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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Planetary Citizenship: A Book Review

Planetary Citizenship: Your Values, Beliefs and Actions Can Shape A Sustainable World by Hazel Henderson and Daisaku Ikeda, Middleway Press, Santa Monica, CA.

Planetary Citizenship is an extended dialogue between two highly gifted and caring individuals of our time. Hazel Henderson, an American of British ancestry, is well-known evolutionary economist whose extraordinary zeal for ensuring clean air for her young daughter once led to the landmark legislation known as the Clean Air Act. Her fight did not end there; it was just the beginning. Dubbed as the most dangerous woman in the US by the polluters, she successfully challenged the use of economics to advocate narrow corporate and other special interests. She continues to remind us that economics is a profession and not a science. Conventional economists will always treat social and environmental costs as “externalities” unless we take steps to break the stranglehold of economics on public policy. Her mother taught her to “love and learn” —a lesson that was reinforced by other role models in her life, including people like Rachel Carlson, Barry Commoner, Norman Cousins, and legendary Dr. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful.

Daisaku Ikeda, born in Japan, comes from a different cultural milieu. As a young man he experienced the horrors of war in which many of his close relatives were killed. With the blessings of his mentor, Josei Toda, he has devoted all his life to the cause of peace – both as an individual and as the president of Soka Gokkai International (SGI), an organization that uses Buddhist spiritual tradition and values to promote peace, culture, and education. It is important to note that Daisaku Ikeda does not treat peace merely as an absence of war; it is a condition where the dignity and fundamental rights of all people are respected. This form of peace can legitimately arise only from within the individual self and that explains the use of Buddhist doctrine as a way of transforming individual psyche.

Both the authors show strong commitment to Earth Charter – a charter created by hundreds of people working together across national boundaries, outside the purview of sovereign governments. It offers a strong and imaginative vision of the 21st century as the century of peace and environmental sustainability.

The Idea of Planetary Citizenship

Who is a planetary citizen? We probably all are because we share one planet. This was the first citizenship we had when our ancestors fought the elements in order to survive and to find food and shelter wherever available. There were no regional or national boundaries then. Our space age explorations during the last 50 years have again reminded us that the Earth seen from the space is one big organic whole – vibrating with life where light and darkness do their daily dance in wide-open spaces, unhindered by humanly drawn boundary lines. Some human innovations such as information technology (CNN, internet, et al) have also remarkably brought us together as one people. There was a stark reminder of this on September 11, 2001 when many of us sitting in the World Bank, located a few blocks away from the White House and the Pentagon, first got the news of the terrorist attacks from our colleagues 10,000 miles away in India country office.

Daisaku Ikeda certainly adds a rich spiritual dimension to the concept of planetary citizenship by emphasizing the need for peace that joins us in a common endeavor because war causes immense suffering to ordinary people. A shared planetary citizenship honors the sanctity of life. He reminds us, “People are sacred because they have the spark of life.”

But how can we have a common citizenship when one half of the world is bent upon destroying the other half? It is not only the terrorists who believe in killing innocent civilians; there are number of local and regional conflicts going on at any time and smaller wars that are being fought without making headlines in the evening news. Daisaku Ikeda’s answer to end these conflicts is to use dialogue as a tool; he has been involved in 1,500 such dialogues globally. Dialogue, he believes, helps us by opening ourselves to others’ viewpoints. Dialogue is a way of building bridges that can lead to a lasting peace. Hazel Henderson, on the other hand, exemplifies courage for organizing group action and civic activism, based on a strong philosophy, for causes that concern all humanity (human rights, sustainability, democracy). Group action could be used as an effective tool for enhancing the quality of planetary citizenship.

Institutional Implications

If the concept of planetary citizenship has to become a reality, we need new forms of global representation. While both the authors are strong supporters of the UN system and other existing global institutions, they see the need for institutional reform (for example, dropping of veto system in the Security Council) and the enforcement of new measures of human development on the lines of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, and Hazel Henderson’s path breaking work in creating Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators. This is a new approach for compiling comprehensive statistics of national wellbeing that go beyond traditional macroeconomic indicators. The most interesting among the 12 indicators is the one called “re-creation” – meaning how institutional investments enhance the quality of individual characteristics (education, socialization, age and gender, time and money) and what kind of choices individuals make.

Institutional reform agenda should go hand in hand with finding new meanings for terms like “globalization.” The current emphasis on profit-first only encourages selfish pursuit of progress that causes overall suffering and environmental problems. People everywhere need to recognize their connections with other beings. We need truly cross-disciplinary approaches for decision making instead of blindly relying on economics as a way of formulating public policy. We have to think globally, but act locally. We need to inculcate the appreciation of the Earth as the Great Mother, a lesson that ancient humans taught us.

Dangers Ahead

The goal of planetary citizenship is near as well as far. First and foremost, as Hazel Henderson points out, the “hare” of technological innovation has overrun the “tortoise” of social innovation. Stone-age thinking now has access to internet tools for making more effective bombs. We are globalizing bad economics instead of globalizing ethics – the corporate codes of conduct, agreements and treaties to protect human rights, to raise workplace standards and to conserve environment. We are failing to see poverty, ignorance, disease and violence as the “real axis of evil.” Only bold political thinking and action can save the world from its dependence on oil. Unless incentives for nuclear and oil industries end, investments in hydrogen fuel cells will not start on a large scale. Inequality of women – half the citizens of this planet -- must end. As a World Bank report showed a few years ago, there is less corruption in nations where there is advanced participation by women. Hazel Henderson gives sober warning when she says: “The important thing is to have a reflective mirror in which to reexamine society. Human history shows that the United States is only a temporary superpower and imperial overreach has always ended in collapse.”

Book Review by Surinder Deol previously published in KOSMOS magazine (Winter 2004)


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