Comprehensive Sustainability

In the last edition of Gurukula Network, sustainability was presented as an important concept for developing global and local systems that benefit individuals, communities, and society as a whole. Two articles discussed sustainability in relation to Sarkar’s socio-economic theory (Prout) and his model rural projects for local development (Master Units). This article takes a deeper look at the conceptual problems of sustainable development and suggests a more comprehensive notion of sustainability, using Sarkar’s idea of progressive balance, or prama. 
The Path of Progressive Balance
By Howard Nemon

The arrival of the Gaia, a proto-type of a Viking ship, on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro in 1992, symbolically announced the beginning of the U.N.’s Earth Summit. The ship was appropriately named after James Lovelock’s hypothesis that the entire earth constitutes one living organism. Under the banner of UNICEF, the vessel carried thousands of messages of concern and hope from children around the world—messages for a better world.
The Summit, officially known as the UN’s Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), hosted over 120 heads of state who gathered in Brazil to formulate a global agenda for sustainable development. After decades of development efforts, the U.N. realized that unless the world adopted a more sustainable way of utilizing its resources, there would be no better world for our children. The result of the conference was the Agenda 21, a comprehensive action plan that addressed all major environmental problems. However, a progress report written by the U.N. in 2001 recognized that “…despite initiatives by Governments, international organizations, business, civil society groups and individuals to achieve sustainable development, progress towards the goals established at UNCED has been slower than anticipated, and in some respects conditions are actually worse than they were 10 years ago.”What went wrong? Certainly, the usual challenges were evident—lack of funding and political will to carry out the recommendations. However, there are also some fundamental difficulties in defining sustainable development and implementing it. A brief history of its evolution will be helpful. The first efforts in modern times to engage in what we now call “development” took place after World War II, when the U.S. pumped billions of dollars into the devastated economies of Europe and Japan. The idea behind this development model was that through the right infusion of capital and know-how, you could jumpstart a lagging economy. Although this was effective for the industrialized nations, it did not work for the emerging developing countries in the 1950-60s. One reason was that the countries of the North used their strength in the free market system to exploit weaknesses in the South. Additionally, the economic development model failed not only to improve material conditions in these countries, but it did little to address other major development problems, such as lack of political involvement, social chaos and violence, violations of human rights, and environmental destruction. Social development advocates in the 1970s tried to fuse economic programs with social causes, including greater civic participation and the building of local institutions. Instead of judging progress by increases in per capita income or GNP, this social development model would measure improvements in standards of living that reflected an array of social, political, cultural, and economic indexes. Yet by the 1980s, there was little to show in terms of real progress across all these indicators. When sustainable development was officially adopted by the UN later in that decade, it added the dimension of environmental stewardship to the long list of social and economic challenges. Unfortunately, since then, efforts to achieve sustainable development have run into a formidable wall.Challenge of Comprehensiveness
At the core of this development dilemma lies the idea of comprehensiveness, that is, a strategy capable of addressing all of these dimensions simultaneously. In reality, the concept of sustainability did not just add on environmental concerns; rather it established the importance of multiple, interdependent systems. The U.N.’s Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (aka the Brundtland Report) explained that: …[t]he pursuit of sustainable development requires:

  • A political system that secures effective citizen participation in decision making
  • An economic system that is able to generate surpluses and technical knowledge on a self-reliant and sustained basis
  • A social system that provides for solutions for the tensions arising from disharmonious development
  • A production system that respects the obligation to preserve the ecological base for development
  • A technological system that can search continuously for new solutions
  • An international system that fosters sustainable patterns of trade and finance
  • An administrative system that is flexible and has the capacity for self correction (p. 74)

These conditions would imply significant systemic changes at the international and national levels and hence were never universally adopted by the development community. Instead, they focused on the methodological challenges of integrating social, economic, and environmental development. Figure 1 illustrates these three spheres operating independently. The aim of sustainable development efforts was to somehow create strategies that would fulfill the objectives of all three (see Figure 2).

