The Dalai Lama Comes to Cambridge

It was an unusual scene, to say the least. Scientists and academics stood in line next to young Tibetan monks. Aging spiritual seekers mingled with ambitious young Cambridge undergraduates. And they all filed, one by one, through checkpoints watched by hawk-eyed Secret Service agents with crew cuts and discreet earpieces.

This unlikely group was gathered to see Nobel Peace Prize laureate and international human rights icon ,the fourteenth Dalai Lama, address a packed crowd at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium—all part of MIT’s Global Systems 2.0 conference, held on Monday, October 15. The event, which was sponsored by the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, featured His Holiness responding to presentations from environmental scientists, systems theorists, and management experts on the problems of “degraded environment, declining economies, and soaring consumerism.”

A mix-up with my press credentials kept me out of the morning session. After mainlining some caffeine, sending a few panicked emails, and getting two passes by a bomb-sniffing dog, the problems were cleared up and I was able to get into the session that afternoon.

The first presentation was by Jonathan Foley, a professor of ecology at the University of Minnesota who spoke on global food security and land use. Next was James Orbinski, a professor of public health at the University of Toronto and a former president of Doctors Without Borders, who gave a presentation on the human impact of climate change. MIT management professor Zeynep Ton then talked about the problem of bad jobs in the retail industry. Finally MIT systems theorist John Sterman discussed sustainable environmental and economic growth amid a rapidly increasing global population. The panel was moderated by M. Sanjayan, a conservation scientist at the University of Minnesota.

At times His Holiness’ ribald humor and infectious laughter were on display. For example, when asked how we can convince Western nations to change their eating habits so the planet can grow enough food for everyone, he guffawed and answered with a story about a driver who constantly snacked while chauffeuring His Holiness, despite the driver’s great size.

However, His Holiness also seemed uncharacteristically pensive. He spent most of the presentations listening attentively while looking down at the table in front of him, as if deeply affected. He rarely spoke, and he replied to direct questions only briefly, if at all. At one point he responded only by saying “I don’t know” and sighing deeply.

One can hardly blame him. These panelists are among the top experts in the world on the largest challenges currently facing humanity, and they were baffled: We know what to do, we have very little time to do it in, and unless we do it, the planet will become unlivable. “How can we build enough moral urgency to convince people and politicians to act?” they asked.

His Holiness did speak up forcefully after Zeynep Ton explained that a full-time retail employee in the United States still doesn’t earn enough to feed her family. “In a free country there are independent labor unions,” he said. “Why are they not working?”

When Ton replied that she was offering another solution to the problem of bad jobs that could be implemented by companies rather than by the workers themselves, he interrupted again. “Now I’ve learned something about America’s drawbacks. I thought this was a democratic country with rule of law, free press, free information, an independent judiciary, and independent labor unions.”

This comment cut through the event’s apolitical tone, but it also raised an important question. Why were some of the greatest minds, studying some of the greatest problems facing humanity today, looking to the Dalai Lama for moral and political authority in the first place?

His Holiness was born 77 years ago in a medieval, agrarian society and educated in theocratic monastic institutions. His leadership through the Chinese occupation and the Tibetan diaspora has been remarkable, to be sure. And he’s embraced science and modernity wholeheartedly, showing an extraordinary ability to transcend his upbringing. But expecting him to hold the keys for convincing greedy corporations, corrupt governments, and apathetic citizens to face up to the most pressing problems of our times seems naive.

Meanwhile, not a single local activist, organizer, clergy member, or community leader was invited to participate. Neither were any Western scholars of religion, philosophy, or ethics. One wonders why the panelists weren’t put into conversation with people working on the ground in affected communities, or at least with their colleagues in ethics and religion.

The truth is that many of the participants in Global System 2.0 divide their time between appointments at elite universities, well-paid positions at global NGOs, and lucrative consulting contracts for the very corporations and international institutions that have profited so handsomely from creating the very crises these scientists predict. Even the more earthbound among them rarely have occasion to speak about their work with religious leaders or ethicists, much less community organizers or anti-globalization activists.

In the end, Global System 2.0 was just another conference in a world of conferences—the World Economic Forum, the G8, the Aspen Ideas Conference, the TED talks (though not TEDx), the Clinton Global Initiative meetings—where the world’s intellectual, political, and business elites talk to one another endlessly while problems like income inequality, corruption, and climate change only get worse. They aren’t helping anyone but those who attend, and they probably never will. Despite all of his remarkable qualities, not even the Dalai Lama can change that.

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