Thursday, March 20, 2014

Be the Students of Life and Teachers of Peace

I have been granted the immense honor to host on my blog the commencement speech addressed today by Dr. Óscar Arias Sánchez, Nobel Peace Laureate and two times Costa Rican president, to the alumni graduating from Soka University at Hachioji, Tokyo, Japan. Here are his inspiring words for a world that urgently needs more peace:

"Esteemed faculty, graduates, and families:
Friendship is one of the most beautiful and mysterious secrets in life. It takes people as different as can be, and ties them together with an unbreakable bond. It can unite us across divisions of age, gender, race, nationality and class. And it has united a young man who grew up among the seaweed farms of Tokyo, with a young man who grew up among the coffee fields of Costa Rica. I am honored to call Daisaku Ikeda my friend, and to have had several opportunities over the years to benefit from his support, inspiration and collaboration. In the universe of human accomplishment, art, philosophy and wisdom, the nation of Japan is one of the brightest galaxies in the firmament; Daisaku Ikeda is one of the brightest corners of that galaxy; and in the remarkable constellation that is his life work, Soka University, without any doubt, is one of the brightest stars. I am honored to have been invited to visit, once more, this extraordinary place, a beacon of peace and progress for the world.
At first glance, one would say that my friendship with your founder is not based on a shared nationality, or a shared language, or a shared job. But in a way, it is based on all those things. Our friendship is based on the shared job of making the world a more peaceful place. It is based on the shared language of peace. It is based on the shared nationality that belongs to all those of us who recognize that borders are only lines sketched by humans on the world map; who place our common identity as humans before all others; and who call ourselves citizens of the world.
            This is a job, and a language, and a nationality that all of you join today when you receive your degree. The mission of this institution is one I wish that more educators would take on as their own mission. It is a goal that echoes a belief I have expressed for many years at schools and universities all over the world: the belief that if we are to create a more peaceful world, that process must begin in our classrooms and lecture halls.
            The novel “Love and Pedagogy,” by Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno, tells the story of a father obsessed with educating a genius. This tragic work makes no attempt to hide its message. It shows us what happens when education is a simple compendium of facts without values, ideas without emotions. When we form scholars, but not wise men. When we form experts, but not human beings.
Dr. Ikeda has said that “a great Human Revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a society and further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”  Education must create just this kind of human revolution, or it is not worth the effort. It must be the greatest agent of change in the destiny of humankind, or it has failed in its mission. Education is not an end in itself – it is a path. It is a way to overcome a kind of eternal adolescence that has struggled for millennia to reach maturity. It is not enough to say, “We educate,” or “We have been educated.” We must ask, “To what end?” We must ask what kind of society we are building through our arts and sciences.
When we look at today’s leading universities and colleges, it seems obvious that we are educating in order to create more prosperous societies. The twentieth century was, without a doubt, the most prolific multiplier of wealth in history. Hundreds of millions of people emerged from poverty in the last few decades. For the first time in memory, more than half of the world population belongs to the middle class. A planet that is growing at an exponential rate has managed, with surprising ingenuity, the lack of resources that this growth implies. Technology has connected every corner of the world. In material terms, we have never been better off. But we can see that this material development, while essential to human development, is not the only thing we need.
That same twentieth century, generator of fortunes and opportunities, was also the birthplace of unprecedented barbarity. Never before has humankind killed on such a scale. Never before has hate poisoned our words to such a degree. Never before has death reigned with such impunity over all races. Never before have so many tears been shed because of man-made tragedies. Never before have so many minds, so many ideas, been wasted in the name of torture and violence.
What was the role of education in all of this? How did the academy contribute to the decline of the human spirit? Were illiterates responsible for the worst genocide in history? Was ignorance or lack of access to the texts and thoughts of wise men to blame for the civil wars in which millions of brothers killed each other? Did we have too few teachers? Or could it be that we had too many soldiers?
