Buddhism and the End of Economic Growth

In addition to causing unimaginable human illness and death, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the world economy into freefall, with borders and markets closing, business activity halted, and millions of people losing their jobs. As governments now desperately look at how to re-open their countries, we can expect to see tremendous pressure from global corporations to return to business as usual, favoring policies that put rapid economic growth above all. But this crisis creates the opportunity to resist business as usual and instead champion a new paradigm that prioritizes healthy human communities and vibrant ecosystems.

John Stanley and David Loy, co-editors of A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, wrote this article almost a decade ago following the last global financial crisis, and it is even more relevant today. They call on us to think critically, challenge “the fetish of economic growth,” and espouse a steady state economy that puts human rather than corporate welfare at the heart of the model.

by John Stanley and David Loy

We are seeing a perfect storm of converging crises that together represent a watershed moment in the history of our species. We are witnesses to, and participants in, a transition from decades of growth to decades of economic contraction.
-Richard Heinberg

True development is in harmony with the needs of people and the rhythms of the natural world. Humans are part of the universe, not its masters. This awareness of the interrelatedness of all things, as expressed in Buddhism, is also lived in the traditions of indigenous peoples throughout the world.
-Sulak Sivaraksa

We are seeing a perfect storm of converging crises that together represent a watershed moment in the history of our species.

It is increasingly obvious that natural limitations will soon force economic growth to cease. Although this view has been well-studied for at least 40 years, it still remains largely unexamined by the mainstream media. National leaders and corporate CEOs continue to insist that the economy is the true heartbeat of human society, and its growth is the only valid measure of social progress. From this perspective there is very little difference between the top levels of government and the top levels of corporate management. Both are preoccupied with promoting endless growth, because both believe in what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” of the market, which magically transcends physical and biological limits.

As Dan Hamburg concluded in 1997 from his years as a U.S. Congressman, “The real government of our country is economic, dominated by large corporations that charter the state to their bidding. Fostering a secure environment in which corporations and their investors can flourish is the paramount objective of both [political] parties.” Back in 1932, Huey Long expressed this colorfully: “They’ve got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side, but no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen.”

Platform supply vessels battle the blazing offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon. Wikimedia Commons

However, something more powerful than an invisible hand is turning our economic assumptions upside down. Economic growth remains blocked. The so-called “recovery” of the last two years (recovery for the banks and Wall Street, not for the rest) has stalled. The official explanation blames the vast accumulation of financial debt. But there are other long-term obstacles to growth that are even more difficult to address, especially the shock of resource depletion. Since the 1970s there has been a recession every time the price of oil passes $80 per barrel. An increasing number of environmental disasters are resulting from oil drilling and nuclear power generation. Large-scale global warming impacts have already appeared in Russia, Pakistan, China, Africa and Australia — and Texas. The consequences include major reductions in crop yields that are driving up world food prices.

Buddhists should add their voices to other calls for society to go beyond the one-dimensional measurement of gross domestic product (GDP), which is merely a crude total of collective expenditures.

As Richard Heinberg points out, these are converging crises. They will compel our civilization to re-think the way it understands the relationship between the economy and the rest of the biosphere. Sooner or later, we will have to adopt a sane and well-reasoned “steady state” economy that operates mindfully within the Earth’s resource and energy budget. Although you would not guess it from the mainstream media, our contemporary obsession with economic growth is already a “dead man walking.”

Thai Buddhist elder Sulak Sivaraksa1Link updated for this version of the article. believes the future of the world must include interconnectedness, which for him is a spiritual perspective that dwells in the human heart. Globalization preaches the interdependence of nations, but that type of economic interconnectedness functions in a very different way: in Asia it has brought free-market fundamentalism, environmental degradation, and the destruction of Buddhist culture and values by consumerism. The same inner corrosion has been happening in “overdeveloped” as well as in “underdeveloped” countries. Individuals are induced by advertising to earn more to acquire more, creating an endless cycle of greed and insecurity. Those who die with the most toys “win.”

Today it is essential that Buddhists think critically and challenge the fetish of economic growth.

