Business Ethics, CCRS at the University of Zurich
Speech made at the TWNE Annual Seminar 2019 in Zurich
Dear friends and colleagues
When King Bhumibol passed away in 2016, I first came to know that His Majesty had not only lived from 1933 to 1951 in Switzerland but also attended public schools and University in Lausanne and devoted his studies, among others, to the Swiss Constitution in order to learn how he could better guarantee the unity of the Thai Nation. I was even more amazed to know that he was a passionate musician and composer, he loved jazz music. He played saxophone raising also money to support social projects in Thailand and as he went back to his home country, he initiated a series of social and environmentally innovative projects that make him a pioneer even today.
Many years before the UN imposed the Sustainable Development Goals at a global scale, King Bhumibol was implementing projects that would support the long-term development of Thailand’s rural population helping farmers to be self-reliant. In order to achieve his goals, the King suggested also to implement his self-imposed principles.
His Highness’s projects focussed on occupational development, social welfare, education, distance learning, health care, communications, agricultural development, forestry, fishing, nutrition, large-scale irrigation, integrated farming, water resource management, and environmental conservation. Today, all those subjects are core in the UN Development Agenda for achieving a more sustainable world. His theory was known under the name of “Sufficiency Economy”. He thought that people should be able to produce for themselves and sell the surplus to others in order to live a decent life.
The King’s commitment to sustainability has been well recognized by the international community. In May 2006, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan presented the King with the First Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award. The following year, the UN Development Program in Thailand published the Human Development Report and documented how King Bhumibol’s Philosophy of “Sufficiency Economy” was “an efficient means towards sustainable development with a focus on human development”, which could be applied internationally. King Bhumibol put the people in the epicenter of His philosophy.
In fact, this is what we should also do in the 21st-century. The challenges we face are now global and despite all local efforts, we also need a global approach to tackle them; growing disparity between rich and poor, the middle-income trap, the environmental degradation, the depletion of natural resources, climate change, extreme weather, cycles of flooding and drought, or the unconscious production and consumption mechanisms destroy the natural habitats everywhere and deprive our children of having a sustainable life. Not to add the unemployment that comes along with the 4th Industrial Revolution and the expected vast migration due to climate change.
Switzerland had never had a monarchy nor a top-down democracy based on parliamentary decisions. It is a county with a very particular democratic system, called direct democracy, the only example in the world with such a system. In it, political decisions need to be made with the consensus of the people, a consensus between all stakeholders and requires a lot of public discussions.
This Swiss political and social system, as well as the Swiss idea of a Neutrality, has its roots in the Middle Ages and accounts for the collective values in our country.
Throughout history, those shared collective values helped the Swiss people overcome natural resource deficits or food scarcities or other issues they had to face together. In recent years, this political system helped Switzerland become a very competitive international player. As per today, the current discussion focuses on how to tackle the sustainability challenges of the 21st century. The main public concerns are social security and the environment.
But what are those collective values?
Swiss people value cleanliness, honesty, hard work, and material possessions. They also value sobriety, thrift, tolerance, punctuality and the sense of responsibility. They say “yes” to the unity, but “no” to uniformity. They have a long tradition of freedom but, over and above, they are very proud of their environment. In this sense, love of Nature is one core value and Swiss people identify very much with it. The natural environment is an integral part of the Swiss identity and the national spirit. Especially the Alps, but also lakes and other mountains, clean water, and air and green spots in the cities are associated with the Swiss quality of life.
The country is sometimes referred to as Europe’s water tower because of the well-known lakes and waterways, such as the Rhine and the Rhone, that have their sources in the Swiss Alps. And water is the only natural mineral resource we have. Thus, protecting this unique natural resource means to have a very high water quality. To this purpose, we try to eliminate micropollutants and constantly develop new ways to treat wastewater. We even learn at school how to reduce the use of water at home. By 2030 Swiss waterways is expected to be even better than today.
The quality of air in Switzerland is also constantly improving. Switzerland tries to use technologies that pollute the least and limit the damage to the air quality by polluting industries.
One of the major discussions in our society is the introduction of the carbon tax, that encourages the shift to clean energy and new technologies and pushes polluters to find less polluting alternatives.
