What’s a Buddhist to Do in the Face of Global Environmental Collapse?

Speech by 

Much of the literature on Buddhism and global environmental collapse concerns Buddhism’s role in preventing it. This is an important and valuable practice and, while I have not said this about Buddhism, I have argued that Buddhism represents a good place from which to approach global peace (see an earlier paper delivered in an earlier conference). I could easily make the same points I made apply to preventing global environmental collapse. But this has been done. And done well. So I move to reflecting on Buddhism in conditions under which global environmental collapse is imminent or near-imminent (certainly within the next 20 years).

The picture isn’t that clear as to what happens when the global environment cannot return to a state of equilibrium that is conducive to human life. It’s hard to imagine the unimaginable. There’s quite a bit of “noise” around, of course, concerning the state of the world’s environment and how it got into that state. Some people deny that the world is getting warmer. Some of them also deny that pollution levels, deforestation and species loss are having such a profound effect that the environment will render the world close to uninhabitable. Others accept that global warming is happening but don’t think it has that much to do with people. Then there’s the majority who think that global warming is happening, is caused by human activity and, in combination with increased pollution levels, deforestation and species loss, will result in the world becoming inhospitable to human life.

The vast majority of the scientists who’ve spent their lives studying the environment, or some part of it, believe that global warming is happening, is caused by human activity and, in combination with increased pollution levels, deforestation and species loss, will result in the world becoming inhospitable to human life. Many provide evidence that supports their claims. Some of this evidence will be provided below. This is not to convince you of its truth. It’s just to provide some indication as to the consensus amongst scientists (and science works by consensus and not truth.

And that’s why politics is important here. All the politicians had to do to undermine the view that we are headed for global environmental collapse was to show that some scientists (at most, 30%) disagreed with the rest of the members of the scientific community (at least, 70%). This left scientists, who had long been pretending to have the truth to give them enhanced status in everyone’s eyes, exposed and vulnerable. And some have not taken it so well.

Politics is important for more than the loss of status for scientists, though; as it has also played an important role in ensuring that no serious attempts were made to prevent global environmental collapse. In this, they have been led by the UN, which has long peddled the concept of “sustainable development” and important players in the business community, whose members pretends to pay attention to the environment in a “triple bottom line”. But conventional politics has rarely been about change and has never been about change that will upset the socio-political order. So political leaders were never going to introduce the sorts of changes that would have been necessary for preventing global environmental collapse.

It’s important that some words are devoted to explaining the trajectory that has led us to the point of near-imminent environmental collapse, though. For, while a discussion of what a Buddhist is to do in the face of global environmental collapse could be conducted as an intellectual exercise, this is not how I want to use our time. I’m not against intellectual exercises. They can be useful. Not here, though. Working through possible Buddhist responses to global environmental collapse would seem to merit a slightly more serious approach. We’re not conjuring the possibility of creating rivers of lemonade, though there was a time when this was proposed as a serious proposal. And we ought to be serious if we are going to call up global environmental collapse.

The important paper begins after evidence that members of the scientific community have presented to support the view that we face near-imminent global environmental collapse and that politics will not save us. If you’re convinced that global environmental collapse is close at hand and that no political means for addressing it is available, then you might skip the first part of the paper and move to the second. That’s where possible Buddhist responses to global environmental collapse are considered. The focus of this part is on Buddhism as offering two different approaches to spatiotemporality or spacetime: one that emphasizes space and one that privileges time. Even choosing between using the expressions ‘spacetime’ and ‘spatiotemporality’ begins to commit us to one or other position, with the first emphasizing space and the second time. In order to avoid appearing to commit to either, and by way of shorthand, I will henceforth use the acronym ST to refer to spacetime/spatiotemporality.

One of the points of Buddhism is to avoid remaining captured by, or attached to, the representations that are found in thought, however. Global environmental collapse has to be understood as a representation found in thought. It is the concept of our time, however, so it can’t be avoided by anyone who functions on this (material) plane. Or so some Buddhist believe: [quotation about staying on the material plane]. Choosing not to invest in the concept of ‘global environmental collapse’ is an investment.

The question, then and given that it is a case of inevitable investment, concerns the character of our investments. Some of us will see ST more in terms of spatiality and less in terms of temporality. For these Buddhists, ably represented by those who continue the Theravadan position, a focus on spatiality leads to an understanding of global environmental collapse as one condition among many. In the terminology of one form of contemporary physics, the state of global environmental collapse is one universe amongst a multitude of universes. Our goal, as Buddhists, is to pass beyond the material plane and this universe is as good a place to do this as any. It cannot be a case of preferring a universe characterized by environmental collapse as a place from which we pass. So it is not a case of embracing such a universe. It is simply a case of recognizing that universe as one of many. And not necessarily better or worse. Some of the physicists who subscribe to multiverse theory suggest that there are many universes that cannot sustain human life on this planet (and many that can and, we presume, will continue to do so after this universe is no longer capable of supporting human life on this planet.

