What Do the Poorest Eat?

By David Braughton

As a result of the war in Ukraine, climate shocks, economic instability, political conflict, and global pandemic, nations around the world are facing what the U.N. has called “a global hunger crisis of unprecedented proportions.”

A midwife feeds a malnourished infant at a site in northern Côte d’Ivoire through a BGR project with partner Helen Keller International (HKI). Photo courtesy of HKI.

Imagine living on less than $1.90 per day or $693.50 annually, the amount used by the World Bank and much of the international community to measure “extreme poverty.” Not that the world’s very poor have $1.90 in their pocket to spend. The poverty metric is based on consumption: a rough measure of what “subsistence” looks like for persons struggling to find enough food to eat, clean water to drink, shelter, health care, and other essentials.1

By contrast, in the U.S. per capita consumption of goods and services in 2020 was $42,645, or $116.80 per day. Even our pets fare better than the poorest of the poor. According to the ASPCA, the average American pet owner spends between $700 and $1,100 annually for food, health care, and sundries for their dog or cat, between $6.50 and $406.50 above the World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty.

The World Bank estimates that there are between 657 and 689 million people today who meet the definition of “extremely poor.” These individuals make up the vast majority of the world’s hungry, the estimated 720 to 811 million persons who the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) determined faced chronic hunger in 2020. Tragically, the number of hungry persons has increased in the past three years, and today, as a result of COVID, the war in Ukraine, climate shocks, and political unrest, the total may be closer to a billion people.

To put things in perspective, the average moderately active adult male needs 2,500 calories a day and the average moderately active female 2,000 calories to maintain their weight. The FAO reports that for persons who are chronically hungry, the daily caloric intake is closer to 1,600 to 2,100 calories, a shortfall of 100 to 400 calories. Compounding the problem is that most of these calories come in the form of starches, such as rice, wheat, corn, or other grains, leaving the poorest of the poor with not only a caloric deficit but a nutritional deficit as well. If the goal is health rather than mere survival, people require not mere calories but a balanced diet, that is, a diet including a combination of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. According to the FAO, in 2019 the high cost of nutritious food coupled with persistent high levels of income inequality put healthy diets out of reach for around 3 billion people, in every region of the world. The figure for 2020 is expected to be still higher.

Most of the persons living in abject poverty are not dying of starvation, however, and the presence of chronic hunger is not always obvious. This is because our bodies respond to an inadequate diet by slowing down physical activity and, in the case of children, by reducing growth. In addition to increasing susceptibility to disease, chronic hunger has other negative consequences. It means that children may be listless and unable to concentrate in school, that mothers may give birth to underweight babies, and that adults may lack the energy to fulfill their potential.

While in numerical terms more people are chronically hungry in Asia and the Pacific, the most serious situation is in sub-Saharan Africa, where in 46 percent of the countries, the undernourished have a daily deficit of more than 300 calories a day.

So how do those in the poorest countries get by? What do they eat, if they are fortunate enough to eat at all?

To get some idea of this, consider the following three countries: Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere; the Republic of Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world, where the gross national income per capita in 2020 was $550; and South Sudan, where fully 65 percent of its population of 12.8 million people currently face a severe food crisis, the consequence of political conflict, drought, rising food prices, and now the war in Ukraine.

In Haiti, all a typical family will eat are rice and beans—but only if mother or father are able to work that day. If a parent is unable to work or sell homemade items, chances are the family will go hungry. According to USAID, 2.5 million Haitians, or 22 percent of the population, are currently facing acute food insecurity.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 27 million people out of 108 million—one-quarter of the nation’s population—face crisis-level or emergency-level food insecurity. Most families subsist on cassava or yuka, supplemented by insects such as caterpillars, crickets, or grasshoppers, along with an occasional banana or local vegetable, but violence, disease, and a crumbling infrastructure have put even these meager offerings beyond the reach of many.

Over half of the population of South Sudan stands on the precipice of starvation, a result of war, poverty, and disease. Drought and insect infestations have decimated the maize and sorghum crops used to make kirsa (flatbread) and dura(cooked maze and millet), two staples of the country. Without food assistance, many families cannot cope, yet due to funding shortages, the World Food Programme has recently had to suspend some of its aid, putting the future of over 1.7 million people at certain risk.

The Borgen Project asserts that ending world hunger by 2030 would cost $265 billion per year in additional expenditures. By way of comparison, the U.S. spent $668 billion in 2018 on its defense budget and $394 billion in interest payments on the national debt. This means that the resources are there, if we have the political will to reorder our priorities. So what is stopping us?

What is stopping us is the inability or outright refusal to recognize our common humanity: that the plight of others, no matter what they look like, where they live, what their religious beliefs, politics, or lifestyle may be, directly or indirectly affects us; that our survival as a species and the survival of the world depend upon a concern for and commitment to the welfare of all living beings, not just family, neighbors, or folks who agree with us or like us, or even our fellow human beings. In the final analysis, it is a mistaken sense of “self” that imprisons us in the view that someone or something else’s gain is our loss and that our personal well-being is paramount. It is this that allows us to rationalize our enormous expenditure on our military or the monetization of food, enriching some while consigning nearly a billion children, women, and men to food insecurity.

In contrast, an awareness of our common humanity compels us to advocate for adequate nutrition as a fundamental and inviolable human right that we are all responsible for ensuring. It is this awareness that underlies the work of Buddhist Global Relief and guides our efforts to combat hunger.

That is why we labor tirelessly to raise funds, which this year will support 54 projects, 18 of them focused on immediate food aid for hungry families in such diverse locations as Tanzania, Vietnam, Haiti, Uganda, Bangladesh, and Senegal. That is also why we invest in teaching subsistence farmers improved, climate-resilient agricultural techniques in places like Malawi, Kenya, Cambodia, India, Brazil, and here in the U.S.

If you share our vision, you can join us in reducing world hunger through your donations or by offering your time and talents as a volunteer. Please explore our website to find out more.

1. United Nations World Summit for Social Development, p. 4.

David Braughton is the vice-chair of Buddhist Global Relief.

Cultivating Nutrient-Rich Fruits and Vegetables in the Andean Foothills of Peru

By BGR Staff

Wawasonqo, a BGR partner based in Peru, has been working since 2006 to break the cycle of poverty that affects rural children and families in the rural Andean foothills near the city of Cusco.

BGR partner Wawasonqo works with a local farming family to build a simple greenhouse in the rural Andean foothills.

Considered as a whole, Peru is a success story of modern poverty reduction. Between 2007 and 2019, the national poverty rate in Peru declined from 35.5 percent to 20.6 percent. Over the last ten years, chronic child malnutrition was lowered to 13.1 percent, a 50 percent reduction.

However, even as economic growth in Peru has thrived, many rural people have been left behind. In 2020, 46 percent of the largely indigenous rural population were poor, compared to 26 percent in urban areas. In many rural areas, a devastating 33 percent of indigenous children suffer from malnutrition, and levels of stunting due to extreme malnutrition have not decreased among rural children in the last decade, according to the World Food Programme.

