One Homeland, One Habitation

UN Climate Change Conference COP26

One Homeland, One Habitation

A working paper of the Bahá’í International Community
on recasting humanity’s relationship with the natural world

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This span of earth is but one homeland and one habitation.
It behooveth you to abandon vainglory which causeth alienation
and to set your hearts on whatever will ensure harmony.
— Bahá’u’lláh

1. The natural world, in all its wonder and majesty, offers profound insight into the essence of interdependence. From the biosphere as a whole to the smallest microorganism, it demonstrates how dependent any one life-form is on numerous others—and how imbalances in one system can reverberate across an interconnected whole. Intimately embedded in and reliant on this greater system, humanity faces a paradox growing more consequential by the day.

2. Never before has the human race held more power to shape the physical world on planetary scales. At one level, this is a testament to our collective ingenuity and creativity, as well as the boundless potential before us. Yet that very power, when untempered by thoughtful consideration and directed by priorities heedless of the present and future common good, gives rise to consequences not only world-embracing in scope, but potentially irreversible.

3. As the grave effects created by surpassing planetary limits become increasingly apparent, humanity is being compelled to develop more mature and constructive relationships between its peoples and with the natural environment. Movement in this direction, urgently needed, is far better taken by conscious choice as a matter of prevention, than as the result of suffering and destruction wrought by escalating environmental breakdown.

Trusteeship of the Natural World

Human beings exercise particular influence over the natural world, unique among all forms of life on the planet. At times, this has been construed as justification for an orientation toward mastery and control of nature, buttressed by notions of ownership and dominance. As more and more people have come to recognize that creation is an organic whole, however, they have accepted that our unique powers over nature carry the inescapable duty to preserve its order and balance.

Each of us enters the world as a trust of the whole. Each in turn bears a measure of responsibility for the welfare of all and for the planet on which we depend. This world-encompassing sense of trusteeship does not seek to eliminate humanity’s impact on the natural world. Material resources will always be required to sustain and advance civilization. The goal, rather, is to direct that impact in a sustainable manner, consciously, creatively, and compassionately.

As we learn how best to utilize the earth’s raw materials for the good of all, we must be conscious of our attitudes towards the source of our subsistence. Our activities must reflect the fact that the wealth and wonders of the earth are the common heritage of all people, who deserve just and equitable access to its resources. They must evince an intergenerational perspective in which the well-being of future inhabitants is taken into account at all levels of decision-making. And in this turbulent period of human history, our activities must increasingly be tempered by the wisdom and judgment that come with growing maturity.

Is there any deed in the world that would be nobler than service to the common good? ... No, by the Lord God! — Bahá’í holy writings

A settled consensus

4. Moving humanity to a more harmonious relationship with the natural world will require consensus around key principles that are to shape the affairs of the international community—a consensus that is steadily gaining strength and being embodied in policy and action. The utility of such a framework would stem not only from its formal details, but as much from the deep sense of ownership and motivation it garners among the diversity of nations. Genuine consensus is a powerful catalyst for action. Settled agreement at the international level, coupled with commitment to embodying its provisions in practice, assists national and local leaders to overcome the very real barriers that arise in implementing necessary changes. It clarifies the rationale for nations to provide one another with the practical support and resources necessary to bring agreements to life, and helps societies move past objections based on narrow interests and priorities.

5. Thinking on environmental issues has shifted dramatically in the half-century since the landmark United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Continually deepening levels of understanding have been called for by the unprecedented pace of technological change and the social, cultural, and political questions that have arisen as a result. Many of the norms, values, and assumptions underlying the current global order, however, such as the pursuit of endless economic growth or uncompromising national sovereignty, were hundreds of years in the making and reflect social and environmental priorities ill-suited to the contemporary world.

6. Foundational principles needed to navigate present realities are coming into focus in many cases, informed by increasingly detailed and concerning scientific findings. But while ideals of sustainability, stewardship, interdependence, and justice find wide agreement in discourse on environmental issues, they have yet to take hold as the accepted, common-sense foundation for collective global action.

