There's some bozo (or bozos, I don't know) in my neighborhood who empties his litter all over the road. Whoever it is, he has a drinking problem because most of his trash are those tiny tequila or rum bottles. He also likes to eat chicken wings and toss the whole plastic container onto the side of the road.
I find the blatant-ness of the act infuriating. Part of me would love to catch him in the act, follow him home, and then dump all of the trash onto his front lawn. In the meantime, when I walk my dog, I pick his litter up and add it to my own recycling and garbage cans. What else can I do, right? It beats leaving the trash there.
When asked about the heart of the Buddha's teachings, the Dalai Lama succinctly said, "If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them." While this bozo in my neighborhood is an obvious example of someone who causes harm to the community and environment through his carelessness, modern environmentalist and social movements reveal many of the subtle ways that people harm each other and their ecosystems.
How does shopping at Amazon contribute to pollution? In what small and subtle ways do we perpetuate prejudice? How do we harm others through our words, deeds, or silence? Do we eat responsibly or do we eat meat, despite the fact that modern factory farms cause an immense amount of suffering?
The core teaching of the historical Buddha is that all sentient beings suffer. The Bodhisattva Vow aims to help all beings transcend suffering. And yet how do we contribute to the suffering of others, either through our ignorance, laziness, or outright indifference?
One of the most beautiful and symbolic practices in a meditation hall occurs at the end of a meditation session. Before leaving, everyone cleans and straightens his or her meditation mat and cushion. The purpose is to honor our environment by leaving it in as good of condition as when we first encountered it.
More generally, are we leaving the world in as good of a place as it was when we first got here?
Modernity presents us with so many dilemmas about how to act conscientiously and responsibly. How do we dispose of our bodily and physical waste? Since most of us do not grow our own food, how does our choices as shoppers impact people and the environment, both locally and perhaps globally? Where does our clothing come from? And so on.
Sure, we can become paralyzed under the sheer burden of choices, or we can acknowledge that in no other period in history have people had so much control over their decisions.
Contrary to popular mythology, the world is not ours for the taking; it was not made for humans to use and exploit. We exist in a vast web of interconnection, where every act we perform echoes throughout eternity. The Dharma challenges us to live deliberately and morally, understanding that just as we suffer, so do others; that just as others' actions impact our lives, so too do our actions affect theirs.
There are no choices independent of morality.
We can dispose of our trash responsibly. Recycle. Choose not to support businesses that exploit people or the environment. Shop and consume responsibly.
In short, we can do our best to do as little harm as possible. After all, at the very least we owe the world that much.