Peru has also been severely devastated by the Covid pandemic. With more than 200,000 Covid deaths in this country of just under 33 million people, Peru’s death rate from the pandemic is the highest in the world, at nearly 650 deaths per 100,000 people. (For comparison, the U.S. has lost approximately 300 lives per 100,000 due to Covid.)

Wawasonqo, a BGR partner based in Peru, has been working since 2006 to break the cycle of poverty that affects rural children and families in the rural Andean foothills near the city of Cusco. For the past five years, BGR-sponsored projects have addressed chronic malnutrition in children and young people in the Piskak’uchu, Tiaparo, Olmiron, Palomar, and Chaquepay indigenous communities. In these rural areas, families’ cultivatable land is small, generally averaging between 1,000 and 2,000 square meters, and many people here use their land to raise products for sale, relying on inexpensive purchased food to feed their families. As a result, many children and families consume food of low quality, mostly noodles, rice, and potatoes.

Wawasonqo’s goal is to support families in creating new nutritional habits and customs to enable long-term food autonomy. The projects therefore generally proceed in two stages. The first stage involves raising awareness among families, especially mothers and pregnant women, about good nutrition and the importance of a balanced diet for their children’s growth, health, and well-being. Then, to support parents in putting this knowledge to work in nourishing their families, Wawasonqo provides hands-on education in the cultivation, preparation, processing, and preservation of fruits and vegetables.

Wawasonqo staff demonstrate composting techniques at workshops offered freely to the local community.

The projects provide families with training and resources to cultivate vegetables such as spinach, chard, broccoli, cauliflower, onion, and tomato for home consumption, to provide much-needed nutrients in the families’ diets. Workshops are given on topics including organic agronomy, nutrition, preparation of dishes, and the making and sales of agricultural products such as jams, pickles, nectars, and preserves. Additionally, the projects support the construction of simple greenhouses. In these greenhouses, families use seeds provided by our partner to grow fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins and minerals.

The communities where Wawasonqo works are often small; the Chaquepay community, the focus of this year’s BGR project, is home to about 150 families. The trainings and workshops are freely offered to the entire community, and our partner estimates that a third of the households may participate.

Vicentina Quispe Solis and Juan Huaman Apaza are migrants from the heights of the Peruvian Andes; previously, they lived in the Q’esqa region, located some 14,700 feet above sea level. Together with their two young children and extended family members, the family lives in a modest house in the remote Kabrakancha area of Piskak’uchu. Construction of a greenhouse here involved the arduous leveling of a parcel of steep hillside. After the work was completed, the Wawasonqo trainers joined the family for a meal and, over a supper of chicken soup and boiled corn, together brainstormed ideas for marketing the organic produce they planned to grow.

Alipio Ramirez’s family has a long history in the Olmiron-Piskak’uchu-Kabrakancha region. He lives with his wife, Alicia Chata, and their children on a steep plot of land where harsh winds made building a greenhouse a difficult task. With persistence and ingenuity, the Wawasonqo trainers were able to work with the family to construct a weather-resistant and high-producing greenhouse. Eager students, the family were also teachers, sharing knowledge with neighbors and their Wawasonqo trainers about the cultivation of mushrooms, avocados, peaches, and other locally grown crops.

Crisologo and Eulalia Huaman are the parents of three young girls in the Huarocondo district. A local leader, Crisologo approached Wawasonqo to request that the greenhouse project be brought to his community and worked with neighbors to spread the education and resources provided by the trainings throughout the community. Percy Rodriguez Cámara, executive director of Wawasonqo, was moved by the commitment and collaborative spirit of this small community. “Their effort and perseverance inspires us to continue with the work of helping those who need it most,” he said.

BGR Board Approves 54 Projects for the 2022–23 Fiscal Year

By BGR Staff

This spring, BGR’s Board approved 54 projects serving thousands of people around the world. The project funding for BGR’s fiscal year 2022–23 amounted to $1,089,574.

BGR’s ongoing partnership with Maitreya Charity in Mongolia provides hot meals and educational support to children in need through the Asral Hot Meal Project, one of 54 projects approved for the coming fiscal year.

During the weekend of April 30 and May 1, 2022, the Buddhist Global Relief Board and staff reviewed and approved 54 project proposals from partners in 20 countries around the world for our 2022-23 fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2022 through June 30, 2023. The approved projects will relieve hunger, educate children, provide vocational opportunities and training for vulnerable women, and support sustainable agriculture among smallholder farmers. The projects will take place in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Haiti, Kenya, Malawi, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Peru, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam, and here in the United States.

Once again this year we were joined for part of the meeting by Board members from BGR’s European sister organization, Mitgefühl in Aktion (MiA), which is cosponsoring seven projects with us. These include sponsorship for the families of backpack medics in Myanmar; a girls’ home and community center in India; and a vocational training program for widows and single mothers in Cameroon.

The total spending to be allocated to grants comes to $1,089,574, which includes a contribution from MiA of $42,000, distributed equally over the seven cosponsored projects.

A majority of BGR’s projects are renewable year to year as our trusted partners continue to demonstrate the responsiveness and effectiveness of their work over time. This year, the Board approved three new projects, all from existing BGR partners.

In Sri Lanka, a project with our partner Shraddha Charity Organization will address an epidemic of chronic kidney disease among Sri Lankan paddy farmers. In the last two decades, more than 23,000 deaths have been reported from this virulent disease caused by water contaminated by agrochemicals. The majority of victims are middle-aged men who are the breadwinners for their families, and their passing devastates their family’s livelihood and food security as well as their children’s education. This new project will construct sources of safe water, including deep wells and state-of-the-art water-purification systems, in areas affected by contaminated water in the communities of Kandaketiya and Dakunamahatennagama in Sri Lanka. The project will also raise community awareness of the dangers of water contamination and educate the public about the risks of agrochemical use in farming practices. The project will directly benefit 2,173 people, half of them women and girls; an additional 1,000 people in these communities will benefit from access to new sources of clean drinking water.

A second new project with Shraddha Charity Organization will provide nutritious breakfasts for undernourished schoolchildren in Sri Lanka’s North Eastern Province, where rates of malnutrition are high due to widespread poverty and thousands of children arrive at school hungry each day. This new project will provide 166 poor schoolchildren, half of them girls, with a nutritious breakfast daily for the duration of the 2022–23 school year. The meals will give the children much-needed nutrients and energy to focus on their studies, offering them a path out of generational poverty.

