A kinder, less violent energy What power system would the Lord Buddha build?

Key Issues: 

Bangkok Post 11 December 2007

By Chris and Chuenchom Greacen

Lord Buddha preached compassion, loving kindness and non-violence to all people and living beings. How might we make Thailand's environmentally harmful and conflict-ridden power system kinder, gentler and less violent?

Thailand's current electrical system is not so kind to plants, animals and humans. Hydropower disrupts fish ecology and floods forests, animal habitats, crop lands and villages.

The process of developing dams in Burma to serve Thailand's electricity demand has been reportedly implicated in systemic rapes, forced labour and other abuses against ethnic minorities.

Dust and smoke from coal-powered plants in Thailand have hospitalised or killed hundreds of villagers from respiratory infections, poisoned water supplies, and created acid rain that decimated forests and crops.

Petroleum is the cause of terrible wars, and vast oil profits can be used to prop up anti-democratic regimes.

The construction of natural gas pipelines from Burma to Thai power plants was the locus for alleged serious human rights abuses, and profits paid to the Burmese junta for gas exported to Thailand has strengthened the junta's financial means to inflict violence on their own people.

All fossil fuels - coal, oil, gas - are a major cause of global warming, which is already responsible for massive species extinctions (and expected to grow much worse in the coming decades).

Nuclear power, not here yet but strongly promoted by the Thai government, may be just as bad, if not worse.

Nuclear fission is the basis for the deadliest weapons humans ever invented and has created such colossal tragedies as Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl.

The current level of nuclear stockpile among ''peaceful'' nuclear nations is sufficient to annihilate humanity and many other species. And just a few kilogrammes diverted by terrorists from supply or waste streams is enough to inflict severe suffering on millions.

The myth of ''peaceful nuclear power'' is shattered when one considers that 20 of 60 countries with ''peaceful'' nuclear reactors are known to have used them to conduct covert weapons research or production. In practice, it has proven far too easy to develop nuclear weapons alongside - and hidden by - nuclear electricity programmes.

Even if such nuclear violence were to be prevented through vigilant security and high technology, there remains the future legacy of radioactive waste.

Finding and safeguarding a permanent solution to nuclear waste disposal will burden our children and descendants for the next thousand years.

Violence comes not only in the form of direct harming or killing. Limiting others' options without consent is also violence. Nuclear energy is, thus, inevitably a violent risk forced onto future generations whose voice is not present at the decision-making table.

In addition to these forms of violence, Thailand's energy sector has a tragic history of pitting people against people. Tempers rage when different visions of development, hopes for the future, and assessments of risk clash. Many communities affected by energy projects have seen their community members and leaders threatened, injured, arrested and even murdered.

So how can we as consumers and compassionate beings help shape Thailand's power sector development towards peace and kindness?

The Lord Buddha's teachings show the way. We must start by cultivating awareness, by collectively acknowledging the situation, including the past and present violence. Only when we accept can we begin to truly address the problem.

The Buddhist Precepts provide key guidance.

We draw on an interpretation of these precepts, particularly useful for contemporary life, by the venerable Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.

The first precept is to refrain from destruction of life, be it human, animal or plant. This can be interpreted to include direct killing, letting others kill as well as condoning any act of killing anywhere, within as well as outside our own country.

Second, we must refrain from stealing _ ''taking what is not offered'' or exploiting or oppressing to take resources that should belong to others.

This can also be interpreted as not profiting from the suffering of others and refraining from pillaging nature (clean air, mineral deposits, flowing rivers).

The third precept (sexual misconduct) does not apply. The fourth precept is to refrain from unmindful speech and unwillingness to listen to others. With respect, deep listening and compassion, policy-makers, consumers and affected villagers could together work out a new power sector development plan that is gentler and serves society's needs better. Conflicts in violence-prone project areas could then be avoided.

The fifth precept is to refrain from unmindful consumption (consuming more than we need or without heeding the suffering inflicted on others).

Energy conservation (literally eliminating waste) or renewable energy, which cleanly and sustainably taps into natural energy flows (sun, wind) are more acceptable from the perspective of this precept.

They are also consistent with the Lord Buddha's teachings on moderation.

  Many of the ideas in this essay are often referred to as ''green energy''. We strongly support green energy, but we feel that there is a lot more at stake than the word ''green'' connotes.

What we're really talking about is a choice between kind and compassionate versus violent energy. We really do have the power to choose _ and now is the time to act.

Decisions made now will play a key role in shaping the sector for years to come. As we consider key decisions, let us keep in mind the question: ''What power system would Lord Buddha build?''