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Buddhist Economics, Cool Enough To Touch

The light and heat generated during the late 60s and early 70s was the result of challenging boundaries, and to some extent testing the possibility of actually setting up a tent and living on a boundary. Living an everyday life in that high intensity environment proved untenable, but the artifacts thrown off from those expeditions have started to cool off enough that we can finally pick them up and examine them.

McLuhan, in Understanding Media, (another artifact from that era) talks about about how high-intensity experiences initially overwhelm the senses:

Intensity or high definition engenders specialism and fragmentation in living as in entertainment, which explains why any intense experience must be “forgotten,” “censored,” and reduced to a very cool state before it can be “learned” or assimilated. The Freudian “censor” is less of a moral function than an indispensable condition of learning. Were we to accept fully and directly every shock to our various structures of awareness, we would soon be nervous wrecks, doing double-takes and pressing panic buttons every minute. The “censor” protects our central system of values, as it does our physical nervous system by simply cooling off the onset of experience a great deal. For many people, this cooling system brings on a lifelong state of psychic rigor mortis, or of somnambulism, particularly observable in periods of new technology.

In 1973, E.F. Schumacher published a collection of essays under the title: Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. In the essay Buddhist Economics, Schumacher points out that value in economics is derived from our system of values. Suppressing all systems of values in favor of the idea of economic growth has allowed capital to emerge as an other-worldly abstraction. Like any successful creature, it fights to preserve the particular state of the ecosystem that allows it to flourish. Buddhist Economics posits that other systems of value are possible.

Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from “metaphysics” or “values” as the law of gravitation. We need not, however, get involved in arguments of methodology. Instead, let us take some fundamentals and see what they look like when viewed by a modern economist and a Buddhist economist.

It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.

Recently, Umair Haque has reintroduced us to the idea that value must return to earth, must live amongst people again, must be socialized. The value system of growth has been playing a zero-sum game. The monoculture of economics must change its farming practices and think of the fields once more as a garden. I wonder whether these ideas have cooled enough to be considered possibilities. Has the ecosystem changed enough to uncover interfaces by which they could be assimilated?

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that we cannot step into the same river twice. And yet I swear I’ve seen this piece of the stream before…

TS Eliot, Burnt Norton

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Other echoes
Inhabit the garden.

Shall we follow?

Published in economics tribes value zettel


  1. SLCarner SLCarner

    The Buddhist economic theory of a man's character being formed by a man's work is organic in nature and unfortunately in this age it is a very simplified notion. In my opinion, the Average Joe working for a living is not thinking about the larger system and the contributions his labor extends outside himself. It is rather a means to an end. There are no real guidelines or values placed on human resource in the purest sense of the term, hence many are quite disgruntled that their is no dignity to be found in their toils. In fact, in today's economy there are more people working to cheat the system than to make 'an honest dollar.' Thus the cultivation of the human spirit is marred by the unfit soil in which he must plant which lessens the chances of bearing any fruit of his labours. Ideally speaking what value and worth can be placed on a man's work when there are so many injustices and discrepancies? Is it for the love of money and what money can buy or the intrinsic values attained by hard work? And more importantly how do we cultivate the intrinsic values into one's everyday work? I suppose volunteering represents a higher order, but who can afford to volunteer, unless their needs have been adequately met, in a system that rapidly ups the ante on what is fair and unfair game?

  2. What a great blog post, McLuhan, Schumacher, not to mention Heraclitus and Eliot. Perhaps we could talk about this some time? My email is

  3. They've converted an idea for purification of character (limits to growth) into a way to make money, zero sum game that doesn't look like one.

  4. A 'cap' is a method of moderating growth. Value accumulates under the ceiling of limitation. Optimizations of carbon emission are an expression of values through an industrial market. But as you note, the game hasn't changed– they've just slightly changed the dimensions of the playing field.

  5. I was just thinking while walking the dog that I have probably, because of the unique time in which I was born, witnessed both the rise and fall of the United States. I read Small is Beautiful when it first came out, and had forgotten the part about Buddhist economics. However, for a variety of reasons I have been living that way for the past decade.

    But I am under no illusion that these lessons of high intensity have cooled enough in the past 5000 years to make people hold them. Touch them, maybe, but still draw back from their heat. In the long view, Buddhist economics should rule the world but doesn't. Example: cap-and-trade legislation and the quick formation of carbon markets. Need I say more?

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