Switzerland is, therefore, pursuing an active policy to reduce greenhouse gases. The Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) confirms that Switzerland is making a contribution to the internationally recognized goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. The CO2 Act focuses on reducing domestic emissions and pursues an emission target for the year 2020, using various instruments for buildings, transport, and industry. The energy strategy 2050 aims to reduce energy consumption, increase energy sufficiency and promote renewable energy (Water, solar, wind and geothermal power as well as biomass fuels). In a recent pro climate demonstration in Zurich, people urged the administration to tax also kerosene.
According to a public poll of 2018, 72% of the population agreed that it is necessary to do something combating climate change; 43% were in favor of a carbon tax paid by polluters and distributed to everyone, but only 38% were in favor of adopting a divestment strategy from fossil fuels for the investments of the state-managed pension funds.
As our population and economy are growing and people consume more, Switzerland urges its citizens to consume resources responsibly and use them optimally and smartly. One area of action, which Switzerland is good at, is giving priority to renewable energy in the use and production of resources. Waste and primary products are the key part of understanding in the transition towards the ‘green economy’. As a country, we focus on how to close materials cycles, promote the recycling of primary products, reduce the demand for primary products and also reduce waste. Technology and efficiency play a key role in this process.
To say the truth, it has always put a smile on people’s face every time when we tell people that Switzerland is very good at processing waste; that when it does not have enough waste, it picks up waste from neighboring countries to process.
The respect of the countryside and the conservation of the quality of country life and biodiversity come along with the love of nature. The Confederation considers the countryside and nature as key in its nation-wide development project. In some areas, the conservation of the countryside takes priority over every other development project, whether energy, industry or transport. The authorities and people take “green tourism” very seriously. It is not just a beautiful tourism postcard. It is respect!
One of the collective decisions Swiss people made, a very difficult one we should admit, was to accept foreigner workers in the country, as industries could not find local ones. The question and the debate on migration are still ongoing and raise a lot of political, economic and social issues even today. However, almost 30% of the population in Switzerland are foreigners. 37% of the Swiss Nationals have a migration background and 11% of the Swiss National are migrants living abroad.
And despite issues of stereotypical thinking that people may have in their contact with foreigners or different cultures and mentalities, it still remains a fact that migration always helped Switzerland opening up into new and innovative ideas as well as making our lives colorful and tasty and advance the understanding towards differences. A great part of the Swiss success was due to the decision to accept foreigners on the territory and try to integrate them into a Swiss public educational and working system.
When speaking of integration, we should be talking about the incorporation of individuals from different communities or groups into the society as equals, as constituent parts by accepting and respecting their cultural differences. We can’t simply force them to adopt the way of living of another culture, abandoning their own culture. We all should learn to consider each other as humans with different cultural heritage respecting, in one hand, the modus vivendi of the indigenous populations, bringing, on the other hand, pieces of our culture and ideas to them.
This is what people do: in our effort to be members not only of one particular community but also of the society as such, we bring our knowledge and our culture with us and we impact the society at different levels. Same does society with us. We are in a constant dialog with our culture and the other cultures and we shape not only ourselves but also the others.
However, there are not easy recipes applied in societies and in the communities. It takes time and willingness of understanding to accept diversity without being judgemental. Nonetheless, there are some common preconditions for mutual understanding that depend on us. The first and main precondition is the fact that we are all humans, we live on the same planet, even though in different countries, societies and cultures. Respecting this precondition, we should be interested in the planet and in the way we protect the environment and create human habitats.
Cities and places where humanity comes over and above anything else. We have to learn and joint efforts with the local population in the protection of the environment and society. Recycling, local food production, and consumption, waste management, energy and water reduction or reduction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are issues that each one should think about and act accordingly. As I said before, climate change is one of the main challenges in the 21rst century and it is up to us to act and bring some solutions based on our values and living standards.
That’s the reason why, I firmly believe that foreigners, migrants, and refugees should be integrated into the current discussion and play a crucial role in the solution.
