He spoke to the 2009 graduating class assembled on the lawns of Amrita’s Coimbatore campus, from the US, through a satellite link. Reproduced below, with his permission, is the complete text of his speech to the graduating students.
Good Morning and welcome to distinguished guests, faculty, 2009 graduates and their parents who are gathered for the 6th Annual Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham Convocation.
It is remarkable that within only 6 years Amrita has grown to 14,000 students at 5 campuses offering degrees in engineering, medicine, business, biotechnology, nanotechnology, education, arts and science.
I understand that in 2003 there were only 100 graduates and today there are 2800. I have come to believe that Amrita students have a special place in the world, as I will explain.
I am sure that every graduating class on the face of the earth has been told that they are entering a world different than the one their parents experienced. This has always been true but never more true than today.
The world may not be flat but it is small and the human population of 6.5 B is challenging the ability of this planet to support human life. There are already many areas in the world, where the basic necessities of life are deficient — fresh water, nutritious food, clean air, etc.
At the same time, science is reaching new insights daily and technology is translating those insights into powerful applications. There is no question in my mind, that we have the scientific and technical competence to create a world that sustains human life for you, your children and their children and can provide a meaningful and fulfilling life for each human being.
Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham has recognized these challenges in forming a Center For Environmental Studies. The Center promotes sustainable development and works to create awareness among people regarding equitable use of natural resources.
Sustaining the earth’s resources will require a new science. Science uncovers the relationships between things and when we get it right, allows predictions of the future and permits technological interventions that can change things in a favorable direction.
The science of sustainability is far more challenging than traditional science, for two reasons. First, these problems are complex and therefore not subject to precise solutions. Second, traditional science removes people from the system under study but with sustainability problems, we are part of the system.
People’s values, motives and behaviors interact with the physical world to influence outcomes. The problems we face, involve all the complexity of the planet and human society.
We are not alone in our need to solve complex problems that defy precise prediction. Indeed, this is the type of problem that all living systems encounter in trying to succeed in this world.
We might profitably look to biology for lessons in how to deal with complex problems where the information is insufficient and the environment is constantly changing.
I will share a simple example with you today — how bacterial cells find food. Bacteria have to find their way to a food source that is diffusing in three dimensions and in which, the environment is likely changing. Here is how they do it.
They are born with an algorithm for finding food. They move forward in a straight line for about 1 sec and then tumble in space eventually to set off in a random new direction. If they determine that the concentration of food is increasing as they proceed forward, they inhibit tumbling and go forward for a longer time.
This process allows them to keep trying new solutions and to reinforce the solution that works. It is very empirical. But here is something very surprising – even in the face of success, after an extended movement toward food, they tumble again and proceed in a random direction.
The end result is that the population of bacteria move in the right direction at about ten percent the rate of their maximum individual speed. I have to presume, after 3 billion years of natural selection, that they use the optimum strategy.
I think this should be our algorithm for dealing with complex problems: Know what you want. Start in a random direction. If you are sensing success continue for awhile. Even in the presence of success, try another direction. Keep at it. Be satisfied with slow progress because there is no perfect solution to complex problems.
There are two crucial steps in applying this algorithm. First, you must know what you want and, second, you must be able to measure if you are succeeding. What is the measure of success?
If you think about it, the ultimate goal of all sustainability efforts is human health. Here is a problem — we are not very good at measuring health. The current consensus view of progress in our world seems to be increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This thinking is what has led to our current environmental problems from overexploiting our nonrenewable natural resources.
I notice that Amrita has a school of traditional healing and they define health in the following way: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Notice it doesn’t say anything about increasing GDP.
One of my primary research interests is in finding better molecular and cellular measurements of health and disease and I like the idea of including mental health and social well-being in the definition.
The challenge for human society is that we must not only find the optimum scientific and technical solutions to our environmental problems but we must convince all the other humans to change their behavior and implement national and international policies that enforce good behavior. I think the policy part of the solution is going to be harder than the science and technology part.
If you are not a scientist, you may be thinking that you have no role to play in these global problems, other than being a responsible citizen. But that is not true. As an educated member of society you have a key role, a decisive role.
The policies set by governments and international agencies will ultimately determine how we deal with the problems facing the planet. These policies require the explicit consent of the electorate in democracies and the implicit consent of the people in autocracies. This consent is built from a shared understanding of the problems and their solutions.
Scientists can study the issues and make recommendations; government officials and their support staffs will study these recommendations and consider how to put them into laws; journalists will educate the public as to the issues and their nuances; educators will prepare the next generation to play their part; lawyers will adjudicate the laws; the vast majority of people working in corporations will need to assure that their companies are complying with responsible behavior. There will be no segment of society, no job that does not require understanding the perils we face and how to play a productive role in their solution.
We can take encouragement from the fact that we not only have robust science and technology but that, we, as a world, have been successful in implementing effective global policy. I refer to the Montreal Protocol.
In 1973, chemicals called Chlorinated Fluro Carbons were being produced in large amounts for refrigeration. Two scientists discovered that these molecules were stable enough to remain in the atmosphere until they were broken down by ultraviolet radiation, releasing chlorine atoms.
