Approaches to sustainable development issues and climate change
in the American Baha'i community
Representative for Sustainable Development
Office of Public Affairs of the Baha'is of the United States
In many ways, my presentation will serve as a bridge between Arthur’s talk and Christine’s. I’ve been working as a representative for sustainable development in the U.S. Bahá'í Office of Public Affairs for more than twenty years. This work began in 1990 when preparations were underway for the 1992 Earth Summit. I have been fortunate to have taken part in many of the international meetings Arthur has cited – as well as the national processes related to them. My interactions have been with representatives of other non-governmental organizations, state and federal governmental officials, staff of UN departments and other intergovernmental bodies, academics and other civil society participants. Our engagement in discourses related to sustainability, has revolved around topics such as sustainable consumption and production; education for sustainable development; the ethical dimensions of sustainability; the complementary nature of the relationship between science and religion; and the many dimensions – both material and spiritual -- of climate change.
During preparations for the ’92 Earth Summit, the general mandate from the Universal House of Justice for Bahá'í engagement in the associated discourse was twofold: to foster unity among the diverse players contributing to the discourse, and to advance Bahá'í principles relevant to the issues, whenever appropriate. These have remained as two guides to our work to this day. But our understanding of engagement in the discourses of society has been evolving with the explicit guidance coming from the Universal House of Justice. Meanwhile, the issues of sustainability and climate change have become even more urgent and complex as human pressures on the environment and their resulting impacts on society and the natural world have multiplied.
Increasingly over the last several years, faith groups have been coming together to speak out for action on climate change. Despite their theological differences, they’ve managed to raise a unified voice in support of taking action on climate. In 2012, the Baha’is of the United States helped form a group called Interfaith Moral Action on Climate (IMAC) which strategized on amplifying the voice of faith communities in the climate discourse. This resulted in some excellent opportunities for meaningful reflection and discussion with others during Earth Week that year, including joint participation in a prayer vigil, an interfaith worship service, a faithful procession to Capitol Hill (displaying banners of every faith), a press conference and multi-faith visits to congressional offices.
It can often be much more powerful to go into a congressional office with a diverse group of faith representatives, and share a common message, than it is to make such a visit alone. Such a cooperative act is refreshing in today’s contentious atmosphere and makes a strong point about the importance of the issue.
Working with other faith groups under such circumstances has been a joy in many ways. I’ve made good friends and been able to share Bahá'í perspectives on issues of climate change and sustainability with many, but I’ve also learned a lot from others and been inspired by hearing my colleagues speak on the issue.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that we can stay engaged with others on an issue. Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, for instance, eventually decided to include a civil disobedience component as part of its ongoing strategy for engagement. Because of that, we ultimately withdrew from our involvement on the steering committee. While this seems unfortunate, this situation did afford us the opportunity to share the Bahá'í perspective on this matter, and we remain in touch and still collaborate with the group when circumstances permit.
We’ve also joined other faith groups in testifying at hearings of the Environmental Protection Agency on proposed carbon standards for new and existing power plants. While setting carbon standards is a technical issue in one sense, it also has a moral dimension, and that’s where faith communities have managed to contribute their unique value.
In Bahá'í testimony, we have stressed the importance of the principle of the oneness of humankind and its profound implications for policy on many levels. That principle, when upheld, ensures that we treat all people with justice, equity and fairness. For instance, how can we continue to emit unlimited amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, knowing the harmful impact that it will have on current and future generations, as well as all life on the planet? This question becomes even more poignant, when we realize that those being impacted first and most severely have had little or nothing to do with creating the problem.
Our engagement in the discourse on climate is strengthened when our actions reflect our words. Fortunately, there have been several such actions that we could point to in the American Bahá'í community. For instance, we’ve undertaken several energy-saving measures at the House of Worship, including upgrading the heating and air conditioning system with one that now heats and cools the building for the energy cost that it used to take just to heat it. In addition, we’ve installed a 40,000 gallon cistern to collect rainwater and gray water which is used to irrigate the gardens. And the new visitor’s center which should be completed later this year will be LEED certified.
In addition, we’ve been working to educate our community about the climate issue. The National Assembly has written to the Bahá'í community five times in as many years encouraging study of the issue; online and in-person courses are regularly offered through the Wilmette Institute (about which Christine will speak) and at the permanent schools; and several climate-related resources have been made available on the Office of Public Affairs website. The National Assembly has encouraged the Bahá'í community to take part in the annual Preach-in on climate change organized by Interfaith Power and Light. The Office of Public Affairs has made available related materials for the Preach-in to supplement three core activities – devotional gatherings, children’s classes and Junior Youth groups. In 2014, 114 Bahá'í communities in 43 states were among the 1700 diverse faith congregations that took part in that activity.
These efforts and others like them have helped to inform the Bahá'ís on the climate issue and they emphasize the important part each of us can play in seeking solutions. Having such practical things to point to has leant credibility to our participation nationally in the discourse on climate.
We have also participated in multi-faith gatherings at the White House on energy savings. I was asked to open one such gathering in 2013 by speaking on the power of interfaith collaboration. That not only stressed our common concern with other faith communities on the justice issues related to climate change, but to contribute other ideas to the discourse on why the issue is important from a Bahá'í perspective.
Another form of participation in the discourses on climate has been an outgrowth of our involvement in such gatherings – and that is through writing opinion pieces, and engaging in social media to leverage important contributions to the discourse. I’ve written four opinion pieces which have been published in the Huffington Post. I hadn’t set out to write a series on the Faith-Climate connection, but that is what evolved. Each time there was some additional point to be made. These articles have precipitated conversations and postings by other colleagues who have appreciated the points made, and they have helped clarify our contributions to the discourse and to deepen our relationships with others engaged in the issue.
Another vehicle for the discourse on climate has been a monthly conference call started by a small group of colleagues and dubbed the Forum for Moral Voices on Climate Change. Participants come together with an attitude of humility, recognizing that there are a lot of different approaches to the issue, and that faith groups have much to contribute. The Forum has created a safe space for quiet conversations aimed at building understanding and finding common ground on the issue. The calls usually begin with a guest speaker who triggers further conversation. Last month, for instance, we heard from three members of the environmental justice community and engaged in discourse on the challenges faced by their organizations and the need for genuine relationships between those working on climate from different angles. It stressed for me the importance of reaching out to my colleagues focused on this important piece of the climate puzzle and deepening our friendship and the means for accompaniment and collaboration.
This brings me to another group engaging in the climate discourse, and that group is known as the Citizens Climate Lobby. It’s not faith based. It’s a non-partisan group that advocates for climate action and operates under some important principles, which are quite compatible with a Bahá'í approach. They treat every member of congress with respect, and before going in to visit them, they come up with at least one thing to appreciate about their work. The emphasis is on relationship building, listening, and genuine exchange of ideas. They also write letters to the editor and advocate putting a price on carbon, but making it revenue neutral, so that low income groups are not hurt by rising costs.
These are but a few examples of the kinds of things happening at the national level in which Baha’is are involved. Coming up: The People’s Climate March; Religion for the Earth conference; DPI/NGO Conference, and more. The discourse continues.
Last updated 9 August 2014