Selfishness, Greed, and Apathy

Spiritual Impoverishment at the Root of Ecological Sustainability
  • Satinder DhimanEmail author
Living reference work entry


This introductory chapter explores the broad moral and spiritual basis of sustainability. It garners the view that the starting point for safeguarding the health of our planet is assuming full responsibility of our total footprint on the planet and purging our mind of the toxic emotions. It proposes that we need to recognize and address the spiritual decadence at the root of environmental degradation. An impartial survey of the contemporary ecological landscape reveals that the real global environmental problems are not biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, or climate change. The real environmental problems are selfishness, greed, violence, apathy, and lack of awareness which are playing havoc with the integrity of our planet. Mental pollution is increasingly becoming the greatest threat to our planet. And to address these problems root branch and all, we need a systemic spiritual and cultural transformation. This chapter suggests that sustainability is not possible without a deep change of values and commitment to a sustainable lifestyle at the “being” level. It cannot be achieved simply as an expression of economic functionality or legislative contrivance.

Drawing upon the findings of two recent graduate sustainability seminars by way of cases in point, the chapter also presents strategies geared toward cultivating essential sustainability awareness. These findings have far-reaching implications for developing a sustainability mindset and also indicate the great potential for sustainability studies in management education. The chapter specially focuses on the virtue of nonviolence as framework to achieve sustainable living. Excessive desire, anger, and greed are subtle forms of violence against oneself, others, and the planet. This chapter presents a philosophy of oneness of all life (regarding the world as an extended family) – as enunciated in the Hindu Vedas and the Bhagavad Gītā – as a holistic solution to address excessive desire, anger, and greed that rob our peace of mind and in turn disturb the peace of the planet.


Corporate greed Environmental degradation Overconsumption Ecological sustainability Moral and spiritual impoverishment Compassion Nonviolence 


Western consumer culture is creating a psycho-spiritual crisis that leaves us disoriented and bereft of purpose. How can we treat our sick culture and make ourselves well? 1

This chapter proposes that we need to recognize and address the moral and spiritual decadence at the root of environmental degradation . An impartial survey of the contemporary ecological landscape reveals that the real global environmental problems are not biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, or climate change. The real environmental problems are selfishness , greed, violence, apath y, and lack of awareness that are playing havoc with the sanctity of our planet. When the spiritual dimension of our being is underdeveloped, we turn into pleasure-seeking automatons, plundering the planet in a mindless race called progress. This makes us self-centered and greedy for material wealth which leads to social disharmony and overexploitation of natural resources, ignoring a vital fact that unlimited growth on a finite planet cannot be possible. It also creates disempowering social disparities and disenfranchises the majority, further compromising the peace and sanctity of the planet.

How have we come to be in an adversarial relationship with Mother Nature? How can we address the disempowering stance of selfishness, greed, violence, and apathy? What good is monetary wealth when the health of the planet is compromised? How can we overcome this syndrome of “more-ism ” – wanting to have more and more of more and more in more and more ways?

We believe that to address these questions root branch and all, we need a complete spiritual and cultural transformation . We believe that it is more gratifying to enjoy the satisfaction of a contented mind than to constantly want more – a more expensive car, name-brand clothes, or a luxurious house. We believe that unless people’s moral and spiritual qualities are nurtured and developed, the best of sustainability efforts will not work. Our political and economic thinking needs to be attuned to spirituality rather than materialism, for no economics is any good that does not make sense in terms of morality. We need to refuse to treat economics and politics as if people do not matter. After all, we are “Homo moralis” and not “Homo economicus.” We believe that the way to achieve sustainable, harmonious living in all spheres is through lived morality and spirituality at the personal level.

When we live a life of greater self-awareness, we tend to consume less and, more so, less mindlessly. Accordingly, the chapter relies on the spiritual power of individuals to heal themselves and the environment. Its central thesis is that in order for sustainability to be sustainable, it must help us transition from being a consumer to becoming a contributor. “I” is the beginning of “illness,” while “we” is the beginning of “wellness.” When we change our orientation from “I” to “we,” we transition from illness to wellness – individually and collectively.

This chapter makes a case for transforming what the Buddhist call the three poisons of mind – delusion, greed, and hatred. Greed is born of selfishness and misplaced desire and results in hankering for happiness outside of ourselves. Hatred is born of unaddressed anger and our aversion toward unpleasant people and situations. Delusion refers to metaphysical ignorance, our mistaken notions of reality as discreet separate entities. We can counterbalance delusion by wisdom, greed by generosity, hatred by forgiveness, and violence by compassion. Above all, we can resolve these negative emotions through an understanding of oneness of all life.

The journey of world transformation starts at the individual level. It begins with the understanding that all life is essentially one. This is where spiritual outlook becomes paramount. It confers upon us the wisdom to see all existence as the expression of our very own self and help us to spontaneously act for the well-being of all beings. Selfless love and compassion naturally flow out of the understanding of unity and oneness of all life. The teachings of Vedānta and Buddhist psychology can go a long way to help us understand the essential oneness and interconnectedness of all life. When we truly realize the same essential Truth in everyone and everything, we begin to have correct valuation of things. This leads to a profound change not just in our thinking but in our being and behavior as well. We start seeing the terror of the situation more vividly – at our cellular level.

With this understanding comes the liberating realization that “there is no sustainability without … spirituality.”2 We need to place the responsibility of developing a high moral sense on the individual and on the power of individuals to heal the society. Only “an individual life rooted in the continuous harmony with life as a whole”3 – a life based on wisdom, selfless service, and contribution – is a life worth living. The chapter builds on the premise that the best service we can offer to the universe in the realm of engaged sustainability is to purge our own mind of the toxic emotions of greed , anger, and self-centeredness. It specially focuses on the virtue of nonviolence as framework to achieve sustainable living. Excessive desire, anger, and greed are subtle forms of violence against oneself, others, and the planet.

As a case in point, the chapter also draws upon the findings distilled from teaching two recent graduate-level seminars on sustainable living which underscored the message that true sustainability is always “engaged” since it brings about a transformation about how we live our life, moment to moment. These findings have far-reaching implications for developing a sustainability mindset and also indicate the great potential for sustainability studies in business education.

Defining Sustainability

Definitions of sustainability abound. The most frequently quoted definition is from Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report , published in 1987 by the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”4 There has been a growing realization in national governments and multifaceted institutions that it is impossible to separate economic development issues from environment issues. For example, poverty is the major cause as well as effect of global environmental problems. It is therefore futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequality.5

In simple terms, sustainability means utilizing natural resources in a manner that we do not end up, during the process, destroying the set up. In its most practical aspect, sustainability is about understanding the interconnections among environment, society, and economy. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) , “Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”6

Harmlessness: Help Ever, Hurt Never

The chapter specially focuses on the virtue of nonviolence as framework to achieve sustainable living. If there is one inhumane cause that cuts across most human issues in depth and scale, it is perhaps violence. If there is one value that holds the keys to most problems that currently plague humanity, it is perhaps compassion. The virtue of compassion is the direct expression of the value of nonviolence.

Nonviolence is the most universally cherished value. It has been called the highest religion and the supreme good ( Open image in new window ). It is the absolute form of religious austerity and love toward all human beings. Noninjury is the therefore first and last universal value that can serve as sure-footed guide to our conduct. All other values depend upon it. Non-stealing is a value because stealing causes a mental hurt to the person whose things are stolen. Similarly, speaking truth and keeping a promise are values because lying and breaking a promise cause hurt to the person who is lied to. This is the reason nonviolence is called the cardinal value on which all other values depend. It fosters kindness, love, compassion, and all other values. This is also the first step on the spiritual ladder – making sure that our actions (mental, verbal, and physical) do not cause any harm to any being in any shape or form. This principle of non-harming extends to all forms of life – animate and inanimate. It will not be an exaggeration to say that nonviolence, ahiṁsā , is the single most value to ensure the overall well-being of our planet at all levels.

