Dai Dong (A World of Great Togetherness)
I was recently in Vietnam to give a series of talks at the University of Hanoi on ecologically-sound development and poverty reduction, in light of the Earth Summit organized by the United Nations to be held June 2012 in Rio. The conference is popularly called “Rio plus 20” as it will be held 20 years after the first Rio conference on sustainable development. As I was preparing my talks, I reviewed some of my files on the first U.N.-organized conference on the ecology – Stockholm 1972 – and the intense efforts to put ecology on the “world agenda” – that small list of issues on which governments focus and cooperate. Thus I thought back to the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Alfred Hassler and the Dai Dong The Gioi organization, and to related efforts in Geneva in which I had participated (1).
While Dai Dong as an independent organization lasted only six years – 1970-1976 – it played a large role in building awareness both among governments and in a broader public, especially in the USA, which had started to be concerned with damage to nature by human misuse of technology and chemical products (2).
In practice, but not in theory, there is only one major topic on the “world agenda” per decade. Thus for the 1960s, after the independence and entry into the U.N. of the African states, the terms of trade between developed and less developed countries was the issue on the world agenda. This concern was manifested in 1964 by the first U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, followed by the creation of a large UNCTAD secretariat in the U.N. to help developing countries on conditions of trade, prices of raw materials, and the transfer of technology. These are still important issues, but have become “routine” and do not hold center stage. Trade and development may not have been central on everyone’s mind during the 1960s. I recall chatting with Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the halls of the Palais des Nations during the first UNCTAD when he was the Minister of Commerce of Cuba. While recognizing the importance of trade, he probably had other aims in mind.
The 1970s was the decade of ecology, intellectually highlighted by Rene Dubos’ Only One Earth (3).
The 1980s agenda was East-West nuclear policies in Europe, the end of the Berlin Wall and of Soviet power.
The 1990s focused on the violent rise of ethnic-based separatist movements, basically the break up of former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union – the nature and future of such movements.
The 2001-2011 Decade: The United States hoped that the focus would be on the “War on Terror” and the rise of violent Islamic groups. In practice, these issues were of interest only to a small number of countries which were directly involved. However, with the U.S. focused on the War on Terror and Russia on re-shaping its own economy, no group of states could propose an alternative decade-long focus. The U.N. tried to provide a focus with the “Millennium Development Goals” agreed to in a 2000 U.N. summit conference. However, the Millennium Goals are a “grab-bag” of diverse development issues. While each is important, there are too many to provide a clear “vision” on which governments and non-governmental organizations could cooperate.
The 2010-2020 Decade is likely to focus on the role of financial regulations, debt and the stability of money, especially the Euro.
For many in the USA, the second half of the 1960s did not focus on trade and development issues. As the world trading system was largely to the advantage of the U.S., trade was taken as “the way of nature.” Rather the U.S.-led war in Vietnam became the focus of political mobilization, strong debates, and emotional intensity. Opposition to the war in Vietnam and efforts to develop a framework for negotiations was the major focus of FOR and of Alfred Hassler, who was its long-time executive secretary as well as serving as editor of Fellowship during part of the time. His Vietnam-related activities and leadership of fact-finding missions of religious leaders to South Vietnam is well presented in his book Saigon, USA (4).
From his Vietnam-related activities he came to appreciate the efforts of some Vietnamese Buddhists to find a negotiated resolution of the conflict. He also appreciated the Vietnamese Buddhist attitude of harmony “with all living things,” rather distant from the U.S. military practice of burning villages with napalm and trying to destroy the forest cover with “Agent Orange.” Thus when it came time to choose a name for a new independent organization that would focus on peace and harmony with nature and its protection, he chose a Vietnamese phrase (probably on the suggestion of Thich Nhat Hanh, with whom he worked closely), Dai Dong The Gioi (a world of great togetherness), which, for practical reasons, was usually shortened to Dai Dong.