According to Buddhist teachings, it doesn’t have to be like this. Buddhists should add their voices to other calls for society to go beyond the one-dimensional measurement of gross domestic product (GDP), which is merely a crude total of collective expenditures. The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan has developed an alternative way to calculate social improvement, the Gross National Happiness Index2Link updated for this version of the article.. This measures nine aspects of society: time-use, living standards, good governance, psychological well-being, community vitality, culture, health, education and ecology. The Happy Planet Index3Link updated for this version of the article. (HPI), developed by the New Economics Foundation in the UK, compares life satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological footprints across the world. Countries that exemplify “successful economic development” are some of the worst performers in sustainable well-being. Britain is midway down the table in 74th place. The U.S. is in 114th place. Costa Rica has the best score.

Today it is essential that Buddhists think critically and challenge the fetish of economic growth. Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and Sulak Sivaraksa have been emphasizing this for years, and now the crunch has arrived. If humanity is to survive and thrive during this century, we must quickly learn to accept — indeed, to embrace — the need for limits. Buddhist teachings emphasize that this does not require a reduction in the quality of life. On the contrary, a creative “downshift” will help us to focus on what is most important in life.

If, in the midst of converging global crises, we wish to enhance our awareness of the interrelatedness of all things, and promote genuine spiritual contentment, we must emphasize and live by another way of life: the steady-state economy. In this fashion we can minimize, for ourselves and others, the social difficulties of transition from decades of economic growth to decades of economic contraction.

This article was originally published on Ecodharma.org on October 9, 2011. It is reprinted here with permission.

John Stanley, Ph.D. is a biologist who has led university and government research in Canada, Switzerland and the U.K. He is co-editor of A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, which features contributions by the Dalai Lama and 21 other Buddhist leaders. From 2008 to 2017, he was the director of Ecobuddhism.org, which examined the global ecological crisis through the lenses of science, action, and spiritual wisdom.

David comes from both the Japanese Zen tradition and Insight. As a student of Yamada Koun, Robert Aitken, and Koun-roshi in Japan, he was authorized to teach in 1988 and leads retreats and workshops nationally and internationally in both traditions. He is author of EcoDharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis and A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World, and he is co-editor of A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency. He is also director and vice-president of the Rocky Mountain Dharma Retreat Center.

References   [ + ]

1. Link updated for this version of the article.
2. Link updated for this version of the article.
3. Link updated for this version of the article.

Showing Up for the Planet: Online Daylong Retreat

Showing Up for the Planet: Online Daylong Retreat

Date(s) – Aug 22, 2020
10:00 am PDT – 4:30 pm PDT

Event Sponsor and Host
Marin Sangha


with James Baraz, Donald Rothberg, Teja Bell, Kritee, Thanisarra, Eve Decker, and others

With mindfulness and clear intention, we can actively address the climate crisis.

Starting with Loving this Earth in 2018, 1ES Guiding Teacher James Baraz has spearheaded annual daylong EcoDharma events benefiting One Earth Sangha. This year’s online retreat, presented by Marin Sangha in collaboration with James, Kritee (Kanko), Thanissara, and other amazing dharma leaders, will feature meditations, teachings, and the opportunity for participants to make specific, action-oriented commitments to address the ecological crisis.

The retreat is offered free of charge, with a portion of all collected dana to be donated to One Earth Sangha. We bow in deep gratitude to James and his fellow teachers and coordinators donating their time to make this possible.


From the organizer:

In this online daylong retreat, we will explore how mindfulness and clear intention can provide the foundation to actively address the climate crisis, with an emphasis on social change and our relationship to nature. The day will include guided meditations, inspired teachings and discussions, music, and Qigong. Group discussion will allow us to make commitments and reflect on the best ways we can each serve for the betterment of the planet and current and future generations.

Several Bay Area organizations will give short presentations and offer resources and guidance on a variety of tangible actions to address climate change. All attendees will be asked to commit to at least one specific action to take during or following the retreat. Teachers will also share reflections on climate action and social justice in relation to the Dharma.

Learn More

This event is hosted by Marin Sangha.
For more information, see the event website here.

One Earth Sangha offers a global list of events that express a Buddhist / mindfulness response to ecological crises. We invite you to join or add events that develop and demonstrate our interdependence with all of life! Events that address multiple issues (e.g., racism, economic injustice and environmental health) are encouraged. You’re invited to list events from your local sangha, including earth-oriented day-longs, retreats and even regular sangha meetings. We also want you to share demonstration and direct action events. You, the members of our Sangha, are encouraged to submit events, whether they be from the Dharma community, other faith groups or secular, where you wish to gather other Buddhist / mindfulness practitioners to participate. To submit an event, please email us.

