The world’s dual spiraling patterns of wealth inequality and ecological breakdown are both underpinned by traditional economic models that emphasize individual self-interest, conspicuous consumption, and maximizing profits.
“Buddhist economics,” a term coined by E.F. Schumacher and used in his celebrated 1973 book Small is Beautiful, offers a fundamentally different view of the human condition and path to avert these excesses. Buddhist thought recognizes that desire or craving is a fundamental cause of human suffering, and that when people understand the nature of desire, they realize that accumulation of materials goods can never satisfy it. Moreover, economies based on self-interest will invariably lead to conflict and injustice. Buddhist economics emphasizes simplifying desires and minimizing suffering for all living (and non-living) things. Generosity is seen a viable and realistic alternative because (it turns out) human beings not only reciprocate but often give back more than what is given to them.
Professor Brown’s work recognizes that a person’s well-being depends on inner wealth—wealth of the spirit—more than outer wealth, and integrates global sustainability and shared prosperity in an economic model intended to deliver a high quality of life to everyone while also protecting Earth, the foundation of all that we love. Embracing this model means we recognize and call out wasteful consumption at the individual level, while equally calling for urgent changes in our energy and food production systems. The actions of individuals and the collective are deeply intertwined and we cannot address one without the other.
Our two biggest economic challenges—inequality and climate change—go hand in hand. Most of us know that poor countries and poor people in rich countries suffer the most from extreme weather, rising sea levels, and pollution. However you may not be aware that the carbon footprint of the rich is enormous as the rich live luxurious lifestyles with homes around the world, private jets, large yachts, exotic vacations, and closets full of things they don’t use. America’s 1 percenters emit fifteen times more greenhouse gas emissions per person than the average American and fifty times more than the average person worldwide (World Resources Institute). The rich pollute the most and suffer the least.
Accumulation without Well-Being
The global rich need to lead the way in reducing their carbon footprint.
What do the rich achieve with their extravagant consumption? Not much from a social welfare or happiness viewpoint, as Buddhist economics explains. While a person shows off their self-importance, they are still wanting more because another rich person has an even longer yacht or bigger house. The valuation of consumption rests on comparing ourselves to one another. Thorstein Veblen, the 20th century economist who coined the terms “conspicuous consumption” and “invidious comparisons,” pointed out how individuals use luxury goods to show off their status. Veblen observed that people were living on treadmills of wealth accumulation, competing incessantly with others but rarely increasing their own well-being. This means that when inequality increases, we all feel less well-off even if our income has not gone down. When the rich get even richer and the rest of us don’t get more, our stagnant income and lifestyles seem diminished. Over the past four decades, economic growth has mostly gone to the top 5% of households, and this growth begets more inequality, without increasing social welfare as it exacerbates invidious comparisons. Yet inequality continues to increase in the US, with the top 1% grabbing 95% of income growth and the bottom 90% experiencing declining incomes even as the economy recovered (2009 to 2012) (Atkinson, Piketty, and Saez, JEL, 49 (1), 2011, 3-71).
Feelings of social discontent and anxiety rise with growing inequality, and keep people fighting to maintain their social position even as those at the top aren’t feeling more satisfaction with their fancier lifestyles. With rising incomes comes frivolous spending, which itself drives ever more needless consumption, all so we can try to maintain our relative standing. This treadmill of wealth accumulation leads us to spend our incomes on status or luxury goods that tend to pollute the earth. Yet even though America’s top ten percenters emit six times the tCO2e of the bottom 50% of households (50 vs 8.5 tCO2e per person yearly; Oxfam), even the bottom 50% have an average carbon footprint that is four times the Paris Climate Accord goal of 2.1 tCO2e per person per year by 2050. The task to reduce CO2for the United States with 16.4 tCO2 is much greater than for the European Union with 6.7 tCO2. India and Indonesia will increase their carbon emissions as their living standards improve. Their people have very low emissions, below the 2.1 benchmark. (Girod, Env Research Letter, 2013.) Though there are improvements to be made across income groups and countries, the global rich need to lead the way in reducing their carbon footprint.
