REMARKABLE PEOPLE, gerald barney

reprinted from the May 2000 issue of Thresholds Quarterly

Living to Meet the Needs of the Future Generations

While in Chicago during 1993’s Parliament of the World’s Religions, Thresholds Editor-in-Chief Barbara Condron met Dr. Gerald Barney. She was so drawn to the man and his mission that upon her return she reported Gerald Barney’s dream of uniting the world’s leaders in Thingvellir, Iceland in the summer 2000 [Thresholds Vol. 12, No. 1]. With the millennium quickly approaching, Dr. Barbara encouraged Senior Editor Dr. Laurel Clark to talk with Dr. Barney again. This month’s interview is a part of that conversation.
Gerald O. Barney earned a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in fusion energy physics and conducted postdoctoral research in environmental, demographic, and energy policy issues at Harvard and MIT. He headed the national program office of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and worked with former governors Nelson Rockefeller and Russell Peterson on the Commission for Critical Choices for Americans. After serving as editor and staff director of the Global 2000 Report to the President for the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, Dr. Barney formed the Millennium Institute in 1983. The non-profit Institute’s mission is “to help create the conditions for the peoples of the world to achieve a sustainable future for Earth and to use the energy of the year 2000 to begin building a diverse alliance committed to this task."

Thresholds: When you talk about a “sustainable, future for the Earth” what is your primary concern and how do you propose to help people in accomplishing it?

Barney: Well, I think the way I’d kind of describe it is to say that humans have reached numbers, just in terms of population and in their kind of lifestyle that they desire, and also the technology that they have, such that they’re doing an awful lot of damage to the planet as a whole. A third of the species of birds on the planet are gone, for example, and to kind of change that trend, I think is going to require some fairly major rethinking of the whole human enterprise. It involves values. It involves institutions. But in general, it’s a matter of coming to a point where we, not only live each generation in a way that meets our own needs but also allows future generations to meet their needs. But in some way also comes to look on humans as one of many species on the planet and that we have to take into account the need of these other species to live on the planet also.

Thresholds: What is your focus? Is it on educating individuals about this or is it more on a governmental level?

Barney: Well, there’s a couple of foci to our work, two things that we’re doing. One of them is fairly technical in nature and it involves developing computer simulation models that help governments and geos, big institutions - like the World Bank or the Islamic Development Bank or Inter-American Development Bank - any of these big institutions or the U.N. to have a better tool for achieving the lofty missions that they have. That’s a significant part of our work. It’s going very well.
The other part is simply based on the notion that, at least in my experience, going around the world I find a lot of places where people say, ‘I know we have to change, and we will change, just as soon as those people over there change.’ Different groups are waiting for someone else to start things. And it occurred to me that perhaps there would be a way in which we could find a time when everyone would make some of these changes together, at the same time. The best opportunity I see for that for quite a long time is the trend of the millennium on this common calendar that we’re increasingly sharing around the world. We’re looking at the possibility that there could be a series of meetings in 1999, 2000, 2001 that would help to bring that about. Those meetings are taking shape and coming together pretty well, so I’m increasingly confident that we’ll be able to do that. And related to that series of meetings is also the idea of millennium gifts.

Thresholds: One thing that I didn’t see in your literature was a gifting ceremony in Iceland that we remembered you addressing at Parliament. Is that still in the works?

