as cheaply as possible (cheap only because they do not pay labour a proper wage, or pay the true social and environmental costs of the energy and resources used in production and distribution) had been joined by an industry devoted to stimulating consumption by using every psychological trick in the book.
The advertising industry is in the business of creating not products but desires – endless desires, insatiable cravings – for the newest, flashest, sweetest, biggest, fastest, whatever stuff.
Watch The Story of Stuff to see and hear just how much damage all this unnecessary stuff is doing to society and the environment.
Even if over-consumption weren’t trashing the climate and endangering lives, ecosystems, homes and livelihoods through droughts, floods, storms, sea-level rise and the rest of the climate change catastrophe, would it be a good thing?
Are we, for example, happier if we have lots of stuff, and can easily get more? All the scientific research on this subject finds that having a materialistic approach to life and being focussed on getting more stuff, rather than being content with enough, leads to less overall happiness, not more.*
Why is this so? Over 2,500 years ago a man living in what is now northern India worked it out.
Coming from a very privileged background, where he had been cosseted and protected, he had all the stuff he could possibly want. Yet this did not seem to him to be a truly satisfying or worthwhile way to live. He went to the opposite extreme, depriving himself of food and all creature comforts, and realised that didn’t make any sense either. He went around asking others for their opinion on how to lead a good life, and was not convinced by their answers.
Eventually he decided to sit down and not move until he had sorted it out for himself.
He inquired into the nature of reality, and saw that all things born or created are impermanent, subject to death and decay. Nothing stays the same forever, while some things change very quickly.
Yet we try to cling to things, both mentally and physically.
We desire objects, people and experiences, and we suffer when our desires are not met. But we also suffer when they are met – and then the novelty wears off, or we lose what we had.
We live in the past, where we had a toy, a pet or a lover that was perfect but is now gone, or in the future, when we will have the object or person of our desire, that will be even better than what we had in the past.
We have very little experience or training of being fully in the present and appreciating what is here now, in all its totality. Consequently we have little understanding of how the cultivation of desires is the surest route to unhappiness, while the cultivation of contentment with what one has, and more especially of what one can offer to others, is the source of true happiness.
The man who uncovered these truths (and others) so long ago shared them, and he also shared the technique by which he uncovered them, so that anyone could experience this for themselves and not have to take his word for it.
The technique is called insight meditation, or vipassana, and it has been passed on by teachers in the Buddhist tradition for over two thousand years.
An experienced insight meditator knows how the mind works.
But so does the advertising industry, which uses the latest findings from academic psychology – and it has your mind in its sights.
It has you surrounded – on billboards, in magazines and newspapers, on TV and radio, in shops and cafes, in schools and hospitals. By sitting still and doing insight meditation on October 24, or any other day, not only are you not shopping, you are also doing the best possible thing for strengthening your mind against the illusion that more discretionary consumption will improve your life, and that of others.
The best possible thing, therefore, for strengthening your resistance to what is – ultimately – causing climate change.
Too much greed and craving for too much money – and too much stuff.
* See, for example, Juliet Schor’s book Born to Buy and Susan Linn’s Consuming Kids on how the US advertising industry targets children to get them onto the over-consumption treadmill, and how this negatively affects their wellbeing. Plus Benjamin Barber’s book Con$umed on how adults are being infantilised and citizens disenfranchised by the ideology and practice of marketing.