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The Psychology of Ecology: Exploring the Internal Landscape of Consumption

The Psychology of Ecology

by Ethan Nichtern

Among people who care about conscious living, it’s hard to find a bigger or more fashionable issue than the Green movement. That’s a very good thing, because it’s also hard to find an issue that merits more immediate action than the environmental crisis. It’s inspiring to watch how quickly the popularity of ecological consumption has spread. You’d be hard pressed to find any issue that has gone absolutely viral through our cultural consciousness with such roadrunner speed. In New York City, even one year ago, store clerks would roll their eyes at me when I told them I didn’t need them to put the roll of Chapstick I just bought into a huge plastic bag (have you ever had your Chapstick double-bagged?). Now, more and more often, they politely ask me if I need a bag, and when I pull my own reusable nylon one from my pocket, they are less likely to seem like I ruined their day. Government legislation aimed at better environmental policies is also popping up around the globe, from Mumbai to Ireland to California, where a plan recently adopted by the state seeks to cut CO2 emissions by a whopping (but seemingly necessary) 80 percent by 2050.

It is now haute couture to do something noticeable to let the world know that we are on board with the cause of environmental salvation, whether it’s waiting on a long line to pick up a new handbag that tells everybody “I am not a plastic bag,” sipping from a metal water bottle, or driving a hybrid car. Yet for all of the work going into this fantastic movement, it seems that something is more or less missing from our collective efforts to “go green.”

To date, the Green movement seems to be very much focused on the external world of objects and resources. Going green is all about external stuff: how to get more eco (and more fashionable) stuff, or else how to use the stuff we already have more effectively and less carelessly. For some folks, going green means arranging your lifestyle so you simply have way less stuff. All of these investigations are crucial. Collecting information about how to make compassionate choices in the context of a huge planet and an interwoven economy is an absolutely eye-opening practice, no matter which specific issue is closest to your heart.

But what about the internal landscape of consumption—the subtleties of our state of mind as we attempt to change our patterns? After all, we are the very individuals who have to get, use, or stop ourselves from using all this stuff! How do our mental habits and identities fuel our choices? How do our minds embrace or reject a change of habit? In the Green movement to date, there is precious little investigation regarding the psychology of ecology.

Let’s accept, more or less, the collective and individual lifestyles we’ve all developed. We have to place ourselves in a cultural place and time to see ourselves clearly. For most (but not all) of us, contemplating our actions in an interwoven ecological context is a fairly new practice, an unfamiliar terrain. Most of us in the United States today grew up with the following general rules: If we wanted to get something, we usually got it. If things went well, we got it IMMEDIATELY. Whether children or adults, we played with our toy until inevitable boredom set in. Then we tied it up in a trash bag and sent it along to the landfill. We had no idea how or where the resources necessary to create it were extracted from the earth. Nor did we realize what processes of labor went into producing the item. And what happened once that gently used object was wrapped up with a twist tie and set out for the garbage man to collect? It sure went somewhere, but no place we were ever called upon to worry about. Until now.

Our culture of convenience has habitually alienated us from the truth of interdependence—that nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Interdependence is the most crucial concept that Buddhist philosophy has to offer the twenty-first century world, although Buddhism has no monopoly on the idea. Interdependence invites us to expand our awareness and to bear witness to the complex network of conditioning that produces each of our habitual actions, as well as the larger context of outcomes produced by our lifestyle choices. As ignorant participants in complicated processes of global production and consumption, we have had precisely this contextual awareness stripped from us. This ignorance isn’t anyone’s fault, but it means most of us have developed some deeply grooved mental habits regarding how we impulsively interact with the world of objects, i.e., how we use stuff. As actress Carrie Fisher put it simply, until recently our societal slogan of consumption has been this: instant gratification takes too long.