These chlorine atoms were expected to catalyze the breakdown of large amounts of ozone (O3) which protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet light. A decade later, scientists discovered an ozone “hole” in the Arctic, showing a decline in polar ozone, far larger than anyone had anticipated.
Just four years later, 20 nations, including most of the major CFC producers, established an agreement for controlling ozone-depleting substances. All countries in the United Nations have now ratified the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.
A recent (2006) scientific evaluation concluded that, “The Montreal Protocol is working. There is clear evidence of a decrease in the atmospheric burden of ozone-depleting substances and some early signs of stratospheric ozone recovery.”
Moreover, a way was found to put rich and poor nations on the same footing. The Multilateral Fund for the implementation of the Montreal Protocol provides funds to help developing countries phase out the use of ozone-depleting substances.
I find this example to be of great encouragement — we can do what is needed.
One would think that getting the science right, educating the public, and defining and implementing effective policy would solve the world’s problems. However, I think there is a bigger issue at stake. When it is necessary, as in the Montreal protocol, to eliminate something worldwide, everyone is necessarily treated the same.
But much of modern economic society is built on inequity. It is acceptable for some people to acquire an income thousands of times greater than others and through their consumption of the earth’s resources to use, on a per capita basis, thousands more of the earth’s unreplenishable resources.
Consider the difference between people who fly around in private jets, pumping huge amounts of CO2 into the air, compared with poor people who travel by foot or bicycle. The biggest challenge the world faces is a new morality where we all agree that equality is right. Without equality, there can be no sustainability.
We can see the importance of equality in the current debates over controlling CO2 production. The wealthy nations would like everyone to reduce their carbon usage proportionately. The poorer nations reply, “Wait a minute, you have had decades of profligate use of energy resources that allowed you to build a rich economy.”
“We deserve the same opportunity to burn energy as you have done, until we achieve an equal standard of living.” The rich nations are trying to impose a morality of maintaining the status quo, whereas the poor nations are arguing for a morality of equality.
I don’t believe we will ever achieve sustainability unless we embrace the ethic of equality. A powerful desire to be treated equally is built into the human psyche.
Science produces knowledge and technology implements that knowledge. Fortunately, knowledge is not a limited resource like water, food and oil. Amrita’s founder and Chancellor, Amma, has said, “Knowledge is the greatest gift we can give, for knowledge does not diminish, no matter how much it is shared. In fact, the more you give, the more it develops and expands.”
Knowledge is going to be important in finding solutions to our environmental problems but it is not enough. Neither science nor technology provides us with the values that are needed to make the right choices. I would like to use the term understanding to incorporate knowledge and values. Where does understanding come from?
Again, I found something relevant within Amrita. I quote: “When we study in a college, striving to become a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, this is education for a living. On the other hand, education for life requires understanding the essential principles of spirituality. This means gaining a deeper understanding of the world: our minds, our emotions and ourselves.”
For decades, I have been fascinated by two world-views. I will call them east and west, but these are historical references to their origins and not geographical distinctions of the present world.
Western science is objective. The individual observer must be objective and removed from the system. The system must be simplified to the greatest extent possible. Measurements must be quantitative, precise and reproducible. Western science has brought great understanding and technological progress.
Chemistry has taught us, for example, that plants are often nitrogen limited and chemical technology developed the Haber-Bosch method for creating abundant fertilizer that led to the green revolution and several decades of abundant food for the world’s population — no small accomplishment. But western science does not teach us about our minds, our emotions, and ourselves.
Eastern science has a tradition of inner reflection — a focus on the subjective experience of the individual. This is where our minds, our emotions and ourselves become clear. This is where we understand that the mind creates our objectives, our values and our choices.
The Dalai Lama has written:
“In essence, science and spirituality, though differing in their approaches, share the same end, which is the betterment of humanity. At its best, science is motivated by a quest for understanding to help lead us to greater flourishing and happiness.”
“Similarly, spirituality is a human journey into our internal resources, with the aim of understanding who we are in the deepest sense and of discovering how to live according to the highest possible idea.”
“In addition to the objective world of matter … there exists the subjective world of feelings, emotions, thoughts, and the values and spiritual aspirations based on them. If we treat this realm as though it had no role in our understanding of reality, we lose the richness of our own existence and our understanding cannot be comprehensive.”
Western science leads to knowledge. Eastern science leads to understanding.
So we arrive at the point, I promised at the outset. Why, you Amrita students are special. You have had both the western and the eastern traditions in your education.
Amrita’s mission statement says: “To provide value-based education and mould the character of the younger generation through a synthesis of science and spirituality, so that their earnest endeavor to achieve progress and prosperity in life is matched by an ardent desire to extend selfless service to the society, one complementing the other.”
The world needs your leadership. It needs your mastery of science and technology but more importantly, it needs your insights into human values. It is only through a deep appreciation of our obligation to one another that we will be able to achieve an equitable and sustainable world where all humans will live meaningful and fulfilling lives.
Thank you for letting me share this very special day with you.
October 7, 2009
Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Coimbatore