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dalai lama environmental summit panel

May 12, 2013

I had an awesome time at the Environmental Summit Panel today. The discussion was interesting, the Dalai Lama was funny and inspiring, and the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s set was pretty rad. And the best part was, I got to share the experience with a few of my really good friends.

One of the things that I think would’ve made the panel better, though, was including a Marxist ecologist to help connect some of the dots for them. (Speaking of ‘Marxist,’ it was great to see the audience, who applauded just about everything the Dalai Lama said, squirm and the silence that followed when he said, “Perhaps I am socialist. As far as social economy is concerned, I am Marxist.”)

Most of the panelists, not including the Dalai Lama who openly stated that he’s Marxist when it comes to social-economic theory, agreed that we need to rethink our economic structure in some way, but they never really touched upon how doing so within the context of capitalism is problematic to say the least. For one thing, they all seemed to agree that an economic system that depends on continued and uninterrupted expansion (i.e., indefinite growth) isn’t an environmentally sustainable system, particularly when the drive for profit is the bottom line.

However, nobody really dealt with the problem that capital only functions when it grows and reproduces itself (i.e., creates surplus value and profit) in a process that arguably requires amplifying consumption, particularly to overcome the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and a shrinkage in the absolute mass of profit created via commodity production. And further exacerbating the problem, which was briefly mentioned, is the fact that, within the context of this system, negative externalities can actually contribute to economic growth.

Another thing that wasn’t really touched upon was that if we truly want to change our collective behaviour in more environmentally sound ways, on an individual level as well as on the broader level of global production and distribution, we need to critically assess and rethink the current system that underlies our material reproduction and coerces our economic and consumptive behaviour.

Simply recycling and reusing clothes on an individual level isn’t going to reduce our CO2 admissions from 400ppm to 350ppm since most of the pollution is produced by large industries, industrial farming, the harvesting and processing of fossil fuels, etc., not to mention the fact that less consumption by consumers means a slowing and even collapsing capitalist economy (especially in the US, where consumption accounts for about 70% of GDP).

This, I think, also ties into the problem of conflicts between various industries and public interest when it comes to combating things like pollution and environmental degradation. For one, more environmentally sound policies would potentially make things more expensive, and could also cut into profits and restrict growth; and the companies we’re trying to ‘persuade’ to further limit pollution have powerful lobbying power and put pressure on politicians (if they don’t just outright buy them), and attempting to regulate them via legislation often results in inadequate compromises (e.g., weak cap and trade laws).

So the solution can’t just be shifting to more individual ‘green’ activities, nor can it solely be through political reforms and regulations (i.e., laws), although both can be useful tools; it has to include a fundamental shift in the way we approach production, distribution, and even consumption. And one of the ways to achieve this is through better education and honest, open dialogues about what we all agree on and how to move forward in the direction we want to go—which hopefully includes taking care of our collective home.

I think that was one of the main points made by the Dalai Lama, which he returned to again and again. Changing our behaviour begins with becoming more educated, about ourselves and our environment, continually adjusting our worldview based upon the things we learn, strengthening our affection and compassion for others, realizing our potential as human beings, and then going out into the world and acting on that knowledge from a place of concern for the well-being of both ourselves and others.

All in all, it was a great way to spend the day and I’m glad that I was able to go. If nothing else, it inspired me to get back into my meditation practice and motivated me to continue trying to do what I can to make myself and the world a better place using all the tools at my disposal.

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