There has been a strong ethical dimension to ecological thought in the U.S., as seen in the writing of Aldo Leopold (1886-1948). Through the Vietnam-related efforts, Hassler came close to Kenneth Boulding, a Quaker, economist, and peace researcher. Boulding, along with Buckminster Fuller and Barbara Ward, developed the concept of “Spaceship Earth” (5). Boulding stressed the need to modify education in light of the ecological realities. He wrote:
It is obvious today that we can no longer think in terms of single static entities – but only in terms of dynamic changing processes and series of interacting events. The content of our education requires restructuring into new understandable wholes that it may be imparted, even at the primary levels, in terms of whole systems. Thus the principal task of education in this day is to convey from one generation to the next, a rich image of the total earth, that is, the idea of the earth as a total system … What formal education has to do is to produce people who are fit to be inhabitants of the planet. This has become an urgent necessity because for the first time in human history we have reached the boundaries of our planet and found that it is a small one at that. This generation of young people have to be prepared to live in a very small and crowed spaceship. Otherwise they are going to get a terrible shock when they grow up and discover that we have taught them how to live in a world long gone. The nightmare of the educator is what Veblen called ‘trained incapacity’ and we have to be constantly on the watch that this does not become one of our main products.
Although Alfred Hassler had much to do with his FOR activities in the U.S., especially as the Vietnamese peace negotiations had just started in Paris and showed some possibility of a negotiated settlement, in 1970, he was asked to take on the added responsibility of becoming the executive secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) based in Europe. There had been a leadership gap at IFOR after the strong leadership of the English E. Philip Eastman, who had led the organization from London from 1957 to 1966 and who had developed new contacts with groups in Africa.
Hassler hoped that IFOR could take on the leadership of a broad ecological-awareness movement reaching out to the growing number of persons who were developing a loyalty to “Mother Earth” and were concerned by the links between technology, life style, and environmental protection. From his work with the Vietnamese Buddhists, he envisaged cooperation, even unity, with persons of other religious traditions and with a growing number of people who considered themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” However, the leadership of most of the European national branches of IFOR desired to keep a Christian-only membership base and Jesus as the unique role model. Many of the same European IFOR leaders feared that a broad ecology-based agenda would detract from the goal of national recognition of objection to military service and its replacement by a “civil service” – an issue that was still in the early 1970s a hot topic in many European countries.
Thus, although Hassler remained the IFOR executive secretary through 1974, when he retired from all his official posts, the heart of his activities was Dai Dong with a headquarters in Brussels and an aim to influence the U.N. Conference on Human Environment, which the General Assembly had voted to be held in Stockholm in June 1972. His long-range aim was to develop a world community based on justice and cooperation. The short-term aim, however, was to influence the U.N. Conference on Human Environment.
The first step was to draft a statement setting out in broad terms the challenges faced and some of the steps to be taken. The statement had to be drafted and signed by individuals who had some expertise in the ecology field, which was then a relatively new field and largely related to biology and the study of wildlife. Six environmental scientists were gathered by Dai Dong at Menton, France, a summer resort, in May 1970. The Menton text is called “A Message to our 3.5 billion neighbors on Planet Earth.” Although we have now seven billion neighbors, the text is still worth reading. It was published in the UNESCO periodical Courier and co-signed by over 2,000 biologists and others whose name carried weight on such issues, such as Thor Heyerdahl and Margaret Mead.
Dai Dong representatives met a year later in May 1971 with U.N. Secretary-General U Thant, a Burmese Buddhist sensitive to the same vision of a delicate equilibrium between humans and nature.
At the same time that Dai Dong was starting its work, the U.N. secretariat started its efforts for the Stockholm conference in Geneva in offices just across the street from my office in the Graduate Institute for Development Studies. Thus I often talked with U.N. staff who would eat in our building, since we had a cafeteria and they did not. The head of the preparatory secretariat was Maurice Strong who became the secretary general of the Conference itself. Strong is a Canadian who made a great deal of money early in his business life, and thus could spend the rest of his life in U.N.-related activities, not as a volunteer but paid much less than as head of a corporation. Strong is an intense, self-motivated person and the people who work with him are driven by the same energy. There are, no doubt, people who do not appreciate Strong, but they fade from the scene, and those who are left with him would not be surprised to see Strong walking across Lake Geneva.
Since Strong came from the business world and not from the regular governmental diplomatic service, he has the respect for government representatives that is needed but not much more. Rather he has a high regard for “the people” – at least those organized in non-governmental organizations and who are willing to try out new ideas and new methods of work. Thus, in Geneva, there was a group of us, U.N. Secretariat, university teachers, and NGO representatives, united by the desire to place ecological issues at the center of the “world agenda” despite a rather timid response from national governments.