In Cameroon, where Covid has amplified the ill effects of the ongoing civil war known as the Anglophone Crisis, it is estimated that more than a million people are living as IDPs (internally displaced persons), separated from their home communities and without access to their land, livestock, and other means of livelihood production and survival. In the villages of Bulu and Bokwaongo in southwest Cameroon, an influx of IDPs has led to food scarcity, increased food prices, and widespread hunger. To address this issue, long-term BGR partner CENCUDER is introducing an organic vegetable gardening project serving IDPs and others who are experiencing food insecurity. These include widows, single mothers, and young people whose families cannot afford to send them to school. The project will provide training and materials for the cultivation of huckleberry, tomato, eggplant, okra, amaranth, and other small-scale crops. Our partner’s aim is to support participants in harvesting sufficient crops both to feed themselves and their families and to sell on the market, enabling them to earn income for education and other fundamental household needs. The project will benefit 160 people, including 100 women.

To meet the additional stress that inflation is causing for our partners who are initiating direct food assistance projects, the BGR Board decided to provide each of these partners an additional 10 percent supplement to the grant. Thus, for example, if a grant was originally designated for $10,000 to a particular partner, the grant will be increased to $11,000.

We are deeply grateful to all our donors whose donations have contributed to our success, and to all the volunteers who devote time and energy to easing the burden of work on our Board and staff.

May the fruits of our work together be a light in the world, a source of ease, hope, and nourishment for those whom we serve.

War in Ukraine, the Tipping Point for a Global Food Catastrophe

By David Braughton

The war in Ukraine entails not only death, injury, and destitution for millions of people, but is also precipitating a major food crisis with global ramifications.

IMG_4169
Refugees leaving Ukraine. Photo by Mirek Pruchnicki, from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

The scenes of widespread destruction and devastation coming out of Ukraine remind one of the kind of post-apocalyptical world depicted in graphic novels where the unthinkable has happened. Bodies littering the street, entire residential neighborhoods decimated, safe havens—hospitals, bomb shelters, daycare centers—bombed, and hastily dug mass graves scarring the landscape. One photo shows a woman mourning over her young child who was killed in a missile strike. Another shows an elderly woman desperately clawing at the rubble of what was once her home, hoping to find her loved ones still alive beneath the broken bricks and shredded timbers. In still another, men look futilely at an apartment building with flames pouring out of rooms that, until yesterday, people called home.

Over 4 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland to neighboring countries. They are the lucky ones. Another 7.1 million Ukrainians have been dislocated and thousands have perished. What these images do not show is the starvation that many Ukrainians now face, while at the same time warehouses stand filled with thousands of metric tons of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil. Farms, which once grew enough grain to feed 400 million people, have become battlegrounds just as the growing season begins. All these are portents of an even more widespread catastrophe for people around the globe who depend on Ukrainian grain and oil for their daily diet.

Even before the war broke out, an estimated 881 million people, approximately 10% of the world’s population, experienced chronic food insecurity. Local conflicts, climate change, supply chain disruptions, rising fuel prices, and chronic unemployment caused by COVID, had already pushed many of these individuals to the brink of starvation. As a result of the war, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that as many as 250 million more of the world’s poor will become food insecure.

According to the International Monetary Fund, the cost of wheat rose by 80% between April 2020 and December 2021. Recently, a UN report said that food prices across the globe rose by 34% this past year. For people in poor countries such as Egypt, who might spend as much as 50% or 60% of their income on food, this increase has put many essentials, such as bread and other staples, out of their reach. Four months ago, five Egyptian pounds (roughly 30 cents in U.S. currency) would have bought ten loaves of bread, but now they can buy only seven.

The WFP reports that the countries most dependent upon Ukrainian exports include Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Sudan. But the effects are being felt globally, even in places as remote as Peru and Sri Lanka, where the ever-increasing cost of food is contributing to political unrest and instability. In both countries, people have turned out for mass demonstrations and, in some cases, have rioted to protest the scarcity and cost of staples such as wheat and corn and gasoline.

Western nations have responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by imposing harsh economic sanctions and supplying Ukraine with primarily defensive weapons. The result has been even more costly fuel, the loss of another important source of basic foodstuffs, and a drastic reduction in the export of fertilizer, which many farmers depend on to grow their crops. Add to this the drought that has reduced wheat yields in the western United States and elsewhere, and the situation looks even more dire.

The World Food Programme, which feeds approximately 250 million people daily, reports that prior to the war, it purchased 50% of all its grain from Ukraine. Now it must spend $71 million more each month due to shortages and rising shipping and operating costs. David Beasley, the program’s Executive Director, has stated that the WFP may have to cut rations in half as they turn their attention to also feeding the millions of Ukrainians who have been displaced and the millions more people elsewhere around the world who now face food insecurity and the threat of starvation. This means taking food from undernourished infants in Africa to ensure that people whose homes and lives have been destroyed, along with those who live far from the conflict, do not starve to death. Beasley goes on to say that “we’ve got now 45 million people in 38 countries that are knocking on famine’s door.” And the price increase in places like Syria will be 100% or 200%. In Yemen, the WFP has already cut rations to 8 million people and about 50% to people in Chad, Niger, and Mali.

The terrible irony, according to Beasley, is that there is $430 trillion in wealth around the world today, so there is no reason any child should be dying from hunger. Without immediate action, he predicts that in addition to civil unrest and political instability, the world will witness mass migrations unprecedented in human history.

For its part, Buddhist Global Relief has decided to make one-time supplemental allocations to twenty-two of the direct food relief projects that it currently sponsors. These projects are located in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cameroon, Kenya, Haiti, India, Malawi, Mongolia, Peru, Uganda, Vietnam, and the United States. BGR is also intending to expand its emergency relief assistance in anticipation of more urgent requests in the coming months. If you would like to support these efforts, please consider contributing now. Our website is buddhistglobalrelief.org.

David Braughton is the vice-chair of Buddhist Global Relief.

We Must Hear Them

By Ayya Dhammadīpā

Where can we stand, but right here in this place, feeling the burning of the world? What else can we do but find the cool, still place within and the warm, gentle gaze for all people who live in fear, oppressed, enraged?

The Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith.

Stalls at the Eastern Market were filled with colorful fabrics, colorful foods, and colorful paintings of local landscapes, inviting folks to engage in the forgetfulness of shopping. The two of us—my daughter and I—walked through, casual and carefree on a Sunday in the District of Columbia. There was no need we were trying to fill, so we glided past the folks who were waiting in quiet desperation for cash-paying customers. We went on walking through the streets, though the day was so windy that the clothes fell from their hangers, and a tent lifted up and away from the tables it was meant to protect. Despite the turbulence, the folks behind the tables and under the tents felt compelled to stay, in the hopes of obtaining their weekly sustenance.

It was warm enough though, lacking the crispness of true autumn. So, when we arrived at the door, we were content to stand outside the restaurant and wait for the proper time. Eventually the minutes became 00 and the hour 11, and the server came to the door to let us in. It took her quite some time to open that door. She had to unlock the padlock, remove the chains, and turn the final deadbolt. It was a procedure that made clear the fear that lay behind those doors, the fear brought on by those whose desperation was not so quiet. This is the reality of the city, many people act out their frustration with the systems of economic and social oppression, and many others live in fear of those people.

