A New Look at Western Civilization

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For the May issue of our Buddhist magazine, I proposed focusing on “Western civilization” as the main theme. The timing is good. This is the 101st anniversary of the May Fourth Movement in China. It also coincides with the outbreak of a civilization-ending pandemic. My proposal was accepted.

Some of our Buddhist members do not understand why I proposed this topic. What does Buddhism have to do with May 4th? Actually, there is a great deal. It is high time that we take another look at Western civilization and compare it to Eastern civilization. During the May Fourth Movement, the question was raised as to whether China should westernize. It is relevant to Buddhism because the Buddhist concept of Right Livelihood has much to do with how we make a living, how we travel and how we consume. We may not be aware of it, but our lifestyle and our diet habits may harm nature, other humans and/or other life forms (animals and plants) in a subtle way.

The May Fourth Movement started on May 4, 1919. It was partially a response to Western imperialism. It also marks a very solemn moment of national soul-searching. It was less than a century before that historical event, in 1839, that China fought a war with Britain and suffered great loss and humiliation. The Wikipedia has this entry about the cause of the First Opium War:

The immediate issue was Chinese official seizure of opium stocks at Canton to stop the banned opium trade, and threatening the death penalty for future offenders. The British government insisted on the principles of free trade and equality among nations and backed the merchants’ demands. The British Navy defeated the Chinese using technologically superior ships and weapons, and the British then imposed a treaty that granted territory to Western powers and opened trade with China.

We should note that opium was a banned narcotic in Britain itself during that time. But Britain chose to export opium to China in the name of “free trade.” Does this ring a bell? Even today, there are many calls from the Right for the deregulation and the liberalization of markets. It is as if “liberty” were an absolute good in itself. Another familiar theme is the West’s use of advanced technology in order to gain an advantage in such high-stake game of imperialism. Ever since Christopher Columbus’s expedition to the New World, the West has been using its superior weaponry and technology to subjugate the Native Americans, the Africans and the Asians. The same strategy is still used today even though colonization is now stigmatized. It was the same game during the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. A commonly phrase used by Western leaders is “we’ll bomb you back to Stone Age.” No, the West does not have a moral high ground. The overarching principle used by Western powers is “might makes right.”

Coming back to the May Fourth Movement. What the Chinese intellectuals realized a century ago is that the West apparently had an upper hand. What should China do? The obvious answer seems to be to import Western science and technology. How did the West become so strong? It was through science, technology and industrialization. Even though China turned communist for many decades, it could not avoid this global trend of urbanization and industrialization. For that is the dominant model of modernization. It is as if it were a kind of “gospel truth.”

Has the West been right? Is industrialization, urbanization and commercialization the way to go? In the last few decades, there are more and more signs that this may not be the right model for development. People who lived in the days of Britain’s Industrial Revolution knew how polluting and unhealthy industrialization really is. Even in the US, Thomas Jefferson opposed this dominant model of development. But the momentum of industrialization is too strong to oppose. Even today, one criterion for determining whether a country is developed is to what extent it is industrialized. The talk about “sustainable development” did not appear until some thirty years ago. It was then that people became concerned about the negative impact of “development” on nature and the environment. Very often, there is no clear line between “development,” “progress” and environmental destruction. In the meantime, the primary metric for gauging a country’s economic well-being is the GDP, which completely ignores the use and depletion of natural resources. The GDP metric can be called a kind of deceptive accounting. We measure only the gain without keeping account of the loss.

In the wake of our Coronavirus crisis, the need for sustainable development is never clearer. Scientists are telling us that disease is largely an environmental and ecological issue. Sixty percent of emerging infectious diseases have to do with human-animal interactions. That is why the dominant model of “development” is so troublesome — it typically leads to deforestation and encroachment of wild lands. In addition, because global trade has increased the wealth in the developing countries such as China, the consumption of meat has experienced exponential growth. To meet the world demand for meat, factory farms, operating in crowded and unsanitary conditions, have sprung up all over the world. These are literally incubators for new diseases.

We are now living in desperate times when the existential threat of our species and other life forms has become painfully real. It is high time that we entertain the notion that Western civilization has been wrongheaded for at least the last few centuries. Western economics, in particular, is based on the indulgence of self-interest, the aggrandizement of desire and the encouragement of consumption. To sustain the capitalist economy, there has to be perpetual economic growth. Unfortunately, such perpetual growth has to depend on the endless supply of natural resources. The reality is that there is nothing in nature that is limitless. To imagine that the natural constraints on resources can be overcome by technology is just a pipe dream.

It is common for the defenders of capitalism to impose a false dichotomy. Whenever capitalism is challenged, they will say that there are only two choices — capitalism or socialism. In truth, both capitalism and socialism come from modern thinking. They are products of the Enlightenment Movement. There are alternative systems which are much more environmentally-friendly and sustainable. And they all came from the East. We have the conservationist thinking of Lao Tzu. From India, we also have Vedic economics, Buddhist economics, Taoist economics and Gandhian economics. These alternative economic systems are all based on the ahimsa principle — nonviolence, non-harming and non-anthropocentric. The Eastern systems of thought have these themes in common: the restraint on desire, parsimony in consumption, local sufficiency and the tendency to think that small is beautiful.

Western civilization may have had a good run of several centuries. But we have to entertain the notion that it may have led us to a cliff. On this 101th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, I urge you to rethink and ponder. If our species is going to survive at all, it needs a totally new paradigm. And the time to come up with a new paradigm and to act on it is now.

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