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Understanding the root of our fossil fuel addiction

The following is an edited excerpt from "Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution" by Peter Kalmus (New Society Publishers, 2017).

We don’t do sitting meditation
in order to become a Buddha.
We sit to be happy.
— Thich Nhat Hanh

Whereas the immediate physical cause of global warming is our greenhouse gas emissions, the deepest underlying cause of the broader predicament is our wanting. Wanting drives both consumerism and overpopulation. We endlessly want more: more money, more sex, more prestige, a faster car, a bigger house, fancier furniture.

And when we get something we want, the relief from our desire is fleeting. In a short time, we again want more. Wanting is a bottomless pit. Not only is our wanting straining the biosphere to its breaking point, it’s causing us to suffer. When we want something, it’s because we’re not satisfied in the present moment. Indeed, the entire purpose of the advertising industry is to cause us to feel unsatisfied with what we have. When we want, we feel agitated, unable to appreciate the miracles right in front of us. This dissatisfaction is suffering, but we may be so habituated to it that we don’t recognize it. In this chapter, we’ll discuss a simple practice that allows us to escape our wanting; meditation.

Meditation is a practice, not a religion. Remarkably, it requires no mystical revelation, no blind faith, no spiritual conversion. You become your own teacher. You learn by observing yourself in a straightforward way. Many activists feel that sitting in stillness is a waste of time, but this isn’t my experience at all. On the contrary, meditation makes my actions more effective by making them less full of ego. Meditation also bridges the gulf between what we know to be right and what we actually do.

The intellect isn’t capable of crossing this bridge. For these reasons, daily meditation is the foundation of my personal response to our predicament. It allows me to become happier, even as I carry a deepening awareness of the unnecessary suffering we’re inflicting upon the biosphere, and ourselves.

The mind’s basic habit

It’s incredible that most of us go about our daily lives without ever stopping to observe our minds — how they work, and how suffering and happiness work. Most of us remain ignorant about our own minds, from birth to death. Once you start observing it, you’ll quickly notice that the mind is constantly reacting to pleasant and painful sensations in the body, even in sleep. Every fidget, for example, is a response to a sensation somewhere. When there’s a pleasant sensation, the mind wants it to continue. When there’s an unpleasant sensation, the mind wants it to stop.

We can’t escape our minds. They follow us wherever we go. A more practical option is to make them good places to be.

This is the mind’s basic habit. This subconscious habit, in turn, causes negativities like anxiety, jealousy, anger, hatred and depression. For example, when we’re anxious, it’s because we’re afraid of future unpleasant sensations, or of missing out on pleasant sensations. When we’re angry, it’s because we think someone or something is preventing pleasant sensations or causing unpleasant sensations. It’s impossible to deal with these negativities through willpower alone.

I can’t consciously will myself never to get angry, because anger is an instinctive, subconscious reaction that takes me by surprise and overpowers my conscious will. Instead, I need a practice capable of changing my mind’s basic habit. 

A foundation of change

Our natural tendency is to try to run from suffering by constantly seeking pleasant sensations, without realizing that doing so only reinforces the mind’s habit. We try drinking, drugs, sex, money, work, TV, getting on airplanes — all to no avail.

Because every sensation, no matter how pleasant, sooner or later passes away. Our society is built around chasing happiness through consumption. But lasting happiness can never be found in this way. We can’t escape our minds. They follow us wherever we go. A more practical option is to make them good places to be. Before we get into the nuts and bolts of meditation, let’s take a moment to consider stillness.

People in our society are always running, anxiously putting out fires in their lives. They keep running, mentally if not physically, right up to their last breath. But without stillness, it’s impossible to know who we are and what we want out of life. If we don’t know these things, we’re just running pointlessly.

Our constant running is tied, bidirectionally, to our fossil fuel addiction: fossil fuel makes us run ever faster, and our running makes us love fossil fuel.

Since we’re always running like this, when we do get an opportunity to sit in stillness, it’s disconcerting. We want to get up and start running again. The stillness can be frightening to us, because when we’re still, we may come face-to face with our suffering. Being still, at first, is like riding a bucking bronco. But to come out of the suffering, we need to face it; and to face it, we need to be still.

Stillness takes courage. Our constant running is tied, bidirectionally, to our fossil fuel addiction: fossil fuel makes us run ever faster, and our running makes us love fossil fuel. We run noisily. We surround ourselves with television, even in public places. We put earbuds in our ears.

The sound of cars and freeways is everywhere. In our houses, even when we think it’s quiet, the refrigerator will switch on. I long for quiet places, but they’ve become difficult to find. I’ll put on a backpack and walk in the backcountry for days, only to hear a nearly continuous roar of airplanes overhead. I seek out quiet, because to me it’s as beautiful as the night sky in the darkest mountain wilderness. This beauty is part of the vision I hold for a world without fossil fuels.

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