How The Light Gets In Festival: Club of Rome's Ian Johnson On Moving Forward The Debate

HowTheLightGetsIn, the philosophy and music festival at Hay-on-Wye, has just finished its fifth outing. To find out how the festival went for one newcomer, The Huffington Post UK sat down with Club of Rome Secretary General Ian Johnson.

Johnson, who has over thirty years experience in economic development and spent twenty-six years at the World Bank, chaired just a few of the 450 events at this year's festival, sparking values-based debate on topics such as politics, power, and religion, utopias and the environment.

Global think tank Club of Rome was founded in 1968, describing itself "a group of world citizens, sharing a common concern for the future of humanity". It was in 2010 that Johnson was appointed Secretary General. Here's how HowTheLightGetsIn will affect its future...

How would you describe Club of Rome to the average person in the street?

“Probably not very well. It’s a long-standing informal club of a hundred experts, world leaders of varying kinds. We have honoree members and active members. Many come from academia or business. They are all connected in a sense of being concerned about the future of humanity. It ranges from people worried about future energy, future of business the future of population etc. But they are all kind of connected with a concern of the future of humanity… it’s more of a technical and strategic group rather than philosophical."

What’s your biggest fear when it comes to the future of humanity?

“I think you’ve got to be cautious about disentangling a sweep of issues which mutually reinforce one another. The financial crisis is also a climate change crisis – if you can’t get finance into the real economy to invest in change then you won’t invest in climate change… our thinking is all about underlying causes.

"When we started we thought of the underlying causes very much as the economy and its link with the financial sector and the need to really rejig our economy to provide the right kinds of incentives… The more we thought about this we realised the issue is not what is economic growth but what is economic growth for? One is a technical question and the other is a values question, we really needed to encourage the normative side of the debate.

"So we’ve been making a very big push to really start a dialogue on values. What are the values and beliefs that will drive us forward? It’s my absolute conviction now that if we don’t get that right we can do all the studies in the world but we won’t make a difference unless people believe there is a need to change. I believe we need to move to a new age of enlightenment, a new age of thinking about values that will drive us forward."

This sounds like something more people can get involved in as it’s about values…

“You’re right. It’s not a philosophical debate – although it can be – it’s about how people want to live their lives. Where I have hope is in recycling. I can remember when recycling was something ageing hippies did. If you fast-forward 10 years, we all recycle without thinking of it. Do we have an incentive or regulation? No. We do it because by and large we believe it is the ethical thing to do. So I think you can capture people’s imagination with the values debate and I don’t think we do enough of it."

What are the values you are really pushing for in a modern society?

“How much do we really care for future generations? How much do we care about our great grandchildren? What are we willing to sacrifice today to benefit tomorrow? The values in these questions are in the broad sense the climate change question. Also what sort of values do we have towards people that we will never meet? What levels of concern do we have for the people under the poverty line? And do we understand we are on a small village called planet earth? The other is how risk averse are we? Are we willing to take risks with the planet or not? So I think it’s these kinds of issues that I find resonating in any of the talks I give."

So moving away from the trend of ‘live for the moment’?

“I gave a talk at the UN on Monday and I said if our values are hedonistic and we don’t give a shit about the future and if we really don’t care about anyone but ourselves then we’ve got the right economy and the right incentives for that.

"I think that is a debate that has to occur. I think we have to say as human beings ‘what do we value?’ and ‘where do our values come from?’ In a broad sense, religion isn’t giving people what it did 30/50 years ago, political ideology has gone to a large degree, left and right don’t mean what they did when I was younger. So what will drive those values? Another central pillar of our thinking is are we a part of or are we apart from nature?… We have to think differently about how we value biological diversity and natural resources."

How do you think you’re going to get this debate to where it needs to be?

“That’s the big question. There is no simple single strand… I think the first is to try and get the balance in the reading and published material that deals with these issues… There is very little on the philosophical and spiritual thinking of climate change, we feel we need to get some published work.

"Secondly, we need to build alliances across groups with similar interests and to get a normative debate in parliament. If you look at parliament a hundred years ago, part of the role it saw for itself was a debating chamber. Now it’s a sort of tit for tat across the sides. I think our media has to be savvier at getting the debate and the discourse going… it’s not a short journey and we don’t have all the answers but the fact we are starting is a good thing."

With religion being such a big talking point at the moment, now sounds like a good time to discuss this?

"At Hay I met a man who was an Irish, Catholic, Hindu and quite genuinely. Years ago that was an either or debate, you were either Catholic or a Hindu, he doesn’t see it that way. We need to move to a more pluralistic way of living where you can mix and match your thinking. Many people are spiritual rather than religious; we used to always think it was the same thing. Increasingly people can be spiritual in the sense of searching for something but religious in the conventional sense."

How did you find your first HowTheLightGetsIn?

"I will be the first to say it was experimental for us. I was blown away by it, it was an extraordinary experience I thought it was great. Serious discussion, thoughtful discussion of the kind we really do want to encourage and people from all walks of life… going forward we are going to use that format to start a philosophical values based debate as well as the debate about the science and technology. It’s not an 'either or' it’s got to be 'and also'."

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