7. The insufficiency of national plans to reduce carbon emissions under the Paris climate agreement, important as they are, provides one often-noted example. The gap between rhetoric and action is indeed problematic. But the gap is, itself, indicative of a deeper challenge: that principles related to sustainability are not grounded securely enough in the collective consciousness to shape the choices and behaviors of nations, above other priorities.

8. It is well understood today that environmental challenges respect no border. Such recognition must now find expression not only in increased coordination among nations but also in institutional structures that foster motivation and mobilization at all levels. No longer can the international community content itself with agreements signed but left unimplemented. The international order must be placed on a footing that effectively facilitates planetary responses to planetary challenges.

Rethinking Economic Arrangements

Global arrangements that have degraded ecosystems have similarly impoverished local communities and individual lives. The destruction inherent in the endless creation and gratification of wants has been demonstrated beyond credible objection. Putting the world on more ecologically sustainable foundations requires a recasting of the global economic order. People and the planet will need to be valued as explicitly as profit has been.

As many current imbalances are driven by excess, the principle of moderation will need to find much fuller expression in global arrangements. Patterns of life that have come to be associated with wealth—the devotion to convenience and luxury, for example, or high levels of consumption and waste—will need to be set aside. Concepts of sufficiency, simplicity, and contentment, which find little meaningful place in growth-driven paradigms, will have to be reclaimed and expanded. Basic notions of progress, development, prosperity, and success will need to be recast in far more holistic terms.

Movement in this direction will require economic arrangements to be disciplined according to values higher than their own ends. The practical experience of individuals, communities, businesses, and nations leaves no room for doubt: there is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization of wealth and resources.

Humanity’s collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well being in isolation from that of its neighbors, or pursues economic gain without regard for how the natural environment is affected. Every choice leaves a trace. Economic decisions must be taken in accordance with lofty ideals. Wealth must serve humanity. There is no justification for continuing to perpetuate views, structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the common good.

The possibilities before humanity are numerous, from new approaches to ownership and usership, to new forms of urban organization, to new methods of agriculture, power generation, and transportation. Constructing new patterns of economic life therefore promises to be an endeavor of unsurpassed vibrancy and excitement, and an opportunity for a great flourishing of human energy and initiative.

Wealth is most commendable, provided the entire population is wealthy. If, however, a few have inordinate riches while the rest are impoverished, and no fruit or benefit accrues from that wealth, then it is only a liability to its possessor. — Bahá’í holy writings

Redefining progress

9. If humanity’s relationship with the natural world is to be refashioned, notions of progress, civilization, and development that dominate discourse and decision-making must be redefined. Efforts in this direction, such as budgets centered around well-being or indicators of progress more holistic than gross domestic product, will need to be both expanded and deepened. What does a successful person, nation, or corporation look like? How do they act and behave? So long as such questions are answered in terms that, either explicitly or implicitly, value possessions over relationships or acquisition over responsibility, a sustainable world will remain out of reach. Such values, by their very nature and their effect on the human spirit, beckon incessantly to excess, exploitation, and depletion.

10. Crafting a more holistic vision of progress will require an expanded understanding of ourselves as a species, including truths about the human spirit itself. The planet, its peoples, and creatures have suffered tremendously, for example, from a mindset that views the individual as a purely self-interested economic unit, striving to accumulate an ever-greater share of the world’s material resources. Such a crude understanding has largely been rejected at the level of formal theory as simplistic in conception and destructive in effect. Yet numerous aspects of the current global order still rest on these assumptions—and often reinforce and deepen them.

11. While growing numbers recognize the negative consequences and minimal evidence for this limited view of human nature, agreement about more accurate alternatives is lacking. Significant work is needed to replace reductive theories about human existence with a conception capable of incorporating the full range of our powers and dimensions. Such an accounting would need to provide for, and actively cultivate, prosocial inclinations such as the desire to contribute to the progress of society, to become a source of social good, and to steward and sustain the physical environment. It would need to reflect the numerous ways that relationships between and among people influence humanity’s overall relationship with the planet.

