Mind and Life XXIII Conference Summary

Session 1

After opening remarks by Dan Goleman. Diana Liverman described the Anthropocene age we now live in, the first geologic era to be defined by the actions of one species.  Starting in 1950, a number of spikes have occurred – human population increase, automobile usage, carbon dioxide release, and several other measured indicators of climate change.  She laid out abundant data that pointed not only toward human-caused climate change, but also a series of other interrelated areas where people are having significant impact on the planet. Biodiversity, ocean acidification, ozone deplection, and other indicators were described to show a total of 9 impact areas which could trigger irreversible change if any of them reach excessive levels.

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Session 2

Jonathan Patz spoke of the effects of climate change on human health.  For instance, the geographic ranges of disease-carrying mosquitoes is shifting to impact new populations.  Rising sea levels will reduce the coastlines of countries like Bangladesh.  Patz noted that climate change is being caused largely by people in developed countries, but the largest impacts are being felt by societies which have so far contributed very little to large scale environmental problems.  On the positive side, he explained that efforts to address climate problems will produce ‘co-benefits;’ that is, solving one problem will help with other challenges.  For example, biking to work instead of driving will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will also improve one’s health.

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 Session 3

On the morning of Day 2, Greg Norris spoke about ‘life cycle assessment,’ the comprehensive measuring of production, distribution, use, and disposal of consumer products and services.  Not only does the production of something like an iPhone have substantial impact because of the energy and materials required to produce one, it also affects economies across the world and the livelihoods of millions of people throughout and after its useful life.  Some companies are using measurements like these to reduce their negative impacts on the planet.  Impacts on the world as a result of our use and abuse of the environment can be described as our ‘footprint.’  However, we can view efforts to help the planet, our positive effects, as our ‘handprint.’  Personal habit changes like driving less and eating less meat and raise our handprint on the environment.  The Mind & Life Institute pledged as part of this conference to buy enough carbon offsets to mitigate the negative impacts of participants’ travel and hotel nights.

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Session 4

Clare Palmer introduced the emerging field of environmental ethics, especially the school of thought about a non-human centered view on what is intrinsically valuable in the environment.  Is the environment important beyond what services humans can extricate from the land and animals?  Then she addressed the question of ‘future people;’ do people who have not yet been born have rights, and should we make decisions today with their interests in mind?  Dr. Palmer ultimately triggered His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness the Karmapa to begin developing a (Tibetan) Buddhist theory and perspective about the relationship between humanity and the environment.

The final minutes of the session were devoted to a presentation from Matthieu Ricard about the use of animals for global food production.  Rather than focusing solely on the moral implications of harming other living beings, he spoke of the huge environmental impacts caused by producing meat.  The water and land needed to produce protein via animals is many times larger than by growing grains and vegetables that can produce the same nutritional benefits.  Reducing meat consumption would even produce the co-benefit of increasing a person’s health.  Turning to the idea of causing suffering, industrial animal farming creates great harm for these beings, not only in their final execution, but also in the quality of life they experience until the end.

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Session 5

The third day of Mind and Life XXIII began with Sallie McFague and a scholarly Christian viewpoint on ecology, consumerism and personal responsibility.  She discussed the idea that part of the way that we start helping the planet is by consuming less, but this will be a hard pill to swallow – consumerism is so ingrained within whole societies that it could even be viewed as a new religion in itself.  McFague talked of the need for religious people to move from merely belief into a more proactive state of action.  She introduced to His Holiness the Christian idea of kenosis, a ‘self-emptying’ so that one puts the concerns and needs of others more prominently in one’s life than one’s own desires.  By shifting one’s world view of what is what is important, one can more forcefully and effectively move to a lifestyle of real altruism and compassion.  His Holiness agreed strongly with this idea and saw many similarities with the ideals of Buddhism as well as other world religions.

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Session 6

The afternoon session gave His Holiness the Dalai Lama to ruminate on Buddhist notions of what our relationship to the environment should look like.  He spoke of stories in the ancient texts which allude to insights into the need to respect plants and animals.  He also spoke with concern over the trajectory of education and technological progress over the past centuries.  While they have produced many human benefits, they have also focused too much on the material world and comforts.  They have ignored the spiritual and physical benefits of introspective pursuits and contemplative practices.

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Session 7

Roshi Joan Halifax, the final moderator, introduced the final main topic of the conference, that of action, and then Elke Weber presented on the psychology of behavior change.  While people may have in intellectual understanding about large problems, it is often quite difficult to translate that into action.  Challenges arise from such influences as personal paradigms, from the conflict of short-term vs. long-term goals, or from environmental factors.  Some factors that help enable behavior change include measurable goals or the ability to make decisions in multiple ways (based on logic, on emotions, or the presence of legal or ethical rules).

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Session 8

Thupten Jinpa stepped out of his traditional role as translator to His Holiness for the eighth session in order to give a presentation on the Buddhist path that would benefit the other participants and the audience members.  Speaking mainly from the Nalanda tradition, he reflected on the View, Meditation, and Action.  The View is the right understanding of reality, of the ethical values a person should cultivate.  The Meditation is familiarization with this View, of building the right habits and attitudes, not just sitting on a cushion.  Action is the translation of this integrated understanding and worldview into how one conducts himself when confronted with everyday challenges and scenarios, which ultimately leads one towards benefiting others.  One of the salient points in his presentation was making a commitment to keeping on the Path through a constant mindfulness about one’s mind and actions.

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Session 9

The final formal presentation came from Dekila Chungyalpa of the World Wildlife Fund.  She spoke on the importance of activism and of the challenges and strategies that individuals and organizations face in effecting change.  By using the example of work on the Mekong River by WWF and partner organizations, she illustrated the potential harm of damming on the river and WWF’s multifaceted style of fighting proposed dam projects which would affect the water quality, the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, and the runs of numerous species of fish.  Motivating the public, demonstrating cost/benefit analyses and tools for decision-makers, and reaching out to major global players (for instance, the US) all helped in altering and mitigating these projects.

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Session 10

Ecology, Ethics and Interdependence closed with a roundtable discussion of ideas that had percolated throughout the week.  The participants put forth simple ideas that could reduce one’s impact on the environment; they highlighted organizations and foundations that are making very positive impacts at both local and regional levels; and they listed ways to become involved in activism.  The need for personal transformation and a shift away from consumerism and material gain as the dominant paradigm were echoed in several comments from the discussants.  In closing, His Holiness the Dalai Lama pledged to include the environment in his ongoing efforts to make this a better world.

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