Those who adopt a more temporal conception of ST don’t embrace global environmental collapse either. Their response to global environmental collapse is different, though, due to their emphasis on temporality. For these Buddhists, here represented by Dogen, global environmental collapse is a particular expression of all possibilities. The fact, for these Buddhists, that all possibilities are always present in all eventualities means that global environmental collapse is one form of being-doing time or timing be-do. It represents a particular weaving of the before-now and the after-now that is a full expression of all possibilities available from the current state of the universe. This approach, which in contemporary physics is represented by those who treat time as an emergent property of a system, posits only one happening that manifests all happenings but emerges in one movement.

I’m not entirely certain as to the outcome of this second conception of ST, when it comes to facing global environmental collapse as a Buddhist (even though this is my conception of Buddhism). It’s somewhat easier to be reconciled to global environmental collapse when you think that there are other universes or planes in or on which other versions of us persist. It makes it easier to deal with personal death too, as reincarnation can see us move to realms in which global environmental collapse is not possible. But I still see the second, more temporal, approach to ST as requiring that I not reject global environmental collapse. It is just much harder to understand and be reconciled to the moment in which participating in the becoming of global environmental collapse.

Part One: Of Science and Politics

First, though, some discussion of the evidence concerning global environmental collapse and the politics that has led to inaction with respect to preventing it is necessary. Once again, this is a matter of making global environmental collapse a serious issue and of explaining why politics will prevent those in government from addressing global environmental collapse. In short, science says we’re in trouble and politics can’t save us. So the question of global environmental collapse becomes a personal question of what a Buddhist is to do in the face of global environmental collapse.

The Lack of Progress

Despite the efforts and good intentions of those who seek ES, the evidence with respect to the state of the global environment is, at best, dispiriting and, at worst, alarming. Even though a concern with sustainability emerged in the 1970s (with The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al, 1972)), the urgency of ES has had little more than rhetorical effect. As Stilgitz noted in 2015, despite ‘widespread agreement that climate change represents an existential threat… [and a] broad consensus over the urgency of action… there has been little progress … [and] the voluntary measures taken by various countries simply don’t add up to what is needed’ (Stiglitz, 2015, p. 29) While Stilgitz wrote after the abject failure of the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, the goals set in the Paris Agreement of 2015 ‘remain aspirational’ and the agreement includes no ‘specific targets or dates, or the means for coordinating national contributions to ensure effective collective outcomes’ (Christoff, 2016, p. 781). At best, the Paris Agreement was ‘a promissory note. … Its powers in ensuring outcomes are limited, and more still needs to be done to elaborate on the enabling framework of the Agreement’ (Christoff, 2016, p. 781). It’s hard to disagree with Christoff’s conclusion that ‘Paris will be condemned as the conference that offered the last illusion of hope that we are tackling global warming… [and as] a missed opportunity – probably the last one – to do so without exceptional and risky technological interventions to produce “negative emissions”’ (2016, p. 781).

The illusion of action when none has been taken has meant that, while 40 countries might have implemented or be planning carbon pricing regimes, these regimes ‘apply to just over 10 percent of total global emissions due to exemptions and special cases’ (Saha, 2015, p. 50). Indeed, ‘the world’s CO2 emissions are on an upward trajectory, having risen 55 percent since 1990 and 20 percent since 2005. This trend appears set to continue under every current scenario’ (Saha, 2015, p. 50).

But it’s not just the air that is being affected. For ‘the world’s oceans are more acidic today than they have been at any point in the last 20 million years, and under current emissions rates the oceans may become 150 percent more acidic by 2100’ (Hull, 2012, p. 509). This fall in the oceans’ pH levels ‘will likely impact marine systems in profound ways. Perhaps more troubling is that existing models do not fully account for all known and potential causes of ocean acidification. Therefore, the projected decline in pH could be greater than predicted’ (Hull, 2012, pp. 509-510). This, sadly, is not the end of the matter in terms of the degradation of the world’s oceans. Plastic is another significant problem. Wilcox, Van Sebille, and Hardesty ‘predict that plastic will be found in the digestive tracts of 99% of all seabird species by 2050 and that 95% of the individuals within these species will have ingested plastic by the same year’ (2015, p. 11902).

