04/08/2011 09:59 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Changing Directions Toward a Sustainable Future

The world is going through a crisis. Although most governments have pledged themselves to help develop a peaceful, sustainable and socially just world, still we seem to be going in the opposite direction. Climate scientists have been warning that we are about to cross the tipping point, yet deforestation and environmental degradation continue unchecked. It is almost as if humankind has been gripped by a collective death-wish. Though this is a time of great danger, fortunately it is also a time of great opportunity. Today, we have the knowledge and resources to create a peaceful and vibrant world.

A sustainable global system is not an option, it is the requirement if we are to survive as a species. We need to change our global system because the present system itself is the problem. A system designed to promote endless growth through mindless consumption is like a cancer that will ultimately consume humanity. If the present trends continue, growing shortages of water, food and energy will collapse the global economy. We need a systemic transformation because a consumer society cannot evolve into a conserver society without structural change.

It is no longer a cliché to say that humanity stands at a crossroads. We have two paths to the future. If we continue on the present path we shall destroy our civilization within decades. But if we can visualize the alternative, sustainable model of development we shall bring about perhaps the most golden of all ages in human history. For this we need to give up the present model of profits-at-any-cost and replace it with one where a holistic approach seeks to create a win-win sustainable solution to problems by eliminating the underlying causes.

The Industrial Age has been a necessary stage in human development, enabling us to develop our science and technology. It has resulted in a better and longer life for most people. But these benefits have come at enormous societal and environmental costs. We need to replace the present global system where nation states compete with each other with a new cooperating planetary civilization.

So how do we go about setting right the wrongs? A greater consciousness and morality is needed. A consciousness that makes us realize that we are only trustees for future generations. A consciousness that tells us that though we can enjoy the bounties of nature, we cannot act in greed. And when this consciousness is tempered with morality, i.e. ideal behavior, we will have a better future to look forward to.

If we can all agree that all humans wish to live in an ideal society, then all humans must have a higher consciousness. In societies where this consciousness (or concern for our world and its inhabitants) is ingrained in the mind of an individual right from childhood, it is not difficult to find people who are genuinely concerned about the state of their world. When we see the pitiful condition in which the world finds itself today, we are even more convinced that it is only through education that society can be enriched and given direction. Therefore, education must also act as a powerful instrument for profound social transformation.

Educating society for educating the world starts with educating our children. If we could create a God-loving, compassionate, just, self-sacrificing generation of children, we would have done our duty. The challenge is to change mindsets so that the school, home and society can collaborate and find solutions to the problems humanity faces today. The paradox is that a child learns something in school and then something completely different when he returns home. In addition, society confuses him even more. It is only when a child learns to differentiate between right and wrong that we can call him a conscious and moral human being. The world needs a generation of such children. Only those children, who grow up and successfully take their rightful place as leaders of society, can bring real peace to the world through their actions.

History is replete with examples of how conscious and morally upright men and women have changed the lives of their fellow beings. Abraham Lincoln, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and countless others provided inspiration and hopes for generations of change-makers. Perhaps the world is today short of leaders who think and work for the common good of all nations and peoples of the world. What can the children of this world expect from their elders? I suppose it would be best to leave this question unanswered.

Fortunately, we have many inspiring examples of young children not willing to wait for the elders to take initiative but themselves pushing for change. Like the 13-year-old Felix Finkbeiner, who, as a 9-year-old, pledged to plant 1 million trees. At the age of 12, he fulfilled his dream by inspiring children in 70 countries who together planted more than 1 million trees. Invited to speak to the U.N. General Assembly on Feb. 2 this year, he said that children no longer trusted the adults who threaten children's future.

We urgently need to change direction. We must transform our consumer society into a regenerative society where the focus is not on having more but on being more. There is no third option; societies and species that are not environmentally sustainable become extinct. Our fate is in our hands, and the choices we make will determine our future.

An invited contribution to the Ervin Laszlo Forum on Science and Spirituality.

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