The answer is that education was not enough. The world forgot to add an essential course to the curriculum that it teaches its young. The world forgot to add a course that brings heart to our thoughts, and soul to our studies. That course is one that I like to think of as “Peace and Pedagogy.”And it is one that is found on the curriculum of Soka University.
Peace and Pedagogy means education for peace, and with peace. There is no point in forming learned men and women who do not understand the value of a life. There is no point in forming professors for whom war is justified. There is no point in graduating students who do not care if dozens of people die every day in the most cruel and absurd violation of human rights: armed conflict. No student, of any discipline, in any country, should be unaware of the cries of the victims of Iraq and Afghanistan, of Colombia and Sudan, of Somalia and Myanmar. No student, of any discipline, in any country, should be unaware of the fact that most casualties in wars today consist of innocent civilians, and not soldiers who have chosen to fight. No student, of any discipline, in any country, should be unaware that there are 17,000 nuclear warheads watching over us as we sleep, waiting for any moment of insanity or carelessness to strike. No student, of any discipline, in any country, should be unaware that the world spent 1.75 trillion dollars on weapons and war in 2012 alone, at a time when tiny fractions of that sum could eliminate preventable diseases, hunger, and illiteracy from the face of the earth. No student, of any discipline, in any country, should be unaware that 640 million small arms and light weapons flow uncontrolled across borders every day while we await the ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty that was approved last year by the United Nations.
One does not need to subscribe to any particular ideology to understand that this is absurd, and that it is entirely within our power as humans to change our course. If our universities cannot teach this, if our elementary and secondary schools fail to transmit this basic concern for human rights, then education fails as an instrument of peace. It fails as a way to heal the pain of humanity.
Educating for peace and with peace means recognizing all of this. It also means building in our classrooms the world we seek to see in the street. So often, our schools are home to a competitive, even violent environment. Students are allowed to carry out a war of words that is the prologue to a war of weapons. They are taught patriotic values that border on xenophobia. They are brought up in a world divided by borders and nationalities, where success is measured in triumphant military campaigns. Nowhere is this more clear than in my own region, Latin America, where students are better able to narrate the glories of soldiers than the accomplishments of those who have struggled for world peace. If we make peace an extracurricular subject, it becomes an extracurricular attitude. It becomes the strange whim of bohemians and dreamers, not the mission of academics and doctors.
This is the challenge that each of you will face when you leave this unique institution, where Peace and Pedagogy really is a part of the curriculum. You will face being written off as unrealistic, naïve, or out of touch with reality. I have said that Soka University is a bright star in the human firmament. It follows that when you leave here, you will, at least sometimes, go from light into darkness. You will go from the fellowship of the student, to the loneliness of the peacemaker in a world that still prizes war. If everyone on the globe were represented by 100 people, only seven of those people would possess a university education – and of those seven, not even one would possess a degree like yours. Not even one would possess a degree that represents not only a grasp of facts and figures, not only mastery of data and disciplines, but also a profound commitment to nonviolence, to negotiation, to changing the misplaced priorities and twisted paradigms that have for too long cast a shadow over human history.
But that is no reason to fear. This is the quest for which your studies have prepared you. I urge you not to falter. I urge you not to fail. I urge you to look back, every day of your lives, to the determination you feel at this moment, and to draw from it the strength you need.
My friends:
It is in the spirit of friendship that I have come here today. The spirit of the friendship between our countries; the spirit of the friendship I share with your founder; and the spirit of the friendship that unites all those who seek peace. That is the friendship that will sustain you through the challenges ahead. Never forget the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history. Nonviolence of the strong is any day stronger than that of the bravest soldier fully armed or a whole host.”
            The determined spirits I see before me have been students in these hallowed halls. Now that you are moving into the world beyond, you must be more than that. You must be professors. You must prepare yourselves to bring these lessons of peace and pedagogy to a greater audience. When you pass through these doors, become students of life, and teachers of peace – to continue learning how to heal our planet, as you share the lessons you have learned here with the world.