What is the moral and spiritual basis of sustainability? For a most profound answer, let’s turn to the great Indian epic, Mahābhārata , which contains 100,000 verses and is considered to be the world’s longest epic poem (it is more than seven times the combined size of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey).7 Its claim to greatness, however, does not rest on its length but in the breadth of its message. It has been rightly said about the Mahābhārata, “Whatever is here, on Law, on Profit, on Pleasure, and on Salvation, is found elsewhere. But what is not here is nowhere else.”8

A. R. Orage, the British philosopher whom George Bernard Shaw once called the “the most brilliant English editor and critic of last 100 years,”9 who studied Mahābhārata concertedly for 15 years, understood that it contained absolute truths. Orage extolls its glory as follows:

The Mahabharata is the greatest single effort of literary creation of any culture in human history. The Iliad and the Odyssey are episodes in it; and the celebrated Bhagavad Gita is simply the record of a single conversation on the eve of one of its many battles....(It is) the most colossal work of literary art ever created. It contains every literary form and device known to all the literary schools, every story ever enacted or narrated, every human type and circumstance ever created or encountered.

Unlike the reading of derivative works of art, the reading of the Mahabharata is a first-hand experience. One ends it differently, just as one emerges differently from everything real. The Mahabharata towers over all subsequent literature as the pyramids look over the Memphian sands….More real Mysticism can be gathered from the Mahabharata than from the whole of modern mystical writings.10

The legendary author of this epic, Veda Vyāsa, when asked about the most important single verse that represented the essence of the work, replied:

ślokārdhena pravakṣyāmi yaduktaṁ granthakoṭibhiḥ | paropakāraḥ puṇyāya, pāpāya parapīḍanam ||

Veda Vyāsa , the great composer of Vedas, says: I will present the gist of a million treatises in half a verse:

The greatest virtuous act is doing good to others; and the greatest evil is causing pain to others.

It is important to reflect on this verse singled out by the learned author of this great work. In order to understand the spiritual depth of this observation that “hurting others is the greatest evil,” we have to dig further into the truth of our existence. Let’s consider the following illustration: At its most basic level, all existence – from a piece of rock to the most developed specimen of living beings – is composed of five fundamental elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. Each of these elements within our body, for example, exists with reference to the totality of its corresponding element outside our body. Take, for example, the element of air. The air that we breathe in exists by virtue of its relationship and interaction with the totality of air that exists outside in the environment. Likewise, the water that exists in our body in the form of various liquids cannot exist without the totality of water that exists outside. The same is true of the remaining elements: they exist in the microcosm of our body by virtue of their relationship with the totality of these elements in the macrocosm. If this is true regarding these physical elements, how much more so must it be of the consciousness which is the fundamental building block of all existence?

This short excursion into the interconnected nature of reality perhaps provides the simplest compelling reason yet to understand the oneness of the whole of existence. In our human terms, it means that we are inseparably one with the rest of existence. So, in effect, to hurt others is to hurt ourselves. That is why sages of humanity have always advocated helping others; they understood that, essentially, there are no others, and all life is inseparably interlinked and interconnected. This is perhaps the highest moral and spiritual foundation of sustainability.

Why is this simple existential fact not obvious to everyone? Why are we not naturally able to sense it and warm up to this view of reality? Perhaps in the perennial fight for self-preservation, this type of thinking does not further any evolutionary agenda. Perhaps by some sort of optical illusion, we are not able to see beyond the façade of self-centered, separately existing objects vying for their survival and flourishing. This leads to self-defeating strategies that disempower at best and seriously impinge upon the mutual preservation of everyone’s interest, the mutual maintenance of the universe. Albert Einstein captures the issue succinctly and suggests a solution to come out of this prison of separateness, as follows:

A human being is part of a whole called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest...a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.11

David Bohm , Einstein’s colleague and successor at Princeton, believed that the quantum theory reveals the “unbroken wholeness of the universe.”12 According to Bohm, this is the natural state of the human world – separation without separateness. This understanding garners reverence for life and helps us to realize our kinship with the entire universe. Harry Palmer highlights the fact that we are inseparably one and that there are no “individual” gains or losses:

When you adopt the viewpoint that there is nothing that exists that is not part of you, that there is no one who exists who is not part of you, that any judgment you make is self-judgment, that any criticism you level is self-criticism, you will wisely extend to yourself an unconditional love that will be the light of the world. As your own true nature is realized – undefined and ever present – all will recognize that there is no gain that we do not all participate in and no loss for which we do not all share the sacrifice.13

However, we continue to delight in differences and fail to see what is essentially the same in all of us. It is abundantly evident that the divisions of race, religion, color, creed, and culture have contributed to the most heinous horrors of humankind. This will continue unabated, as history testifies, until we see the tyranny of our disempowering stance. Let’s seek and share the underlying truth of mutuality that does not lead to unnatural differences and disharmony. That is the truth of our identity behind diversity – the essential oneness of all that exists. By seeking the truth that is equally good to all, we will be able to revere all life and truly redeem our human existence. Only then can we ensure equally the happiness and welfare of all beings. That will be our true gift of harmlessness to the sustainability of our planet. This gift will be rooted in the concept of mutual interdependence. The Buddhist concept of pratītyasamutpāda splendidly captures the essence of reality as the mutually interdependent web of cause and effect.

Thich Nhat Hanh , a Vietnamese Buddhist whom Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated for Nobel Peace Prize, has coined the word “interbeing” to represent the interdependence of all existence. In his talks and seminars, Thich Nhat Hanh usually underscores the principle of “interbeing ” by inviting his audience to look deeply at a piece of paper:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; without trees we cannot make paper….If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow….And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the trees and brought it to the mill to transform into paper….When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, the sheet of paper cannot exist….This sheet of paper is, because everything is….As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.14

This understanding of the interbeing nature of all things lies at the heart of eco-spirituality and sustainability. This understanding predicates on intuiting and realizing the unity and oneness of all life. The next sections explore the metaphysical basis and the practical application of this thought position.

Understanding Dharma, ṚTAṂ, the Cosmic Order

We are quintessentially integral with the universe.15

Dharma is the most important and pivotal concept in the spiritual tradition of India. Etymologically, the word dharma comes from the root dhṛ which means “to bear, to support, to uphold,” – dhārayate uddhāryateva iti dharma – that which “supports, sustains, and uplifts” is dharma. We have a Vedic injunction: Open image in new window Dharmo rakṣati rakṣitāḥa: Dharma protects those who uphold dharma. There is another Vedic concept which is closely related to dharma, called ṛta. Ṛta is the order behind the manifest world, the harmony among all aspects of manifestation, each of which obeys its own truth. There is physical order, biological order, and psychological order.

Everything in the universe follows its own inner order, ṛtaṃ. Actually, dharma is conceived as an aspect of Ṛta. As John Warne explains in his editorial preface to Taittirīya Upaniṣad, “Ṛta is the universal norm identified with truth which, when brought to the level of humanity, become known as dharma, the righteous order here on earth.”16 Indian seers and sages prescribed that one should fulfill one’s desires (kāma) or pursue wealth and security (artha) within the framework of dharma, which ensures the good of everyone.17

In Indian philosophy and religion, dharma 18 has multiple meanings such as religion, duty, virtue, moral order, righteousness, law, intrinsic nature, cosmic order , and nonviolence (ahiṁsā paramo dharmaḥ 19). Dharma also means the invariable, intrinsic nature of a thing (svadharma) from which it cannot deviate, like there cannot be a cold fire. In the realm of ethics and spirituality, dharma denotes conduct that is in accord with the cosmic order, the order that makes life and creation possible. When our actions are in harmony with the cosmic order, Ṛta, and in accord with the dictates of inner law of our being, dharma, they are naturally and spontaneously good and sustaining. Alexander Pope was right: “He can’t be wrong whose life is in the right.”

The Bhagavad Gītā, the loftiest philosophical poem that forms a part of the epic, Mahābhārata, is a well-known Indian spiritual and philosophical text, and its message is universal, nonsectarian. Both the Gītā and the Vedas base their philosophy on the understanding that the whole existence essentially forms one single unitary movement despite the apparent variegated diversity. What universal vision of ethical conduct is presented by the Gītā and the Upaniṣads which fosters sustainable lifestyle and growth? In the next section, we present some spiritual values and virtues based on the teachings of the Gītā and Upaniṣads that can contribute significantly to sustainable existence.

Key Ethical and Spiritual Virtues

Ethics deals with choosing actions that are right and proper and just. Ethics is vital in commerce and in all aspects of living. Society is built on the foundation of ethics. Without adherence to ethical principles, businesses are bound to be unsuccessful in the long run. As has become abundantly evident from the recent events, without ethics, a business degenerates into a mere profit-churning machine, inimical to both the individual and the society.