And then there’s the problem of loss of biodiversity. For Dirzo et al. the anthropogenic loss of biodiversity is ‘an under-recognized form of global environmental change’ (Dirzo, et al., 2014, p. 401). They found that ‘among terrestrial vertebrates, 322 species have become extinct since 1500, and populations of the remaining species show 25% average decline in abundance. Invertebrate patterns are equally dire: 67% of monitored populations show 45% mean abundance decline’ (Dirzo, et al., 2014, p. 401). This will have deleterious effects on both the planet’s ecosystem and human well-being and while ‘much remains unknown about this “Anthropocene defaunation”… [it] is both a pervasive component of the planet’s sixth mass extinction and also a major driver of global ecological change’ (Dirzo, et al., 2014, p. 401).

Possibly the most important part of the lack of progress toward ES has been the success of those who deny anthropogenic climate change. Dunlap identified a ‘denial machine’ comprised of ‘a loose coalition of industrial (especially fossil fuels) interests and conservative foundations and think tanks that utilise a range of front groups… often assisted by a small number of “contrarian scientists”’ (Dunlap, 2013, p. 694). This machine has been facilitated ‘by conservative media and politicians, and more recently by a bevy of skeptical bloggers… and has played a crucial role in generating skepticism toward AGW among laypeople and policy makers’ (Dunlap, 2013, p. 692). One of the more disturbing aspect of this denial machine has been that it ‘has contributed… to undermining the confidence of the scientific community in their own theory, data, and models, all of which permit—and indeed expect—changes in the rate of warming over any arbitrarily chosen period’ (Lewandowsky, et al., 2015, p. 9).

Politics and the Lack of Progress

Two illusions have been important to the lack of progress with respect to ES: ‘sustainable development’ and the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ (3BL/TBL). Both make achieving ES appear compatible with respect to something akin to business as usual; when only business as unusual can achieve ES. Both make ES appear to require only minor adjustments to productive and distributive processes, which means that those of us in the West do not have to fundamentally change our lifestyles and our senses of ‘quality of life’ so that future generations might live in an environment hospitable to human being. In some ways, the illusion of sustainable development is the more insidious. Principally because it has been systematically promoted by the UN, which we might be inclined to trust more than we do the business community, who we might expect to sell us comfortable illusions. These illusions are related to the dilution of energies that results from engaging with the state, which has never been about anything other than sustaining political order, and which governs, due to the dominance of neo-liberalism, for homo economicus.

Sustainable Development

Most scholars trace the origins of the concept of ‘sustainable development’ to the Brundtland report and the suggestion that ‘humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (WCED, 1987, p. 8). In 2007 the UN’s Commission on Sustainable Development provided a ringing endorsement of the Bruntland illusion: ‘“What is needed now is a new era of economic growth – growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable.” This call in the foreword of the 1987 Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future,” still rings true twenty years later’ (UNCSD, 2007).

Part of the sleight of hand, of course, is effected through the use of ‘needs’. It is probably churlish to suggest that the Brundtland illusion might work if those in developing countries maintained pre-development needs. Redclift stated the obvious, though not to those committed to the Brundtland illusion, that ‘development itself contributes to the characterization of “needs”, by helping to define them differently for each generation, and for different cultures’ (2005, p. 213). Younger generations in developing countries, who have more ready access to images of life in developed countries, won’t be fooled into thinking that they don’t ‘need’ access to the same goods and services that those in developed countries ‘need’. Questions concern how development changes people’s needs and whether changes in our needs changes the ways they can be met. As Redclift suggested, these questions ‘are rarely asked outside radical Green circles, but carry implications for all of us’ (2005, p. 213). Young people in China and India are unlikely to be fooled into accepting anything less than the lifestyles available in developed countries. For ‘if countries such as China and India continue to exhibit high long-term rates of economic growth… then their populations’ expectations of their needs will change radically’ (Redclift, 2005, p. 215).

I am not the first to note that ‘sustainable development’ is an oxymoron, of course, or that people in developing countries are not morons. Kuhlman and Farrington argued that the Brundtland Report ‘obscures the real contradiction between the aims of welfare for all and environmental conservation [while]… diminishing the importance of the environmental dimension’ (2010, p. 3436). Adding that, only by refusing the illusion that development is sustainable can we ‘return to the original meaning, where sustainability is concerned with the well-being of future generations and in particular with irreplaceable natural resources—as opposed to the gratification of present needs…’ (Kuhlman & Farrington, 2010, p. 3436). Sustainable exploitation might make some sense in the context of the forestry industry (see Wiersum, 1995). In ‘sustainable development’, however, ‘“sustainability” was detached from the environment, and environmental sustainability was confused with wider questions of equity, governance and social justice, which served to shift political discussion to different quarters’ (Redclift, 2005, p. 218).

