As Sri Lanka eases away from the emergency and security phase to a growth and development phase, there is a wonderful opportunity for us to create a balance between growth and the beauty of its nature and people – in fact pacing and sequencing the growth by being thoughtful, planning well not for now, but for the next one hundred years – will be prudent to recreate the pearl of the orient. Yet, the force against this kind of restraint and balance is great as the world marches to the drum of ‘growth is great’. We have put too much stock on the notion that growth will help everyone, except, what we see is that the rich usually get richer, unless there are carefully planned social, educational, health care and environmental systems in place backed up by an exceptional process for justice to serve and protect every citizen. This may bring about a kind of a social equality for all balancing with nature.
Yet we know that everything hinges on economics. The world is dictated by the economic value of GDP where the combined value of paid work and what we produce complemented by growth is the measure ingrained into our heads from the beginning of our conscious journey in modern life. As such, we are emotionally attached to the concept of growth.
I encounter this regularly as a business consultant when a CEO tells the management team at a strategic planning meeting; “This year we had a turnover of 10 million dollars, so lets make it 12 million in the next year”. I realize this is often a number plucked from the sky for the sake of growth. One year later I am called in to solve the problem of turnover of employees as they walk out the door in protest of not having a work-life balance and too much stress. Investigations by talking to all levels lead me right back to the CEO’s growth proclamation.
Economics and Assumptions
The key assumption in economics is – we grow or we languish. Yes, in many cases for survival, whether it is a country or a business, growth is needed, but my contention is that it has become so mindless where growth is the mantra at any cost, even if it will eventually bite you back.
This happens as leaders are not mindful of the co-dependencies that exist with everything we say and do. The CEO asking for a 2 million dollar increase in turnover may see the market potential to grow, but often ignores the nitty-gritty of the organization, especially the people at the lowest levels who have to carry the burden. In the name of efficiency, the organization does not invest in more machinery and people, so the growth happens at the expense of existing people’s well being, family life and health and we wonder why they are walking out.
So, there are limits to growth when we bring the human element into this equation. Extend this to the country, to nature and our planet and we know well enough, there cannot be limitless growth, as it means polluting more, cutting trees, clearing forests and hurting people that hinder the very sustenance for all beings.
Just like the employees need the sustenance through nourishment, rest and rejuvenation our earth needs it too. We cannot keep taking and taking from either without a breakdown.
Interestingly, this growth has happened only in the last 500 years or about 8 generations of over 125,000 generations that has inhabited the earth, and it is a result of a separation of our mind and matter – ala Descarte the French philosopher. We have kept nature and the human spirit separate from material growth and prosperity, forgetting that the very container for all this is mother earth.
We can see the physical evidence of this decay on our earth through melting of polar ice caps, desertification, drying lakes and weather changes all around us. Yet, like the typical CEO who cannot understand why people are so unhappy, our attachment to the growth ideology keeps us blinkered and carrying on. We are so attached to this growth ideology, as soon as someone questions it they are attacked with a vengeance.
Sane Minds Prevail
Luckily for us and especially for our future generations, there is growing body of people who are courageously questioning the growth mantra and looking at new paradigms. Could there be such a thing called a ‘no growth’ economy ?.
Peter Victor of York University in Ontario, Canada (author of book Managing Without Growth – www.managingwithoutgrowth.com ) is exploring this along with many others. Victor has created a computer model replicating the Canadian economy. He combined and adjusted the various elements such as productivity, consumption, the population up and down and found that he could find a steady state through a combination of reducing the work week, taxing the rich and for carbon without hurting the standard of living. We just need to release our emotional attachment with the growth ideology to explore new possibilities.
In the 1960s Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring reawakened people to the perils of mindless growth that it inspired the Club of Rome – a group of industrialists, scholars, diplomats and professionals. They teamed up with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) systems thinker Dennis Meadows to create a computer model which showed clearly that we may have short term prosperity with limitless growth, but with nature going against us, resources will become scarce, prices will skyrocket collapsing the world economy. Published in 1972 the book Limits to Growth became a global best seller and scared the world only to wake the mainstream economics fraternity to resist. Supported by big business, they attacked the book and the findings with a vengeance calling them ‘alarmists’ and questioning their ‘pseudo-science’. The economists argued that business would adjust to nature’s realities by changing materials they used and the way they did business when the time comes and the system should not be interfered with. So the growth mantra continues unabated.
