How Altruism Can Save the Planet - Part 2
In July, Matthieu Ricard and Mark Tercek, president and CEO of Nature Conservancy and author of “Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature,” engaged in a question and answer dialogue about the benefits of altruism and environmental concerns.
Tercek: I admire the emphasis on no-nonsense science in your book, Altruism
. You state that the science is clear – we can train our minds to be kinder and more compassionate. Please say more.
Ricard: There has long been an assumption in psychology, economics and evolution that man is essentially selfish. But during the last 30 years, new scientific insights have shown that genuine altruism does exist and can be extended beyond our kin to our fellow human beings and other species.
Collaboration between neuroscientists and contemplatives has shown that altruism and compassion are skills that can be cultivated with training. Research has shown without ambiguity that training in altruism and compassion brings about functional and structural changes in your brain and can even change the expression of your genes. These studies have also allowed distinguishing the differences between empathy (the faculty to resonate with others’ feelings), altruism (the wish that others may be happy) and compassion (the wish that they might be free from suffering).
Even if competition is generally more visible and more spectacular than cooperation, recent work has shown that evolution must involve cooperation in order to create higher levels of organization. It seems that today we need to move to the next level of cooperation to face the many challenges of our times.
Tercek: I believe environmentalists can accomplish more by fighting and arguing less and by putting more emphasis on finding common ground and pursuing collaboration and cooperation – even with some of the parties considered the "bad guys." But critics think this is naive. What do you think?
Ricard: It is much better to win over people by bringing the best of themselves to the surface. This usually can be achieved by meeting them in person whenever possible. Remember what Nelson Mandela said, reflecting on what kind of an attitude can serve an environmental or political cause,:
“I always knew that deep down in every human heart there is mercy and generosity. … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. … Goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”
These are not the words of a daydreaming utopian but of someone who overcame the institutionalized selfishness of people who at first sight did not seem inclined to practice care and compassion.
Tercek: How do we best scale up and accelerate our efforts to protect nature? Do you think the mind-training practices you champion can become widespread enough to really change the world?
Ricard: Yes, bringing to their optimal level our capacities to care for others, including other species and future generations, is something that anyone can do. It always surprises me that no one questions the need for devoting time and effort to learning how to read and write, playing a musical instrument, training in any sport or acquiring professional skills. Why then should we assume that basic human qualities such as benevolence, attention and emotional balance would be fully developed right from the beginning without us having to do anything about it?
So the point is not necessarily to propagate meditation as such but to make people realize that whatever they do in life, they would benefit immensely from fully developing their most constructive and wholesome human qualities.
Then, once the number of people who have cultivated these altruistic and cooperative skills has reached a critical mass, there can be a tipping point in the dominant culture. The interaction between individual change and societal change is at the heart of the evolution of culture.
Tercek: How should we engage with good people who are uncomfortable with meditation and other spiritual practices?
Ricard: It is not necessary to use words like meditation and spirituality, which might put off a number of people who could benefit from such practices. It is more suitable and accurate to speak of mind training and of cultivating basic human qualities. This can be done with the help of a spiritual path, but it can also be done in a secular way. Who could be against increasing our compassion and our caring mindfulness?
Tercek: You always seem to be happy, in a good mood and ready to enjoy a laugh. What's your secret?
Ricard: No secret. It’s very simple: altruism and compassion. I have a long way to go to bring them to their optimal level, but I sincerely try to become a better human being day after day, year after year. This gives me joy and a sense of fulfillment. My motto might be, “Transform yourself to transform the world or to better serve others.”