As Redclift observed, ‘where natural resources are sourced from a distance, only a small minority of businesses are conducted in a more “sustainable” way’ and it is business as usual for the rest’ (2005, p. 217). Further, since the early 2000s, developed countries have witnessed ‘a strong and effective “backlash” against calling businesses to account over their environmental performance [while] … the precarious nature of many developing country economies, their continued indebtedness and poor governance, have made it difficult to enforce higher environmental standards’ (Redclift, 2005, p. 217). Those in developed countries might comfortably assume ‘the benefits of “dematerialization”, of cleaner industry and more sustainable products’ (Redclift, 2005, p. 217). Those in developing countries are much less likely to be fooled by this illusion.

In short, ‘“sustainable development” was an oxymoron, which prompted a number of discursive interpretations of the weight to be attached to both “development” and “sustainability”… [which occluded] the choices and trade-offs that beset environmental policy…’ (Redclift, 2005, p. 225). Brand was even more forthright in his assessment of the illusion of ‘sustainable development’. For him, it became ‘clear that the concept of sustainable development was a political strategy of global environment and resource management…’ (2012, p. 28); and that this is why ‘sustainable development policies have largely failed…, particularly the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’ (Brand, 2012, p. 28).


Brand’s suggestion that ‘sustainable development’ was part of a business strategy leads directly to the second illusion, which was created by and for business interests. For the illusion of the 3BL, which was part of the greater illusion of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’and began in the mid-1990s (Norman & MacDonald, 2004, p. 244), has played an important part in concealing the difficult choices and changes that are truly part of ES. 3BL fantasy suggests that it allows business leaders to see the performance of their businesses in terms of ‘the interrelated dimensions of profits, people and the planet’ so as to be ‘an important tool to support sustainability goals’ (Slaper & Hall, 2011, p. 4). The naiveté with which the 3BL is presented is, at time, staggering. According to Slaper and Hall, ‘the TBL and its core value of sustainability have become compelling in the business world due to accumulating anecdotal evidence of greater long-term profitability’ (2011, p. 6). This would be laughable, if it wasn’t so serious. To their credit, however, Slaper & Hall noted that challenges with respect to the 3BL included ‘measuring each of the three categories, finding applicable data and calculating a project or policy’s contribution to sustainability’. And yet they blithely suggested that, ‘these challenges aside, the TBL framework allows organizations to evaluate the ramifications of their decisions from a truly long-run perspective’ (2011, p. 8).

There are two aspects to the illusion of the 3BL. The first is with respect to measurability problems, which even Slaper and Hall recognised. For Hiss ‘sustainability KPIs are a highly selective and weak representation of sustainability’ (Hiss, 2013, p. 243). For Norman and MacDonald, if ‘the jargon of 3BL implies that there exists sound methodology for calculating a meaningful and comparable social bottom line, the way there is for the statement of net income, then it is misleading; it is a kind of lie’ (2004, p. 256). In their view, the 3BL is ‘Good old-fashioned Single Bottom Line plus Vague Commitments to Social and Environmental Concerns’ (Norman & MacDonald, 2004, p. 256). The lie of the 3BL allows firms to make almost no commitment whatsoever. Without any real social or environmental bottom lines to have to calculate, firms do not have to worry about having these ‘bottom lines’ compared to other firms inside or outside of their sector; nor is there likely to be any great worry about the firm being seen to have declining social and environmental ‘bottom lines’ over the years or under the direction of the current CEO. (Norman & MacDonald, 2004, p. 256)

The result is that a firm can ‘report a number of data points of its own choosing that are potentially relevant to different stakeholder groups – typically in the form of a glossy 3BL report full of platitudinous text and soft-focus photos of happy people and colourful flora’ (Norman & MacDonald, 2004, p. 256). Norman and MacDonald conclude that because of its ‘inherent emptiness and vagueness… the 3BL paradigm makes it as easy as possible for a cynical firm to appear to be committed to social responsibility and ecological sustainability’ (2004, pp. 256-7).

