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A chain reaction of empowerment

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Humanity today is confronted by a bewildering array of threats, perhaps none more pressing than climate change.

In September, a summit attended by the leaders of more than 120 nations was held at the United Nations to debate responses to the challenge of climate change. What was remarkable was the extent of popular awareness and commitment to the process: Two days before the start of the summit, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of New York demanding greater action to combat climate change.

What is true for climate change is true for other threats. We of course need focused political leadership if we are to avoid worst-case outcomes, but even more, we need the united action of citizens throughout the world. Only the solidarity of ordinary people can propel a process of questioning and reconsidering how our societies work, and whose needs they serve, on the most basic level. The key to overcoming the crises we face lies in strengthening and deploying the resilience of all sectors of human society, unleashing people’s innate capacity to transform even the most difficult conditions into the impetus for the creation of a better future.

I am convinced that education, in the most inclusive sense of the word, can play a vital role in generating enhanced resilience and forging solidarity among people committed to building a sustainable global society.

This year is the final year of the U.N. Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), an occasion that is being marked by the UNESCO World Conference on ESD being held in Nagoya next week, preceded by stakeholder meetings already under way in Okayama.

The document describing the Global Action Program on ESD, which will be launched at the Nagoya conference, states: “Sustainable development cannot be achieved by political agreements, financial incentives or technological solutions alone.

Sustainable development requires changes in the way we think and act. Education plays a crucial role in bringing about this change.”

I strongly agree: Renewed efforts to promote ESD must be centered on empowering and inspiring people to action. The pursuit of sustainability can only be achieved when people are motivated by their own clear goals, such as the determination to protect what is of great personal value or to leave the future a meaningful legacy.

When each individual embraces a concrete image of the future, and shares this with others in their local sphere of action and concern, the inner energies and potentials of humanity are unleashed and fully realized.

The real value of empowerment through learning lies in its ability to spark such chain reactions of spontaneous and self-motivated action.

One of the most compelling examples of this is the tree-planting movement initiated by the late environmental activist, Dr. Wangari Maathai, whom I was privileged to call a friend. The movement that she started in Kenya has since spread throughout the world and has now been responsible for the planting of more than 10 billion trees.

Undergirding this success was the stress that Maathai always placed on empowerment, ensuring that each participant be convinced of the validity of the activity and feel a concrete sense of accomplishment. In the same way, the path to a sustainable global society will only be firmly established if it is paved with the pride and joy felt by each individual as they take on challenges in their immediate surroundings.

In a sense, nothing extraordinary is required to protect the place we love or to transmit our vision to the future. This is illustrated by a story I recently heard of a woman in her 60s living in Okayama. She was able to recover from a state of profound despair following the tragic death of her husband thanks to the support and encouragement of her local community. The mountain village in which she lives has been suffering from depopulation and is on the verge of dissolution. Out of her sense of appreciation and the desire to give something back to the community, she started volunteering at an elderly care facility and visiting the homes of older people who might otherwise become isolated.

Describing the joy of those she serves as her own joy, she demonstrates how a single empowered individual can begin a process of transformation.

The most effective way of deepening our sense of responsibility to the future as inhabitants of Earth is by making persistent efforts to confront the realities and meet the challenges in our own local community, the stage on which we act out the drama of our lives.

This in itself is the work of creating a sustainable society.

More than anything, the world needs people who have awakened to their own inner potential and are taking proactive steps to transform their surroundings. The experience of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development has demonstrated the power of education to empower people in this way.

Nothing is more crucial than the learning that occurs when people plant their feet firmly in the soil of their local community and share their concerns and visions for the future with friends and neighbors, becoming the protagonists of change.

Civil society efforts to promote ESD have seen successes in communities throughout the world. The challenge now is for more and more individuals to make a personal commitment to strengthen and expand this network of concern. For this reason, I look forward to a significant and fruitful outcome from next week’s UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development.

Daisaku Ikeda is president of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Buddhist association and founder of Soka University and the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research.