This growing list of events will always be available here and in the main menu under “Get Involved.”

<< All events listing

Islands of Sanity in a Sea of Chaos

For us as thinking and feeling human beings, there is an enormous amount of suffering to process in this hour of a raging pandemic, ecological crisis, political polarization, and racial justice uprising. In this dialogue between dharma teachers Kritee Kanko and Kaira Jewel Lingo, Kritee describes the value, indeed necessity, of gathering small communities around us to help regain a “sense of empowerment in these deeply disempowering times.” Adopting the phrase “Islands of Sanity” used by Margaret Wheatley and others, Kritee describes three pillars of these groups that integrate inner and outer change, allowing for processing grief and loss while supporting action to resist injustice and harm. 

View the full conversation between Kaira Jewel Lingo and Kritee Kanko on the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit website or on YouTube.

Three Pillars of Sanity

  1. Nurturing inner change with a focus on grief work, releasing trauma and meditation practices so that we have trauma resilience.
  2. Living our lives with a lot more sharing than we currently do, in ways that support all of life, not just human life, not just the life of our class and caste and people of our race.
  3. Resisting systemic greed, learning to say no in addition to saying yes to things that heal us and make us whole as a community.

Selected Quotes

The traditional Buddhist goal of dissolving ego so we can serve the world with compassion and wisdom cannot happen in today’s world… if we don’t take care of the trauma.

To change a system it’s going to take another system, and we can’t form that system without communication and authentic vulnerability.

Being human means love. How are we loving all life on the planet? Lets bring our mindfulness to the biggest crisis of the times, that’s what we are being called to do.

More on creating islands of sanity can be found on Kritee’s website, Boundless in Motion.

A Dharma teacher and ordained nun of 15 years in Thích Nhất Hạnh’s Order of Interbeing, Kaira Jewel Lingo is now based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She leads retreats internationally, offering mindfulness programs for educators, parents and youth in schools, in addition to activists, people of color, artists and families, and individual spiritual mentoring. A teacher with Schumacher College and Mindful Schools and a guiding teacher for One Earth Sangha, she explores the interweaving of art, play, ecology and embodied mindfulness practice and is a certified yoga teacher and InterPlay leader. She edited Thich Nhat Hanh’s Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children and has been published in numerous other books and magazines.

Kritee (dharma name Kanko), is a Zen teacher, scientist, activist, dancer and permaculture designer. She directs and teaches Boundless in Motion Sangha in Boulder in the Rinzai-Obaku Buddhist lineage of Cold Mountain, is a co-founder and executive director of Boulder Eco-Dharma Sangha and co-founding teacher of Earthlovego. Kritee trained as an environmental microbiologist and biogeochemist at Rutgers and Princeton Universities. As a senior scientist in the Global Climate Program at Environmental Defense Fund, she is helping to implement environment and climate-friendly methods of small farming at large scales in Asia with a three-fold goal of poverty alleviation, food security and climate mitigation / adaptation.

The Dharma of Climate Action

One of the persistent hindrances to those who are alarmed about the climate crisis and want to do something about it is uncertainty about where to engage, what will make the most difference. In this article, Anam Thubten describes the broad spectrum of actions available to us, from pro-environment voting to changing our individual energy use and diet. He also notes the obstacles to action—traditional power and economic structures threatened by climate-friendly policies and, at the individual level, a reluctance to change our own comfortable lifestyles. Overcoming these obstacles takes more than “feeling holy with altruism.” It demands expression of an awakened heart through altruistic actions that truly benefit the world at this time of great need.

by Anam Thubten Rinpoche

Resistance to change doesn’t always have to be vocal; remaining silent is a polite way to stop change from happening.

The world is slowly waking up to the fact that climate change is neither a hoax nor a conspiracy theory. This is an important step toward taking action to address this unprecedented calamity. With melting ice fields, drought, forest fires, and the extinction of species, nature is showing us that the Earth is in big trouble, right before our eyes. More and more people are realizing that the danger is real and is hitting us hard. It’s difficult to believe that we still have to argue with some segments of society that this is a manmade problem.

There are a few reasons why some people continue to deny climate change: out of pure ignorance, some bluntly believe that it’s not happening at all, or is not a byproduct of human action; others simply deny it because this unimaginable cataclysm is too big for them to accept, so it’s easier not to pay attention to it. There is also an ulterior motive to such denial: not wanting to change our lifestyles or give up the many modern comforts to which we are addicted. Large corporations and individuals who are amassing fortunes from environmentally harmful practices often engage in activities such as trying to promote pseudo-science, and empowering politicians who obstruct progressive climate-related policies.

