CONCEPT PAPER "Environment as an area of social action"
The Environment at the Heart of Social Action
Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. - Bahá’u’lláh
Why does the environment matter?
Nature is God’s creation. Plants, animals, and humans are all part of creation and are intricately interconnected and interdependent. The natural world with its rich diversity of plants and animals is a source of spiritual inspiration and cultural wealth, and it provides us with our basic needs: air, water, food, shelter, and energy, without which we could not exist.
Our material civilization is now threatening the natural life-support systems of the Earth with an economic system that exploits the planet’s resources to make the goods and services for a growing population with ever-increasing material demands. This has resulted in a triple planetary crisis: rapid global warming with numerous harmful impacts on the climate, a disastrous reduction of wild plants and animals driving many to extinction, and huge pollution problems including plastic waste.
The dominant economic system exploits not only Nature, but also human beings. The gap between the poor and the wealthy has steadily increased in many places, and too many people are suffering from unjust labor practices, poor health due to air and water pollution, food insecurity, and increasing water scarcity and other impacts from climate change. Human civilization is now seriously threatened.
But we can do something about these challenges, and with a more holistic approach it is entirely feasible to address social and environmental objectives at the same time! All the things we do today – or don’t do – have a tremendous impact on human well-being in the future. Our actions can reduce or worsen human suffering.
Dealing with these problems requires a profound transformation of societies around the globe toward environmental sustainability, equity, and justice. Such a spiritual development is a long-term process for which Baha’is all over the world are striving. Their educational activities led from the grassroots, generally referred to as the Institute Process, bring a spiritual dimension into everyone’s life. Baha’is are building local communities that practice making decisions based on spiritual principles and scientific evidence. They engage in public discourse from the international to the local level encouraging fundamental social change. Such efforts are vitally important.
At the same time, the environmental crisis requires immediate action to stop the destruction of the life support systems nature provides, and to reduce the vulnerability of people to climate change. Populations are already suffering from more intense storms, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, water scarcity and floods. There is an urgent need to build courage and resilience in relation to the many changes that are occurring and, in particular, the increasingly more extreme weather events. Such actions must take place on the international and national level, as well as at the grassroot. Local community initiatives are vitally important. Baha’is, in their approach to social action, aim to make such efforts meaningful, effective, and just for all segments of society.
Spiritual principles for environmental social action
The way Baha'i communities are encouraged to approach social action is explained in Baha'i educational materials (such as Ruhi book 13). What follows recalls some of its main features and provides reflection on how they might be applied in the context of environmental social action.
Social action, from a Baha’i perspective, involves developing a “dynamic coherence between the spiritual and practical requirements of life on earth.” . It is a means of putting values and spiritual principles into practice. These principles are based on immutable beliefs and convictions about the spiritual nature of the human being and our ultimate purpose in life which is to develop our full potential through service to humankind. These principles include the essential oneness of humanity, gender equality, the harmony of science and religion, the independent investigation of truth, and universal education.
The Oneness of Humankind
The oneness of humankind is a guiding principle for all social action, especially in the area of the environment. This principle is inseparable from the principle of justice.
People living in poverty and Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation. They are more likely to suffer from air pollution because industries such as coal-fired power plants are generally situated in their neighborhoods. They also suffer first and the most from climate change, for example from droughts, water and food scarcity, more extreme storms, and flooding. The very existence of small island states is now threatened by rising sea levels. However, all these people have contributed the least to pollution and environmental degradation.
The Universal House of Justice explains how we are all interconnected and how our actions can affect others:
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.
The concept of the oneness of humankind also encompasses future generations. While many people today are already suffering from the consequences of the destruction of the environment, the risks posed for future generations are significantly greater. Therefore, the application of the principle of the oneness of humankind calls for a long-term view in all decisions taken on all levels. In a 2022 letter, the Universal House of Justice wrote:
The global challenges now facing humanity are a severe test of its willingness to put aside short-term self-interest and come to terms with this stark spiritual and moral reality: there is but one, interconnected human family and it shares one precious homeland.
When consulting on the actions needed to improve a local community’s conditions, it is therefore important to remember how deeply interconnected planetary systems are and to take into account the well-being of future generations.
In its statement contributing to the 2015 COP21 Paris Climate Change Conference, the Baha’i International Community emphasized the importance of planetary interconnectedness and the oneness of humankind:
… truly transforming individual and collective patterns of life will require a much deeper appreciation of the interconnectedness of the planetary biosphere. People and the environment are inter-connected aspects of one organically integrated system. At this point in history, neither can be accurately understood in isolation from the other.
Implicit in this understanding is the organic oneness of the human race itself.
