Dalai Lama's MIT visit prompts dialogue on world crises

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The Dalai Lama speaks onstage at the One World Concert at Syracuse University on Oct 9, 2012 in Syracuse, New York. On Oct. 15, the Dalai Lama participated in panel discussions at the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT in Cambridge, MA.

Credit:

Neilson Barnard

BOSTON — The Dalai Lama likes a good joke.

MIT Professor and Director of the System Dynamics Group Dr. John Sterman leaned towards Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader and quipped:

“The optimist proclaims, ‘This is the best of all possible worlds,' and the pessimist said, ‘That's right.'"

The Dalai Lama’s famous, infectious chuckle came in response.

“But I don’t believe we live in the best of all possible worlds," Sterman concluded. "We can improve the world in which we live.”

The moment encapsulated the ethos of the Global Systems 2.0 panel discussion at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium Monday, hosted by the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, a think tank focusing on "far-sighted ethical responsibility and enlightened leadership through education.

Throughout the day, eight distinguished academics highlighted the earth's imperative crises — climate change, world hunger, global inequality, and unsustainable population growth — but unlike many anodyne dialogues on the world’s problems, this group offered solutions.

Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, said, “The problem isn’t science or technology, but how do we motivate people to solve the problems.”

It's not that we don't know what to do or how to do it, many panelists noted; we just don't have the social and political will to carry out the necessary steps for corrective action. 

The first half of the discussion, entitled “Ethics, Economics and the Environment," hinged on the question, “How can we be persuaded to make material sacrifices to reduce the serious risk of climate change when our own generation will not be the primary beneficiary?”

Though empirical data presented on stage demonstrated the very real and measurable effects of climate change, phenomena like rising sea levels, food scarcity and environmental degradation remain abstract possibilities for many people, the panel stated. This, in turn, results in destructive inaction.

“Unlike violence, war, bleeding, dying, these are images that are stuck in our mind,” the Dalai Lama said, “the environment is not that kind of visible.”

The Dalai Lama went on to say that education is paramount for combating climate change.

He reaffirmed statements from a Sunday night speech, “Beyond Religion: Ethics, Values, and Wellbeing,” suggesting empathy for others and the moral responsibility of safeguarding the earth are the duties of current and future generations.

After that speech, the Dalai Lama had tweeted:

Out of all the cogent presentations, it seemed the Dalai Lama was most engaged with Rebecca Henderson, John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard University, who concluded with a bit of hubris, “All we need to do is transform the economy.”

Henderson argued for socially responsible businesses, as did fellow panelist Zyenep Ton, Adjunct Associate Professor of Operations Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. But neither was naive or sanguine.

Henderson said "transforming large scale systems [like the economy] is difficult," but articulated the need "to go from a world where resources are cheap and waste is free ... to a world where resources and waste are properly priced."

All participants believed there is still time to fix many, if not all the world's crises, even though the window of possibility is diminishing.

“This panel did not leave me entirely depressed,” said moderator M. Sanjayan.

"When people tell me it can't happen, I say stranger and more wonderful things have happened," said Sterman. "We've seen the fall of the Berlin Wall ... the end of Apartheid in South Africa ... we've seen the end violence in Northern Ireland, and the Arab Spring. Now the underlying problems have not gone away... but anything that exists is possible."