The other aspect of the illusion of the 3BL in the context of ES, as Hiss noted, is that ‘KPIs construct a reality which standardises factors that may have differential impacts in different environments’ (2013, p. 244). She illustrated this point by explaining that the impact of the ‘emission of one unit of carbon dioxide might vary depending on whether it is produced in the American luxury industry or by a poor peasant in India’ and concluded that it is only through the illusion created by ‘the de-contextualization of indicators [that] makes such an action commensurable across continents’ (Hiss, 2013, pp. 243-4).

The only other point that needs to be made concerning what Hiss refers to as the ‘financialization’ of sustainability is that has yet to happen. If Hiss was right to suggest, in article published in 2013, that 3BL is ‘the only game in town’ (2013, p. 244), then we need to leave town. Without the capacity to attribute actual costs with respect to the environmental line of the 3BL and to calibrate it to reflect the differences between effects in developed and developing nations, sustainability, will be ‘ignored in a world of global environmental and social problems lacking global governance regimes for their solution’ and sustainability topics will not be brought ‘into the decision-making ambit of investors and corporate actors’ and will not ‘make visible a selection of financial risks and negative externalities that can be addressed by the financial market’ (Hiss, 2013, p. 244) Even if they wanted to do so, and there must be considerable doubt with respect to this investors will not ‘create incentives for action [and]… provide incentives for more corporate efforts in the issues covered by’ financialised ES. (Hiss, 2013, p. 244).

Green or Eco States and Homo Economicus

While we can expect little by way of corporate engagement with ES, those who write of the Green or Environmental State misunderstand the character and purpose of the institutions about which they write. Certainly, we can theorise a Green State just as readily as we can theorise ‘sustainable development’ and the ‘3BL’; but we have no more reason to believe that a Green or Environmental State can be actualised than we have to believe in the efficacy, with respect to ES, of ‘sustainable development’ or the ‘3BL’. This is not because the state has become less important due to globalisation. States remain important, but they function to maintain the status quo over which their members preside. And there is no reason to believe that ES can become a political imperative for state actors in the context of the dominance of homo economicus as the way of conceptualising citizens.

The concept of a Green State has considerable appeal. One of its principal advocates, Robyn Eckerlsey, explains that such a state is more than just ‘a liberal democratic state that is managed by a green party government with a set of programmatic environmental goals. … [but] a democratic state whose regulatory ideals and democratic procedures are informed by ecological democracy rather than liberal democracy’ (2004, p. 2). The ‘greenness’ of such a state, then, ‘relies upon a particular set of representative procedures which are green because they expand the moral or political community to the non-human’ (Vogler, 2006, p. 102).

There are three problems here. The first is that it misunderstands the role of the state. The state remains an institution that works to preserve a social order that is overseen by a political elite. The problem is that the state, especially the democratic state driven by neo- liberalism, will always be an obstacle to the achievement of ES and not a means to achieve that end. For, as Duit, Feindt and Meadowcroft recognised, ‘states cannot neglect issues critical to their survival, to the welfare of dominant elites, and … to the welfare of the population more generally’ (2016, p. 12). Certainly states do more than simply impose order. They also impose taxes and provide ‘security, money, and the rule of law… and other goods and services that are either public or involve externalities or natural monopolies’ (Hoffman, 2015, p. 304). But those in key positions within the states don’t work to deliberately undermine the orders for which they are responsible.

It is in no way an amusing irony to note that practices and system that are responsible for catastrophic climate change are often supported by those who adopt a conservative political position (it seems that conservation does not extend to the environment). According to Båtstrand (who surveyed the manifestos of conservative parties in the UK, Norway, Sweden, Spain, US, Canada, New Zealand, Germany and Australia), however, we cannot assume ‘a conservative aversion against environmental measures as such. With regard to climate change, this is only the case with the U.S. Republican Party…’ (2015, p. 555). We can, however, entertain ‘the notion of a conservative pro-business position followed by natural resources playing a role in shaping climate policies. The conservative parties do not intend to challenge the fossil industry if the respective countries have vast reserves of fossils’ (Båtstrand, 2015, pp. 555-6).

The belief that contemporary states will pursue ES also founders on the model of the self-interested citizen that is both promoted and realised in contemporary democracies. Here homo economicus rules and short-term material self-interest dominates. The dominance of neoliberalism precludes any understanding of externalities, or public goods, that might involve nonhuman interests or even later-generational interests. An important part of the problem is that ‘if the private benefits are small relative to the social benefit but private costs to provide them are large, public goods may not be supplied at all’ (Helbling, 2010, p. 49). This pretty much sums up why state actors will not pursue for ES.

