01.02.2013 Our Earth

Change of Heart

Adrian Glamorgan sees hope in a spiritual study group within the World Bank

There's a story that the saint called Valentine was a soldier or priest who came up against Roman Emperor Claudius II. Any ordinary mortal would have been in a state of fear to be personally interrogated by an emperor who, the story went, had once punched the teeth out of a horse. But there was something about this spiritual man that held back the brutal emperor.

Claudius II offered to save his life if Valentine gave up his strange beliefs, stopped consecrating Christian weddings for soldiers, and became a pagan. But Valentine could not turn away from what lay true in his heart. So, Valentine was made a martyr and this troublesome sect, at that time committed to peace and love, drew strength from his sacrifice.

Did Saint Valentine really cut the shape of hearts out of parchment to send to and encourage soldiers of the rightness of marrying? It's hard to separate hagiography, and what might be just a modern day, advertising bow tied around our February spending, as struggling retailers look for a reason - any half reason - to close a sale.

But somewhere beside sentiment is the more sound seeking of a soul determined to live the truth. Legends aside, Valentine reminds us how important the heart is to our life; that the best changes of heart don't come through violence or coercion; that a true, good and beautiful message will often prevail.

Cut to the strange and exciting times we live in.

Since 1945, the World Bank has been responsible for applying abstract economic reason to its financing of troubled countries, arguably leading to a string of environmental disasters. Its detractors say the World Bank's advice, offer of loans, and tendency to play hardball has also led to agricultural ruin in poorer countries, meaning misery to hundreds of millions - with the salve that rich nations have been supplied with a high volume of cheap food.

Yet surprising things can happen. Towards the end of 1992, Richard Barrett, an assistant to a World Bank Vice President, was finishing a book that drew on science, religion and psychology to "create a practical approach to spirituality". He invited a dozen of his more spiritually minded World Bank colleagues to a series of six brown bag lunches. Within a short time, he was invited to set up an ongoing spiritual study group. "The Spiritual Unfoldment Society" in the World Bank began weekly meetings in March 1993, promoting "personal transformation through self knowledge, understanding, and awakening higher consciousness." It sought "to create within the World Bank a consciousness of love and understanding that contributes toward transforming the way we interact with one another (and the way the organisation interacts with the world)."

I understand if people react with cynicism to such initiatives, because we are speaking of the same organisation that, from Mozambique to Cambodia, from one giant dam to the next coffee monoculture, has caused mayhem to millions by imposing "free market" solutions that have consistently benefited the rich over the poor.

But this spiritual gathering wasn't a group that asked permission of its employer. The members, soon 40 to 50 at a time, met because they wanted, and needed to. By 1995, the World Bank itself agreed to a conference entitled "Ethical and Spiritual Values and the Promotion of Environmentally Sustainable Development". Meanwhile, Australian-born Jim Wolfensohn became World Bank president, and promoted a values-based approach. By 1998, he was facilitating a dialogue between the Bank and the world's religions, enlisting leaders from nine world faiths, including Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jains, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Taoist. Wolfensohn announced, "This is not Hollywood. It is not a PR exercise." He admitted errors, and the need to link physical, spiritual and cultural development.

This is not a simple story of progress. Nearly half of the World Bank's energy lending went to fossil fuels from 2007-2011. A 2010 critique of the World Bank demonstrated that their coal and oil projects did not increase access to energy for the world's poorest. From South Africa to India, there is recognition within the Bank of errors, especially since funding of coal-fired projects was increasing rather than the other way round. Under proposed new rules, coal-fired power station funding could only go to the very poorest country, and then only if renewable energy alternatives did not exist.

Then, as printed in last month's issue of NOVA (January 2013), the World Bank produced a report just before the Dohar climate change talks insisting that there must be action to turn down the heat on climate change - or a difficult fate awaits us. This may not seem much, but it shows that there can be a change of heart even in the belly of the beast. And, perhaps, that however dark an organisation may seem, it is only people who can actually run it, and they can have a change of heart.

There are other agencies around the world. You might remember that in September 2000, the World Economic Forum came to Melbourne, and 10,000 demonstrators protested against the negative impacts of globalisation. Inside the casino conference centre, the world's top corporate and G20+ political leaders discussed the economic future of the world. Outside, as detailed in complaints to the Ombudsman, the police were using force: batons, horses, failing to display identification, targeting photographers, verbally abusing, encouraging attacks on protesters, and declining to communicate with protestors. The First Aiders took notes: "Case Number 36: Grabbed around throat, hit with baton, feet trampled. Severe bruising on face and back of head. Feet bleeding. Wound cleaned. Ice." Carnage.

And yet, this bastion of corporate world order, 12 years on, tells a different tale. Last month, the World Economic Forum published its Global Risks 2013. It warns of a "perfect storm" ahead of us this year. You can read the report for yourself, but its summary of the 50 global risks based on a survey of over 1000 experts from industry, government and universities coolly states:

"The world is more at risk as persistent economic weakness saps our ability to tackle environmental challenges. The report highlights wealth gaps (severe income disparity) followed by unsustainable government debt...Following a year scarred by extreme weather, from Hurricane Sandy to flooding in China, respondents rated rising greenhouse gas emissions as the third most likely global risk overall."

This is written by the "Davos Men" from the WEF. They make the clicks to buy and sell and they give a nod to legislation, right around the world. Global Risks 2013 speaks the same lingo as might have been sprayed on banners back in Melbourne in 2000.

Australia is an economic powerhouse but as the world knows, it appears that's because we are a very efficient Third World economy, digging resources up from the ground and selling them to willing buyers. Of course, there will still be demand for coal and iron ore - our own banks and politicians know that. But the world could well be changing. Not because we can trust the organisations that have done so much damage over the last 50 years, but because we hope that the people who inhabit those organisations, have the capacity for change themselves. That the change of heart is coming from within, and spreading without. Not even an emperor can stop the message of love.

Adrian Glamorgan

Adrian Glamorgan is a passionate advocate of social change and environmentalism