Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Buddhist Economics – Part V

This is a continuation of our discussion on Buddhist Economics based on
E. F. Schumacher’s book, ‘Small is Beautiful’. Part I discussed about Labor, Part II on Mechanization, Part III on Unemployment and Part IV on the Aims of Economic Systems. Today, let us assess the consequences of living under Orthodox Economics vis-à-vis Buddhist Economics.

On Simplicity and Non-Violence
Simplicity and non-violence are obviously closely related. The optimal pattern of consumption, producing a high degree of human satisfaction by means of a relatively low rate of consumption, allows people to live without great pressure and strain and to fulfill the primary injunction of Buddhist teaching: ‘Cease to do evil; try to do good.’

As physical resources are everywhere limited, people satisfying their needs by means of a modest use of resources are obviously less likely to be at each other’s throats than people depending upon a high rate of use. Equally, people who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.

Think Small, Think Local
From the point of view of Buddhist economics, therefore, production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life, while dependence on imports from afar and the consequent need to produce for export to unknown and distant peoples is highly uneconomic and justifiable only in exceptional cases and on a small scale.

Just as the modern economist would admit that a high rate of consumption of transport services between a man’s home and his place of work signifies a misfortune and not a high standard of life, so the Buddhist would hold that to satisfy human wants from faraway sources rather than from sources nearby signifies failure rather than success.

The former tends to take statistics showing an increase in the number of ton/miles per head of the population carried by a country’s transport system as proof of economic progress, while to the latter—the Buddhist economist—the same statistics would indicate a highly undesirable deterioration in the pattern of consumption.

The Western Man
Another striking difference between modern economics and Buddhist economics arises over the use of natural resources. Bertrand de Jouvenel, the eminent French political philosopher, has characterized ‘Western man’ in words which may be taken as a fair description of the modern economist:

“He tends to count nothing as an expenditure, other than human effort; he does not seem to mind how much mineral matter he wastes and, far worse, how much living matter he destroys. He does not seem to realize at all that human life is a dependent part of an ecosystem of many different forms of life. As the world is ruled from towns where men are cut off from any form of life other than human, the feeling of belonging to an ecosystem is not revived. This results in a harsh and improvident treatment of things upon which we ultimately depend, such as water and trees.”

The Buddhist
The teaching of the Buddha, on the other hand, enjoins a reverent and non-violent attitude not only to all sentient beings but also, with great emphasis, to trees. Every follower of the Buddha ought to plant a tree every few years and look after it until it is safely established, and the Buddhist economist can demonstrate without difficulty that the universal observation of this rule would result in a high rate of genuine economic development independent of any foreign aid. Much of the economic decay of Southeast Asia (as of many other parts of the world) is undoubtedly due to a heedless and shameful neglect of trees.

How would you like to live?


Damien Tan

Hmm, what Bertrand de Jouvenel said about Western Man may have been true in the past but today, the attitudes have reversed. To compare, just count how many Asian nature conservationist organizations there are compared to the West. I'm not saying that Westerners are better than Asians but frankly I've not found one Asian civic movement championing anti-global warming or wildlife conservation on a large scale. If there is any local effort, I always wonder why do I see an ang moh behind it.

Scientists say next year, China will overtake the US as the world's largest Co2 emitter. Not that the Chinese govt cares apparently because they've proven time and again that the economy must thrive at any price. And its a lot easier to blame world demand on the problem than to actually make sacrifices to produce clean energy.

The arguments get silly sometimes. Yes, the West has profited from their mistakes in environmental pollution. In my view, they've repented to a point where every schoolchild today knows the message of nature conservationism by heart. But Asians strike a different tune. They say, "Not so fast. You westerners have profited from the mess. Now its our turn to mess it up and take our share." Its nearly 2010 and guess who's still throwing their rubbish into rivers and drains, dumping toxic waste near sources of groundwater. Not the Westerers. With that attitude, I can see why Asia will become the new leaders of environmental rape in the 21st century and because of new consumerism, it will be far worse than anything the Westerers had ever achieved.

Perhaps its time for Bertrand de Jouvenel to write a new chapter about the "Asian Man?"


