East meets West on climate change || With BARD College (2022)

May 10, 2023 | Acharya Prashant

Questioner (Q): It is a true honor to be here today talking with you about climate change. I am an economist and the director of the graduate programs of sustainability in Bard College of New York. Along with my colleagues, we are making an effort to create a worldwide teach-in on climate and justice. We are seeking to really tap into the deep concern that so many educators, teachers, students and staff members of universities and colleges and schools around the world have about climate change.

Global warming is probably the biggest fundamental challenge facing humanity and the other creatures of this planet today. Our belief is that most students now understand the fundamental science of climate change; they understand that we are putting pollution in the atmosphere and that is trapping the heat, which is causing the atmosphere to warm up. But by and large they are just in despair about this, and as a consequence they are ignoring it because they feel that there is nothing they can do. So, they just live their lives kind of pretending that it’s not happening.

The idea of these teach-ins is that these thousands, tens of thousands, millions of educators around the world who care about climate change and are concerned about the issue, can move these students from a sense of despair to a real sense of possibility and agency. The fact is that this is an incredibly exciting and decisive moment to be a human on this planet, because more than any other generation before ours, we have the ability to profoundly change the future. The work that we can do in these next five years or ten years or fifteen years can not only have an impact on their own lives and the lives of their children, but in fact the lives of every human who is going to walk the face of the planet until the end of time, and for the millions of species also.

So, that’s our mission, and we are eager to get tens of thousands of schools around the world to get globally involved. We have translated our website in Hindi and we have the resources to support teachers, but the basic idea is the bottom-up conversation tapping into the existing concerns of the existing communities towards helpful solutions. So, I am very eager to get your take on how this might work, and how to identify the basic issues and find out what the basic obstacles are.

Acharya Prashant (AP): I am very glad to be speaking to you Dr. Eban, and I am really happy to talk to someone like you who has put in so much of interest and effort in this most important area facing all of us, the entire human kind. And yes, as you said, it’s a very critical juncture for this generation and rather for the history of mankind in general. We might use this crisis to bring about a rather fundamental shift in our consciousness, in the way we live, the way we approach life, the way we approach each other, the way we approach natural resources, or we could just squander this opportunity. And the worst case scenario is we might just move towards our own obliteration. But yes, as you put so much emphasis on hope, obviously we have to understand that our basic nature, our fundamental nature is of wisdom and understanding, and that’s what we must stand by, and that’s where we stand.

I will straight away introduce you to my position on this. See, it’s a man-made thing, right? When we talk of climate change, the word ‘anthropogenic’ is the most important. It’s a basic thing, but I am reiterating because that’s the thing we give the least attention to. We are treating climate change as if it is something outside of us, as if some asteroid from outer space came over and delivered all the gases and trapped all the heat in our atmosphere. I want all of us to pay attention to the fact that we have done it. It is our action, and every action is representative of the state of the actor. We are in a particular state internally, and therefore we are doing what we are doing externally.

Now, our internal state has brought about this external action, this external state, and we are not addressing the root cause, we are not addressing the way we are and the way we have been probably all throughout our history. We do not want to address that because probably that’s too painful and that would cause too tectonic a shift in our entire life system. So, we want to treat it as one of the problems that face us. That’s a very fragmented approach. Hence, the solutions that we are thinking of are also pretty external in nature. So, we want to move to greener technologies, we want to have carbon sequestering mechanisms, we want countries to pledge for reforestation, we want auto manufacturers to come up with newer technologies and such things. And countries squabble with each other about who should bear the brunt, and then issues of climate justice and such things crop up.

The thing is—I want us to enquire into it—are we even understanding where the whole thing is coming from, really? And if we do not understand that, is it not a fundamental conclusion that we will never be able to solve this problem, and all the actions that we are trying to have as remedial actions would just be consolations? We would be entertaining ourselves, and we would be rather gratifying ourselves that we are doing something meaningful and fruitful, and nothing would come out of it.

And I am not just hypothesizing in a vacuum. You see, we started taking this thing a bit seriously in 1990, right? That’s the watershed year. And we are more than three decades from there now, and not only have we failed to reduce or neutralize carbon—the fact is, today we are releasing twenty to forty percent more carbon than we used to do three decades back, and that’s with all our climate action. And there is really no hope that we are going to achieve carbon neutrality anytime soon. My country, India, for example, even as a matter of pledge, has quoted 2070. Now, that to me is just too far off, and this kind of action is just too insufficient.

See, we are doing it. We are doing it. And there are two things about us that are causing it. They are so fundamental that we don’t even talk about them. Those two things are: the numbers that we are, and the numbers that are represented by our per capita consumption. And even these two are fundamentally one. The inbuilt human tendency to take consumption as an indicator of the fulfillment or success of one’s life—that’s the reason we multiply, and that’s the reason we want to consume more and more. And climate change is hardly anything but a function of our numbers on this planet, our population, and the per capita consumption by each person of our species.

Unfortunately, irrespective of the variations in culture, thought, religion, ethnicity, all that we have across the world, about one thing we all are fully in agreement, and that is that we all need to have a good time by consuming more and more. Be it the Indian, the Chinese, the American, the African, anybody, we all want to have a happy life, and about a happy life, the thing is consumption. “Consume more, and let there be more people who can consume more.” So, the slogan really is, “More to consume more.” And nobody seems to want to address that because that is just too explosive an issue probably, especially in a democratic setup.

The fundamental thing is, we are just too many. And if we remain as many as we are, then—I don’t want to sound nihilist or something, but I don’t really see hope unless we address that one thing. Equally, if we can address that one thing, especially to youngsters, then obviously there is a lot of hope and a great possibility, and that possibility will then not relate only to climate change but to everything that we do. As human beings, we will be able to lead richer, deeper, more meaningful lives, more loving lives, lives of compassion, lives of less strife, and lives that have a certain fulfillment.

So, that’s my simple position in a nutshell. Obviously, we will be going into the nuances of everything, but I thought it would be better to just put everything on the table right away.

Q: That’s such a clear statement of the challenge that we are facing. Fundamentally, we are eight and a half billion, soon to be nine, soon to be ten. And half of the people on the planet are barely getting by and living on a few dollars a day, and everybody is aspiring for more, and this has already led us to fighting over water and topsoil and fish and forests and biodiversity, and it’s the fundamental reason the planet is heating up.

I would still differ with you a bit on this, because I think that in the long run, we need to figure out how to come into the right relationship with ourselves and the planet in terms of this quest for more. I think that with the climate issue in particular, there is a window in which technology can buy us time. And I believe that there is some sort of good news on the planet; for example, population growth rates are slowing down finally. I believe that China, for example, has dipped into a negative growth in population for the first time this year.

So, I am hopeful that humanity can see its way through this and stop at ten billion, and then slowly have the population decline, create more space for people, create more space for creatures. But I feel that right now we are at this critical juncture where we have to get this right. Technology can buy us time, but I agree that fundamentally it’s about how we humans heal ourselves and develop a healthy relationship with each other and the planet.


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Acharya Prashant

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

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