Sustainable Development Challenges: Some Oriental Thoughts
The concern for ecology and development are at the crossroads. The post-enlightenment models of development posit on promoting one at the cost of the other and there by undermining the inter-dependence, inter-relatedness, intricateness, and inter-woveness between the two. The root of the problem lies in the rationality that came into prominence after the European Enlightenment of 17th century which constructed the “dichotomy between the object and the subject”. This has culminated into alienation of human from the natural world. The erratic consumerist lifestyle is the product of this consciousness and has led to ecological vulnerability. Unlike the rationality of European Enlightenment, Buddhist rationality posits on the “harmony between the subject and the object” and advocates the world as a web of interrelationship between biotic and abiotic substances of the planet. Such an understanding needs to be developed through appropriate structuring of society in place. The present paper dwells upon some such concepts and premises of Buddhist tradition and their relevance to the debate on sustainable development and quest for alternate models of development. An attempt has been made in this paper to introduce the scientific spirit and associated values found in Buddhist discourse to the mainstream academics which otherwise treat Buddhism as a religion and dogma.
The three postulates: (i)PaticcaSammupada (law of dependent origination or cogenesis);
(ii) Idapacchayat (law of causation); and (iii) Sampajanna (law of impermanence)put forth in Buddhist thought have profound significance to re-examine which have similarities with the mainstream debates on sustainable development such as ecological self, biophilia, limited wants and consumption and so on. The paper argues for revisiting Buddhist economy and Buddhist ecology to develop alternative models of development which are congenial for sustainable development and societies.
Key words: Buddhist thought, dhamma, enlightenment, sustainable development, sustainable consumption.
Sustainable Development Challenges: Some Oriental Thoughts Introduction
The philosophy of science and ecological history of our civilization identify a common landmark. That is about a fundamental shift in the attitude towards natural world. This transformation is the period of 17th century enlightenment and after. The dawn of modern science and rationality as a consequence of European enlightenment have separated “subject from the object’ and there by, alienated humans from the natural world. The ideas of modernization originated during this period promoted a particular worldview that the resources of nature are for exclusive use of man to meet his needs and also greed. Over the centuries, the models of economic development and advancement of civilization emphasized the “exploitation of natural resources” to meet the growing needs. The objects (natural resources) were separated from the subjects (humans). The present crisis in ecology and economics, driven by hysteria of consumption has its roots in this subject-object dichotomy promoted during the reign of modernization. The on-set of capitalism in this period modeled the development keeping the consumption and consumption oriented lifestyles at the center paving way for the maladies of our times such as climatic change, global warming, crisis in ecology and economics. Societies in the orient such as India which had a long tradition of living in harmony with nature, with utmost sustainability got eroded due to onslaught of values of modernization advocated persistently by the Eurocentric models of development. In time, when the models of sustainable development are advocated by the western sources that rejected the orient as conservative and spiritual, have taken the u-turn. Thus, there is a case to re-examine our traditions as points of re-learning after we de-learnt ourselves over centuries. With special reference to Buddha and Dhamma traditions, this paper is an attempt to discuss about the rational basis of sustainable development found in this tradition. The paper argues that the elements of sustainable development are more native to oriental societies and the societies of the global-north have to learn from the east.
What is special about the tradition of Dhamma? What does it offer to scientific understanding of sustainable development? Whether or not these insights are useful for bringing in adaptations inthe structures and institutions of societies congenial for sustainable development? These questions are vital to answer.
The term Dhamma has broader connotation in Buddhist lexicon. It refers to nature, laws of nature, property of matter and inherent characteristics of objects of nature (eg: fire burns, water drenches etc). Dhamma offers a code of conduct, a normative social order for its followers, and a way of life. Also, as an ideology it provides an alternate worldview, grounded in laws of nature. These laws are propounded by Buddha at the time of his enlightenment and can be experienced and be verified similar to the experiments carried out in Physics laboratory. These laws are (i) Paticca Samuppada (the law of dependent origination); (ii) Idapaccayata (the law of causation); and (iii) Sampajanna (law of impermance). These laws are complementary to one another and considered to be universal. And all events and eventualities are governed by these laws, whether physical, psychological, social or emotional. Therefore, there is a legacy to employ these laws to explain the problems faced by our civilization, whether ecology or economics including sustainable development.
