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Buddhism, Circa 2030

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Young monk with alms bowl. From dailynews.lk

It has been just shy of 50 years since E. F. Schumacher published Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (Blond & Briggs 1973).* Over the ensuing years, this book has been hailed as the harbinger of Buddhist economics. A handful of writers have sought to expand on the Buddhist angle in Schumacher’s book, but none of them have really captured the imagination of the world at large, let alone mainstream Buddhist discourse. The reason is not that Schumacher’s premise was off the mark or beyond the scope of Buddhism, but rather that it has proved difficult to build the mental scaffolding required to put it into practice.

A year earlier, the Club of Rome published their landmark book Limits to Growth (Potomac Associates 1972).** Counter to the prevailing economic paradigm of growth and progress, Limits to Growth made the case for a different type of economic model based on sustainability. While influential in some circles, the book and its thesis faced strong headwinds from mainstream economists, and it has only been in the last few years, seeing the devastating consequences of the Anthropocene, that many have come to see the wisdom of abandoning—or at least scaling back—our colonial dreams of empire and dominion over the natural world.

I have often wrestled with why Buddhist economics has remained such a fringe idea for the past 50 years, and how we might reframe our future with Buddhist economics as our guiding light. I’ve wondered what lies in the middle of the Venn diagram containing Buddhism on one side and a sustainable future on the other.

Now, from a secular source, I have found an economic model that honors both human dignity and planetary health, in the work of Kate Raworth. Her book, Doughnut Economics (Random House 2017), while not a Buddhist book, is, in my humble opinion, the most pragmatic and compelling introduction to Buddhist economics for the modern world that I have seen and a worthy successor to Schumacher’s work.

Kate Raworth talks about her economic work at a TED conference. From greenqueen.com.hk

Our “doughnut” is bounded on the exterior by the nine planetary boundaries we must not overshoot in order to manifest a sustainable future. These include climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, nitrogen and phosphate loading, freshwater withdrawals, land conversion, biodiversity loss, air pollution, and ozone layer depletion. Currently, we are overshooting in all but the ozone layer depletion boundary.

Our doughnut is bounded on the interior by the social foundation upon which our civilization rests. This foundation includes healthcare, education, income and work, peace and justice, political voice, social equity, gender equality, housing, networks, energy, and water. Shortfalls in these weaken the social fabric we need to survive.

The Goldilocks zone lies in avoiding ecological overshoots and social foundation shortfalls. Easy to see; hard to do.

From kateraworth.com

Since the launch of Doughnut Economics, public policy folks around the world have established a community of activists known as the Doughnut Economics Action Lab to build on the idea. The city of Amsterdam has been at the forefront of this initiative.

Unlike Schumacher’s vision of economics, the doughnut embraces not just human flourishing—the social foundation—but also the realities of our ecology. Unlike the original Limits to Growth analysis of our ecological boundaries—the overshoot problem—the doughnut offers specific public policy goals for our social foundation. It’s another version of that Venn diagram I’ve been yearning for.

I recently had the opportunity to have some conversations with the Earth Holder Sangha. This geographically diverse community of North American activists in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition of engaged Buddhism puts the Earth and racial justice on an equal footing. You might wonder how those two domains are in fact completely interdependent—I did. But as I became more familiar with the group’s values and activities, I could clearly see how the Earth and racial justice are the two feet we need to walk the path of our future journey. You can’t make the journey of 10,000 miles—or 10,000 years—by hopping on one foot!

Buddhism has been around for 2,500 years, more or less. It has proven to be a resilient and adaptable perspective on the human condition and how to ameliorate it. We often read about how Buddhism changed as it was carried from country to country, finding new forms for its essential message, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path, speaking to the local cultures into which it had been carried.

Now, the time has come for us to recognize that the world ahead is like a foreign country, fundamentally different from what we’ve known and taken for granted. We need a Buddhism that will speak to the concerns of our modern age and probable future.

It is the nature of all conditioned things to decay. Between inception and disappearance, we can see a sigmoid curve of growth, maturity, and decline. Civilizations are constrained by the same dynamic. Sometimes the decline is precipitous, when an environmental or humanitarian crisis causes societal collapse—a situation known as the Seneca cliff. This was the case in many ancient civilizations that overshot key ecological boundaries, and we are seeing clear signs of it happening again now, but on a global scale.

However, in this case one size does not fit all. Rather, our world is a messy amalgam of differing local scenarios and competing interests. There is not one probable future, but many. How Buddhism will respond to these developments, how it will adapt in these varied scenarios, is equally fragmented. Here, for example, are a few possible Novayana*** transformations:

The Lighthouse Keeper

In this scenario, Buddhists keep the flame alive by focusing on the traditional teachings and practices of the Dhamma/Dharma as we now know it, oath-bound to preserve the light in a dark time.

The Raft Captain

In this scenario, Buddhists focus on pulling drowning individuals into the lifeboat, metaphorically, by offering a way to cross the ocean of suffering that is coming.

The Forest Anchorite

In this scenario, a few practitioners retreat into isolation while the world enters its later phases of decline.

The Jatakan

In this scenario, Buddhists sacrifice most of their time and energy to helping others as chaplains, in direct, immediate, and tangible ways, at the expense of “deeper” practice.

The Ritualist

In this scenario, Buddhists find comfort in familiar rituals, texts, and social structures, with little regard for the changing world at large.

The Fallen Away

In this scenario, Buddhists become largely irrelevant.

The Mad Yogin

In this scenario, Buddhists become counter-cultural prophets with idiosyncratic messages.

The Sole Salvation

In this scenario, apocalyptic Buddhist cults proliferate.

The Shangri-La

In this scenario, Buddhists are residents of a fantasy mountain redoubt called Shangri-La, isolated from the madness beyond.

You get the idea. All these tendencies already exist within our Mahasangha, and you could easily come up with other trends. All these perspectives will weight ordained versus lay practice differently. Some amalgams will be more maladaptive than others.

In the best-case scenario, as we collectively search for answers to the koan of our time, rather than spiritual bypassing, mitigation, or accommodation, we will find ourselves advocating regenerative design rather than simple degrowth; renunciation rather than austerity; and prosperity rather than growth. This is entirely congruent with the vision of the doughnut economy. There are plenty of ways in which the Buddhist perspective can offer a lodestar for our journey to 2030, 2050, and beyond.

The way forward is not merely about leaving home and retreating to the forest. Yes, there will always be rural Buddhist centers and hopefully they will manage and nurture their land well. But according to the United Nations, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in megacity clusters—43 in total, I’m told—and that’s where the preponderance of global wealth will be directed.

Buddhist teachers, practitioners, and centers will have to find creative ways to invest in their communities if they want their communities to invest in them. Buddhist practice then will engage in urban planning that is inherently distributive and regenerative by design. That’s where there is lots of work to be done! Imagine what we could add to the circular economy, cosmo-local production,****  democratic energy, and rewilding.

You might ask yourself: How much do I trust Buddhists to rise to the challenge of 2030? But that is a false narrative, or at least a badly framed question. A more empowering question would be: What am I willing and able to contribute to this transformation, and where are my kindred spirits?

* Full text available here: https://web.archive.org/web/20141014171926/http:/www.ditext.com/schumacher/small/small.html

** Full PDF available here: https://www.clubofrome.org/publication/the-limits-to-growth/

*** Novayana is a relatively new term combining the Latin nova from with the Sanskrit yana to mean “New Vehicle” or “New Tradition.”

**** Futures of Production Through Cosmo-Local and Commons-Based Design (P2P Foundation)

See more

Kate Raworth
Doughnut Economics Action Lab
Earth Holder Community

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