The Middle Path to
Sustainability & Wellbeing
by Asoka Bandarage
Humanity has achieved incredible technological and material growth. Yet the ecosystem and human communities are collapsing due largely to that very advancement, causing insecurity, fear, and conflict across the world. As human beings become more and more the appendages of technology and the global market, we face an existential crisis of what it means to be human and a species in nature. The challenge we face is not the further acceleration of competitive economic and technological growth and the creation of a post-nature, “post-human” world, but a fundamental transformation to a balanced and ethical path of social and psychological development.
A philosophical and political convergence has emerged in recent years around the twin concepts of sustainability and well-being, defining a sustainable world as one in which the “Earth thrives and people can pursue flourishing lives.” Unlike conventional environmentalism, the integrated approach defines sustainability as constituting both the well-being of the human species and the well-being of the natural world. What we normally think of only as environmental problems—climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and so on—are also problems of human health and survival. In recent years, global environmental and social justice movements have come closer together in common struggles against the twin forces of environmental destruction and human impoverishment.
Mainstream approaches to sustainable development, such as the United Nations Agenda 21, promulgated by the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, approach the environment, society, and economy as three equivalent sectors that need to be brought into greater balance for the purposes of sustainable development. But in reality these three sectors are not equivalent. Rather, the environment—planet Earth—encompasses human society and the economy within its fold, while the economy, the production and distribution of the material means of existence, is only one subsystem of society. The environment has primacy over the human-created spheres of society and the economy. The natural world does not need humanity for its survival, but humanity cannot survive without the environment. The central idea of deep ecology (as opposed to narrow environmentalism) is that we are part of the Earth, not apart and separate from it. This does not negate the fact that in the process of adaptation and evolution humanity has made a great impact on the environment.
Today’s global economy is destroying the natural integration of planetary life, seeking instead to reintegrate the environment and society through modern science, technology, and the market system. The boundary between the environment and society is not distinct and tight but fluid, and the connection between them must be seen as a mutually evolving flow of energy and materials between them. Instead of attempting to dominate and subsume society and the environment within the logic of economic growth, the components of the economy—technology, property relations, the market, and finance—must be redesigned to serve the needs of environmental sustainability and human well-being.
Moving beyond the cliché of “thinking outside the box,” we must recognize that the box is not so much the current financial system, globalization, or capitalism. Rather, it is the deeper psychological dualism of self versus other upon which all other dualisms and systems of domination are constructed. Social hierarchy and domination evolved historically in conjunction with technological and material development starting in the pre-modern era. This book emphasizes the need to rethink binary oppositions—nature versus culture, growth versus stasis, capitalism versus communism—in order to find a balanced path of human development based on interdependence and partnership between self and other instead of extreme individualism and domination. The discovery of truth cannot be assigned entirely to modern science driven by the attempt to conquer nature. Sustainability and well-being cannot be accomplished without a reorientation of the much-neglected ethical dimension in the modern economy and society. Yet, given inequalities in power and voice that characterize public forms of deliberation, it is a challenge to develop ethical reasoning that is not subservient to social conventions, religion, unjust laws and other established practices at both the global and local levels.
Although competition, domination, and conflict seem to characterize today’s world, partnership, and harmony have been present from the beginning of human societies. These positive attributes can be the foundation of a new global ethic, as evident in the increasing integration of seemingly disparate intellectual and spiritual traditions including fields of western science and Eastern spirituality which uphold monism—unity amidst diversity—over reductionism and dualism. This integration can help provide the philosophical and ethical foundation to social movements for environmental sustainability and social justice. While recognizing the sources of the current crisis in unbridled economic growth and the twin forces of capital and technology, we need to move beyond popular neoliberal solutions, as well as conventional leftist critiques of corporate capitalism and ecological critiques of technology and globalization.
Western culture, like other cultures, includes many overlapping and sometimes conflicting values. Still, the hegemony of materialist and individualist thinking has prevented the West from seriously considering alternative ethical and socioeconomic pathways to a better future that can be found in non-Western cultures and Western culture itself. The model of human progress that originated in the West threatens planetary life, as social ecologist Murray Bookchin pointed out, so the world is obliged to turn to other cultures “not only for more humane values, delicate sensibilities, and richer ecological insights, but also for technical alternatives to our highly mystified ‘powers of production’.” An example is the universalist Middle Path drawn from Buddhist teaching.
The Middle Path
The Buddha came to the Middle Path from his own life experience, first as an heir to a royal throne living the life of sensual pleasures; later as a spiritual seeker experimenting with self-mortification. Having realized that neither extreme—overindulgence or self-denial—provided contentment, he advocated the Middle Way of balance and moderation based on living by the ‘Noble Eight Fold Path’ which encompasses righteousness in view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. Identifying greed, hatred, and delusion as the roots of suffering, the Buddha promoted nonattachment to the self and cultivation of wisdom, generosity, and compassion as the foundation for human well-being. While the Buddha’s teaching and the Middle Path are directed towards individual liberation, they also have the applicability to positive social transformation needed in the world today.
The teaching of nonviolence, tolerance, moderation, generosity, and compassion is not limited to Buddhism. Most spiritual philosophies of the world, from indigenous animist thinking and Hindu yoga to branches of Islam and Christianity, such as Sufism and Liberation Theology, uphold the basic principles and ethics of the Middle Path. The ethical approach does not shy away from the realities of suffering at the individual or societal levels. It does not advocate passivity, denial, fear, fatalism, escapism or violence in the face of contemporary environmental, social and economic collapse. It calls for perception of reality with honesty and equanimity, exploration of the causes and evolution of current dilemmas and lessons to be learned from prevailing environmental and social movements. It encourages rational action that is respectful of self and other and present and future generations.
As scholar-monk Bhikku Bodhi writes, the Middle Path "is not a compromise between the extremes but a way that rises above them, avoiding the pitfalls into which they lead." The Middle Path is an alternative to extremist ideology, whether it be monopoly capitalism, communist authoritarianism, ethno-religious fundamentalism, or a return to a romanticized pre-modern past. Sustainability and well-being by definition entail balance and moderation, not one-sidedness whether it be over-consumption or under-consumption, frenetic growth or economic stasis. The Middle Path emphasizes righteous intention: the ethics of generosity, compassion, and wisdom that can illuminate decision making on issues of production and consumption, including the adoption of appropriate technology and redistributive policies. It shows that the protection of the environment, the provision of livelihoods for people and the alleviation of suffering of human beings and other animals would need to take priority over unregulated growth and the accumulation of wealth by a very small minority.
A reorientation of values that goes beyond cognitive learning is called for to facilitate the balanced Middle Path and the shift from the prevailing systems of domination towards more equitable and sustainable relations of partnership. That shift is needed in our consciousness and in the ways we live in the here and now.
◊ Asoka Bandarage is the author of Sustainability and Well-Being: The Middle Path to Environment, Society and the Economy (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), from which this editorial was excerpted & adapted, She brings an integrated social science & universal ethical approach to peace, justice & ecology. A pioneer in multidisciplinary women’s studies at Yale, Brandeis & Mount Holyoke, she has addressed the UN General Assembly & led international forums on transforming major crises, She serves on the Steering Committee of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate & Parent Leadership Board of Emory University. Editorial publ. 1.11.2013