Fall arrives with the first yellow leaves, and the students return to campus. The young ones are eager for new experience and new learning. As a professor I have mixed feelings about their return. Their fresh brave energy is inspiring and brings my own calling into focus. But internally I struggle with what I must teach them. Courses in environmental studies reveal a disturbing aspect of human nature—the relentless consumption of resources. Landscapes ravaged by greed are not a pretty sight. Biological and political demands for more land, more water and more energy have changed the face of the Earth. Confronting this suffering leads inevitably to complex questions. Though I have worked with these issues across many years and from many angles, I still carry a big weight in my heart. Each semester I join the students in confronting my own complicity in perpetuating this abuse.
How can we understand this greed? Buddhist psychology explains greed in terms of attraction and aversion. In the Buddhist view, all emotions are a manifestation of three basic tendencies—wanting more of something (greed), wanting less of something (hate), and wanting something that doesn’t exist (delusion). The first set of emotions can be understood as the biological drive to go toward what is useful or pleasurable, the second as the desire to back away from what is harmful or distasteful, and the third as being confused by what is illusory. Together they are known as the Three Poisons, the source of all human suffering. The Buddhist path of liberation focuses on the study of and release from desire, emphasizing the cultivation of equanimity instead. Greed is not seen so much as a sin but rather as a driving force affecting all beings. Sometimes it is useful, as when animals gather food stores for the winter; sometimes it is harmful, as when resources are exhausted under pressure. Greed cannot be eliminated; it is part of the very process of life that sustains us . . . and undermines us.
Human greed has clearly taken its toll on the natural world: soil erosion, water depletion, habitat destruction and species decimation are common on every continent. Most wars and colonial occupations are likewise based in greed. Our material lives reflect the cumulative impact. Americans consume their average body weight every day in materials extracted and processed from farms, mines, rangelands and forests. America’s households contain and consume more stuff than all other households throughout history put together. Almost all of our household products have drawn on labor or natural resources from the global reaches of the world.
How are these systems-level impacts reflected in our modern sense of self-identity? In today’s consumer society, the self seems to be defined as “I am what I have,” or to paraphrase Descartes, “I shop, therefore I am.” Self-involvement is reinforced by ads that play on people’s needs for security and acceptance. By setting up idealized stereotypes, advertisements foster greed and a sense of dissatisfaction and inadequacy. Self-identity can merge with specific products, generating addictions to brand names and even to shopping itself. Ecopsychologists Kanner and Gomes believe that “shopaholism” is a widespread, chronic problem in which people shop to escape suffering much the same way people use drugs and alcohol. Consumerism rests on the assumption that human desires are infinitely expandable; if there are endless ways to be dissatisfied, there are endless market niches for new products to meet those desires. Marketers very skillfully exploit what is fundamental to human nature—desire. As consumerism spreads alarmingly across the globe, religions are asking, What can we offer as an antidote to this madness?
The Buddha saw that dealing with desire is a fundamental human challenge. In his teaching of the Four Noble Truths he lays out a specific methodology for dealing with this all-pervasive suffering. The teaching is phrased in terms of a medical diagnosis: suffering is the disease, craving is the cause of the disease, there is a cure for the disease, and that cure is the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. How can we apply this diagnosis to consumerism?
Let us begin with the cause of the disease: dissatisfaction or clinging, craving, desire, attachment. Taking many forms, it is the ceaseless striving for some new state or feeling, or for satisfaction and permanence. Because of the ever-changing nature of reality, this striving is always frustrated. Craving also includes aversion, the thirst for non-existence. In this type of suffering, one craves relief or escape from what is unpleasant or undesirable. The first of the Three Poisons, seeking pleasure (or greed), is the cornerstone of marketing psychology. Advertisements urge consumers to increase their greed in as many arenas as possible. Consider, for example, fast food “supersizes,” bargain basement sales, the barrage of ads on the Internet. Aversion/hatred, or the desire to get rid of, is equally central to marketing strategy. Pest control products get rid of hated insects, deodorants get rid of hated body odors, laundry soaps get rid of unwanted stains. Consumers readily believe they will be happy if they can just get rid of the things they don’t want. Delusion or ignorance is perpetuated by marketers to keep people confused about what they need. All three poisons drive the consumer to endless suffering, all to the profitable benefit of those who take advantage of this human tendency.
The way out of the suffering of consumerism lies in cutting through to root causes. This is the Third Noble Truth—that liberation from ceaseless suffering is possible. For the oppressed and deluded consumer, this is the most critical truth. It is the shining jewel in what Buddhism offers as a cure for the disease of consumerism: one has choice in the matter. One can choose to remain sick with the disease, or one can choose liberation and healing. Ethical choices in consumption are those that bring personal and environmental healing. Unethical choices are those that perpetuate personal and environmentally destructive activities. The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Path, the practice of making conscious choices in various arenas of action, offering the seeker liberation from the suffering of consumerism.
The liberation goal in this context might be defined as santutthi, or contentment. This involves freedom from desire and attachment—the opposite of dukkha, or suffering. One is content with what one has and is. Thai scholar Pibob Udomittipong describes how deeply this concept challenges modern consumerism. Soon after the first Thai National Economic Development Plan was drafted in the 1960s, the government banned Buddhist monks from teaching about contentment. The official governing body of the monks, the Sangha Authority, sanctioned this decree, apparently accepting the reasoning that santutthi was a barrier to the ideals of economic growth. The late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a very revered and socially engaged Thai teacher, argued against the ban, pointing out that contentment leads to the development of wisdom and is therefore essential for real human progress.
