Cultural and spiritual transformation needed
Date : 27 July 2019
Reported by : Roslan Bin Rusly
Category : News
By Zakri Abdul Hamid - -
AS a panellist at a forum — “Smart Environment: A Challenge for Digital Cities” at the Multimedia University (MMU) in Cyberjaya last week, I struggled with the first question thrown by the moderator, Dr Alan Downe to us: “What do you each see as the biggest environmental challenge facing city developers and residents today?”
My mind turned to a comment I heard once from Gus Speth, a US adviser on climate change, former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and a former Administrator of the UN Development Programme:
“I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.
“And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
In other words, even if armed with an avalanche of data and scientific information, nothing changes if city fathers and citizens aren’t moved to take action.
Earth scientists collect and analyse information on topics such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. We take a systematic, logical approach to discovering how things in the universe work.
The word ‘science’ itself is derived from a Latin word, scientia, defined as knowledge based on demonstrable and reproducible data — measurable results arrived at through testing and analysis.
In short: science is based on facts. We have always assumed that people would understand and appreciate the problems and act accordingly, taking the necessary actions when they are presented with the stark reality of these looming calamities. But for many decades nothing much has happened.
As noted by several observers, most people continue to live their lives as normal; they have done little or nothing to address climate change issues. Indeed, many people continue to deny the very validity of the scientists’ claims.
And it surely doesn’t help when the leader of the US, the world’s largest economy, ignores the science, announces the withdrawal of his country’s signature on the world’s climate agreement signed in Paris, having declared that global warming is a foreign conspiracy.
As Speth stresses it, science has no answer to “selfishness, greed and apathy”. Not many people would voluntarily trade their standard of living for less, although we know that we are living in a very inequitable world.
For example, developed countries use more than their share of resources. The average American uses 20 times the energy of a Costa Rican and 70 times that of a Bangladeshi.
The world’s richest one billion people use 80 per cent of the world’s resources. That means, the other seven billion plus people use only 20 per cent of the world’s resources.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) of the 17 Global Goals agreed to by heads of governments in 2015 at the United Nations talks about promoting resource and energy efficiency, sustainable infrastructure, and providing access to basic services, green and decent jobs and a better quality of life for all.
Its implementation helps to achieve overall development plans, reduce future economic, environmental and social costs, strengthen economic competitiveness and reduce poverty.
When Speth talks about the need for a “spiritual and cultural transformation”, he has in mind a paradigm shift in our attitude towards caring for the environment while we concurrently pursue economic development and social well-being.
There should be a cultural or spiritual underpinning to this. Here I would argue that the attitudinal transformation must be embedded in the concept of ‘sejahtera’, or socio-economic wellbeing, introduced by Tan Sri Dzulkifli Razak, rector of the International Islamic University of Malaysia. I would go one step further and enlarge understanding of “sejahtera” to add environmental consciousness and consideration to socio-economic well-being.
Hence we would achieve a state of balance between the three pillars of sustainable development: economy, society and environment.
Dzulkifli pointed out that sejahtera is primarily spiritual in nature, embracing both emotions and ethics, a notion too often left out in common understanding of the word.
Its basic framework is defined by values and virtues — the very opposite of “selfishness, greed and apathy”.
The monumental environmental challenges we face today are largely anthropogenic in nature, and largely due to our self-centred human behaviour.
Earth scientists are essential guides to the identification of current conditions, drivers of change, trends, future scenarios and potential solutions, but notorious in their inability to move mountains.
It is fitting, therefore, that we reassess our approach to setting things right and engaging the many branches of social science as well to help foster an overdue cultural and social transformation.
The writer is pro-chancellor of Multimedia University