Moving from a Culture of Death
to a Culture of Life
In this provocative essay leading up to the People’s Climate March in September, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi insists that technological changes will not be enough. We are called to recognize, confront and dismantle the deep structural causes of climate change.
As preparations intensify for the People’s Climate March, due to take place in New York City on September 21, it is necessary to remember that a mere change in technologies will not suffice to avert global disaster. What is equally essential is to facilitate the transition from the current social paradigm rooted in profit maximization to a new paradigm that gives priority to preserving the integrity of human beings and the natural world.
On September 21, concerned citizens from all across the United States, and from many other lands, will be converging on New York City for the People’s Climate March, billed to be the biggest climate march in history. The immediate occasion for the march is the gathering of world leaders at the United Nations for a summit on the climate crisis being convened by the UN Secretary General. The march’s purpose is to tell global leaders that the time for denial and delay is over, that we have to act now if we’re going to secure the world against the ravages of climate change. The annual COP climate conferences have repeatedly turned out to be cop-outs, carnivals of deception launched with grand rhetoric, but ending in stalemates or hollow promises. People are ready to march in order to show that this won’t do. We must recognize that climate disruption is real, that the consequences of inaction will be catastrophic and that the need for swift and effective action is overwhelming. Preserving the crucial life-support systems of planet Earth simply won’t be possible with the tiny baby steps that have so far been taken. If we’re going to emerge intact, what we need at minimum are binding and enforceable commitments to steep cuts in carbon emissions coupled with a mass-scale transition to renewable sources of energy.
However, while greater efficiency and clean energy policies are clearly essential in combating climate disruption, a long-term solution must go deeper than the implementation of new technologies and the adoption of such pragmatic measures as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax. The climate instability we are facing today is symptomatic of a deeper malady, a cancer spreading through the inner organs of global civilization. The extreme weather events we have experienced come to us as a wake-up call demanding that we treat the underlying causes. For any treatment to succeed, we must closely examine the paradigm that underlies our industrial-commercial-financial economy, for it is this model that lies at the root of the crisis. Since this paradigm – this particular constellation of views and values – has acquired a global reach that now extends from New York and London to Delhi, Seoul and Beijing, the transformations needed must equally be global.
The dominant political and economic elites claim that this system is beyond doubt or questioning, that it is as immutable as the laws of physics. They confront us with the maxim, “There is no alternative.” Yet when it is carefully scrutinized, this system reveals itself to be sustained by a matrix of ideas and values that have been shaped and imposed by powerful vested interests. Examination shows, moreover, that these ideas and values are the hidden forces behind the climate crisis. They are the drivers behind more frequent and severe floods, droughts and heat waves, behind more acidic oceans, collapsing ice sheets and vanishing glaciers. Day by day this model is dragging human civilization down a treacherous slope threatening planetary suicide.
The distinctive mark of this paradigm – which is none other than the paradigm of corporate capitalism – is the locating of all value in monetary wealth. Human value, labor value, natural value all translate into financial value, and the latter is the only value to which the paradigm ascribes ultimacy. All other values must submit to the reign of monetary wealth in the form of increased profits and greater returns on investments. The model posits the goal of the economy to be continuous growth, based on the madcap premise of infinite growth on a finite planet.
The cogency of this way of thinking depends on a process of “objectification,” which means that it treats everything – people, animals, and trees, rivers, land and mountains – as objects to be utilized to generate financial gain for corporations, their executives and their shareholders. This logic of objectification and its accompanying scheme of values entail policies aimed at the unrestrained domination and subjugation of nature. The system depends on the ruthless extraction of natural resources to generate energy and produce commodities for sale in the market. It thereby turns nature’s bounty into a plurality of goods, often inessential and frivolous goods, leaving behind mountains of waste and pollution. Yet those in the seats of power refuse to take responsibility for the wreckage they leave behind. Instead, they push the clean-up job on to governments by a process shrewdly called “externalization,” with the bill to be met by public funding.
The corporate paradigm treats people just as callously as it treats stones, trees and soil. It pushes indigenous peoples off their lands and treats labor as an abstract variable, reducing real human beings to figures in a database. Thus the mega-transnationals squeeze workers for the economic value they can generate while refusing to provide them with adequate rights and benefits – considerations that would cut into their profit margins and thus make the firm less “competitive” in the global market place. Then, when the labor of the workers is no longer needed, the company casts them aside to fend for themselves with the same unconcern as we might cast aside an empty plastic bottle.
