Corporates for a Better World
The Delhi-based researcher, who also runs several businesses and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) at the same time, explained why he felt it was important to talk to business people about the critical issues facing today’s world. “I would like to help them think more deeply about how corporates can contribute to a better world. And that is not only through charity and philanthropic giving, but by actually designing and running their businesses and making their profits in a manner that creates wider and longer term benefits for people and society.”
The purpose of Dr Khosla’s presence was to highlight his cause of promoting sustainable growth. During the two hour session, he amplified on his view, that, unlike Singapore, “The rest of the world is not in good shape, and the extremes of poverty and environmental degradation that exist elsewhere will also soon start having an impact on life in Singapore. So even from a selfish point of view, it is important to see the Third World prosper, as the health and happiness of the state of Singapore depends on the health and happiness of the rest of the world.”
A former director of the United Nations
Environment Programme, Dr Khosla was named to UNEP’s Global 500 Roll of Honor in 1992. Recently, along with many others including Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan and celebrity cum activist Bianca Jagger, he was a founding member of The World Future Council (WFC).
Expressing his concern over the public awareness of sustainable development, he states, “There are, of course, many issues that will determine the kind of world our children will live in. Currently, with Nobel prizes and films highlighting climate change, this topic is top of mind to most people. But we should not forget how important it is also to eradicate poverty. Poverty today is so stark and so pervasive, that it’s possible that it will destroy the planet before climate change does. Not the planet literally, but civilization as we know it.”
“In fact, one consequence of poverty is that with it goes population growth. It’s the poor who produce the most offspring. As long as there is poverty, there is going to be more and more population growth. If poverty is not removed quickly, we will by the year 2050 end up with 1.5 to 2 billion extra people. So it becomes extremely urgent even from the point of controlling climate change to end poverty. Eradicating poverty is as urgent as reducing our energy use and carbon emissions. Even with so many people living largely outside the economy, the world today is using 20 percent more energy and resources than it can produce sustainably. Climate change is a symptom, not the cause of our problems.”
Dr Khosla is concerned about a number of critical issues that face the planet. “In ten years’ time, I’d say the main cause for concern will be extinction – the loss of species. We are losing several hundred species every day. The problem is, when you start losing species, you start losing resources for the sustenance of human beings, as we don’t know what each species is capable of. For example, the Rosy Periwinkle flower in Madagascar is down to a few hectares of land; it is critical as a natural source of a pharmaceutical benefit that cures childhood cancer,” he imparts.
Dr Khosla served as special advisor to the World Commission on Environment & Development, Geneva, which popularised the concept of sustainable development. He is also Chairman of the Development Alternatives Group – a non-governmental organization that he founded 25 years ago to promote commercially-viable, environmentally-friendly technologies, particularly aimed at the needs of the rural poor in Third World countries. They have created over 20 major technology groups ranging from ultra-low cost housing, clean water and sanitation, energy and livelihood creation.
Demonstrating what he practices, the Development Alternatives headquarters in New Delhi was constructed out of compressed mud bricks, with minimal use of cement, steel, bricks or wood – saving energy that would have been required to manufacture these, equivalent to the wood from five hectares of forest land.
On the ground, the achievements of his organisations, he says, are significant but not yet enough. “If you look at the numbers of the lives we’ve had an impact on – that is 2.5 to 3 million people. If you look at the kind of issues, from increasing the forest cover, bringing back rivers, and doing things that bring the kind of change needed to make development sustainable, we’ve had probably as much impact as any single organisation in India. In fact, our technologies have led to the creation of some half a million houses: something that few government agencies or businesses have achieved.” In 2002, Dr Khosla was awarded the prestigious UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize – ‘the Nobel Prize of the environment world’ – for his contributions in the creation of sustainable livelihoods by empowering people managing to survive below the poverty line.
In his acceptance speech, Dr Khosla said, “Is our society so immunised that it needs a St Francis or a Mahatma Gandhi to arouse our sense of outrage at the inequity and injustice that exists in our world? Or could we somehow find it by ourselves in our own consciences? Is it acceptable to our individual or collective sense of humanity, in today’s world of knowledge and plenty, that there should be a single woman, man or child who is hungry, thirsty or illiterate? Let alone three billion, the greatest mass of poverty known in history.”
Massive Wealth and Massive Poverty
“I believe that it is no more unacceptable than the absence of democracy, human rights and freedom over which so many people do occasionally manage to get worked up about. And, meeting here in this extraordinary tribute to people’s creativity and surrounded outside by the greatest concentration of wealth and power ever seen in history, one has to ask: is this simply a massive disjoint? Or is there some connection? Could it be that massive wealth cannot exist without massive poverty?”
Growing up in India, the son of a university professor, and where his father eventually became a diplomat, gave Dr Khosla a privileged lifestyle in terms of education and experience of worldly issues. An interest in science at an early age led him to gain a Masters Degree in natural sciences from Cambridge University, for which he cited his professor as a source of inspiration.
Teaching Al Gore
Dr Khosla went on to complete a PhD in experimental physics at Harvard. This was followed by a period of teaching, where he assisted Professor Roger Revelle, the eminent oceanographer in designing and teaching Harvard’s inaugural undergraduate course on the environment. One of the students of the course, ex-US Vice President, Al Gore, highlights in his award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth the inspiration he got from the course.
On his return to India, Dr Khosla was asked to start the government’s Office of Environment Planning and Coordination as the founding director, which was the first such agency established in a developing country.
Appointed director of Infoterra in the United Nations Environment Programme in 1976, Dr Khosla designed and implemented the global environmental information exchange developed to provide access to authoritative information on environmental matters, and encourage people to learn and become involved in managing the development, environment and security of our changing world.
The Club of Rome
Working tirelessly to demonstrate and promote his causes, Dr Khosla has been a board member of a number of global environmental organisations, including the Club of Rome, which was founded in 1968 by a concerned group of business leaders who believed the economy had a direct influence on the environment and vice-versa.
The group attracted worldwide public attention with their report Limits to Growth which Khosla says, with over 30 million copies sold in more than 30 translations, is one of the best-selling books in history. Many consider it the launching pad of the environmental movement.
Working with Deepak
Having been a board member for a number of organisations such as the World Conservation Union and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, he has also served as an advisor to the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the Indian government. Dr Khosla is also a founding member of the Alliance for a New Humanity, founded in 2003 along with Dr Deepak Chopra and other well-known leading figures.
When asked what sustains his passion and drive, Dr Khosla reveals, “I feel that it’s my job to do something about the environment in all aspects. I don’t want my (only) son to ask me in 10 years’ time – why didn’t I do something when I knew I should have? – and he knows I could have.” More information can be found at http://www.devalt.org/ashok.htm
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