Sit down and wake up! On Buddhist theory and planetary crisis

Mention Buddhism and you’ll often get a response shaped by its recent commodification into a self-care trend. Mindfulness apps, cheerful Buddha incense holders and the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up have led many to assume that Buddhism, like deep breathing and scented candles is primarily a technique for managing stress. Do I even need to tell you that these assumptions are wide off the mark? Probably not, yet even those who are aware ‘Buddhism’ goes deeper than these stereotypes may be surprised to hear it paired in the same sentence with ‘post-humanism’ ‘decoloniality’ ‘deconstruction’ and even ‘anarchism’.

Yet I’m about to embark on research linking just these streams of thought. This October I’ll be studying for the MSc Society & Space with plans to continue to PhD study through the ESRC 3+1 route in 2021. My research will ask how Buddhism can help us reconceive the politics of the more-than-human world in an age of planetary crisis. Buddhist thought has a unique contribution to make here, yet it’s frequently overlooked as a source of theory for approaching these questions (and other social science questions more generally).

A statue of Jizo (Kṣitigarbha) or the Earth-Womb boddhisattva glimpsed through a doorway at the Koya-san temple complex in Kansai region, Japan.

Just like other non-Western philosophies, perceptions of Buddhism have been framed through the colonial encounter. Whilst nineteenth century explorers to Tibet, China, India and Japan, did much to inspire fascination with ‘Oriental religions’, early translations of Buddhist texts often understood Buddhism through a Christian lens, equating the Buddha with Jesus. This, and the general imperial refusal to take other ways of thought and life seriously have ensured that Buddhism is yet to receive much serious academic attention outside of religious studies and history departments.

For this reason alone, Buddhist perspectives can and should be mobilised as a source of decolonising critique. But it’s not just valuable as a perspective from which to criticise.  Contemporary Buddhisms brought to the West by Tibetan refugees and modern Japanese scholars such as D.T. Suzuki from the 1950s onwards have demonstrated the breadth, diversity and originality of Buddhist scholarship and practice. And more recently, excellent work has been carried out demonstrating historical Buddhism’s clear pertinence to contemporary philosophical and political concerns more broadly.

In fact many of most disruptive (and productive) concepts shaping contemporary humanities study today were anticipated by Buddhist thought by literally thousands of years. Put it this way – if names like Derrida, Deleuze, Whitehead, Latour, and Stengers are more familiar to social scientists today than Nagarjuna, Dogen, and Candrakirti this is not because the latter have nothing relevant to say on topics such as deconstruction, non-representational theory, subjectivity and self, embodiment, the symbolic order or the production of knowledge (although of course the way they mobilise and describe these concepts is completely different.)

Post-human concepts of relational networks and assemblages, which have so radically re-shaped geographical approaches to understanding human/environment relations, find close resonance in pratitya samutpada, or the doctrine of mutual causality, an ontology of radical relation. Pratitya samutpada sees reality as process – patterns of self-organising physical and psychological events which have no fixed structure or semiotics. This interdependence logically implies an ethic of care and kind-heartedness (towards all sentient beings), a cornerstone of Buddhist practice common to all traditions.

A moment of contemplation at the D.T. Suzuki centre in Kanazawa, Japan.

In an age of climate crisis the ethical imperative to try to relieve suffering is being interpreted increasingly to include ecological care for the more-than-human world (including heterogenous and complex ‘sentient beings’ such as watersheds, bio-regions and radioactive waste) and the resulting politics of this ‘Eco-dharma’ have many similarities to activisms inspired by deep ecology, indigenous, ecofeminist and anarchist philosophies. This global wave of ecologically-informed Buddhist practice is the starting point for my research, but I’m hoping to use it as a springboard for bringing Buddhist critique into geography more generally – applying Buddhist ideas to questions of political ecology, inter-species relationships, care-giving, and environmental governance.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to disrupt some assumptions along the way – including the idea that Zen is primarily concerned with minimalist interior design and esoteric catchphrases. For me, it offers something much more radical and ultimately subversive – a philosophical commitment to experiment with risky ideas and relentlessly question the foundations of your knowledge (as well as a strong suggestion to not take yourself too seriously, and to always be prepared for absurdity and impossibility!) I hope that these will be useful qualities for a new postgraduate researcher to bring into their academic practice and I’m sure that both Deleuze and Nagarjuna would agree.

