11/14/2011 07:44 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2012

At the Center of the Buddhist World

This is the "pilgrimage season" in Bodhgaya. Under the Bodhi tree where the Buddha achieved enlightenment, on the west side of the Mahabodhi temple, a stream of people passes in silent contemplation. The great temple they are circumambulating dates from the Gupta dynasty (fifth to sixth century), the golden age of India, whose art and architecture it splendidly embodies. The setting is a large mandala-garden, laid out around the 150-foot tall tower, which has four smaller towers in the same style.

The pilgrims represent a diversity of ancient cultures, branches of the great tree of Buddhism that has enriched so many distinctive bio-geographical regions of Asia. Here are the people from all of Buddhist Asia -- Sri Lanka, Burma, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Cambodia, India and China. Experiencing Buddhism in this pan-Asian cultural context exposes the hollow sectarianism of many contemporary versions of the Buddha's teaching. One can never again mistake one's own branch for the tree as a whole.

Like all human social systems, Buddhism has its downfalls of beaurocracy, fundamentalism and power politics. Yet, the inwardness and grace of its ordinary practitioners here express deeply felt values of contemplation, empathy and harmony with nature. Centuries of meditation and prayer have recreated and reinforced a sacred atmosphere at this center of the Buddhist world.

Mahabodhi is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, surrounded now by the social and environmental stress of Bihar, India's poorest state. Here in the subtropical north-east of the subcontinent, summers are hot (up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit) while winters are dry and dusty. Bihar is the 12th largest Indian state in land area, but has the third largest population (83 million); 60 percent under 25 years old. A grossly inadequate education system, and a female literacy rate of 50 percent are factors that contribute to overpopulation. There is widespread grinding poverty. Political corruption is notorious, and (non-Buddhist) Bihar is described by more progressive Hindu states as caste-ridden and feudal. It seems to hang by an ecological thread.

It is sad to reflect on what the passage of centuries has done to Bihar's cultural leadership of India, but a peek into its future offers little reassurance. What will be the likely effects of climate warming in such a vulnerable subtropical region? There is little consideration of this by India's central government. Rather, an avid embrace of "economic growth at all costs" means that India has graduated to the third largest emitter of fossil carbon dioxide in the world. In 2010, the annual carbon emissions of this land of the Buddha passed 2 billion tonnes of CO2 -- an increase of 9.4 percent. Its emissions growth rate now exceeds China's.

In the back streets of Bodhgaya, poor local women mold cow dung into flat discs they stick to a wall to dry in the hot sun. These are fuel for their cooking fires. At times, the smoke becomes a major source of local air pollution. Like the vast pall of soot originating from coal-fired China, particulates from burning biomass for cooking in India fall on the formerly pristine glaciers of the Tibetan plateau, reducing their reflective, protective whiteness. As NASA's William Lau has pointed out, the rate of climate warming over the western part of the Tibetan plateau is five times higher than the global average. Greenhouse gases cannot be the only factor at work there. When black carbon rises into the atmosphere, it attaches to dust and moves with warm-season air patterns to the Himalayan foothills. Heat from the sun warms this "brown cloud," accelerating its monsoon-season rise up the slope -- pumping heat up the mountains.

Asia's great rivers all rise in Tibet, which means the drinking water and agriculture of a billion or more people are endangered by this phenomenon. The Indus and Brahmaputra rivers are considered the most vulnerable. But India's sacred river Ganges, which flows west to east across the central fertile plain of Bihar, is also at risk. All these threats are developing apace, in a subcontinent where nuclear-armed states have large vulnerable populations that already experience major shortages of groundwater.

Is any solution possible? A breakthrough study in 2009 suggested a 10-year, all-out effort to equip 90 percent of Indian households burning biomass, with clean-burning cook stoves by the year 2020. It would reduce premature deaths from respiratory disease by 17 percent annually. But the poor folk of India live on less than a dollar a day, so any effective stove has to be cheap, durable and effectively cut down soot emissions. About 100,000 such stoves have already been sold in India, at prices as low as 700 rupees ($15). They allow poor households to save about $75 a year in fuel costs, use 60 percent less biomass and eliminate 80 percent of their soot emissions. However, even when offered a free stove, one third of poor families refused the offer! Like the rest of us, these poor people also need inducements like "the look of the thing"' to make a switch. India now has a "National Biomass Cook-stoves Initiative," in recognition of the fact that cutting black carbon emissions would be a relatively quick, cheap and effective climate-protection measure.

So much for black carbon -- India is in denial about the effects of its burgeoning CO2 emissions. Most of those come not from the cooking fires of the poor, but from increasing millions of vehicle tailpipes, and from dirty coal-fired electricity, cement and steel production. Those big players of the industrial growth economy wield huge influence over India's politics, media and self-image. They still obscure the enormous potential on the subcontinent for solar power. All that may be about to change, however, for the price of crystalline silicon (and hence of solar photovoltaic cells) dropped by one third in 2011. Events of that kind combined to put laptop computers within everyone's reach.

Cloudy Germany produces over 17,000 megawatts of electricity from installed solar PV, enough to power 3.4 million homes. Sunny Italy installed over 11,000 megawatts of solar PV in the last two years alone. India, by contrast had just 100 megawatts of installed PV capacity at the beginning of this year. It has put a National Solar Mission on paper, and that document also acknowledges the vast potential for PV to provide decentralized power in the many parts of the country without an electric grid. Decentralized small solar systems on homes are far cheaper than building centralized power plants. A solar PV revolution in India is something Buddhists could advocate for. It could profoundly change India for the better -- perhaps even in Bihar.