As for building community, Buddhists could play an increasing role in the interfaith arena. One of my favorite energy groups is Interfaith Power and Light. Now doesn’t that sound like enlightenment itself? Various chapters have some great websites. The first group started in San Francisco at Grace Cathedral, led by the Episcopalians, and very quickly other chapters formed, from the very strong New York Power and Light to our little fledgling Vermont Power and Light. The idea is to green up the energy sources of church sanctuaries and retreat centers, in some places buying power in large unit purchases. To be a force as an Interfaith Power and Light, participation with many different denominations is essential. Buddhist centers could join this effort.
Let’s go a little further into Buddhism and sustainability. Sustainability is one of those bucket words—a lot is thrown in, but it’s often unclear how it’s really being used. Generally it means that we want to be around for a while and if we do things unsustainably we are going in the wrong direction. I did a survey of Buddhist centers to assess their environmental practices in several areas: food and eating, land stewardship, teachings, ceremonies, center policies. I have often wondered about the possibility of a Zen Environmental Leadership Conference. With the plans underway for a green building at Zen Mountain Monastery, I can imagine such a gathering taking place here. Cultivating articulate leadership really does matter, but building green leadership can be slow. Both advocacy from the top and support from below are needed.
As an example, academia has been my arena for activism for several years. I have developed the small field within environmental humanities called Buddhist environmental thought. As part of my work co-chairing the UVM Environmental Council, issues of campus sustainability became central. I attended the first national conference on the topic at Yale University in 1994, sponsored by the Heinz Foundation. Over 300 people in a number of workshop groups generated a set of guidelines for what it would mean to be a green campus. I walked away thinking, how do we structurally do this? How do we actually make our campus green? Having an environmental council seemed key. I helped to get that started and soon we were taking up projects in recycling, hazardous waste, pesticides, energy conservation. I considered this my “small ‘b’” Buddhist practice, an effort to bring the right people to the table and help move things forward.
When President Fogel was hired we were just about to print a sustainability report called Tracking UVM. The Council’s staff coordinator had evaluated the last ten years of data on solid waste, energy use, air quality, etc. and this was our campus report card. We wanted the president’s picture right up front on the second page with a letter extolling the virtues of a sustainable campus. He agreed, and when the report was published, he sent 500 copies off to his presidential colleagues. That got him started on a path of greening the campus. Last fall he signed a green building policy, stating that all new buildings will be green buildings and all new renovations will aim for LEED certification. And this spring he signed on to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.
So I can’t state this strongly enough: leadership and commitment are crucial. The green building here at ZMM is really part of the campus sustainability movement; but it is a religious campus instead of an academic campus. The academic campuses are very hot on this now. If you don’t have a green building you are nowhere. If you get the chance, you should visit one of these new buildings and walk in it, feel what it is like to be inside a green building. It is qualitatively different. Building green is not just environmentally virtuous; it makes people happy. People working or studying inside green buildings enjoy being there. The materials feel good on their feet, the air feels good in their lungs. At UVM our new student center is a LEED certified green building; there are similar large buildings at Middlebury and Vermont Law School.
So this raises the question: can Buddhism make itself relevant for the 21st century? And how can a green building be part of that conversation? What is the context for this commitment? We should be sober about the fact that peak oil will happen during the next generation’s life-time—it’s just a question of how soon. There is also global climate change to consider. What will the climate be like in ten or twenty years? Maybe ten hot days in a row is tolerable now, but what if the whole summer is really hot? Are there viable alternatives to cooling a building without drawing so heavily on the energy grid?
The global wealth gap impacts environmental choices as well. The difference between what impoverished people have, can’t have, and may never have and the vast material goods, privileges and resources that the wealthy have is enormous. This has become more significant in the last ten to fifteen years than ever before in history and it is causing friction internationally. That is clearly a part of the strong sentiment of anti-Americanism around the world. You can’t ignore it. For example, many places in the world suffer from water shortages. That is hard for us to think about in New England because it is unlikely that we’ll face this particular challenge. How can we compassionately address this? Is water tithing a possibility? Where there is surplus water, perhaps saved water could be provided to a sister organization in a water-deprived area.