Between Two Worlds: Consumerism and Environmentalism

“No house, no car, no land, I’m so happy like that. I would dread to have to take care

of all of those crazy things.”

You’ve got this really unique set up where I believe part of the year you live as a monastic in Nepal. And the other part of the 
year, you live in a Western culture in France. 

What is it like to go back and forth between those two contexts? 

Well, well, well, yes and no.

I only spend a few days in Paris. Usually when I’m there, I do a lot media because of the books and all of these things.

But I increasingly spend more time either in Nepal or looking after humanitarian projects, like Karuna Sechen, which actually has our next event in Montreal in April, Journées Émergences. We help 250,000 people every year in India, Nepal, and Tibet. I’m very much involved in that. I started this organization.

And then in France, I’m mostly staying with my 95 year old mother in the countryside, and my teachers are here. I make a little noise when go to Paris because the media always wants to ask me things.

But in fact, I don’t much time immersed in city life and in the sort of modern way of life.

“The main challenge for the 21st century is climate change.”

In the moments where you are exposed to urban life, what jumps out at you the most as different or unusual or even problematic about our lifestyle?

Well, I’m a part of the world. And of course as a former scientist I’ve been doing research about the question of the need for more altruism and cooperation for our time. I’m very much involved with environmental scientists. I’m involved in too many things in fact.

The main, main, main, main challenge for the 21st century is climate change, the degradation of the ecosystem, and the climatic loss of biodiversity and population of living species on Earth. That could jeopardize every other project that has been done over the last two centuries in a vast way.

If you think of altruism as the best solution to those challenges, then you cannot be not be deeply concerned by the fate of future generations and by 8 million other species who are co-citizens on this Earth. So I’m so definitely concerned.

Now whatever I can do is not very much, but at least participating in the debate, writing books, having a little voice here and there. Having gone to weird places like the World Economic Forum or the UN to speak about these things. So whatever I can.

But if I was just on my own, it’s like zero influence. But together with many people from many different fields of life, whether they are environmental scientists or policy makers or economists who put more emphasis on caring economics. All kinds of people who really want to build a better world, despite this incredible challenge that we are facing.

So I’m just part of this community and do my best to contribute even modestly to bring some cultural change. I don’t know where it’ll lead, but we’re trying our best.

To answer your question, clearly, there is a big problem with the society of consumerism. An average US citizen emits 200 times more CO2 than a Zambian. A citizen of Qatar emits 2000 times more CO2 than an Afghani. So there’s a problem there. It’s simply that the rich countries should just stop that over consumption, which they don’t seem ready to do.

They think they can’t be happy having less, but in fact it’s just the opposite. Voluntary simplicity is one of the greatest sources of happiness and freedom. That’s one of the main sort of blindness of modern society. It’s this constant drive for consumerism, for all kinds of things that doesn’t bring happiness.

It’s been shown over and over again. It’s not just a moralistic Buddhist view. Tim Kasser did a 20 year study on the effect of consumerism. There’s a very interesting book called The High Price of Materialism that shows that it simply doesn’t make people happier. They are less happy. They are less healthy. They have less good, genuine friends. They are less concerned by global issues. They are less empathetic.

This kind of drive is not good for anybody. That’s so regrettable. But I don’t know how ready people are to give it up. They think they will be less happy. That they will be deprived of something good, while simplification just brings such a freedom.

No house, no car, no land, I’m so happy like that. I would dread to have to take care of all of those crazy things [laughs].

One of the things that has inspired me about your work is this really interesting possibility that there are actions that we can take like simplicity, cutting down consumerism that are both good for the planet, good for our communities, and ultimately enhancing of our own well being.

How do see those things fitting together?

There are so many ways.

Stop eating meat. It’s so easy. It takes 5 seconds. And this is one of the factors which is one of the easiest things to do to combat climate change. The latest report of the IPCC says that just the factor of increasing meat consumption would alone forbid us from reaching our goal of stopping climate change from reaching two degrees celsius of warming. That simple thing. Industrial farming and cattle raising for meat is the second cause of greenhouse gas emissions. The second one because of the methane.

This is crazy. It could be so easy to change that. It just takes a little decision. It doesn’t mean that you change drastically other things of your way of life.

There are so many things like that we could do.


“What you call happiness, we call suffering”

Isn’t it the case that some of these actions that we can would not only have a positive impact on the world, but it would also make us happier like investing in relationships—

The Buddhists are very clear about how we want happiness, but turn our backs to the cause of happiness. We don’t want to suffer, but we run to all of the causes of suffering.