One of the genius tricks Mara plays on us is to let us feel holy with altruism, yet not to actually do anything that requires action.

The denial of climate change is not just one single view; it is a mindset that usually tends to deny other important issues, such as human rights, liberty, fairness, gender equality, and racial equality. The environmental movement is a major challenge to many who benefit from traditional power and economic structures. This is why it is still underemphasized and not sufficiently addressed in political as well as religious institutions. There is a major unconscious resistance to fully welcome this movement. Our old consciousness knows that it would have to let go of a lot once the movement is embraced. One conspicuous analogy for this kind of resistance is the American Civil War, when the South went to war with the North in 1861–5. Southerners, whose economy was founded on the practice of slavery, didn’t want to abolish the ownership of humans and preferred to go to war in order to maintain the system that favored them. This might sound like an extreme comparison, but from a psychological point of view it’s a simple truth. But resistance to change doesn’t always have to be vocal; remaining silent is a polite way to stop change from happening.

Time for All of Us to Invoke Bodhicitta

The world is waiting for each of us to leave our comfort zones and undertake a heroic journey to save this beautiful world together.

The environmental movement is not one dimensional; it naturally involves other essential issues, including those mentioned above. This is because the very impulse that gave birth to the movement is an aspiration for the well-being of all of humanity as well as animals and the natural environment. It is a benevolent desire to create a healthier, happier world in which we and our children can enjoy life. Participating in this movement therefore motivates us to bring about awareness toward other social and political issues. The world is in great need of a collective awakening for this noble aspiration. It is time for all of us to invoke bodhicitta, the awakened heart that aspires to benefit all beings, and not only to feel it, but to express it through altruistic actions that truly help this world. One of the genius tricks Mara plays on us is to let us feel holy with altruism, yet not to actually do anything that requires action.

There are many actions that can be taken to help save this planet and the dwindling number of extant species, including ourselves; for example, voting and changing our consumption and dietary habits. A merit of being in the free world is one’s right to vote for leaders who will create new policies, laws, and regulations that will ensure sustainability. It’s important to understand the visions of political candidates and to vote, if one has such a right. Changing our way of life, such as not using fossil fuels and plastics, and not eating certain food products, can have a cumulative positive effect. But all of these acts require effort and might require us to leave our respective comfort zones, which is not always an easy thing to do. All of these actions can be regarded as the way of the bodhisattva, as long as they come from the right motivation.

Sometimes we need a moral model that inspires us to be at our best in the world. The bodhisattva is perhaps the best exemplar that we can all strive to be. A bodhisattva is someone whose noblest impulse is awakened and selflessly works for the benefit of all, while confronting all the tribulations. Everyone has the potential to be a bodhisattva without needing to be a leading light. The world is waiting for each of us to leave our comfort zones and undertake a heroic journey to save this beautiful world together.

This article originally appeared in Volume 1 of Dharma Rain, published by Buddhistdoor Global.

Anam Thubten Rinpoche grew up in Tibet and began to practice in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism at an early age. Rinpoche is the founder and spiritual advisor of the Dharmata Foundation, and teaches internationally. He is also the author of various books in both the Tibetan and English languages, such as The Magic of Awareness and No Self, No Problem. His column for Buddhistdoor, Dharma Gossip, is published bi-monthly.

Seeing Clearly

A Buddhist critique of the media might begin with the role they play in stoking consumer demand and pop culture, perpetuating false consciousness and a commercially-driven society. With a focus on negative and sensational news, they also contribute to the polarization of our society. It has become a sad reality of our time: extreme views abound across the political spectrum, amplified by clamorous partisan media, so diametrically opposed and intractable as to create virtually parallel media universes and views of reality. Buddhistdoor reminds us that there are other voices out there, shining a light on events and stories that may help reduce suffering among those most in need. One Earth Sangha aspires to be one such voice.

by Buddhistdoor Global

It’s 2020, an apt time to polish our lenses and renew our vows to see things as they truly are. As representatives of the media, we at Buddhistdoor Global take on a special responsibility with regards to this vow of clarity. As a Buddhist media platform, we interpret clarity as an antidote to our deep human ignorance. With greater clarity about ourselves and our world comes insight and a reduction of suffering. As such we take the Buddhist quest for right speech as a guiding star in our work to deliver features and news content from around the world to you.

