Scarcity And Consumption


As a Buddhist monk of the Thai Forest lineage I am sometimes amused by the strange ideas people have about the monk's lifestyle. One common misconception is that it represents an escape from "real life." It may put things into perspective if I tell you how I spent my afternoons this week. First, I had to fix our well. This involved breaking a hole in the cement lid with power tools to get at the pump housing. When that job was done, I spent some time working on the cabin wiring and building a frame for another solar panel.

Part of the practise for a forest monk is living in remote places, away from towns and villages. This means getting by without urban amenities like water, power and sewage. For anyone living out here, having any of those things means taking responsibility for them oneself. If I want water, I have to walk to the well, pump it and carry the buckets back to the cabin. And of course, I have to keep the equipment in repair. Likewise for power. There are no hydro lines here, so if we want electricity we have to make our own. For us, that means solar panels supplemented by a gasoline generator.

The larger society is now beginning to come up against problems of scarcity in both water and power. In Canada, nature has blessed us with an abundance of fresh water, and that tends to make us complacent. (Anyone remember the cod fishery?) The Walkerton disaster demonstrates just how vulnerable we are. Electricity, and energy in general, is becoming a scarce commodity. In California, they are already facing an absolute shortfall. This has become a hot political issue in the United States, with President Bush in favour of increasing capacity, regardless of the environmental cost.

Approaching the problem from the other side, making do with less, is one that is in accord with Buddhist teachings. Buddhists value peace of mind very highly and one of the keys to that state is contentment. Being satisfied with what you have, rather than striving to get more is an attitude that is easier on the nerves, as well as the planet.

It is unfortunate that conservation has become a politicized value, instead of being seen as just common sense. If we use less, there will be more to go around, and it will last longer. I am convinced that a lot of waste happens because people are physicallly and cognitively disconnected from the supply. One of the things visitors to the monastery learn quite quickly is how to conserve water. When you have to carry each bucket a hundred yards, you tend to make it last! Electricity is a little more complicated, but when you have a limited system, you need to know how much power each machine is using. How many city dwellers have any idea how much power their various appliances are using?

Instead of being an escape from reality, this kind of situation forces a person to come to terms with reality in a very immediate way. This is part of the Buddhist teachings which are all about being fully present and engaged. Becoming conscious of a situation is the first step in dealing with it. It is probably not desirable, and it is certainly not possible, that everyone should "get off the grid." But everyone can and should inform themselves about their own useage of scarce planetary resources, as a first step toward coming to a sustainable balance. Do you know how much power you have used today? How much water?

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