A few weeks ago, I spent a Thursday afternoon sitting in a small circle of people discussing the environment and our responsibility towards it. Not so unexpected, you might think, for someone who does social action as their day job. But this circle was particularly special because, along with other young people, the group also included the Dalai Lama and Bishop Rowan Williams.
The Inspire Dialogue Foundation’s inaugural event was centred on the theme of Universal Responsibility. It aimed to give young people with an interest and passion in social and environmental issues the opportunity to share a dialogue with some of the most inspiring thinkers of our age. Over two days, we worked on themes such as conflict resolution, education and global health in small groups, and got back together every few hours for plenaries with the Dalai Lama. By the end of day two, I left with a resounding sense of positivity and openness.
A theme that we kept returning to was human fear, and whether it is perhaps the biggest barrier to resolving social and environmental challenges. The Dalai Lama made a striking analogy between two kinds of fear; “there is fear of a mad and rabid dog, which is a rational and justified fear; and fear of other people, an irrational fear which is largely our own mental projection”. The first kind is, of course, crucial to our survival and self-preservation, but when we put too much store by the second kind we run into trouble. Fear, and the lack of trust which stems from it, is what prevents us from engaging with the unknown, from individuals fearing talking to a stranger to nations who struggle to work together on conflict resolution because of fear of each other for not being like ‘us’.
For us to take bold steps in working towards a sustainable world, we as individuals need to shake off fear. The most challenging issues of our age are perceived as being in the hands of ‘faceless’ governments and multinational companies, and it is easy to feel that we as individuals have very little influence over social and environmental concerns when it comes to shaping government and corporate agendas. A conversation I had at the conference reminded me of the obvious, yet easy to forget, point that every large and powerful organisation is made up of individuals who will probably each care deeply about a cause, whether it’s because their mother suffers from Alzheimer’s or because they worry their son won’t be able to afford the cost of fuel in future years.
Scaling back our conception of power to the individual level makes global issues feel a lot smaller. But it doesn’t necessarily prevent us from experiencing fear around taking bold steps. Bishop Rowan Williams was spot on when he stated that it’s naturally very hard for us to ignore the irrational fear that tells us “if my world ends, the whole world ends”. Over the course of the conference I found myself wondering whether, if irrational fear is inevitable, it can ever be used as a useful tool for change. If our goal is to strive towards environmental sustainability, perhaps we need to appeal to our basic human instinct of self-preservation which, after all, stems from fear.
So let’s try speaking the language of self-interest by posing this question: why do we want to accumulate wealth? To ensure our personal security and stability. But as we desire more and more money, we put increasing pressure on natural resources, hence working ourselves into a less stable environment, which presents a threat to our individual security. Could this be a paradox which appeals to our fearful, self-preserving side? And could posing things in this kind of language be the solution to getting everybody on board with a change in approach to sustainability?
When considering these issues, I’m confident that young people are the solution. We’re passionate and ideological, and less susceptible to irrational fear precisely because we have less to lose (in material terms, at least) than we will do later in life. This means we’re ideally placed to embrace our instability and take the bold steps needed to shape a better future for the planet.