Each of these spheres is composed of numerous components, or sub-spheres, which are critical for the development process. The U.N., for example, has developed indicators of sustainable development which divide these spheres into ‘themes’, i.e. social themes (equity, health, security, education, housing, and population), environmental themes (atmosphere, land, oceans/seas/coasts, fresh water, bio-diversity), and economic themes (economic structure, consumption and production patterns). There are many configurations of sustainability indicators, but they generally fit into these three development spheres.Although it has become quite common for international and local organizations to speak about sustainable development, few have a clear idea how to achieve it. As Ramesh Bjonnes pointed out in his article, Prout’s Vision of Sustainability (see Gurukula Network, Oct. 2005), the logic of capitalism is to generate profits, not to resolve social or environmental problems. In the free market system, sustainability takes the back seat to short-term capital accumulation. And while social development specialists and environmentalists can easily articulate their respective priorities, they often lack the vision, knowledge, skills, and power to implement solutions that satisfy the triple bottom line, i.e. that simultaneously stimulate healthy economic activity, promote social welfare, and protect the environment.

Prama: An Alternate Paradigm

Sustainable development has provided a more visionary and comprehensive development paradigm than those before it. However, it has become everything for everyone and consequently is not able to provide clear and strategic guidelines for implementation. In 1987, the same year of the Brundtland Report, a small booklet was published in India that contained a series of lectures given by P. R. Sarkar on the topic of “prama”. While not a model of development per se, prama places sustainability within a larger conceptual framework and offers a clearer notion of what purpose it serves and how it can be achieved. Sarkar defined prama as a state of dynamic balance between individual and collective life as well as between the physical, mental, and spiritual spheres of human existence. A society is successful to the degree that it is able to sustain this balance. Sarkar’s ideas are useful for reconceptualizing both development and sustainability.There are two important distinctions between sustainable development and prama. First, development models have mainly concentrated on the physical sphere. Although Sarkar agrees that meeting basic physical needs is the first priority in any development process, he explains that human needs are mental and spiritual as well. According to the theory of prama, sustainability is only possible when current and future needs are met in all three spheres. Second, Sarkar explains that these needs are not static, but evolve over time in the direction of spiritual realization, the goal of human life. Development, then, is not simply a process towards greater technological sophistication or wealth accumulation, or even greater civic participation, but rather a movement towards the spiritual sphere, whilesimultaneously meeting physical and mental needs. Prama, then, represents a progressive balance that must first be established in the physical sphere, then the mental, and finally the spiritual.For Sarkar, each and every aspect of individual and collective existence has a physical, mental, and spiritual dimension. He symbolizes the balance between these three dimensions with a triangle, or trikon’a (Figure 3). Similar to sustainable development indicators, the physical, mental, and spiritual spheres are divided into sub-spheres which, in turn, can be composed of numerous sub-triangles. The physical sphere consists of sub-spheres that relate directly with the mundane world, such as agriculture, industry, trade, physical health, energy, water supply, etc. The mental sphere encompasses more subtle fields of human endeavor that
primarily involve mental functions, including the arts, philosophy, politics, psychology, and parapsychology. The divisions in the spiritual sphere are fewer and correspond to aspects of the spiritual endeavor. A perfect state of prama implies a balance within each level (sub-triangle, sub-sphere, and sphere) and between all levels.The sub-sphere of education will serve as a useful example. Sarkar explains that the “hard” sciences which relate directly to the mundane world (e.g. physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) are located in the physical sphere and the humanities, arts, and social sciences belong to the mental sphere. So, chemistry, which is a sub-triangle of the physical education sub-sphere, could be further analyzed into the sub-triangles of organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, physical chemistry, educational chemistry, and environmental chemistry. Remember that prama implies a balance within and between all triangles and spheres. Continuing with this example, in the field of biochemistry, the pursuit and production of specific pharmaceutical drugs must take into account its influence within and between all three spheres. Therefore, it is necessary to develop a proper balance within this sub-triangle (biochemistry), with other sub-triangles (fields of chemistry), between the sub-spheres in the physical sphere (education and health) and with the mental and spiritual spheres. In a similar way, the field of psychology, as an educational component of the mental sphere, could be divided into sub-fields or sub-triangles, and efforts made to attain and sustain prama within these disciplines would help to balance the mental sphere and its relationship to the physical and spiritual spheres.The Practice of Prama
From the above description, prama appears to be far more difficult to achieve than sustainable development. In truth, its scope and mission are broader and more complex. Yet prama is not a stand-alone construct; rather, it is an integrating framework for several theories and practices that Sarkar had already developed. Among these earlier contributions, three stand out as crucial to the task of materializing prama (see Figure 4). For the physical sphere, Sarkar’s socio-economic theory, PROUT, progressively utilizes material resources in order to meet current and future needs. Sarkar realized early on that capitalism was, in fact, the cause of many imbalances in this sphere and hence was an unsustainable system. For the mental sphere, neo-humanism cultivates a moral and spiritual bearing in intellectual and social activities and frees the intellect to pursue more creative and intuitive knowledge and solutions. For the spiritual sphere, a systematic and rational spiritual practice and ideology accelerates individual and collective movement towards self-realization.These three form a synergistic triangle that operates in all three spheres to establish prama. In the physical sphere, for instance, although PROUT may play a dominant role, neo-humanism helps to integrate economic, social, and environmental objectives while spiritual practices provides the necessary inspiration and direction. In the mental sphere, neo-humanism is central but PROUT provides guidance for maximum utilization of metaphysical and supramundane potentialities. In the spiritual sphere, Sarkar explains in his discussion on “pseudo-spirituality” that neo-humanism is required to remove dogmas that hamper spiritual development. Together, all three balance each sphere and harmonize the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of individual human life and society as a whole.Prama-based Education
Education is a basic requirement of life and a fundamental human right. No society can achieve prama without a proper educational system. What are the implications for education in a society striving to achieve prama? The following are possible strategies for bringing education into a state of prama:
• For Sarkar, an imbalanced society must begin with the physical sphere. Initially, there must be efforts to provide educational opportunities for everyone. Applying the principles of PROUT, adequate educational facilities and programs should be available to all, children and adults.
• In order to balance the physical, mental, and spiritual spheres, all educational fields (sub-triangles) need to study the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of their disciplines and research methods for bringing them into balance.
• The practical applications of PROUT, neo-humanism, and spiritual practice should be introduced into the educational system from the very beginning. Curricula from pre-school to post-doctorate must incorporate age-appropriate concepts to gradually develop a deep understanding of these theories and practices.
• Significant coordination and cooperation will be essential for balancing each academic discipline within its field and between other fields. Current educational institutions foment, rather that decrease, barriers between these disciplines. Prama-based education must strongly encourage inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary study and research to forge a more synergetic intellectual development and academic climate.
• Prama involves a transformation at both the individual and collective levels. Educational programs must assist teachers and students to achieve prama in their personal lives as well as within larger structures, e.g. social, economic, political, etc.