It was natural for Strong and his team to reach out to Hassler and the Dai Dong effort. Thus began what has become an institution with U.N. conferences: a parallel conference held a few days earlier in the same city with representatives of NGOs – now called “civil society” – who write a statement of what governments should say if they had the intelligence and courage of NGOs. Now, the NGOs work on their statement and alternative plan of action for many months in advance. A good example is the statement and alternative plan of action developed for the Bejing U.N. Conference on the Status of Women (1995).
In 1972, however, the process had not yet been so set out, and Hassler and Dai Dong organized a first parallel conference in Stockholm of 31 people. Dai Dong had already prepared the statement, and as is often the case in such efforts, people unrelated to the original drafting process can object to certain paragraphs but can rarely propose new ideas. Thus at the Dai Dong-sponsored independent conference, the conflicts predictably arose over population issues. At all international meetings going back to the League of Nations debates, when population questions are mentioned, there are those who suspect family planning as being a way to limit the number of the poor (usually seen as being of a different color or ethnicity than the rest) or as a way of promoting teenage sex. Thus ten persons among the 31 attending the Dai Dong conference wanted to take some distance from the short paragraph on population without presenting any alternative to unrestrained population growth.
Once the Dai Dong statement was written, Alfred Hassler read the text to the governments assembled in the U.N. conference. In many ways the Dai Dong “Independent Declaration on the Environment” is well worth the text of the governments – largely drafted by the U.N. Secretariat since expertise among government representatives was generally at a low level.
The 1972 Stockholm Conference led to the creation within many governments of a “Ministry of the Ecology” or a sub-section of an existing ministry. The United Nations created the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) of which Maurice Strong was the first director.
Basically, Dai Dong’s work finished with the 1972 Stockholm conference. Ecology with a broad poverty-reduction, social justice, harmony with nature focus was on the world agenda. Unfortunately, the spirit of Dai Dong – or what is also called “Deep Ecology” – had no visible spokesperson, after Hassler retired, with the possible exception of Arne Naess, a philosopher from Norway. Strong, influenced by the idea of the importance of the “Third World,” pushed to have the UNEP headquarters in Kenya. He was the first director and both he and UNEP then disappeared from the scene for the rest of the decade.
It is not likely that the Rio Summit in June 2012 will again be able to focus world attention on ecologically-sound development practices. Such practices remain vital, and we have reason to keep pointing to techniques and practices in that spirit.
As I wrote earlier, I think that financial practices, government debt, and the basis of money will be the issues of the 2010-2020 decade. Yet we can learn from the ways that people earlier were able to focus attention on an issue and to provide a popular understanding of the “world agenda.” Alfred Hassler was among that group, and the Dai Dong efforts merit being known among a younger generation.
Rene Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, is representative to the United Nations, Geneva, of the Association of World Citizens. He lives in Gravieres, France.
Photo: U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development (a.k.a. “Rio+10 Summit”), Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Ethan Vesely-Flad.
- There is a good presentation of the Dai Dong effort in Paul R. Dekar’s Creating the Beloved Community: A Journey with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing, 2005). Here I try to set out the broader context of building ecological awareness within the U.N. system.
- Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first published in The New Yorker in 1960 and as a book in 1962. It focused on the impact of pesticides, especially DDT. There is a rich history of U.S. writers and their efforts to build awareness of the need to develop harmony between humans and nature. See: Victor B. Scheffer. The Shaping of Environmentalism in America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991); and Robert C. Paehlke. Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
- Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos. Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet (New York: W.W. Norton, 1972).
- Alfred Hassler. Saigon, U.S.A. (New York: Richard W. Baron, 1970).
- For a good overview of Kenneth Boulding’s many interests and activities see Cynthia E. Kerman. Creative Tension: The Life and Thought of Kenneth Boulding (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974). Also see Kenneth Boulding and Henry Clark. Human Values on the Spaceship Earth (New York: National Council of Churches, 1966). For others using the spaceship image see: Barbara Ward. Spaceship Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966) and R. Buckminster Fuller. An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (New York: Pocket Books, 1970).