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Consumption, Contentment, and Climate Crisis || IIT Bhubaneswar (2021)

Author Acharya Prashant

Acharya Prashant

21 min
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Questioner (Q): Spiritual wisdom has traditionally talked of sacrificing material desires and living a life of an ascetic, but most people are habituated towards excessive consumption, which is almost like a pandemic these days. Most people do not connect with concepts like sacrifice and renunciation, and hence avoid spirituality altogether. So, what is the solution?

Acharya Prashant (AP): You have talked of these words here: ‘renunciation’, ‘sacrifice’, ‘asceticism’. But what do they mean? They do not mean that you have to give up on what is really useful to you for your wellness and upliftment. Obviously, if you have something that is doing you good, it makes no sense to drop it.

Renunciation, therefore, is about not clinging to that which is doing you no good. And I don’t suppose anybody would argue with that. If something is not helping you, why would you continue to be with it? That is renunciation. What is sacrifice? Sacrifice is to give up the lower for the higher. You are sacrificing the lower in service of the higher or, you could even say, for the attainment of the higher. Again, I don’t suppose anybody can quarrel with this. So, when you say most people are habituated towards consumption, it is not consumption per se that is the problem; it is mad and blind consumption of stuff that is anyway not going to do you any good. That’s the problem.

So, wisdom or spiritual wisdom is not about the renunciation of consumption altogether. As long as your material body is there, you will continue to consume, you will have to consume. The question is, what to consume, and how much? That is a burning question of this day as well; it is a spiritual question as well as a most contemporary question. In fact, currently there is hardly any other question that is really more important in our material lives as well than this one.

So, how much to consume? What to consume? That’s where spiritual wisdom comes handy. Do not consume that which will poison you, even if it appears attractive. Now, that is spirituality. And if you’ll pay some attention, it is common sense, or you could say it is elevated common sense, common sense of a higher order.

So, once we know what these words really mean, then they do not look all that threatening, right? They almost look tempting, inviting: it is great to renounce, it is smart to renounce. And sacrifice is in a higher sense a very good investment of the highest order. That is sacrifice. So, when we talk of investment we feel excited, but when we talk of sacrifice, then it appears so forbidding. It need not be so. Think of sacrifice as, we said, giving up the lower for the higher.

Similarly, asceticism—what does that mean? That means not having that which is not going to be useful for you. Even if you have to consume, consume that which will take you towards your goal. Take the example of a vehicle. If it’s a petrol vehicle, will it consume diesel? It won’t. It won’t consume diesel, because if it takes in diesel, it won’t be able to go towards its goal, right? So, in that sense even an unconscious motor car knows the basics of asceticism, so it is doubly unfortunate and ironical that man does not understand this.

You must know your goal. You must have an inner system that keeps reminding you of what you really need and where you really must be. Secondly, you must consume only the stuff that takes you towards your goal, and that is right consumption. Set your goal with great attention, great peace, and great consideration, and then give up all that which is not useful in taking you towards your goal. That’s what an ascetic does.

Q: Sir, you say that the only solution to climate change is to arrest man’s tendency to consume. Tomorrow, if science comes up with a way to let the current levels of consumption sustain, along with also reducing carbon emission, what is wrong in that?

AP: What the questioner is saying is that “You speak against consumption because it leads to climate change. Now, if we can have superior technology, more efficient technology which offers us sustenance of our current levels of consumption along with carbon footprint reduction, would that be acceptable?” That’s being asked.

You see, first of all, yes, we do need such technology, so I wish the question materializes beyond its hypothesis. We do need technology that offers at least the same level of production with lower carbon footprints. So, that is welcome. Next thing, when I say that you must look very carefully at your levels of consumption, it is for two reasons; your question addresses just one of them.

Why must man consume with careful consideration? Firstly, it destroys your inner world; inwardly it pushes you deeper into the belief that by means of more and more, increased and increased consumption, you will be able to get rid of your inner disquiet. So, it is not good for you inwardly; that’s the first reason.

