Building Sustainable Societies

by Daisaku Ikeda, President, Soka Gakkai International



The following is excerpted from SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2014 peace proposal. The full proposal and those of previous years can be viewed at

In light of the increasing incidence of disasters and extreme weather events in recent years, there has been growing stress on the importance of enhancing the resilience of human societies—preparing for threats, managing crises and facilitating recovery.

Resilience is, of course, a term originally derived from physics, describing the elasticity or ability of a material to return to its original form after having been subjected to an external stress. By analogy, resilience has come to be used in a wide range of fields to express the capacity of societies to recover from severe shocks, such as environmental destruction or economic crisis. In the case of natural disasters, improving resilience means enhancing the entire spectrum of capacities—from efforts to prevent and mitigate damage to measures that aid the afflicted and support the often long and laborious process of recovery.

Volunteers help clear debris from a home destroyed by a tornado in Joplin, Missouri, USA, on May 27, 2011 [© Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

To this end, policy and institutional responses—such as strengthening the seismic resistance of structures and renewing outdated infrastructure—are of course important. But the human element is also critical. As the American writers Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy have written, “In our travels, wherever we found strong social resilience, we also found strong communities.”

We need to recognize the importance of fostering, on a day-to-day basis, the “social capital” of interconnection and networks among people living in a locality. More than anything, the will and vitality of the people living in the community are key.

The Possibilities of Resilience

Resilience is one of the topics in my ongoing dialogue with the peace researcher and activist Professor Kevin P. Clements. We agree that it is not enough to respond after the fact, as is often the case with natural disasters; it is necessary to effect a transformation of the very foundations of society, to move from a culture of war to a culture of peace, as has been called for by the United Nations.

If we are to realize the rich possibilities inherent in the concept of resilience, we will need to expand and recast our understanding of what it means. Resilience, in other words, should not be thought of as simply our capacity to prepare for and respond to threats. Rather, we should think of it in terms of realizing a hopeful future, rooted in people’s natural desire to work together toward common goals and to sense progress toward those goals in a tangible way. It should be seen as an integral aspect of humankind’s shared project to create the future—a project in which anyone anywhere can participate and which lays the solid foundations for a sustainable global society.

On the occasion of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), I emphasized that a renewed focus on humanity, reforming and opening up the inner capacities of our lives, is key to enabling effective change and empowerment on a global scale.

This is what we in the SGI call human revolution. Its focus is empowerment that brings forth the limitless possibilities of each individual. As such, the full significance of human revolution is not realized while it remains confined to a change in the inner life. Rather, the courage and hope that arise from this inner change must enable people to face and break through even the most intractable realities, a process of value creation that ultimately transforms society. The steady accumulation of changes on the individual and community levels paves the path for humanity to surmount the global challenges we face.

related article Soka Gakkai in America: Focused on Servant Leadership and Dialogic Teaching Soka Gakkai in America: Focused on Servant Leadership and Dialogic Teaching by  William Aiken,  director of public affairs, SGI-USA Reflecting upon the SGI-USA community, William Aiken provides a Buddhist perspective on the future trends for religion in the US. As research into the nature of resilience has advanced in recent years, the importance of a number of factors has come into clearer focus. Zolli and Healy, for example, describe their findings:

Resilient communities frequently relied . . . on informal networks, rooted in deep trust, to contend with and heal disruption. Efforts undertaken to impose resilience from above often fail, but when those same efforts are embedded authentically in the relationships that mediate people’s everyday lives, resilience can flourish.

The difficulty, however, is the continuing erosion of social capital—the interwoven fabric of human relationships. For it is this fabric that provides a necessary site for the fostering of networks rooted in the deep trust that mediates people’s everyday lives. It fulfills a crucial buffering function, without which individuals are directly exposed to the impacts of various threats and challenges that confront society as a whole. Absent this social capital, people are forced to face these threats in isolation—whether with despairing withdrawal or steely determination to prioritize personal welfare. The economic philosopher Serge Latouche has called for a more humane society (une société décente), one that will help restore the dignity of those who have been left behind in the midst of cutthroat economic competition. To this end, he stresses the importance of an ethics of conviviality, the simple taking of pleasure in each other’s company.

Ripples of Positive Impact

The Buddhist teachings contain a phrase that resonates with this concept: “Joy means delight shared by oneself and others.” The vision that we must place at the heart of contemporary society is one in which, through the sharing of joy, we create a world more noted for the warm light of dignity than the cold gleam of wealth, a world of empathy marked by the resolute refusal to abandon those who suffer most deeply.

A volunteer helps rebuild shelters for people following the January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti [© Antonio Bolfo/Getty Images]

Effecting this kind of fundamental change in society would be difficult under any circumstance, and it may seem virtually impossible in view of the increasingly attenuated bonds between people evident at all levels. To overcome this, I think we need to reaffirm our confidence in the true nature of human society. Perhaps no one expressed this more aptly than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68) as he struggled for the cause of human dignity:

We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny . . . We are made to live together . . .

The Buddhist concept of “dependent origination” resonates with Dr. King’s call. However tenuous our connections may appear on the surface, this does not change the fact that the world is woven of the profound bonds and connections of one life to another. It is this that makes it at all times possible for us to take the kind of action that will generate ripples of positive impact across the full spectrum of our connections.

The writer Rebecca Solnit, who has traveled to disaster sites throughout the world, cited the following conditions that make it more likely that people will engage in mutually supportive activities in the face of disaster: “You have to feel like part of a community, that you have a voice, agency, that you are able to participate.”

These conditions are at the same time crucial to calling forth—both in times of crisis and its absence—the aspect of humanity that Dr. King described when he said that we are made to live together. And they are the conditions for creating an expanding solidarity of action toward the resolution of problems.

Human dignity does not shine in isolation. It comes to full brilliance through our efforts to cast a bridge connecting the opposing banks of self and other. In the teachings of Buddhism we find these words: “If you light a lantern for another, it will also brighten your own way.” Actions taken to illuminate the dignity of others inevitably generate the light that reveals our own highest aspects. However difficult our situation or profound our anguish, we always retain the capacity to light the flame of encouragement.

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