Ecology and Post-enlightenment:
The main stream literature on the subject identifies a close association between the dawn of 17th century enlightenment and degradation of the natural world. This was the period where in the objects of nature were attributed “instrumental value” and the dominant perception was that the nature untouched by the human beings is valueless. This has led to Anthropocentric view of nature which regards the natural world is made for humans and their comforts and all other species are subordinate to human wishes (Pratt, 2000, p13). Also, the development of anthropocentric world view is incidental upon the growth of new science (post-enlightenment) (Thomas, 1983). The maladies of ecological crisis of today are mainly due to this Anthropocentric, Eurocentric and Androcentric notions of human progress (Sutton, 2004, p 159). The protagonists of conservation view that man-nature relationship as intricate and interdependent system and locate human beings as a part of and not apart from the natural world (Pratt, 2000, p35). This school of thought is identified as “Deep Ecology”. The postulates and propositions of Dhamma have several things in common with Deep Ecology and perhaps, deeper than deep ecology. Therefore, there is a case for examining the concepts and hypotheses of deep ecology in the light of Dhammic Ecology and provide synergy to the debate for better applicability in society.
For the purpose of locating common principles of sustainable development in these two streams of thinking, modern ecological sciences (deep ecology), and dhamma, four pairs of concepts are considered for discussion in this paper which are: (i) Gaia1 hypothesis and Paticca Samuppada/Idapaccayata; (ii) Ecological Self and Vipassana; (iii) Biophilia hypothesis and Metta Bhavana; and (iv) Sustainable Consumption and the concept of Sampajanna.
Gaia hypothesis and Paticca Samuppada/Idapaccayata:
Gaia hypothesis is a recent addition in the field of Ecology proposed by Lovelock (1979) to explain that the biosphere and the physical components of the Earth are closely integrated and constitute as a web of complex interacting system. Even though this concept remained controversial in the beginning, is gaining ground in the context of the findings of new researches in the recent years. The central notion of Gaia is that “the Earth functions as a self-regulating system” and this has been endorsed by many leading scientists of the world2. It appears that there is a consensus on this understanding (Lenton, 1998). Despite being an ancient concept, the Gaia hypothesis has been given a modern scientific interpretation and recognition. It postulates that the Earth’s surface is maintained in a congenial habitable condition by a feedback mechanism involving organisms tightly connected to their environment. According to Lenton (1998) these feedbacks between life and their environment exist across a wide range of layers, at the individual and global, ecosystem and biome levels3. James Hutton (1726-1797) the father of geology advocated that the Earth works like an organism. Similarly, Vladimir I Vernadsky (1863-1945) had hinted at the “living matter” as a force leading to the “co-evolution” of life and its environment (Ibid).
1 Gaia means in Greek the supreme goddess of Earth. For details see http://environment-ecology.com/gaia/
2 See for details “The Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change”, in http://www.sciconf.igpb.kva.se/amserdam_declaration.html.
3 For details please see Earth System History and Natural Variability; Vol. IV, Earth as a Self- regulating System.
There is a parallel to this view in Dhammic thinking. “Paticca Samuppada and Idapaccayata” meaning the law of co-genesis and the law of causation have similar view points on the relationship between biotic and non-biotic objects on the Earth. This law strongly posits that every phenomenon in the universe whether physical, social or psychological occur due to causes and conditions, one dependent on the other. Nothing occurs spontaneously in this universe and it is a web of interdependence, interconnectedness, inter-wovenness and interrelationship. All objects of nature are related to one another innately and intrinsically. To put this law in simple words:
“When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises; When this does not exist, that does not come to be; With the cessation of this, that ceases”.
This phraseology encompasses the deeper layers of interconnectedness of the universe. It advocates that the differentiation between oneself and other others whether life or non-life form is culturally constructed during the civilization processes and therefore, artificial and not natural. According to Dhammic principles, once these culturally constituted barriers are removed, all forms of differentiations in the universe tend to collapse in the next moment. Ideally, if this happens, what remains is pure “belongingness” in between and across; and amongst of all objects. On this ground, Dhammic philosophy rejects the post-enlightenment science which posits the dichotomy between the subject and the object. There is an object in the subject and subject in the object. Therefore, the subject- object is not a dichotomy but harmony. Therefore, there is an interdependence and interrelatedness of every object in the universe.