The second reason is, all the consumption comes from this ecosystem, this planet, and in the lust of our blind consumption, we destroy life for everybody. That is very loveless; there is no compassion in that; it is inhuman, and that is also not sensible for our own continuation. When we have destroyed the whole thing so badly, then you know the implications it has posed on us: man himself is not going to continue on this planet beyond fifty or hundred years at most if the current crisis continues to amplify.

In your question, you have addressed only the second reason, not the first one. Even if there is technology that allows you consumption without carbon, still the first reason is important enough for me to ask you to lower your consumption levels. Optimize them for your own welfare.

You could hypothetically argue—when it comes to the depletion of natural resources—what if mankind discovers another planet with ample resources or resources far greater in quantity than those found on Earth? Then would consumption be justified? No, still not. Even if there is some great technology, or even if man succeeds in colonizing some other planet, still one thing would remain very vicious about consumption, which is that you consume for a very horrible and false reason.

There is a consumption that is needed for basic physical sustenance and comfort, alright; and then there is a consumption that happens for entirely different psychological reasons. It is the second type of consumption that I am always very worried about, and that worry would continue to have relevance, more and more relevance as technology progresses.

As technology progresses, you will probably be able to consume more with impunity, and that would give you the license to totally forget the real cause of your troubles. You would attribute your problems to low levels of consumption, which are low only in your own personal and misplaced estimate, and then you will say, “Because I do not consume as much as my neighbor, or as much as my cousins, that’s why I don’t feel well.”

And this kind of a false diagnosis and false treatment would keep you sick within even if everything outside is somehow managed through science and technology. The exteriors would probably then be alright; it would be green and the carbon levels would be manageable, and all those things would appear externally alright, but your internal world would continue to be in shambles—a shattered mass of glass. Would you want that?

So, those who can have concerns beyond their well-being, to them I say, please look carefully at your consumption levels for the sake of everybody. And to those who would rather firstly think of their own self-interest, to them I find it more profitable to say, well, your own inner wellness does not lie in consuming more, it rather lies in consuming just the right thing and giving up on, renouncing all the rest. If something is indeed useful in your personal internal welfare, who can sensibly say that you must not take it in? Fine, go ahead, achieve it; get for yourself more and more of it.

But that’s not the case. The stuff that we take in, honestly ask yourself, how much of it is really doing you any inner good? They are not even neutral in that sense. If you will closely investigate, you will find that they are doing you inner harm. Therefore, for this purely personal reason too, one must consume in an optimal way.

Q: Without consumption, how will the economies and the systems run? What will people do if industries are not there? How will they get work?

AP: We are not talking of that extreme case; we are not saying that consumption has to be reduced to zero, or that consumption has to be necessarily reduced to even half. No, that’s not what we are saying. It is obvious that as long as man exists, man will consume, right? That’s the lot of mankind. Even before we consume anything man-made, we continue to consume, for example, air every minute; we take it in, and then you consume some part of it, and you then let the rest of it come out, right? You consume water, you consume sunlight.

So, it’s not as if consumption can be brought to zero, or that it is something evil that needs to be totally eliminated. That’s not anybody’s position. We are talking of the right kind of consumption, because ultimately, you see, you would agree that all consumption is for your own welfare. And if consumption is for your own welfare, then it’s not the consumption that’s the end, it’s the welfare that’s the end, right? What should we then really measure, our levels of consumption or our levels of welfare?

Even if you say that we must measure consumption, we measure consumption assuming that it will lead to welfare, right? And if even consumption holds value because it possibly contributes to welfare, then why not directly measure welfare itself? And that’s what we often forget to do. We start counting the items we have consumed, the quantities we have consumed, rather than what those items and quantities have really given us. We start feeling as if consumption itself is the final thing: as if you have consumed something, that itself means that you have gained value from that thing. That’s not really necessary.

There is food that you take in that contributes to your physical well-being, and there is food that you take in that totally breaks you down, destroys you, right? Whereas, the consumed quantities might be the same, no? You take in fifty grams of food items, and food items of a kind that build you up. And you take an equal quantity, fifty grams of food items that will destroy you, poison you. The consumption totally, in terms of quantity, has remained the same, but the final effect on your welfare has been drastically different.

