What does Buddhism teach regarding our relationship with the environment?
The Buddha had an astonishing memory of past lives, and although he could recall literally “aeons of universal contraction and expansion”, he declared that no beginning to this “wandering on” could be found. As a consequence, Buddhism does not subscribe to the idea that this world is the work of a creator god and does not give the natural world we live in any theological importance. It is seen as a phenomenon existing in its present state due to a flow of causes and conditions. Our challenge as a species is to relate to the physical world in a way that best sustains its capacity to sustain us.
For us to nurture the best possible kind of relationship with the physical world, Buddhism advocates an education conducted in three areas: conduct, emotion, and intellect.
The education in conduct requires us to put the well-being of the planet above short-term economic needs. It means cultivating the will to refrain from certain kinds of harmful activities, to adopt a simpler, less wasteful way of life. The changes needed on the level of conduct cannot be made by an educated elite; to be successful they need to be adopted by all. For this reason they need to be backed up by laws, customs and cultural norms.
The education in emotion requires us to instill within our cultures, and within each individual heart, a love and respect for the natural world which makes the destruction of the environment repugnant to us.
The education in intellect requires us to investigate the causes and conditions that underlie a sustainable future for the human race. It involves understanding the consequences of our smallest acts of consumption on the planet as a whole. It means seeing the drawbacks of our current path.
This reflection by Ajahn Jayasaro is from the book, Without and Within, (pdf) pp. 148-149.