On another day, a few weeks later, around the corner and down the block, we sat down in the hopes of eating foods like those of our Hispanic ancestors. The young, dark-skinned, dark-haired man filled the water glasses, smiled at the “thank you” I offered. Yet that was the only time I caught his downcast eyes. Betraying his inner world, the look on his face revealed his displeasure at having to pick up the dirty dishes. I felt the weight of my position, and the stark contrast of my experience as one with a white face and his experience as one with a brown face, though we are both Hispanic.

After this meal, my daughter and I planned to walk back through what we had already seen of the Market. We thought we already knew the place. Instead, I was confronted with another act of desperation. A man approached me, stood face-to-face, pleading for answers, earnestly seeking. Looking him in the eye was the only way to meet his thirst, his request for peace, his demand that the world be just for Black men like him. I told him that the world is an integrated set of conditions that harmoniously fit together to form what we see. I told him that, if we want peace, we must begin by being peace for ourselves. He spoke of guns and violence not far from where we were standing. I reminded him of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., and his exhortation that we stand in our places. He reminded me that the good Reverend Doctor was shot in the head. “No one heard him,” he said, wincing at his own words, his pitch rising with the strain, his face leaning in toward mine. “They heard him,” I said quietly. “We heard him.” The man paused, tilted his head, and seemed to have heard me. He asked for my name, and I gave it to him, knowing however that his seeking is not about me.

Where can we stand, but right here in this place, feeling the burning of the world? What else can we do but find the cool, still place within and the warm, gentle gaze for this man and all people who live in fear, oppressed, enraged? We mustn’t turn down their volume or walk only where we can’t see them. We must keep facing injustice wherever it appears, in whoever’s life we find it.

Later that day, I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a grand tribute to a dead white man, carved in white marble. I looked out over the reflecting pool, recalling photos I had seen of the good Reverend Doctor speaking powerfully, urgently to the crowd of thousands of earnest seekers, so many years ago. 

My eyes stung with the truth of the former president’s words, though he was referring to the Civil War and I am referring to a different kind of “war,” the social and economic wars that are happening all over the world today.

“…in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men [and women and folks], living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract…”

I appreciate these words because they point to a skillful response that I can offer. They point to the idea that to truly lift people from oppression is to value them as human beings, even if, or perhaps especially if, they struggle. They point to the recognition that their lives are just as worthy of care and honor as anyone’s. They point to the fact that it’s my duty, not just the president’s duty, to use my voice, my resources, even my body to acknowledge that they have always had immeasurable human value and that their profound troubles matter. And when I do that, it helps to ensure that they are accorded their proper place. 

I invite you today to consider all the people, here in the U.S. and around the world, who are earnestly seeking your voice, your resources, your body to help the world recognize their immeasurable human value. We must hear them.

BGR Board member Ayya Dhammadīpā is the founder of Dassanāya Buddhist Community in Alexandria, Virginia. She is a fully ordained bhikkhuni in the Theravāda tradition and a Dharma Heir in Soto Zen. In addition to English, Ayya teaches in Spanish, an expression of her Latin heritage.

Expanding Educational Opportunities for Indigenous Buddhist Girls in Bangladesh

By BGR Staff 

The Expanding Education for Marma Girls project, with BGR partner the Jamyang Foundation, provides the gift of education for girls from the remote village of Dhosri and surrounding villages in Bangladesh.

The Visakha Girls’ School provides a free education for girls from impoverished families in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

The Jamyang Foundation, founded in 1988, supports innovative education projects for Indigenous girls and women in two of the neediest and most remote parts of the world: the Indian Himalayas and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. For several years, BGR has sponsored Jamyang’s School Lunches for Marma Girls project in Bangladesh, feeding students at Visakha Girls’ School, which serves disadvantaged girls from the remote village of Dhosri and surrounding villages.

The Marma people are one of four Indigenous Buddhist groups living in hilly terrain along the Bangladesh/Myanmar border. As members of an ethnic and religious minority, they live in precarious conditions of economic impoverishment and political uncertainty. The girls who study at the Visakha Girls’ School come from extremely poor families and live in very remote villages where girls have few, if any, educational opportunities. Their families generally eke out a meager living through farming small plots of land, working as day laborers, or petty trading. In the past few years, many families have faced additional financial burdens and food insecurity caused by the ongoing pandemic, abnormal weather events, and widespread unemployment. 

Due to a scarcity of schools in the area and a lack of paved roads, few children in the local community have had access even to primary education, and the obstacles for girls were particularly high. Boys have the advantage of being able to attend temple schools in their villages, but girls do not have this option. Likewise, boys may attend government schools in neighboring villages or towns, but walking to school poses serious security concerns for girls, who are vulnerable to harassment or assault.

Before the founding of Visakha Girls’ School, virtually all the women in the area were unschooled and illiterate. As a result of their educational disadvantage, few people in remote areas like these are able to avail themselves of government funding for rural development, because they are unable to write letters or fill out the applications. 

The schools founded by the Jamyang Foundation have been instrumental in changing attitudes toward education for girls and have helped uplift the status of women in general in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Since 2006, when the Visakha Girls’ School opened its doors to 38 students in two classes, the school has gradually expanded its programming until, in 2020, it was serving 130 students in classes from preschool to fifth grade. 

Each year, about fifteen students completed the fifth grade, and some were able to continue their studies at a junior high school located about five miles away. However, many of the girls had to end their education after finishing fifth grade, due to poverty and the long commute; the distance is simply too far for sixth-grade girls to walk each day. 

This year, BGR is supporting the Expanding Education for Marma Girls project, funding the construction of a new school building to enable the Visakha Girls’ School to provide education for girls up to eighth grade—potentially, an additional 75 to 100 students. 

The new classroom building will allow the school to educate girls through their eighth-grade year.

Since the completion of construction in January 2022, the school grounds are now home to a beautiful new building with three classrooms, an office, and toilets. In this first year, the Visakha Girls’ School has accepted seventeen students for the new sixth grade and hired a new teacher.  

Three members of this inaugural class of sixth-graders spoke with the Jamyang Foundation about their experiences:

Masaching Marma is the top student in her class. Her father is a farmer and part-time member of the village police force. Before the new building was constructed, her only option to continue her education would have been to move to the town of Manikchari, even though to do so would be a financial hardship for her parents. “They made up their mind earlier on to do whatever it takes to send me to junior high school, even in that far place,” she said of her parents’ support for her education. “But the new school, Visakha Junior High School, has given me a great new chance.” She added, “Here teachers are also very nice, kind, and pay attention to each student, as class size is small. The excellent part is this school is offering a computer technology class, which is unimaginable in other schools. We also have a nice library.”

Usainda Marma graduated from the Visakha Girls’ School a year ago. The daughter of a poor farmer and day laborer, she enrolled in junior high in Manikchari. Because her family could not afford to pay for her room and board, Usainda walked the two hours each way to and from school. When Covid closed the school for long periods last year, Usainda feared that her education was about to end. “I am very fortunate that my old school, Visakha Girls’ School, has started accepting sixth-grade students this year. This has given me a new life,” she said. “Although I will be repeating my sixth grade, I believe it is better for me. I am very happy that I can now attend school from home.”

