Spirituality & Science The need for togetherness, by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan -1996-09-26
"The last of fools is he who indifferently asserts and denies...", prophetically wrote Dante, who probed all man's afflictions, at the dawn of the XIVth Century. Modern society is imbued with a tragic lack of self-confidence and afraid of appearing moralizing or oppressive. In this climate, absolute truth is seldom taken seriously.
The loss of biological diversity, for example, is acute. It's happening every day, with consequences that are unknown and affect directly the livelihoods of rich and poor alike. Unlike minor pollutions, the loss of species diversity and its genetic information cannot be retrieved or repaired. We are told that 25 percent of all species may disappear from the planet in the next 50 years - the space of two generations. Unspoiled nature is constantly on the decrease, while the need for it grows ever greater.
Though some leading scientists don't hesitate to talk about the "species crash", most contemporary science however is still dominated by reductionism and hyper-specialization. Sectorial thinking is very largely part of the problem in finding responses to urgent global issues. Science and technology should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.
It strikes me that the response of organized religion is extraordinarily weak. And yet, is it not self-evident that, beyond the mere symbolic dimension, organized religion, together with science, has an enormous potential to spark an alternate or deeper consciousness?
The statement that nature and people will be liberated together or not at all is on the mark. On the one hand, the disintegration of the biosphere destroys the very foundations of civilisation. On the other hand, poverty, ignorance, oppression, and war are major causes of environmental degradation. For reasons such as these, democratic values and traditions of social liberation, tempered by a sense of measure and solidarity, are also part of the foundation of the ethic of sustainable living.
From the Club of Rome to Rio, by way of the Brundtland Report, we have been hearing the very lofty statements made by governments about the importance of sustainability. But we rightly have a sense of unreality about these declarations.
From an economic point of view, Dr. Freya Mathews, lecturer in Ecological Philosophy at Latrobe University, Australia, argues that "the principle of taking only what is necessary for the continuation of life of course inverts the guiding principle of capitalism, which is to make maximum use of resources of every kind, for the purpose of maximising profit." (IUCN - The World Conservation Union - report by the Species Survival Commission and Commission on Environmental Strategy and Planning, December 1993: Towards guidelines for ethical uses of wild species)
For this fundamental reason, any ethic of nature that sees no reason to elevate humankind above the rest of the natural world - and hence refuses to justify our harnessing of the biosphere to our own selfish ends - is going to be forced sooner or later to challenge the ethical and metaphysical underpinning of capitalism, and to question the validity of any notion of "ecological sustainability" premised on a capitalist concept of "development". Greenpeace and other leading critics have long argued that sustainable development is a contradiction in terms.
While it is fair to add that the old communist block's management of the environment has been spectacularly appalling, sustainability does indeed depend on a supposed tendency of self-interest to become far-sighted. To power real reform, a wider framework of motives is always needed; which will rarely emanate from bureaucrats, otherwise we may be lost in Franz Kafka's "Castle" - instead regeneration derives from non selfish motives that include enlightened ideals and a sense of outrage: what ended the savage wars of religion, the burning of heretics or the practice of slavery, was not just the wish for self-preservation. It was also the horror of the atrocities involved. Is this not what fathered the Nuremberg Trials or the Hague Tribunal on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia ?
In a world characterized by interdependence and all-encompassing global "civilisation", as well as by diversity and unique individuality, shared ethical principles governing the interactions of human beings and their world are essential, if the well-being of the larger community of life, upon which all depend, is to be protected. Thus, for instance, a multilateral free trade regime cannot stand alone: it must be integrated with such shared ethical principles. Indeed, the success of such a regime depends on a symbiosis created by the interplay of free trade principles and ethical foundations. What then are these ethical foundations and what, by particular example, are the perspectives of different cultures, faiths and value systems regarding sustainability ? Does sustainability have a claim to be universal? If so, which and why?
The idea of planetary trust and stewardship is recognized by Judaïsm, Christianity and Islam as well as many other religions. This is also explicit and implicit in major instruments of international law. It has, therefore, some claim to universality.
All monotheistic religions, however, as well as Hinduism and most schools of Buddhism including the Tibetan, recognise humans as having uniquely independant value, as in the tradition of Judaeo-Christian and Islamic stewardship of the earth. This might seem to place them at odds with any criterion of sustainability that departs from the anthropocentric goal of protecting diversity only to support uses, options, and aesthetic values for ourselves and for future generations. This anthropocentric interpretation is pointing less to the sacred presence of nature, than telling us what to protect in our practical environmental management.
Ancient wisdom, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Master Eckhart, St. Francis of Assisi, Ibn al A'rabi and mystics of all faiths speak of the family of man as a link in the chain of all beings on this earth. To anyone perceiving cosmic consciousness as the eternal living Reality, it is no great surprise that 2400 years ago, Chuang Tzu, one of the great ancient Taoists, anticipating the disembodiment of man and his possible imprisonment in technology, long before satellite TV and the World Wide Web, warned of the danger of the mechanisation of the spirit. The concept of living in accordance with the Tao (or Way) of nature complements the evolutionary and ecological axiom that human beings are part of nature and must conform human ways of living and dying to natural processes and cycles. This intertwined world of the improbable and the unrepeatable provides a habitat for millions of species of flora and fauna, animate and inanimate nature existing in complex symbiosis. Each life has its own sense, its own role, its own purpose; all is linked together; there is no superior, inferior or useless. In this infinitely diverse system, each life form is needed, each one equal in value for the whole.
