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How Buddhists Can Embrace the Degrowth Movement

Chart tracking 2023 global temperatures, in orange, compared with past years. From

This week, on 3 July to be exact, scientists estimate that the Earth had its hottest day in recorded history. Then 4 July was hotter. And 5 July was hotter still. As the ocean temperature phenomenon El Niño takes effect in the coming months, we can expect more record-breaking heat, along with weather catastrophes and loss of lives as humans, animals, and plants find it impossible to flee or cope with these rapid changes.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has said that there is a 90 per cent probability of El Niño persisting through the second half of the year. The WMO urged governments around the world to take steps to immediately protect the vulnerable: “The onset of El Niño will greatly increase the likelihood of breaking temperature records and triggering more extreme heat in many parts of the world and in the ocean,” said WMO secretary general Petteri Taalas. (CNBC)

Long-term calls to transition to low-carbon energy sources have been made for decades, but now we are moving into a more urgent phase of climate change in which we collectively pay the price of our past inaction. We are entering uncharted climate territory.


In Buddhism, the doctrine of non-self tells us that we are all made up of ever-changing parts. These parts, such as our carbon atoms and water molecules, enter us at some point in our lives and then pass out of us. The carbon molecules in us, billions in number, have also been in billions and billions of other people, as well as in the earth, plants, and other animals.

The carbon dioxide molecules that we create when we burn fossil fuels in our cars, homes, and airplanes, enter the Earth’s atmosphere. There each one traps a tiny bit of the Sun’s heat. Each of us—with relative wealth and in well-off countries in particular—creates billions of those molecules every day. And those, in turn, trap heat that will affect people all over the planet for decades to come.

If we can see our deep interconnectedness and how our actions cause suffering, perhaps we can internalize the need to make changes.

Many of the changes we can make to reduce our carbon footprint can themselves feed into a habit of consumerism, with its side effects of dissatisfaction and the need to buy more. These can include things like buying the latest electric vehicle and adding solar panels to our homes. We can also buy more efficient domestic heating/cooling systems and higher quality clothing that will last for years.


However, we must be careful of the impulse to consume. As Thich Nhat Hanh explained many years ago:

We think that if we can buy new and exciting things we can then forget the vacuum inside. That does not seem to have an effect. We are buying more and more, but we do not feel the kind of fulfilment we need. We need love, we need peace, but we don’t know how to recreate peace, so we are looking for other things to cover up the suffering and the vacuum inside of us.

(The Ecologist)

A problem with green things is that they cannot satisfy our underlying wants, our craving. Having solar panels or an EV doesn’t help if we use them to justify driving all = the time or building a giant house with precision temperature controls.

With this in mind, many people today are advocating not for more green things in our lives, but fewer things altogether. BDG columnist John Harvey Negru expressed this idea well in an article last November titled “Supply and Demand: How Are We to Do More with Less?” Negru reminds us of the Buddhist value of renunciation. He rightly notes that it is not talked about much, even among contemporary Buddhist leaders and institutions, much less in society at large. This, he suggests rightly, is in dire need of change.

Knowing this, there are a number of ways that we can embrace the degrowth movement. What is the degrowth movement? The folks at write:

The degrowth movement of activists and researchers advocates for societies that prioritize social and ecological well-being instead of corporate profits, over-production and excess consumption. This requires radical redistribution, reduction in the material size of the global economy, and a shift in common values towards care, solidarity and autonomy. Degrowth means transforming societies to ensure environmental justice and a good life for all within planetary boundaries.


Well-known environmental advocate and founder of Bill McKibben has further ideas. A long-time advocate for a swift green energy transition, McKibben has recently toiled with critiques of the green transition in his own move toward degrowth.

In an article in The New Yorker titled “To Save the Planet, Should We Really Be Moving Slower? The Degrowth Movement Makes a Comeback,” McKibben seeks a path forward for both green energy development and an overall reduction in consumption, leading to a truly stabilized human-nature relationship.

McKibbin praises leaders in Paris, who have “made enormous investments in public transit, built hundreds of miles of bike paths, and closed many streets to cars. Car trips within the city dropped by almost 60 per cent between 2001 and 2018, car crashes dropped by 30 per cent, and pollution has improved.” He adds: “The city is quieter and calmer; test scores go up as the air around schools cleans up.” (The New Yorker)

Nonetheless, McKibbin states, the populist Yellow Vest Movement was in part ignited by taxes on fuels that threatened the livelihoods of many rural French workers. Quite often, social progress for some will come at the expense of others. While many environmentally conscious people will embrace degrowth policies, and others will enjoy benefits, those left out could possibly thwart progress altogether.