Virtues are lived values. In this context, Aristotle , the great Greek philosopher and author of Nicomachean Ethics, employs the word “hexis”20 (from Latin “habitus”) in a very special sense, denoting “moral habituation” or a dynamically “active state of moral virtue.” For Aristotle, happiness is the “virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason.” Urmson clarifies that, in Aristotle’s view, “the wise man who wishes for the best life will accept the requirements of morality.”21 Aristotle further clarifies that, to be happy, we should seek what is good for us in the long run for we cannot become happy by living for the pleasures of the moment. Aristotle includes among the main constituents of happiness such things as health and wealth, knowledge and friendship, good fortune, and good moral character. For him, a life lived in accordance with excellence in moral and intellectual virtue constitutes the essence of a happy life: “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life….A good life is one that has been lived by making morally virtuous choices or decisions.”22

In the same manner, Buddha uses the word “compassion ” in the sense of “wisdom in action” – right understanding flowering into right action. Chinese use a word called “te” or “teh” which means virtue in the same sense. Tao Te Ching is a great classic book of wisdom by Lao Tzu . It means the Way, the way of virtue and power – denoting that one has to walk upon it.

Harmlessness: The Highest Virtue

The highest goodness is nonviolence. This principle of non-harming extends to all forms of life – animate and inanimate. Ahiṁsā is the basis for vegetarianism within Hinduism and Buddhism though it goes well beyond just being vegetarian. This recommendation is also repeated to the seeker after truth in the Upaniṣads . According to the Chandōgya Upaniṣad (7.26.2), “If the food is pure, the mind becomes pure. If the mind is pure, memory becomes firm. When memory becomes strong, one is released from all knots of the heart and liberation is attained.”23 Since plant-based diet involves minimum or no amount of violence in its wake, its purity brings peace of mind and ensures our psychological well-being.

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: The Entire World as One Family

In the Vedic vision, for the magnanimous, the entire world constitutes but a single family (udāracaritānām tu vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam).24 This vision is in stark contrast to viewing the world as a giant marketplace. Selfless love is the glue that holds members a family together, while self-centered profit is the basis of marketplace. This vision calls for a certain awareness and a worldview that is predicated on our understanding of the universe as a divine manifestation. The Bhagavad Gītā and the Upaniṣads, the oldest wisdom texts of the world, regard this entire world, jagat, as the manifestation of the Lord, Īśvara. This thinking invests all existence with a deeper moral basis and a higher spiritual purpose.

We also find similar understanding in various other philosophical traditions of the world. The great Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, has this to say about the unity of all existence:

Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web.25

When this vision dawns, we understand the true meaning of such terms as compassion , contribution, and harmony . When we see unity in diversity, it helps us develop universal outlook in life which is so essential sustaining the sanctity of our war-ravaged planet. By developing universal pity and contentious compassion toward all and everything, one is then able to make peace with the world and feel at home in the universe. For this vision to become a reality, we have to understand that runaway economic growth is no longer an option. We either secure or discard our place in the biosphere. And this isn’t some idealistic, romantic notion. It is preparation for a profounder life which is dramatically different from the one we are living now.

If we are “busy putting on our oxygen mask first,” let’s not forget that a larger system provided us with that oxygen mask to begin with. Let’s seek and share the underlying truth of mutuality that does not lead to self-centeredness and unnatural differences and disharmony. That is the truth of our unity behind diversity – the essential oneness of all that exists. By seeking the truth that is equally good to all existence, we will be able to revere all life and truly redeem our human existence. Only then can we ensure equally the happiness and welfare of all beings – a necessary precondition to a state of “happy individuals and harmonious society.”26 That will be our true gift of sustainability to the universe.

Fivefold Offerings to the Universe: Pancha Mahā Yajñās

Ethical conduct in the Upaniṣads revolves around the five Yajñās or offerings/sacrifices. These sacrifices are described as a person’s duty toward gods, seers, ancestors, fellow humans, and animals. The Pancha Mahā Yajñas are extremely versatile set of religious-cum-spiritual disciplines. They have a religious (ritualistic) dimension as well as a spiritual (non-ritualistic) dimension. We provide the spiritual version of these “offerings” as follows:

These Pancha Mahā Yajñās – five areas of contribution – are27:
  1. 1.

    Pitru Yajña (offering/service to parents/elderly and ancestors)

  2. 2.

    Manushya Yajña (offering/service to all human beings)

  3. 3.

    Bhūta Yajña (offering/service to the animals and plants)

  4. 4.

    Deva Yajña (offering/service to the Lord)

  5. 5.

    Brahma Yajña (offering/service to all seers/saints and scriptures)


Our first contribution is in the form of the Pitru Yajña – whatever we do for the preservation of the family and for the protection and honoring of our ancestors and our senior citizens in general. The maintenance of family structure with love and care is Pitru Yajña. A society is considered mature only when it takes care of its elderly people properly with respect and reverence. The next contribution is the Manushya Yajña which is in the form of all kinds of social service that we do through varieties of organizations, charities, and associations. In this offering, we help the fellow human beings. The Bhūta Yajña represents our reverential attitude toward all the plants and animals and our contribution for the protection of nature, protection of environment, and protection of ecological balance. The Deva Yajña represents our reverential attitude toward the five basic elements, Pancha Mahā Bhūtāni – space, fire, air, water, and earth. These elements are looked upon as the divine expression of the Lord. The worship is offered to the Lord conceived in the form of a Universal Being, Vishva rūpa Īśvara . Finally, the Brahma Yajña represents our reverential contribution to the preservation and propagation of scriptural learning by supporting the teachers, ācāryas, and the spiritual institutions which support and propagate such activities.

When we follow the Pancha Mahā Yajñā, it brings about an all-round harmony through spiritual, dhārmik, activities. We conclude this section with a Peace Invocation:

oṁ sarve bhavantu sukhinaḥ sarve santu nirāmayāḥ|sarve bhadrāṇi paśyantu mā kaścidduḥkhabhāgbhavet | oṁ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ ||

May all be happy, May all be free from misery.

May all realize goodness, May none suffer pain.

Oṁ! Peace. Peace. Peace.

Turning the Wheel of Cosmic Co-creation: Our Life as an Offering!

In order to grow spiritually, enjoin the Vedas, one has to convert one’s whole life into an offering to the Divine, as a sort of cosmic sacrifice (yajñārthāt karmaṇo: BG 3.9). According to the Gītā (3.10–3.13), all beings are a part of the cosmic wheel of creation, sustained by the principle of mutual contribution and mutual maintenance. Therefore, every action should be performed in the spirit of sacrifice, Yajña, which sustains all beings, as an offering to the Universal Lord. They are great thieves, according to the Gītā, who do not help in the turning of this cosmic wheel of sacrifice (3.12). Thus, the Gītā does not stop at concern for humans alone; it is cosmic in its scope and universal in its view.

The Gītā (18.5) mandates threefold acts of sacrifice (Yajña), charity (dānaṃ), and austerity (tapas) and considers these as the “purifiers of the wise” (pāvanāni manīṣiṇām). “Yajña” literally means a sacrifice or an offering. The highest form of offering is living a life of sincerity – a life marked by being good and doing good. A sincere life is characterized by doing what we love and loving what we have to do. “Dānaṃ” means charity and denotes much more than writing a check to a favorite cause or organization. At the deepest level, it means the gift of “expressed love.”

The Vedic philosophy of India has always emphasized the human connection with nature. The sacred literature of India – the Vedas , Upaniṣads , Purāṇas, Mahābhārata , Rāmāyaṇa , and Bhagavad Gītā – contain some of the earliest teachings on ecological balance and harmony and the need for humanity’s ethical treatment of Mother Nature. The Vedic seers recognized that the universe is intelligently put together which presupposes knowledge and intelligence. They underscored interdependence and harmony with nature and recognized that all natural elements hold divinity. They posit the Lord as the maker as well as the material of the world, thus investing all creation with divine significance. Vedas do not view creation as an act of “creation” per se as many theologies postulate, but an expression or manifestation (abhivyakti) of what was unmanifest before.

The following excerpt from Chāndogya Upaniṣad , one of the most important Upaniṣads , explains the process of creation in amazingly simple and scientific terms and puts the irreducible minimum of spirituality based on this understanding within the compass of one short paragraph. By way of universal spirituality, it also represents its pinnacle:

In the beginning, there was Existence alone –

One only, without a second.