            Thank you very much."
Óscar Arias Sánchez
Former President of Costa Rica
Nobel Peace Laureate 1987
Commencement Address
Soka University, Japan
Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Imagination moves mountains

Albert Einstein is quoted as having said that “imagination is more important than knowledge”, perhaps based on the fact that, as a kindergarten toddler, he was taught how to imagine before he was even taught how to read or write or make the simplest mathematical computations. We all know what happened next: he imagined mathematical formulations about theories related to the origin and dynamics of the universe, some of which have not yet been disproven, many decades after he imagined them. And I stress the fact that he imagined them because he never traveled at the speed of light to have even the slightest empirical proof of what he was suggesting.

Since humans settled their predominant nomadic lifestyle some 10,000 years ago when they managed to domesticate crops and developed what we know today as agriculture, we have developed a sense of ethnocentrism, giving great importance to the location of our community and believing there is not much more beyond our surroundings and definitely not better than what “we” have “here”.

Even today, the Chinese name of China is “zhong guo”, which translates into “middle kingdom” or the central kingdom. It could be claimed that it makes historical sense given the times when the centuries-long battles of the kingdoms over what today is Chinese territory came to an end when all kingdoms where consolidated into one and had their political center at “Go Gong”, what we know today as the Forbidden City.

But the truth is that many Chinese people, mainly those that have never traveled abroad –the immensely vast majority of them- believe nobody has it better than them in terms of quality of life, civil and political rights and freedoms, environmental standards. In fact, we all behave like this, in a way, believing that what “we” have “here” is better than others elsewhere.

The times we live in today, where we have sufficient information about material limits of the natural environment, about the socioeconomic services provided by ecosystems worldwide and about the essential constraints that affect the subsistence of life on Earth within this century, make it mandatory that we focus on the dynamics of a conflict so severe and so widespread as climate change, in order to transform unsustainable tendencies and recover viability of human civilization on the planet.

Perhaps it is important to restate the obvious: this is the only planet in the universe where there is scientific proof of the existence of life, and humans are the only species with such awareness. This puts us atop the hierarchy of intelligent species and the only one willing and able to actually change the course of actions that are conducive to collapse of human civilization as we know it, and also to the extinction of thousands of species that, simply but sadly, exist no longer and have disappeared within this generation.

But as David Suzuki exclaimed at a conference at United Nations University in Tokyo on December of 2012, “what intelligent species pours every year billions of metric tons of a highly toxic chemical into the very air it breathes!”

Einstein also said “we cannot solve problems thinking in the same way we did when we fell into them.” Therefore, there is no choice but to imagine a new way forward and shift into paradigms of collective action that are not yet here. This includes, but is not limited to, multilateral institutions, modern diplomacy as we have come to understand it in the last 300 years, the representative political systems that have been mainstream in most states during most of the last 100 years at least, and perhaps even the way in which we create laws, public policies, economic incentives, and even the territorial limits we have self-imposed onto us humans. Needless to say, we are the only species that has artificially created limits to deter large migrations. This could be detrimental in the long run in our quest for solutions to climate change.

Upon reimagining human civilization, a quest for an identity that entails a feeling of belonging to the planet itself lies at the foundation of an urgent reconstruction. That is, a sense of wellbeing that includes not only all human beings but also all forms of life; a special sensitivity for all forms of life as a proof that we are still bioliterate; a vision for the future in which the elements that sustain life on Earth are enriched and not degraded any further.

So, being a global citizen means it does not really matter where one is born or what passport one carries, where one resides or what work one does. The main concept is being aware that, whatever one does, there is a consequence, an impact, an output that affects the entire global environmental ecosystem. This is true, whether our multilateral organizations are aware of it or not.

Throughout his experiments with truth, Gandhi not only transformed himself but also transformed millions of people even beyond his own life. The impact of his life’s quest can be described in political terms, even though his intentions and his methods were anything but political. He was only searching for the truth and verifying it empirically over and over again.

The country I represent has a unique track record in its institutionalized decision-making based on ethical principles that transcend even the local culture that defines it. In the XIX century, coffee growers imposed taxes on themselves in order to create government funds to invest in public infrastructure. In that same century, a military general who presided the country abolished the death penalty and, later on, a peculiar Education Minister pushed for a reform that made education public, obligatory, free and sponsored by the State.

During the first half of the XX century, universal healthcare was institutionalized and the military army was abolished. Environmental conservation started around mid- XX century and it included heavily investing public funds in renewable energies. Today, Costa Rica has legally reserved up to a third of its territory as conservation areas; it generates up to 95% of electricity from renewable sources; it created the payment for environmental services, a policy innovation that is considered today as an optimal mechanism to regenerate biocapacity and recreate natural capital; it is a pioneer in ecological tourism; and it hosts ten times more biodiversity per square kilometer than any other country.

