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Supply and Demand: How Are We to Do More with Less?

In recently weighing the choice of buying out my current gasoline-powered car for C$11,000 (US$7,950) when the lease expires this summer, or leasing a new hybrid or plug-in electric car for approximately C$500 (US$350) per month for at least four years, I concluded that it was better for the planet for me to keep what I’ve got rather than invest in the manufacture of yet another automobile, regardless of the powertrain. I only drive about 10,000 kilometers a year. I expect the car I will soon to have another six years of life in it. Maybe electric vehicle technology and infrastructure will be more ubiquitous and economical by then. But maybe not. Maybe urban mass transit, cycling, and other improvements to urban planning will render another car unnecessary for us. But maybe not. Either way, my goal is to drive less, not to find another way to keep driving a lot.

And all that got me thinking about the costs inherent in manufacturing something and shipping it to wherever. In other words, what is the overall impact of continuing to manufacture new things if the old ones still work?

Take my toaster oven, for example. It’s about five years old and going strong. Perhaps one of my grandchildren will get it for their first home? But my friend, who is clearing out her mother’s house, says none of her children want any of their grandmother’s stuff. Nada. Zip. My kids have expressed similar views. Which means that those kids are happier buying new things for their homes.

I don’t know a lot of people who have voluntarily decided to purchase only second-hand items, be they clothes, furniture, or other things. I can count them on one hand. So this is obviously a question of privilege. There is a large portion of the Canadian population who have way more than they need, from multiple homes and the stuff to fill them, to leisure to travel to exotic destinations for excitement. They have money to burn. But should they burn it?

The Green New Deal purports to solve our Anthropocene overshoot crisis by increasing supply of new forms of energy and building new infrastructure to support it. But it doesn’t take much digging to discover the flaws: some of it is pie in the sky magical thinking; some of it is mired in geopolitical conflict over critical resources; some of it will take years we don’t have to come online; much of it will still be owned and operated by large corporations whose paradigm of elite capture will mean the benefits do not flow equally to marginalized demographic or geographic communities.

There are also plenty of other examples of supply-side economics being presented as a way forward to a regenerative and sustainable future. Let’s look at the other side of the equation: demand.

I am struck by the wealth in our country, and where it flows. If there is a news story about doing more with less, it is because of soaring prices for housing, gasoline, food, travel, and more. A recent headline from The Globe & Mail newspaper: “Number of affordable cities in Canada for young people: zero!”

The message is: people cut back because they must, not because they want to. We don’t hear much in our society about renunciation. I’m not talking about undue sacrifice or idiot compassion. I’m talking about some sense of moderation within the parameters of the country in which we live. I’m not talking about television shows touting trendy minimalism or sparking joy with over-designed objects one can buy online. That is just demand repackaged.

Having grown up in Canada’s mainstream Judeo-Christian culture, I did not see or hear anything about renunciation in the context of my own life until I encountered Buddhism. I still don’t hear that word much in other spiritual traditions—and certainly not on the evening news. Now I am at a stage of my life when my thoughts run more to divestment than investment. It is easy for me to say we should all just stop buying new things or that our government should compel manufacturers to design their products in ways that consumers can repair them easily and economically.

In the face of our crumbling global logistics network, some call for more manufacturing at home, lamenting that we have lost our industrial base and need to rebuild it. Aside from being entirely unrealistic, this still smacks of supply-side management. I want to talk about demand.

Degrowth is a thing. But nobody in the mainstream media wants to touch it with a 10-foot pole. It would be like telling the emperor he is not wearing any clothes. Or like ripping aside the curtain to reveal that the Wizard of Oz is just some dude with props.

There was a moment just after the pandemic hit when everybody just stopped. Soon there were clear skies over normally smog-bound cities, dolphins in the canals of Venice, and a pause in the relentless destruction of the rainforests. Then the moment was over. Regenerating the structure of our society to live within the planet’s viable limits while enhancing or at least maintaining the current social safety net is a process that will evolve over time. But we don’t have a lot of time.

The best way to do this quickly is to stop demanding new things.

Not too long ago, David Loy, a leading American Zen teacher who has leaned in to Green Buddhism, wrote a book called Lack and Transcendence, which centered around the notion of duhkha retranslated as “lack.” In other words, we feel this insatiable hole we must keep filling. That’s what I mean by demand, from the supply-and-demand expression. That is the fire we must quench. Ignorance and denial won’t quench it. Conflict with others we feel as a threat won’t quench it. Protectionism won’t quench it.

Such a radically restructured social contract is almost unimaginable. When we hear about tool libraries, co-operative housing, community gardens, barter networks, and the like, they are usually portrayed as outliers to the mainstream. But what if that decentralized drawdown was the dominant form of governance, economy, urban planning, food production, and education? It’s coming, whether we like it or not. The question is whether we embrace it and ride the tiger, or whether we try to catch it by the tail and fall prey to the myriad ills of the coming critical decade?

If I look outside of Buddhism, I don’t see that as a central tenet of other religions. If I look inside Buddhism, I don’t see mainstream commitment to a Green Dharma path. How do I know? Because there’s little Buddhist involvement in the many secular environmental NGOs. That seems incredibly and unacceptably shortsighted to me.

The work of the Dark Mountain Project, Emergence magazine, and Loam magazine, for example, acknowledge that we have entered the apocalypse, at least psychically. They posit that myth-making, storytelling, ceremony, and such can regenerate our severed connection to and feeling of belonging in the natural world—all the while acknowledging that “the natural world” is exactly the sort of conceptual othering construct from which we are trying to escape.

They are very careful not to refer to any specific religious institutions. Theirs is a free-floating spirituality with no key performance indicators or accountability. So while I appreciate their acknowledgement of the problem, I don’t see a complete solution in their work.

I know that Buddhism teaches serenity and insight to free ourselves from our habitual craving. But so much of the Buddhist teaching has been co-opted and denatured by the forces of consumerism and materialism. The Dharma is constantly under assault. Spiritual isolationism is not a viable answer, because if one is not at the table, one cannot add one’s voice to public discourse. That just leads to marginalization. You can see from the way that elites withhold privilege from marginalized groups such as BIPOC communities—they’re only too happy for us to remain on the fringes.

I recently had some correspondence with the director of the Sustainability Network, a Canadian capacity-building resource for the country’s leading environmental NGOs. We talked about how it would be a stretch for their clientele to delve into the spiritual, philosophical, and cultural transformations that interfaith environmental efforts could bring to their work. They usually focus on governance, finance, and organizational development. But he’s open to the idea.

I’d like to see Buddhists get out in front of this issue. For example, Ray Nakano, from the Plum Village sangha in Toronto, has been presenting “Awakening to the Climate Crisis: A Buddhist Perspective (A conversation about our Climate Crisis and what we can do about it as Buddhists)” in a variety of venues.

May it simply be one of a growing wave of such activist responses to the koan of our time.

See more

Ontario Climate Emergency campaign
Not One Seat
My Climate Change Website
Dark Mountain: Home
Emergence Magazine: Living With the Unknown
Loam Magazine

Related features from BDG

Buddhistdoor View—How the Zeitgeist of Greed and Materialism is Destroying our Ecology and the World
Buddhist Voices in the Climate Crisis: Earth Words and Watershed Activism
Nurturing the Roots of the Thai Forest Lineage in Britain: A Short Conversation with Ajahn Sucitto
Ajahn Sucitto, Down to Earth
Meditation Over a Kitten: Transcendence from Where We Are
Making the Material World Metta-real

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