This system flourishes by inciting in people insatiable desires for the consumption of material commodities. Its blueprint is the simple “throughput” sequence by which resources and labor are converted into goods that are converted into monetary wealth and material waste. Rapid model replacement, by which last year’s glittering iPad or car or clothing quickly becomes obsolete, is used to increase sales and thereby bolster economic growth. To keep the economy spinning, the system pushes credit programs that turn people into debt-slaves beholden to ravenous financial institutions. Even those pursuing a higher education now court the risk of becoming hapless debtors for life.
All these factors functioning in unison churn out the devastation we see around us, signs of a planet in peril. We’re living in a world weighed down by “the culture of death,” both literally and figuratively. Amid unimaginable luxury, almost 900 million people must endure chronic hunger and malnutrition; easily cured diseases turn fatal; the gap between a super-rich elite and everyone else grows wider and climate disruption claims tens of millions of lives each year. Unless we change direction fast, the final outcome could well be the collapse of human civilization as we know it. Yet we are not without guides, for thinkers from Lewis Mumford to David Korten, James Speth and Gar Alperovitz have long been pointing the way to a better future. Perhaps it’s time to lend them an ear.
To avoid civilizational collapse, we need not only new technologies to reduce carbon emissions but even more fundamentally, a new paradigm, a model for a culture of life that can replace the pernicious culture of death. We need, in brief, an alternative way of understanding the world and an alternative set of values conducive to a more integral relationship of people with each other, with nature, and with the cosmos. This paradigm should be rooted in what I call the “affirmation of subjectivity” to replace the heartless objectifying processes of corporate capitalism. We need a vision that recognizes other people and other life forms as subjects of experience possessing intrinsic value. The model should also recognize nature, indeed the cosmos itself, as endowed with a profound subjective dimension, even an inherent intelligence by which it can transform stardust into planets that bring forth a profusion of life forms and mold moist clay into conscious beings with feelings and thoughts and ideals and hopes and the innate capacity to reflect the cosmos back upon itself.
This change in worldview must lead to reverence and respect for the natural world, recognized as our irreplaceable home and nurturing mother. It must acknowledge the finitude of nature, and treat it accordingly, bearing in mind our responsibility to future generations. It should promote solidarity between peoples everywhere based on empathy, respect and a shared humanity. It must lead to the development of benign “appropriate technologies,” the selective utilization of natural resources and the deployment of renewable sources of energy. It should further endorse an ethic of simplicity, contentment and restraint to replace the voracious appetite of consumerism. And most deeply of all, it should awaken in us an aspiration toward communion with the cosmos and all living beings, a harmonization between human ideals and the creative capacities of the universe.
We now stand at a crossroads where we must choose between competing worldviews. Depending on our choice, we can move in either of two directions. We can move toward continued devastation and eventual global collapse, or we can instead turn toward inner renewal and healthier relationships with each other, with the earth and with the cosmos. As climate change accelerates, the choice before us is being thrown into sharper relief, and thus the need to choose wisely grows ever more urgent.
The obstacles that confront us are formidable. We must face down powerful corporations committed to endless profit, who are ready to pump from the ground billions of barrels of oil per day for years on end, with no concern for the long-term consequences. Instead, they cast up clouds of confusion and depict their opponents as whacky “tree huggers” or dangerous “eco-terrorists.” We must push servile politicians to act boldly to protect people, not corporations, though we know that many of them owe their secure positions to the generosity of the carbon industries. And we must see through the blather of the mainstream media that refuse to tackle crucial issues with the seriousness they deserve. Instead we must take up the discipline of educating ourselves and helping others remove the blinders that obstruct their vision.
To prevail against these obstacles, we will need exceptional determination and will power. We must be uncompromising in our insistence on the need to change paradigms – to make the transition to a higher stage in our technological development and in our cultural and spiritual evolution. For our own sakes and for generations to come, we must bluntly repudiate the culture of death and embrace a new vision, a new economy, a new culture committed to the real enhancement of life.
Much damage has already been done. We’ve delayed too long – much too long – and terrible consequences lie ahead for populations all around the world. The global South and the small island nations will be hit hardest, but no country is exempt from the furies to be unleashed by a destabilized climate. It may not be too late, however, to change course, if we have the faith that we still can avoid the worst. But to succeed we must push hard, holding fast to the conviction, “Together we can do it.” The People’s Climate March will be one powerful demonstration of the strength that comes through unity.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and translator of Pali Buddhist texts. He is also the founding chair of Buddhist Global Relief, an organization dedicated to helping communities worldwide afflicted with chronic hunger and malnutrition. This article first appeared in Truthout. It is reprinted here with permission.