The Spiritual Work of the United Nations and the Liberation of Humanity

Leo Meeting, August 22, 2002

Sustainability, Ecovillages and the Spiritual Work of the United Nations


Welcome. As many of you know, we are just four days from the Johannesburg Summit-—the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which will take place in Johannesburg, South Africa from 26 August until 4 September. Why is this Summit important? Well, for example, if current patterns of development continue, nearly half of the world's people will suffer from water shortages within the next 25 years, the use of fossil fuels, along with greenhouse gas emissions, will grow, and the world's forests will continue to disappear.

Today’s on-line publication of the UN Wire, includes a good overview of the conference, indicating that the Summit is expected to attract over 40,000 delegates, Including presidents and prime ministers, CEOs of major global corporations,chief justices interested in developing and applying environmental law, and thousands of NGOs and other community leaders.

Also, you can go to the UN site, which will include live coverage and many helpful fact sheets, as well as the UN report, "Global Challenge, Global Opportunity," prepared just for this conference.

A few facts from this report include the following:

Not all the news is bad, however. The report also points to promising trends, such as

Before turning the floor over to our guest speakers tonight, I want to offer two quotes that I hope we will continue to contemplate and take into our meditation tonight.

The first is from Maurice F. Strong, the Secretary-General of the Rio Summit in 1992—the first conference on the Environment and Sustainable Development. He has stated,

"Actions that do not flow from our deepest spiritual, ethical, and moral values cannot succeed in building the kind of secure, sustainable, and hopeful future to which Rio pointed and to which we all aspire."

The second is from the Tibetan Master, Djwhal Khul. It comes from the book, "Problems of Humanity". Therein, he states,

"The true problem of the United Nations is a twofold one: it involves the right distribution of the world's resources so that there may be freedom from want, and it involves also the bringing about of a true equality of opportunity and of education for all people everywhere.

"The nations which have a wealth of resources are not owners; they are custodians of the world's riches and hold them in trust for their fellowmen. The time will inevitably come when in the interest of peace and security—the capitalists in the various nations will be forced to realize this and will also be forced to substitute the principle of sharing for the ancient principle (which has hitherto governed them) of greedy grabbing." (pp. 174-175)

Talk by John Clausen[1]

Thanks, etc. I've been so caught up with details preparing for the WSSD lately that it's difficult to see the forest for the trees.

I've been helping to coordinate the participation of 34 people from 6 continents who are forming The Global Ecovillage Network's(GEN's) delegation to the WSSD and their ambitious program of workshops, meetings,eco-tours and partnership initiatives for J-burg. The goal is to present ecovillages as models for the creation of a just and respectful society based on support for local cultures, use of appropriate technology and restoration of the earth.

Ecovillages are a viable solution to eradication of poverty and degradation of the environment. They combine a supportive social-cultural environment integrating spirituality, ecology and sustainable business development with a low impact life style. The 17,000+ ecovillages that are members of the Global Ecovillage Network are comprised of motivated people who are out there doing it, with their lives on the line, learning how to live sustainably, and who are eager to share what they are learning with a world in need.

That's all I'm going to say about GEN and Ecovillages--Frances will pick up on this and talk to you about the Findhorn Foundation Ecovillage Project and the spiritual work of the UN.

In my part of this talk, I want to share with you some thoughts on sustainability. I'll attempt to define it and to look at the bigger picture by placing it in an evolutionary context and providing some historical perspective.

To begin, I'd like to make a plug for the word sustainability-a somewhat awkward sounding word that comes from the Latin "sustenare"= "to hold up". Sustainable means "to continue indefinitely". Current definitions of sustainability are numerous but for the purposes of this talk, I'll stick to simple core definitions that are not perversions or abuses of the term.

"A sustainable society is one which can persist over generations": This must include physical sustainability and social sustainability as well as the ethical and moral dimension.

The common definition of sustainable development introduced by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 is: "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This definition is somewhat vague and imprecise and leaves a lot of wiggle room but its general thrust is clear.

The reason the word "sustainability" is so important is that it is capable (more than any other word) of describing an idea that represents humanity's calling for this century---that which we are called upon to achieve if we are to survive and continue to evolve on this that sense sustainability is an evolutionary imperative and, as many writers have noted, we are doomed to achieve it by nature's decisive hand if we don't choose it by our own free will. (pp148 BC). This is the struggle we are engaged in at the moment and the word sustainability has the potential to align people of all persuasions with humanity's common destiny.

I'm going to read you a quote by Alan AtKisson from his book "Believing Cassandra", an excellent book about sustainability:

"To escape Cassandra's Dilemma (Cassandra's dilemma was to be able to see into the future and not be believed) and prevent global collapse, we need an idea that is both visionary and profitable, a solution that can appeal to both the ardent altruist and the hardened venture capitalist. We need a source of hope that is also a business opportunity, a hot investment that is also intensely idealistic. We need something that will challenge our higher natures and attract our baser instincts, coaxing us into the game of transformation without polarizing society or fomenting revolution. We need something that has not been seen since humans first began plowing up dirt, building skyscrapers and messing around with atmospheric chemistry. We need something that has the power to command a lifetime of allegiance, even though it does not truly exist yet in practise, and may never fully exist except in theory. We need something we can barely begin to describe in tangible concrete terms. But, fortunately, we have a word for it."