Even though, for me, the way that individuals calculate ‘private costs’ is socially constructed, in the current context it is ‘forms of neoliberal governmentality [that] are intimately engaged in the functioning of the market and the production of the kinds of economic subjectivities populating that market’ (McMahon, 2015, p. 138). Theories of efficient markets require that the calculative rationality of homo economicus is self-oriented, if not selfish, and short-term. When it comes to a free and efficient market, for liberals and neoliberals, ‘not just any agent will do. … For if the choices of the individual actor… do not maximise his personal utility, then the exploded version of himself, the market, cannot be said to be efficient’ (Calnitsky & Dupuy-Spencer, 2013, p. 3).

The third problem with the notion of the Green State is the effect of globalisation in providing neoliberal governments with an excuse to limit, and in some cases (such as Australia’s overturning of a carbon tax) reverse, policies associated with ES. Even when the nation state made something of a return after the debacle of the global financial crisis of 2007-8, Mohl has argued, its return did not lead to an increase in policies directed to promoting ES. Thus ‘signs of nation state institutions (re)gaining ground seem absent from the environmental arena. There seem to be few serious attempts and actions to enhance substantially the power, capacity, and authority of environmental nation states in OECD countries’ (Mol, 2016, p. 56).

Part Two: Buddhisms in the Face of Global Environmental Collapse

The first point that I want to make before continuing with this discussion is that I am not here to present the Truth of Buddhism. Even if I thought that there was a Truth of Buddhism and I thought that I had that Truth and I thought that I could communicate the truth of Buddhism, I would still not want to be taken to be offering the Truth of Buddhism. Fortunately, I hold to none of the aforementioned positions and feel free to make various assertions concerning Buddhism, none of which pretends to be a Truth to Buddhism. What I have to say about Buddhism can be said of all attempts to represent the Truth: they are all representations. Every way of representing spacetime or spatiotemporality have consequences and the problem with using either one of these terms led me to use ST in an attempt to represent ST without privileging either space or time.

Two Forms of Buddhism

Two general approaches to spacetime or spatiotemporality are available. Neither captures the Truth of human being and becoming. But each leads to, or appears to lead to, different positions with respect to facing global environmental collapse. The differences between the two position results from the consequences of placing emphasis on either the space or the time of ST. Whatever the Truth may be, thought is capable of, at best, partial representation. ‘Partial’ in the sense of capturing only a part of that which is; and ‘partial’ in the sense of being biased or skewed in favour of a particular position. After explaining important aspects of the two forms of Buddhism upon which I focus this discussion of Buddhists facing global environmental collapse.

I am not the first to suggest the existence of a spatial Buddhism that differs in important ways from a temporal Buddhism. In particular, I follow the analysis presented in the Encyclopedia of Religion. Much of the discussion of the more spatially oriented forms of Buddhism, which I refer to as Mahayanan Spacetime in the first section, comes from this entry. I use on Dogen in order to explain a temporalised conception of ST in the second section, entitled “Dogen’s Spatiotemporality”. Once I have explained these two conceptions of ST I will offer some reflections on what these mean for a Buddhist wondering about what is to be done in the face of global environmental collapse

In explaining a Buddhist Cosmology, Randolph Kloetzli identifies a single-world and a multi-world understanding. The sahasra (single-world) “cosmology was dominated by the temporal categories of the kalpa [divisions of time], the asamkhyeya [multi-world] cosmology is dominated by spatial categories and images” (Kloetzli, 2005, p. 2030). Indeed, Kloetzli argues that “all of Buddhist cosmological speculation falls into one of these two traditions. Those that accept time as the fundamental cosmological reality belong to the Hinayana. Those that embrace metaphors of space belong to the Mahayana” (Kloetzli, 2005, p. 2030). Kloetzli goes on to suggests that there are different purposes behind these “two great traditions, the one for the benefit of the monastic vocation, and the other for the benefit of the devotional traditions of the Mahayana” (Kloetzli, 2005, p. 2030).

These two views have contemporary significance (so this duality resonates with contemporary attempts at representation). Multi-world cosmology is consistent with multiverse theory, to which many contemporary physicists subscribe. Single-world cosmology is consistent with the conceptualization of time as an emergent property of the physical system, which is a less popular theory, has been proposed by physicist Lee Smolin (See, especially, Smolin 2013).

A. Multiworld Spacetime

This approach to time and space reflects the past-present-future construct that is part of the human experience of time. The most important aspect of this conception of time is that events are taken to occur in time. Events are in the past, in the present or in the future. This is a Newtonian conception of ST that requires that all three phases of time (past-present-future) are always already occurring. We can move back and forward in time (time is reversible) and everything is preserved in time.

