Buddhist Economics, Small is Beautiful

Dec 03

Although Buddhism is a small minority religion in western countries it has had an influence on intellectual and cultural trends far beyond it's size. One of these almost underground currents has been called "Buddhist Economics," a phrase perhaps first used by E.F. Schumacher ("Small is Beautiful") back in the 1960's. Hard to squeeze into the old left-right paradigm, Buddhist Economics puts happiness as the goal of a sane economic system. The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, for example, measures it's progress according to its Gross National Happiness.

As developed by Schumacher and such later writers as the Thais Sulak Sivaraksa and P.A. Payutto, Buddhist Economics talks about the intrinsic value of useful and creative work as a human value in and of itself. This kind of work should be satisfying for the worker and for the community. Buddhist Economics also bases itself on the Buddhist teaching of interdependence and refuses to make the artificial abstraction of an economic policy outside of its effects on the society, culture and natural environment.

This is all in stark contrast to the traditional way economics is done. We measure our success according to rates of production and consumption of largely useless goods. One of the latest trends is to make a fetish out of "efficiency" which seems to mean making fewer and fewer workers work harder and longer to produce more goods more quickly. This is done at the cost of the quality of the product, the happiness of the worker and the degradation of the environment.

This last point is becoming urgent. It has become clear that our present way of organizing our economic activity is not sustainable by the planet. The collapse of the east coast cod fishery is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with the philosophy of "efficiency." This incredible bountiful resource sustained whole communities for centuries when the fishery was conducted on a human scale. Once large factory trawlers were introduced the fish were gone in a couple of decades. But according to the traditional way of thinking, these trawlers were a big "improvement" over the small notoriously "inefficient" ships they replaced.

I am afraid we are on the way to doing to Ontario's forests what we did to Newfoundland's fisheries. The new forestry practices introduced by the out-going government under the catchy title "Living Legacy" are very efficient. There are several areas of concern that have been raised by environmentalists. One is that the upper limit for the size of clear-cuts is removed and cuts of thousands of hectares are now possible. Another is that the bad old practise of herbicide spraying to encourage the growth of commercially desirable species continues, with all it's damage to native plants and wildlife and it's deliberately negative impact on biodiversity. Perhaps most foolish of all is the cost-cutting measure of letting the industry regulate itself.

All this is happening along with increasing mechanization and a subsequent loss of local employment in forest areas. The labour intensive crews of cutters and skidders are being replaced with the highly efficient "feller-bunchers", large machines that cut, bundle and skid the trees in one operation. (One local told me they are called that because they put a "buncha fellers" out of work.)

There is a new government in Queen's Park and some things in this province are bound to change. It is too much to hope that Dalton McGuinty will be converted to Buddhist Economics, but let's hope that there is at least a thorough review of forestry policy that looks beyond profit and efficiency and takes into account more holistic values of resource sustainability, biodiversity, wild-life habitat and respect for local communities.

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