May 12, 2023 | Acharya Prashant
Questioner (Q): How can we encourage factories and companies in poor areas to prioritize the health of the local environment over having the greatest profit margins and the lowest costs? How can we motivate them for this kind of a change, when the natural tendency of human nature is to prioritize greed above all else, profit over regulation?
Acharya Prashant (AP): You see, I don’t think you can tackle this in isolation. Though you could bring about suitable legislation—you could treat, for example, the climate as a person, and the climate could have its own rights. Just as there are fundamental rights given to persons, similarly treat the climate as a person and give it rights, and if those rights are violated, there would be penalties.
So, that’s a route you could take, and that’s an effective route that should be taken, but I don’t think even this is going to be very effective. It must be done, but even if done it will have limited effectiveness, though it’s one of the things that we should begin with. Recently a South American country brought about changes in its constitution; they actually overhauled their entire constitution and the constitution is now almost founded on giving great rights to the climate, to the various animal and bird species, and it’s a document worth emulating. I think a lot of countries in the coming years will take inspiration for it and actually need to take inspiration for it. So, that could be done.
But profit is profit, greed is greed. And when we do not respect the rights of sentient beings, people in flesh and blood we can see and talk to, how will we respect the rights of something a little abstract like the climate? The climate is not going to come and talk to you and plead to you as a person, and the climate is not going to sue you on its own; somebody needs to act on behest of the climate as a proxy. So, I don’t think we are going to be very respectful towards the climate on our own, even though the right legislations are important and must be there.
So, what to do then? You know, you need to tell people. There has to be the right kind of knowledge. What is happening is, we are in the middle of an information revolution, right? We all know we are. But this information revolution has not increased knowledge; it has not increased knowledge, and for sure it has decreased wisdom. Why? Because there is so much information available to us; this part we see. What we do not see is that the opportunity to disseminate misinformation is now greatly available to the miscreants.
So, you get a lot of information today, several hundred times more than what you used to get thirty years back, but most of what we are getting now is misinformation, or disinformation, or false information, or misleading information, or distracting information. So, the result is that the quality of our knowledge has greatly fallen. And knowledge is what forms our insides. On the outside, we are made of food, air, water, flesh, bones; on the inside, we are made of knowledge. And the knowledge that constitutes our insides has become all corrupted.
So, what will happen is that there is this factory, and this factory is harming the health of the local environment, as you said. But people have been taught that comfort and greed are more important, more important than the health of the environment. That needs to change.
Q: What about the drive inherent in human nature to survive? It also prompts us to prioritize ourselves more and also adds on to that greed, because naturally we want to survive and live on.
AP: You see, we need to appreciate the nature of the beast within more clearly. There was this COVID pandemic, and people knew that if they would behave in certain ways, they may even die. Did they still behave rationally? The climate crisis does not even threaten you that much; nobody will say that if the climate keeps worsening, then by next year twenty-five percent of the world’s population will be wiped out.
So, when it comes to having a good time, when it comes to having pleasure, the beast within is prepared to trade long-term wellness for instant gratification. Long-term wellness can wait; after all, we do not know whether we would be around in the long-term, and, somebody said, in the long-term we are all dead anyway. So, why not have a good time as long as it lasts?
Q: Coming back to the example you gave earlier, that if the disease does not affect us directly, it is probable that we won’t even see it. And I’m thinking this is also what you are trying to infer regarding the climate crisis: we can’t really see it directly, so it’s easier for us to ignore it and push it aside.
AP: So, let me add, or rather let me ask you, what is it that we can see directly? You cannot, for example, see at this moment the carbon dioxide concentration in the air increasing. We cannot see that. We actually don’t even have instruments to measure that, the common man does not have that. But what is it that we can see worsening on a daily basis and are also concerned about? What is that?
Q: The rising temperatures, this heatwave going on right now, for example.