Consumerism is centered on the deliberate cultivation of desire. The traditional teaching of the twelve limbs of codependent origination offers a useful tool both for analysis of and insight into consumerism. This cycle is often used to describe the process of reincarnation; it applies as well to individual moments of grasping. Liberation can be found at every link in the chain.
The twelve limbs follow each other in order: ignorance, karmic formations, consciousness, name and form, six sense fields, contact, feelings, craving, grasping, becoming, birth, death, ignorance and so on. The pull of each of these, based on the strong experience of the one that precedes it, is so powerful that people (and other beings in their own way) are continually in the grip of this pattern. Because all of the twelve limbs are conditions upon which the others depend, if any of the conditions cease to exist, the entire cycle ceases to function. Release from this cycle of grasping and suffering is what the Buddha called nirvana.
Consumer craving depends upon feelings that arise following contact with objects in the sense fields. Feeling states in Buddhist psychology are usually categorized as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral/indifferent. Since feelings are impermanent, advertisers or sales agents need to keep restimulating potential buyers. This is done by generating a barrage of contact points for the sense organs: bite-sized food samples, billboards for alcohol, a storefront of blaring televisions. The point of contact is where the object of perception, sense organ and sense-consciousness come together. The seller provides the object; the consumer provides the already conditioned sense fields of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind.
What one perceives in the sense field is completely conditioned by one’s experience, and one gives that experience name and form. Name and form are conditioned by previous experiences, which mold consciousness and the forms it comes to take. Such conditioning is well documented for alcoholism and other addictive abuse patterns. Repeated use of alcohol changes a person physiologically to become more attracted to the states induced by alcohol. Apply this conditioning to other forms of excess consumption and the addictive cycle extends to luxury foods, brand-name clothing and TV soap operas. Accumulating over time, repeated patterning, or karmic formations, develop to produce generations of addiction.
Craving, in turn, perpetuates grasping. Enjoying pleasant experiences, one grasps for their continuation; abhorring unpleasant experiences, one grasps for their cessation. These forms of grasping are especially strong when one labels one’s identity in terms of that grasping (e.g., “I avoid meat; I’m a vegetarian”; or “I love mountain biking; I’m a funhog”). Grasping generates becoming. The more one grasps after consumer goods or values, the more one becomes a consumer. This leads to birth of the self-identified ego that defines life primarily as consumption.
Eventually, of course, even the consumer must face death, with or without the comfort of familiar possessions. Thus, through the twelve limbs of codependent origination, consumer consciousness stays alive and well, taking new and diverse forms day after day. However, insight and liberation are close at hand in the very breaking of the strongly determining links. But how exactly does one do this?
My work with undergraduates at the University of Vermont has given me the chance to try a few experiments in consumer liberation. These exercises, modeled on a mindfulness approach, drew awareness to previously unexamined behaviors. For environmental studies students, American greed and consumer addictions are a source of moral anguish. I applied Buddhist liberative methods to student concerns in a new course I called Unlearning Consumerism. Each week the students undertook a lab exercise to evaluate some aspect of their consumption habits. My goal was to give students ways to explore the consciousness that arises from consumerism through self-study of their cultural conditioning.
One of our first exercises was the “property list.” This brought the students’ attention sharply to the physical reality of their lives. Each student had to make a list of all of their belongings, from underwear to electric guitars. The very act of listing everything was a practice in mindfulness, revealing excess and rationalization. In response, I set up support groups based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model around particularly troublesome areas. These groups were for coffee addiction, CD collecting, excess clothing and shoes, and television users. By the end of the course students testified to reducing their consumption in each of these areas.
The group also took up analyses of energy use, transportation habits and environmental impacts of food consumption. We relied on an excellent source, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Students kept food logs for one week, recording where products came from and estimating the scale of environmental impact. They looked at their diets not from an individual caloric perspective but from estimated energy expense to the planet.
Because consumption messages are broadcast through so many mediums, I had students undertake a three-day technology fast. This fasting was a modern-day form of renunciation, as is undertaken in monastic traditions. The students had to give up their use of the Internet, the car, the television or another technology of their choice and then evaluate the impact it carried in their lives. Doing without was generally seen as a good exercise, though in some cases it affected their social lives and raised other dilemmas.
To study television in particular, students did a series of short exercises, taking notes on what they observed. First, they had to “watch” the TV for a half hour with the set turned off. This gave them some idea of the strange nature of their relationship with an electronic box. Then they had to observe other students watching TV. They realized that while watching TV, they too might look as lethargic and dull as some of the people they observed.
At the beginning of the course I had asked students to write a consumer autobiography, highlighting the tensions and addictions they had already encountered in their young lives. At the end they each wrote a personal credo, laying out their beliefs and ethical principles regarding consumption. The first exercise was perhaps a form of repentance ceremony, the second a simple form of personal vow-taking. For our final session we held a Great Give-Away, practicing generosity by passing along treasures to each other and giving anything left over to charity.
I think it is fair to say that consumerism is on a collision course with the limits of the planet, and the disease is spreading rapidly. If the planet (and therefore Buddhism) are to flourish in the future, we must take very seriously the environmental, cultural and psychological impacts of overconsumption. The liberative methods of the dharma provide powerful tools of analysis and practice which can help with this task. Given the omnipresent impacts of greed and aversion in all human lives, there will always be plenty of opportunity for practice. We need to do this work, literally for the sake of all beings—before consumerism gobbles up all that remains. We have choice in the matter—choice to wake up in the midst of the suffering. In observing the complexity of our own greed, we enter the possibilities for liberation one desire at a time.
This article was adapted by the author from a longer essay first published in Buddhist-Christian Studies, Volume 20 (2000).