The consciousness of the oneness of humankind is the prerequisite for global solidarity which is essential to gather the collective will for the huge scope of climate actions that are commensurate to the threat of climate change.
True peace and tranquillity will only be realized when every soul will have become the well-wisher of all mankind.
The Universal House of Justice emphasized the importance of these words for our time:
Humanity’s crying need ... calls ... for a fundamental change of consciousness ... that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.
Materialism has been the major underlying cause of the destruction of nature, as well as of the exploitation of human beings.
The Baha’i International Community (BIC) wrote in its statement One Planet One Habitation:
The planet, its peoples, and creatures have suffered tremendously from a materialistic mindset that views the individual as a purely self-interested economic unit, competing with others to accumulate an ever-greater share of the world’s material resources. If humanity’s relationship with the natural world is to be refashioned, notions of progress, civilization, and development will need to be redefined.
The BIC reminds us that “a sustainable world will remain out of reach” with “values that prioritize possessions over relationships or acquisition over responsibility”.
Such values, by their very nature and effect on the human spirit, beckon incessantly to excess, exploitation, and depletion. They also give rise to gross extremes of alienating wealth and debilitating poverty. Only to the degree that these are set aside can the profound contradictions they give rise to—not least the expectation of infinite growth on a finite planet—be resolved. And only as progress is understood in new terms can the fundamental drivers of present environmental crises be accurately identified and lasting change be made.
In its Comments on the Path of Economic Well-being, the Universal House of Justice reminds us to exemplify spiritual qualities such as contentment and moderation and then continues:
The forces of materialism promote a quite contrary line of thinking: that happiness comes from constant acquisition, that the more one has the better, 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 while entertainment and distracting amusements are voraciously consumed. The enervating influence of materialism seeps into every culture, and all Baha'is recognize that, unless they strive to remain conscious of its effects, they may to one degree or another unwittingly adopt its ways of seeing the world.
The views and experiences from all segments of society are essential for meaningful, just, and beneficial social action: different racial, cultural, and economic backgrounds, women, Indigenous people, youth and elders, people who have lived in the community for generations as well as newcomers and immigrants, faith communities, representatives of business, political leaders, scientists, etc.
The Universal House of Justice wrote:
Every member of the human family has not only the right to benefit from a materially and spiritually prosperous civilization but also an obligation to contribute towards its construction. Social action should operate, then, on the principle of universal participation.
For environmental actions, the voice, experiences, and knowledge of women, Indigenous peoples, and scientists, are especially important.
The Universal House of Justice states that the primary concern of social action “must be to build capacity within a given population to participate in creating a better world.” It writes about the “centrality of knowledge to social existence”:
Access to knowledge is the right of every human being, and participation in its generation, application and diffusion a responsibility that all must shoulder in the great enterprise of building a prosperous world civilization—each individual according to his or her talents and abilities.
When specifically mentioning the protection of the environment, the Universal House of Justice emphasizes the importance of systematic learning that includes drawing insights from “the accumulated store of human knowledge generated through scientific enquiry”:
...increasing attention needs to be given to other processes that seek to enhance the life of a community — for example, by improving public health, protecting the environment, or drawing more effectively on the power of the arts. What is required for all these complementary aspects of a community’s well-being to advance is, of course, the capacity to engage in systematic learning in all these areas — a capacity that draws on insights arising from the Teachings and the accumulated store of human knowledge generated through scientific enquiry. As this capacity grows, much will be accomplished over the coming decades.
Building capacity for environmental protection therefore requires access to knowledge and education about native plants and animals, the natural cycles, and the local eco-system, as well about global environmental problems such as the human-caused warming of the Earth and its impacts on the climate. It also includes learning about the social and economic conditions in the community and how people’s health, well-being, and livelihoods can be improved with environmental actions.
Environmental education for children, youth, and adults is therefore an important area of social action.
Engaging in environmental social action
Environmental issues are broad and complex and need to be addressed at many levels. For example, science has shown that climate change is clearly a planetary problem caused by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These gases come from many sources, from the burning of fossil fuels, from agricultural emissions, particularly meat production, and from energy-intensive activities like transportation, and steel and cement manufacture.
The impacts of climate change are experienced differently around the world. While actions on the national and international levels are essential, local communities can also make a difference, and each one of us, through our lifestyle and consumption patterns, contributes directly and indirectly to greenhouse gas emissions, and collectively the changes we can make to reduce our contribution can be significant. Action is needed at all levels, but here the focus is on small scale local action.