AP: You see, the opposite is also sometimes evident. There are places on the planet that are having harsher winters. And I have seen people—when the winters are harsher, they would say, “Oh, and there are people who are talking of global warming. Where is the warming? All I am experiencing is the cold.”
So, you see, these temperature fluctuations are not so wild or so apparent that they become undeniable. When we want to stay in the false, when we want to deceive ourselves, we get enough evidence to stay in that deception. The proof of global warming or climate change is still not irrefutable for those who are hell-bent on denying them. We very well know there is a huge community of climate deniers who keep saying that all this anthropological global warming thing is a hoax, it does not exist at all. So, what does that mean? That means that the common man still has a lot of places to take refuge in; the truth is still not very bluntly out in the open. Those who want to refuse it are still refusing it, and will probably be able to refuse it for another, I think, five or eight years at least.
I asked you, what is it, however, that no person in his senses can refuse? He can neither refuse it, nor can he pretend disinterest towards it. What is it? The fact that our lives are in a mess. There is nobody who does not want to improve the quality of his life. Do we agree on that? Every single person on this planet wants change in his or her life, and what is that change all about? That change is about improvement; we want to have a better life. What does that prove? We accept, we acknowledge that our lives as they stand have problems in them; otherwise, why would we want to change or improve?
We are all looking for change. We get up each morning and we way, “Can we have something better? Can we reach a better place? Can we do something better? Can we eat something better?” So, if we can show this to the person and impress on him that he needs to be better, his life needs to change, then I think the climate crisis can also be addressed.
Q: When it comes to the common man wondering about the term ‘global warming’ when in their locale the temperatures are going down, they actually fail to take into account the destruction of the ozone layer which protects us from both these extremes—the extreme heat and the freezing winters.
AP: You know, I am a part of certain WhatsApp groups of intellectuals, people coming from technological backgrounds, working in tech companies, having good tech knowledge and good numerical skills, decently well-informed people. And there is a sizable lobby there that presents very, very logical proofs backed by data and stats to prove that, first of all, climate change is not happening, and secondly, if it is happening, it is not happening due to human activity, it is just something in the cycle of natural events, it keeps happening all the time; thirdly, even if it is happening due to human activity, it is actually beneficial for the planet because more carbon dioxide means more greenery. And these are not arguments coming from illiterate or mindless people; these are arguments coming from seasoned tech professionals.
So, if you want to rationally convince people about the climate emergency, I am afraid you might not see much success.
Q: I am aware of that, because, you know, we are stubborn people; we like to stay within our box. But what about the technological perspective, for example, the algorithms which are trained to feed people what they want to the user engaged, like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, etc.? Do you think that they are also a part of the problem?
AP: Yes, very, very definitely. So, you can see that you are using AI in the worst way possible, and would you contest it if I say that—I don’t know how you would appreciate it, but if it clicks, it clicks.
Instagram, for example, is a lot of climate change. All the emotionality that you see in the general public discourse, be it politics or economics or social welfare, all that is a lot of carbon. I once said, all our emotions are carbon-intensive. All the natural, prakṛtik, animalistic emotions that we have, they are nothing but a lot of carbon. See what you do when you get emotional, and the moment you see that, it becomes amply clear. In your moment of emotional high, whatever you do, you would find that, very surprisingly, all of that is very carbon-intensive.
So, definitely, greed, if you let it have its way, it would consume everything, this entire planet. And you know, that’s what I said. This might be called as the information age, but the level of wisdom is the lowest we have had in centuries. First of all, information is there, no doubt, a lot of information is there, but not much knowledge is there; otherwise, it’s not possible that supposedly very knowledgeable people talk of the climate crisis as a hoax. So, even knowledge is there, and what to say of wisdom? It has completely plummeted.
You give information to the wrong entity, and he will use it in the worst possible way. The algorithms you talked of are a very good example. That’s what I am constantly asserting: that we need to address the very center of the human being. If we do not address that center, then whatever else we say or do or try won’t see much success.