With social policies, we must grapple with the haves and have-nots, accepting that there may be problems with even our most cherished ideals. And still, we must move forward, through political failures and obstacles, if we are to make the large, planetary changes that are necessary to sustain civilization on Earth.

At the same time, there is much we can do as individuals to slow down—both our consumption to cause less secondary harm in the world and our minds, which naturally leads to greater calm, concentration, and joy.

One thing we can do is to travel less. For many of us, the COVID-19 lockdowns gave us a taste of this. Maybe we want to travel a lot now to make up for lost time, but maybe we could also look more deeply into the beauty of where we live now, and the many unexplored human and natural sites. No doubt, we’ll still travel, but we can infuse each trip with more meaning and richness if we limit ourselves.

While we’re at it, can we stop idolizing wealthy people on TV and social media who seem to always be on a yacht or exotic beach? Instead, let’s find people enjoying the richness of the world around them, from rivers and streams to libraries and theaters.

This brings us to a related topic: living (hyper) local. How this works out will be different for all of us, but we can focus much more of our time and energy in our own neighborhoods and cities. Get to know people around you. Offer to help.

Last month, an elderly neighbor near me said she needed someone to put in a window air conditioner for her and she would pay US$50. I responded that I would do it for free and arranged a time to go over. She was just two blocks from me and I wound up having a wonderful time getting to know her and her husband and even went home with a fresh loaf of delicious bread and two books for my daughter.

Third, we must return to nature. This, too, can come in many forms. At the very least, start growing some herbs in an indoor planter that can be placed in sunlight. For more, plant a garden in your yard, allotment, or community garden. Or go out to a nature preserve or forest land for regular wanderings. Observe. Learn about the flora and fauna that will come and go through the seasons.

Unknown butterfly or moth. Photo by the author

I’ve taken to hiking in a beautiful canyon near my home in Montana with my wife and daughter. We’ve hiked through fall leaves, winter snow, and spring blossoms. And now, huckleberry season, much to my—and my three-year-old daughter’s—delight. Listen to the soil, the air, and the water. Hear their story and you will hear the story of yourself.

Big skiy. Photo by the author

To get the best of all of this, we must retreat regularly. In retreat is where the pieces truly come together. Retreat is where our degrowth mindset can be truly tested and strengthened. Even picking up a magazine can be a form of consumption that we try to avoid in retreat. When eating, too, we look into our food, grateful for its many sources. We do not simply devour, as is quite easy in our daily lives. Walking, sitting, listening, lying down at the end of the day are all brought into sharp focus. We no longer simply consume, but instead we are mindful of the space we take up on the Earth and the impact of each step and breath.

David Loy, a prominent American ecodharma teacher, has even founded a retreat center in Colorado devoted to combining Buddhist retreat experiences with ecological awareness and action.

Finally, remember the importance of sangha (community). Surrounded by people who respect the Earth, we too will respect the Earth. Surrounded by people who are unhappy and unmotivated, we too will be unhappy and unmotivated. We need support if we are to live more simply, and by supporting others, we cultivate our generosity and compassion. Degrowth, if it is to work, will require radical sharing. That sharing requires us to listen to others to learn their needs and listening to ourselves to understand clearly what we can offer.

The process will be difficult. But since when have humans not had some difficult challenge before us? Bill McKibben concludes his essay by encouraging solidarity, by realizing that “An EV is a good way to cut carbon emissions, but so, it turns out, is a four-day workweek. Do them both, and a thousand other things—and fast—and we might have a shot.” (The New Yorker)

See more

El Niño has officially begun. UN says phenomenon likely to threaten lives, break temperature records (CNBC)
Thich Nhat Hanh: happiness is possible without simply consuming all the time (The Ecologist)
Heat Records Fall Around the Globe as Earth Warms, Fast (The New York Times)
To Save the Planet, Should We Really Be Moving Slower? (The New Yorker)

Related features from BDG

Touching the Earth: An Ecodharma Retreat
Layered Simplicity: Guiding Ideas for Creative Makers and Meditators
Beginner’s Mind: The Path to Peace
Buddhist Voices in the Climate Crisis: Welcome to the Anthropocene
Buddhistdoor View: A New Relationship with Nature
Does It Make Any Difference?
The Earth Holder Community, Branching Out
Global Systemic Crisis and Buddhism: Toward a Change of Paradigm
On Slugs and Karma

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