Friday, June 5, 2009

The Hopeful Continuation Narrative

"Can lifestyles that are unsustainable be moral?" asks Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai Buddhist, social activist, and cultural critic. It comes from a wonderful little book entitled Seeds of Peace, in which Sivaraksa deeply reflects of the politics of capitalism, especially in his native Thailand, and then offers a new vision of society based on Buddhist teachings.

I have written about this quotation before, in an early post on the blog. Some of what you will read here is copied from that post. (Apologies to anyone who happened to read that post - although I don't think it was all that many.) Sivaraksa's quote continues to strike me as provocative, especially for those of us living in lands of over-consumption. It brings up not only big questions about consumerism, but also how we interact with the planet, the choices we make around war and peace, the way we run companies and our households - really, most everything we do.

Over the past few months, I have continued to hear a set of messages coming from world leaders, business leaders, neighbors, friends, and even strangers that I would describe as the Hopeful Continuation Narrative. The first message is that "the economy" is going to turn around soon, maybe in six months, maybe in a few years. The second message is that we must do everything we can to preserve the companies and financial institutions that are major cogs in the system. In other words, you let the banks go down, and places like General Motors, and there will be mass amounts of unemployment and misery. The third message is that, at least here in the U.S., the economic plans of the Obama administration are going to "work" and get us "out of this crisis." The fourth message is that all of us must sacrifice now - and are sacrificing now in the form of smaller paychecks, layoffs, etc. - for a "better" tomorrow.

What strikes me about these messages is that there is the deep assumptions that lay behind them. A: our happiness and general well being are linked to a thriving capitalist system. B: government propping up of established institutions will allow us "average people" to continue to have work, income, housing, etc. C: it will all go back to "normal" in a short while, we just have to weather the current storm.

Implicit behind all this is the view that the current economic system, which is more and more global in it's reach everyday, is the "best," most intelligent way of working with the stuff of the world. I think it's really important to see how economics is not just about money and companies, but really about how we as humans interact with the material world completely.

I have asked, and continue to ask the following questions:

1. Do we really want the economy to "turn around," to go back to something resembling what it has been? In other words, do we really wish to continue to support, participate, and drive an economy that thrives only when there is over production, over consumption, and excessive amounts of greed?

2. How do Buddhist ethics and wisdom teachings fit into a life enmeshed within a globalized capitalist model?

3. What have gained from putting our energy and time into the current economic model and what have we lost?

What's fascinating to me, even as I find much of our current economic system wanting in terms of ethics, is how it has provided us with a clear glimpse of interdependence. When you see stock markets falling at the same time across the globe, for example, or banks struggling on every continent - it's more difficult to believe that things are separate and have no effect on each other.

It seems in all this we as a species have an opportunity to really examine what it is our lives are built out of, and to ask the kinds of questions that destablize stories like the Hopeful Continuation Narrative, which currently are considered common sense. What comes after that, I don't know. Maybe a whole lot of change, maybe not.

I think these words from Sulak Sivaraska are a helpful guide. "To alleviate suffering, we must always go back to our own spiritual depths - to retreat, meditation, and prayer. It is nearly impossible to sustain the work otherwise. It is easy to hate our enemies - the industrialists who exploit us and pollute our atmosphere. But we must come to see that there is no 'other' ... It is greed, hatred, and delusion that we need to overcome."

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