Turning again to the contemporary applications of various faiths, a great many believe that God provides and, therefore, there will always be sufficient resources for their needs. Such a passive interpretation of religious texts and the essence of spirituality has a serious negative impact in highlighting the role humans play and the responsibilities we have in preserving a healthy resource base, not least because of the heightened pressure that increasing human population imposes on the natural world.
Another major area of potential religious controversy raised by a revitalised spiritual and ecological ethic is "animal welfare", which I prefer to call animal dignity: whether or not, and in what circumstances, is it ever justifiable for human beings to kill or injure a member of another species. But, the immediate moral challenge is the associated hardship, unecessary suffering, injury and stress rather than the act of killing in itself. All living beings, including humans, are part of a natural cycle of consuming and being consumed: it is incumbent on homo sapiens to find a proper place - a balanced position - within this cycle. The recent mad cow horror scare, shows just how overstepping nature's thresholds, turning vegetarian sentient beings into carnivorous ones, can very rapidly endanger our own health. And isn't it yet another scandal that the European farmer and tax-payer should be the ones to bear the cost for the ineptness, the lack of foresight and morals of governments? In a universe where change is constant and totality an open-ended process of evolution, choice and decision make the difference, and a sense of ethical responsibility is essential.
Creation is sacred. Life and nature need not be exploited to instill fear in our hearts. For the Hindus, we have entered the Kali Yuga, the dark age, while St. John's Apocalypse evokes the divine judgement for human sins through his vision of the final destruction of the earth. Though there is cause for apocalyptic rhetoric in the chemical and radioactive pollution of soil and water and the depletion of the ozone layer, the problem with cyclical or terminal Apocalypses is that they deeply imprint the mind with negative and destructive behaviour patterns. One is escapism: "God will judge, but we are the faithful who will escape. And really this isn't our home, anyway, since heaven is our kingdom". There is an "us/them" dilemma here, with a judgement on the others. What we need to do is formulate a language that draws people back into community and responsibility. Apocalyptic visions point the other way.
The imperatives for sustainable living on earth towards the 22nd century and beyond are all too well known:
1. Approach nature with awareness and humility.
2. Conserve the earth's life support system, biodiversity and beauty.
3. Treat all creatures with respect and protect them from unnecessary suffering and killing.
4. Minimize depletion of non-renewable resources and ensure sustainable use of renewable resources like water, soil and forests.
5. Develop and employ efficient, environmentally benign technologies for the generation and use of energy.
6. Adopt strategies of pollution prevention, waste reduction, and recycling.
7. Stabilize human populations at levels consistent with their quality of life and the carrying capacity of the earth.
8. Reaffirm the protection of human rights.
In the direct context of the World Trade Organisation and the clash between trade issues and the environment, the European Union should be the first to promote these principles as imperatives. Sadly, the track record in this respect is, bluntly, no cause for elation. On the contrary, if the trend continues, and follows by example the fate of the leghold trap regulation, I fear that the Singapore Conference of the World Trade Organisation, approaching fast in December, and what comes after, will create a wholly unsatisfactory polarisation of the issues, forcing a head-on collision which will be both detrimental to the development of the multilateral trade regime and to the urgent necessity of applying these principles to our predicament. Globe's role should be pivotal in this respect. The trade and environment / animal welfare debate raises dilemmas that penetrate to the core of life on the planet - biodiversity issues concern fauna and flora but do not exclude the human animal. Thus, to extract an example from my own, direct experience: the refugee problem so often derives from the degradation of habitat, the shrinking of biodiversity or the indiscriminate infection of the environment. Ever increasing numbers of people fleeing their homes do so because life has become insupportable at home. Some are the victims of genocide and ethnic-cleansing. Others may not be pushed out at the end of a rifle or with the threat of execution looming over them, but population pressure, regional conflicts, desertification and absence of work opportunities combine to encourage if not force them to leave. However the short-sightedness of western leaders is breathtaking. Refugees, according to the UN Population Fund, represent in excess of 20% of the estimated 100 million people who find themselves international migrants. Unable to cope with the social and political problems that such massive movements of people generate, the politicians have failed to clearly articulate, let alone initiate, policies that address the causes.
In May 1996, at the GLOBE General Assembly, Mr. Van Dusen Wishard reminded participants that "over fifty percent of the new wealth created in the world over the next decade will be created in Asia. Information technology, industrialisation and urbanisation in China, India, and Southwest Asia will be the primary global economic dynamic. Never in history has such a large proportion of the world's population changed its basic mode of living as rapidly as will happen in Asia in the coming decades. Hundreds of millions of farmers will become urbanised."
The ecological challenge seems unsurmountable, yet I would like to conclude on a hopeful note, calling for ecological applications of the latest technologies. Is man capable of the quantum leap that will enable him to take his destiny in hand? Sceptics will warn against the same old Faustian pact with the Devil, but post-modern science afficionados predict that the revolution of "artificial intelligence" will generate the greatest impetus to open minds since the Renaissance.They point out that the thought processes of artificial intelligence - no longer serial and linear but parallel and sequential - will anihilate the cul-de-sac in which our logic has become entrapped by Copernicus' centralised planetary geometry or the egocentric and unitary methodology of Descartes.
Spirituality and science - never has the need for togetherness been greater.
As we enter this radically changed environment of technological possibilities, we must remind ourselves, again and again, that ethics concern us all as individuals, for the individual, not the machine, is the carrier of life and civilisation. Each of us must rethink our underlying assumptions and goals, and demand the highest standards of ourselves. After all, we are such stuff as dreams are made on ...