Rich countries are not the only ones vulnerable to this destructive story. The developing world faces enormous environmental degradation as the standard of living and the professional class imitates the lifestyle of the Western world based on subsidized fossil fuel energy. Countries such as China and India are already suffering the consequences of a burgeoning middle and upper class that consumes increasingly more. These populations are not only trying to keep up with the rich within their own countries but the global rich as well—this is evident where nearly all Chinese provinces and cities’ per capita carbon footprints increased from 2007 to 2010 (Shao et al. 2018). In India, poor urban slums (poorer areas) have lower carbon footprints than that of richer non-slum areas (Adnan et al. 2018).
The growing trend of inequality tells a stark story of economic growth without social welfare growth at the expense of a growing carbon footprint. If left unfettered, we can hardly progress in the right direction of reducing our carbon footprint. In order for the world to meet the Paris Climate Accord goal of 2.1 tCO2e, it should be clear that radical lifestyle shifts are critical. No longer would the rich consume mindlessly, and others caught up in the treadmill of wealth accumulation. Values such as those from Buddhist Economics should provide guidance. We derive happiness not from the pursuit of material goods or from “invidious comparisons,” but internally from each actor, rich or poor, to form an equitable and resilient economy and society. Only then will happiness decouple from our lifestyle emissions, and achieve the Paris Accord goals without sacrificing happiness and well-being.
This article was originally published on buddhisteconomics.net. It is reprinted here with permission.
Poetry from Danna Faulds
As Northern California faces ever more destructive fires along with associated large scale power outages and as scientists report that far more coastal communities than expected will be submerged by 2050, the government of Chile has announced that, due to rising social unrest, it cannot host the world’s annual negotiation among global leaders to address climate crisis.
We offer here a prayer and an invitation. A call to connect with our hearts, to remember our dedication to the truth and for the vital support we can offer one another. In the poem below, “Sangha,” Danna Faulds’ evocation of fire goes far beyond mere metaphor as the predicted loss and pain of climate crisis becomes our emerging reality.
Teach me what I cannot learn alone.
Let us share what we know, and what
we cannot fathom. Speak to me of
mysteries, and let us never lie
to one another.
May our fierce and tender longing
fuel the fire in our souls. When we
stand side by side, let us dare to focus
our desire on the truth. May we be
reminders, each for the other, that
the path of transformation passes
through the flames.
To take one step is courageous;
to stay on the path day after day,
choosing the unknown, and facing
yet another fear, that is nothing
short of grace.
©2002 Danna Faulds, first published in Go In and In: Poems from the Heart of Yoga
The habit of mind is to grasp for what is wanted, to repel what is not and then to be swept away in a trance of thought that would relentlessly pursue those goals. Awakening into a state of true well-being requires a fundamental disruption of this pattern. Each time you sit on your cushion, even by pausing in a moment of reactivity, you are peacefully interrupting this pursuit of impossible satisfaction in favor of harmony with life as it actually is.
When entire human societies systematically grasp, repel and robustly resist the reality of what is happening to life on earth, disruption is similarly required. The dramatic act of even one human being can clarify that true peacefulness, true harmony for us all, requires standing in the way of the colossal harm that is business-as-usual. Yet this message will be most easily heard and most likely to lead to awakened response if it is absent of any and all ill-will, if the protester’s scope of care authentically includes those normally considered ‘enemies.’
Many of the people involved in recent acts of non-violent disobedience in the United Kingdom are long-time Dharma practitioners. This is potentially helpful in at least four ways: as ethical foundation, in checking and transforming emotional reactivity, in increased willingness to renounce material pursuits in favor of something much deeper, and in demonstrating the sort of kindness that refuses to leave anyone out.
