SDG16: To connect physically, psychologically, and spiritually while leaving a minimum carbon footprint behind

To succeed in the transition framed within the UN Sustainable Development Goals, sustainability needs to deal with the uncertainty that emerges from one of the most challenging questions it eventually encounters: ‘What will humans do?‘ (Busch & Harris). No matter how good the governance or technological solutions being available, their success is eventually determined by human behavior.

The success of culture and institutions is intrinsically linked to their ability to create and manage physical, psychological, and spiritual links between people. Governance and technology are very good at providing physical and psychological connections. However, they are not so good at providing the spiritual one.

With the rising population and the increasing complexity of the interactions, societies seek better solutions to keep people following social norms and values. When they only resort to governance and technology to provide these solutions these often come back with increasing surveillance. As a result, we live in this Big Brother type of society that James Franco described so wittily.

Surveillance is efficient in making people follow the norms because they have to. But spirituality is effective in making people do it because they want to. Here lies the power of Voltaire’s remark “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Translated into management terms, efficiency means doing things right, while effectiveness means doing the right things.      

We all behave differently when we are being observed or monitored than we would otherwise behave being on our own. Differences vary from individual to individual and from culture to culture. In some cultures, individuals internalize social norms and values without requiring additional regulations, steering, or nudging, while in others individuals require constant reminders. Governance and technology procure efficient rational guidance however, they often ignore that without emotions, the rational faculty would be paralyzed because it would lack motivation; hence one would not know what to want, as George Lakoff would put it.

Perhaps the greatest strength of technological surveillance, as a means of social control, lies upon the generalized feeling of being watched even when we are not. This omnipresence is only comparable to the Divine one. However, it leads to paranoia and stress instead of devotion and hope. For the same reason, peace, justice, and strong institutions are better achieved through spirituality.

While facing climate change, ‘We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We’re going to do some of each.’ Karen O’Brien quotes John Holdren before introducing transformation as the fourth potential response to global environmental change. A valid option that is too long been ignored within research and policy circles.

Peace, justice, and strong institutions are a direct result of our ability to reach agreements and steer our efforts towards common goals. Over the course of human history, this ability was shaped by religious, military, and political powers that interchangeably used dominance and consent to control and steer the physical, psychological and spiritual connections among people. Today, this is no longer enough. In the midst of an enormous threat to our survival as species, any effort towards peace, justice, and strong institutions must include promoting lifestyles that leave the minimum carbon footprint behind. That requires the globalization of a profound individual inner transformation whose goal would be to reframe the disastrous lifestyles and worldviews that lead to overconsumption of natural resources and unsustainable emissions of greenhouse gases.  

Peace, justice, and strong institutions rely upon our collective ability for assuring one single condition: TRUST. It is the most precise catalyst of social climate and the prerogative for fomenting progress and growth. Throughout history, trust has been associated with loyalty. In the low complexity types of social order, with clear top-down hierarchies of power, loyalty could be managed, more or less, easily. Today, in the global world of multipolar interactions, power is multidirectional and disperse phenomenon[1]. This calls for new types of institutions where trust is achieved through transparency instead of loyalty. 

Peace, justice, and strong institutions are interwoven into our culture as a defining and shaping manifestation of human interaction with non-human nature. Spirituality is a powerful link that holds our cultures together, and without it, any physical or psychological ties between people fade and weaken in time. For that same reason, sustainability cannot ignore religion, particularly for its powerful influence on social values.

As Chris Yves had observed, many religions are broadly associated with self-transcendent values that lead to pro-environmental behaviors. However, the question remains whether the linear teachings, that are behind many of the dominant religions, are compatible with the systemic nature of the environmental changes and the inner transformation that is needed to reverse them.

Unless circularity replaces the often linear religious narrative and places humans back into the circle of life (instead of into the promise of the place of final rest while the rest of the Univers changes forms), we will keep depleting the natural resources. There will be no peace and justice. Only ‘strong’ institutions fighting each other, until there is no one left to fight.

So, let’s make Zuckerberg, Alexa, and Siri listen to billions of mindful people engaging in global transformative action that starts from within.  A new form of universal spirituality that ‘involves the recognition and integration of subjective and objective realities and multiple types of knowledge, which depends on insights from the social sciences, humanities and natural’ (Karen O’Brien). Let’s build strong institutions that help us connect physically, psychologically, and spiritually while leaving peace, justice, and a minimum carbon footprint behind.


[1] Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere (translation of Foucault 2004, by Jessop, 2007)

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