And of course, Buddhist psychology and meditative practice do offer highly effective methods for understanding the mind, cultivating equanimity and un-learning habitual patterns of thought. It’s exactly this refusal to sit neatly in disciplinary boxes that makes Buddhism such a fascinating area of study – a philosophy of the mind and world which is simultaneously theory and practice. Buddhism asks us to move beyond dualisms of self/world, human/non-human and thought/reality which is exactly why its perspectives are essential to understanding our entangled, inter-dependent and precarious life in the age of the Anthropocene. It offers us an injunction to both sit down (learn to change your mind through meditation) and wake up (liberate yourself through taking ethical action), demonstrating beautifully Marx’s dictum that the true purpose of philosophy is not just to interpret the world, but to change it.


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Courtenay Crawford who is undertaking a new MSc and PhD project, funded by an ESRC 1+3 grant through the South West Doctoral Training Partnership. This blog was reposted with kind permission from the Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities. Read the original blog.

Courtenay Crawford

Food Connections

Last week the Bristol Food Connections festival explored “all that is GREAT about food in Bristol (and beyond)” [1]. This made me realise that what I am exploring are the separations in our global food system. While so much of food in Bristol is ‘GREAT’ there is still much work to do about what is NOT SO GREAT. In the global food system, the separations between those who produce and those who consume what is transported around the world are many: income, origin, lifestyle, language, history, opportunities, culture, diet, microbiome – you name it there are separations in the way we eat and live.

This weekend I co-facilitated an event, Philosophy Breakfast: The ethics of global food production, with Julian Baggini, philosopher and author of the book, Virtues of the table: How to eat and think, [2]. Julian focused our thoughts on ethics and justice, and I grounded us with a case study, on tomatoes produced in Morocco, based on my recent fieldwork. We were treated, literally, to food for thought, in the form of a breakfast bap and coffee from the Boston Tea Party as well as a full house of attendees ready and willing to reflect on their role in the food systems. I was determined that this group, who had been motivated enough to get up for a 10 am Sunday start, also be given space to tell us what we should be considering in relation to the ethics of food. So, we invited each table to choose a breakfast food element to reflect upon, bread, coffee, tea, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms, as they slowly digested its nutrients and food dilemmas.

Framing the session Julian considered our role as consumers by drawing on the thoughts of some classical philosophers from Plato to Sen: we should not, he suggested, be afraid of always getting everything right, but we should at least do our best to avoid contributing to what we find clearly morally wrong. How to go about this? I asked our participants to think of questions which might help us reflect on each of the breakfast items to help us consider these dilemmas. Furthermore, perhaps we might have questions for others; for the supermarkets, for the governments, and for the companies involved. My favourite question from this savvy group was, for meat: “was it worth an animal dying for me to eat this?” something that connects to my blog on the great value of seeing meat as sacrifice: ‘L hawli‘.

My talk related more to the question about coffee, “What labour standards (how bad would they be) would stop you buying coffee?”. What a question. International labour standards usually boil down to a mutual agreement that the countries involved in trade will apply their national labour laws. They may also be required to ensure that these national laws meet international standards, but what are these international standards? Since the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (ILO, 1998) [3], international labour law has been focused, or in practice narrowed, depending on your perspective, to just eight core conventions covering four areas (collective bargaining, forced labour, child labour, non-discrimination at work), out of a possible 189 conventions covering many other very important areas [4]. So this is a relatively weak starting point, which in most cases simply attempts to ensure already existing minimum standards (laws) are implemented.

What happens also, when national laws do not meet the needs of workers? Too often agricultural work is excluded from normal labour standards, or minimum wages are lower in this sector. This is not just the case in poorer countries. In the USA, the world’s richest state, many agricultural workers are exempted from minimum wage and overtime entitlements of the main national labour legislation, the Fair Labour Standards Act [5]. This is discrimination sanctioned by law.

