Host: This week, Pepper Trail concludes our series on the Earth Precepts by offering some final thoughts on taking responsibility for the Earth:
For the past 12 weeks, we have explored a set of principles for acknowledging and acting on our responsibility for the Earth. Here they are, one last time:
☼ Honor the Earth, upon which all life depends
☼ Consider the consequences of all environmental actions over at least 100 years
☼ Do not destabilize the Earth’s atmospheric or aquatic systems
☼ Do not depend upon energy sources that cannot be replaced
☼ Do not remove living resources, including soil, trees, and marine life, faster than they can replace themselves
☼ Preserve the world’s biological diversity: all the Earth’s species and ecosystems
☼ Exploitation of the Earth must be accompanied by restoration of the Earth
☼ Do not have more than two children
☼ Do not assert ownership over species or their genetic codes; they are not ours to claim
☼ Corporations and governments share the same environmental responsibilities as individuals; they must not be allowed to damage the Earth
These Earth Precepts are a formidable set of injunctions, and they may seem overwhelming. Every day, all of us violate one or more of them. Some may say: If the Earth Precepts cannot be followed, they are meaningless.
But consider: the Ten Commandments and other social precepts also seem quite impossible to follow, if interpreted strictly. Most religions accept some version of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” and yet have sanctioned warfare throughout history. On a personal level, who doesn’t regularly tell lies, or sometimes covet what another person has? Despite all these failings, almost everyone accepts the Ten Commandments or related precepts as the basis for our moral beliefs. Does this make us hypocrites? Perhaps. And yet, our acceptance of a core set of social principles unquestionably makes us better, more responsible – more moral – people. When we break our precepts, we feel guilt, that uncomfortable disconnect between our beliefs and our actions that inhibits worse transgressions.
So, if the Earth Precepts were accepted as universally as the Ten Commandments, would any of us be able to follow them? No. Would the health of the Earth, and thus the prospects for humanity’s future, improve? Unquestionably yes.
Another objection to the Earth Precepts may be that they are vague and unscientific. But that is to misunderstand their purpose. They are moral guidelines; they are not laws or regulations. Each society enacts laws to clarify its expectations regarding social precepts like the Ten Commandments. For example, while it may always be immoral to lie, it is only illegal to do so under specific circumstances. In the same way, laws are needed in each society to codify the concepts contained in the Earth Precepts. These laws will undoubtedly differ greatly from place to place, but those details are unimportant compared to the transformation that acceptance of the concept of earth precepts could mean.
Humanity’s days of environmental innocence are over. We can no longer pretend that we do not have responsibility for the biosphere. It’s essential that we accept this responsibility and vow to preserve the health of the Earth. Yes, we will repeatedly fall short in our efforts. But if we truly commit ourselves to the goal, there is every reason for hope.
In Buddhism, there is a ceremony associated with the mature acceptance of Buddha’s teachings. In this ceremony, the student swears to the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows. The first of these is: “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” This is equally a Social and an Earth Precept. By declaring our intention to save all living beings, we commit to a goal that is both impossible and indispensable. The bodhisattva and the ecologist share this knowledge: none are saved unless all are saved. We have no choice but to try.
This is Pepper Trail. Thank you for listening.