So, how can we encourage the Thai community in Switzerland to understand our values and love for nature and the environment? How can we encourage the Thai communities all over Europe to put in the center of their values nature, environment, and society? And how can the Thai community share our values and love of environment when they are celebrating their identity and festivities?
Actually, we don’t have to. The foundations of the Thai culture and society is Buddhism and Buddhist values are a positive force in nature conservation. According to the Buddhist perspective, the loss of Buddhist values poses the biggest threat to the environment.
As Buddha said: “there is no spot on the ground where men had not died and therefore every part of nature will be endowed with a spirit, these will be the spirits of the trees, the mountains, and the water….”.
These ideas are linked to the attitude of respect for nature. Buddhism is so close to nature that the religion deserves to be called a ‘religion of nature.’ In this sense, we share the same value: the love of nature and the environment.
Today in Switzerland live approx. 36.000 Thai people, 80% of them are women. There are 16 Thai schools and 5 temples, further 17 associations and 1 foundation. As I have witnessed, the Thai communities and institutions have organized themselves around delicious food and festive activities. Thai kitchen is very popular and there are 400 restaurants in our country, which not only add value to the Swiss economy but also enrich our everyday life and care for our wellbeing.
Like other migrant communities, the Thai community also keeps its culture and values alive for the generations to come. And those values are fusing with our values over time.
I can appreciate that for the first generation of migrants, the newcomers, it is important to understand the new country and establish relations with the locals. The first step is, of course, to learn the language, a very difficult adventure especially in the German-speaking part of our country because the indigenous populations use another language to speak than the one to read and write. But when you can listen and understand many Swiss people, you will find out very quickly their values and the love of nature and the environment will remind you that you share the same value as well.
You can also find other ways to understand your new country and create a reciprocal understanding between the locals and the Thai community. Organizing events in different neighborhoods i.e. where locals can sit together with the community members and eat, think and discuss on common issues could be a way to make the proper culture less exotic and more accessible. Food is always a good bridge for bridging differences and bring together people. You can also consider incorporating environmentally-conscious ways to produce delicious dishes and source fresh ingredients and collaborate with the municipality offering still eatable leftovers to several social projects for the relief of the poorest.
You can also think how to contribute better in reducing energy consumption and how you can initiate or take part in a project for reuse boxes for lunch and coffee, or stop the use of the plastic straw or the plastic water bottles. You can maybe eat less imported and processed food and start to consume more organic local productions. You could step on public transportation instead of using private cars. In the end, you can only follow the prescriptions of your municipality to recycle or reuse plastic, cloths, glass, shoes or other materials. Municipalities provide such information. It is up to you to find the appropriate way to contribute to a better planet.
However, it is not easy to find appropriate solutions for the societal and environmental challenges we face, not only because the climate is changing rapidly and people are not equipped for integrating such rapid change into their lives, but also because the 4rth industrial revolution posses further challenges to tackle regarding humans and their environment.
In fact, until now industrialization and industrial evolution established a kind of economy that may be reduced extreme poverty in several parts of the world but also destroyed massively the environment and detached people from their core ethical values and from their natural habitats as such. In other words, it provoked a shift in the mindset of humans making them believe that they are over and above nature and they can use nature and natural resources for the only individual benefit and profit.
Today, it is a scientific consensus that the earth systems are under unprecedented stress and earth stability and biosphere integrity have crossed boundaries due to human activity. This elevates the risk for a deterioration of the human wellbeing everywhere. For this reason, the United Nations proposed 17 Sustainable Goals for humanity to achieve, six of them apply to environment and humans: combating climate change, using the ocean and marine resources wisely, managing forests, combating desertification, reversing land degradation, developing sustainable cities and providing clean affordable energy.
Indeed, as the planet continues to warm, climate change impacts are worsening. Twenty percent of species currently face extinction. The oceans face acidification, and worming up is damaging fish stocks and corals. In 2016, there were 772 weather and disaster events, triple the number that occurred in 1980 and every year 7 million people die from exposure to air pollution. By 2030 we may globally fall 40% short of the amount of fresh water to support livelihood because pollution affects the global water cycle. By 2050 the earth population will be expected to grow to 9.8 billion and with it the demand of food, materials, transport, energy, resources will increase along with the risk of environmental degradation and will affect human health, livelihoods, and security. Further will provoke massive migration. It seems that even if all countries keep their Paris climate pledges, by 2100, it’s likely that average global temperatures will be 3˚C higher than in pre-industrial times.