Barney: It is. Let’s start first with the meetings. I think that, well that the first one that we’re working closely with is being organized by a group called Catalyst. They are a group of young students, law students at Georgetown University that are building a network of students all over the world and planning a meeting in the spring of 1999 for the purpose of putting together a kind of vision statement of what young people would like the world to be that they are going to live in. I find it hard to imagine that that’s not going to be a world in which there’s some peace and some justice and some sustainability. I think it will be an inspiring kind of document that they produce.
That in turn will go to the Parliament of the World Religions in December of 1999 in South Africa and there the assembly of religious and spiritual leaders will consider that document along with the Declaration of Global Ethic that came from Parliament in 1993. And [the next step is to] develop a call, a request that will go to what I think of as the five major, kind of guiding institutions that we humans have invented, mainly governments, the big religious institutions, the businesses, media and education. I think those five institutions, thought of in a very broad sense, really, will in a very major way shape the kind of possibilities that we have for our future. So the Parliament is going to be issuing a call to these institutions for constructive, creative dialogue about how to achieve the kind of future that young people would like to achieve.
Then coming to Iceland and 2000, we’ve had a series of meetings there and I think that’s all going to work out. But it does take the Icelanders a little time to kind of think about these things. The proposal is moving more in the direction of not just being heads of state and spiritual leaders, but representatives of all of these big guiding institutions, together with non-governmental organizations and the ceremony in effect would create an alliance, some bonding between the groups. And a preliminary plan at least as to how to take the ideas, the vision that the young people have, and convert it into a series of steps that over the course of the twenty-first century, might actually succeed in creating the kind of world that young people dream about. And that would occur, probably in late June or early July, in Iceland.
Then going back into the southern hemisphere, Costa Rica has expressed interest in organizing a meeting that would occur on the first day of the new millennium, January 1st, of the year 2001. And it may turn out to be a meeting that takes place, not in a particular town or village but is distributed all over the world and would be a way of involving young people in their own community, just throughout the world and use that first day to allow emerging youth leaders to call out the whole community and share with the whole community the vision that young people have for their future and something about what it would mean for their own particular community. Then to do something with the parents’ and the grandparents’ generation, the generations come together to work on a very specific project. Maybe it’s painting the schoolhouse, or maybe it’s building a playground, or cleaning up the debris in a stream. Whatever it might be that is needed in that community. But to do one specific thing in the context of trying to move toward the vision that young people have for their century. And it would be a way for the parents' and the grandparents’ generation to participate in passing their values across into this new era that their children and grandchildren will be leading. So, that’s how the Iceland idea fits in, in that sequence.

Thresholds: And the gifts that you were talking about?

Barney: We’re finding that everybody wants to be involved in this and I think that’s a very good thing that they do. So the gifts are really in a way a reflection of the fact that there’s something each and every one of us can do. And we have issued a call, and in fact our board meeting just finished, has decided to step up and increase our level of activity on this. But in essence, we’re asking people everywhere to think of what they might be able to contribute by way of what we call the millennium gift, is doing something now that would help to make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren in this new century.
In particular, we are focused on an initiative to try to solicit two thousand major gifts by the year two thousand and to be able to announce those probably at the Parliament of the World Religions. Some examples might be helpful. One kind of sequence of gifts that we’re hoping will take place is that Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President of Costa Rica is asking nations around the world to make commitments to reducing the number of arms that they have and the arms that they sell to developing countries. So there’s a lot of ways in which countries could do that. Another, I think major gift that could be made is, nations committing themselves to rid the world of land mines. They do so much damage to young children and to mothers. It’s children and mothers that are most often damaged by them. And there’s also an effort to identify some of the most unpayable of the international debts, and get those forgiven. Those might be examples of some things that would make a really major difference in terms of the prospects for the future.

Thresholds: That makes a lot of sense. In your literature you talked about an alliance that you have formed or are in the process of forming, The Millennium Alliance? What is its purpose?

Barney: We are in the process of kind of rethinking this a little bit. What prompted this is that, we’ve discovered that there are quite a number of alliances already in existence and, so the question arises, what need is there for yet another alliance? I think that there is a need, and the reason is that the existing alliances are focused on relatively narrow parts of the overall task of achieving sustainability and peace and justice. There are alliances that are working on land mines, there are alliances that are working to save a particular piece of land and so forth.
The kind of alliance that I think is going to be needed to achieve what we’re hoping for in the twenty-first century, is something that’s going to have to embrace human rights and efforts to get rid of corruption. Its going to have to embrace taking care of children and getting poverty eliminated. It has to be a fairly broader kind of coalition, with a depth of understanding that is greater than what I think we’ve been able to achieve to date. I’m hoping that really the place where the alliance will begin to take place and come together in a significant way would be at the meeting in Iceland and that it would involve not just NGO’s, but representatives of religion, business, of governments, of education and of the media. Those five really big institutions all kind of coming together and saying, “There are ways in which we can help each other to achieve the kind of future that we are looking for.”

