Buddhist Economic Wisdom for Falling Back in Love With Mother Earth

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh believes that putting an economic value on nature is not enough. Fundamental change can happen only if we fall back in love with our planet.
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The economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. The former is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis, equitable utilization of the means of production, and the fate of the working classes and underprivileged. This appeals to me and seems fair. The major flaw of such regimes is their emphasis on class struggle -- insistence on hatred to the detriment of compassion. Their failure is not that of Marxism, but of totalitarianism. So I still think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist. --The Dalai Lama

Communism failed because it couldn't tell the economic truth; capitalism will fail because it can't tell the ecological truth. --Lester Brown

Nineteenth-century historian Thomas Carlyle referred to economics as "the dismal science." Today, in the 21st century, despite decades of cheer-leading for it in the media, mainstream economics looks not only dismal but unscientific and even cynical.

That's largely because most economists have been providing mathematical cover for the biggest inside job the world has ever seen: the privatization of profit and socialization of loss by governments in hock to corporate capitalism -- a key feature in our long and continuing recession. The corporate media have convinced us that hundreds of billions of taxpayer money to save reckless banking systems is an economic necessity. But investing something similar to save our planet as a viable habitat for future generations is treated as an economic impossibility.


A primary issue in all this is fairness, highlighted in the Dalai Lama's comparison of Marxist and capitalist economics. Our evolutionary relatives among the primates, and even our best friend the dog, can keep track of this fundamental social factor. All feel gratitude for food and other favors shared. All are aggravated by unfairness, a response scientists call "inequity aversion." Unsurprisingly, that's how most of us feel about predatory bankers and their political enablers. Why do dominant 20th-century institutions like corporations and markets lack our hard-wired tendencies toward gratitude and fairness? Is our aversion to their inequity a vital warning signal for 21st century civilization?


Another central concern is values. Oscar Wilde famously defined a cynic as "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." By that criterion, our great and globalized preoccupation with economic growth is a deeply cynical enterprise.

"Externalities" is how economists define the costs and damages to society or the natural world that slip through the net of pricing. For corporate profits to be maximized, costs must always be minimized. So corporations become highly efficient "externalizing machines." As Ray Anderson has pointed out, the market does not limit the harm corporations cause, because it systemically ignores the costs they are able to foist onto somebody else. But externalizing those costs does not mean they disappear.

What about the harm done to something whose value is incalculable, like the Earth's climate, or the future generations who will be affected by its disruptions? Market economics is blind to those existential damages as well. It's fortunate for us that our ancestors didn't feel that way that about their descendants. Their values evidently included our survival.

Can civilization survive by knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing -- not even the value of its natural life-support systems? In effect, global capitalism asserts that it can. The eminent environmentalist Lester Brown concludes that it will fail, because it cannot adapt to the ecological truth that in the end will undermine it -- and very likely human civilization as well.

Putting A Figure On It

Some well-meaning economists have designed blueprints for a sustainable version of capitalism. Nicholas Stern, for example, wrote an influential British government report that described climate change as the "greatest market failure in history."

What about the "market value" of the human species? Since the market has no interest in anything it can externalize, we can only compute this indirectly. The net worth of the world's top 200 oil, coal and gas companies is about $7.4 trillion -- a figure based on proven reserves that the market expects to burn. The physics of the climate system shows us that only a fraction of that fossil carbon (perhaps a fifth) could be burnt without initiating runaway global warming and placing our survival in grave doubt.

These figures suggest that the free market prices the survival of humanity at less than $7.4 trillion. This places the value of our species at perhaps a tenth of current world GDP (value $65 trillion), or one hundredth of the world derivatives market (nominal value $600 trillion). By acting as if the fate of nature is merely an externality, the market reveals itself to be an inter-generational pyramid (Ponzi) scheme, where current generations indulge themselves lavishly by stealing non-renewable resources and a liveable climate from future ones.

Falling Back In Love With Mother Earth

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh believes that putting an economic value on nature is not enough. Fundamental change can happen only if we fall back in love with our planet. When we recognize the virtues, talent and beauty of Mother Earth, he says, love is born in us. When we reconnect with it, we naturally want to do anything we can for the benefit of the Earth, and the Earth will do anything for our wellbeing. He continues:

"Many people suffer deeply and they try to cover up the suffering by being busy. The practice of mindfulness helps us to touch Mother Earth inside of the body and this practice can help heal people. The healing of the people should go together with the healing of the Earth ... In Buddhism we talk of meditation as an act of awakening, to be awake to the fact that the Earth is in danger and living species are in danger."

Speaking Up For What Is Beyond Price

The linguist George Lakoff uses cognitive neuroscience to understand how meaning is transmitted through language. When we try to communicate something, the way that information is "framed" is especially important, and any linguistic frame in general use will be reinforced by any subsequent discussion that treats the subject in its terms. Today a dominant "economics frame" (the price of everything) governs most discussion about our collective future. We can only break through the domination of this mindset when we insist on a "values frame" as an alternative starting point. Buddhists don't buy the tyranny of the cynical old frame. We stand for what is beyond price. We stand for all life on Earth.

John Stanley & David Loy are part of the Ecobuddhism project.

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