In being preserved in time, however, ST takes on a profound spatiality. We can imagine that we can travel in time when we adopt this mindset. This immediately spatialises ST. The idea that we can move from present to past or to future requires that each is always available for me to move backward and forward. I can know where I am in time because I can locate this moment in relation to the other moments that preceded it and will follow it (or have already followed it).

The problem for we humans is that we lack the senses that enable us to experience all moments as always already being and having been and to experience all possible moments at once. This is the God perspective and it also the position of the Newtonian physicist who conjures with all of time. It becomes the position of the quantum physicist when all the different possible consequences of an event are taken to represent different timelines (and a line is a spatial construct) and a multitude of universes are understood to coexist and to express each of the possible next moments that could after this moment.

Spatialised ST: Planes

As Kloetzli has argued, this conception of ST can be found in the multi-world cosmologies adopted by some Buddhists.

While the sahasra cosmology was dominated by the temporal categories of the kalpa, the asamkhyeya cosmology is dominated by spatial categories and images. The emphasis on spatial imagery is carried to the point where the Mahayana can argue that time does not exist. Just as the appearance of the Buddhas in the sahasra cosmology was linked to the passage of time, the Buddhas are now associated with the directions or points of space and are referred to as the ‘Buddhas of the ten regions’ (dasadigbuddha). (Kloetzli, 2005, p. 2030)

While worlds envelop each other such that no true separation exists, questions concerning the differentiations between worlds do arise from this conception of ST. The three thousand worlds of the Tiantai School of Chinese Buddhism, for example, are divided into

ten realms of existence— those of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, pratyekabuddhas, direct disciples of the Buddha (sravakas), heavenly beings, spirits, human beings, departed beings, beasts, and depraved men. Each of these shares the characteristics of the others, thus making one hundred realms. Each of these in turn is characterized by ten “thusnesses” or “such- likenesses” through which the true state is manifested in phenomena. This makes one thousand realms of existence. Each realm is further constituted by the three divisions of living beings, space, and the (five) aggregates (skandhas) that constitute dharmas, thus making a total of three thousand realms of existence… (Kloetzli, 2005, p. 2029)

Global Environmental Collapse

The proliferation of worlds that defines the multi-world cosmology and the spatiality that it privileges seems to offer three possibilities with respect to global environmental collapse. The first is to understand that within this Cosmology it has already happened, is already happening and will already happen. It is simply part of the wholeness (non-duality) of everything. Another possibility is that global environmental collapse represents an event in one universe or timeline and that other universes and timelines (in which versions of us do not face global environmental collapse are amongst those universes in which we exist at all).

A third possibility is that global environmental collapse represents movement into that period of time in which the phenomenal world in which human beings currently find themselves ceases to exist. It marks the end of the universe in this form. In multi-world cosmologies, The largest division of time, corresponding to the duration of the universe, is a mahakalpa. A mahakalpa in turn consists of four “moments” (kalpas), each of which contains twenty antarakalpas. Thus, the mahakalpa consists of (1) a kalpa of creation (vivartakalpa), which extends from the birth of the primordial wind to the production of the first being that inhabits the hells; (2) a kalpa that consists of the duration of the creation (vivartasthayikalpa), which begins with the appearance of the first being in the hells; (3) a kalpa of dissolution (samvartakalpa), commencing with the moment when beings cease to be reborn in the hells and ending with the moment when the “receptacle world” (i.e., the world inhabited by sentient beings) is destroyed; and (4) a kalpa during which the world remains dissolved (samvartasthayikalpa) and during which nothing remains but space (akasa) where the world was. Each of the four kalpas are sometimes designated asamkhyeya (“incalculable”) kalpas. (Kloetzli, 2005, p. 2028)

So one way of understanding global environmental collapse is that we are moving to a new stage in human being and becoming.

B. Dogen’s Spatiotemporality

This conception of ST reflects the before-after division in which a moment has, or partakes of, beforeness and afterwardness and does so in the same instant. While it is tempting to place this point on a timeline, this is a misapprehension. Beforeness and afterwardness aren’t separate. This view, supported by philosopher Tim Maudlin and physicist Lee Smolin, “isn’t merely that time is ‘real,’ in the sense that it exists and plays a useful role in how we talk about the world” (Carroll, 2015a). Their view is “that time is more than simply a label on different moments in the history of the universe, all of which are independently pretty much equal. They want to attribute ‘reality’ to the idea of the universe coming into being, moment by moment.” Those who believe that time is an emergent property of the universe argue “that time is real, and that the passage of time plays what we might call a generative role: It indeed brings the future into existence. They think of time as an active player rather than a mere bookkeeping device.” (Carroll, 2015b). A Buddhist version of this idea can be found in Dogen’s reflections on ST. While other forms of Hinayana Buddhism could equally well serve my purpose, Dogen’s ideas provide a useful way of approaching this temporalized Buddhist conception of ST.

