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Respecting biodiversity

Updated Monday, 30th November 2009

While attending the Faith and Climate Change Conference in London, Dr Atul Shah, CEO Diverse Ethics, takes time to explain how respecting human values and biodiversity can be a basis for overcoming environmental challenges.

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Interviewer: My first question is just to ask you about how you became engaged in environmental issues?

Atul Shah: I was born as a Jain, and every Jain is an environmentalist by birth. In fact it is said that the Jains are the oldest environmentalists on the planet. As I heard and read about the damage being done to the environment by Man I became more active in the whole area and, in particular, I focused with working with the Jain community and the young people globally to motivate them, to understand their faith and their wisdom, and then to promote the values.

Because I feel very strongly that the Jains have a very sustainable way of life, which is very old and not built on fear. It was a life which was built on this principle of universal equality and respect for all living beings across the universe, not just this planet but across the universe. And we have a philosophy, an intricate philosophy woven around that, but also of a lived experience, and history, stories, poetry, literature, art, is filled with compassion for all living beings. And I am also very upset about the whole language of global warming and how human-centric it is.

“Oh something is happening to us humans, we will die if we don’t do something, we must do something now to be able to protect ourselves!” And I think that that will not lead us in the right direction. We must understand what it is that has lasted, what has survived, what ideas are sustainable and what respect is sustainable. And in my day-to-day work with the social enterprise, Diverse Ethics - I’m a writer, broadcaster, I’ve written a book on social cohesion - I try to promote these values, not always using the Jain label but to encourage society to understand ancient wisdoms and the timeless messages for today.

Interviewer: Can I ask where you think that your work will be going across the next one year, five years, ten years?

Atul: I’m very optimistic. I’m setting up a portal, an internet portal for the ideas and thinking that I have developed over the years, and I’m going to engage in a global conversation, especially working with leaders of organisations and governments to help them to see a new vision, to help them understand about sustainable leadership and to help them to embrace biodiversity in its truest sense.

The name Diverse Ethics actually has been thought because of this reason that I feel that actually diversity begins with biodiversity rather than human diversity. Most of the people who work in the diversity arena again focus purely on humans, but our starting point is biodiversity. And actually I think if we can develop respect for an insect, we can respect people of colour, of disability, we can respect different genders without any problems.

Interviewer: And looking five to ten years out, not just at your own work but the wider conversation in the faith communities about environmental change, what sort of impact do you anticipate for them? What sort of role do you think they’re going to play across the next ten years?

Atul: I hope that those who are active in the whole environmental movement, globally, can draw strength from the existence of a spiritual philosophy of ecology and environmental protection, and that this strength can give them empowerment to continue their work and to be more creative. I hope to reduce their fears and their anxieties about the environment to help them become more loving and natural and respectful to the environment without necessarily having to become violent to protect nature. And I think that will happen.

So many signs are already there, I could never have expected a vegetarian diet to become something of a global conversation in my lifetime, but that conversation has started. And what I would like to do is to not just say to everyone you should stop eating meat; I would like to use my Jain oral recipe book of the thousands of varieties of delicious vegetarian food which we can cook, which is nourishing, which is creative, which is tasteful and share it with the whole world. We have developed it within our faith and community over thousands of years, but now that recipe book is open to the whole world, and I’d like to be one of the instruments of sharing it.

Interviewer: Thank you. And my last question is really to invite you to comment on where you place yourself on a sliding scale from optimist to pessimist looking at the next ten years?

Atul: Pessimist from a human perspective. I’m a pessimist, but I still don’t think that I should worry about that. At the moment and in my time I should do what is right for the planet and not think too far as to the end goal or the direction in which this will lead us, but I am very pessimistic.

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