Science and Religion: Complementary Systems of Knowledge and Practice

In working to build a more sustainable world, humanity has at its disposal two mutually reinforcing systems of knowledge and practice: science and religion. Each complements and requires the other. Religion, without science, soon degenerates into superstition and fanaticism. Science without religion becomes merely the instrument of crude materialism. There is no inherent conflict between the two.

Scientific inquiry has been a vital tool in seeking to understand physical reality and in forging innovative solutions based on a search for truth and a commitment to learning. It has enabled humanity to separate fact from conjecture. Scientific capabilities—of observing, measuring, rigorously testing ideas—have allowed us to construct a coherent understanding of the laws and processes governing physical reality, as well as to gain insights into human conduct and the life of society. Far from being the province of researchers and academics alone, these are means that any individual or community can employ.

For its part, religion, provides a framework for translating high ideals into social realities. Religion has consistently proven its capacity to reach to the deepest roots of human motivation. At its highest, it has not only reinforced personal commitment to elevated principles, but drawn individuals together around those principles, giving rise to cohesive communities committed to manifesting in practice the highest human qualities.

Taken together, science and religion provide fundamental organizing principles by which lasting progress can be made. For example, scientific knowledge helps the members of a community analyze the physical and social implications of a technological proposal—say, its environmental impact—while spiritual insight gives rise to moral imperatives that contribute to good character, high resolve, and concern that technology serves the common good.

Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. — Bahá’í holy writings

Transcending material gain alone

12. Unlocking the noble qualities latent in every individual has been a central concern of religious teachings and ideals for millennia. Though the harms of fanaticism and sectarian dogmatism must be acknowledged, communities of individuals who are actively laboring to put transcendent values into practice represent a reservoir of experience worthy of serious consideration.

13. An orientation toward the divine posits that humanity’s relationship with the universe is governed not only by physical forces, but by spiritual laws of cause and effect as well. Greed, for example, is inherently corrosive to the common good, no matter how artfully justified or concealed. Acts of selfless compassion invariably hold the power to motivate and inspire, no matter how seemingly isolated or simple. From this perspective, the path to a more harmonious relationship with nature cannot be one of technological adjustment alone. It must also involve communities and societies learning to align themselves with the requirements of noble ends and aims.

14. “Man’s merit lieth in service and virtue and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches,” asserts Bahá’u’lláh, providing one example, among many, of an approach to personal identity and collective interaction that is grounded in values that transcend material prosperity alone. How such ideals come to infuse the thinking and behavior of growing numbers, and how this process can be consciously fostered, are questions of central importance to the environmental movement and humanity as a whole.

One people in one global homeland

15. The natural world demonstrates that healthy, flourishing systems are dependent on the interaction of highly diverse elements. The differences between each enhance the whole and contribute to the resilience of the system. In human affairs, diversity of thought, background, and approach are similarly critical. It is through the interaction of a diversity of perspectives and experiences that higher degrees of truth can be found and insight gained. Otherwise, an overabundance of similar views and opinions, like excessive dependence on a single natural resource, leaves a system blind to dangers and vulnerable to breakdown.

16. From a perspective wide enough to encompass the planet in its entirety, humanity can be seen in no other light than as one people living in one global homeland. To acknowledge humanity’s oneness is not to suppress any particular form of expression. The principle of oneness contains the essential concept of diversity. Indeed, appreciation for diversity is what distinguishes unity from uniformity.

17. The contributions of countless peoples, well coordinated and integrated, will be required to rebalance the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Presumptions of any one group’s superiority over another, whether asserted along lines of nationality, race, wealth, or any other characteristic, cannot but erode the bonds necessary for coordinated action among diverse stakeholders. Feelings of otherness invariably undermine motivation to work for the good of people and planet.