I had a Buddhist teacher who said, ‘what you call happiness here, we call it suffering.’ That was a pretty terse statement.

What did he mean by that?

It means that when people look for happiness by trying to remain forever young, in wealth, in power, in fame, in rank in society, in extrinsic value, in the latest fashionable clothes, in the latest model of this and that, in the latest car, having a flashy home with a lot of stuff, and then adding to that the endless succession of pleasurable experiences, which are recipe for exhaustion.

You are completely fooled by this. You are looking for happiness in the totally wrong place. That’s called lack of discernment or ignorance. So those things simply don’t bring genuine, lasting happiness or fulfillment or contentment.

Where should people be looking for happiness and contentment? 

I tried to write a book about that. There’s this idea that happiness is not the same thing as pleasant sensations. It’s a way of being. And it’s not just one thing of course.

It’s a cluster of qualities like inner freedom, inner peace, inner strength, compassion, altruistic love, not having an over inflated sense of ego. These are all kinds of basic human qualities.

The good news is that all those can be cultivated as skills. And that’s where mind training and neuroplasticity comes into the picture. So when all of those are being brought to their optimum point, then you have a fulfilled life, a sense of resilience, inner strength, of inner freedom. You have the inner resources to deal with the ups and downs of life.

It has nothing to do with the forever seeking of pleasant sensations. It simply doesn’t work. And there’s nothing wrong with pleasure. But it simply is not the same thing as fulfillment.

So what we’re up against here is a challenge of educating people to change their behaviour.

You start writing books by hopefully gathering scientific and philosophical and experiential evidence. It’s a little drop in the ocean. Altogether with many other trends of ideas and thoughts that make up our culture.

So our culture is shifting with time. Let’s see what will come up.

Is it a more cooperative, altruistic happier society or will we continue to go to the narcissistic epidemics like we can see in North America?


Love and Altruism: The Path to a Better World

I’m very aware of the proliferation of good science and books like the work you’re doing. But there’s also a terrible rise of partisanship and difficulty understanding the other side. I think this is partly due to the rise of social media.

What is your take on that as an obstacle to improving—

It’s a concerning force. I don’t know which one will win over.

I’m not a clairvoyant. You can see those forces at play. When writing my book on altruism, I had to explore those antagonist forces because, otherwise, I would have been naive just to say that altruism is the solution, and that’s it.

But of course there are so many things like the cause of violence, what makes someone a psychopath,  how can we commit genocide, how can we make whole massacres of animals?

So what are the solutions? Education, more caring economics, global governance, etc. There’s this huge wealth of reflection among all of those issues. Myself, along with many other friends, have spent many years trying to formulate all of those things and analyze to the best that I could.

I have done what I could. Now I’m a bit old and I want to go back to the contemplative life.

I sort of did my best with humble limited capacity on the subjects that I felt were really important. Now I think it’s time to go and do something else.

I can speak for my listeners and for myself when I say that we hope you can keep going for as long as you can because I think you’re doing some really important work. 

If there’s one thing that you would to ask people to do or one suggestion for how people can begin to both improve the world around them and cultivate their own well-being, what would you advise people to do?

Well, it’s very simple, on a personal level, cultivate loving kindness, compassion, benevolence, and on a global level, feel a sense of universal responsibility. Don’t stop at your close ones. Extend the circle to all sentient beings. And even to future generations.

So if we expand this scope and the circle of compassion, then I think that’s the best thing we could do both for ourselves and for society. I think altruism or altruistic love or whatever you call it is the two fold accomplishment of others good and your own good.

And the only way to reconcile your immediate needs, to fulfill one’s needs for survival and so forth is through cooperation and kindness. The mid term needs are flourishing in life. And the long term needs are caring for the future generation, for other species, for the planet because competition and selfishness will not do the job.

So if we can cultivate compassion, that’s the very best thing we can do both for ourselves and for others.

Thank you very much for saying that. I really appreciate the message. And I hope our listeners do as well. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes, in this spirit, in April, we’re trying to organize a beautiful meeting in Montreal on the subject of taking care of life. So we have people of all walks of life including a neuroscientist, we have a witness who spent 15 years in slaughterhouses, and we have a wonderful artist Maria Joao Pires, a pianist. We have Alexandre Jollien, who is a Swiss philosopher who co-wrote called In Search of Wisdom with me.

So I think this kind of event is bringing this kind of idea to a live audience to be part of that cultural change and hopefully help make a little bit better of a world.

I will definitely make all of the information about that event available on the show notes for this episode.

Also, the proceeds of all that will go to Karuna Shechen projects in Asia. So it’s a two fold fulfillment of aspirations of oneself and that of others.