Temporalised ST: Uji

This is most clearly expressed in Dogen’s concept of uji or being-time. This was his attempt to distinguish his position from those forms of Buddhism that lead to a spatialized understanding of ST. It is important to reverse the order of these terms and think is terms of time-being (and translations of passages from the fascicle Uji reflect on the “time being”). The point is that, for Dogen, being , or what is, is of time or temporal. Things don’t exist in time; “rather, all things are time. Each thing is a unit of time. ‘The rat is time, the tiger is time, sentient beings are time, buddhas are time.’ Pine trees and bamboos, mountains and seas, self and other are really time. Time has colors; good and evil are times. ‘You must see all the various things of the whole world as so many times.’” (Schilbrack 2000, p. 37). For Dogen, once we see that every thing and everything is a “unit of being-time”, we begin to see that impermanence is; we see that the condition of all things is that they are transitory. “What is the character of reality if reality is composed of units of being-time? Each unit of being- time is impermanent, Dogen says, and he develops this idea in terms of what he calls ‘flowing.’ Each unit of being-time ‘has the quality of flowing…. The entire world is not unchangeable, is not immovable. It flows.’” (Schilbrack 2000, p. 37).

Global Environmental Collapse

While the second is the form of Buddhism to which I have been drawn, I am less clear concerning its implications for what a Buddhist is to do in the face of global environmental collapse. Thus far, I have tended to see the question in terms of loving-kindness and the other forms of care that I value in Buddhist philosophy and practice. So my initial response to the question has been to believe that a Buddhist is to work to promote loving-kindness and other forms of care. This has to include care for the planet and, especially, for all sentient beings. So it has to mean that a Buddhist is to live toward loving-kindness and those forms of care that resulted in care for the prevention of global environmental collapse.

It would be easier if I adopted a more spatialized form of Buddhism, especially given that I am also a follower of Nietzsche (but just as poor a follower of him as I am a follower of Buddhism – and, indeed, all of the philosophies to which I pretend to ascribe). As a Buddhist and follower of Nietzsche I could embrace embracing, as his concept of Eternal Return can be taken to demand of us. That is, I think I could embrace global environmental collapse if I could acknowledge, even when I can’t experience, the coexistence of everything that has been, is and will be. If it is, it is. Embracing what has to be is certainly one way to understand Nietzsche’s Eternal Return (it’s actually the dominant interpretation). There is no point in regretting. Besides regretting would involve judgment, in this case the judgment that global environmental collapse is undesirable. It’s all suffering. It’s all shit… or it’s all gold (as long a gold is worth shit).

There’s another way to conceive Nietzsche’s Eternal Return. In this (less popular) understanding, embracing the moment is a way of affecting the moment (or effecting it differently). Something changes when I move from a position of passive presence in moments of my life to active participation through moments in my life. The theory of time as emergent and Dogen’s concept of uji suggest that timing is being and that being is timing. Neither treats the before-now as having nothing to do with the after-now but both see what happens next as making time in a new set of possible ways (which include at least some of the possible ways present in the before-now that preceded the before-now we have just left for the after-now).


My problem is one of not seeing the transformative potential that might come through seeing global environmental collapse as the expression of our time and embracing the consequences of the choices that have led to global environmental collapse as the possibility that is most likely to be our time. The minority reading of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, which I adopt in part due to my following Deleuze’s lead in reading Nietzsche this way, takes this positively, or actively. Deleuze and Guattari see taking up this position as enabling us to find lines of light to other ways of being. In this case, given that global environmental collapse now represents all of the possibilities, it would be a matter of losing any reluctance with respect to global environmental collapse and to see it as another time through which other (from here unimaginable) forms of being-doing time become possible.

This discussion could lead me to make a variety of observations concerning my dispositions that leave me incapable of seeing transformative potential in this for the time being. There is little point in doing so, other than to demonstrate my many attachments and persistent failure to truly think and act through Buddhism. I will not go in search of that Ox at this time. That’s for other times… Instead, I simply misappropriate lines from Dogen’s Uji, and wonder what happens when

‘An old Buddha says: For the time being, I stand in the face of global environmental collapse.’



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Additional Bibliography


Dr Ian Cook
PhD. (UQ) B.A. (Hons.) (UQ)


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