“The Other,” or How Our Limited Definition of “Self” is the Root of Our Problems

by Laura Drepanos '19, St. Mark's School

In Buddhism, there is no distinct “self.” Rather, the “self” extends to everything: every person, every tree, every planet, and so on. It is no wonder, then, that Buddhism often connects well to environmental awareness. After all, how could you not worry when a piece of yourself is damaged?

This mindset is relatively rare. Most people only consider “self” to encompass, well, themselves. While we like to think of humans as compassionate beings, the reality is that most people can only, at best, sympathize with those whom they interact with. Those who they do not interact with then usually fall under the category of “the other.” American history alone provides countless examples of how people cause the most injustice towards those who they consider to be the “other.” For instance, colonisers consistently failed to see Native Americans as a part of the nation. As a result, they forced tribes to either abandon their culture or live in reservation lands that were not suitable for their lifestyle. This theme of neglecting the “other” is undoubtedly one that remains even today. At the Putney Climate Justice Conference, I discussed with students how there is a theme of people who are relatively unaffected by the pressing issues in communities being in control of those communities. This injustice creates  an environment where those who are most affected are treated like the “other” and deprived of their basic rights. We examined an article from Mother Jones and saw how lawmakers often treated impoverished minorities as the “other” and sometimes even purposefully relocated issues, like the shortage of water supply, to low-income neighborhoods (1). Thus, social oppression is stemming from this widespread lack of empathy.

The “not my problem” mentality transcends throughout many movements in society, one of those being environmental sustainability. Those who make no effort to reduce their  carbon footprints are rarely those who live in the areas that are most negatively impacted by climate change. As we discussed at the ISSC conference, climate change is one of the most difficult issues to get other students behind because  caring about the environment is almost entirely based upon sympathizing for the “other”. However, this struggle is not unique to advocates of environmental sustainability but shared by all social movements.

At my food justice workshop at the Putney Conference, we discussed the difference between “growth advocates” and “purists”. While both groups are working towards food justice, they fail to work together due to their different beliefs on how to approach the issue; while growth advocates are willing to compromise to make progress in society, purists are only satisfied with a complete revolution. This theme of two groups with the same goal failing to work together is shown through American History as well. For example, at the end of the 19th century, both the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and Populist Party desired to improve farmers’ rights in America. However, the two stayed separate due to their inability to overcome racial barriers. As a result, most of their wishes  were not granted until the Progressive movement of the early 20th century.

Environmentalists and social reformers are facing this same obstacle. While almost all major reform movements are seeking to foster social responsibility to care for the “other”, they often stay separate because they are not acknowledging this connection. While encouraging everyone to see the world as an extension of themselves may not be feasible, inspiring others to build compassion for the “other” could be an attainable goal. Social reformers and environmentalists have the opportunity to build a new, more considerate society, and, as Reverend Mariama White-Hammond reminds us, that is something to get excited about.

Reference:

1) Bliss, Laura. "California’s Drought Is about Economic Inequality." Mother Jones. Last modified October 8, 2015. https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/10/san-joaquin-valley-communities-no-running-water-drought/.

Note: This article was primarily based upon my debrief from the Putney Climate Justice Conference. Ideas throughout the article have been presented by speakers throughout the conference, particularly Mo Constantine from the “Agriculture as a Social Justice Issue: The Food Justice Movement” workshop, Deanna Kuhney from the “Facilitating for Equity: Climate Justice” workshop, and Nathan Zweig from the “Buddhism and Ecology” workshop.