It, the One, thought to Itself:

“Let Me be many, let Me grow forth.”

Thus, out of Itself, it projected the universe,

and having projected the universe out of Itself,

It entered into every being.

All that is has its self in It alone.

Of all things It is the subtle essence.

It is the truth. It is the Self.

And you are That!

~Chāndogya Upaniṣad28

How can God be both the material (upādāna) and efficient (nimita) cause of the universe? Are there any parallels of this phenomenon in the familiar world? The Vedas provide two examples to show how the maker and the material can be one. The first example is of a spider and the spider web. Spiders produce silk from their spinneret glands located at the tip of their abdomen.29 There is a subtle difference though between how the maker and the material of the creation are one and the spider and spider web: the spider web can exist independently of the spider, whereas the creator and the creation are inseparably one. The second example is dream objects and their creation by the dreamer. During dream, the “dreamer” is the single material and efficient cause (abhina nimita upādāna kāranaṃ) of dream creations. When a dreamer dreams about being afraid seeing a lion, the outside world, lion, jungle, and so forth are the creations of dreamer’s mind. The emotion of fear is also within dreamer’s mind.

The great practical advantage of viewing the Lord as both the material and the maker of the universe is the attainment of spiritual outlook regarding the entire creation. When everything becomes divine in our eyes, we develop a reverence for all life. Equipped with this understanding of One Self in All and All in One Self (sarvātmabhāva), we can live a life of harmony, benevolence, and compassion toward all existence.

Our dignity as humans should lie in protecting those who are weaker than us. Those who have more power ought to be more kind to those who are weak. All spiritual traditions teach us not to do to others what we don’t want to be done to us. No living being wants to be hurt, to die. Moreover, this cruelty to animals is not environmentally sustainable. That time does not seem to be too far when we will have to stop this, if only as an environmental necessity.

Creative Altruism vs. Destructive Egocentrism

Matthieu Ricard in his recent book titled Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World (2015) presents a vision revealing how altruism can answer the key challenges of our times: economic inequality, life satisfaction, and environmental sustainability. With a rare combination of the mind of a scientist and the heart of a sage, he makes a robust case for cultivating altruism – a caring concern for the well-being of others – as the best means for simultaneously benefiting ourselves and our global society.

Ricard notes that Daniel Batson was the first psychologist to investigate rigorously whether real altruism existed and was not limited to disguised selfishness.30 He notes the emphasis placed by Darwin on the importance of cooperation in nature and emphasizes the fact, as evidenced by coming together of human spirit during times of catastrophe, that human beings are essential “super-cooperators.” He summarizes his view stating that:

Altruism seems to be a determining factor of the quality of our existence, now and to come, and should not be relegated to the realm of noble utopian thinking maintained by a few big-hearted, naïve people. We must have the perspicacity to acknowledge this and the audacity to say it.31

Ricard cites decades of research conducted by the American psychologist, Tim Kasser , highlighting the high price of materialist values.32 Representative studies spread over 20 years have shown that individuals who concentrated their existence on wealth, image, social status, and other materialistic values promoted by the consumer society are less satisfied with their existence. They are in less good health than the rest of the society….Even in sleep their dreams seem to be infected with anxiety and distress. Thus, in so far as people seem to have adopted the “American dream” of stuffing their pockets, they seem to that extent to be emptier of soul and self.33 Tim Kasser goes on to show how desires or needs to have more or consume more are deeply and dynamically connected with feelings of personal insecurity.

In a foreword to Tim Kasser’s book, The High Price of Materialism, Richard M. Ryan points out that the cultural climate of consumerism makes everyone vulnerable to what he calls “affluenza,” an infectious disease in which everyone gets addicted to having more. He calls it “the tragic tale of modernity – we are the snakes eating our own tales.”34 Noting the widely held view by humanistic and existential thinkers such as Abraham Maslow, Erich Fromm, and Carl Rogers – that focus on materialistic values detracts from well-being and happiness – Ryan recounts that Kasser highlights how materialism actually contributes to unhappiness:

Desires to have more and more material goods drive us into an ever more frantic pace of life. Not only must we work harder, but, once possessing the goods, we have to maintain, upgrade, replace, insure and constantly manage them. Thus in the journey of life, materialists end up carrying an ever-heavier load, one that expends the energy necessary for living, loving and learning – the really satisfying aspects of that journey. Thus materialism, although promising happiness, actually creates stress and strain.35

Nevertheless, recent advances in neuroscience confirm the experience of thousands of years of contemplative practice that individual transformation is possible through training and practice. Any form of training induces a restructuring in human brain at both the functional and structural levels. This is also, Ricard contends, what happens when one trains in developing altruistic love and compassion.36

Human Activities: Prime Driver of Climate Change

Human activities are changing the climate in dangerous ways. Levels of carbon dioxide which heat up our atmosphere are higher than that they have been in 800,000 years. 2014 was planet’s warmest year on record. And we have been setting several records in terms of warmest years over the last decade. One year does not make a trend but 14 out of 15 warmest years on record have fallen within the first 15 years of this century.

Climate change is no longer just about the future we are predicting for our children or grandchildren. It is about the reality we are living with every day, right now. While we cannot say that any single weather event is entirely caused by climate change, we have seen stronger storms, deeper droughts, and longer wild fire seasons. Shrinking ice caps forced National Geographic to make the biggest change in its atlas since the Soviet Union broke apart.37

Environmentalists continue to point out that the current state of our planet is alarming – from the standpoint of economic development, social justice, or the global environment – and that sustainable development has hardly moved beyond rhetoric since it was first used in the 1980s. It is fairly evident to anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with the world affairs that humanity is hardly closer to eradicating extreme poverty, respecting the dignity and rights of all peoples, or resolving environmental challenges, climate change, or the extinction of plants and animals.38 And to add insult to the injury, strangely, we find ourselves in an era of “sustainababble” marked by wildly proliferating claims of sustainability. Even as adjectives like “low-carbon,” “climate-neutral,” “environment-friendly,” and “green” abound, there is a remarkable absence of meaningful tests for whether particular governmental and corporate actions actually merit such description.39

For many experts, the increasing level of carbon dioxide in the environment is the most worrisome. The Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, EDGAR, a database created by European Commission and Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, released its recent estimates, providing global past and present-day anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants by country. According to these estimates, the United States has the second highest CO2 emissions, trailing behind China, and one of the highest CO2 emissions per capita.40

According to a recent report by NASA , “Despite increasing awareness of climate change, our emissions of greenhouse gases continue on a relentless rise. In 2013, the daily level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time in human history. The last time levels were that high was about 3–5 million years ago, during the Pliocene era.”41

This situation calls for creative solutions both at the collective and individual level. At the same time, we cannot wait for and rely on legislative measures alone; something fundamental needs to change in terms of how we live and view the world. According to the NASA report, responding to climate change involves a two-pronged approach involving mitigation and adaptation:
  1. 1.

    Reducing emissions of and stabilizing the levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (“mitigation”)

  2. 2.

    Adapting to the climate change (“adaptation”)42

The Theravada Buddhist monk, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi , underscores the environmental urgency and suggests an effective solution:

Today we face not merely a climate emergency but a single multidimensional crisis whose diverse facets – environmental, social, political, and economic – intersect and reinforce each other with dizzying complexity. …The realization that human activity is altering the earth’s climate assigns to human beings the gravest moral responsibility we have ever faced. It puts the destiny of the planet squarely in our own hands just at a time when we are inflicting near-lethal wounds on its surface and seas and instigating what has been called ‘the sixth great extinction.’43

The Earth has entered a new period of extinction , concludes a study by the universities of Stanford, Princeton, and Berkeley, and humans could be among the first casualties.