One more quote from AtKisson: "Sustainability wraps economics, ecology, social and personal well-being together into one package. It ties the package together with systems dynamics and mails the whole thing decades or even centuries into the future." (end quote)

Sustainability provides us with a lens, a perspective through which to see the world. One day we'll have indicators of sustainability. Complex systems, concepts and statistics will be incorporated into a simple easy to follow index or number that people will watch as closely as they watch the Dow Jones Averages or the GDP today!

Now, I'd like to introduce some historical perspective on this subject.[2] I've been reading a lot of American History lately (also majored in it in college) and I'm amazed at the parallels between the present and the situation 200 years ago during the founding of our country and the birth of democracy and self-governance as the new norm. I only wish I had more time to go into some of the fascinating details...(and personalities).

In the late 18th century democracy was a relatively unfamiliar and ungainly word that described an idea that was new and complex, which overturned the old order, against seemingly insurmountable odds, to become the accepted norm for the future. Just like today, there were the idealists (like Jefferson) and the pragmatists (or so called realists) (like Washington and Adams) who perceived the situation differently.

It was a time that was filled with fractious disputes and hysterical rhetoric because each faction passionately believed that the policies advocated by the other would bring the young nation to ruin. When we look back in hindsight, however, the outcome seems inevitable and destined. (This the important point to keep in mind.)

Abraham Lincoln said that the nation was founded on a PROPOSITION and Thomas Jefferson wrote it. However, you could accurately say that our country was actually founded on an ARGUMENT ABOUT WHAT THAT PROPOSITION MEANS.

"The entire late 18th Century", according to Historian Joseph Ellis (with only slight exaggeration), was "a shouting match over how we should interpret the Constitution (and) what those phrases in the Declaration mean about freedom and equality..." ("and... political parties represent a routinization of the argument--one side against the other.")

This reminds me of our situation today with respect to sustainability.

The Earth Charter and Agenda 21 are examples of documents that set forth principles and practices required to achieve sustainability. Practical Implementation of these principles by the governments of the world seems slim at this time, given the current political realities, but the argument has begun and destiny and evolution are on our side. It's a bit like democracy 200 years ago. It's future seemed extremely perilous at the time, even its advocates fought zealously amongst themselves to promote different visions of what would make it succeed. All of the visions had flaws and we're still arguing and muddling along.

Most people that I know in the NGO community are not expecting much (dramatic results) from the governments at the WSSD, in spite of pronouncements from summit leaders that failure is not an option. Rather, they hope for motivated grass roots and civil society groups and organizations like GEN to find creative ways to collaborate together and energize the movement toward sustainability. There is great progress already (towards a sustainable future) from grassroots projects like ecovillages to the work of the ecological design mavericks like William McDonough, Amory Lovins, John Todd and Gunter Pauli who are demonstrating how we can redesign our economy and all it's means of production to align with nature's processes. The commercial worldis responding to these approaches and this leads towards true sustainability instead of increasingly regulating an unsustainable system to make it last longer.

I'd like to conclude with a nod to two of the most interesting and different characters from the revolutionary era: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

If Jefferson had written my closing remarks, it might have sounded like this:

"It is historically inevitable that sustainability will become the guiding principle for the 21st C. and that people everywhere will cast off the veils of ignorance, selfishness and fear that have caused them to plunder the earth and each other. All eyes are opened or opening to the truth, beauty and security of peaceful and sustainable living."

Adams might have said:

"While sustainability may be destined to become the guiding principle for the 21st C., we will most probably spend the century arguing about what it means and how to implement it while muddling fitfully along towards it."

Two men of character with different mentalities--both were necessary!

We don't know the future but we can best play our parts by aligning with our souls purpose and acting with integrity out of that alignment.

And now onto Frances---

Talk by Frances Edwards

The Findhorn Foundation Community is an international spiritual community of over 500 people living in the north of Scotland. Every year thousands of people come to visit and participate in our educational programmes and conferences. In December 1997 we became an NGO associated with the UN DPI.

The Community began in 1962 when Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean went to live in a caravan park (or trailer park, as it's called here) in the sand dunes near the old fishing village of Findhorn, way up in the north of Scotland. (It's actually level with Juno Alaska.)

They were deeply committed to their spiritual path, spending many hours in meditation together. Others gradually joined them, forming a small community. They became famous for growing wonderful vegetables on the poor, sandy soil through using organic methods and learning to cooperate with nature. The community continued to grow, developing educational programmes and becoming established as the Findhorn Foundation, a registered educational trust.

In 1981 we were able to buy the caravan park where we were living and to begin to develop the Ecovillage project.

What is an Ecovillage?

An Ecovillage is a small rural or urban community that seeks to live sustainably environmentally, economically, socially and spiritually.