So, that’s what is to be measured. And if you are talking of right consumption, obviously there will be things to produce, so obviously there would be industries and employment, and then people would have a higher purpose to be employed for, no? If you have an industry that is very carefully with love and wisdom manufacturing stuff and providing services that are really useful to everybody, then won’t people be eager to work there? And obviously, it’s not that such an industry will not make profits; if it is providing you something that you really need, why won’t it make profits? It would make profits, first thing, and secondly, people who are working there would have something real to work for. Otherwise, you know how the normal employee feels in the average firm.

So, that’s the thing we are asking for. We are not saying that the economy is evil and it needs to be destroyed; we are saying we need economics from a different center. Because all economics is ultimately for the welfare of the human being, therefore we need to measure our inner welfare as the most important thing in economics. We are talking of that kind of economics; we are talking of sensible economics.

You see, there are several countries that are, for example, military countries; they operate from a center of national security. Their overarching narrative is, it’s a national security paradigm. They are great consumers often of military hardware. What’s the point? And you also have countries that benefit a lot from defense exports. What’s the point?

If all that you have to measure is consumption, then why do we ban cigarettes or tax them so heavily? Why? If consumption is all that counts, then why do you not allow certain things to be manufactured or certain services to be provided? Let everything happen freely, and you can count everything as consumption.

I am again asking you, why are cigarettes taxed so heavily? Why are they not, for example, allowed to be sold to minors? There has to be a reason, right? And the reason is again twofold: one, yes, when a pack of cigarettes is purchased, there is economic activity, money changes hands, a transaction takes place, and it contributes to the GDP; on the other hand, this same person, if he continues to consume this stuff, would become totally incapable of any economic activity. A large number of them would just become liabilities upon the economic system, because they are now sapped of their power to work, meaningfully think; the very physical infrastructure is lost for them now.

So, that’s the economic reason. And then, secondly, there is the inner reason. Why consume something that does not contribute to your inner wellness? And that is the reason why these things, all the intoxicants are so very discouraged and banned or taxed: because even though they will have great sales and all that will contribute to GDP, in the medium term itself they are contributing to both economic decline and personal internal decline. And because welfare is what we need, therefore we do not need that kind of consumption. We need a different kind of consumption.

Don’t you see, several goods and services are subsidized by the government—why? Because that’s good consumption that needs to be promoted. For example, solar panels. I suppose if you are an entrepreneurship firm into solar energy, you will get rebates and subsidies from the government. Even the IT industry was benefiting from tax rebates for a long time, right? If there is wellness seen in a particular economic activity, it is to be promoted.

Spirituality is not anti-economics. Spirituality is pro-good economics. Spirituality says, if there is something that deserves to be consumed more, you promote its consumption; you promote its consumption in whatever way possible. Subsidize it or advertise it, but promote its consumption. So, in that sense, spirituality is actually pro-consumption., consumption of the right thing.

Q: The United Nations has laid out seventeen sustainable development goals, one of them being responsible consumption and production. What really is responsible consumption and production, and what role does Vedanta play in the whole process?

AP: Vedanta asks a very fundamental question: for whom? The fundamental question in Vedanta is not about a transcendental Truth or liberation or any such thing. You would be surprised that the fundamental question in Vedanta is: for whom? So, for example, you say, “I am watching a bird.” When you say, “I am watching a bird,” it is the bird that you are talking of. Vedanta says, “The bird exists for whom ?” Science says, “There is this fan, and there is this cathode ray tube.” Spirituality would ask, “For whom?”

So, what are responsible consumption and production? The question is, for whom is consumption? In other words, why do you consume? For whose sake is the consumption made? Who is the consumer? That’s the question in Vedanta. Equally, who is the producer? And you could broaden it to say, “Who is the worker or the actor?” That’s the question to be asked. And if you can answer that question, you will know what is responsible production, what is responsible consumption.

You have to know that consumption is for the sake of the one you call as ‘I’. Everything that you do is for the sake of the ‘I’. It is done by the ‘I’—I am stating the Vedantic position—for the sake of the ‘I’. If it is done for the ‘I’, then it is extremely important to keep asking, has consumption really benefited the ‘I’? But that does not happen, because the thing to be consumed is so alluring, so lucrative, so bewitching that it totally possesses you, and then in the relationship between you and that thing, all you are looking at is that thing.

