…by truly letting-go of one’s sense of self – the ego-self whose well-being is separate from others’ well-being – the self-interest that sustains the bubble is undermined.
In place of the Abrahamic duality between good and evil, Buddhism focuses on ignorance and wisdom – the insight that comes with awakening. Delusion (moha) is one of the “three fires” or “three poisons” (the others are greed and ill will) that cause suffering when what we do is motivated by them.
Because it emphasizes individual awakening and personal transformation, Buddhism has not had much to say about collective delusion. It is of some importance that my delusions are usually not that different from the delusions of other people, especially those around me. I live within a bubble of beliefs that’s not separate from theirs: in fact, our bubbles normally overlap so much that we can refer to group bubbles of delusion. These collective bubbles can help us understand why the world works the way it does, especially the institutional structures that perpetuate social dukkha (suffering).
“Climate change” is a good example. (I use quotation marks because it would be more accurate to refer to “climate breakdown” or even “climate collapse.”) Many people in other developed nations are puzzled that so many Americans believe global warming is a “liberal hoax”. Given the overwhelming scientific consensus about the seriousness of our situation, the denial movement is a classic case of a collective delusion bubble.
This example is important in another way too: it shows how much more dangerous the problem becomes when delusion is tied in with greed (the first of the three poisons). As the old saying has it, it is very difficult to get people to see something when their livelihood depends on not seeing it. What is perhaps most baffling about climate change denial, though, is that there is little if any real benefit in doing so for anyone except those who own and manage fossil fuel corporations.
Denying global warming is not only an especially problematic collective fantasy; it is a false belief manipulated with expensive and clever propaganda campaigns, by people who mostly know it is a dangerous fiction, but who are more interested in the short-term profits to be made by continuing to pump fossil carbon into the atmosphere. The result is not just a collective bubble of delusion: it is a bubble intentionally perpetuated by powerful corporations and billionaires – an example of institutionalized delusion.
In collective denial – such as that concerning climate change – the group bubble of delusion becomes much more difficult to dispel, or even to become aware of, when people consciously or subconsciously believe they benefit by not seeing it. That suggests a Buddhist response: by truly letting-go of one’s sense of self – the ego-self whose well-being is separate from others’ well-being – the self-interest that sustains the bubble is undermined.
This is true collectively as well as individually. In the case of climate change, we need to realize that the well-being of our own species can’t be separated from the well-being of the whole biosphere. Buddhists and others need to realize that the kind of personal well-being, awakening and transformation we seek will not occur if we are indifferent to what is happening to other members of our community, our society and our natural world.
Originally published as Collective Bubbles of Delusion in ECOBUDDHISM, 2013. Written by David Loy, professor, author & Zen teacher in the Sanbo Zen lineage.