The Challenge of Sustainability–M.S. Srinivasan

[Published in FDI,, Jan 2011]

Quietly in public, loudly in private, scientists are saying, its over.  The years in which more than 2°c of global warming could be prevented have passed, the opportunities squandered by denial and delay.  Now we must adopt to what Nature sends our way, if we can.

-George Monbiot


We must learn to live within our planet’s means and do so quickly.  If we are not able to do it, our Earth may become a roasted planet with tundra, inhabitable only by a small number of humans─probably near the poles.

-James Martin,

A leading authority on the

economic and social impact of technology.

 At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny.

-Sri Aurobindo

The greatest challenge of the third millennium will be the ecological and spiritual sustainability of our human race.  The scientific opinion is almost unanimous that our present civilization is facing an extremely challenging ecological crisis.  According to many environmentalists, irreversible damage was done to the environment with disastrous consequences for the future.

 But the corporate mind tends to view the ecological crisis as a business opportunity and as a means for enhancing the bottom line.  According to many corporate pundits, “Greening” the planet is likely to be the most profitable growth industry of the future.  But the present condition of our planet demands a complete subordination of this commercial attitude to an overarching sense of moral responsibility for the well being of the planet.

 We must keep in mind ecological sustainability cannot be achieved solely by science, technology, economic or organization; it requires human cooperation.  The present critical ecological situation demands unprecedented cooperation between nations, government, business, finance, NGO’s and various scientific and technological disciplines and institutions.  Such cooperation, which transcends the self-interest of individuals and groups, cannot be generated by a market-oriented commercial approach; it requires a sense of moral and spiritual responsibility to the future of the planet and a readiness to sacrifice self-interest for the well being of the larger whole.  In other words, a certain amount of moral and spiritual development in collective conscious of humanity is needed to resolve the present ecological crisis.  But the constant and repeated failures in arriving at any workable consensus or cooperation among nations on environmental issue indicate that we as a civilization have not yet achieved this inner development.  We are bickering and quarrelling like little children when our civilization is facing the possibility of extinction.

 Here comes the importance of spiritual sustainability.  The light, power, maturity and creativity needed to solve our problems and achieve fulfillment, individually and collectively, lies not in our scientific and rational mind but in the intuitive consciousness of our spiritual self.  The very fact we are facing so many serious and insurmountable problems in the ecological, social and political front even after so much of advancement in science and technology and rational thinking shows the limitations of this part of our mind.  So even while tackling the problem of ecological sustainability, we have to proceed simultaneously towards our spiritual sustainability, which means acquire the ability to progress safely towards the spiritual source of our being.  This requires two things: first, a system of education with an emphasis on the moral, psychological and spiritual development of the individual, second a new paradigm of organization, management and governance which felicitates this inner growth and its self-expression in the outer life.

However in the short-term our immediate aim is ecological sustainability.  For, as an Indian adage states, our body is the basis of all our higher growth.  We cannot pursue our spiritual growth if the physical life-support system of our planet is stretched beyond its tolerance limits in terms of population, temperature and carbon emission and can no longer support human bodies.  However the present ecological situation is not perhaps as hopeless and irreversible as some of the scientists believe it to be.  There is what is called as “butterfly effect” in climatology.  According to this concept a small event can lead to a massive result like a great storm.  Thus, a critical mass of small, cumulative actions in tune with Nature can trigger a butterfly effect and lead to a massive positive response from Nature.

These actions include not only external actions like energy conversation or carbon reduction but also thought, feelings and attitudes which look upon Nature not as an inanimate something which has to be “saved” by human effort, but as a living conscious Force with a Divinity in her, who can not only save us from calamity but carry us safely towards our highest fulfillment and perfection.  If all our environmental actions and our dealings with Nature are infused with this positive attitude, we can look into the future with hope and faith because we will be helped and supported by the universal wisdom and creativity of a divine Force.

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