These challenges, urgent and extraordinary, coincide with an era of unprecedented innovation and technological change that we know as the 4rth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0. In Industrie 4.0, unlike previous ones, digital economy and Artificial Intelligence, robots, autonomous vehicles, bio- and nanotechnology, the Internet of Things or quantum and supercomputing are increasing speed, intelligence, and efficiency gains and shape our present and future existence. The most pervasive emerging technology that poses major ethical issues in Artificial Intelligence. AI refers to computer systems that “can sense their environment, think, learn, and act in response to what they sense and their programmed objectives” (according to a World Economic Forum report).
Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning can effectively be a game changer for climate change and environmental issues. It can be very accurate in analyzing phenomena that humans cannot process easily. And the more data the system analyses the more accurate it becomes and it also becomes more important in everything we do.
- It can i.e. monitor the earth, broadcast weather and prevent extreme events, handle power fluctuations and improve energy storage.
- It can analyze behavior from crime data and improve patrolling the neighborhood or prevent illegal actions like illegal fishing, hunting or damaging the rainforests.
- It can help improve harvest and ecosystem management, support habitat protection and restoration.
- It can contribute to making our cities more livable and sustainable creating a system of real-time data on energy, water, and traffic but also simulate potential zoning laws or building ordinances.
- It can help with urban planning and disaster preparedness, or help agriculture become smarter and more efficient. It can protect the oceans or create more sustainable transport on land.
- It can monitor water and air quality, detect underground leaks in drinking water supply systems, and predict when water plants need maintenance.
- It can also simulate weather events and natural disasters to find vulnerabilities in disaster planning, determine which strategies for disaster response are most effective, and provide real-time disaster response coordination.
- It can simulate earthquakes and help to invent better building materials.
- It can do a million different things.
But while Artificial Intelligence enables us to better manage the impacts of climate change and protect the environment, at the same time it transforms also all fields of human action, from business to education and from economy to personal life. Stephen Hawking has warned of the existential dangers of uncontrolled artificial intelligence.
The World Economic Forum sum them up in six categories: Performance, Security, Control risks, Economic risks, Social, and Ethical risk.
To deal with these risks, the World Economic Forum states that government and industry “must ensure the safety, explainability, transparency, and validity of AI application”. It urges more interaction among public and private entities, technologists, policy-makers and even philosophers. It urges more investments in research to avert the potential risks of artificial intelligence—and to realize its potential benefits to the environment and humanity.
I would urge more bottom-up collaboration in society and a change in the human mindset. We have to change our attitudes towards consumption and consume more immaterial, intangible or spiritual goods instead of material goods, for our satisfaction and wellbeing. We can consume local productions and urge for high quality. We can support ethical farming and prefer sustainable products. We have to inform ourselves better in order to realize which products and services do not destroy the environment or affect the loss of raw materials or conserve energy. We have to go beyond consumerism and embrace nature and the environment and to do this, we need a new ethical code.
Personally, I do not have solutions for everything, but I try to protect the environment and respect nature, as such. Nonetheless, I leave every day my footprint on the planet. Last year, I have started to measure it and reduce the consumption of energy and water. I have started to travel less with airplanes in Europe and prefer traveling by train. I don’t print so much in my work and I try to find alternative solutions. But over and above, I prefer to think that the earth is not ours and resources are borrowed from our children and from the societies to come. So, I try to act accordingly, to live in a more sustainable way for me, for the society and the generations to come.
You have another heritage: The one of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit which is in the Buddhist tradition. As King Bhumibol said: “Nature is something outside of our body, but the mind is within us”.
I am very keen to know how you can use it, to tackle the challenges you face at a personal and societal level, and how our societies can profit from your knowledge and traditions.
Thank you very much for having me here. I should now open the floor for further discussion.
Special Thanks to Dr. Sumon Vangchuay and Dr. Isabelle Schluep