In the letter to friends below, shared here with permission, long-time Buddhist practitioner and co-founder of Freely Given Retreats Mark Øvland describes his experience of standing before a judge in a London court to make his case for breaking the law based on his love for all of life.
I have a funny feeling this will be my last post for a while.
It’s rather long, and I don’t expect many people to read it. It’s really just meant for those of you who have expressed an interest in my ongoing court cases, as this week, finally, our ‘Petroleum 9′ case reached its conclusion. Well, almost. The trial is over but we’re yet to be sentenced.
On Wednesday we were back in court, this time at City of London Magistrates’. Six of us were still to give our defences, including me, and that made it a very long day. By the time we left, shortly before 7pm, most of us were struggling to stay awake or focussed. The judge also. But aside from a few hours of rather infuriating nit-picking it was actually pretty interesting, and needless to say very moving to hear everyone speak and give their evidence. We’re all quite different from one another and each of us brought something quite unique to the stand. We thought quaintly afterwards that together we’re a little like a 9-coloured rainbow 🙂
When my turn came to testify, I found that my chest was pounding, and I asked the judge if I could have a few moments just to stand quietly and listen to what my heart was asking of me. After a short pause I told him that I felt I needed to speak freely, that I didn’t wish to be constrained by my barrister’s questioning. When he told me that wasn’t possible, that, being legally represented as I was, I was required simply to answer the questions put to me, I asked him in that case whether I could instruct my barrister to stand down, and to represent myself for the remainder of the trial. That was acceptable apparently, so that’s what I did, but it was all way more dramatic than it needed to have been. Especially with one very kind and elderly member of the court staff coming over to check in with me about my mental health, and to see if I was feeling okay. I thanked her and assured her I was perfectly sane, it was just that I felt a strong need to speak from my heart, openly and freely.
The following day we were only due back for the afternoon, to finish with the closing statements. As a self-representer I now had the opportunity to offer one of these myself, and took the chance gladly. These closing arguments are, I gather, supposed only to address specific legal technicalities in one’s defence, the reasons one believes that according to the letter of the law one shouldn’t be found guilty. I decided to take a different approach and might well have been shut down by a different judge, but ours was very accommodating and heard me out. He had shown that same generosity throughout the trial, keen that we were each able to say what we wanted to say, and that’s something we were all very grateful to him for. It would never have crossed my mind to share what I said, but as we left the court a few of my co-defendants and members of the public gallery suggested I tried to write it up, in case others might find it helpful or interesting to hear. I don’t know about that, but on their request, and for what it’s worth, I’ve done my best to recreate it below. I think I’ve added in a couple elements from my speech the day before too, just to make it able to stand by itself.
Once all the closing arguments had been made the judge told us all that he didn’t wish to make a snap decision on our guilt, or otherwise, and had a busy few weeks ahead of him, so wouldn’t be able to sentence us until 7th October, when we’d all be due back in court to hear his verdict. We told him that wasn’t the best day for us, and thankfully he agreed to make it the 9th instead.
So we’re almost there. It’s been quite a drawn-out journey, this one..
Much like this post. If anyone’s still reading this, I salute your stamina!
As I said, this is likely to be my last post for a while, so may I just wish you a very beautiful and meaningful time ahead, and joy and stillness in your heart.
Every one of you is amazing.
Thank you, I will be brief.
There is nothing concerning the particulars of my case that I would like to add or expand upon. I was there, I had my hand glued firmly to one of the entrance doors, and my intention getting out of bed that morning had been to shut that conference down. My intention did however change when I arrived at the hotel and realised, given the presence of the security team, that doing so would not be possible. Now whether my actions that day make me guilty of a crime, within this narrow legal framework in which we are operating, I’ve really no idea. That is for you to decide.
What I would like to say is that I have full respect for the law. That doesn’t mean I will always abide by it. My moral compass may sometimes demand otherwise of me. It means that if I am found guilty of breaking it, I will put my hands up and accept whatever is deemed to be the appropriate sentence. That is part of the sacrifice I am willing to make, in this fight to save some sort of habitable future for everything and everyone that I love.
