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At MIT, Dalai Lama calls for better stewardship of Earth’s resources

Tibetan Buddhist leader urges a more enlightened view of self-interest in remarks at MIT conference.
Scholars discussed environmental challenges on Monday at MIT with the Dalai Lama. From left: John Sterman and Kerry Emanuel of MIT; M. Sanjayan, moderator, of The Nature Conservancy and the University of Montana; Thomas Malone of MIT; the Dalai Lama; a translator; Rebecca Henderson of Harvard; and Penny Chisholm of MIT.
Scholars discussed environmental challenges on Monday at MIT with the Dalai Lama. From left: John Sterman and Kerry Emanuel of MIT; M. Sanjayan, moderator, of The Nature Conservancy and the University of Montana; Thomas Malone of MIT; the Dalai Lama; a translator; Rebecca Henderson of Harvard; and Penny Chisholm of MIT.
Photo: Manohar Srikanth

The Dalai Lama called for increasingly enlightened stewardship of Earth’s environment and resources in public remarks on the MIT campus on Monday.

“We have the responsibility to take care of the whole planet,” said the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism, adding: “It is not a luxury, it is a matter of our own survival.”

The Dalai Lama’s remarks came during a pair of panel discussions he participated in, along with a series of high-profile scholars, focused on the ethical and social challenges of climate change and resource scarcity — including the limited availability of food and water for a global population that is 7 billion and growing rapidly.

The event was hosted by the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, in association with MIT’s Office of Religious Life, and was part of a three-day visit to MIT and the Boston area by the Dalai Lama.

‘Wise-selfish, rather than foolish-selfish’

Both panel discussions on Monday featured 10-minute presentations by four scholars, with the Dalai Lama commenting on each set of remarks. Many of the presentations converged on related questions about how members of society can balance their own material self-interest with the altruistic actions needed to slow global warming and distribute resources fairly.

In the first panel on Monday, “Ethics, Economics and Environment,” Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at MIT, outlined the ominous trajectory of global warming.

“If we choose to do something about this, we have to make that decision very soon,” Emanuel said, adding: “How can we be persuaded to make material sacrifices to reduce the serious risk of climate change?”

The Dalai Lama suggested that educating people about the dangers was a critical part of any response to climate change — and one that falls not just upon scientists, but cultural leaders as well.

“For some people, the message from religious leaders can be more effective,” the Dalai Lama explained.

“Maybe you and I should have a road show,” Emanuel joked in response.

Rebecca Henderson, a professor at Harvard Business School, suggested that despite the pressures business executives feel to show short-term profits, most would be open to changing their practices if presented with clean-energy solutions. She also noted the possible impact: The world’s largest 1,000 firms account for 30 percent of the planet’s energy consumption. For companies or nations, she added, “To say we can’t move until the whole world moves is really a cop-out.”

In response, the Dalai Lama noted that although our actions will always have an inherently selfish element, it is still possible to act in a way that is “wise-selfish, rather than foolish-selfish.”

Penny Chisholm, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies at MIT, made the case against geoengineering as a strategy for dealing with climate change. “We don’t understand enough, nor can we understand enough about our world, to be able to control it one parameter at a time,” said Chisholm, who also noted that “the risks are enormous, it is irreversible, and the gains are questionable.”

However, the Dalai Lama, while noting his own lack of scientific expertise, seemed willing to entertain the idea of such new approaches, commenting that, in general terms, “It is our responsibility to look.”

Concluding the first panel, Thomas Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, made the case for networked technologies as a means of creating solutions to our current problems, noting that networks “can harness the collective intelligence of thousands of people around the world.”

‘Maximum inner peace through inner strength’

The second panel, “Peace, Governance and Diminishing Resources,” examined specific resource-scarcity issues. Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, noted that about 1 billion of the world’s 7 billion people already suffer from a lack of food. He suggested a series of ways to address the problem, from better production efficiency to rethinking diets and reducing waste.

“We have the tools to do this, but we maybe don’t have the will or compassion or ethical framework,” Foley said.

James Orbinski, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and former head of the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, heralded the “revolution in global health” stemming from new technologies developed in the last 15 years, but noted that significant disparities in health remain in place, which he called a “morally unacceptable set of outcomes.”

Zeynep Ton, an adjunct associate professor of operations management at MIT Sloan, argued that the world suffers from another shortage as well: too few good jobs. Companies that treat employees better and pay them more, she said, can perform better as a result. Employees, she said, should be seen “not as a cost to be minimized, but as an asset to be maximized.”

John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at MIT Sloan, gave the final presentation, speaking in broad terms about the need for the world’s wealthy to reduce consumption so as to lessen greenhouse-gas emissions. Technological innovation, he said, would be a necessary but insufficient part of any climate-change solution.

“The core problem is around this sense of what it is that buys people happiness and well-being,” Sterman said. “Those of us who are so rich but not so happy can change the way we live.” Otherwise, he warned, the “spiritual pollution” of unchecked materialism means we will “destroy the planet and our own future.”

In his comments during the afternoon session, the Dalai Lama praised the scholars for not just making diagnoses about the world’s needs, but because “they also have ideas to lessen these problems.”

In response to Sterman’s observations, the Dalai Lama said “I fully agree” that people needed to re-evaluate their sources of happiness, adding, “We have to cultivate these moral principles.” Individuals, the Dalai Lama said, could find “maximum inner peace through inner strength,” not material possessions.

For many people, he added, that kind of change could come through better education. Still, the Dalai Lama added, “Some of these [civic] problems are truly urgent,” leaving an unresolved matter for everyone: “how to influence decision-makers.”

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