Dalai Lama considers devastating problems, innovative solutions with MIT Sloan professors

Published: October 17, 2012

Dalai LamaMIT Sloan’s Zeynep Ton talks with the Dalai Lama Monday
Photo: Manohar Srikanth

There were moments Monday when MIT faculty were the bearers of bad news, each sitting with one of the world’s foremost spiritual leaders to warn of humanity’s risk of downfall at the hands of itself.

Even the Dalai Lama declared himself “frustrated” and “discouraged” at the prospect of an unsustainable modern society.

“These problems are large and scary,” said Deborah Ancona, the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at MIT Sloan, introducing one of two faculty panels that met with the Dalai Lama at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. “The list is long and daunting.”

But then the list of solutions was long too, and for each serious global problem—climate change, famine, and poverty chief among them—the faculty brought solutions. With each shot of fear came a dose of hope.

“I believe we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds,” said John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor in Computer Science at MIT Sloan, who discussed the problems presented by population growth and rising standards of wealth and consumption. “We can improve the world in which we live.”

The panels, together titled Global Systems 2.0, gave top faculty from across MIT and from peer institutions an opportunity to present research to the Dalai Lama and the assembled audience. The Dalai Lama, in turn, offered his interpretation of the work, often with thoughts about ethical and societal responsibility.

Among his comments was a general endorsement of efforts to slow and reverse climate change (“The environment is not a matter of luxury. It is a question of our own survival.”), a willingness to explore controversial geoengineering (“It is our moral responsibility to look.”), and a call for labor unions in the American workforce.

“There should be an organization to look after these workers,” he interjected when MIT Sloan Adjunct Associate Professor Zeynep Ton’s presentation on employment considered a woman’s retail job schedule featuring a 9 p.m. closing shift followed by a 5 a.m. opening shift, with an hour commute each way. That comment brought the most resounding applause of the day.

The Dalai Lama also discussed collective intelligence with Thomas Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management. Malone explained the work done at MIT’s Climate CoLab, which is attempting to harness the collective intelligence of scientists, business leaders, academics, and others to solve climate change issues.

“We think this is a hope worth working for,” Malone said. “We see this as a way of helping involve more individuals in our global conversation than would have been possible.”

The Dalai Lama praised collective intelligence work because it “provides a sense of responsibility, a sense of participation.” He did not, however, discount the outsized contributions made by experts and scientists.

Repeatedly, the Dalai Lama pointed to education as an indispensible tool for good and said it was “really wonderful” to hear MIT’s leading thinkers propose answers for the world’s most urgent, and often moral, questions.

“We need to mobilize a non-violent revolution, whose principal weapon is truth,” the Dalai Lama said.

The forum was presented by The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, a nonpartisan think tank at MIT.

Other presenters on the panel were MIT professors Penny Chisholm and Kerry Emanuel, University of Minnesota Professor Jonathan Foley, former Doctors Without Borders president and current University of Toronto Professor James Orbinski, and Rebecca Henderson, a former MIT Sloan professor now teaching at Harvard Business School.