Thresholds: And if people who are reading this magazine are interested in participating in this, either individually or if they are part of a group or institution, what do people need to do so that they can participate?

Barney: Well, I’d say, each community needs to have a group that’s doing something other than a big party for the year 2000. We need leaders in every community that would help organize something like that and we’re collecting on our web site some materials that are helpful for people getting started in building a community activity. So that’s certainly one way that people can be engaged.
Another is to think about what is the gift that our community could make, or needs to make? What could we do that would make a real difference for the future? And just starting some discussions of this sort. We’ve got a lot of respect for the Green Planning Movement and the Natural Step and the Global Action Plan. Each one of those groups on a personal or an individual or on a community basis has got very specific programs that would help a person or a small group get involved. Again on our web page, there are lists of groups that have projects underway, for example, the World Life Fund is trying to get land set aside for protecting endangered species. And that might be a way in which a person or group would like to be involved in one of those kinds of efforts.

Thresholds: Are there plans already in the works for people or communities to use less of the resources, less waste? One of the things that you talked about was your concern about having more people and more technology ... we’re using up a lot of the resources that we have. What are people doing in that regard?

Barney: Yes. One of the best I think is one of the groups that I just mentioned, The Global Action Plan, which works on kind of a household basis, to build enthusiasm for and support for personal change that leads one to live a simpler life and to consume less. That’s one of the best in this regard. The Natural Step Group is working on a little larger scale, working on corporations. It’s a way in which individuals can come together to help and encourage, support corporations that are making moves in this direction.

"We’re asking people contribute by way of what we call the millennium gift...doing something now that would help to make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren in this new century.

Thresholds: In the School of Metaphysics we have initiated what we call the Universal Hour of Peace and we’ve been asking people all over the world, in fact in the institutions that you’re talking about, government, religions, business to dedicate their thoughts and actions to peace for one hour on the first of January. We’ve been doing that for a couple of years now because we believe that if people will do that for just one hour, in whatever way they do it, eventually they will realize they can do it for a day, a year or a week, they can live that way.

Barney: Or a lifetime.

Thresholds: Yes, a lifetime. We put together what we call a Universal Peace Covenant, drawn from a series of meetings of people who’ve identified what they believe are universal principles of peace. That’s something that we would be interested in offering, if we could be a part this alliance or somehow help in what you’re doing.

Barney: Oh, I think absolutely. I’m going to share all this material that you’ve given me with Philip Bogdonoff, our vice-president and he is the person who has taken the responsibility to keep the web site together and promote things like your Universal Hour of Peace. I think he would be interested in that.

Thresholds: What ways are you helping, or able to help with nations who are making their plans for the future? I know you have quite a bit in your literature about a computer program that can help them. What does it really help them to do in terms of how they plan their government and what they do?

