Social and Ecological Ethics

This comment also appears in the issue “Dharma, Degrowth, and Climate Change” (Volume 5, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue

At the root of the climate crisis is the disjuncture between the exponential development of the capitalist economy and the lack of an equivalent development in ethics and morality. Human and environmental sustainability requires social action based on a transformation of consciousness, from a dualistic to an ecological worldview that recognizes humanity as part of nature and the inherent equality of all human beings.

To avoid further environmental and social collapse and conflict, it is important to recognize the history and realities of social hierarchy, domination, and oppression. Instead of speaking of a collective “we” in the context of climate action, it is necessary to explore the differential responsibilities and burdens borne by different communities for the climate and related crises. The North–South conflict over climate mitigation speaks to this reality. It is the privileged groups, especially those at the top of the global social hierarchy, that need to shift away from their egotistical consciousness and consumption, and instead share more within the global commons. Indeed, countries, communities, and social classes that are heavily dependent on the arms trade, fossil fuels, and other harmful industries bear a greater responsibility to change.

Instead of calling for a blanket reduction of economic growth and consumption, it is necessary to recognize that large groups of poverty-stricken and destitute people do need the benefits of economic growth and greater consumption. To make that possible, growth and development would need to be approached in a truly sustainable fashion, rather than in the exploitative and extractive way that the Western world has modeled.

The Buddha’s teaching on the ethically based Middle Path is helpful in exploring the various non-violent transitions that individuals and groups need to undertake to develop social justice and harmony between humanity and the rest of nature. The application of the principles of “Buddhist Economics” to policymaking would require that minimizing the suffering of all living beings take precedence over maximization of profits and individual gains for a few.

Asoka Bandarage (Ph.D.) is the author of many publications, including her latest book Sustainability and Well-Being: The Middle Path to Environment, Society and the Economy (Palgrave MacMillan). Details of her lectures, workshops and trainings on “Exploring Ethics, Society and Ecology” can be found on