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What is technology doing to people?

MACAU (SE): “What difference does it make if our universe loses a few million years from its projected billions-of-millennia lifespan?” Father Louis Gendron asked at a seminar held in the Macau Institute of Tourism on November 7 and 8 on the theme, Humankind and Nature: An endangered system of interdependence in today’s globalised world.

While the devil’s advocate question may summarise the assumption that the world seems to be operating out of in its rampant use of natural resources, the two-day symposium, organised by the Macau Ricci Institute, described the delicate balance of interdependence between humankind and nature as developing into a battle pitting all men, women and children against the realities of the natural world

While the accelerated rate of globalisation over past decades has brought radical progress in technology, the symposium pointed out that the question that is not being asked is, “What has development done to humanity?”

It described humanity as being involved in a power struggle in which a distorted human self-image is vying to push the natural environment past its limits and redefine itself without reference to its own limitations, especially in terms of moral boundaries or suffering.

While the world is at least paying lip service to protecting the environment, even popularising terms like ecologically friendly and conservation, it has not moved outside of the protection of comfort zones in discussing what may be human-friendly.

The symposium concluded that development must be looked at from the point of view of what it is doing to people, noting that it is listening that informs knowledge and leads to wisdom.

Christopher Chapple, from Fordham University in the United States of America (US), pointed out that while insurance companies are highly aware of the escalating financial cost of climate change and the destabilising political effects of water shortages and increasingly unpredictable food supplies, the relationship of people with the earth is mostly ignored.

He said that while mother earth supports and enriches people, the increasing pollution of these resources reflects a people who have lost the ability to relate to the natural world or lack the courage to fix what they know is wrong.

Chapple pointed to the role that religious values have traditionally played in this relationship, but said that as urbanisation has increasingly dissolved people’s sensitivity to the four seasons, the religious rituals that speak to the realities of nature have lost their ability to impact on their consciousness in terms of of what is happening to them.

However, Father Stephan Rothlin, from the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, said that a challenge to approach things from the point of view of human needs, rather than business needs, can result in a radical departure from accepted business wisdom.

He told of a competition run in his university to design a cancer hospital in Beijing from the viewpoint of sustainability, bio-ethics and business ethics.

“The key concept students came up with was the paramount nature of human dignity,” he related.

The Swiss Jesuit explained that entries in the completion described cancer as a life sentence that pushes a person to live, rather than a death sentence, and not as an individual affliction, but something that affects the whole family.

“A cancer hospital can help society become and remain sustainable,” he said, “because the focus of quality, economic, cultural and national development is the dignity of persons.”

He explained that this is built on the critical value of equal respect, something which is also critical for a society’s enduring development.

He added that students saw the need to keep people close to nature, pointing to the need for a change in temperature and ventilation rates of wards at frequent intervals to reflect the flow of each day, as well as to build with technically sustainable methods and materials.

They also placed the hospital downtown, so patients are in recognisable surrounds and the structure becomes a statement to society of the importance of caring and curing.

Father Rothlin called it a ritual of equal regard for people.

He described a ritual as a set of socially determined words and actions that highlights and affirms the values preferred by members of a society. “These values enable a society to continue to meet human needs and hopes,” he explained.

Father Rothlin added that surprisingly, students who had grown up in an aggressively atheistic culture also saw the need for a chapel as being essential to the ritual, which is not just a routine or remnant of the past, but a statement of what is important in life now.

Father Peter Walpole, from Ateneo de Manila University in The Philippines, spoke of the need to deepen sensitivities to what is truly necessary. He described the Pulangiyen people with whom he works in Mindanao as being totally dependent on their environment and consequently highly sensitised to the interdependence of humankind and nature.

He explained that this also breeds a heightened sense of the importance of interpersonal relationships and understanding of life as “who I am, rather than what I have.”

He explained that the tribal youth among whom he lives and works host young students in ecological science and sustainable business management on a regular basis and that at the end of each session, which span over weeks not hours, few of either the visitors or the locals hold out for exactly the same viewpoints as they arrived with.

He called this the power of the rituals of welcome, listening learning and experience, which reestablish a respect for what is often seen as peripheral to modern urbanised society, both in terms of nature and human dignity, as well as a new understanding of sustainability.

The recognition of spiritual development through a close up encounter with God’s creation is heightened through human contact and touching the traditions that have taught a wisdom that may now seem to be out of sync with economic progress, while actually being in step with sustainable development.

Father Walpole noted that the bottom line in the process is to learn how to ask the right questions, as otherwise the answers mean little in relation to healing the earth or creating a sustainable environment for people, which can leave technology doing more harm than good.

Wang Leiquan, from Fudan University in Shanghai, pointed out that only people have the power to change their lives, but they can also become trapped in a cycle of material desire which blinds them to their human and spiritual needs.

He pointed out that in Buddhism, the environment is a projection of the soul and we can address the problems of the environment by addressing or purifying the state of our souls.

Wang added that the degradation of the environment in China is pointing to underdevelopment in the human soul and a lack of recognition that it is up to people to fit into the world, not wait for the world to change to fit into their desires.

Chapple added that in this sense he believes that China has come as far as it can on a technological model, but needs a new spirituality to move further ahead, and perhaps Christianity needs to look more at a Spirit-centred theology to move forward, rather than prioritising the incarnational, Christ-centred spirituality that has inspired faith in the past, in order to progress.