Paisanu Marma is the eldest of six children whose parents work as farmers and in day labor. “As an elder child,” she said, “I had to take care of my siblings and help my parents with various chores. Luckily, my teachers at the Visakha School work closely with parents and explain to them the importance of education. There was no chance that I could have continued my schooling without Visakha Junior High School, and without support from the teachers.” She continued: “Here everything is free. We not only get free education, the school also gives us pens, pencils, notebooks, and books for free. I have enrolled in the sixth grade, and I am very confident that I will be able to finish at least eighth grade in the same school.”

The Jamyang Foundation’s aspiration is eventually to expand the programming at Visakha Girls’ School further, to enable its students to stay in school through high school.

This article is based on reports from the Jamyang Foundation.

Food, Not Feed: Transforming the Global Food System

By Shaun Bartone

At the UN Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow, COP26, the raising of livestock was identified as a driver of carbon emissions, turning carbon-sequestering forests and peatlands into grazing land for livestock, and turning arable land that grows food to be directly consumed by people into feed for beef and dairy cattle, pigs, and chickens. 

The UN Conference on Climate Change (COP26), held in Glasgow in early November, began to address the critical role of agriculture and its contribution to global carbon emissions. The production of livestock is a driver of land-use changes that also drive up carbon emissions, turning carbon-sequestering forests and peatlands into grazing land for livestock, and turning arable land that grows food for people into feed for beef and dairy cattle, pigs and chickens. Furthermore, governments subsidize the cost of meat consumption by providing billions of dollars in subsidies for agricultural policies that support beef and meat production.

The combination of agricultural policies that support meat production and consumption, and the demand for meat-heavy diets, contributes substantially to the total global emissions of carbon and carbon equivalents, methane and nitrogen. A report by Compassion in World Farming, titled “Breaking the Taboo: Why Diets Must Change to Tackle the Climate Emergency,” provides evidence that global food systems concentrated on meat production contribute as much as 75 percent of total carbon equivalent emissions from agriculture.

A study published in the journal Science in 2020, cited in the report (p. 3), concludes that even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted, current trends in global food systems would make it difficult to meet the 1.5°C target and even to stay under the 2°C target, the maximum rise in global temperature posited by of the Paris Accord. The study shows that moving to plant-rich diets could reduce emissions from food systems by 47 percent compared with Business As Usual (BAU).

The Compassion in World Farming report states that the food sector produces up to one-third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and 75 percent of agriculture emissions are from livestock production: beef and dairy cattle, pigs, and chickens. Furthermore, the production of feed for livestock displaces the production of food—grains, pulses, vegetables, and fruits—for direct human consumption. This drives up the cost of basic food staples and increases food insecurity for the developing world, contributing to hunger and malnutrition. 

Food consumption patterns must change to meet climate targets

Climate scientists report that food consumption patterns will have to change if we are to meet the Paris Agreement climate targets. Many studies show that reducing consumption of meat and dairy leads to substantial reductions in GHG emissions. This is because animal products generally generate substantially higher emissions per unit of nutrition produced than plant-based foods (see Table 2).[1]

Research published in Nature shows that globally, BAU in food production and consumption will lead to an 87 percent increase in food-related GHG emissions by 2050 (compared with 2010). The study reports that dietary changes towards more plant-based (flexitarian) diets could reduce food-related GHG emissions in 2050 to below their current level. 

Transforming food systems: decreasing emissions, regenerating living systems

According to the report (p. 9), “Studies show that reducing global meat consumption would produce multiple benefits in the form of reduced use of resources and a decrease in environmental degradation. In particular, a decrease in the consumption of meat and dairy would lead to reduced use of arable land, freshwater, energy, and pesticides as well as reduced nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, deforestation, and soil erosion, and restore habitat for wildlife.” Under current food consumption patterns, more than three-quarters of the diet-related GHG emissions (77 percent) were associated with animal-sourced foods consumed worldwide. The report adds that in 2030, adoption of “any of the four [plant-based] healthy diet patterns worldwide would reduce diet-related GHG emissions by 41–74 percent” (p. 6).

The Compassion in Farming report suggests that taxing meat consumption could reduce the demand for meat products and offset the environmental costs of meat production. But instead, governments around the world are not only failing to reduce emissions from the meat sector, they are actually subsidizing the production of meat, which encourages the consumption of cheap meat. 

According to recent studies, the U.S. government spends up to $38 billion each year to subsidize the meat and dairy industries, while less than one percent of that sum is allocated to support the production of fruits and vegetables. Most agricultural subsidies go to farmers of livestock and a few staple crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton, with payments skewed toward the largest producers. Corn and soy inputs, in particular, are heavily subsidized for the production of meat and processed food by some of the world’s largest meat and dairy corporations.[2]

If we are going to meet our climate goals, reduce emissions of carbon, methane, and nitrogen, restore land use to carbon sequestration, and support wildlife habitats, we must reduce our consumption of meat and dairy products, both from ruminants (beef and dairy cattle) and monogastric animals (pigs and chickens). 

In November 2019, a statement entitled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” was signed by over 11,000 scientists. The statement (cited in the report, p. 7) suggests six critical steps to lessen the worst effects of climate change. One of these steps states: “Eating mostly plant-based foods while reducing the global consumption of animal products … can improve human health and significantly lower GHG emissions. Moreover, this will free up croplands for growing much needed human plant food instead of livestock feed, while releasing some grazing land to support natural climate solutions,” such as reforestation.

Shaun Bartone has been practicing and studying Buddhism for a dozen years in South Asian traditions. Shaun has an MSW in Community Planning, MA in Sociology and completed doctoral research in Environmental Sociology.  Shaun lives in Worcester, MA. Shaun is the creator and editor of Engage! Magazine, www.engagedharma.net.


[1] Compassion in World Farming, p. 5. The table is from Springmann et al, 2018. “Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits.” Nature (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0594-0).

[2] “Removing the Meat Subsidy: Our Cognitive Dissonance around Animal Agriculture.” https://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/removing-meat-subsidy-our-cognitive-dissonance-around-animal-agriculture. Columbia University: Journal of International Affairs.

Technology Is Not the Answer to Our Many Human and Ecological Crises

By Steven Gorelick 

As people are being pushed into deepening dependence on large-scale, technological systems, a reaction has set in that sees increased respect for indigenous wisdom, for women and for the feminine, and a growing appreciation for wild nature and for all things vernacular, handmade, artisanal, and local. 

A traditional woman farmer in India (Photo: Oxfam India)

The most recent topic explored by the thinkers and activists who make up the Great Transition Network was “Technology and the Future.” As writer after writer posted their thoughts, it was heartening to see that almost all recognize that technology cannot provide real solutions to the many crises we face. I was also happy that Professor William Robinson, author of a number of books on the global economy, highlighted the clear connection between computer technologies and the further entrenchment of globalization today.  

