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The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century

William McLennan

24th March, 2011

Combining a detailed dissection of our unsustainable economy with an introduction to Buddhism, Sulak Sivaraksa’s economic vision provides an alternative to globalisation

In the wake of the global economic crisis, with a population of nearly seven billion and the pressure on commodities that has brought about, you could be forgiven for taking a gloomy view of the future. While ensuring access to food is a clear necessity, providing a first-world lifestyle for all these billions of people seems a little farfetched. Even if an ideal lifestyle isn’t pie-in-the-sky, how can it be funded? Can globalisation provide it? Does world agriculture have the capacity to provide the raw materials? The answer to all these questions is that no one really knows for sure. Despite these concerns, the World Bank and the IMF continue to finance initiatives aimed at reducing poverty through industrialisation and modernisation. But according to Sulak Sivaraksa, there is an alternative.

Sivaraksa’s economic theory involves a fusion of Buddhist principles and a return to focus on small-scale economies. With this method, he contends, we can eradicate poverty and restore the cultural values that have been lost.  Having spent his life split between living as a Buddhist in Thailand and as an academic in the West, Sivaraksa, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and a winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize, is perfectly placed to dissect the impact of globalisation.

The Wisdom of Sustainability is a sort of self-help book for the global economy, outlining the failures and inequalities of our current practices as well as providing feasible alternatives. A convincing and damning argument is built up against the World Bank’s current policy based on financing modernisation across the globe, which is leaving developing countries dependent on industrialised ones. Focusing in particular on his Thai homeland, and more generally on South East Asia, Sivaraksa eloquently lays out his case for change, providing detailed examples of countries in which globalisation has failed to reduce poverty and has instead created a gulf between rich and poor.

Damning though some of its indictments of World Bank policy are, not everything is doom and gloom and it provides the global economy with a number of alternative methods for eradicating poverty and building a sustainable world. These require the restructuring of the current governmental and economic institutions to more closely align them with Buddhist principles and remove prejudice and inequality in the process. While switching between detailing the failures of the ‘industrial North’ and outlining his alternative policies, Sivaraksa also introduces Buddhism and its guiding principles, and explains how they can be applied to the global financial system.

Much of what Sivaraksa suggests is perfectly plausible, although some of it seems a little impractical.  Suggesting that governments focus on Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross National Product (GNP), Sivaraksa calls for scientists, economists and spiritual leaders to develop measures of GNH and even provides potential indicators of happiness, including environmental integrity, to get them started. Silly though this might sound, happiness measures are already being adopted by a number of Western governments, including Denmark, France and the UK. Other suggestions are more immediately practical and are something we could all strive for. The three Buddhist evils are greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), and ignorance (moha) and Sivaraksa believes we need to remove these evils from our personal affairs and our institutions to enable social change. Thankfully, The Wisdom of Sustainability has a cure in mind: ‘If people everywhere respect each other, it would form a strong moral force to overcome greed, hatred, and ignorance,’ writes Sivaraksa. One can only hope that he’s right.

The Wisdom of Sustainability is an engaging and informative read. The argument made opposing the World Bank and our current ‘economy of globalisation’ is compelling and it is hard to ignore the way that progress and development have failed to benefit the citizens of the ‘agricultural South’. While it may be unrealistic to expect the entire world, especially the small groups who control powerful institutions, to convert to Buddhism; adopting Buddhist principles such as removing greed, hatred and ignorance from our lives and institutions, shouldn’t be beyond our capabilities.

The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century by Sulak Sivaraksa is available at Amazon and costs £10

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