Social Conditions and Economics
A summary and commentary by Arthur Lyon Dahl
on the Message of 1 March 2017 from the Universal House of Justice
A significant new message from the international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, the Universal House of Justice, dated 1 March 2017, contains many perspectives relevant to the work of the International Environment Forum. The following summary and commentary extract some points that are of general relevance, apart from sections addressed specifically to the Baha’is of the world.
The first theme is a diagnosis of the illnesses represented by the social conditions of so many people, blighted by inequity, discrimination and exploitation, leading to the prolonged suffering of so many, with economic impacts from deep-seated, structural defects in society.
The message goes on: “The welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Humanity's collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbours' or pursues economic gain without regard for how the natural environment, which provides sustenance for all, is affected. A stubborn obstruction, then, stands in the way of meaningful social progress: time and again, avarice and self-interest prevail at the expense of the common good. Unconscionable quantities of wealth are being amassed, and the instability this creates is made worse by how income and opportunity are spread so unevenly both between nations and within nations. But it need not be so…. There is no justification for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples.”
The forces of materialism
It is the prevailing modes of thought, reflecting the forces of materialism, that are at fault. These include the common assumptions that happiness comes from constant acquisition, the more one has the better, and that worry for the environment is for another day. These seductive messages fuel an increasingly entrenched sense of personal entitlement, which uses the language of justice and rights to disguise self-interest. Indifference to the hardship experienced by others becomes commonplace, and entertainment and distracting amusements are voraciously consumed.
The enervating influence of materialism seeps into every culture. Unless you strive to remain conscious of its effects, you may to one degree or another unwittingly adopt its ways of seeing the world. The message warns that even very young children absorb the norms of their surroundings. For junior youth, the call of materialism grows more insistent. Adulthood brings a responsibility not to allow worldly pursuits to blind one's eyes to injustice and privation. We need to see past the illusions that, at every stage of life, the world uses to pull attention away from service and towards the self, and manage our material affairs in keeping with the divine teachings.
The extremes of wealth and poverty in the world are becoming ever more untenable, deepening the fractures that affect societies large and small.
The moral dimension
There is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization of wealth and resources. The vision of Baha'u'llah challenges the materialistic assumptions that self-interest, far from needing to be restrained, drives prosperity, that progress depends upon its expression through relentless competition, and that the worth of an individual depends chiefly on how much one can accumulate and how many goods one can consume relative to others. The message insists that wealth must serve humanity and be used in accordance with spiritual principles. "No light can compare with the light of justice. The establishment of order in the world and the tranquillity of the nations depend upon it." (Baha’u’llah)
The reorganization of human society
The only solution is the reorganisation of human society, starting with the individual. Collective prosperity can be advanced through justice and generosity, collaboration and mutual assistance. Every choice one makes—as employee or employer, producer or consumer, borrower or lender, benefactor or beneficiary—leaves a trace, and the moral duty to lead a coherent life demands that one's economic decisions be in accordance with lofty ideals, that the purity of one's aims be matched by the purity of one's actions to fulfil those aims. We can all make our own individual and collective contributions to economic justice and social progress wherever we reside. Every local community has the responsibility to find ways of addressing the root causes of the poverty in its surroundings.
The spiritual reality of man
At the most fundamental level, the message reaffirms the spiritual reality of humanity, and the nobility inherent to every human being.
Economic life is an arena for the expression of honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, generosity, and other qualities of the spirit. The individual is not merely a self-interested economic unit. striving to claim an ever-greater share of the world's material resources. The message quotes Baha'u'llah: "Man's merit lieth in service and virtue, and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches." "Dissipate not the wealth of your precious lives in the pursuit of evil and corrupt affection, nor let your endeavours be spent in promoting your personal interest." By consecrating oneself to the service of others, one finds meaning and purpose in life and contributes to the upliftment of society itself. Contentment and moderation, benevolence and fellow feeling, sacrifice and reliance on the Almighty are qualities that befit the God-fearing soul.
The higher purpose of economic activity
The message concludes by emphasizing the higher purpose of economic activities, that ordinary economic activities have the potential to add to human welfare and prosperity. It quotes the son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, ‘Abdu’l-Baha: "Every person must have an occupation, a trade or a craft, so that he may carry other people's burdens, and not himself be a burden to others." "Wealth is praiseworthy in the highest degree, if it is acquired by an individual's own efforts… in commerce, agriculture, art and industry, and if it be expended for philanthropic purposes." “Wealth is most commendable provided the entire population is wealthy."
While the focus of the message is on economic activity and the tribulations that a conflicted world must confront in the future, it is significant from an IEF perspective that it emphasises the suffering that comes from pursuing economic gain without regard for how the natural environment, which provides sustenance for all, is affected, or from the thinking that worry for the environment is for another day. Only a transformation of the economic system will remove the pressures so destructive to the environment today.
For more extensive excerpts from the message, go to Social Conditions and Economics on the statements page of the IEF web site
Last updated 13 March 2017