Barney: There’s no way that we humans can operate without models. And most of the models we use are what I would call mental models. There are some sort of set of assumptions, ideas and facts or perceived facts that we carry around in our head. And some of our heads end up in places that have a lot more influence than others do; a greater amount of influence. A Minister of Planning or Secretary of Treasury or a Speaker of the House or a President. The mental models they have are quite influential. And as good as those mental models are, they have a limitation that it’s pretty hard for anyone else to understand what’s really there. And they keep changing; they’re not easily communicated.
The computer gives you an opportunity to have a kind of model that can be shared and used with other people. Until recently those computer models were only available for very wealthy, very powerful people, because they required mainframe computers. They just weren’t accessible. And the computers have gotten so inexpensive that they are much more readily available to a much wider group of people. But in addition, the software’s changed radically. These models, which in the past have been really very difficult to understand are much, much easier to understand now. So the work that we’ve been doing is to find some of the best models that are available today, and try to get them into a form in which more and more people can use them for constructive purposes.
We have in our library something over three hundred different models that can be used in one aspect or another of running a country. Everything from designing highways and sewage systems to managing economies, things of that sort. And what we have done is to pick one of the most influential models in the world. First of all, to make it easier to understand and use, and then to modify it to eliminate some of the assumptions that don’t seem justified any more like economic growth being possible without the attention to the health and welfare of people or the environment, to bring those factors into the model. The model I’m speaking of in particular is the World Bank’s revised minimum standard model. We have studied that model for four years and I think at this point, understand it far better than most people including many people at the bank. It had in it one equation in particular that implicitly assumed some things about humans and about the environment that seemed kind of out-of-date at this point. We have removed that equation and replaced it with one that makes it possible to include human needs and the needs of the environment in the model. That model is now getting quite a lot of attention, the new one, from not just the World Bank but also the United Nations and individual countries. We have it operating in five countries and it looks very likely that Italy will be the sixth country and there are several countries in Africa and Asia and Latin America that are also showing interest in beginning to use it.
Maybe another short way to try to answer this is to say that the original World Bank model answered a question that is, “if you want the country to grow at a given percentage rate, how much foreign investment does it need?” Implicit in that question is the assumption that it doesn’t make any difference where you invest the money. It could be in tanks, or it could be in schools, or it could be in shoe factories, and implicitly the assumption in the model is that it doesn’t make any difference. Also implicit in the question as it’s addressed there is that you don’t need anything other than capital to make the country grow. You don’t need labor, you don’t need a clean, healthy environment, you don’t need resources. So what we’ve done is we’ve formulated that part of the model so that it can finally ask and answer the question of, “how much investment do you need?” but it can also ask questions about where would that investment best go...would it go best to schools or hospitals or to new factories or to highways or to Internet, where would it best go? And show the consequences.

Thresholds: You have talked about people changing the way they look at human beings. Do you have kind of a capsule of what you see human beings to be, what their potential is? What they are here for? I mean, what kind of assumptions or viewpoint about people and the human race is helpful to people?

Barney: Well, I think the human race is, or the human species is, one of a great number and that collectively the life shown in species is a rather marvelous expression of a creative process that seems to have been going on for a few billion years. And seems as best we can tell, rather unique. We are beginning to see evidence that there are planets around some other stars, but in all the searching that has been done, there does not seem to be any place that is anywhere near as exciting and friendly to life as planet Earth, for a very, very long way, many thousands of light years. And it seems to me that as part of the whole overall creation that seems to have come into being, that has the ability to think and to think ahead, plan, imagine, that we have a pretty special responsibility not only to care for each other but to care for all life on this planet and to care for seeing that the development that has taken place can continue well into the future.

" seems to me that as part of the whole overall creation that seems to have come into being, that has the ability to think and to think ahead, plan, imagine, that we have a pretty special responsibility not only to care for each other but to care for all life on this planet and to care for seeing that the development that has taken place can continue well into the future."

Thresholds: It may seem kind of obvious, but I think that a lot of people don’t even think about that fundamental question, who we are, and why we’re here and what we have to live for. It seems like those kinds of questions are very important to be able to do what you’re talking about.

Barney: Absolutely. And well, I think through religions, particularly the origin stories, destiny stories of religion, that people get their sense of who they are and why they’re here and what they are to do, that sort of thing. I think that as time goes on whatever religious background we come from, we would all be well served by spending some time reflecting on some of those fundamental teachings that we’ve been given.

Thresholds: I think that’s very sound advice.•

©1997 Vol. 15 No. 4

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