As anyone who has followed my work will know, globalization is of particular interest to me: for more than 40 years I’ve been studying its impacts on different cultures and societies around the world. From Ladakh and Bhutan to Sweden and Australia, a clear pattern has emerged: as people are pushed into deepening dependence on large-scale, technological systems, ecological and social crises escalate. 

I’m not the only one to have seen this. In the International Forum on Globalization—a network I co-founded in 1992—I worked with forty writers, journalists, academics, and social and environmental leaders from around the world to inform the public about the ways in which “free-trade” treaties, the principal drivers of globalization, have eroded democracy, destroyed livelihoods, and accelerated resource extraction. In countries as disparate as Sweden and India, I have seen how globalization intensifies competition for jobs and resources, leading to dramatic social breakdown—including not only ethnic and religious conflict, but also depression, alcoholism and suicide. 

Professor Robinson wrote that we are “at the brink of another round of restructuring and transformation based on a much more advanced digitalization of the entire global economy.” This is true, but the link between globalization and technological expansion began well before the computer era. Large-scale, technological apparatuses can be understood as the arms and legs of centralized profit-making. And while 5G networks, satellites, mass data-harvesting, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality will allow the colonization of still more physical, economic, and mental space by multinational corporations, technologies like fossil fuels, global trading infrastructures, and television have already helped to impose a corporate-run consumer-based economy in almost every corner of the globe. 

For reasons that are increasingly evident, an acceleration of this process is the last thing we need in a time of serious social and environmental crises. What’s more, the technologies themselves—from the sensors to the satellites—all rely heavily on scarce resources, not least rare earth minerals. Some of the world’s richest corporations are now racing each other to extract these minerals from the deepest seabeds and from the surface of Mars. It has been estimated that the internet alone—with its largely invisible data warehouses (much of it manned by exploited labor in the “developing” world)—will use up a fifth of global electricity consumption by 2025. 

And for what? So that we can all spend more time immersed in and addicted to virtual worlds? So that we can automate agriculture, and drive more communities off the land into swelling urban slums? So that drones can deliver our online purchases without an iota of face-to-face contact? 

When thinking about technology from within an already high-tech, urban context, we can easily forget that nearly half the global population still lives in villages, still connected to the land. This is not to say that their way of life is not under threat—far from it. Ladakh, the Himalayan region where I lived and worked for several decades, was unconnected to the outside world by even a road until the 1960s. But today you can find processed corporate food, smartphones, mountains of plastic waste, traffic jams and other signs of ‘modernity’ in the capital, Leh.

The first steps on this path were taken in the mid-1970s when, in the name of ‘development,’ massive resources went into building up the energy, communications, and transport infrastructures needed to tie Ladakh to the global economy.  Another step involved pulling Ladakhi children out of their villages into western-style schools, where they learned none of the place-based skills that supported Ladakh’s culture for centuries, and instead were trained into the technological-modernist paradigm. Together, these forces are pushing the traditional way of life to the brink of extinction.

While that process began relatively recently in Ladakh, in the west it has been going on far longer, with deeper impacts. But even here, more and more people are becoming aware that the technologization of their personal lives has led to increasing stress, isolation, and mental health struggles. During the pandemic people have been forced to do more online than ever before—from classes to conversations with friends and family—and most have discovered how limited and empty online life can be. There is a clear cultural turning, visible now even in the mainstream, that goes beyond a desire to spend less time on screens. People are also beginning to reject the posturing of the consumer culture and its work-and-spend treadmill, wanting instead to slow down, to cultivate deeper relationships, and to engage in more community-oriented and nature-based activities. 

I see young people all over the world choosing to leave their screen-based jobs to become farmers. (This return to the land is happening in Ladakh, as well, which I find truly inspiring.)  Informal networks of mutual aid are arising. Friends are gardening, cooking, and baking bread together; families are choosing to live on the land and developing relationships with the animals and plants around them. We are seeing increased respect for indigenous wisdom, for women and for the feminine, and a growing appreciation for wild nature and for all things vernacular, handmade, artisanal, and local.

There is also an emergence of alternative, ecological practices in every discipline: from natural medicine to natural building, from eco-psychology to ecological agriculture. Although these disciplines have often been the target of corporate co-optation and greenwashing, they have invariably emerged from bottom-up efforts to restore a healthier relationship with the Earth.

All of these are positive, meaningful trends that have been largely ignored by the media, and given no support by policymakers. At the moment, they are running uphill in a system that favors corporate-led technological development at every turn. They testify to enduring goodwill, to a deep human desire for connection.

When viewed from a big-picture perspective, the expansion of digital technologies—which are inherently centralized and centralizing – runs contrary to the emergence of a more humane, sustainable, and genuinely connected future. Why should we accept an energy-and mineral-intensive technological infrastructure that is fundamentally about speeding life up, increasing our screen-time, automating our jobs, and tightening the grip of the 1%? 

For a better future, we need to put technology back in its place and favor democratically determined, diverse forms of development that are shaped by human and ecological priorities—not by the gimmicky fetishes of a handful of billionaires.

Steven Gorelick is Managing Programs Director at Local Futures (International Society for Ecology and Culture). He is the author of Small is Beautiful, Big is Subsidized (pdf), co-author of Bringing the Food Economy Home, and co-director of The Economics of Happiness. His writings have been published in The Ecologist and Resurgence magazines. He frequently teaches and speaks on local economics around the U.S.

Originally published on Common Dreams on February 2, 2022. Reprinted here under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

The Expansive Vision of Martin Luther King

 By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

King speaking to an anti-Vietnam war rally at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, April 27, 1967. (Photo: Wikipedia)

 King saw his commitment to racial justice and his opposition to the war in Vietnam as integrally connected aspects of a single moral and spiritual demand: “to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.” He joined the dots to see the triple evil of racism, poverty, and militarism as three manifestations of a pernicious scheme of values that prizes wealth above people.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known as the civil rights leader who, in the late 1950s and 1960s, led his fellow African Americans in their nonviolent struggle to end the oppressive Jim Crow policies that reigned throughout the South. His crowning achievement, in this period of his life, was the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. In recognition of his role in leading these campaigns, King was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

King’s victory in the fight for civil rights did not bring an end to his commitment to social justice. The same inner calling that drew him to the struggle for civil rights now beckoned him into new arenas that called for a conscientious response. One cause to which King devoted himself was opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, which had surged in the late 1960s, with a devastating rise in casualties. The other was the persistence of crippling poverty, which was particularly endemic among African Americans but also beset people of all races throughout the U.S. and around the world.

King saw these manifestations of human suffering—racism, militarism, and poverty—not as isolated and disconnected phenomena, but as overlapping, interconnected violations of inherent human dignity. In his view, they all sprang from a fundamental distortion in values that infected the depths of the soul. Thus the remedy for them—for all three at once—was not merely a change in political and economic policies but a far-reaching moral transformation of human consciousness that extended down to its base.