At the Interdependence Project, we practice monthlong periods of low-impact consumption. During these months, community members combine a practice of mindfulness meditation with a commitment to implement lifestyle strategies that reduce our footprint on Earth’s delicate landscape. The practice is meant to be personal and exploratory rather than dogmatic and prescribed. In addition to a daily session of mindfulness meditation, community members adopt certain intentions for the month. For some, it might mean refraining from using plastic bags and disposable cups and napkins; for others, it means experimenting with eating less meat, maybe practicing veganism, or even learning to compost and logging less miles on the car’s odometer. Why do we do all this? Of course part of our mission is to educate ourselves, to gather information, through personal experience, regarding the most effective ways to be responsible stewards of Planet Earth. But more internally, the point of these months is to practice an active mindfulness, to witness what happens in our minds when we try to shift our habits.

If we carefully examine our habits of consumption with mindfulness techniques, the examination reveals so many assumptions about who we are as individuals, and who we think we need to be. Complex issues of identity and self-worth pop up all over the place, like some minefield of jack-in-the-boxes. Watching our own minds as we navigate consumption choices may reveal all kinds of inadequacies: grinding pangs of lack, mirror-shattering moments of self-loathing, righteous claims to entitlement, deeply submerged guilt regarding our first-world privileges, or a swarm of other internal responses. Buddhist meditation practices are perfectly suited to the difficult task of revealing the subtleties of our mental processes.

Until we each have some direct familiarity with these mental processes, we aren’t going to discover a full solution to the ecological crisis. If we really want to “go green,” we need a methodology for compassionately understanding the mechanisms of our own minds, because we’ve become way too habituated to the fake, styrofoam convenience of ignoring how our minds really work. The mind is at the root of all of our actions in the external world. If we don’t each learn how to watch it moment by moment, then our efforts to avert societal disaster will be akin to trying to guide the Titanic clear of the iceberg without learning how to steer the ship.

Buddhist meditation launches an individual headlong into a curious yet rigorous examination of desire. Overly simplistic formulations of Buddhist philosophy make many folks believe that desire is a bad thing, plain and simple. But the true Buddhist perspective on the all-too-human experience called desire—whether it’s hunger for a slice of pepperoni pizza, longing for world peace, or just some good old-fashioned lust—is much more nuanced. Ultimately speaking, Buddhism takes the perspective that desire is 100 percent natural and incredibly positive. The problem, however, is that unchecked fear and unexamined habit can pervert desire into addictive tendencies—habits which are destructive for an individual, harmful for a community, and disastrous for our planet. What Buddhist meditation necessarily reveals to us, moment by moment, is the problematic nature of our impulse for instant gratification.

We all know what it feels like to need something NOW. There’s this incredible itch that can’t really be described, only experienced with awareness. And we all know the temporary and disposable relief of scratching that itch by getting some stuff, acquiring a familiar mode of experience to soothe the intensity of sensation. Without mindfulness, we pick convenience over patience every time, sedating the itch for a short and fleeting moment. But what consistent practice teaches us is that the convenient solution—that instant fix arising from fearful habit—usually leads everyone down the wrong path.

Both yoga and Buddhism offer practices that aid both personal and societal ecology. In asana practice, we are learning to balance and recycle our bodies’ energies so they become more sustainable, less grasping. In mindfulness meditation, we are learning how our thoughts actually function, how those thoughts lead us into action, and how those actions positively or negatively affect us and our planet. In meditation, we are nurturing the very root of the tree of sustainability, which is a healthy and contented relationship to our own mind.

I’ve always felt that the need to practice both yoga and mindfulness meditation constituted another “Inconvenient Truth.” It’s inconvenient because neither practice is easy to start or maintain (at least not for me). Both practices require a type of courage and willingness to look in the mirror that’s often hard to summon. But then again, as practitioners of these mindful disciplines, we ought to be the first ones to recognize the crucial connections between our internal thought patterns and our actions in the interdependent world. Let’s also be the ones standing up to proclaim that the constant quest for convenience, wrapped in the cellophane of ignorant habit, is what got us into this giant mess to begin with.



Ethan Nichtern gives voice to a new generation of spiritual activists. The founding director of the Interdependence Project, he works to bring meditation principles to the arts, environmental concerns, and responsible consumption. His first book, One City: A Declaration of Interdependence, has been described as “Buddhism 3.0 meets the global consciousness movement.”

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.