Spiritual Growth ?
As a person inquiring into marrying the material world and spirituality, influenced by both science and philosophy such as Buddhism, I have realized that these battles run deep as ideologies clash.
Economists have laid their stake religiously on the primacy of growth. They are emotionally attached to this through an indoctrination supported through logic and mathematics, albeit with a lot if assumptions about values and human behavior. As such, resistance to change is understandable as people fear that “no growth” will hit their standard of living and their pockets. Of course there are the vested interests of big business working with academia to resist new thinking as their markets will shrink if people move away from consumerism. So, there are great dilemmas.
This battle is also rife between the oil interests coupled with climate change naysayers vs. climate change activists, as it is with the pharmaceutical industry supported western medical establishment against alternative health supporters.
It is the same ideological clash, but there is a lot at stake either way.
My inquiry is, how do we change this and create a better balance?.
For that we have to focus on the individual, as it all begins with personal responsibility.
I often wonder how a person can compartmentalize away information based on what we learn or is happening in front of us. For instance, we all know that trees give us oxygen for our sustenance, but we continue to support economic principles that allow for forests to be mowed down in the interest of growth. There is also no economic value given to the oxygen we breathe, but for a cut tree there is value.
How can a person, who maybe a parent knowingly allow for an action that may jeopardize his child’s future well-being?.
How can an executive of an oil company whose job is to scuttle the climate change activist’s work to negotiate a reduction of carbon emissions at a global climate meeting have a conversation with his children about their future on this earth?.
Deep down many of these people maybe torn between what they see and what they have to put up with in order to eke out a living or to support their lifestyle.
If its ideology that has trapped people in these dilemmas and ideology that keeps them going, we need to question ideology after all we humans create these in the first place. Maybe it is too late to deal with adults on this. Maybe we have to start by educating the young about developing their minds to a level where they do not have to depend on one ideology, but to become inquiring, question and find a balance, based on a set of values that espouse respect to the very earth that gives us our life and to each other as fellow beings sharing this planet.
In my inquiry and practice, I research ancient and modern philosophies and find Buddha’s teachings to be both rational and logical to find a path to a better balance. His message was to never take anything he said at face value and for us to question, explore for ourselves, learn and decide. In fact, it honors the human mind and gives us the responsibility.
Buddha’s philosophy is anchored on a concept of “dependent arising” which is a denial of permanent and eternal substance, a law or an ultimate structure, but also an explanation of how human experience comes to be. Everything changes but is interconnected and interdependent.
The cornerstone of the practice is mindfulness through meditation and with this inward journey to witness the world as it evolves.
Through my practice, I am seeing a link between the world of matter and the human spirit. Consciousness is dependently arisen and is experienced through our senses. We can condition ourselves to be attached to an ideology to numb certain parts to deal with the current realities, so we become blind to the consequences of our actions, even if it hurts the earth and people around us.
When we realize there is no permanence, like the ideologies we cling to, our behaviors will change as we will become open to the consequences. So, the oil man will become conscious of the industry’s impact on his children and theirs and may begin to address the dilemma.
As I said, all this can be traumatic to an adult unless, he or she is ready to start this journey.
The New Generation
In the meantime, let us concentrate on the new generation in order to help them to continue their inquiring minds to grow, learn about the way the world works, but be confident and keep questioning fearlessly. Teach them that ideologies are man-made concepts, not cast in stone and if certain ideologies hurt this earth and its people, make them violent and ill have the courage to question and change, as nothing is permanent.
We need to teach them young to be reflective, meditate, do yoga to find the balance between mind and body and build their self esteem by engaging in martial arts to learn to move to the edge and back with skill and balance. That will give them the courage to face new challenges they are bound to encounter in a world where mother earth’s balance has been disturbed already. They will also make informed decisions on the kinds of professions they will get into and may stay away from areas that do harm to people and this earth.
So, it is time we seriously start to inquire into this growth ideology that we are so attached to. Maybe we will then seek a new economics that will help us to live in a peaceful co-existence with people and nature around us. Sri Lanka can lead the way, as we have the chance now.