According to BBC News, one of the study’s authors said: “We are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event.” The last such event was 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs were wiped out, in all likelihood by a large meteor hitting the Earth. The lead author of the study, Gerardo Ceballos, stated: “If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on.”44

It is believed that the five mass extinctions recorded in the last 600 million years were precipitated by natural causes. According to some scientists, we may have just one more generation before everything collapses. In fact, in a recently published research article titled Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction,45 Ceballos et al. state, unequivocally, that the planet has officially entered its sixth mass extinction event. The study shows that species are already being killed off at rates much faster than they were during the other five extinction events and warns ominously that humans could very likely be among the first wave of species to go extinct.46

Calling the post-1950s the Anthropocene (literally, the “era of humans”), Ricard Matthieu notes that this is the first era in the history of the world when human activities are profoundly modifying and degrading the entire system that maintains life of earth. He states that the wealthy nations are the greatest culprits: An Afghan produces 2,500 times less CO2 than a Qatari and a thousand times less than an American.47 With a note of urgency, Ricard rightly observes:

If we continue to be obsessed with achieving growth, with consumption of natural resources increasing at its current exponential rate, we will need three planets by 2050. We do not have them. In order to remain within the environmental safety zone in which humanity can continue to prosper, we need to curb our endless desire for ‘more.’48

Likewise, observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.49

These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy, and on the environment. For the United States, climate change impacts include sea level rise for coastal states, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, urban heat waves, Western wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems throughout the country. The severity of climate change impacts is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades.50

If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced. In addition, adaptation will be necessary to address those impacts that are already unavoidable. Adaptation efforts include improved infrastructure design, more sustainable management of water and other natural resources, modified agricultural practices, and improved emergency responses to storms, floods, fires and heat waves.51

Conscientious Compassion

Compassion is the positive expression of the universal value of nonviolence. In Buddhist psychology, compassion is the flowering of wisdom. Compassion born of wisdom can be called conscious compassion. The American scholar and Theravada monk Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi combines the two concepts of justice and compassion to form a distinct ethical ideal called “conscientious compassion.” According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, “When compassion and justice are unified, we arrive at what I call conscientious compassion. This is compassion, not merely as a beautiful inward feeling of empathy with those suffering, but a compassion that gives birth to a fierce determination to uplift others, to tackle the causes of their suffering, and to establish the social, economic, and political conditions that will enable everyone to flourish and live in harmony.”52 He warns us about the dangers of taking an instrumental view of people, products, and planet:

The major threat that I see today lies in the ascendency of a purely utilitarian worldview driven by a ruthless economic system that rates everything in terms of its monetary value and sees everything as nothing more than a source of financial profit. Thus, under this mode of thinking, the environment turns into a pool of ‘natural resources’ to be extracted and turned into profit-generating goods, and people are exploited for their labor and then disposed of when they are no longer of use.53

If humanity is to avoid a horrific fate, Bhikkhu Bodhi concludes, a double transformation is necessary. First, we must undergo an “inner conversion” away from the quest to satisfy proliferating desires and the constant stimulation of greed or craving. But change is also needed in our institutions and social systems. Finally, Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests that people turn away from an economic order based on incessant production and consumption and move toward a steady-state economy managed by people themselves for the benefit of their communities, rather than by corporate executives bent on market dominance and expanding profits.54 Essentially, the bird of change needs two wings to rise up and fly: one wing is moral vision and the other wing is a commitment to action. We need greater moral awareness of empowering values such as justice, equality, loving-kindness, compassion, and self-restraint and the necessity for constant struggle against injustice, violence, hatred, cruelty, self-centeredness, and narcissist self-indulgence. All great spiritual traditions remind us that the responsibility for creating such a world rests with us and not with others.55

In the following sections, we share some findings distilled from teaching two recent graduate-level seminars on sustainable living which underscored the message that true sustainability is always “engaged” since it brings about a transformation about how we live our life, moment to moment.

Sustainability Matters!


The work an unknown good person has done is like a vein of water flowing hidden underground, secretly making the ground green. ~Thomas Carlyle

This author taught two graduate (MBA) Summer Seminars (2016 and 2017) on Sustainable Business and Sustainable Living using the tripartite framework of economy, equity, and ecology.56 There were a total of 33 dynamic working professional enrolled in these seminars who hailed from four different continents. We explored a wide range of topics such as green economics, clean technology , toxic emotions , urban ecology , green luxury , deep ecology , smart cities, transforming waste into renewal energy, meat- vs. plant-based diet, GMOs, etc. About 30% of the participants switched to the plant-based diet and several students resolved to opt for a lesser intake of meat and to choose smaller hybrid or electric vehicle to be their next car, to say nothing of the shorter showers, zero plastic water bottles, living more mindfully and compassionately.

In the following sections, we will share the modus operandi of the course and some insights gleaned from the course geared toward cultivating sustainability mindset.

Engaged Sustainability à la an MBA Course!

As we sail through the precarious decades of the twenty-first century, a new vision is emerging to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure well-being for all as part of our shared destiny. Achieving these goals will require the concerted efforts of governments, society, education institutions, the business sector, and informed citizens. To help the business sector contribute to achieving these goals, an MBA program at a small, innovative private university uniquely underscored sustainability matters dimension of business education through two graduate-level seminars offered during summer 2016 and 2017.

A vibrant vision was presented to the seminar participants in the form of a series of engaging affirmations through syllabus, class discussions, and presentations:
  1. 1.

    We believe that it is impossible to separate economic development issues from environment issues. In its most practical aspect, sustainability is about understanding close interconnections among environment, society, and economy.

  2. 2.

    We believe that the way to achieve sustainable, harmonious living in all spheres is through lived morality and spirituality at the personal level. We call it engaged sustainability.

  3. 3.

    We want our MBA grads to be willing contributors to the vision of cultivating happy individuals and harmonious society.

  4. 4.

    We believe that excessive desire, anger, and greed are subtle forms of violence against oneself, others, and the planet.

  5. 5.

    We are not only unaware of these mental pollutants; we are often unaware how unaware we are.

  6. 6.

    We believe that a focus on engaged sustainability will help us harness what is good for us, good for the society, and good for the planet.

  7. 7.

    We believe that achieving this goal will require a shift from being a consumer to becoming a contributor.

  8. 8.

    Only an individual life rooted in the continuous harmony with nature – a life based on moral and spiritual awareness – can be sustainable for the entire creation.


Got Sustainability?

This course has been designed to operationalize our current mission: Cultivating Transformational Leaders for Sustainable Business. We take sustainability seriously. We do not just track carbon footprint of business, but its total footprint. We view business holistically through the triple lens: economy, equity, and ecology. For us, there is no sustainability bereft of ethics and spirituality.

In the web of life, everything is linked with everything else, and everything affects everything: You cannot pluck a flower without disturbing a star, as the poet Francis Thompson observed. There are no “weeds” in the Garden of Nature. Weed is a distinctly human invention. In Japanese gardening, for example, when a weed that was near a plant is removed, it is not thrown away or destroyed. It is replanted elsewhere in the garden, realizing its importance in the overall scheme of things. After all, a weed is a plant whose medicinal power we have not discovered yet! The business today needs such holistic thinking and vision.

To operationalize this vision, our MBA students tackled projects from plant-based diet to smart cities to clean technology to eco-friendly community gardens and everything in between.

Our Modus Operandi

We focused on the practice of environmental sustainability – making responsible decisions that will reduce business’ negative impact on the environment. Throughout, our emphasis was on “engaged” sustainability: that is, what can we all do to “tread lightly on the planet.” We used a case studies-based approach that utilized real-life business examples to illustrate the need and importance of sustainability.

Our overarching goal was to explore the application of sustainability in a wide variety of contemporary contexts – from economics of consumption and growth to government policy and sustainable planet. We examined sustainability from three perspectives: ecology, equity, and economics. As a point of departure, we began with and built upon the 1987 definition by the World Commission on Environment and Development of sustainability as economic development activity that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

A punctilious participant in this course will notice that throughout, the ethico-spiritual basis of sustainably was never lost sight of. This course approached the topic of sustainability in a broad interdisciplinary fashion – in the possible manner of our total footprint on the planet, not just our carbon footprint. It proposed to bring together the two allied areas of sustainability and spirituality in a dialectical manner, with ethics acting as a balancing force and spirituality playing the role of the proverbial invisible hand guiding our quest for sustainability. It took the view that, in essence, spirituality and sustainability are vitally interlinked and that there is no sustainability without spirituality.

We tackled following questions:
  1. 1.

    What can I do to change the future of the planet?

  2. 2.

    What can businesses do to change the fate of our planet?

  3. 3.

    What can we all do that is good for us, good for the society, and good for the planet?


Every issue was examined objectively and diverse perspectives were presented for reflection. The course offered food for thought without interfering with participants’ intellectual appetite. We believe that at best, teachers can only open the door; students have to enter of their own volition.