18. Humanity has often struggled to appreciate diversity while working to build unity, to respect and protect the particular while drawing on the strength of the shared. Stewardship of the natural world offers a unique opportunity to reconcile these interconnected ideals. Every people, in its own way, celebrates the ever-abundant beauty and grandeur of nature. The traditions of every culture pay homage to that priceless heritage that sustains not only the physical needs of bodies but also the transcendent qualities of the spirit. The task of building a sustainable and flourishing world holds the promise of providing a point of unity not only in shared endeavor, but in joyful celebration as well.

The Locus of Decision-Making

In an age when global processes are felt within villages as much as across continents, sustained attention will need to be given to the appropriate locus of decision-making. Key in this regard is the principle that decisions should be made at the level at which optimum results can be obtained.

In many cases, this principle would imply a profound devolution of power and authority to local communities and governing institutions. Twenty-five years ago the Bahá’í International Community wrote that, “Despite acknowledgement of participation as a principle, the scope of the decision-making left to most of the world’s population is at best secondary, limited to a range of choices formulated by agencies inaccessible to them and determined by goals that are often irreconcilable with their perceptions of reality.”

Whatever progress has been made since, decision-making processes will need to become far more inclusive, local, and participatory in the coming years. Experience has demonstrated that without the commitment of those whose lives will be affected, no program or project will ever be anything more than an external add-on—having an effect, perhaps, but never taking deep root in the culture and consciousness of the population on which its implementation ultimately depends.

Complementing efforts toward localization are areas where effective action must transcend the nation-state. Numerous environmental challenges, for example, are increasingly recognized as effectively unsolvable at the national level. National self-interest, narrowly conceived, still shapes many essential functions of the multilateral system. Yet developments around the globe demonstrate that such arrangements alone are no longer sufficient in the face of cascading and increasingly interconnected threats. Integration and coordination must therefore be extended further. The only viable way forward lies in a system of deepening global cooperation.

[The principle of the oneness of humanity] insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world. It repudiates excessive centralization on one hand, and disclaims all attempts at uniformity on the other. — Bahá’í holy writings

Issues of justice

19. Central to any authentic conception of oneness at a planetary level are fundamental issues of justice. That widespread suffering has resulted from humanity’s extractive relationship with the natural world, that a select few benefit from excessive use of the earth’s resources to the detriment of many others, that immediate preferences often outweigh the basic needs of future generations—these reveal profound injustices to people and planet.

20. Correcting such ills will require, first, an honest reckoning, and then creativity, perseverance, and humility in response. The voices of those who have been disadvantaged by the current order will need to figure far more prominently into decision-making processes at all levels. Insight will need to be sought from populations living out more harmonious relationships with the natural world, many of whom live in areas other than urban centers. Many indigenous peoples, for example, have held world-views that recognize little distinction between humanity and nature, fostering more reciprocal and sustainable relationships.

21. To uphold standards of justice, practical steps to remedy unsustainable global arrangements will need to be determined in light of historic responsibilities for, and current contributions to, ongoing challenges. Consideration will need to be given to ensuring all nations have access to the financial, scientific, and technological resources necessary to make required transitions, especially those countries that have been particularly disadvantaged by the current global order. Many individuals will have to leave behind unsustainable patterns of life to which they have become accustomed or to which they have aspired. Corporations will need to shoulder ecological and social responsibility as robustly as their fiduciary duty, and contribute to conditions that empower all to move away from unsustainable practices. The adjustments needed will be profound in many cases. But their rationale is as clear as it is unavoidable. Just and equitable relationships are the only lasting foundation on which a unified global movement for the common good can advance.

Building Capacity for Transformational Change

The human capacity to create transformational change is one of the most potent resources at the disposal of the international community. Building the capacity of individuals and communities to undertake meaningful action and overcome challenges—at the local level, where so many national and global policies find their ultimate expression—is indispensable to effective environmental action.

Effective processes of capacity-building need to cultivate necessary values and qualities. If communities of solidarity, responsibility, and generosity are to become reality, systems of education and training must inculcate those qualities in large numbers of people. Individuals of all ages must also be assisted to infuse those qualities into the institutions of their community and its culture.