Ecological-self and Vipassana:
In the recent literature on sustainable development and deep ecology, the concept of ecological self is gaining ground. This new concept of “ecological-self” was coined by A D Naess (1986) who is the founder of this concept. This is “the special identity one feels with all life forms
4 This view is elaborated based on the origin of life –amoeba and the elements of nature such as oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and so on which facilitated for the origin of life on earth.
which creates a strong sense of empathy”. Perhaps, this is a concept related with Gaia and Biophilia with some value addition. It is a radical shift from conventional understanding of nature. And this time, the shift is from intellectual understanding to experiential understanding of nature. It is a state in which an individual integrates and identifies himself with the broader universe. One reaches a state much beyond every day, mundane, narrowly conceived human like self-centric experience. It is state of the greatest circle of earthbound identification (Naess A D, 1986).
In some European Universities students have been exposed to green curricula to develop “ecological-self”, where the self is redefined in terms of a role and a place within the entirety of the living world, the family of all life forms, from primitive to the evolved and advanced (Haigh, 2004).
Realizing ecological-self was the core objective of Buddha Dhamma. According to a Buddhist scholar, Buddharakkhita5, “the entire teaching of Buddha/ Dhamma is to understand the laws of nature and also, mind-matter phenomenon at an experiential level and to discover oneself as a part of nature and universe, that is “ecological–self”. The technique of Vipassana6 in Dhammic tradition is about a methodology to realize ecological-self at the experiential level. What is this experience and state of being at all? In brief, it is a process of looking inwards, observing subtle sensations in different parts of the body. In the course of this practice, a practitioner attains a state where the solidity of the body dissolves and produces a feeling of waves and wavelets and sometimes as if the body comprises of sub-atomic particles. It is felt at an experiential level7. This state is called as “Bhanga” which resembles the explanations given to “ecological-self”. This is to say that identifying oneself with the true existence of every matter, biotic or abiotic in the universe. Perhaps, this is the kind of harmony between subject and the object Dhamma emphasizes. Establishing this kind of awareness and identity between oneself and the nature outside makes any one a deep ecologist, in the real meaning and the spirit of the term. Such
5 One of his discourses in “Pubbajja” course, Ven’ble Buddharakkhita summed up the essence of Buddha’s teachings.
6 It is meditation technique taught as a ten-day orientation isolating oneself from his/her mundane engagements, practice looking inward, observing noble silence.
7 Drawn from my own experiences in a couple of vipassana retreats.
awareness transforms an individual to be ecologically conservative and an agent of sustainable development.
The ecological-self also has sociological dimension. G H Mead (1934) in his work “Mind, Self and Society” brings out useful insights about the formation of human mind and also its linkages with society. In the context of Vipassana and ecological-self, Mead’s work seems to be relevant. There are distinctions made between “I” and “Me”. “Me” contains all attitudes of others (eg: male, husband, father and so on) while the “I” (the ego) is more mystical (Bolden L A et al)8. This means there are two kinds of “selves”, one is social and the other is natural. For better comprehension, call “Me” as social self and “I” as natural self which is closer to ecological-self. According to Mead, mind and thinking were not there before the formation of society. “Me” was acquired through the process of socialization where as “I” perhaps, something independent of society and its processes. For Mead, individual consciousness does not exist out side a social group. If one were born in a remote Island and grew up all alone, without any society or community, would not have ‘mind’ the way it is commonly used, and therefore, in such case no social-self would exist.
In Dhammic thinking with respect to ecology, the self is about the natural self that is “I”. Realizing the “self” would therefore, involves getting back to a state of mind as if there was no society and no social mind. The question is as how to catch hold of this mysterious “I” at an experiential level? In Dhamma there is a methodology (Vipassana) which aids an individual to reach this state, if honestly practiced, and experience oneself, the ecological-self and experience the interconnectedness between oneself and the broader universe.
Biophilia Hypothesis and Metta Bhavana:
This is another important and fascinating hypothesis emerging in the field of ecological sciences. It is a theory connected to evolution of species. Developed by Wilson E O (1984) it argues that “human beings innately exhibit emotional affiliation towards other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature”. It is a genetic sequence that has been programmed over one million years of evolution to facilitate adaptation to natural environment
In his commentary on Mead’s work on Mind, Self and Society found elsewhere.
for survival needs. The natural tendency of human beings to love other life forms, flora and fauna has been explained through Biophilia. The human tendency of affection for domestic pets, house plants and gardening are attributed to the genetic characteristics. Wilson (Ibid) argues further that “there are evolutionary grounds for establishing kinship with other non-human species in the animal kingdom. In the truest sense of evolutionary biology, all species of the animal kingdom are our kith and kin. All this common kinship with the animal kingdom is being stamped a common genetic code and elementary features of cell structure9. Similar is the affinity of other animals towards human beings. Perhaps, this would be a reason that the mammals are easy to domesticate than reptiles since the latter are more distantly related than the former.