The ecovillage model is a conscious response to the extremely complex problem of how to transform our human settlements, whether they be villages, towns or cities, into sustainable communities, harmlesly integrated into the natural environment. Ecovillage principles can be applied to urban and rural settings, to developing and developed countries, north and south, east and west. In the economically developed parts of the world, ecovillages tend to be intentionally created by people wanting a more fulfilling way of life. In developing countries they tend to emerge from traditional villages where the ecological awareness arises as a positive response to adverse living conditions.

Ecovillages move toward sustainability by putting a high priority on: ecological building; renewable energy systems; local organic food production; sustainable economics and use of resources; social and family support systems.

There is, as yet, no ideal model ecovillage in existance but there are thousands of attempts all over the world. About 17,000 ecovillages with over a million members belong to the Global Ecovillage Network, (GEN) which is an international support system for ecovillages and related projects. As John said, there will be people from Findhorn and other ecovillages representing GEN at the World Summit for Sustainable Development, where they will be offering various educational opportunities, including visits to local ecovillage projects.

In 1998, three communities - Crystal Waters in Australia, Lebensgarten in Germany and the Findhorn Foundation - were included in the UN top 100 listing of Best Practices for improving the living environment.

At Findhorn, we have spent nearly forty years developing the social and spiritual aspects of community life and this continues to evolve as we grow. This includes developing our own political system with consensus decision making and innovative techniques for conflict resolution. For the last 15 years or so we have also been developing the environmental and economic aspects.

In terms of ecological building, we are gradually replacing the old caravans with environmentally friendly houses which are some of the "greenest" buildings in Britain. We are experimenting with different non-toxic building systems and materials as well as using solar power and high standards of insulation to minimise energy consumption.

We also have a wind generator which supplies about 20% of the electricity needs for the project and more are planned. We have our own sewage treatment facility, which is a Living Machine, developed by John Todd, that uses natural, biological systems within a greenhouse environment to produce clean water for irrigation.

Besides the educational programmes, which include trainings in ecovillage living, there are over 40 different businesses and initiatives in the community, including an arts center, a school and organic farms.

During my time of being an NGO representative and learning more about the UN, I have been very impressed with the tremendous work of the UN programmes in all areas of human activity. But I also see that the UN reflects the rest of the world in viewing life in a fragmented way: we tend to focus on our own home or country, our own work or area of specialization. Thus problems tend to be tackled from one perspective or another. Somehow, however hard we try, we don't seem to be making the kind of progress we desire.

I feel that the missing link is both spiritual and practical:

The spiritual is at the level of recognizing the essential oneness of all creation and meeting in love. As long as we focus on separation and difference there will be conflict. As long as we see the natural world as an object apart from us there will be abuse and misuse. In its highest aspirations, the UN does represent a caring for the whole of humanity, for the whole planet, and I feel that Kofi Annan embodies this attitude. But again, as we get down to work, we tend to forget. This is where I feel that the spiritual groups have an important role: to keep on reminding, drawing attention to those essential values.

On the practical level, I believe that ecovillages offer a wholistic model that is of great value:

Firstly, as I have said, the ecovillage community strives to develop on all fronts at once: the environmental, economic, social and spiritual. Each aspect is essential to our sustainability. Different communities are better at one aspect than another - that's why there's no perfect example yet - but we all recognize the importance of the wholistic approach, of keeping the bigger picture always in awareness. Environmentalists have learned through experience that we cannot save the animals without saving the ecosystems - and that includes the humans in them with all our complex needs. It's the same kind of idea.

Secondly, the ecovillage, whether rural or urban, though it might consist of hundreds of people, is still at a scale that people can grasp. It's small enough to clearly see the whole of it, yet it's a model of the greater whole that we are all a part of. A true microcosm.

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[1] John Clausen and Frances Edwards are the UN/NGO Representatives of the Findhorn Foundation Eco-Village Project and Global Eco-Village Network (GEN).

[2] Notes:
Adams stressed the messiness, complexity and imperfection in the way things work out in the earthly realm ("real world"). Jefferson stressed the simplistic destination and ideal outcomes in his more inspirational rhetoric.
One irony is that now, 200 years later, it's the US economy and government that, to many people, symbolize some of the powerful and unjust forces that we are seeking to transform whereas it was the corrupt and unjust monarchies in England and France 200 years ago. In hindsight the perceived bad guys and obstructionists don't necessarily end up looking so bad (example of how England was perceived by Jefferson and the Republicans during the 1780's and 1790's.).
The main point that inspired my talk is that there are a number of important parallels between the revolutionary period in American History with respect to the emergence of democracy and the current global situation with respect to sustainability. In both periods the situation seems desperate to advocates of radical change, there are wide and passionate differences in how the situation is perceived and there seems to be little chance of meaningful progress and success in the face of the entrenched powers (the monarchies of Europe in the revolutionary period and global capitalism and corrupt governments today). The difference is that we can view the revolutionary period with hindsight and see a certain inevitability and destiny inherent within it. While we don't have the benefit of hindsight to guide or console us today, I believe that a similar inevitability and destiny is inherent in our current situation.
References Books:
Alan Atkisson, "Believing Cassandra, An Optimist Looks at a Pessimists World"
Joseph Ellis, "Founding Brothers, The Revolutionary Generation" David McCullough, "John Adams"

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