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A crisis of climate within each of us || Bard College (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
13 min
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Questioner (Q): This discussion today is a followup to a conversation between Acharya Prashant and my colleague, Dr. Evan Goodstein, the director of Bard’s graduate programmes on sustainability and the ‘Solve climate by 2030’ program. In a conversation we held earlier, you gave my colleague an answer from a deep spiritual perspective and stressed the need for personal transformation. Yet, as we are looking at the climate emergency, it is on us right now and we are running out of time. We have named our project ‘Solve climate by 2030’ because the time is running short, as identified by the IPCC. So, we will start the conversation with an “easy” question. How can we reconcile the need for immediate action with deep personal and societal transformation that often takes longer than the time that may be available to us?

Acharya Prashant (AP): Thank you, first of all, for having this discussion. Yes, it’s an easy question about a difficult situation. You said inner transformation processes are often long-winding and deliver results only in the long term. It’s not really so that inner transformation will necessarily take a long time, an inordinately long time, considering that we are looking at 2030 as the threshold, as the cut off year.

You see, look at it differently. Apart from the inner transformation route, we have tried everything else. That there is a climate catastrophe upon us is not new information; you have known it since at least four decades now, if not more. What have you been able to do in these four decades? Not only has the climate crisis worsened, the rate of worsening has actually accelerated, so we are sinking at an increasing rate of sinking per year. That’s how we are doing. If that is what we are getting from our conventional routes of crisis mitigation, it surprises me how we still hold so much trust over them.

We talk as if the other routes—which includes legislation, regulation, and so many other things—are tried, tested, and have delivered results beautifully till now, and we assume as if the spiritual process is untrustworthy, unreliable, and will necessarily take a long time, if at all it delivers any results. I am saying, I repeat, keep the spiritual route aside and let’s objectively, factually look at what the other routes have given us except frustration, disappointment. Our confidence in our own methods needs to be checked, verified, and we really need to test whether our confidence in our governmental processes, legal and technical processes is really well-founded.

Now, let’s come to the spiritual thing. I am not talking mumbo-jumbo, I am not talking black magic. But it is entirely possible, and it does happen that clear communication of information, information in its entirety, is able to touch a person at such a deep place that he is stirred into the right kind of action. And when I am saying the right information needs to reach the individual in a holistic way, this is hardly even spiritual in the conventional sense. When you say that a fellow is on the spiritual route, what you usually mean is that the fellow is into some kind of esoteric methods, or some kind of awakening of paranormal energies is being attempted, these kinds of things. When I am saying that the spiritual route is the only route, I mean none of that rubbish, that illogical stuff. I mean simple dissemination of information in its entirety.

Now, there lies the catch. What do I mean by information in its entirety? You see, we often look at the climate crisis in isolation. We act as if we are otherwise alright, generally okay, and somehow, incidentally, an alien crisis has hit us for no strong reason whatsoever. So, we want to treat it in a very peripheral way, as if it is a skin infection or something, caused by a bacteria that has settled on the surface of the body, and the effect of that alien bacteria is only skin-deep. That’s the mental model we hold with respect to the climate crisis. On the other hand, what I am talking of is the right diagnosis of this crisis. Is it just an external infection on the skin of mankind, or is it about our very blood having become toxic? Is it an influence affecting us from the outside, or is it a malaise arising from the inside? That’s what I mean by the spiritual route.

So, it is actually very scientific, no? Right diagnosis is the prerequisite for any kind of successful treatment. There is nothing per se spiritual about this statement; it’s very logical. What I am proposing for us to ponder on is that the climate crisis, culture, and consumer capitalism are one and the same thing, and unless all of them are treated together, the climate part just cannot be taken care of. You treat one part of this trifecta, and you will find you are not succeeding even in a hundred years—as if we have a hundred years, first of all. But if you can look at the bigger picture, if you can have the bird’s eye view and realize what really is going on, then there can be a solution, and a quick solution, a powerful solution. Mankind’s very soul, if you may call it that—for want of a better word you could say core, or you could simply say mind: the collective mind of humanity, that’s what I mean by soul—that soul has gone sick; that needs treatment.

And I am not dealing in metaphors or needless euphemisms here. This is the most direct way of stating it. We do not know who we are. We do not know what we are here for. Therefore, we endlessly consume, we procreate, we live meaningless lives. Because we do not know ourselves, and therefore the right purpose to life, we run after miscellaneous identities, power, freedom, and so much else. And all that is externally manifested as climate change.

