Buddhist Economics

· Open Access, Reviews · ,

Media Review
BUDDHIST ECONOMICS:
An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science

by Clair Brown Ph.D.
Bloomsbury Press
Review by Lillian Childress

 

What would a world look like where the rules of economics were governed by Buddhist principles?

Clair Brown has set out to imagine such a world, drawing on her experience as an economics professor at University of California Berkeley and a longtime Tibetan Buddhist practitioner. Her book offers us the promise of laying out a road map to “an enlightened approach to the dismal science”

Brown walks us through a vision of economics based on maximizing collective happiness rather than maximizing profits: “In simplest terms, the free market model measures prosperity by focusing on growth in average income per person and in national output, while the Buddhist model measures prosperity by focusing on the quality of life of all people and Nature.”

Ultimately, however, Buddhist Economics leaves us with few tangible steps forward.

Brown focuses on mundane “save the earth” steps, putting her seal of approval on things we already knew were good: put on a sweater when it’s chilly, wrap presents with newspaper instead of buying wrapping paper. Some seem particularly unique to Brown’s socioeconomic bracket—“we drive less and lease a small electric car, driving our older Prius on longer trips.” On the whole, her suggestions for how to transition to a Buddhist economy lack the cutting insight that our economic discourse needs to transition away from the current model that is causing climate change at a faster pace than we can comprehend.


from Buddhist Economics

“In Buddhist economics, people are interdependent with on another and with Nature, so each person’s well-being is measured by how well everyone and the environment are functioning with the goal of minimizing suffering for people and the planet. Everyone is assumed to have the right to a comfortable life with access to basic nutrition, health care, education, and the assurance of safety and human rights. A country’s well-being is measured by the aggregation of the well-being of all residents and the health of the ecosystem.”

—Clair Brown


Moreover, Brown’s large-scale solutions lack the detail and the punch that we see in meticulously researched books like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. In her final recommendations for achieving an economy founded upon Buddhist principles, she urges us to promote sustainable agriculture, reduce waste, and increase access to potable water. What Brown fails to pay heed to is that we already know these things are desirable—we rely on experts like her to lay out a road map for how to achieve these noble goals. Thus, many of Brown’s proposals feel like they are Band-Aids on a greater problem. The call, for example, for more holistic economic indicators than GDP is a valid (and important) one, but still far from the revolutionary thinking it will take to get to the root of why—on a basic, spiritual level—we are led to over-consume.

Religion and spiritual practice can be integrated with economic thought, as we saw so artfully carried out in Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Inequality and Climate Change. What Brown fails to fully delve into is what the Encyclical articulates so well: the spiritual dearth that leads to unceasing consumption and greed and exactly what in our society is causing this dearth. As Pope Francis calls this modern ability to heedlessly over-consume “the throwaway economy.”

Calling the book Buddhist Economics is almost a misnomer, as very few Buddhist teachings, let alone original texts, are mentioned after they are cursorily introduced in the first few chapters. Brown seems instead to rely on a using a few sample quotes from modern Buddhist teachers and channeling Western-style mindfulness speak—at points, it feels as strange as if Pope Francis wrote his encyclical without a single reference to the Bible.

Ultimately, Buddhist Economics is a step in a direction we urgently need to turn towards: critical thought about how we can shift our economic system away from unbridled growth and consumption, and towards a system that equitably distributes resources and maximizes wellbeing for all. What we need now is the next step in the progression: decisive spiritual wisdom and concrete solutions towards these important goals.


from Buddhist Economics

“In Buddhist economics, people are interdependent with on another and with Nature, so each person’s well-being is measured by how well everyone and the environment are functioning with the goal of minimizing suffering for people and the planet. Everyone is assumed to have the right to a comfortable life with access to basic nutrition, health care, education, and the assurance of safety and human rights. A country’s well-being is measured by the aggregation of the well-being of all residents and the health of the ecosystem.”

—Clair Brown


Lillian Childress is a member of the MRO sangha living in New Haven, CT.

NextA Plea for the Animals