Towards a Sustainable Wholeness
The hope of sustainable development for a better world depended upon resolving the global problems in a more comprehensive way. Yet after years of disappointing efforts, some proponents recognize that the tools in their hands—the existing social and economic systems—are inadequate for achieving sustainability. Prama, one could argue, is a next step forward. Based on a more holistic understanding of human needs and an integrated development strategy, prama moves society not just towards a sustainable future, but towards one that creates greater individual and collective wealth, expands our mental horizons and possibilities, and elevates our spirits. In the true spirit of Gaia, Sarkar presents us with a conceptual framework that understands the inter-connectedness of all beings and systems and methodically moves us towards a state of wholeness through balance and progressive sustainability.

Bjonnes, Ramesh. (2005). “PROUT’s vision of sustainability”, Gurukula Network. Ithaca, NY: Ananda Marga Gurukula
Sarkar, P. R. (1982). Liberation of intellect: Neo-humanism. Calcutta: A’nanda Ma’rga Praca’raka Sam’gha
Sarkar, P. R. (1982). “Pseudo-spirituality and Neo-humanism”, in Neo-Humanism in a Nutshell Pt. 1. Calcutta: A’nanda Ma’rga Praca’raka Sam’gha
Sarkar, P. R. (1987). Prama. Calcutta: A’nanda Ma’rga Praca’raka Sam’gha
UN Economic and Social Council. (2001). Implementing Agenda 21. New York: United Nations
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