The process of consumption is a relationship between you and the consumed object. What happens if the consumed object is extremely enchanting? In this relationship, who is the one you are constantly looking at? You are looking at the object because the object is so captivating, and consequently, what do you forget to look at? You forget to look at the other end of the relationship, which is yourself.

To be responsible is to know that your first responsibility is towards your welfare. You are not responsible to provide yourself with ample consumption, but you are surely responsible to do your own welfare. Same with production. It is not X level of production that we need; we need production of the right stuff in the right quantity. It is not just the consumption that we need; it makes no sense to say that a particular nation consumes so much of electricity per year, per capita; therefore that country is a developed one. What do you use that electricity for? For whom is the electricity used? What does the consumer of the electricity do with that electricity? That’s the indicator of wellness, growth, everything.

That particular country consumes so much of coal—what do you use the coal for? That’s the Vedantic question. And has that kind of usage benefitted you? If not, then why do you keep quoting coal consumption, cement consumption, fuel consumption, and electricity consumption as important indicators of growth? Has any growth really happened? All that has happened is that you have taken in a lot of coal, and this and that, and cement, and raised this building, done that, burnt fuel here, cut forest there, etc. How has any of that benefitted you really? That’s the Vedantic question to ask.

So, you see, in fact, what the United Nations is asking for can only be achieved through the Vedantic route. And now you will also know why most of the United Nations’ goals are never really achieved: because that central question ‘for whom?’ is not given the respect, the importance that it deserves. It is the question that should be right at the center, or on top of the pile.

The United Nations—or for that matter, most other organizations and individuals—fail to realize that, and therefore they are falling way short of their responsibilities and targets. How much has the UN really succeeded when it comes to climate change? Because it is a question of consumption at its core, and you cannot address a question of consumption without talking of the consumer, who he really is. And that is a spiritual question. More importantly, and more embarrassingly for the UN, that’s a Vedantic question.

We do not want to touch Vedanta with a barge pole, right? Do not give Vedanta the respect it deserves, and what you will have is this. You keep passing resolutions year after year, and the world keeps hurtling towards the final disaster. And what are you doing? Passing this resolution, calling that convention, organizing that meet, seminar, and all that gets you a lot of eyeballs and nothing else.

Specifically, when it comes to climate change, what has all the UN’s work really amounted to over the last three decades? We keep talking of responsibility without ever asking ourselves, responsibility towards whom? They will say, “Responsibility towards ourselves.” But who is this ‘me’? That’s the question you don’t want to go into, because the ego is just too afraid of being called out.

The moment you ask, “Who am I? Koham ?”—that’s Vedanta—the ego starts trembling, including the ego of the United Nations. So, they don’t ask this question. “Just be responsible! Don’t consume that much!” Now, you have sermonized, but why will that fellow heed? And why will that fellow vote in favor of responsible governments? He does not even know the meaning of the word ‘responsibility’. Responsibility towards whom, and who is going to be the responsible one? We don’t want to talk of that. That’s ātmajñāna (self-knowledge). We don’t like that.

So, for any real work to succeed, that’s the question you always need to ask. For whom is my success? This that I call as my success, who is really going to be benefitted by it? Which part of me? Where does that part of me come from? It’s quite likely that the part I am talking of is really an inorganic imposition upon me; it’s not even me, so why should I work for its welfare? It’s something alien. Will I discover the real me and know my real interests? Will I ever ask what I am really hungry for? The moment I do that, my life choices will change, and the moment I do that, my choices will gain a lot of power. Then my resolutions will not keep falling flat like the UN resolutions.

Once I resolve, I accomplish. You see the power in that? I resolve, I accomplish, because my resolutions are right. It’s not that I am a superman; it’s because I am resolving in the favor of, in the service of the right thing. So, I accomplish. How? First, resolve rightly; then ask. That’s what Vedanta teaches. Don’t just ask a question; first, be very careful about the questioner. The moment you will say, “How?” I will say, who is asking? From where does that one come? Why must you cling to that one? Or even, why must you hate that one?

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