Changing Mentalities and Motivations: Values for the Sustainability Transition

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Changing Mentalities and Motivations: Values for the Sustainability Transition

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

Paper presented at the IEF 16th Conference event, Peoples' Summit
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 21 June 2012

The 20th century gave rise to a consumer society rooted in materialism. The early twentieth century materialistic interpretation of reality became the dominant world faith in the direction of society. This dogmatic materialism has captured all significant centres of power and information at the global level, ensuring that no competing voices can challenge projects of world wide economic exploitation (UHJ 2005).

The unsustainability of this economy has become evident as we reach resource limits and overshoot planetary boundaries. This is a crisis of consumption. The economy is driven by consumption. Much recent consumption has reflected increased borrowing and rising debt levels for individuals, corporations and governments. Anything increasing consumption was good for the economy. Information technologies and the media have globalized this and created a generation of passive consumers. Despite present efforts to rise out of the recession, returning to consumption-driven growth is unsustainable.

Materialism's vision of human progress produced today's consumer culture with its ephemeral goals. For the small minority of people who can afford them, the benefits it offers are immediate. The breakdown of traditional morality has led to the triumph of animal impulses and hedonism. Selfishness has become a prized commercial resource; falsehood reinvents itself as public information; greed, lust, indolence, pride, violence are broadly accepted and have social and economic value (UHJ 2005). Yet the consumer culture fills a vacuum in the absence of any deeper meaning in life, and people take it for granted.

We therefore need to rethink human purpose. An alternative to the consumer society needs to be sufficiently attractive to overcome resistance and habit. It should make it worthwhile to sacrifice the superficial for what is deeper and more fundamentally rewarding. The effort required will be comparable to religious conversion. It should combine individual transformation with social action, as the two will be mutually reinforcing.

Elements of human purpose

One of the most fundamental things that can help to focus human purpose and give people hope is a positive vision of the future society we want to build. Since humanity is one, each person is born into the world as a trust of the whole, and each bears a responsibility for the welfare of all humanity. This collective trusteeship constitutes the moral foundation of human rights and environmental governance for sustainability. It follows that the welfare of each country and community can only be derived from the well-being of the whole planet.

To achieve a more just future society, we shall need a new economic model that furthers a dynamic, just and thriving social order, is strongly altruistic and cooperative in nature, provides meaningful employment, and helps to eradicate poverty in the world (BIC 1998).

A global society requires world order, including a world federal system with authority over the planet's natural resources and their equitable distribution, mechanisms of collective security to prevent war and its miseries, and efforts to exploit of all the available sources of energy on the surface of the planet. This vision of the future can provide a goal for humanity focusing on the unifying forces of life.

A second element of human purpose is to emphasize social relationships for the future. Humans are social organisms. We need extended family relationships, dignity, friendships, and a role in a group. We want to live in strong and united communities that accept that everyone has a contribution to make. At a larger scale, we need functional institutions of governance, economic production, education and culture.

One of the most fundamental social relationships is employment or other activities that create wealth and contribute to social well-being. A new society and economy needs a renewed concept of work, not just to earn of living, but to be of service to society and to acquire human virtues. In this context, idleness and unemployment are a denial of human purpose. Everyone can make a contribution to society through some form of work. It follows that society has an obligation to train everyone in some skill and to give them the opportunity to use that skill for the benefit of all. Work done in a spirit of service is also an essential part of individual development. This redefinition of work provides the foundation for a more human and sustainable definition of wealth creation in which everyone participates.

As population growth slows, we lose the energy subsidy from cheap fossil fuels, and we reach planetary resource limits, only innovations in science and technology are sustainable drivers of human progress. Science should not longer be restricted to an educated elite. Everyone should learn the scientific methods of experimentation, rational proof, and cause and effect. Local communities should be empowered to find their own culturally and environmentally appropriate solutions to their problems.

The urban population is increasingly cut off from nature and beauty. Any vision for future society should emphasize the arts and individual creative expression, and cultivate beauty in our surroundings, allowing everyone to reconnect with the spiritual and emotional benefits of contact with nature.

Where human purpose has a collective goal in the advancement of civilization, it also has an individual goal in the refinement of character. For the individual, the fulfillment of human purpose means to discover one's talents and capacities, to cultivate human virtues and refine one's character, and to use these qualities for the benefit of the community and to advance civilization. The benefits are cumulative.

While endless material growth is unsustainable, the ethical, moral and spiritual dimensions of life are unlimited, and provide a new world for individual growth and development. These intangible dimensions of human purpose have no limits to growth or sustainability, and generate no guilt over their consumption.

Obviously, the refinement of character requires effort. The temptations of ego, desire and pride are ever-present, and need to be counterbalanced with moderation, contentment and humility. Human virtues must be tested and exercised, but this is what it means to be truly human.

A culture of change

To start to move away from the unsustainable society of today, we need a culture of change from consumerism to sustainability. We should start by asking what is natural and just. There should be a public dialogue on the ethical foundations of the necessary systemic change. We need an integrated systems view beyond sectoral approaches. The aim should be a social order founded on unity in diversity. The effort should start at the community level, applying innovative approaches based on the community's own goals, priorities and capacities (BIC 2009, 2010).

Individual change is best achieved by learning through action, and becoming an agent of change in the local community. Each person should be a humble learner and participant in the generation and application of knowledge (BIC 2010).

In conclusion, alternatives to the consumer society are possible, based on a broader vision of human purpose and prosperity. The goal is an organic change in human society towards sustainability.

References cited

Bahá'í International Community. 1998. Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development. A concept paper written for the World Faiths and Development Dialogue, Lambeth Palace, London, 18-19 February 1998. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, London.

Bahá'í International Community. 2010. Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism. Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, New York, 3 May 2010. and

Bahá'í International Community's Seven Year Plan of Action on Climate Change, 2009. Presented at the Windsor Celebration of religious action plans on climate change on 3 November 2009.

Universal House of Justice. 2005. One Common Faith. Prepared under the direction of the Universal House of Justice. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois.

Last updated 27 October 2012