This notion has been dealt with still deeper levels in Dhammic philosophy. The concept of “Dhammadhatu” is relevant in this context10. It refers to the fundamental elements of nature. These elements at sub-atomic level are one and the same both “within and without” that is, the constitution of human body and the elements found in nature. There is a harmony between the two. According to Bikku Ajarn Buddhadasa (1996), by understanding the nature within which is a reflection of the nature without, and by preserving the nature within, the nature outside automatically takes care of itself. This is how the law of Idapaccayata operates. In other words, this refers to the greed and ego which destroy the ecology inside and sooner or later destroy the ecology outside to satisfy the greed. In the recent literature on ecology and economics, these terms, greed and ego are frequently cited. Since the ecological degradation is man-made who have minds, and minds’ ecology needs to be understood to conserve the physical ecology. The debates on sustainable development and sustainable consumption have already incorporated these behavioral dimensions of the modern man.
The metta bhavana, the loving kindness towards all beings is an extension of vipassana which was discussed earlier. After discovering “oneself” as an “ecological self”, the organic relationship, it becomes one’s ardent duty, an obligation not necessarily moral, to express gratitude to all elements of nature which have contributed for the formation of this mind and body. Otherwise, one’s own existence would be in peril. Expressing metta from the bottom of the
See in Barry J (1999: p182) for adequate evidences in support of this hypothesis by evolutionary biologists which has profound significance to investigate man-nature relationships.
Fore more details, see the works Bikku Ajarn Buddhadasa and his ecological interpretations of Dhamma.
heart is not a ritual. It is like singing “national anthem”, which would mean expressing solidarity with the Nation, reminding every day that we are a part of the nation. Similar is the metta, the solidarity with the objects of nature. It is to create social structure and institutionalize the living togetherness with nature. Such practices help to cultivate a benevolent attitude, recognition of the fellowship of all life forms (VRI, 2004).
Sustainable Development/Consumption and Sampajanna:
The terms like sustainable consumption and sustainable development have become a part of ecological literacy. These issues are pervading all major debates on ecology and economics especially, after the summits of Johannesburg (2002), Bali (2007), Copenhagen (2009), Rio-de Janeiro (June 2012) and Paris (2015). It is enticing to note that the deliberations of the Rio Summit identify certain areas which were hitherto remained untouched. For instance, the manifesto of Rio-2012 summit in its Peoples’ Sustainability Treaties (PST) envisages for: (i) different sort of economics with an understanding of ethics and spirituality; (ii) a movement towards equitable society and social order; (iii) due recognition to the fact that the human world has an integral relationship with the natural world; and (iv) protecting the rights of the mother earth (PST: 2012). The manifesto underlines the importance of propagating widespread practices of “mindful and intentional actions” and calls for inculcating new sense of ethics, values and spirituality for the future generations. The vision statement of this summit, in its tenor and spirit, is analogous to the Dhammic principles discussed in the preceding sections. For instance, it calls for self-awareness of global interdependence; understanding our place in nature; affinity towards other species; and protection of planetary bio-geo-chemical systems and natural landscapes.
There are encouraging developments in Europe and North America regarding recent thinking on “sustainable consumption” as a solution to the modern day ecological crisis. There are workshops and conferences organized on global scale to share ideas and views to bring about changes in life styles and values that are congenial for sustainable consumption11. There is consensus emerging that consumption oriented lifestyles are the root cause for the present day crisis in ecology and economics. For promoting sustainable lifestyles, now the focus is on
See www.scorai.org 2009: Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiatives for more details and links regarding debates and discussions.
changing cultures, normative order of society and other behavioral dimensions. The development thinkers are now shifting their deliberations from material production to “human fulfillment, lifestyle satisfaction, good and ethical life, conscious consumption and so on”, at the dawn of 21st century12. There are researchers working on bio-social causes of human economic behavior. Rees (2009) for instance is working on a hypothesis that modern human beings as a species, are unsustainable by nature as they are becoming addictive to continuous material growth. Also, this is leading to mal-adaptations13 and might lead human species to endangered list. Changing human economic behavior lies somewhere in creating alternative social institutions, cultural patterns and collective consciousness. At this juncture, Dhammic thinking may offer an alternative.