Environmental action can take very different forms, for example practical projects such as cleaning up trash and polluted areas, promoting non-toxic natural lawns and meadows, creating community gardens, encouraging more walking, biking, and using public transportation, avoiding plastic waste, changing agricultural practices by moving away from toxic monocultures toward organic methods that include growing a diversity of plants, retrieving indigenous knowledge about resources and their sustainable use, etc. Thoughtful dietary choices can contribute to environmental health, too.
Environmental action can also consist in educational efforts to raise awareness of the environmental crisis in the community as well as in systematic environmental education.
Larger scale action on a community level can involve collaborating with government or like-minded groups to work on change such as improving public transportation, implementing clean energy sources, creating protected areas, restoring valuable parts of nature in the community by reforesting and planting native species, or placing limits on resource use that benefit not only the environment but also sustainable fisheries and other economic interests in the future.
Reading our own local reality
What is important is to read our own local reality to see what is relevant and where our environmental challenges and problems are.
Here are two major issues of concern that are worth consulting about:
1. How are we vulnerable to environmental changes and destruction and how can we make our community more resilient?
2. How do we as a community and individuals contribute to pollution and environmental degradation that affect our locality as well as the Earth’s climate, and what practices can we adopt to reduce our harmful impact on the environment?
No two communities or neighbourhoods are the same, neither in the local environmental situation nor in the capacities available in the community. This is why any social action must come from within and be owned by the community. There may be an obvious local environmental problem, or possibly a need for the community to become more aware of a global environmental challenge like climate change to which everyone contributes unconsciously. We can identify environmental problems that already affect the well-being of our community now and think about potential issues that may arise in the future.
Here are a few examples of questions that might be explored to put these concepts in a practical context:
- Is there air or water pollution that threatens human health?
- Is there land use change or deforestation which greatly contributes to the vanishing of wild plants and animals and harms the climate and the future livelihoods of our children?
- Is there soil erosion and chemical pollution from agriculture?
- Do we have to take measures to protect our urban neighborhoods from the increasing summer heat caused by climate change?
- Are certain populations especially vulnerable to sea-level rise or more extreme storms?
- What can we do to ensure the availability of water and food for all people in our community, now and in the future?
- How can we help to protect our native plants and animals?
- How can we reduce our use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, gasoline/petrol, and natural gas?
- How does abandoning materialism and adopting contentment and moderation affect our attitude to fashion and the consumption of material things whose production depletes natural resources, pollutes the environment, and contributes to climate change?
- How might the economic activities of our community or consumerist lifestyles affect the whole planet’s environmental health?
- Are new technologies being used to help people and the environment or are they harmful to life?
It might be worthwhile to consult with elders in the community who remember the community environment of many decades ago and how it has changed, as well as youth in the community who are probably well-informed on environmental issues such as climate change. Sometimes a junior youth group looking for a service project will have its own environmental proposal and the energy to carry it out.
Rural villages, small towns, urban neighbourhoods, and suburban communities all have their own characteristics, their specific challenges and environmental problems, but communities also have strengths that can be drawn on. Is it traditional or Indigenous knowledge, is it the untapped potential of women or youth, or is it social cohesion and collective determination to work for the common good?
The community can then reflect about its priorities and capacities, the means available, and possible priorities for social action.
To consider the environment as an area of social action and how it may relate to your local reality, the following summary may help.
The word "environment" means everything around us, the land, water, air, living things, sunlight and other resources on which we depend for life, all of which may require social action. We are of course also surrounded by other people (the social dimension) and are part of productive systems (the economic dimension) that are also included in sustainable development. The use of land and natural resources requires attention to the needs of people as well as to the health of the environment now and in the future. While these dimensions are not directly discussed here, they also need to be considered in actions for human and environmental sustainability.
The dimensions of the environment include:
Resources for basic needs: water, food, sanitation, shelter, energy
Managing the environment to reduce risks: soil erosion, flooding, drought, storm damage, sea-level rise, vulnerability of agriculture to climate change, foreign invasive species (plants or animals that displace native species and upset local ecosystems), disease vectors (malaria mosquitos, ticks), etc.
Protecting nature and the environment: conserving rare plants and animals, nurturing local biodiversity, maintaining ecosystem services (clean water, erosion control), restoring damage, preservation of cultural heritage and spiritual connection with nature.
Uses of the environment: agriculture, forestry, fisheries, energy resources, resource extraction, mining for natural resources, building materials, means of transport and infrastructure, recreation, community gardens and landscaping, urban nature.
Pollution from activities that impact human health and the environment: human waste, water contamination, agricultural runoff, fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, air pollution, greenhouse gases, industrial pollutants, microbes and viruses, medicines, plastics, waste disposal and management.