Such discrimination between agriculture and other sectors is also the case in Morocco, where I carried out fieldwork. Whilst the legal minimum wage in other sectors is £8.29, the minimum day wage for agricultural workers is significantly lower at £5.37. OK, you may think, but life is cheaper there. Not that much cheaper. We can convert that minimum agricultural wage to a UK equivalent via the Purchasing Power Parity formula, (or PPP) this tells you what the equivalent wage would be in the UK. That equivalent of that minimum agricultural wage in a UK context with UK housing, food and other costs would be £13.51. This is not enough to live comfortably, barely enough to survive.

This is why then, the first findings chapter of my thesis is entitled “No Money”. If a major supply chain, feeding us year round with produce that we increasingly depend upon, rests on a starting point of an unreasonably low minimum wage, we cannot consider this a socially sustainable global food connection. And it is a connection. Although we are separated by distance, language, culture and long food chains, it was not difficult to find tomatoes just on our doorstep. Even last week when the ‘counter-season’ was officially over (as we now produce more in the UK so there is less market for non-EU producers) I could easily identify tomatoes in Bristol from a major company in business just outside of Agadir, Morocco (where my research is focused). I know workers from this company’s greenhouses and packhouses and spent months in daily conversations with them about what needs to change. They are calling for increases in wages and working conditions, better childcare and better social infrastructure. The separations then, are there to be bridged.

Transparency came up a lot on the morning of our event. How is there so much information about the attributes of food itself, and so little about those that produce it? We can only find out about food if actors involved in the sector are willing to be open (governments, retailers, employers). This showed at the Bristol Fruit Market, which I also visited as part of the Food Connections festival. The openness of the owners to discuss their business and show us around their distribution centre was in very clear contrast to the supermarket distribution centres which are shrouded in secrecy. Yet this is not the case at every stage of the process and it is only by asking questions, and showing that we care, that we can have any leverage at all to shift the harshest dynamics of global food systems.

Why are wages so low in the food sector? How can we revalue food? How can we keep alternative routes to market going (such as through wholesale)? How do we know if workers are treated fairly? What does that mean? How can we improve social and labour conditions in global production? These some of the questions that I am working on at the moment.

Groups feed back from their discussions at the Philosophy Breakfast event 17 June 2018

[1] Bristol Food Connections Festival website

[2] BAGGINI, J. 2014. The virtues of the table: How to eat and think, Granta Books.

[3] ILO 1998. ILO Declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work. International Labour Conference. Geneva: International Labour Office.

[4] A list of the 189 ILO conventions

[5] See, Guide to the Fair Labor Standards Act

[6] This is known locally as the difference of the SMIG, the minimum legal industrial wage, and the SMAG, the minimum legal agricultural wage. The SMIG is set by the hour (13.46 Moroccan Dirhams). An 8-hour equivalent of the SMIG comes to the GBP of £8.29. This can then be compared to the minimum agricultural wage, set by the day at 69.73 Moroccan Dirhams, equivalent to £5.37 per day.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Lydia Medland and has been reposted with kind permission from her original blog.  Lydia is from the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

Lydia Medland

Find out more about the Cabot Institute’s Food Security research theme.

