Ascetic Progressives Won’t Save the Planet

A couple Dharma friends and I were just having an email convo around how to talk to spiritually-oriented progressives about the climate crisis. Here’s some of my reflections. Earlier references in the conversation included the work of Rebecca Solnit and Marcelle McManus on the problems with individual lifestyle as a focus for climate action. When I use the word “renunciation” here, I’m talking about the Buddhist virtue of letting go of material excess and sensory indulgence: getting over our fixation on comfort, sensual pleasures, and preventing discomfort.

In order to make a meaningful impact on the climate trajectory, spiritual progressives need to embrace effective tactics for global drawdown, and understand the difference between making moral stances visible (which is good socially) and what actually has the potential for material effect in the near term. This thing is so vast that no entire nation, not to mention unpopular progressive subculture, has a chance of affecting the heating trend in any meaningful way without huge international cooperation, corporate regulation, and painful compromises. Entire well-meaning communities are largely irrelevant on a global scale, except as political forces.

Individual renunciation has minimal material impact, but it has great internal impact. I think people should renounce luxury and excess not because it will prevent the climate apocalypse, but because it’s good for the soul. But renunciation only has such salutary effects if you are passionately committed to it internally. Peer pressure doesn’t really do it—this is partly why a billion people going on strike against the empire, which really means against participating in the global economy, isn’t a grounded political plan. Enough people just won’t do it for long enough to have the impact you want. 

Another thing about renunciation is that you have to have material excess in order practice it. The Buddha only preached material renunciation to rich people—appropriately, because the poor have little to give up. They would just ordain. And even for the rich, it’s more about giving than renunciation per say. Renunciation of wealth and commerce while staying a layperson is a new concept because the lay renunciate our community [participants in convert postcolonial Buddhism in the global north] celebrates is a new social identity. In earlier Buddhist cultures, the middle-class lay devotee would express their faith by giving to temples and spiritual communities, and in charitable social works. Now many of these people express their faith by being individual mystics: being devoted to inner work, therapy, meditation, ritual, and liberation—all things that used to be the domain of monastics. This individual mysticism is still a consumer position because you still need to support yourself, essentially being both monastic and lay supporter. [no wonder I’m exhausted!] And so renunciation, which is the cornerstone of spiritual life for monastics, becomes a hobby—a wholesome one, but still a display of privilege.

So in contemporary culture, preaching personal renunciation means what, exactly, and for whom? I know a handful of rich people who can do good Dharma work in themselves by trying to limit excessive flying and shopping, but even a few steps down into the middle class and you find people trying to balance mortgages, debt, medical expenses, elder care, and education for their kids, and there’s not a lot of wiggle room for making noble choices. Not to mention that renunciation is harder when you have a family to convince to go along with your ascetic inspirations and never again fly to see grandparents, or eat meat, or buy new clothes, or drive much at all, or have another kid. The kind of individual renunciation we’d need to make a real impact on climate would be like the early days of Covid shutdown, permanently. Billions of developed world people would need to give up basics we can barely live without now, like flying. The only way I think this’ll happen is if it becomes prohibitively expensive.

I think the climate message to progressive Dharma people should be something like “Now is the time to get over your aversion to politics, and let go of fantasies about acceptance that do not acknowledge the depth of crisis the world is in. Political action is the only lever we have to make global change, and every step forward will be a compromise to your values. Live simply if you want, as a prayer for liberation, but know that if you want to have material impact outside your personal and family systems, you have to engage outside those systems, which means being political and organized.” 

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