King is best remembered for his poignant “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the famous March on Washington in August 1963. The speech envisioned a future when people would embrace each other without regard for the color of their skin, when even in Alabama, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Despite its popular appeal, however, in my view “I Have a Dream” was not King’s most potent and incisive speech. That distinction belongs, rather, to the speech he gave at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his assassination.

It was in the Riverside speech that he publicly announced his opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam. For a long time, he had inwardly opposed the war but had never previously spoken against it in public. Now he felt his conscience demanded he speak out, and he thus titled the speech “A Time to Break Silence.”

King’s decision to declare his opposition to the war drew pointed criticism. Many of the American political leaders who supported him on civil rights turned against him; some even tried to smear him as a communist agent. But criticism also came from his fellow leaders in the civil rights struggle. They pleaded with him to reverse his decision, asking him not to risk jeopardizing their cause by stepping outside his proper domain. In their view, further progress in securing civil rights required that, with regard to the war, King continue to remain silent.

King, however, had a different view about his responsibilities. He saw his commitment to the cause of racial justice and his opposition to the war as integrally connected aspects of a single moral and spiritual demand, a demand that swelled up from the depths of his being as if by divine decree. In the speech he offers seven reasons for his decision to speak out against the war. Of these, the one he felt most pressing was his conviction that as a preacher and a man of God, he was obliged “to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy” (p. 234).[1] Whether it was Black Americans denied their civil and political rights or Vietnamese peasants decimated by U.S. bombing raids, it was the need to defend the full humanity of the victims that pricked King’s conscience and brought forth words of eloquence from his mouth and pen.

After explaining in detail his reasons for opposing the war, he next offers a sharp but salutary diagnosis of the underlying forces that drive American policy. This diagnosis takes us beyond politics into the spiritual domain, into “the soul of America,” which makes King’s critique even more cogent in relation to our own time. He decries the war, not only for the violence it inflicts on innocent lives, but because it is “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” He identifies this malady as a pernicious scheme of values that gives priority to “things” over people; specifically, a code of values that endorses the quest for wealth, profits, and property rights even when these pursuits lead to the oppression, death, and devastation of millions of our fellow human beings.

King locates, at the root of our cultural pathologies, “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” The unity of these three evil forces figures prominently in King’s thought throughout his later years. He declares, in his Vietnam speech, that “this business of burning human beings with napalm … of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.” Then he delivers a stark warning: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” (p. 241) This message is especially crucial for us to heed today. Here in America we falter over a bill that would provide urgently needed programs of social assistance to poor and low-wage families, on the grounds that they are “too expensive”; yet we gladly heap close to $800 billion annually on our bloated military machine. Such a disparity is surely an offense to the moral consciousness and a betrayal of our constitutional obligation to provide for the common welfare.

In the final portion of his speech, King lifts his gaze from its focus on the immediate crisis of the Vietnam war and extends it to the broader dimensions of the human situation as he viewed it under the conditions of his own time; these conditions are still very much with us today. He speaks of how, all over the globe, people are turning against old systems of exploitation and oppression and are aspiring for new models of governance marked by justice and equality. He denounces the role of the Western nations, whose leading philosophers first envisaged the ideals of revolutionary justice, but which have now become the defenders of oppression, the foes of systemic transformation. He declares, with a provocative flourish, that “our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism” (p. 242).

King goes on to sound the call for “a genuine revolution of values,” which entails that “our loyalties must become ecumenical [that is, universal] rather than sectional.” To preserve the best in our societies, he contends, “every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind [that is, humankind] as a whole.” And that means we must heed the call “for an all-embracing and unconditional love” for all people everywhere. King clarifies that what he means by the often-diluted word “love” is not “some sentimental and weak response,” but “that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life, the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality” (p. 242).

Despite the passage of 56 years since King delivered his speech at the Riverside Church, the message he conveys still rings true, indeed with astonishing prescience. Particularly astute was his insight into the deep, hidden, inextricable connections that unify the multiple crises we face in today’s world, even right here in our own country. King’s triple scourge of systemic racism, poverty, and militarism has to be extended to include ecological devastation (especially climate change), the drift toward authoritarian forms of government around the world (even here in the U.S.), and the rise of repressive, reactionary religious sects that encourage violence and seek domination through political alliances.

Even the supreme triumph of the civil rights era—the gain of voting rights by Black Americans—is now in grave danger. These gains were already weakened by the Supreme Court decision of 2013, which removed the need for “preclearance” of changes to voting rules in states with a history of racial discrimination. Over the past few months, the right to vote is being seriously eroded by new laws that permit voter suppression, election subversion, and partisan redistricting in ways that diminish the impact of voters from Black and other minority communities.

Another major Supreme Court decision, the Citizens United ruling of 2010, also delivered a blow to genuine democracy. The ruling lets corporations and wealthy individuals spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, thereby giving disproportionate weight to the interests of the ultra-wealthy over the concerns of ordinary citizens. The result has been to hand control over our political system to giant corporations and moneyed groups, with a corresponding reduction in the role the people have in determining who represents them and what kinds of programs are enacted. This has allowed vast disparities in wealth to grow still wider, such that here in the U.S. roughly 40% of the population is poor or low income, while just six men possess between them over $900 billion.

With the increasing rise of autocratic tendencies in American politics, the replacement of the rule of law by the rule of wealth, and the persistence of poverty and new manifestations of racism, our situation becomes increasingly dire, the future of American democracy ever more fragile. Since currents in American politics do not remain confined within our own borders, the impact of an autocratic takeover of the U.S. would inevitably spread across the globe, encouraging other aspiring autocrats to take control of their countries. Already strange partnerships are emerging among autocrats in distant lands.

All these worrisome developments call for a determined moral response, a response ultimately grounded in compassion and the affirmation of human solidarity. Delay is not an option. Here King’s words, toward the end of his Vietnam speech, become especially piquant: “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time” (p. 243).

The question we face here in the U.S.—as we flounder in our struggle against poverty, racism, devastating climate change, the erosion of voting rights, and the drift toward authoritarianism in politics and religion—is this: “Will we act in time, or will we look back, as King put it, ‘naked and dejected with a lost opportunity,’ forced to admit that we let the chance slip by and now it’s simply too late?”


[1] All references are to the text of the speech in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington (HarperSanFrancisco, 1986).

Can a Doughnut Help to Heal Our World?

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

DOUGHNUTS
Photo by Viv Lynch on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The dominant economic model followed by virtually all major economies is inflicting severe injuries on the planet’s fragile ecosystem and causing glaring economic and social inequalities. Can a diagram of a doughnut offer us a key to resolving our predicament?

