Conversations with David Loy, Clair Brown and others…
It’s been an interesting couple weeks. Buddhist scholar David Loy and I, along with Jeff Seul, engaged in an online conversation on the One Earth Sangha website about Buddhism and economics. UC Berkeley economist Clair Brown and I, meanwhile, engaged in an email conversation about her new book on the topic.
In the same couple weeks, I also find that I’ve been called a “rubbish”-writing, rent-seeking “neoliberal economist” by a Buddhist blogger.* But, lest you think I only get criticism from the left side of the political spectrum, I’ve also just recently been labeled as an impractical, hopelessly idealistic “windbag” by a well-known actual neoliberal economist.**
Economies have no essential nature. Once this is recognized, many more opportunities for change present themselves.
Many of us, informed about world events and motivated by love and compassion, feel the need for profound economic transformation. We started long ago to question injustice, consumerism, and military-industrial ties. The growing specter of climate-change related disruptions has convinced even more people that ‘business as usual’ is not a viable option.
But what form should this transformation take, and how can we make it happen? I believe that insights from the careful study of both economics and Zen Buddhism can help us along this path—no matter what faith tradition we come from (if any).
Based on a talk given at Harvard Divinity School, sponsored by the Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative, on Feb. 18, 2016.
MANY BUDDHISTS—as well as many non-Buddhists!—have raised concern and alarm about the climate crisis and other crises facing our society and our world. Clearly, we need to take urgent action. As Buddhists, we have a pressing moral obligation to do what we can to relieve the suffering of all beings on the planet, both now and in the future. Our hearts yearn to make things better.
And clearly much of the climate change disaster is caused by economic activity. If you graph carbon dioxide emissions and industrial output over a long period of time, the two graphs look pretty much identical. The development of large scale, fossil-fuel burning industries was accompanied, in Western societies, by the rise of large corporations, global markets, and a rising emphasis on consumption as a source of well-being. Great wealth has been created, but this wealth has been very unequally distributed, and has often come at the cost of environmental and social sustainability.
It’s abundantly clear that we can’t go on with “business as usual.” People and other sentient beings are already feeling the disruptive effects of a set of historical and social developments that, as a whole, have taken far too little account of the effects of our production and consumption on the rest of nature. We urgently need to change how our economies work.
To stop the economy’s advance towards greed and destruction, we need new metaphors and images that inspire a radically different alternative.
What do you see in your mind’s eye when you hear the word ‘care’? If you search for images on Google you’ll get lots of pictures of white mothers snuggling with their babies. You’ll also see photos of a female caregiver’s hands intertwined with those of an elderly person, and images that show two hands holding a young plant that symbolizes Earth.
On February 18, 2016, I had the honor to be invited to speak, along with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, at a colloquium on “Buddhist Responses to Climate Change” at Harvard Divinity School. This is the video of the event. My talk was titled “Beyond ‘Small is Beautiful’: Buddhism and the Economics of Climate Change.”