To do this, training must also develop operational skills such as organizing large numbers into coordinated action, maintaining basic statistics and planning based on resources, and establishing increasingly sophisticated systems of communication as endeavors grow in complexity.

For its part, the worldwide Bahá’í community has established a decentralized, worldwide process of spiritual and practical education, open to all. Structured in stages, this system tends to the moral education of children, facilitates the spiritual empowerment of young adolescents, and allows increasing numbers of youth and adults to explore the application of spiritual teachings to daily life and to the challenges facing society.

This system seeks to build capacity within a population to trace its own path of development and contribute to the common good. Those sustaining its efforts at the neighborhood or village level strive to create an environment in which growing numbers of their friends, neighbors, and acquaintances come to see themselves as active agents in an ongoing effort to apply knowledge toward individual and collective progress.

From this foundation, a variety of development activities arise. Some begin when growing social awareness leads to the emergence of a small group which initiates a simple set of actions to address a particular concern. In some cases initial efforts give rise to an endeavor of a more sustained nature. Some of these, in turn, evolve into fully-fledged development organizations, with the capacity to engage in relatively complex activities and establish working relations with government agencies and civil society.

Unless capacity is developed...the light of the Sun of Truth will not be observed, and the fragrances of the rose garden of inner significance will be lost. Let us endeavor to attain capacity. — Bahá’í holy writings

The role of the state

22. Numerous actors have a part to play in building a more sustainable world. Local communities, for example, can do much to foster collective action and multiply the innovative capacities of their members. Youth demonstrate again and again an openness to new ways of organizing society, a willingness to learn through front-line action, and a readiness to commit themselves to high endeavors. Business and industry, as linchpins of the contemporary economic order, can make constructive decisions whose benefits ripple through societies and landscapes across the globe. The role of national government, however, is unique and preeminent today. At this point in human history, the nation-state is the fundamental unit of the global political order. States therefore have an indispensable role in addressing climate change, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, pollution, and similar challenges.

23. The mandate of the state is quintessentially long-term in nature. Effective government ensures the continued flourishing of the jurisdiction for which it is responsible, for generations to come and within the context of broader civilizational processes. As distinct from other actors, government exists solely to serve its population in its entirety, without distinction. It bears the crucial responsibility of governing the commons, whether within its own borders or in collaboration with other institutions in managing global public goods.

24. Good governance creates the context in which the private sector, the scientific community, civil society, and others can make their highest contributions. Government is the protector of the public trust. As that role is claimed with increasing vigor and fidelity, concern for the health of the environment, vital to human prosperity and well-being, will inevitably come to the fore.

Learning as a Mode of Operation

A global civilization in sustainable relationship with the natural world has never yet existed. Bringing it into being, therefore, requires a process of learning on global scales. The idea of learning is well appreciated in international circles. Yet taking learning as a mode of operation and a primary objective of collective action, and not merely a welcomed add-on, involves specific actions, habits, and behaviors.

When operating in a mode of learning, plans grow organically over time and exist to be modified in light of the ultimate goal of human and environmental sustainability. Visions and strategies are re-examined time and again, and modifications are made as tasks are accomplished, obstacles removed, resources multiplied, and lessons learned. Like scientific inquiry, action is process-oriented, rather than focused on events or projects. Haphazard change is avoided and continuity of action is maintained.

Human and relational considerations are vital, if often overlooked. If learning is to be the primary goal of a group, the individuals, organizations, or nations comprising it cannot be driven by considerations of power or status, reputation or advantage, credit or blame. Commitment to the unbiased search for truth also makes demanding moral claims—for example, to uphold findings that contradict one’s previously held positions, or to acknowledge the legitimate observations of those whose perspectives differ from one’s own.