The human community today faces two momentous challenges that will loom ever larger in the years ahead. One is to establish the social and economic conditions necessary for everyone on this planet to flourish: to live with dignity and purpose and fulfill their life’s potentials. The other is to safeguard the natural environment on which we depend from the harm caused by an economy dependent on unrestrained extraction and consumption. These challenges to our collective well-being are bound to grow in severity and urgency over the coming decades. To meet them successfully calls for a transformation in the vectors that drive the economy both nationally and globally. Our current dominant economic system is pushing us toward a precipice, and we’re careening forward with hardly a thought for the plunge that lies ahead. It’s as if we’re in a car drawing ever closer to the edge of a cliff, and we continue to press down on the gas pedal while we argue over which station to listen to on the radio.

To resolve the double crisis facing us we must trace it to its roots, which means that we must look at the premises that ground the dominant economic system. The economic policies our governments pursue operate within the parameters of an economic model, which posits goals for the whole economy and prescribes what it believes to be the most effective means to realize them. This model is shared by the world’s major economic powers, whether they operate in capitalist or state-controlled modes. An economic model exerts a powerful influence over almost all our ways of thinking about our common lives, yet the validity of this model, its objective truth, is tacitly assumed, accepted almost as inevitable as the succession of day and night. Thus it’s left to stand unnoticed in the background, like the screen against which a movie is projected: omnipresent, indispensable, yet not seen in itself.

If the model conforms to the contours of the real world, the policies that flow from it will be realistic, constructive, and socially benign. But if the model is rooted in a distorted picture of the world—a picture that omits some crucial features while giving excessive weight to others—it will lead to unwise policies that damage both the social fabric of our lives and the natural environment. That the model we currently work within involves serious distortions of the actual world, distortions in both its human and natural dimensions, is the crux of our present predicament.

The model that reigns today is that of an industrial growth economy, which measures “development” in terms of expanded industrial production and increase in gross domestic product. The model is powerful, compelling, and logically rigorous, but as we can see from the global crises it repeatedly triggers, it is also terribly flawed, harboring inherent pathologies that infect both our social order and our relationships with nature. It fails to recognize that an economy that thrives by devouring the Earth’s natural resources undermines and debilitates the planet’s finite supporting capacity. And it fails to recognize that at the core of every economic model there are real people who are subjects of experience—people with hopes, fears, and aspirations who, by reason of their humanity, are entitled to the basic requisites of a dignified life.

The results of such oversights can be disastrous. In the social dimension of our lives, the model leads to glaring inequalities in wealth and income, to violations of basic social equity, to pockets of deep poverty in the midst of plenty. It consigns hundreds of millions of people to the edge of survival, perpetually struggling just to avoid destitution and premature death. It divides the world into rival military camps that spend billions on weapons of deadly power while millions in their own lands live in utter poverty.

Our relationship to the environment is just as vicious. This model promotes a purely utilitarian orientation to nature, an outlook that compels us to chip away at the fragile geophysical and biological pillars that sustain human civilization on this precious planet. If the destruction continues, everything we cherish is bound to collapse, and we ourselves will join the crash.

To successfully resolve these two problems—rampant social injustice and environmental exploitation—we need an economic model that can promote social equity and the protection of the natural environment. The model must be governed not by mere quantitative measurements of production, growth, and financial profitability, but by standards that reflect a moral point of view.

This calls for an expanded conception of ethics. It’s not enough merely to promote ethics as a code of individual behavior. Ethical principles must guide the larger systems in which our lives unfold, including the dominant economic model. This means that ethics must govern our relationship to each other at every level of our shared existence while also regulating our relationships with the physical and biological systems in which we are inextricably embedded.

But to invoke ethics as a critical factor in the economy, we have to ensure that ethics shapes economic and social policies that promote the common good. This is where the current system repeatedly falters. While individual companies and institutions may adopt codes of ethics for their members—and while some companies may adhere to codes of social and environmental responsibility—the dominant model operates with an ethics-neutral source code. The prevailing imperative for a corporation to succeed, especially one with a global reach, is to maximize profits, to increase returns on investments, and to provide higher dividends to its shareholders.

To meet these goals a corporation, even while espousing ethics for its workforce, may exploit the natural wealth of the Earth without constraint: clearing primal forests for timber and monocrop agriculture, polluting lakes and rivers with toxic chemicals, belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The drive for higher profits has profound human costs as well. It encourages giant companies to pay substandard wages, pressure politicians with lobbying campaigns, and transfer their bases of production to countries where labor is cheap and regulations weak and unenforced.

British economist Kay Raworth has proposed the outline of an alternative economic model that captures, in a clear visual image, the goalposts we must pursue to overcome the two interlocked hurdles facing humankind today. A Senior Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, where she teaches Environmental Change and Management, Raworth has designed a model she calls “doughnut economics.” She has presented this model at various conferences, in YouTube videos, on her website, and in a full-length book called Doughnut Economics, which the Financial Times selected as the best work on economics for 2017.

The “economic doughnut” has gone through several iterations. Here is a version on Wikipedia:

Like an actual doughnut, the circular model has two circumferences: an outer rim and an inner rim. The outer rim is what Raworth calls the “environmental ceiling.” It consists of nine “planetary boundaries,” among them climate change, environmental pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and land conversion. To pass beyond these boundaries is to push environmental degradation to dangerous levels, to push the Earth’s geophysical systems along damaging trajectories. The inner rim defines the “social foundation” on which a just society rests. It involves a set of twelve essential social standards that include such material goods as nutritious food, potable water, adequate housing, and energy; social goods such as health care, education, work, social equity, and gender equality; and political goods such as political representation, freedom of expression, and peace. Between these social and planetary boundaries, Raworth writes, lies the doughnut, “an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive.” The task for the 21st century, according to this model, is to bring all of humanity into that safe and just space

This task, however, is not at all easy. It clashes with a political system that permits corporations and their lobbyists to write laws and block inconvenient regulations. It runs up against the reigning economic model, which is relentlessly propelling us across both the inner and the outer rims of the doughnut. The policies that flow from this model have given us a world in which a privileged few enjoy enormous power and material wealth while billions struggle just to survive—indeed, where millions fall through the cracks, unable to escape degrading poverty, hunger, illness, and early death.

If we are to achieve the common good, a world of economic justice and environmental health, we must place Raworth’s doughnut at the center of economic and social policy. Any viable, sustainable economy must be built around the recognition that true human value does not lie in rising amounts of wealth and power for the few and misery, poverty, and crippling anxiety for the powerless many. It lies in a stable natural world, thriving and regenerative; in fulfilling human relationships based on trust and equity; and in the leisure and opportunity to pursue our cultural interests and spiritual callings.

These are the goods that enrich and dignify human life, yet it is these that are being ignored and expunged by the system that prevails today. If we are to recover, we must seek out and expose the malignant forces that have infected our societies and are tearing away at our planet’s delicate geophysical and biological support systems. At the same time, with courage and determination, we must strive to create a future in which all have access to the sources of true human value and can thrive together in harmony with the natural world.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is the founder-chairperson of Buddhist Global Relief.

An earlier version of this essay was published on Common Dreams. It is reproduced here under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).