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December 7, 2011

Professor Elke Weber Talks Environment with the Dalai Lama

Columbia Business School Professor Elke Weber met with the Dalai Lama as one of 10 behavioral and climate scholars and scientists who discussed ecology, ethics, and interdependence during a five-day workshop in October in Dharamsala, India.

Topics: Leadership

Columbia Business School Professor Elke Weber met with the Dalai Lama as one of 10 behavioral and climate scholars and scientists who discussed ecology, ethics, and interdependence during a five-day workshop in October in Dharamsala, India.

Weber shared her experience with students and faculty and staff members during a lunch event organized by the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business on Tuesday, December 6. The October workshop, organized by the Colorado-based Mind & Life Institute, featured conversations on environmental issues with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist leaders and scholars. Weber said the Dalai Lama, who has previously focused on the effects of meditation on the brain, has been particularly interested in the science behind global warming for the last few years.

“The Dalai Lama is the most science-literate person I’ve met in a long time,” said Weber, the Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business. “He is a genuinely interested person and very much in-the-moment when you’re with him.”

With about 100 people in attendance, Weber said she began her conversation with the Dalai Lama by speaking in English slowly and simply as she’d been instructed to make up for any language confusion (an interpreter was also present). The pair then addressed their first topic: why don’t people act on environmental problems?

“Action doesn’t always just come from awareness,” Weber said. She explained that even when people want to act, they often don’t know which actions will be most effective; when considering changing light bulbs or voting for sustainable public policies, for example, people often end up doing neither. In addition, human capacity for worry and attention is limited, “so we tend to focus on the here and now, and what will help us survive to tomorrow,” Weber said. Anxiety and denial — and a cultural distrust of science in the United States, Weber noted — also create barriers to action.

“There are few truly evil individuals or companies that want to destroy planet Earth,” Weber said. “We just have other, conflicting goals that are more immediate.”

Weber said the Dalai Lama believes the Buddhist idea of reframing — for instance, focusing on the positive benefits of environmental decisions instead of the negative costs — can help enable people to take action. He is also interested in how the Tibetan monastic community can inspire people through role-modeling and social imitation; if villagers see a monk picking up trash off the street, for example, they are likely to follow suit. The monks have also instituted such environmentally friendly practices in their monasteries as separate receptacles for recycling. Weber and the Dalai Lama also discussed how making environmentally friendly choices automatic — positioning a vegetarian meal option as the default rather than more traditional meat choices, for example — can have a significant effect.

Weber said she learned a great deal about Buddhism and walked away from the experience with a fondness for the Dalai Lama as a person.

“I’d never been more scared in my entire life (before meeting him),” Weber said. “But he’s a really warm human being who emanates goodness, and he’s an extremely funny man.”

Watch Weber’s conversation with the Dalai Lama.

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