When yesterday I referred to the ‘petty arguments’ that were being made, I was not intending to insult the court. I was simply struggling with what I felt as a painful disconnect between that which was playing out before us – with hours of attention being given to the most banal and trivial points – and the reason we were there, the fact that our home was on fire – the very stage on which this courtroom drama was playing out, was on fire. I was frustrated, and rather incredulous. But I do understand the necessity within this system of such pedantic scrutiny of the particulars, and I respect the process as the best we’ve got. I respect, too, the roles that everyone here is playing in this particular theatre.
We need the courage to start a new story, or at least a new chapter.
What I would like to remind the court, though, is just this point. The theatre of all this. This judicial system, this criminal justice system, is essentially just a story that we’re all agreeing to believe in. After all, it’s a story that, in large part, works pretty well. It would work even better were it not for the institutional racism and classism that sadly accompanies it. And throughout the trial I myself felt the strong gravitational pull to conform and play along, to constrict myself to a certain way of being and thinking, the prescribed etiquette of the legal system, and to subtly, almost unconsciously close off other ways of being and thinking.
But that wouldn’t have been appropriate. We need to remain conscious that we are telling ourselves a story of our own creation, and that it isn’t ultimately real or fixed. We need to remain open to changing the story when it no longer serves our best interests – when, for instance, the very stage on which we are performing the story is on fire, and what is needed more than anything is to rally together to put the fire out.
If we scrap for a moment the courtroom story, what are we but twenty or thirty human beings sitting in a room together, all of us equal before one another. Equally valuable, equally beautiful, equally divine. And all of us facing a near future that is sure to bring intense suffering should we allow fossil fuel exploration and use to continue on its current trajectory. From that starting point, what can we do, what’s an appropriate way forward?
The very stage on which we are performing the story is on fire, and what is needed more than anything is to rally together to put the fire out.
Throughout this trial we have heard legal arguments referencing cases from 10, 20, 30, or 100 years ago, from this country, and from other countries, trying to demonstrate a precedent, a guide as to what we can and should do now, in this present case. But is it appropriate any more to be so backward-looking? How can we rely on the past for guidance when what we are facing is completely unprecedented. There is nothing comparable to the situation we now find ourselves in. Scientists around the world are warning that changes in the climate could within years precipitate a total collapse of civilised society. We are witnessing entire ecosystems being destroyed and animal life annihilated. This is an exceptional situation and it requires an exceptional response.
We need the courage to start a new story, or at least a new chapter. To not simply continue with the old one because it feels like that’s what we’ve always done. In this story peaceful protestors can fight for a future without being criminalised for doing so. I can’t speak for any of my co-defendants but I know that I will continue to act as I have been, and do whatever it takes – non-violently – to try and help protect a future for my beautiful nieces and nephew, amongst all the other wondrous beings who share this planet with us. No doubt I will be back in this or another courtroom very soon, in a week’s time or a month’s time. And if the old stories refuse to budge I suspect I will soon find myself in prison. We in the dock are doing our bit. But to succeed in safeguarding this habitable future we’re all going to have to play our part. We’re in this together, and we need every one of us. The judiciary too, at some point soon, must start to treat this differently, and prioritise putting the fire out over doggedly sticking to old legal stories.
It will take enormous courage to depart from well-worn structures and set a new precedent in case law. In this theatre you hold great sway sir, and you have the power to change the story. Maybe this isn’t the case that will see things turn around, maybe we’ll have to wait for another day, in another court, with another judge, for that. But I implore you to look at and consider our cases not just through the conditioned eyes of a judge but also through the eyes of a human being wishing for a habitable future, amongst a room of other human beings hoping for just the same, and to come up with an appropriate response.
This letter was originally posted by Mark on facebook and is shared here with his permission.