His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, respected spiritual leader and environmentalist of the Himalayan region, inaugurated COP24 by criticising materialism and reinforcing our duties to the coming generations.
His Holiness gave his speech at the Action Hub - the centre prized by the conference to showcase initiatives taken around the world to halt climate change in line with the Paris Agreement guidelines. He focussed on our global society’s misdirected sense of progress and success, which he highlighted needed to be reengineered.
Under capitalism, people are taught from birth that they should seek happiness and a wellbeing in material accumulation. In such a world, environmental destruction is unsurprising.
Built on a foundation of spiraling accumulation for accumulation’s sake, the continuous pursuit of profit on a planet of limited resources will never satisfy us. In fact, that's the point: “We say it is like drinking salt water. It will only make you thirstier. It is an endless pursuit until death.”
The speech emphasised that to truly halt climate change we need to change where we look for happiness. This will cut our economic structure at its root, prioritising our relationships with each other and valorising our connection to nature.
A move away from what we want, to what we need; from a sole focus on the individual, towards the greater good. His Holiness centered that such a redirection of our society that is required existentially for our species is to be realised in the moral education we give to children since infancy, shaping their behaviors and lifestyle.
The ecological destruction of our planet’s rich biodiversity for the latest gadget, shiniest jewelry, biggest house etc. could be curbed by changes in the mindset of everyone from parents to policy leaders.
However, such a reassessment will be difficult for those deeply embedded in our unequal economic structure.
Under the pressure of debt, unemployment, rising living costs and family dependency, the struggle to survive ties our immediate loyalty to what puts food on the table for our children today, even at the expense of our grandchildren.
According to the Gyalwang Drukpa, this mentality is understandable - but it also centres unduly on the individual, flouts responsibility and deprives empathy.
Many indigenous spiritual leaders - such as the Iroquois, who emphasise each generation's obligation to take care of the land for the next 7 generations - take a similarly long view.
Although we might focus on our immediate desires, each part of the world’s ecosystem is deeply reliant on and connected the others. This is especially so in the Gyalwang Drukpa's home, the Himalayas, which has suffered increasingly dangerous floods created and exacerbated by unsustainable practices in the West.
Ringing all the alarm bells possible, His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa’s speech is part of a growing and outspoken spiritual sector that is realising the urgency of our obligation to preserve life - evident in the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, brought forth at the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples in April.
This burgeoning group argues that saving ourselves requires a reformation of our morals, and our relationships with nature and with one another, if we are to truly get a chance of implementing the Paris Agreement guidelines.
Temo Dias is a journalist and researcher in East Asian political affairs, environmental issues and governmental corruption.