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Are the Sustainable Development Goals Today’s “Opium of the Masses?” An Interview with Prof. Kohei Saito

The global environment is being threatened by capitalism. The 2021 New Book Award winner in Japan, Marx’s Capital in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism (Shueisha Shinsho 2021), by Prof. Kohei Saito, to be published in English in early 2023 by Cambridge University Press, delves into this issue and proposes a de-growth economy. The term anthropocene refers to a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. Prof. Saito’s book not only critiques high-growth capitalism but also offers a scathing critique of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Following is an interview with Saito, associate professor at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo.

Prof. Saito was born in 1987. He specializes in economic and social thought. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Humboldt University of Berlin. After working as an associate professor at Osaka City University, he became an associate professor at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo, in April 2022. His book Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy won the prestigious Deutscher Memorial Prize for the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition. He was the first and youngest Japanese recipient of the prestigious Deutscher Memorial Prize. He is a graduate of the Jodo-shhu Pure Land Buddhist denomination affiliated Shiba Gakuen school in Tokyo.

Prof. Kohei Saito. Image courtesy of the Bukkyo Times

While the Buddhist and religious communities in Japan are not engaged in all 17 of the SDGs, they have created a wide variety of activities to meet them. However, in your book you criticize the SDGs as “a modern version of the ‘opium of the masses.’”

Prof. Kohei Saito: The SDGs are used as an alibi for companies. In other countries, the term “greenwashing” is used to express this pretense to claim to be environmentally friendly. In the European Union, there is now a debate on whether the term “environmentally friendly” should not be used. The bottom line is that nothing is environmentally friendly. Whenever we make something, we use resources. So the corporate expression “eco-friendly” is itself already a “wash”—that is, to make it look like you are being sensitive to it.

The SDGs are a global agenda adopted by the United Nations, and in Japan they have become particularly popular and trendy. This is problematic for two reasons. One is that Japanese companies continue to pretend to be doing something but have practically no content. The other is that the concept has been trivialized and simplified into an environmental issue, even though the SDGs encompass human rights and gender equality (the latter is an area Japan is greatly behind). Marx once criticized religion as an opiate. By not facing reality and following the SDGs uncritically, we fall into the same trap he identified. As such, I thought this issue must be re-examined.

Many religious people state that they share the SDG philosophy of “leave no one behind.”

PKS: I think that’s true in that temples have traditionally worked on human rights and poverty to varying degrees. However, I do not have the image of temples today working on climate change, so I am hopeful that this will lead to a new comprehensive movement.

Recently, there has been a plan to cut down trees in the outer garden of Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo to build a commercial facility. Companies and organizations with SDG policies must be involved in this plan, but to engage in this, I can’t help but think that they have lost sight of the essence of the SDGs. In other words, their adoption of the SDG policies is a type of greenwash and the SDGs are being used as a tool for profit. The SDGs are goals, but they have become a means to economic growth. I don’t think religion gone this far yet, but there is a danger of them being taken advantage of. By nature, religion and education are not about profit or growth, so I would rather see them collectively criticize the movement of voracious capitalism.

Currently, GDP (gross domestic product) is the standard international economic indicator. In your book, you call for de-growth rather than an increase in GDP.

PKS: GDP is a concept that was developed about 100 years ago by a group of economists led by Simon Kuznets. The US government commissioned GDP as an objective measure of their superiority over Russia or the United Kingdom. Therefore, this term probably has political motives. Kuznets argued that things like advertising and war should not be included in GDP. He said that advertising is not inherently necessary, and that it is strange to convert war—a destructive activity—into an economic activity. For the US government, however, it has served its purpose to include military spending. Destroying nature, waging wars, and increasing hospital visits due to bad diets on a daily basis all increase GDP.

Many people have come to question the notion that increasing GDP is a prerequisite for social prosperity. This notion is no longer appropriate in the 21st century, when [damage to] the global environment has become so severe. It is absolutely necessary to switch to a society and a way of life that emphasizes such values as health, happiness, spiritual richness, and social sustainability, which are not translated into GDP.

In Japan, over the past 30 years, social and economic disparity has widened; people’s lives have not become richer; and their level of happiness has declined. It is clear that there is something wrong with a society in which young people surveyed say they have “no hope for the future.” We should make more and more attempts to find a way to create a society that is not solely dependent on GDP growth.

One of the reasons for the popularity of your book Marx’s Capital in the Anthropocene has also been the spread of COVID-19.

PKS: In 2020, our lives slowed down significantly. Business restraints and shortened hours were implemented because the spread of infections could not be controlled by conventional methods. Typical Japanese business trips and drinking parties were drastically reduced, people stopped buying things, and teleworking became widespread. This was good for the global environment. In 2020, compared with 2019, global carbon dioxide emissions were about six per cent less. It was remarked that the Himalayas became visible in India and China, where extreme air pollution has obscured them for a long time. For nature, the slowdown in economic activity was very positive.

Conversely, global capitalism was definitely a factor behind this pandemic. The overexploitation of resources is one thing, but the instantaneous spread of the virus is also a result of globalization. This state of affairs has been named the anthropocene. However, from 2021, we have gone back to where we started. If this trend continues, the global environment will be in a critical situation.

What can Buddhism and religion in general do about this?

PKS: As I mentioned earlier, Buddhism and religion were originally based on a totally different philosophy than one of constant economic growth. They have remained for hundreds or even thousands of years in the form of tradition, so in this respect, they are sustainable. In other words, they have been sustainable without depending on growth. As a Marxist, I value the classics. The classics have been read for hundreds of years. In them there is a kind of universality and guiding principle that is different from the values and techniques of capitalism, and that is why I read Marx. In the same way, religion has a timeless universality and sustainability that is not dependent on growth. That is what I hope to see in it.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Club of Rome’s publication The Limits to Growth. Also, E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, which incorporates “Buddhist economics,” was published the following year. There was a sense of crisis that existed at the time. Since the 1980s, technological innovation has progressed amid globalization, and when the Cold War structure between East and West ended, new markets emerged as labor and resources opened up. This seems to have bought us a little bit of time and the world continues to go on. Although the “limits to growth” debate has temporarily receded, the crisis is not over. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Small is Beautiful. I hope that this will be an opportunity to re-evaluate the philosophy of Buddhist economics.

Translated by Jonathan S. Watts of the Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists. This interview was originally published in Japanese by the Bukkyo Times in September 2022.


Saito, Kohei. 2021. Marx’s Capital in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism. Tokyo: Shueisha Shinsho.

Schumacher, E. F. 1973. Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. London: Blond & Briggs.

See more

International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)
Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB)

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