Volume 1 Number 10
International Relations
01 June 1988

Members of 44 parliaments joined world-renowned scientists. The press noted Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. But was it in any way memorable?

Oxford is no stranger to assemblies both controversial and colourful. In April one such gathering flowed in and out of the college precincts of Christ Church and the adjacent Town Hall.

A Global Conference of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival, it was called. Members of 44 parliaments joined world-renowned scientists. The press noted Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. But was it in any way memorable? One more source of hot air? Or possibly a new powerhouse?

Over the assembly hung a portrait of our Earth. Seen from space, its fabulous, fragile beauty fed the imagination and assisted the spoken word. In its shadow Carl Sagan, veteran American planner of space exploration, spoke of the Earth's apparently unique harbouring of life, and of the risks to which we are subjecting it. The lethal dangers we face, he said, know no frontiers. Local solutions no longer count. What price our causes and our plans if there is no Earth to house them?

Cardinal Koenig of Vienna diagnosed the nature of the world crisis. `We are in a crisis of growth,' he said. An important steer: the priorities dictated by growth differ from those called for by decay or disease, however desperate.

The emphasis was not on blue-prints but on energy. There was fresh thought in regard to food supplies, industrial reponsibility, population issues, education. To carry such ideas into action requires determined people, capable of thinking and acting in a global perspective.

20,000 trees
Yet everything in our societies is geared to smaller loyalties. It is quite impractical to expect changes of this dimension within the somewhat narrow range of motives called upon by most of our political planners.

In this assembly the weight of fear, the lethargy of despair, the frustration of protest were notably absent. Nor was self-interest much in evidence: it was hard to see that anyone was getting much out of it. We were into a different range of motivation, tapping other sources of energy.

The initiative for the gathering came from the political side. But it was the spiritual leaders who fielded a first-division team: one could call it the Assisi team. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of last year's meeting convened there by the Pope. As the Dalai Lama greeted Mother Teresa, Cardinal Koenig and others, it was apparent that something had grown between them which was more than politeness: a warmth of cooperation, a mutual reinforcement of hope and purpose that transcended many barriers in a common aim.

Could this be the start of a wider teamwork which could raise more players in a world league? The points of interaction between races and regions, said Sagan, have tended to be `competitive - with brief interludes of amity'. International relations are not only a spectator sport these days. Everyone is on at least one such interface.

Trees featured largely in the assembly. The High Priest of the Trees from Togo led a morning meditation amid the severe stonework of Christ Church's Peckwater Quad. The family hobby of a famous scientist is tree-planting - score 20,000. Kenya's Wangari Maathai spoke passionately of her Green Belt Movement which has helped 15,000 women and children plant trees and seedlings. The key role played by forests in the recycling of the waters of the Earth - which, along with air, keep us all alive - indicates that this is no mere sentimentality.

Hanging above it all, that entrancing vision of the globe, a photograph taken by the first scientist to set foot on another world. Is it possible to fall head over heels in love with the glimpse of a new world - or rather of one still in process of creation? Some such act of joyous commitment is common to the artist, to the scientist and to the young of every age and race. It is one of the greatest known sources of sustained energy.

It is the dynamics of such energy-releases that the `Assisi team' deal with. People who undergo such an experience will be still fighting their way forward a lifetime hence. Each road of faith deals with the conditions of whole-hearted giving, and the disciplines which make it renewable. And each in its own terms values the gifts of Creation or Creator. For the Catholic, there is the warning of `sins against Creation'. To the Muslim, man is steward, not lord, of the Earth. `I call the Earth my mother,' said the Dalai Lama. `She tells us, "Take care of me."'

The conference itself grew out of a conversation 15 years ago between Prime Minister Kishi of Japan and a young colleague. Kishi deplored the lack of initiatives in the fields of population and development. Akio Matsumura gave up his political ambitions and moved into the field of international welfare. He began to organize working groups of parliamentarians on these issues, and today there are such groups in 46 countries.

Listening to him, I recalled a morning more than 50 years ago in this same Oxford Town Hall. A renowned philosopher was speaking. In the Thirties, only an elite few took in the shattering significance of the atomic discoveries then being made. Professor BH Streeter was one who did so. Well before the nuclear bomb, he could see that `man who has grown up intellectually must grow up morally or perish'. His response was a new commitment: he had given his life, he said, `to make eternal truths plain to men's minds'. Now he would aim to 'make them effective in their lives'. Streeter, with his sharp mind, his humour and love of people, would have enjoyed the company gathered at the Human Survival Forum. Its effects will be lasting if the type of decision he made grips the wills of others, who through the years will not be disobedient to the vision.

Dr Charis Waddy is the Australian-born author of 'The Muslim Mind' and 'Women in Muslim History'.