To approach learning as a central mechanism of social transformation is to acknowledge the inevitability of mistakes. Whereas the scientific method makes full use of the process of trial and error, international processes are often consumed by a search for the perfect program or policy from the outset. Ingrained habits of fault-finding and criticism can give rise to an environment of fear and risk-aversion that paralyzes action. In a good faith effort, this must be replaced by a culture of exploration and full recognition that all involved will, at times, encounter setbacks and fall short. Sweeping designations of “success” and “failure” are incompatible with an orientation toward learning.

Building more sustainable societies relies on the application of existing knowledge, but also involves the generation of new knowledge. Much of this takes the form of insights acquired through experience and experimentation at the local level. Here, the systematization of learning is crucial. As those working at the grassroots begin to gain experience, initial observations may consist of little more than anecdotes or personal accounts. Over time, patterns emerge which can be documented, analyzed, and used to shape subsequent efforts.

Conceived in this way, learning involves not only academic research and formal studies, but also the experiential learning of individuals and communities taking action to solve problems that unfold at the local level. In this way, learning about the construction of a truly sustainable world becomes the province not of a limited group of experts alone, their vital contributions notwithstanding, but rather an endeavor both relying on and welcoming the contribution of the masses of humanity.

Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. — Bahá’í holy writings

Proposals for exploration

25. As coherence is built between the distinct role of the state, within its borders, and global approaches reflecting the planetary environmental system, a variety of concrete proposals can be explored and assessed. Bringing disparate environmental governing bodies and treaties under one umbrella, for example, could mirror the interdependence between aspects of the natural world. As intimately linked as processes related to biodiversity loss and climate change are, for example, equally coherent must be the governance systems that oversee them. Establishing creative financing mechanisms could help ensure that agreed commitments are implemented and actions undertaken are commensurate with the scale of challenges. Equally important is aligning governmental policies and laws with the long-term interests of humanity, including replacing counterproductive incentives with future-oriented ones.

26. Technical adjustments to policy, finance, and similar areas will not, on their own, meet the environmental challenges facing humanity. They can, however, improve existing arrangements, to the degree that they are embedded in a process of learning and generating knowledge about the ways and patterns of a more sustainable world. Aspects of the process of scientific inquiry itself—such as engaging in iterative action, rigorous assessment and refinement of efforts, and recognition that apparent setbacks can be a vital source of understanding and insight—will be critical in learning how society can be placed on more sustainable foundations. Such a global process of learning could receive untold impetus from the coordinating and convening functions so uniquely vested in the United Nations.

27. A mechanism to coordinate aspects of humanity’s relationship with the natural world could serve a variety of functions in addition to facilitating implementation of agreements already made. It could, for example, serve as the secretariat for financial resources mobilized around environmental goals, and oversee their distribution. It could support national governments in transitioning away from environmentally harmful policies and economic foundations, and establishing more sustainable alternatives. And it could ensure that processes of scientific advancement incorporate knowledge and experience from a range of sources, and approach them in a spirit of learning rather than a search for technological fixes to solve all problems.

The world that beckons

28. A flourishing global civilization in harmony with the natural environment is a vision toward which growing numbers are laboring. The world that beckons is one of harmony and balance, beauty and maturity. It is a world increasingly relieved of the destructive moral compromises—social, economic, and environmental—that have so often been asserted as necessary to progress.

29. Movement toward this vision has begun; its momentum is gathering. Lofty ambitions have been articulated and action is being called for on scales unseen. Yet the pace of transformation does not match the increasing urgency of risks. Will humanity act on the truth that its destiny and that of the planet are irrevocably intertwined? Or will still greater calamities be required to move it into action?

30. The gulf between intention and action is one of the central challenges facing humanity today. This gap can be bridged, but it requires from the nations a far stronger consensus around the values required at the current stage of humanity’s development. It also calls for far greater determination in putting those values into practice, recommitting to that which is beneficial to the common good and discarding whatever stands in the way of answering the moral and practical call of the present hour. This is a high endeavor indeed, and a legacy that can and must be left to the generations to come. Let us join together in rising to its demands.

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Last updated 15 November 2021