There are good number of Buddhist scholars working on behavioral economics and proposing useful insights and interpretations. In the context of consumerism, the Dhammic perspective takes a critical stand position. It criticizes the artificially induced human wants, greed, material acquisition, competition and even vengeance (Leighton, 2001). For instance, consumerism is so rampant in USA that an average American is exposed 3000 advertisements per day. Human minds are subjected to intense bombardments to create artificial desires which can not be met. The consumerism is almost becoming a religion in capitalist societies. According to a Buddhist monk Ryokan, “without desire, everything is sufficient” (Ibid, p 2).
The contribution by Kaza (2000) is worth mentioning here. According to him the character of consumer society is to spend leisure time in spending money in buying things. The driving force for this behavior is the belief that “owning things is the major means to gain happiness”. The primary goal of life is to accumulate things which in tern the way of self development and self fulfillment. It is well known that promoting consumerism is a capitalist ploy. Consumerism thrives on the assumption that human wants are unlimited and also insatiable. Endless new wants and desires are created in society to keep consumerist appetite alive for ever. Capitalism survives on such ideologies. Dhamma believes that such old ideologies can be changed and new ones can be cultivated in society.
See <www.scorai.org/aboutworkshop.html> 2009.
In economic terns, consumerism is buying goods and services to derive satisfaction. If the core objective of consumption is satisfaction, in Dhammic thinking, satisfaction in any form is mind and body phenomenon. The world out side comes in contact with the human body through six sense doors, and every such contact produces some sensation at the back of the mind. These sensations are impermanent (VRI, 2002). Same is the case with satisfaction which is basically a sensation. Therefore, at the deepest level of human economic behavior, consumption, satisfaction and sensation are delusions and impermanent. The sensory feelings associated with human economic behavior within the framework of the body are substanceless (anatta). Thus, Dhammic thinking discourages too much sensory attachment and owning material things for pleasure.
The concept of Sampajanna that is the law of impermanence is very essential in the context of advocating sustainable consumption. The phrase sustainable consumption in modern ecological debate connotes conscious consumption which should also mean of consciousness of impermanence of the sensation that is bought from the market. Once this is established, capitalist markets cannot lure a consumer and make him a prodigal. Dhammic practices make an individual to realize this truth at an experiential level.
The last word: This essay is not to argue that to achieve sustainable development everyone should practice ascetic life. It is to find out a middle-path which is the essence of Buddhist teachings. It is about the extremities of consumption and accumulation that is about “too much”. The question is “how much is too much” and is necessarily a cultural construct of the respective societies. As we are warned that “we are living in the first geological epoch caused by humans, the Anthropocene” (McNall, 2011, p-3), there are compulsions for behavioral change. As one geophysist puts it “our principal constraints are cultural” (Hubbert, 1976). In the context of climatic change summit in Paris, the issue before us is “how we should, we should live our lives, what ought to be relationships between one another and to future generations” (McNall, 2011, p- 37). Unlike in the past, the root of the problem is not the population growth but is about the over consumption.
There is a common consensus that transition to sustainability requires changes in individual behaviors. The need of the hour is stronger institutional change to promote sustainable consumption which is in other words, re-engineering of societies. Any amount of economic growth without distributive justice is not a solution to the problem. The states in different parts of the world are devising anti-poverty programs and there are no anti-wealth programs and policies (Spangenberg, 2014, P-13). It is argued that the consumption patterns are lopsided. The rich consume more whose social marginal utilities are less while the poor consume lees whose social marginal utilities are high (ibid, p-7). Sustainable consumption shall look for a balance between these two social groups. It should not be mistaken for sacrificing choices rather it would offer better choice for the individual and society. In the classical sense, economics evolved out of moral philosophy and ethical considerations. Buddhist economics also highlights this dimension (Schumacher, 1973). Unlike assumptions of the modern economics, Buddhist economics assumes that human wants and needs can be finite, a few and classifiable. The “ceteris paribus” of conventional economics needs rephrasing as “ceteris need not be paribus” (Spangenberg, 2014, p-2). There is a point of intersection between the crises of economy and ecology. Sustainable consumption shall neither be socially unsustainable due to low-consumption nor environmentally unsustainable over-consumption. It is the middle-path, the concept of environmental space (Ibid, p-1). All this calls for re-structuring and re-arranging societies with suitable framework of institutions.
Buddhist thinking offers some alternatives which are closer to what the rationalists also endorse. The world functions through human ideas (cittena niyyati loko). The miseries of the external world are the manifestations of the miseries within the human minds. The modes of thinking and behaving need change. Perhaps, the direction of change compelled by the present circumstances is from “having mode” (I have wealth) to the “being mode” (To me there is wealth) of living (Silva, 2015, p-4). Hope, our planners steer society towards what is desirable.
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