Sustainability: Waking Up in Time

Peter Russell

Closing Speech given at The Sustainability Forum, Zurich, Sept 25th, 2001


As has been said many times during this conference, sustainability is more than just an environmental issue. Sustainability must be understood in terms of the larger system of ecology, economy and society. I would like to take things a step further and expand our discussions to include another critical part of the total system -- one that is usually ignored or forgotten -- the human mind.

It is not hard to see that most of the problems facing us today are partly caused by the actions of human beings. These actions are the result of human thinking and decisions, which in turn are based on human attitudes, needs and values. In many cases these are guided by greed, the love of money, the desire for power, self-centredness or other such qualities of human character. Thus the roots of our various environmental crises lie in the human mind as much as in technology, or economy.

Yet we seldom, if ever, explore this critical aspect of the system. Part of the reason is that we still know very little about the human mind. We understand much more about the material world around us than we do of what goes on inside our own heads. As a result we tend to deal mainly with the external aspects of the system and do not concern ourselves with the human psychological aspects.

If we fail to take into account the human roots of our crises it is unlikely we will ever find any lasting solutions. If you had a stomach ache and went to a doctor for treatment, you would not only want the doctor to give you something to ease the pain, you would expect him to look for the cause. Perhaps it is something you have eaten, or a viral infection, or possibly just stress. But if all the doctor did was to treat the symptom and not the root cause, the same problem is likely to recur. In a similar way, our efforts to halt deforestation, reduce carbon emissions, conserve resources, and take care of other aspects of the global system are all very important, but if that is all we do we are only treating the symptoms of a deeper problem. So long as the root cause is not attended to problems of one form or another will keep emerging.

Several speakers have already alluded to this. William McDonough said that in his organization he was more concerned with ego-management than eco-management. This may have raised a laugh from the audience, but he was in fact making a very serious point. It is critical that we learn to manage the human ego.

Ernst Brugger has raised the question of why haven’t we seen more progress on the road to sustainability? One reason he proposed was a conflict between the needs of the collective and the priorities, objectives and values of the individual. The ideal of global sustainability is often at odds with what individuals want in their own lives. We all know the arguments for a major reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels, but how many of us have happily given up the convenience of a car?

If we are to stand a real chance of managing the immense challenges facing us, it is imperative that we also explore the human psyche, and understand what lies behind our self-centered attitudes.

Some people might argue that human beings are intrinsically selfish and greedy. If that were true, then I would see little hope; we might all just as well pack and go home now. But I believe that such attitudes are a reflection not of our intrinsic nature but of the mindsets that run through our culture.

To see why, let us first focus on the question of what lies at the core of human motivation. What is it we really want. Beneath everything we do -- whether it be eating, sleeping, playing sport, going to work, helping a friend, or coming to a conference like this -- is the hope that we will feel better for it. None of us want to suffer or be in pain; we would all like to feel happier, more at ease and at peace in ourselves. The ways by which we seek to do this vary considerably, but underneath all our various activities we all want the same thing -- to feel better inside.

This is the true human bottom line. It is not a bottom line that can be measured in numbers, but it is nevertheless the true arbiter of all our decisions. We may think we are seeking an external goal, but in truth we are looking for something internal -- a more satisfactory state of mind.

It is this that underlies our concern for the financial bottom line. The more profit we make, the more wealth we create, the happier we will be -- or so we think. We will be able to control our world and make it conform to the way we believe it should be for us to be happy.

This human bottom line needs to be integrated into the triple bottom line model that we have been discussing here the last two days. It is not an additional fourth bottom line, but the fundamental core bottom line underlying the other three. It is the bottom line that lies at the center of a triangle of bottom lines.

Some might argue that seeking our own well-being is just another form of self-centeredness. But I do not believe there is anything wrong with seeking to feel better; it is probably fundamental to all living creatures. Where we have gone wrong is in the ways in which we seek to fulfill this inner bottom line.

Ray Andersson earlier referred to some of the faulty mindsets that underlie our currently unsustainable lifestyles. One of these was the belief that happiness comes from what we have or do. This assumption is fed into us from the day we are born. Parents, schools, the media and advertising continually tell us that whether or not we are happy inside depends on our external circumstances. If we are not at peace inside then we need to do something about it, change the world around us in some way.

Maybe we tell ourselves that if we bought a new jacket we would be happier. We buy a new jacket and for a while we do feel better. The desire for something we did not have has gone. But before we long we begin to think of other reasons we are not happy, and begin to want some new thing or experience. The result is addictive behaviour. We may not be addicted to a chemical substance, but the pattern is the same. We feel unhappy because things are not the way we think they should be for us to happy. We seek some "fix". And for a while we are happy. But then the affect wears off and we find ourselves wanting something else.

It is this mindset that underlies excessive consumption. For those of us fortunate to live in the developed world and who have most of our daily needs taken care, most of what we consume is not consumed to satisfy any physical need; it is consumed to fulfill some or other psychological need. This is why greed is such a prevalent human condition. We believe that the more we have the happier we will be. This is why we love money. Money gives us the power to buy the things, the experiences, the power, and the people that we think will make us happy. This mindset also leads us to resist the very changes we most need to become truly sustainable. We fear that giving up something will mean that we will be less happy in the future.

It is this mode of consciousness that is unsustainable. It may have worked two hundred hears ago before the industrial revolution. If we were suffering then it was probably because we lacked food, clothing or shelter. But today we can fulfill those needs by simply going down to the store. If we are unhappy today it is because our inner needs are not being fulfilled.

Pia Gyper alluded to this at the start of the conference in the zen story of the herdsman seeking for his lost ox. The ox symbolises our true inner nature. This is something that can never be taken away from us. But when we lose sight of it we begin looking for it in the world around us. And because we never find anything there of truly lasting satisfaction, we keep on searching. We keep on taking from the world, caught in a cycle of greed and fear.

What we need today is not more things, but an awakening to our true inner nature. As William McDonough pointed out, growth is natural. What is needed is a shift in the arena of growth. We cannot keep growing in material terms; that is clear. But we can, and must, grow inwardly.

Despite the tremendous advances our culture has made in material development, we have made little, if any, progress in our inner development. Eighteen hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Epicitus wrote that the reasons why people are happy or unhappy is nothing to do with what they have or do not have; it is a matter of how they perceive things. Buddha put forward very similar ideas five hundred years before that, and so have many other teachers and philosophers over the ages. Now is the time to wake up to this timeless wisdom and incorporate it into our lives.

Will we wake up in time? Not the way things are going. If we continue to focus only on external circumstances we shall die of the consequences of over-consumption and pollution. Can we wake up? Yes, I believe we can. It is not a matter of discovering any new knowledge. The basic wisdom already exists. What is needed is to formulate it in contemporary terms, educate people in its value, and help them move beyond the materialist mindset in which our culture has become stuck. Adding this critical inner dimension to our many other approaches to sustainablity will give us the will to achieve a sustainable world. We will be developing a truly sustainable mode of consciousness.

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