This course asked for only one commitment from its participants: examine your belief system in the light of the evidence presented, rather than scrutinizing the evidence in the light of your pre-existing notions. Believe nothing; research everything. This expectation is at the heart of every scientific endeavor. In fine, be aware of your confirmation bias and premature cognitive commitment. There is a difference between being on the side of the evidence and insisting that the evidence be on your side. This is the most important key to understanding all profound questions of life and leadership. Aristotle is reported to have said the following of his teacher, Plato: “Plato is dear; still dearer is the truth.”

Interested in becoming a contributor…

Come and see (ehipassiko)!

Some Findings: Building the Plane While Flying It!

We used Ray Anderson’s famous Ted Talk “The business logic of sustainability” as a launching pad to show the power of a leader’s vision to trigger profound change. Participants found Ray’s message refreshing and encouraging – a harbinger of hope and possibility. Ray founded a carpet company, Interface , which grew to be the first company to achieve 100% sustainability. By his abiding commitment to sustainable business, Ray Anderson increased sales and doubled profits while turning the traditional “take/make/waste” industrial system on its head.57 It is a testimony to Ray’s resonant vision that Interface personifies a “clear, compelling, and irrefutable case – business case – for sustainability.” In an interview with the editorial staff of The Journal of Values-Based Leadership, Ray was succinct in his commitment to sustainable commerce: “If that product cannot be made sustainable, we have no business making that product. For that matter, neither does anyone else.”58 His Keynote to Second International Conference on Gross Happiness had a gentle ring of urgency:

There is no more strategic issue for a company, or any organization, than its ultimate purpose. For those who think business exists to make a profit, I suggest they think again. Business makes a profit to exist. Surely it must exist for some higher, nobler purpose than that.59

Leyla Acaroglu’s TEDxMelbourne talk Why We Need to Think Differently About Sustainability was another video that sparked some good discussion about the concept of systemic life cycle-based sustainability. Her mantra of “doing more with less,” reminiscent of TQM, also resonated well with the participants.60

GMOs was another topic that we explored at some length. Dr. Vandana Shiva challenges the dominant paradigm of non-sustainable, industrial agriculture and explains why we need an “organic” future.61 That both corporations and governments are accomplices in this current attack on human and plant genetics came loud and clear from the film62 as well as Dr. Vandana’s interview with the BBC reporter.63 It also became clear that the statement that we need GMOs to feed the world is the biggest fallacy.64 GMOs are promoted for their ability to help alleviate world hunger. While we do not deny the possibility of technology improving the crops, “much of the inability of GM technology to provide relief for the poorest nations seems to have less to do with the technology and more with social and political issues,” according to Paul Diehl.65 Acknowledging that the genetic modification is already part of the crop improvement tool kit, Diehl offers a balanced view: “The real question is if, in addition to helping make many wealthier in the industrialized world, this advanced technology provides part of the solution to help improve a lot of the poorest regions of the world.”66

Another video that generated much heat and light was Zeitgeist : Moving Forward.67 Amazingly, this video had over 24 million views on the YouTube as of this writing. The first half of this 2-h and 42-min video focuses on delineating the social, economic, and ecological issues that plague our planet. It becomes evident early on that the movie is aimed at exposing the dark side of capitalism in its myriad forms. All participants felt it to be a great eye-opener on many fronts and wondered that why such information is not more widely disseminated. One recurring theme in the participants’ comments was the need to change our ways of thinking about consumerism , national debt, poverty, and health-care issues and explore new sustainable and equitable economic and ecological models. After all, excessive desire, anger, and greed are subtle forms of violence against oneself, others, and the planet. Once one sees through it without the scaffold of rationalization, one realizes the terror of the situation. One can then move on living a life marked by simplicity of heart, purity of mind, and clarity of spirit. This is the herald of coming good we long for, as promised by the last half of the movie. By the time all participants had critiqued the movie, there emerged good consensus that it is possible to live with minimum negative impact on the environment or ourselves by thinking about sustainability in every step we take and having natural alternatives in addition to minimizing the waste.

Plant-Based vs. Meat-Based Diet

Although plant- vs. meat-based diet was just one of the many topics that we explored, somehow, the participants took a special interest in exploring this topic at a deeper personal level. Through videos, readings, and class discussions,68 three broad reasons for transitioning to a plant-based diet were identified: health, sustainability, and compassion. And surprisingly enough, it was compassion for the living beings that resonated the most with the participants and not medical and sustainability reasons. The plant-based diet was not presented as all-or-nothing option. It was clarified to the students at the very outset that the purpose of the class is “to provide some food for thought and not to interfere with students’ intellectual appetite.”

We explored the moral basis of several values, including non-harming and compassion. As a prelude to various class projects, students were asked to do a simple survey to find out whether “non-harming” and “compassion” would qualify as universal values. A universal value is one which is valued universally, regardless of one’s religion, race, caste, creed, or gender. It is something that is cherished by all living forms, not just human beings. This exercise involved asking oneself and others, “Would you like to be hurt?” At first, it may seem to be a strange question to ask. Reflecting on this exercise, it soon dawned upon the participants that no living being ever wants to be hurt. Not only that, every living being longs to be treated kindly and compassionately. Thus, non-harming and compassion were established to be universally cherished values. This understanding served as a guiding star for all of our class discussions, projects, and activities.

This exercise proved to be so effective that during the first 2–3 weeks of class attendance, students voluntarily pledged to reduce the meat intake, and by the fifth week, 6 of the 16 students had switched to a full plant-based diet. Not only that, some of them became bit of advocates, enthusiastically championing the cause of compassion toward animals. This author regularly sees some of these students on campus and asks them how their pledge is faring along. It is comforting to learn that they are still steadfast about it. What is truly remarkable is that some of these students happen to be from cultures where meat is a major part of their diet and social life.

During our research on GMOs, we also discovered what is called best and worst fruits and vegetables.

EWG Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce

Although, buying organic is the safest way to ensure no-GMO and food safety, many of us may not be able to afford everything organic – even if we know it is better to pay the farmer than the doctor.69 The Environmental Working Group (EWG) ranks pesticide contamination of popular fruits and vegetables based on more than 36,000 samples of produce tested by the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. EWG Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce was released in March 2017, starting with the highest amounts of pesticide residue:

The 2017 list of ‘dirty dozen’ featured strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and potatoes. The 2017 ‘clean fifteen’ included produce that had relatively fewer pesticides and lower total concentrations of pesticide residues, in order, sweet corn, avocados, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen sweet peas, papaya, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, honeydew melon, kiwis, cantaloupe, cauliflower and grapefruit. Only 1% of samples showed any detectable pesticides in avocados and sweet corn, which were deemed the cleanest produce. More than 80% of pineapples, papaya, asparagus, onions and cabbage that were sampled showed no pesticide residue.

The Anatomy of Change: The Key Driver

This author wondered about what could have been the key trigger for these students to switch to the plant-based diet. Most students already knew that the processed meat is injurious to health. Sustainability argument, though rationally compelling, is not always the strongest. Perhaps it was a combined effect of all the three reasons, compassion possibly weighing more than the other two. It seems that when it comes to changing human behavior, emotions play a far greater role than logic. And compassion is the highest emotion that we as humans can experience, for it touches our being at the deepest level. There might be another factor that could have played its due part in the behavior change equation. At the very outset of the discussion, it was mentioned that what we eat is largely a matter of habit. It was clarified that habits can be acquired and can be given up as well if one decides to do so. Participants were told that they are not their habits. We also discussed the tyranny of confirmation bias and learned how to watch for it. This created an open environment of exploration without any judgment attached to what one decides to eat or not eat. Although shift to plant based is a personal choice, it was very gratifying to see how this 7-week elective course in sustainability made such a profound impact on students – from their eating habits to sustainable cars and homes. This reinforced author’s conviction that journey of world transformation starts at the individual level. It begins with the understanding that all life is essentially and fundamentally one.