Q: So, when it comes to the natural human tendency to be greedy and wanting to be the best, how can we shift away from that and essentially change the heart of human nature itself?
AP: We have to begin with observing the facts of life. We have already made so many attempts at being the best and being at the highest place possible and achieving the best kinds of objects; we have been attempting that since long, right? And today we are attempting that with more knowledge in our hands, more prosperity in our hands, mightier technical tools in our hands; we have been trying all that. Having tried all that, what have we achieved? Where do we stand? Is the common man more satisfied today? Yeah, we are living longer, definitely; are we living deeper as well? And if we are not living deeper, is longer life not just a curse? How about being mentally unwell and continuing to live for ninety-five years? I don’t think that sounds very attractive, but that’s how we are living.
So, that’s true; we are born desirous, and we want all those things that you mentioned—best places, best people, best positions, best rewards, best designations, best packages. We want all those things because there is something inside that refuses to be satisfied. What is it looking for? Is that not a question worth considering? If we sit down and very objectively, in a detached way, look at our condition—and we have a lot of data to process and rationally base our conclusions upon; we need not speculate about who we are and what are we doing; we have already done a lot, and all that data is available by way of experience and memories.
So, we look at all that, we process the data, and won’t we see that the way we are proceeding is simply not taking us anywhere? The way is much the same as it was ten centuries back. We are doing what our grand-grand-grand-forefathers were doing, just in an amplified way. They didn’t have so much resources at their disposal, we have a lot, so we are attempting the same thing in a much bigger way. They never got anything out of that; how will we get anything, as if something has fundamentally changed?
But yes, technical and material progress would happen, and material progress does have a value of its own. So, to the extent that can satisfy us, we’ll do well, but beyond that it’s all zero. In fact, when you have a lot of material success and you are still empty within, I fear the situation is worse compared to that of the person who is even materially insufficient, because the materially insufficient person at least has a false hope that the day he will get money, he will be satisfied.
But once you have a lot of money—and we just said in this very conversation, I thought I read that the US now has some twenty-two million millionaires, and other countries are not to lag behind in a big way. Even India, when it comes to millionaires and billionaires, is trying to keep pace with the richest countries of the world; even as the average household income is almost stagnant, the number of very rich people is exploding even in India.
Now, where is that taking us? Are we going somewhere? Are we reaching somewhere? Or do we just want to blindly believe that our faith in material prosperity will be rewarded? Has it been rewarded till now? The answer cannot be in binary, material prosperity has helped, but where? In which dimension? We must carefully investigate. Yes, today we have fever diseases, we don’t die of polio, we don’t die of being killed by predators, people are not dying so much of having been bitten by snakes or chased by lions; those things are not happening, right? But are we okay the way we are?
So, when you question that thing, then change descends on its own; then there is a silence; then the insane flow of energy towards blind destinations, that flow just tempers down a little. We do not remain very excited towards all those places we usually are, and in that mellowing down of excitement we find a concentration of energy, because that excitement is nothing but dissipation of our life-energy at forty useless places. When excitement and energy are withdrawn from those places because those places are seen as useless, then there is a concentration of energy, and that concentration then helps us overcome the real obstacles towards right living; that concentration then gives a meaning and power to life. And then you are not very insistent on making consumption the bedrock of your existence; then there are other things; then you find that there are subtle pleasures life has to offer. You don’t necessarily have to have a million dollars to burn on a yacht, or in a shopping mall, or at a jewelry shop, or wherever.
See, none of this that I am saying is idealistic; it is not spiritual in the convention sense, and it is also not idealistic. I am talking practical commonsense; I am talking of something that is very, very applicable. It can be executed, it must be executed, and it’s not an idea; it’s a blueprint for action.
One could call him the best contemporary representative of Advait Vedanta. Or one could simply call him a teacher beyond any tradition. Equally, one can see an abundance of compassion, love and reverence in his being. But the most appropriate way to know him would be through his work. Know More