Characteristics of the Local Reality
These dimensions need to be considered as they relate to our own local reality, and a social action in one place will not necessarily be appropriate somewhere else. Here are some ways that community types and situations differ that may help us to understand our local reality and set our own priorities:
SIZE: rural village, small town, suburban community, urban neighbourhood, dense slum, refugee camp
LOCAL ECOSYSTEMS: coastal, desert, mountain, forest, savanna/plains, river basin, lake, arctic tundra, coral reef, mangrove, man-made urban.
LIFESTYLES: hunter-gatherer, subsistence cultivation, small family farms, intensive agriculture, suburban, fully urbanized, wealthy, high consumption, urban poor, slums, displaced persons, homeless
LEVELS OF MATERIAL DEVELOPMENT: poor, displaced migrant, insecure, just getting by, developing, materially advanced, wealthy, over-consuming
A culture of learning and consultation
The Baha’i International Community writes in its statement One Planet One Habitation: A Baha’i Perspective on Human Relationship with the Natural World:
A global civilization in a sustainable relationship with the natural world has never existed. Laying its foundations in numerous localities, reflecting a vast spectrum of social and ecological circumstances, therefore calls for a process of learning on a global scale. …
To take learning as a central objective of environmental action calls for specific habits and behaviors. When operating in a mode of learning, visions and strategies are re-examined time and again. Plans grow organically over time and are modified in light of action taken, experience generated, and lessons learned. Action is process-oriented, rather than solely defined by events or projects. Haphazard change is avoided and continuity of effort is maintained.
An orientation toward learning … requires understanding of the role of mistakes and setbacks in the path of progress.
The BIC points out that the objective is not to “search for the perfect program or policy from the outset. This must be replaced by a culture of exploration and an earnest search for appropriate solutions, in full recognition that all involved will, at times, encounter setbacks and fall short. Humility is the gateway to learning.”
In the following paragraph, it describes the process of consultation:
Vital to a mode of learning in action is the principle of consultation, understood as the process of building consensus about the truth of a situation and determining the wisest course of action among available options. In a consultative process, individual participants strive to transcend their respective points of view, and function instead as members of a collective with its own aims and goals. In an atmosphere characterized by both candor and courtesy, ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur, but to the group as a whole. Truth is not treated as a compromise between opposing interest groups, nor are participants animated by the desire to control one another. The aim is to harness the power of unified thought and action. And the perspectives and aspirations of those whose lives will be impacted by decisions are kept in mind at all times.
While taking into account the magnitude of the social transformation required, successful environmental actions generally start small and grow organically with the community continually reflecting on lessons learned and moving forward.
Resources for Baha’i-inspired environmental social action
For inspiration and learning from the experience of others, the Baha’i International Community has published brief case studies from all over the world here: Working toward One Planet and One Habitation
The Baha’i-inspired International Environment (IEF) has been collecting case studies and is continually adding new ones on the page IEF Learning Centre Case Studies.
The IEF website also contains compilations of Baha’i quotations related to the environment and study materials including a six lesson curriculum for youth on overcoming materialism entitled the Story of Stuff: A Baha’i-inspired Program for Youth.
On the IEF website there are also tools like community questionnaires that can help to identify issues to think about and topics for consultation about social action, such as one for community solidarity conversations that includes a section on environmental concerns.
The IEF website also shares practical ideas for Environmentally Sustainable Baha'i Properties.
Other parts of the IEF website include discussions of topics like climate change, nature and biodiversity, pollution and wastes.
 Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, www.bahai.org/r/475103576
 The Universal House of Justice, 20 October 1983
 Universal House of Justice, 1 March 2017 – To the Bahá’ís of the World
 Universal House of Justice, 4 January 2022 - To the Bahá’ís of the World www.bahai.org/r/845512235
 The Baha’i International Community, Statement to the 2015 COP21 Paris Climate Change Conference.
 Bahá’u’lláh, The Tabernacle of Unity, www.bahai.org/r/161451281
 The Universal House of Justice, 24 May 2001 Letter
 Baha’i International Community, One Planet One Habitation, A Bahá’í Perspective on Recasting Humanity’s Relationship with the Natural World https://iefworld.org/fl/BIC_OPOH.pdf
 Ibid, # 18
 Universal House of Justice, Comments on the Path of Economic Well-being, 1 March 2017 https://app.box.com/s/17h33xnfri9ok2friqvokgur7tue8xp6
 The Universal House of Justice, 26 November 2012 – To all National Spiritual Assemblies, https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-o…, #23
 Universal House of Justice, 17 December 2017 letter to an individual https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-o…
 Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2023 message https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-o…
 Baha’i International Community, One Planet One Habitation, A Bahá’í Perspective on Recasting Humanity’s Relationship with the Natural World https://iefworld.org/fl/BIC_OPOH.pdf