Modern Crises and Ancient Gods: How the Light Gets in Festival, Kenwood House, London, UK, 21st September 2019

The annual How the Light Gets In Festival, organized by the Institute of Art and Ideas, brings together leading thinkers and public figures to discuss topical and wide-ranging themes.

David Malone, film producer and UK Green Party politician, moderated a panel discussion with Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the British government; Natalie Bennett, ex-leader of the UK Green Party; and Sister Jayanti, European Director of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University.

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Modern Crises and Ancient Gods focused on several questions including how we should regard Nature, as a source of all things, to be cherished; or subservient to human ingenuity? What is Nature? Given the gravity of the climate crisis, do we look for a spiritual remedy, or for a political solution?

The panelists identified over-exploitation by mankind of the Earth’s resources as a central problem.  Likewise, the discarding of waste, using the Earth “as a mine and a dump” as Bennett commented.  Sir David described climate change as the “greatest crisis” humanity has ever faced, and it is urgent: “We’ve got 10 years to get this right.”

Science, medicine, engineering, sociology have delivered unprecedented progress – hence the increase in world population to nearly 8 billion – but at enormous cost to the planet.  We have failed to grasp that we are part of Nature, not apart from it.

Natalie Bennett identified science as part of the problem, for a silo mentality that isolates scientists from colleagues in other fields.  What is needed, she argued, is “systems thinking” across disciplines – a holistic approach.

A gap opened between the two panellists on apportioning responsibility.  Sir David identified unregulated free market economics as the culprit; he noted that economists accept the system has caused climate change yet claim it hasn’t failed.  Bennett focused on the “sociology of science”, citing resistance to innovative ideas among senior academics and a need for economic, institutional and structural reform of the sciences.

However, it turned out they were not so far apart, and Sister Jayanti identified the common ground.  Underlying all is our consciousness, so subtle and mysterious that it is only now the subject of scientific study.  Previously, we did not have the tools to conduct the research.

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She pointed out that there has been a spiritual dimension to environmental activities since the 1980s, when she was involved in creating the UN Earth Charter.  Distinguishing between spirituality – which is primarily a matter of consciousness – and religion, which includes scriptures, rituals and traditions – Sister Jayanti stressed the central role of our consciousness in modulating how we treat Nature.

“It’s our vision, our consciousness, that determines everything we do in relationship with the world and people around us.”

This capacity is unique to humanity and for this reason we carry a special responsibility to understand and work with the laws of Nature, she added.

The ancient gods (devtas) were givers, putting Nature at the service of humanity.  If we see our inner being as spiritual, then we treat ourselves with respect and, by extension, Nature too.  “The perfect balance between self and Nature is one of respect and love; Nature has given, I love her and give back to her my respect.”

While Bennett described herself as “non-spiritual” she accepted this approach and noted humanity has both a responsibility and an opportunity to find solutions.  Citing ancient philosophies, Daoism and Buddhism, that regard mankind as part of Nature, Sir David said the gravity of the current situation requires a massive global response freed from the broken capitalist system.

Sister Jayanti said every human being has values; science and values cannot be kept totally apart: “My consciousness connected to my values should guide me in life.  We’ve forgotten about spirituality, said it has nothing to do with life, so we’ve forgotten about values.  Now, at this stage, we don’t have the same level of respect, humility, compassion, love anymore.”

Turning to the future, both Sir David and Natalie Bennett arrived – arguably - on the same page.  The former is Head of the new Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University, with a multi-disciplinary team of academics.

One area for research and action is re-freezing the Earth’s poles.  The Arctic Ocean is heating up 2.5 times faster than the rest of the planet and ice is also melting in Greenland.  Together, this may cause a rise of 7 metres in sea levels globally, putting 80% of the world’s major cities at risk, and endangering the lives of 160 million people in NE India and Bangladesh alone.

Expressing confidence that it can be done, he said it is no more complex than the moon-shot seen from the perspective of the 1960s.

However, Sir David supported an approach that is also spiritual: “At the same time… we have to learn to return to our level of consciousness, our awareness of each other and what we are – that weightless thing that is consciousness… In most of our competitive lives I think we lose sight of it.”

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Sister Jayanti agreed: A change in the way we think is essential at this moment, given the gravity of the crisis.  We need to express what is highest within ourselves, changing our relationship with each other back to a state of harmony, and also bringing our relationship with nature back to harmony.