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

Coronavirus conspiracy theories are dangerous – here’s how to stop them spreading


Conspiracy theories increase the likelihood that people won’t follow expert advice. Shutterstock

The number of coronavirus infections and deaths continues to rise at an alarming rate, reminding us that this crisis is far from over. In response, the global scientific community has thrown itself at the problem and research is unfolding at an unprecedented rate.

The new virus was identified, along with its natural origins, and tests for it were rapidly developed. Labs across the world are racing to develop a vaccine, which is estimated to be still around 12 to 18 months away.

At the same time, the pandemic has been accompanied by an infodemic of nonsense, disinformation, half-truths and conspiracy theories that have spread virally through social networks. This damages society in a variety of ways. For example, the myth that COVID-19 is less dangerous than the seasonal flu was deployed by US president Donald Trump as justification for delaying mitigation policies.

The recent downgrading of COVID-19 death projections, which reveal the success of social-distancing policies, has been falsely used to justify premature relaxing of social distancing measures. This is the logical equivalent of throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because it’s kept you dry until then.

The new conspiracy theory that blames COVID-19 on the 5G broadband system is one of the most bizarre pieces of misinformation. There are several strains of this theory, ranging from the claims that 5G alters people’s immune systems to the idea that 5G changes people’s DNA, making them more susceptible to infection. Then there’s the idea that secret messages about 5G and coronavirus were hidden in the design of the new £20 note in the UK. In reality, 5G relates to viruses and bank notes as much as the tooth fairy relates to zoology – not at all.

The 5G conspiracy theory originated in early March when an American physician, Thomas Cowan, proposed it in a YouTube video (which has since been taken down by YouTube according to their new policy). Some people have taken this conspiracy theory so seriously that it led to people setting 5G towers in the UK on fire and threatening broadband engineers.

The conspiracy theory has begun to penetrate mainstream society. Among other celebrities, UK TV personality Eamonn Holmes and US actor Woody Harrelson have given fuel to the idea.

Inoculating against conspiracy theories

As we document in our recent Conspiracy Theory Handbook, there is a great deal of scientific research into why people might be susceptible to conspiracy theories. When people suffer loss of control or feel threatened, it makes them more vulnerable to believing conspiracies. Unfortunately, this means that pandemics have always been breeding grounds for conspiracy theories, from antisemitic hysteria during the Black Death to today’s 5G craze.

An effective strategy for preventing conspiracy theories from spreading through social networks is, appropriately enough, inoculation. As we document in the Conspiracy Theory Handbook, if we inoculate the public by pre-emptively warning them of misleading misinformation, they develop resilience and are less likely to be negatively influenced. Inoculating messages can take several forms. As well as giving people the right facts, inoculation can also be logic-based and source-based.

Questioning the sources

The source-based approach focuses on analysing the people who push the conspiracy theory and the cultural infrastructure from which they emerged.

For example, the 5G theory began with Thomas Cowan, a physician whose medical licence is on a five-year probation. He is currently prohibited from providing cancer treatment to patients and supervising physician assistants and advanced practice nurses. So we can question his credentials.

His 5G video was from a talk he presented at a pseudo-scientific conference featuring a who’s who of science deniers. One of the headliners was Andrew Wakefield, a debarred former physician and seminal figure in the anti-vaccination movement who promotes highly damaging misinformation about vaccination based on data that he is known to have falsified.

Another attendee of this meeting was the president of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, an organisation famous for bestowing awards onto fossil-fuel funded climate deniers and for giving a platform to a speaker who denied the link between HIV and AIDS, claiming that the link was invented by government scientists who wanted to cover up other health risks of “the lifestyle of homosexual men.”

For the public to be protected against the 5G conspiracy theory, it is important to understand its emergence from the same infrastructure that also supports AIDS denial, anti-vaccination conspiracies and climate denial.

It is therefore unsurprising that the rhetorical techniques that are deployed against the seriousness of climate change are similar to those used to mismanage the COVID-19 crisis.

Yale Climate ConnectionsAuthor provided


Questioning the logic

Another way to neutralise conspiracy theories is through logic-based inoculation. This involves explaining the rhetorical techniques and tell-tale traits to be found in misinformation, so that people can flag it before it has a chance to mislead them. In the Conspiracy Theory Handbook, we document seven traits of conspiratorial thinking. Spotting these can help people identify a baseless theory.

Conspiracy Theory HandbookAuthor provided

One trait that is particularly salient in the 5G conspiracy theory is re-interpreting randomness. With this thought pattern, random events are re-interpreted as being causally connected and woven into a broader, interconnected pattern.

For example, the introduction of 5G in 2019 coincided with the origin of COVID-19 and hence is interpreted to be causally related. But by that logic, other factors that were introduced in 2019 – say, the global phenomenon of Baby Yoda – could also be interpreted as a possible cause of COVID-19.

Correlation does not equal causation. The 5G conspiracy theory is also immune to evidence, despite having been debunked extensively. To illustrate, some of the countries worst affected by the pandemic (such as Iran) do not have any 5G technology.

Of course, 5G has nothing to do with a virus. In the US, T-Mobile’s low-band 5G data is transmitted using old UHF TV channels. UHF TV did not cause coronavirus and neither does 5G.

John CookAuthor provided


The crucial role of social media platforms

Social media platforms contribute to the problem of misinformation by providing the means for it to quickly and freely disseminate to the general public. Given that 330,000 lives were lost in relation to AIDS in South Africa during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, when denying the disease’s link to HIV was official state policy. Given that people in the UK are now vandalizing potentially life-saving communication infrastructure, social media companies should not aid and abet the life-threatening disinformation that is spewed by a nexus of science deniers and conspiracy theorists.

To their credit, these firms are making an effort to be part of the solution to the problem of misinformation. For example, YouTube has announced that it will take down any video that espouses the 5G conspiracy theory. This is a move in the right direction.

There is considerable room for improvement, however. A recent test by the non-profit laboratory found much conspiratorial content on various social media platforms, and we were able to find hundreds of YouTube videos promulgating the 5G nonsense with a few keystrokes.

Much remains to be done.The Conversation

This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol and John Cook, Research Assistant Professor, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason UniversityThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky
Dr John Cook