Sharing the world’s natural resources

In discussions about climate justice, one particular question that receives a lot of attention is that of how to share the global emissions budget (that is, the limited amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that can be released into the atmosphere if we are to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change). A popular proposal here is ‘equal shares’. As suggested by the name, if this solution were adopted the emissions budget would be shared between countries on the basis of population size – resulting in a distribution of emission quotas that is equal per capita. Equal shares is favoured not only by many philosophers, but also a wide range of international organisations (it is the second essential component, for example, of the prominent Contraction and Convergence approach).  
I became interested in the equal shares view because it is often put forward with very little argument. Some people seem to think it obvious that this is the best way for parties to the UNFCCC to honour their commitment to deal with climate change on the basis of ‘equity’. But can things really be so simple when this budget must be shared across countries and individuals that differ greatly in terms of their needs, wealth and – arguably – contribution to climate change?
When you look more closely at the arguments that are actually given for equal shares, it turns out that many people claim this to be a fair solution to a global commons problem (for a quick introduction to commons problems, listen here). They argue that distributing emission quotas equates to distributing rights to the atmosphere. The atmosphere, however, is alleged to be a global commons – or shared resource – that no individual has a better claim to than any other. Therefore, rights to this resource – in the form of emission quotas – should be distributed to all human beings globally on an equal per capita basis.
The major problem underlying this argument is its restricted focus on fairly sharing the atmosphere. What many defenders of equal shares neglect to realise is that the atmosphere does not actually act as a sink for carbon dioxide (CO2) – thought to be the most important anthropogenic GHG – which is instead assimilated by the ocean, soils and vegetation. Whilst the argument for equal shares might seem plausible in the case of the ocean – a resource that is also often described as a global commons – it is much harder to carry it over to terrestrial sinks (soils and vegetation), which lie for the most part within state borders. This leaves the equal shares view open to objections from countries like Brazil, which could argue that they should be allocated a higher per capita CO2 allowance on the basis of their possession of a large terrestrial sink (in the form of the Amazon rainforest). Furthermore it seems that Brazil would have backing in international law for such a claim.
The question of whether countries with large terrestrial sinks should have full use rights in these resources – and should therefore be allocated a greater share of the emissions budget – leads us into an enquiry about rights to natural resource that has occupied philosophers for centuries. Roughly speaking, the main parties to this debate are statists – who often deny the existence of significant duties of international justice and attempt to defend full national ownership over natural resources – and cosmopolitans – who hold that justice requires us to treat all human beings equally regardless of their country of birth.
Cosmopolitans often argue that one’s country of birth is a ‘morally arbitrary’ characteristic: a feature like gender or race that shouldn’t be allowed to have a significant influence on your life prospects. They believe it is clearly unfair that a baby lucky enough to be born in Norway will on average have far better life prospects than a baby that happens to be born in Bangladesh. Because of this, cosmopolitans are often opposed to national ownership of natural resources, which they take to be a form of undeserved advantage. 
Cosmopolitanism can be used to defend equal per capita emission shares because according to this view, rights to natural resources – whether gold, oil, or carbon sinks – shouldn’t be allocated to whichever state they just happen to be found in.
This cosmopolitan interpretation of fairness has a certain intuitive plausibility – why should claims to valuable natural resources be based on accidents of geography? On the other hand, there are a number of arguments that can be given for taking some people to have a better claim than others to certain carbon sinks. It seems particularly important, for a start, to consider whether indigenous inhabitants of the rainforest should be taken to have a privileged position in decision-making about how this resource is used. We also need to acknowledge that preserving forests will often be costly in terms of missed development opportunities. Why should everybody be able to share equally in the benefits of forest sinks, if it is countries like Brazil or India that must forgo alternative ways of using that land when they choose to conserve? This question is particularly pertinent given that land devoted to rainforest protection cannot be used for alternative – renewable – forms of energy production such as solar or biofuel.
In addition, if cosmopolitans are correct that use rights to terrestrial sinks should not be allocated on the basis of their location, then we need to question national ownership of other natural resources as well. If countries are not entitled to full use of ‘their’ forest sinks, then can we consistently allow rights to fossil fuels – e.g. the shale gas below the British Isles – to be allocated on a territorial basis? This is how rights over natural resources – forests and fossil fuels included – have generally been allocated in the past, with many resource-rich countries reaping huge benefits as a result. If national ownership is a rotten principle, is rectification in order for its past application? And what should we then say about the natural resources that can be used in renewable energy production? Why should the UK alone be allowed to exploit its territorial seas for the production of tidal energy? Or Iceland claim rights over all of its easily accessible geothermal sources?
Commons arguments for equal per capita emission quotas go astray when they claim that the atmosphere is the sole natural resource that assimilates our GHG emissions. Once we recognise this, we should appreciate that the problem of the fair allocation of the global emissions budget cannot be dealt with in isolation, but is instead tied up with broader, difficult questions regarding how the natural world should be used and shared. The answers we give regarding each individual’s claim to use GHG sinks need to be rendered consistent with our judgments regarding the justice of the past and current allocation of rights over other natural resources – resources including fossil fuels and renewables – if we are really to deal with climate change on the basis of equity.
This post was written by Megan Blomfield, a PhD student in the University of Bristol philosophy department. It is based on her paper, published in the latest edition of The Journal of Political Philosophy, titled ‘Global Common Resources and the Just Distribution of Emissions Shares’.
Megan Blomfield, University of Bristol