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1. Current Concern in Thailand

Combatting consumerism

"Poverty throughout the world is not a technical,
economic or political problem, but a moral crisis."

By: Sulak Sivaraksa, director of the Santi PrachaDhamma Institute of Thailand

The definition of development is based on the underlying worldview of the person doing thedefining. As we know, in today's world it is the giant, transnational companies who set thestandards. What is the underlying worldview of the men who are in charge of defining the vision forthese companies? Firstly, they want to maximise their profits. The level of success of a particular project or company is measured in dollars and assets, not in any way concerned with happiness, fulfillment, sustainability, or social benefit.

The economics of the rational worldview emphasises global over local; the market controls society notthe other way around. Societies matter insofar as Lthey participate in the global economy. Their networth or production capacity measures individuals.

As human beings we are all just a small cog in the big machine of the economy, our wants and needsmatter not except as they help to perpetuate the economy; as consumers whose wants and needs are dictated to us by the machine.

What kind of culture does this worldview and its economic policies prescribe? One in which we all dress alike, eat the same food, listen to the same music, etc. This kind of cultural approach is calledthe consumer monoculture. It is designed specifically to maximise the profit of transnationalcompanies and to discourage local initiatives.

As a side effect it tends also to destroy nativecrafts, dress and specialties. Because mass-producedgoods are so cheap they have an even greater appeal to poor people.

If you can buy a plastic bag for one baht, who is going to spend hours weaving a basket, and who can pay the equivalent wages to a basket-maker who might spend days to produce one item?Agriculture isaffected as well. Since the driving force of the economy is money, farmers are compelled to plantcash crops.

This is ecologically destructive and also verydisruptive to the local economies, which are gearedtowards sustainability and self-sufficiency.

Another cultural value, which is part of the"modern" system, is the tendency to measure one'sown culture against western values. If the villagehas a satellite TV, everyone will be proud and ifyour neighbour has a car so too must you.

This can lead to an identity crisis for indigenouscultures; they often have to fight to maintain pridein their local culture especially among the young.


The free market is linked with a formal democracy.The era when the Americans saw the totalitarianregimes as trustworthy partners has gone. The systemof a formal democracy within which, in theory, allcitizens are equal, is more stable. Look at thePhilippines where Aquino, and after her Ramos, inthe name of democracy succeeded in keeping intactthe most unjust society in Asia. This system isbeing legitimised by elections, manipulated by moneyand power. Citizens aren't equal because property isnever brought up for discussion.

On the contrary, this false democracy creates aradical inequality.

In Siam this inequality is poignantly visible. Sixtypercent of the population lives in poverty. Siam isamong the top five countries with the greatestcontrast between rich and poor.

By changing from subsistence farming to large-scaleexport production, hunger and poverty developed inthe provinces. In the end the farmers, who were onlyallowed to plant rice for export, suddenly foundthemselves buying food.

The United States handles the free market verypragmatically. The US government gives enormoussubsidies to their farmers and spends a lot of moneyon irrigation projects that are necessary to make itpossible to grow rice.

In Siam the farmers don't get anything at all.

This free market is in fact not free at all. Itmaintains the dominant position of the West. The USministry of agriculture says that Americanagriculture needs the Asian market to survive, thatexports have to grow from 40 to 60 percent.

With this they will drive away Siam's farmers fromtheir land. This is a tragedy in a country without asocial safety net. Eventually, they end up in theslums of Bangkok.

In today's world, development has become a measureof how closely a culture or society conforms to thewestern idea of progress. Often this measurement ismade only by numbers-GDP, trade deficit, tons ofshipping, megawatts of electricity, etc. There is noreference to people. Thus, we should seek to definedevelopment from a holistic point of view. Of coursewe must include certain aspects of modernity such asclean water, decent health care and a practicalinfrastructure, which are a benefit to everybody.

There are definitively enough resources andproduction capacity in the world right at thisminute to feed and clothe every person on theplanet, to provide clean water and a fair amount ofelectricity. Yet this is obviously not happening.Why?


We must not be fooled by the over-rational approachof the West that poverty and crisis in the world isa technical, economic or political problem, when itis not. It is in fact a moral crisis.

When you see the world as a machine, as does thewestern, rationalist worldview, it is not alive. Yousee humanity as separate and above the environment,as if we live in a separate sphere and what we do tothe environment won't have any effect on humansociety. All of this is false.

So what exactly is the "good life"? If this were aneasy question to answer, the job of activists wouldbe much easier.

If we look to the dharma for answers we see that infact the idea of the "good life" itself is playingon our primordial ignorance of the nature of theworld. We can't have a good life that is in any wayexploiting others. Partly because the karma of doingso is corrosive for our soul, and partly because weare all interconnected. We share in everyone else'ssuffering.

If we claim that our actions don't affect everyother being then we are in a sense cutting ourselvesoff from the one source of hope-that we are all inthis together. We have a shared struggle, to reducethe passion, aggression and ignorance in ourselvesand in the world around us. This is hopeful becauseit means we need to cooperate and help each other.If we deny that our lifestyle has a profound effecton others we are implying that we are cut off, cutoff from help, from hope and from the dhamma. What asad state.

No matter how rich you are, denying reality pushesone further into delusion and depression,dissatisfaction. It is because we all have theBuddha nature inside of ourselves and when we denywhat we know in our heart to be true it causes aninternal struggle. The Quakers also teach that weshould express loving kindness to our brothers andsisters because everyone has the grace of God in himor her.

So as you can see, the worldview, the underlyingvalues of an economic system, tend to promotestructures that keep the wealth in the hands of thefew, and justifies the inequality in the use anddistribution of natural resources.


Now perhaps we should discuss what an alternativemodel looks like. What values is it founded on, whatideas are underlying it and what kind of lifestyledoes it promote?We are collaborating on a projectwith the Lebret Centre in Paris to raise awarenessof the negative impact the consumer lifestyle hashad on Siam. We plan to educate people aboutalternative lifestyles which are spiritually based.

If we empower people spiritually, they can buildstrong cooperative communities. If these communitieshave a strong spiritual foundation and they practicecontentment and generosity they will naturally beself-reliant, using locally made products andhelping each other.

This is another aspect of empowering people to livealternative lifestyles and escape the overpoweringinfluence of consumer culture. We need todecentralise, honour the native wisdom in everyculture, every region and even in individualvillages.

The scale of communities should be small and knowthat small is beautiful. They can then network theircommunities together, sharing knowledge, skills andmaterials but in a way such that they meet on equalfooting.

This leads to cooperation, not exploitation as inthe centralised model. Mahatma Gandhi dreamed ofvillage republics linked together by cooperation andcompassion:

"In this structure composed ofinnumerable villages there will be ever widening,never ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramidwith the apex sustained by the bottom. It will be anoceanic circle whose centre will be the individualalways ready to perish for the village, the villageready to perish for the circle of villages until atlast the whole becomes one life composed ofindividuals, never aggressive in their arrogance,but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceaniccircle of which they are an integral part."

*Sulak Sivaraksa is the director of the Santi PrachaDhamma Institute. This article is adapted from thespeech he delivered at a seminar in Chiang Mai onApril 29,1999

Address: 117 Fuangnakhon Rd
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10200 Bangkok
tel: +66 (2) 223 4915
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Copyright The Bangkok Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 1999

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