These observations have far-reaching implications for developing a sustainability mindset. They also indicate the great potential of sustainability field in management education. There are plenty of cases, personal stories, and corporate examples to choose from for a management educator.70

Concluding Thoughts

We therefore have a historic responsibility as we are the first generation to really become aware of the problem and yet the last generation that can deal with it. 71

This chapter approached the topic of sustainability in the broad manner of our total footprint on the planet, not just our carbon footprint. We believe that this approach is critical in addressing the profound issues of environmental sustainability and in mapping our plenary future. For sustainability to be “engaged,” we need to focus on the spiritual power of individuals to heal themselves and the environment. Sensitive minds have always recognized that the most important issues confronting organizations and society at large are so profound and pervasive that they can only be resolved at the fundamental level of the human spirit – at the level of one’s authentic self.72 Politics without morality, even so as economics without ethics, is a dead-end road for it ignores the humanity of who we are. Accordingly, sustainability is no longer seen just as a scientific or political problem; it becomes a matter of individual moral choice, with profound spiritual significance. Hence, this chapter proposed to bring together the two allied areas of sustainability and spirituality in a dialectical manner, with ethics as a balancing force.

There is African saying that a person is a person because of other persons. The phrase “by benefiting others, we benefit ourselves,” represents the idea of interconnectedness. This idea is also well described by Jose Ortega y Gasset: “I am myself plus my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I cannot save myself.”73 Thus, if we are to secure our survival as a species on this planet, there is a need to move from a mentality of competition to one of cooperation, from a lifestyle of being a consumer to becoming a contributor, based on the interconnectedness of all life. Therefore, to the question, “How to improve the state of the Planet?”, we reply: “Everybody can do something!”74

At the managerial level, we need to start viewing our organizations as “living systems” rather than as “machines for producing money.”75 Long-lived companies were also found to be supremely sensitive to their environment. Thus true sustainability is not possible without a deep change of values and commitment to a lifestyle at the individual and organizational level. It cannot be achieved simply as an expression of economic functionality or legislative contrivance. Therefore, to the question, “How to improve the state of the Planet?”, we reply: “Everybody can do something!”76

We believe that engaged sustainability is not possible without a deep change of values and commitment to a lifestyle at the “being” level. It cannot be achieved simply as an expression of economic functionality or legislative contrivance. The journey of world transformation starts at the individual level, with the understanding that all life is essentially and fundamentally one. With this understanding comes the liberating realization that “there is no sustainability without...spirituality.”77 We need to place the responsibility of developing a high moral sense on the individual and on the power of individuals to heal the society. When everyone contributes their respective share in the cosmic scheme of things, it unexpectedly brings about the intended change in the entire world. Only “an individual life rooted in the continuous harmony with life as a whole”78 – a life based on wisdom , selfless service, and contribution is a life worth living.

Observation and reflection dictate that the universe was not created for humans alone. If our universe is approximately 13.8 billion years old, as science informs us, and earth is about 4.5 billion years old, while Homo sapiens appeared 200,000 years ago in Africa having evolved leisurely from 3.2 million-year-old hominin (human-like primate), then obviously we cannot assume that the universe was created for humans alone!79 In the grand scheme of things, all forms of life are equally precious and so are their needs. It is a matter of great concern that as humans, we are the least sustainable of all species. Jonas Salk is reported to have said, “If all the insects were to disappear from the Earth, within fifty years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the Earth, within fifty years all forms of life would flourish.”80

It is our bounden duty to act as caretakers of the planet’s precious resources. If not we, who? If not now, when? We only have one planet to live. Let’s cultivate it together.

We conclude by a quote that presents a clarion call to nourish our planet81:



All this time

the sun never says to the earth:

“You owe



What happens

with a love like that,

It lights the





  1. 1.

    John F Schumaker, The demoralized mind, New Internationalist, April 01, 2016. Retrieved on July 30, 2017:

    Schumaker concludes his insightful essay in a circumspect manner, thusly: “With its infrastructure firmly entrenched, and minimal signs of collective resistance, all signs suggest that our obsolete system – what some call ‘disaster capitalism’ – will prevail until global catastrophe dictates for us new cultural directions.”

  2. 2.

    John E. Carroll, Sustainability and Spirituality (New York: State University of New York Press, 2004), 6. Also see Dhiman and Marques (Eds.), Spirituality and Sustainability.

  3. 3.

    Eknath Easwaran, The Compassionate Universe: The Power of the Individual to Heal the Environment (California: Nilgiri Press, 1989), 10.

  4. 4.

    For further details, see the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. Retrieved on August 2, 2017:

  5. 5.

    Ibid., 12.

  6. 6.

    What is Sustainability? United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved on June 2, 2017:

  7. 7.

    See Krishna Maheshwari, Mahabharata, Hindupedia, retrieved on January 22, 2016,

  8. 8.

    J. A. B. van Buitenen, trans., The Mahabharata, Volume 1: Book 1: The Book of the Beginning (Chicago, IL.: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 130.

  9. 9.

    Philip Mairet, A.R Orgage: A Memoir (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1966), 121. Also see Wallace Martin, The New Age under Orage: Chapters in English Cultural History (New York, Manchester University Press, 1967).

  10. 10.

    See Avin Deen’s response: Mahabharata (Hindu epic): Why do some Indians think Mahabharata is superior to all other epics ever written? Retrieved on January 28, 2017:

  11. 11.

    From a compilation of Einstein quotes published from multiple online sources and credited to Kevin Harris (1995).

  12. 12.

    See David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge Classics, 2002). For general background, see also Ken Wilber, ed., Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of World’s Great Physicists (Boston: Shambhala, 1984).

  13. 13.

    Harry Palmer, What is Enlightenment? Retrieved on July 29, 2017:

  14. 14.

    Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra (CA, Berkeley: Parallax Press), 3–5.

  15. 15.

    Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York: Harmony/Bell Tower, 1999), 32.

  16. 16.

    See Taittiriya Upanisad by Swami Dayananda Saraswati (Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania: Arsha Vidya Gurukulum, 2005), transcribed and edited by John Warne, iv.

  17. 17.

    Bangalore Kuppuswamy, Dharma and Society: A Study in Social Values (Columbia, Mo: South Asia Books, 1977).

  18. 18.

    There is no single word in any Western language that can capture the multiple shades and subtle nuances of the word dharma. Like the words karma and yoga, it has been left untranslated in this chapter for the most part, with their contextual meaning presented in the parentheses where necessary. These words have found wide currency and familiarity in the Western culture. Similar confusion also exists regarding the meaning of the word yoga, as used in the Bhagavad Gītā. According to the preeminent Sanskrit scholar, J. A. B. van Buitenen, “The word yoga and cognates of it occur close to 150 times in the Gītā, and it needs attention.” See J. A. B. van Buitenen, ed. and trans., The Bhagavad Gītā in the Mahābhārata: A Bilingual Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 17.

    Etymologically, the word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” which is cognate with the word “yoke.” The yoga, “yoking,” that is intended in the Gītā is the union of individual self, jivātmā, with the Supreme Self, Paramātmā.

  19. 19.

    ahiṁsā paramo dharmaḥ, ahiṁsā paramo tapaḥ | ahiṁsā paramo satyaṁ yato dharmaḥ pravartate | | ahiṁsā paramo dharmaḥ, ahiṁsā paramo damaḥ| ahiṁsā parama dānaṁ, ahiṁsā parama tapaḥ|| ahiṁsā parama yajñaḥ ahiṁsā paramo phalam| ahiṁsā paramaṁ mitraḥ ahiṁsā paramaṁ sukham||

    ~Mahābhārata/Anuśāsana Parva (115-23/116-28-29).

  20. 20.

    W.D. Ross rendered “hexis” as a state of character. See David Ross, translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

  21. 21.

    J.O. Urmson, Aristotle’s Ethics, 2.

  22. 22.

    Mortimer Adler, Arsitotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy (New York: Bantam Books, 1980). Emphasis added.

  23. 23.

    Ahara-suddhau sattva-suddhih, Sattva-suddhau dhruva-smritih, Smritilabhe sarvagranthinam vipramokshah.

  24. 24.

    Mahōpaniṣad – VI.73 (a). Alternative rendering: “For those who live magnanimously, the entire world constitutes but a family.” See Dr. A. G. Krishna Warrier, trans., Maha Upanishad (Chennai: The Theosophical Publishing House, n.d.). Accessed: July, 31, 2015:

  25. 25.

    Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations (c. 161–180 CE), Book IV, 40.

  26. 26.

    The expression “a happy individual and a harmonious society” is coined by Dr. Vemuri Ramesam, author of Religion Mystified and Yogavasistha. Dr. Vemuri runs a remarkable blog called Beyond Adviata:

  27. 27.