So, climate change is nothing but a gross and tangible representation of what is sick in our very hearts. And if you do not treat the sickness where it really lies, there is no point in giving superficial treatments. It’s like applying ointments to the skin when the symptom on the skin is just a representative of a problem far deeper. The good news is, this far deeper problem is actually easier to solve, because the other routes have all conclusively failed anyway. Hence, the only route remaining has to be the only easy route remaining. We don’t have an option. If you don’t have an option, how can you call the only available option as difficult? It has to be taken as easy, because there is nothing else possible.

Tell people that they need to tackle climate change, and they will be indifferent; everybody is indifferent. Tell people that they are missing out on the essense of their own life; then they will listen, because we all are basically selfish people. Climate crisis appears far too general, a bit too far in time, and not so severe that it cannot be negotiated. You tell the common man on the road that global temperatures will rise by an average of two degrees centigrade; you will not find him collapsing in shock. Two degrees rise in mean global temperature—he will say, “Fine, I will adapt. I will get a better air conditioner, I will take a longer vacation, or I will simply bear it. It doesn’t matter so much.” You may tell him of the other changes and the drastic effects that are possible—rising sea levels and entire cities will be threatened, ecosystems will be washed out, and the negative feedback loop: the whole thing will keep worsening, glaciers will be gone, we do not know what will happen to aquatic ecosystems—you tell him all these things. Was he ever interested in these things in the first place? You are talking to, let’s say, a thirty-five-year-old man—and I am talking of the average man, there would always be exceptions, but let’s look at the average case. In his thirty-five years, when has he demonstrated any ecological sensitivity? How will he suddenly become sensitive today?

We will have to realize that the climate crisis is nothing but the sickness of our personality coming out in the open. For far too long has it remained concealed, but now the cat is out of the bag, and we would just be continuing our primitive tendencies of self-deception if we do not admit the climate crisis for what it really is. It is a crisis of insane consumerism, and we consume because we know nothing better to do; we consume because we have a life to live and we do not know what to do with these seventy, eighty, or ninety years. And the average lifespans are rising across the world; people are living up to hundred, lots of them. People are living for long and have huge disposable incomes. There are so many countries that have millions of millionaires now, the USA obviously being the foremost. Millions of millionaires, so much money; so much money and so much time. The fellow is going to live for about eighty years, hundred years, hundred and ten years—what will he do? He does not know what to do with life.

And every bit of action arising from ignorance is carbon intensive. If you do not have a real purpose to live for, then you will live out of your whims, tendencies, emotions, and they all have a huge carbon footprint. If you do not know what to do in life, you will produce a lot of kids. I know I am generalizing, but then the climate crisis too is a general crisis, is it not? So, let’s keep the exceptions aside. Let’s look at the common man.

Q: This makes me think that the climate crisis in front of us actually necessitates us to put these questions in front of the individuals and the societies. This might actually be the opportunity to make the real shifts in who we are, shifts that we would not be making otherwise. Sans this catastrophe, we might not even recognize the reality of our situation.

AP: Sir, if I may venture that far, I would say the climate crisis is challenging us to answer questions we should have answered several centuries back. You could even say it’s a crisis of philosophy; it is just proving that the philosophies we have based our lives on since long are inadequate, actually false. We could not answer those questions then, and there was nothing and nobody to conclusively tell us in our face that we do not know the answers. Now we have a very, very tangible proof available, a proof of our inadequacy, in the form of this crisis.

So, we need the right understanding; we need to know who we are and why we exist, and that determines our economics, that determines our very lives. Is it not true and is it not obvious that the shape of the economic structure that we have, the entire economic system of the entire world, is what is producing the carbon in the atmosphere? We have philosophies that have no space for compassion; we do not want to look inwards; we do not want to know what should be the right relationship between man and the world he inhabits, and that’s why we are living in an absolutely awkward way. Our lives are bizarre; they are bizarre, and they are producing a lot of gas—you know, like the belching of the cattle that’s responsible for so much of the carbon concentration. That represents, in a very dramatic way, a picture of our lives.

But that can be changed. All that can be changed. People can give up flesh consumption; it takes an instant. There are people—and I know several thousands of them, optimistically I could say there are lakhs of them—who have given up flesh consumption in a matter of days, weeks, a few months. And we very well know that flesh consumption and dairy are either the largest or the second largest cause of carbon concentration, and that cause can be addressed in a jiffy because the climate crisis is a crisis of the choices we are making. And since we are the chooser, the choices can immediately change, a lot of them. A few are structural, that may take a little more time, but there is a lot that can be immediately done if we can show the total picture to the human being, and the total picture must include his own face.

If the climate crisis remains something outside of ourselves, we will not be too interested in tackling it. It is a crisis inside of us, not outside of us. If it is shown to be a crisis inside of us, we will be more interested in tackling it because, as we said, we are all selfish people. Let’s use that selfishness constructively.

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