O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.
The last post, after a brief review of the closing chapters of Ricard’s excellent book Altruism, ended with the question of how we can ensure that enough of us will want to take effective steps to change things for the better before it is too late.
Something that should help is a growing awareness that growth cannot continue (page 658):
In the eyes of the politician Anders Wijkman and environmentalist Johann Rockström, there can be nothing more perverse than an economy that grows at the expense of the raw materials that allow it to exist: ‘The world’s population is growing. Consumption is growing. The only problem is that the earth is not growing.’ . . . .
In short, as the English-born American economist Kenneth Boulding said: ‘Those who believe that economic growth can go on forever are either mentally deranged or they are economists.’
Not all economists though fortunately.
There is, for example, a growing trend for economists to discard the treacherously misleading GDP as a good guide to whether we are doing all right or not. Because (page 660) ‘[i]t ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality’ it is worse then useless: it is leads to toxic decision-making. Its fundamental insanity is revealed by its inclusion as positives what are in fact evidences of dysfunction (page 667):
If a country has more crime, pollution, war, and disease, GDP increases as a result of financial transactions relating to expenditure in prisons, policing, weapons, and healthcare. This increase enters the accounts as a positive indicator of a growing economy, even though it represents a decline in well-being.’
Case closed, it seems to me.There are better indicators than GDP in the process of development. Perhaps the most startling, and long-standing, is the gross national happiness index used in Bhutan (pages 664-71). Inspired by this approach, a Chilean economist has developed a model based on six principles:
- The economy is to serve people and people are not to serve the economy;
- Development is about people and not about objects;
- Growth is not the same as development and development does not necessarily require a growth;
- No economy is possible without the ecosystem’s services;
- The economy is a subsystem of a larger and finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible;
- Under no circumstances whatsoever can economic process, or interest, take precedence over the reverence of life.
Bhutan in the meanwhile is flourishing.
We are back to the main question: ‘How do we develop a sufficiently powerful motivator to reach a tipping point where positives such as this come within reach on a larger scale?’
Ricard acknowledges that (page 679) ‘we must . . . not underestimate the importance of personal transformation.’ From there we must move to the wider society within which we live and, in Ricard’s view (page 681), learn to balance what Mintzberg calls the three-legged stool of a ‘public sector made up of political forces…, a private sector made up of economic forces…, and a plural sector of social forces embodied by robust civilian conveyances.’ It is in the development of the latter that the UK and America, who over-emphasise the private sector, and China, who places too much importance on the public sector, are seriously lacking.
There is yet another step to take.
We must move (page 682) from ‘community engagement to global responsibility.’ To do this it is necessary ‘to realise that all things are interdependent, and to assimilate that world view in such a way that it influences our every action.’ He sees altruism as the key to this transition.
In this long and enthralling book, Ricard has used reason brilliantly to advocate altruism as the solution to our personal and global problems. That in itself makes it an essential read for those of us engaged in understanding these issues more deeply.
He would be the first to agree, I hope, that an intellectual conviction in altruism is not going to be sufficient to motivate enough people to rise to the level of sacrifice required for long enough to achieve the necessary effect. He ends his book, it seems to me, rather in the same trap as Rifkin did. And I’m afraid I have the same response, despite my admiration and respect for the compelling case he marshals in the seven hundred pages it took him five years to write.
Rifkin, as I quoted before in the earlier sequence, acknowledges this deficit. He is aware of a void in the credibility of his position and has to locate motivating awe elsewhere than in the transcendent he refuses to acknowledge (page 170):
Empathic consciousness starts with awe. When we empathise with another, we are bearing witness to the strange incredible life force that is in us and that connects us with all other living beings. Empathy is, after all, the feeling of deep reverence we have for the nebulous term we call existence.
This basically material trigger may be a necessary condition for empathy to grow further in our increasingly global civilisation. Is it sufficient in itself though? Even if religion is not necessarily the enemy, and I believe it is not, do we need it?
The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.
Rifkin clearly feels it’s the best hope we’ve got, even though one of his key witnesses wasn’t sure where empathy comes from (page 350):
Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.
I realise that just as it is impossible for Rifkin, or Ricard as well perhaps by implication, conclusively to prove that any hope of empathic rescue from our current predicament must come from our material nature because that is all we have to draw on, I cannot conclusively prove to everyone’s satisfaction that:
(a) this could never be sufficient, and
(b) that is OK because we can draw upon transcendent powers.
None the less that is my view.The Bahá’í position declares that it is necessary to draw upon both material and spiritual powers (Social Action):
An exploration of the nature of social action, undertaken from a Bahá’í perspective, must necessarily place it in the broad context of the advancement of civilization. That a global civilization which is both materially and spiritually prosperous represents the next stage of a millennia-long process of social evolution provides a conception of history that endows every instance of social action with a particular purpose: to foster true prosperity, with its spiritual and material dimensions, among the diverse inhabitants of the planet. A concept of vital relevance, then, is the imperative to achieve a dynamic coherence between the practical and spiritual requirements of life.
This same document unpacks the exact implications of that very clearly indeed:
When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided. Scientific knowledge, to take but one simple example, helps the members of a community to analyse the physical and social implications of a given technological proposal—say, its environmental impact—and spiritual insight gives rise to moral imperatives that uphold social harmony and that ensure technology serves the common good. Together, these two sources of knowledge tap roots of motivation in individuals and communities, so essential in breaking free from the shelter of passivity, and enable them to uncover the traps of consumerism.
From a Bahá’í point of view, it is from the fusion of both material and spiritual powers that the necessary understanding and motivation derive.
While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):
Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.
Only when that divine connection has been achieved, it seems to me, will we be able to answer the challenge issued by the Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, when the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were completed. The following words were read at the opening ceremony:
. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.
(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)
The Bahá’í perspective shares Ricard’s awareness of the need to link the local through the national to the global (Social Action):
No matter how essential, a process of learning at the local level will remain limited in its effectiveness if it is not connected to a global process concerned with the material and spiritual prosperity of humanity as a whole. Structures are required, then, at all levels, from the local to the international, to facilitate learning about development.
And the international Bahá’í community offers, though admittedly at a very early stage of development, a model for how this might be done, and acknowledges at the same time that this will be the work of centuries and requires the whole-hearted involvement of all humanity and not just the Bahá’í community (Century of Light – page 94):
The immediate responsibility of establishing world government rests on the shoulders of the nation-states. What the Bahá’í community is called on to do, at this stage in humanity’s social and political evolution, is to contribute by every means in its power to the creation of conditions that will encourage and facilitate this enormously demanding undertaking.
Only when enough of us have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted. Pray God that moment will not come too late for us.
I am grateful to Ricard for having researched so diligently the evidence to support the absolute need for an altruistic response that can work at the individual, national and global levels. Without a world-wide commitment to such a model it will be impossible to address humanity’s challenges effectively.