Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Letter to His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Hi all - this week my little sister Katie Nelson had a rare opportunity to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama because her father-in-law is a noted scholar of Tibetan history. When I heard about this I had this impulsive idea to tell His Holiness about our project. I had been reading His Holiness's amazing book 'The Universe in a Single Atom' regarding his explorations of modern science, and it struck me that our little project might be of interest to him. I asked Katie if she could deliver it for me. She agreed and the letter was given to His Holiness's minder following their brief meeting this week!

I have included the text below as it is the most concise and evocative statement of what we are trying to accomplish that I have come up with yet.

Your Holiness,

I am writing to tell you of the efforts of my friends and I to develop an operating economic system based on care for the environment and the development of altruistic good feelings in society.

While our achievements to date have been marginal, we believe we have stumbled upon some simple concepts which have profound potential to transform basic economic behaviour from the base of society on up. Most importantly, we have formulated a way to implement these changes, starting from local schools, in a straight forward and easy to understand manner that does not depend on governments or other intervening organisations. We hope to contribute to change so urgently needed to reduce the already calamitous impact of climate change and other associated impacts of our collective modern lifestyle.

Our initiative is called ‘The Maia Maia Project’ (a Maia Maia is the local Western Australian Nyungar people’s word for ‘house’). Our diverse and dynamic core group includes a retired head of an oil company, an environmental accountant, a sustainability educator, an architect/building biologist, an upper atmosphere physicist, an ex-government official for greenhouse gas reporting, an events coordinator, a green technology enthusiast, a marketer and business analyst, a statistician, a permaculturist, a nurse, and a community organiser. Alas no economist! Working together over the past two years we have developed the following approach.

It all starts with schools. As you opined during your last visit to our city Perth, leadership on the environment begins with educating children, then educating the media, and then finally our leaders will lead! Currently there is an established effort underway in Australia and other countries to educate children regarding ecological sustainability; our work extends this learning into the local community and the businesses that service them.

To begin the process, we first attract a group of concerned students, parents, and teachers. Together we make a promise to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by a certain amount. We then issue a local currency, designed by the children, the value of which is based on how many kilograms of greenhouse gases we reduced. In Western Australia we call these local notes “Booyas” (using a name suggested by a local Nyungar Elder for rock trading tokens previously used by his people).

When people and businesses exchange these “Booyas” they are recognising the kindness of each other in trying to reduce dangerous levels of greenhouse gas pollution that threaten us all equally. To allow a gradual start, businesses may accept only 1 Booya for every 9 Australian dollars and accept more as they get used to the idea. Businesses then have the option of donating the Booyas they accept (or any greenhouse gas reductions they or their suppliers achieve) to pay for various community and environmental projects. In return the businesses improve their public image which they can advertise. This virtuous circle allows a single action of reducing emissions to leverage many additional positive actions.

The economics of this process are based on three values.

Firstly, there is an immediate positive feeling that comes from performing an act of kindness for everyone in the world without discrimination through reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Especially for children there is a sense of empowerment from dealing directly with one of the biggest challenges their generation will face. The parents in our group identified this as the most important value.

The second value is an increase in community as the notes are exchanged and different parties recognise each other for their efforts. This shares the good feeling around and reinforces fragile and fragmented social bonds.

Lastly there is a very real economic value that can help people directly during these cash-strapped times. This value is actually more substantive than the values of existing national currencies. After all, "Booyas" in Western Australia can be directly and predictably exchanged with say, "Mani" from Tibet (perhaps based on non-polluting development) since they share an equivalent basis while this is not the case for other currencies. Also these currencies represent a measurable physical quantity associated with the well studied benefits arising from greenhouse gas reductions.

As your fellow Nobel Laureate Al Gore said in a public talk during his recent visit to Perth, the Chinese character for crisis is the combination of danger and opportunity, and this was his metaphor for dealing with the climate crisis. The well documented dangers of global warming (and other environmental disruptions) are immense and universal. It stands to reason that the opportunity arising must share these properties.

From this perspective, reducing the pollution in our atmosphere becomes the first and only globally recognised and identically valued economic commodity. Using a simple approach there appears to us to be the possibility for communities to access this wealth directly without the intercession of governments, corporations, and other intermediaries. But more importantly there is an opportunity for spiritual development. Those good feeling from helping others without discrimination, the result of altruism, are actually what determines the value and appeal of these currencies.

The Maia Maia Project is in its early stages, and while we have attracted a group of dedicated and accomplished people and had wide ranging discussions, we are yet to issue a single Booya. On behalf of the group I am therefore seeking your encouragement and insight to assist us in turning this dream into a reality.

My apologies for writing such a long letter given your busy schedule; I hope you have found it of interest.


Sam Nelson (Executive committee – The Maia Maia Project)