All of this has been the result of an understanding that the Costa Rican nation is part of a larger entity, both of human beings and of other forms of life. This makes Costa Ricans aware of their global citizenship, conscious that we might not necessarily have it better than others elsewhere, but content with our current path of development. So proves the three years in a row topping the Happy Planet Index.

To end on a future note, since 2007 Costa Rica launched the Peace with Nature initiative, an aspiration to become the first carbon-neutral country, which is no easy task, but an audacious and doable challenge. Although there has been criticism about the feasibility to reach the goal by the expected date of 2021, there has been widespread consensus to attempt it on behalf of public and private institutions, as well as academia and other civil society organizations. Most interestingly, there is no law or public policy behind this initiative. It was simply a presidential call for action and the public responded affirmatively. This is ethics. And it moves mountains.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Cambio climático: análisis de un conflicto

La transformación de conflictos es una rama de las ciencias sociales que estudia la dinámica de los conflictos. Un conflicto es una incompatibilidad de objetivos, o sea, cuando dos o más personas tienen metas que son inalcanzables simultáneamente. Su estudio considera el análisis de causas y consecuencias, los pronósticos futuros y las propuestas para dirimir las contenciones.

El cambio climático es el nombre que se le da a una serie de alteraciones climatológicas y ambientales cuya causa principal es el quehacer humano en el planeta. Constituye un conflicto porque no es posible seguir consumiendo recursos naturales a un ritmo más acelerado de lo que el planeta mismo puede regenerar naturalmente, y cuyo residuo es un nivel de contaminación de aire, agua, tierra fértil y ecosistemas que reduce la capacidad del planeta de sostener la vida. Nosotros mismos somos los causantes del problema pero no somos sus únicas víctimas, pues afecta a todas las formas de vida.

Existen tres causas primordiales del efecto humano en el cambio climático, a saber: a) la deforestación de bosques, que libera grandes cantidades de dióxido de carbono a la atmósfera; b) la industria de la carne de res, que debe mantener mil millones de cabezas de ganado vacuno (vacas, toros, bueyes, búfalos, yaks); y c) el transporte vehicular, que incluye transporte público y privado de personas y transporte de mercancías comerciales tales como alimentos, combustibles fósiles, entre otros.

Uno de los elementos fundamentales de un conflicto es el paso del tiempo. O sea, qué sucederá en el futuro si se mantienen las causas que lo generan, si continúan agravándose, o si, por el contrario, se reducen significativamente. Contamos con un buen ejemplo de un conflicto de carácter global y ambiental que fue transformado exitosamente. Hace 30 años se identificó un gran agujero en la capa de ozono que filtra buena parte de los rayos ultravioleta que provienen del sol. Se llegó a un acuerdo mundial para reducir el uso de clorofluorocarbonos (CFCs), que eran el principal causante del conflicto, y se detuvo eficazmente la agravación del problema.

Según el impacto negativo que hemos tenido en los ecosistemas, los pronósticos indican que para mediados de este siglo las condiciones de vida en la Tierra serán muy inferiores a la actualidad. Muchos estaremos retirados para entonces, pero es probable que nuestros hijos y nietos estén en su edad más próspera y deban vivir y sufrir esa realidad futura que estamos provocando hoy.

Existe un elemento agravante respecto al cambio climático, y es la reducida cantidad de personas que conocen del problema. La inmensa mayoría de la población desconoce siquiera que exista. No nos referimos a quienes lo niegan o prefieren no creer que sea un problema o que sea tan grave, sino a miles de millones de personas a quienes no les ha llegado la noticia de semejante conflicto. En eso han fallado dramáticamente las autoridades públicas del mundo, ya que, si bien buena parte de las soluciones deberían provenir de ese sector, es mucho lo que se podría hacer desde la esfera privada a nivel individual, local y regional.

Dentro de las transformaciones urgentes, importantes y accesibles están la sustitución de fuentes fósiles de energía por fuentes renovables; cambios culturales respecto al uso del transporte, al consumo de bienes que provocan deforestación o que provienen de lejanas distancias; y la comunicación efectiva del problema, de manera que entre todos podamos hacerle frente lo antes posible.

Paz es la capacidad de transformar conflictos de manera creativa y armoniosa. Eso es lo que queremos.