Dear Damien,

I partially disagree with the view that the West has repented on environmental pollution. They could do so much more to assist Asian countries. Unfortunately, vested self interests gets in the way. For example, why not roll out economical hybrid cars that run on sustainable fuel such as hydrogen or solar power?

At present times, most Asians envy the high standard of living in Western Countries. No doubt this is mostly due to the innovations made in the West such new inventions and technologies. However, this was also fueled by the harvesting of resources from Asia by the West during the colonial era.

The right approach for Asian countries is to ensure sustainable environment. Unfortunately, I feel most Asian countries aspire to a high standard of living as flaunted by the Western media. Driven by such desires, it's easy to neglect environmental concerns. There are times when it becomes laughable or ironic, even. Flash floods, waste management problems and pollution are caused by our rapacious greed and yet ... we are unable to acknowledge it.

With the exception of Japan, I think most Asian countries have not reached that level of consciousness to be concerned about the environment. We can only hope that this mindset changes for the better and soon...


Damien Tan

"Unfortunately, I feel most Asian countries aspire to a high standard of living as flaunted by the Western media. Driven by such desires, it's easy to neglect environmental concerns... pollution are caused by our rapacious greed and yet ... we are unable to acknowledge it."

Its a shame isn't it. Western society is only a couple of hundred yrs old and Asian society is a mature 5,000 yrs old. We coined the concepts of yin & yang, taught the Tao Te Ching, enlightened the world with all kinds of spiritual dogma. Yet no one can challenge us in our speed to abandon all compassion. I'm being self critical when I say we seem to be hypocrites of the highest order.

Sometimes I think we Easterners have survived the ages not because we were wise but because the psychotic emperors couldn't kill us fast enough. Not that it didn't happen in the West as the French Revolution had proved. Its just that for some reason, senses seem to prevail faster in the West than in the East. I have no idea why.

So I'm certain we will survive the ecology disaster we're creating because we're breeding faster than it can kill us. The West were quick to come to their senses. We clearly have not.

About the West harvesting the East's resources, yes thats a historical fact. However one could argue that tonne for tonne, we've plundered more of our own resources in the last 30 years than they've ever had in the last 100 years. If someone took away my toy as a kid, would I blame him for the failures of my adult life? Probably not. I'm not much into victim mentality. That's why I have a lot of respect for countries like Singapore and Taiwan. They succeeded in spite of their past.

The saddest thing for me is seeing the inability of us Easterners to realize the harm that we do by our actions. As you say, we have not reached that level of consciousness. Isn't it ironic that a society that discovered meditation, yoga and self awareness also happens to be the least aware and and is responsible for the most damaging acts to the planet. Why are we like this. It just boggles my mind.

Damien Tan

Here's an interesting article for you about what they are doing to human habitat in China. It was published yesterday.

"They use caustic chemicals and burn the plastic parts to get at the valuable components, often releasing toxins that they not only inhale, but release into the air, the ground and the water. Potable water must now be trucked into Guiyu and scientists have discovered that the city has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. Pregnancies in Guiyu are six times more likely to result in miscarriages, and seven out of 10 children there have too much lead in their blood."



Dear Damien,

Thanks for sharing the article. It makes for very *depressing* reading on the state of human affairs.


Damien Tan

Chin up, be strong. A misfortune is an opportunity to do good deeds. I assume you're about my age (26+) and we still have time to make merit. So smile and be happy. ^_^


Dear Damien,

You're much younger than me. Thanks for the encouragement.

What's really making me depressed is the current state of human affairs. I truly wonder when, if ever, we will truly be civilized. Or are we, collectively doomed, to repeat the vicious cycle of our past?


Yours Truly

Avatar : Dude, we're not that old. I'm assumin' that you're 30? & a Virgo (I'm a month older than ya, methinks). Think positive, hell, I've got way more to handle than lotsa people. Drivin' me real berserk sometimes. You're a good soul, a rarity these days. Most people are just god**** a$$****s who're interested in mere self interest. You a good kid too, Damien. Thought I'm the only guy who's got opinions 'bout asians. Anyways, singapore has the advantage of SIZE & Taiwan has mainly a majority ethnic group which believes in HARD WORK unlike a certain state we all know of.

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