COP21 and Poverty of Heart

Another international conference on Climate Change and Global Warming! Yes, another effort by the international community on the 30th November to 11th December 2015, in Paris, to work out a strategy and plan to keep global temperature rise within a 2 degrees Celcius limit in order to save the planet. Most of the discussions will center around financial and technological commitments to contain potential havocs and save the lives of billions on this blue-green planet earth.

But as in the multiple previous discussions and resolutions by UN member states ever since the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio in 1992, while money and resources are important, it’s not what will make a real difference. It’s the Poverty of Heart and not material wealth that will need to be addressed. Unless policy makers, in their airconditioned environments or wherever they may be working from, feel for the billions that are already affected and that will be just washed away in the years to come, this will be just another show of disguised hypocrisy. COP21 will not stop the planet from getting warmer and warmer, with destruction of nature and its biodiversity, and possibly wiping humanity from the surface of this earth.

During the recent celebration of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations in New York on 24th October 2015, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon made a very obvious statement: ‘The challenges of our times require complex solutions!’ This is indeed so, and we have to include social, physical and economic factors that are time and space dependent. However, things become more complex when we ignore the call of our hearts. Our brain has the tendency to rationalize and complicate things while our heart is straightforward. It’s the poverty of our heart and not our material poverty that needs to be addressed. Before we address this, let us see what the main global issues are.

Fifteen years ago the UN launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) with the objective of reducing abject poverty with its dehumanizing impacts on a billion people globally. This has been partially achieved and is very laudable. However, we still have over eight hundred million people now who lack the means for a minimum of basic amenities in terms of food, clothing, shelter, water, health, energy, education, employment and moderate displacement infrastructure. The term abject poverty is still valid for a majority of them. On one side of the globe we have human beings who are wallowing in wealth, wasting resources, and living in comparative luxury, while on the other side we have millions still struggling to eke out a living, Except for humans, animals and plants are being decimated at a rapid rate in order to satisfy the varying needs.

Before the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals were adequately met, having realized the limitations of the efforts being made, and being faced by another impending catastrophe on a global scale, namely the Global Warming and Climate Change, the UN has now come up with another fifteen-year development plan, namely the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which is broader in perspective and more far-reaching. While the first set of goals affected mainly poor countries, the new set targets both the developed and the poor countries, including the developing and the least developed countries. It must be stressed that during the first fifteen years of working on the achievement of the MDG, the world experienced at least two major global financial crises, a series of food crises, and a series of natural catastrophes resulting from global warming and climate change.

The poor had to face major survival problems in the face of either heavy floods and landslides, or prolonged droughts, exacerbated by destructive hurricanes and extensive fires that result from the climate change. In some developed countries, the rich were also affected, and government assistance helped them to face the crises. But in poorer communities, they were simply wiped off from the face of the earth. Global warming is also causing a rise in water levels that threaten coastal and low-lying regions and mainly island states. If urgent measures to mitigate the impacts of global warming and climate change are not taken, big cities like New York and Calcutta as well as many small island developing states may be totally submerged in the years ahead. Hence the urgency for calling the UN member states to put their heads together and come up with solutions they can adopt in their respective countries and regions.

Rising temperatures have also led to massive migrations from affected areas to more clement regions. Humans, animals, insects and other living entities have to find better places to survive. Even viruses and bacteria have started mutating and new forms of diseases are taking a heavy toll on humans and animals.

It is now scientifically proven that the major culprits are the massive burning of fossil fuels to drive industrial development, and higher living standards. To meet their appetite for natural products like wood, minerals, coal, fossil fuels, cotton, sugar, etc., the developed countries started colonizing different parts of the world. To sell their products, they encouraged consumerism. Even now we see governments attracted by huge shopping malls, not caring for the small-scale producer and provider. Consumerism, led by the concept of economies of scale and economic growth propagated by these developed countries are at the root of such global problems. Developed countries, ever since the advent of the industrial age over two hundred years ago, when they started replacing human labour by machines driven by coal, have been the main polluters of the planet. Release of greenhouse gasses resulting from such ventures, coupled by mass production and increased consumerism, has caused the average global temperature to rise rapidly by 0.9°C just over the last thirty years. The rate of increase is such that if nothing is done, within this century the earth’s average temperature will increase by 4°C, resulting in massive destruction all around. Hence scientists have convinced states to limit the increase by only 2°C by 2050 by adopting measures to contain the release of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Thus the raison d’être for the holding of COP21 to convince member states and appeal for major financial aid to cope with such measures.

Now comes the real crunch and the aim of this paper. No doubt for self-interest wealthy countries will chip in additional aid in terms of money and technology to help developing states and poor countries adopt the proposed measures. But unless the very concept of development as promulgated over the last couple of centuries is revised, urging people to live much more in harmony with nature, consuming less and less, and using technologies that will not destroy the environment, the objectives of COP21 will NOT be reached. Self-restraint and self-sacrifice are essential, and these require a change in mindset and heart.

Way back ten thousand years ago, our sages, through the Vedas and the Ishopanishad have urged human beings to consume the limited resources of the earth with moderation, and not be greedy. Greed has led to corruption with unfair distribution of global wealth. Poverty is still rampant in most of the globe, not poverty of finance but poverty of heart. To eliminate poverty of heart requires a deeper spiritual approach to life, a greater sense of fellow-feeling, a greater sense of mutual trust and understanding. It is recognized that we all share this one planet. It is said that by adopting Western lifestyles and standards of living, we need four more planets like ours to inhabit. The gloss and glamour of modern technological development propped up by encouraging consumerism and profit maximization will never make us achieve the goals of the UNCED, MDG and SDG.

In the last century, Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s, John Galbraith in the 1950s and Ernst Frederic Schumacher in the 1970s had understood the Vedic injunctions and the dangers that await mankind. Gandhi promoted the Sarvodaya movement stressing on small scale enterprises disseminated over the country; Galbraith wanted to have a more humane economic approach; while Schumacher, through his memorable book ‘Small is Beautiful’ wanted us to stop racing after large-scale enterprises. Alas, the messages never reached top policy makers and governments who wanted rapid economic growth. Now is the time for all to realize our past follies. Through a change of heart, with better education, mutual trust and feelings for all living creatures, and an earnest desire to leave a better planet for generations to come, we will be able to change directions. The big question is: Will COP21 propose such measures? Will the Poverty of Heart be addressed?


  • Published in print edition on 6 November 2015

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