    The section on Pancha Mahā Yajñās draws upon Swami Paramarthananda ji’s discourse, The Spiritual Journey. Retrieved on July 20, 2015:

    Also see

  28. 28.

    Adapted from Eknath Easwaran, trans., The Upanishads, Translated for the Modern Reader (Berkeley, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1987) and Swami Nikhalananda, trans. and ed., The Upanishads: A One Volume Abridgement (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1964).

  29. 29.

    Spider Web. Retrieved on July 31, 2017:

  30. 30.

    Ibid., 6.

  31. 31.

    Ibid., 11–12.

  32. 32.

    Cited in Ricard, Altruism, p. 9. See Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2003).

  33. 33.

    See Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), xi.

  34. 34.

    Ibid., xii.

  35. 35.

    Ibid., xi.

  36. 36.

    Ibid., 10.

  37. 37.

    Climate change and President Obama’s Action Plan. Video retrieved on August 3, 2016:

  38. 38.

    David Biello, State of the Earth: Still Seeking Plan A for Sustainability?

  39. 39.

    Robert Engelman cited in Michael Renner, “The Seeds of Modern Threats,” in World Watch Institute State of the World 2015: Confronting Hidden Threats to Sustainability (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2013), 2.

  40. 40.

    EDGAR: Trends in global CO2 emissions: 2014 report. Retrieved on August 1, 2017:

  41. 41.

    NASA: Global Climate change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Retrieved on August 1, 2017:

  42. 42.


  43. 43.

    Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Climate change as a Moral Call to Social Transformation. The Buddhist Global Relief. Retrieved on January 28, 2016: [emphasis added].

  44. 44.

    Source: BBC News: Earth “entering new extinction phase” – US study, June 20, 2015. From the section Science and Environment. Retrieved on August 5, 2017:

  45. 45.

    Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle, Todd M. Palmer, “Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction,” Environmental Sciences June, 19, 2015, 1–5. Retrieved on July 10, 2017:

  46. 46.

    For further details, also see Dahr Jamail, Mass Extinction: It’s the End of the World as We Know It. Retrieved on July 15, 2017:

  47. 47.

    Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, trans. by Charlotte Mandell and Sam Gordon (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015), 8.

  48. 48.


  49. 49.

    See Climate change 2007: Synthesis Report. Retrieved on August 3, 20157:

  50. 50.

    The conclusions in this paragraph reflect the scientific consensus represented by, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change and US Global Change Research Program. Many scientific societies have endorsed these findings in their own statements, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, and American Statistical Association. See statement on climate change from 18 scientific associations (2009).

  51. 51.

    Statement on climate change from 18 scientific associations (2009). Retrieved on August 4, 2017:

  52. 52.

    Raymond Lam, Conscientious Compassion – Bhikkhu Bodhi on Climate change, Social Justice, and Saving the World. An e-Interview published in Buddhistdoor Global. Posted on August 14, 2015. Retrieved on August 1, 2017:

  53. 53.


  54. 54.


  55. 55.

    Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, “On Hope and Hype: Reflections on a New Year’s Tradition,” Buddhist Global Relief. January 11, 2016. Retrieved on January 20, 2016:

  56. 56.

    This author is indebted to all 33 participants in these two graduate seminars who enriched our understanding of sustainability through their insightful discussion and comments. Parts of this section have benefitted from the suggestions of Mallory Quiroa, who was one of the participants in the course.

  57. 57.

    Ray Anderson, The business logic of sustainability. A Ted Talk. Retrieved on July 1, 2017:

  58. 58.

    (2009) “Progress Toward Zero: The Climb to Sustainability – Interview with Ray Anderson,” The Journal of Values-Based Leadership: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 3. Available at:

  59. 59.

    Cited by Samuel Mann, Some of my favorite Ray Anderson quotes. In Computing for Sustainability Saving the earth one byte at a time. Retrieved on July 30, 2017: This view is in stark contrast with.

  60. 60.
  61. 61.

    Dr. Vandana Shiva: “Why We Need an Organic Future” (NOFA-VT 2017 Keynote Address). Retrieved on August 1, 2017:

  62. 62.

    Seeds of Death: Unveiling The Lies of GMO’s – Full Movie

  63. 63.

    A Billion Go Hungry Because of GMO Farming: Vandana Shiva

  64. 64.

    See Maggie Hennessy, The biggest fallacy about GMOs is that we need them to feed the world: WFP May 7, 2014. Retrieved on August 1, 2017:

  65. 65.

    Paul Diehl, Can Genetically Modified Food Feed the World? What You Need To Know About Genetically Modified Crops. The Balance: Biotech Industry, June 03, 2017. Retrieved on August 1, 2017:

  66. 66.

    Ibid. Emphasis added.

  67. 67.

    Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, Official Release, 2011 Retrieved on August 1, 2017:

  68. 68.

    Paul McCartney – If Slaughterhouses had Glass Walls. Available at

    Why Vegan? – Amazing Presentation by Gary Yourofsky. Available at

    The food we were born to eat: John McDougall at TEDxFremont. Retrieved on July 18, 2017:

    Tackling diabetes with a bold new dietary approach: Neal Barnard at TEDxFremont. Retrieved on August 1, 2017:

    Jennifer Dillard, A Slaughterhouse Nightmare: Psychological Harm Suffered by Slaughterhouse Employees and the Possibility of Redress through Legal Reform. Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy. Available at SSRN:

    Michael Greger, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease (New York: Flatiron Books, 2015).

    In this informative book, Dr. Greger describes which foods to eat to prevent the leading causes of disease-related death and shows how a diet based on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes might even save your life. Dr. Greger runs the popular website and serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.

  69. 69.

    Retrieved on July 30, 2017:

    Also see Johanzynn Gatewood, Strawberries remain at top of pesticide list, report says. CNN. March 10, 2017.

    Retrieved on July 19, 2017:

  70. 70.

    Some more examples of the resources used for this seminar: Ray Anderson, sustainable-business pioneer, provides a compelling case for business rationale of sustainability: Ray Anderson, The business logic of sustainability. Available at:

    The Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes!

    Vice President of Citi Bank:

    Ethics in a meat-free world – Philip Wollen at TEDxMelbourne:

    Sustainable development: what, where and by whom?: Kitty van der Heijden at TEDxHaarlem:

    What’s wrong with our food system | Birke Baehr | TEDxNextGenerationAsheville

  71. 71.

    Laurent Fabius, COP21 President and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development.

  72. 72.

    See Satinder Dhiman, Gandhi and Leadership: New Horizons in Exemplary Leadership (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015); Satinder Dhiman, Holistic Leadership: A New Paradigm for Today’s Leaders (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017).

  73. 73.

    José Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Quixote, trans. Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marín (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1961), 45.

  74. 74.

    David Biello, State of the Earth: Still Seeking Plan A for Sustainability? How to improve the state of the planet: “everybody can do something,” Scientific American, Oct. 12, 2012. Retrieved on August 1, 2017:

  75. 75.

    Arie de Gues, The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent Business Environment (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002), 91, 176.

  76. 76.

    David Biello, State of the Earth: Still Seeking Plan A for Sustainability? How to improve the state of the planet: “everybody can do something.” Scientific American, Oct. 12, 2012. Retrieved on July 31, 2017:

  77. 77.

    John E. Carroll, Sustainability and Spirituality (New York: State University of New York Press, 2004), 6.

    Also see Dhiman and Marques (Eds.), Spirituality and Sustainability.

  78. 78.

    Eknath Easwaran, The Compassionate Universe: The Power of the Individual to Heal the Environment (California: Nilgiri Press, 1989), 10.79 See: Pallab Ghosh, 'First human' discovered in Ethiopia, BBC News, 4 March 2015. Retrieved November 26, 2017:

  79. 79.

    See: Pallab Ghosh, ‘First human’ discovered in Ethiopia, BBC News, 4 March 2015. Retrieved November 26, 2017:

  80. 80.

    “If all the insects were to disappear from the earth.” Quoted during a Ted Talk by Sir Ken Robinson. Retrieved on August 2, 2017:

  81. 81.

    Daniel Ladinsky, The Gift: Poems by Hāfiz the Great Sufi Master (New York: Penguin Compass, 1999), 34.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of BusinessWoodbury UniversityBurbankUSA

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