With greater clarity about ourselves and our world comes insight and a reduction of suffering.

In today’s world, polarization has become endemic to both the political sphere and that of the media. Certain news sources have become virtual mouthpieces for political individuals and parties. The result has been a silo effect, in which viewers of one outlet are given a completely different spin on reality from viewers of another outlet. The growing academic response has been to attempt to categorize the various outlets and to urge citizens to make a broad and informed take on the news.

The result, however, has not been an enlightened objectivity with regards to the news, but rather an at-times-paralyzing pessimism with regard to the state of the world. In part this is because news outlets have made use of our human negativity bias: we more easily remember negative news than good news. Therefore, the news media that is chasing viewers and clicks will focus on the negative. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the old industry wisdom.

Twenty years ago this would have meant a barrage of negative headlines on newspapers and tabloids. When we became burned out on the negativity then, we could simply turn off the TV and avoid newsstands. But today our personal TV and newsstand—our smartphone—almost never leaves our hand or pocket. The result is that we cannot avoid the negativity and perhaps with it the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

As the Internet has made access to the media nearly universal and ubiquitous, concerned journalists have seen the need for new paradigms in reporting. We’ve seen the rise of solutions journalism, restorative journalism, and “good news” networks to help ensure that people see the good in the world as well as the suffering and problems, numerous as they might be. But the mere fact that there is much good in the world, which itself is a truth, fails to offer clarity of direction. Are things improving because global poverty is rapidly decreasing and availability of life-saving vaccines are at all-time highs? Or is the world doomed due to ongoing inaction by political leaders to the climate crisis, spreading international instability and rise of nationalist populist politicians?

Journalism Based in Buddhist Ethics

The Buddha pointed out the injustice of the rigid systems of his time and, through his alternative society of the Sangha, offered more just conditions to the world.

What can a journalism based in Buddhist ethics offer in this time? It can and must acknowledge the suffering of the world, including that which falls under the rubric of injustice. The Buddha famously did this very carefully by undermining the dogma of caste (or class) in his society as well as the rigid place of women, thus opening his spiritual path equally to people from all walks of life. Without saying it in so many words, the Buddha pointed out the injustice of the rigid systems of his time and, through his alternative society of the Sangha, offered more just conditions to the world.

As a media organization, a way of following the Buddha’s example is to seek out those who are disempowered in our society today and offer to serve them. Heather Bryant, a journalist and founder of the collaborative journalism network Facet, noted last month that “We’ve seen news that actually serves the public, and we’ve seen arguably more that serves power instead.” (Nieman Lab)

She clarifies:

The newsroom that publishes an accessible and clear explainer of the ballot for an upcoming election is doing the service of journalism. The newsroom that runs the breathless account of winners and losers from a televised debate is participating in the industry’s attention marketplace. The newsrooms that report out a politician’s claims before amplifying them are doing journalism. The newsroom that rapidly retweets false claims are jumping at bait in exchange for attention. (Nieman Lab)

Accessibility and clarity are heralded as journalistic virtues and yet these could just as easily be offered as aspects of the Buddha’s and later Buddhist master’s upaya, or skill in means in communicating the truth. And yet skill can be misused without a fundamental moral direction. In 2008, journalist and professor of media ethics with a focus on global-local (or “glocal”) journalism Douglas McGill summed it up well:

On a social level, suffering in Buddhism is defined as any harshness, violence, and division of the community. A Buddhist journalism would therefore be aimed at helping individuals overcome their personal sufferings, and helping society heal the wounds caused by injustice, hatred, ostracism, and physical violence. Such a defined professional purpose would give the Buddhist journalist a measuring stick for each word and story produced: does it help overcome individual and social suffering? (McGill Report)

The Buddha could not necessarily heal the social conditions of his time, but he could offer a clear alternative. Likewise, we may not be able to eliminate the media bias and extremes in the world at present, but we can offer a home for writers and news articles that offer clarity and a balm to the suffering of the world. This is an alternative, a move against the stream of those media outlets that cater to power of this sort or that. It is an opportunity to seek out those who are suffering, those who may not have a voice but need it.

This article was originally published on Buddhistdoor Global. It is reprinted here with permission.