Ethical Commitment to Protect Nature and its Biodiversity
A Statement from the International Environment Forum, 1 March 2021
Introductory video for the statement: https://vimeo.com/530296612
Diversity in nature is important on many levels. A biologically diverse system is essential to all life. In addition, the rich diversity of plants and animals has profound cultural and spiritual significance. This statement briefly highlights the importance of biodiversity for these different levels of reality and calls for an ethical commitment to protect it.
Earth is the only planet we know of where life has evolved to facilitate multiple living systems. The conditions of temperature, gravity, distance to the sun, atmosphere and the presence of water, led to life appearing on the planet approximately 3.7 billion years ago, only about 1 billion years after the planet was formed (1). First in the oceans and then on land, through many crises and rebounds, lifeforms multiplied in number, shape, function and complexity, at the molecular, cellular, organism, population, community and ecosystem levels. Through this complex evolutionary process, cooperation and reciprocity developed in diverse ecosystems adapting to the various geographic and climatic conditions. Each area of the Earth, from the air, oceans, land, soil and subsoil, even the most hostile environments such as volcanic vents, hot or cold deserts, deep ocean sediments or the extreme cold of the poles, has been colonised by some form of life. The resulting biological diversity is a unique treasure to be valued and protected.
In the evolutionary process, humans have gradually but increasingly emerged as the dominant species, resulting in a significant impact on the environment (2). Especially since the industrial revolution, our extraction of the earth’s resources for food, materials and energy, new technologies, as well as exponential population growth, have pushed the physical environment beyond its planetary boundaries. The raw materials extracted from the living and non-living resources for our use can no longer be renewed, and our growing emissions of greenhouse gases are disrupting the climate stability thus threatening our future and that of countless other species. With our failure to respect the natural cycles of materials, waste accumulates, resulting in soil, water and air pollution. Our unsustainable use of land has destroyed or fragmented many natural habitats, which combined with other threats is driving many species and their ecosystems to collapse and extinction (3). As the recent UN Human Development Report indicates “Though humanity has achieved incredible progress, we have taken the Earth for granted, destabilizing the very systems upon which we rely for survival” (4). In addition, species extinction is accelerating at an unprecedented rate with a million species of plant, animals and microorganisms at risk (5).
Given that many human activities are degrading nature, threatening the diversity of life and causing the extinction of species and collapse of ecosystems, what is our moral and ethical responsibility towards the environment on which all life depends, including our own? Humankind could certainly deploy its high intelligence and its spiritual capacities of free will and moral choice to safeguard a livable future on this planet.
The living world is absolutely essential for human life. We depend on healthy ecosystems for clean air and water, soil fertility and food production, for regulating climate as well as for profound cultural meaning. Awareness is growing of the extent to which life support systems depend on the diversity of life adapted to the various local conditions and climates on earth. Many reports at the local to global levels, such as the Global Biodiversity Outlook (6), the new framework for action of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Global Biodiversity Assessment illustrate this point (7). The recent Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity further underscores the reality of human dependence on nature. (8)
We need to fundamentally re-examine our relationship with nature, not just as individuals, but as a collective human community that relies on the earth systems for our survival. It is time to seriously consider ecology and economy in symbiosis (9). Respect for nature was and is inherent in Indigenous cultures around the world, but the modern world largely ignores that humans are a part of and integral to nature (10). Some recent efforts for conservation tend to separate human society from the “natural” world rather than recognize the interdependence of all life.
The current health crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic can be seen as another wake up call for much needed transformation. It has also highlighted the fragility and interdependence of our health, economic, social and political systems at local, national and global levels.
In our view, the needed transformation will not be achievable without addressing fundamental questions that are philosophical, even spiritual, in nature: What is the place of humans in the universe? What is the purpose of humans on this planet? What are the root causes of these crises and thus where should we direct our attention to achieve transformational changes?
Material and economic development has provided welcome progress for many people, but also resulted in rampant materialism and consumerism which are at the root of the environmental crisis. It has also left far too many people in abject poverty. We need to apply spiritual values such as humility, moderation, justice, respect and cooperation, if we want to shift to a sustainable and just mode of functioning in our societies for us and all life on this planet.
The teachings of the Baha’i Faith help us appreciate the value of moderation in all things and call for balance between material and spiritual civilization, between reason and faith, between science and religion. Like two wings of a bird, both should develop concomitantly. The Baha’i Writings state:
“Material civilization is like unto the lamp, while spiritual civilization is the light in that lamp. If the material and spiritual civilization become united, then we will have the light and the lamp together, and the outcome will be perfect. For material civilization is like unto a beautiful body, and spiritual civilization is like unto the spirit of life. If that wondrous spirit of life enters this beautiful body, the body will become a channel for the distribution and development of the perfections of humanity” (11).
Likewise, Baha'u'llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha'i Faith, warned more than a hundred years ago about the hazards of material civilization to our planet:
"The civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men.... If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation..." (12)
Understanding and integrating the principles guiding our relationship with the natural world and with our fellow brothers and sisters is very important, but even more important is our capacity to bring about change through deeds. Change needs to take place at every level: Global, national, regional, community, individual, and indeed most importantly in the human heart.
Many movements are attempting to raise awareness about the urgency of the problem. Indigenous Peoples and local communities already play an important role in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity as they manage 35% of all land with low human impact that contains up to 80% of the world’s biodiversity (13) and they also increasingly make their voice heard in global biodiversity governance (14). Under the framework of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (15), many countries have increased the size and number of protected areas (16). Recent global initiatives including the UN Summit on Biodiversity in September 2020 (17), where leaders pledged to protect nature (18), the One Planet summit (19), the Faith4Earth Initiative (20), the Biodiversity Faith Call to Action (21), and other initiatives have fostered action at the individual and community levels. For example, there are some efforts to shift from intensive agriculture and industrial food production to a more sustainable agriculture respectful of soil and water, and that encourage the development of urban organic farming or community gardens (22). There are efforts at re-wilding where some areas are given back to nature for the benefit of a diversity of local forms of life, and also for visitors who can appreciate, learn and benefit for their health (23). These initiatives are commendable but still insufficient in number and in scale. In addition, much progress is still needed in recognizing the rights of indigenous communities to their forests, land and water. This is not only a matter of basic human rights, but has also proven to be very effective at protecting local ecosystems, the climate, and biodiversity (24).
Beyond the vital necessity of biodiversity for the web of life, there is intrinsic value in each plant and animal species. Baha'u'llah wrote that “Nature is God's Will” and that there is profound spiritual significance in the diversity of life (25).
Human aspirations for equality and justice, for clean air and water, for healthy food and other bounties of nature should be seen as part of a unified whole. Only when we see that the spiritual, social and physical environments of man are interdependent can we develop a sustainable approach. When we combine individual responsibility and community action with regional, national and international efforts, we can take a significant leap forward to ensure a sustainable path for humanity and the diversity of life on planet Earth.
1. Marshall Michael, “Timeline: The evolution of life”, New Scientist 14 July 2009, https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17453-timeline-the-evolution-of-…
2. The human footprint https://www.footprintnetwork.org/
3. Stromberg Joseph, “What Is the Anthropocene and Are We in It?” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2013 The anthropocene https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-is-the-anthropocene-…
4. The United Nations Development Programme, The 2020 Human Development Report, http://hdr.undp.org/en/2020-report
5. Hollefson Jeff, Humans are driving one million species to extinction, Nature 06 May 2019 https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01448-4
6. UN Environment, 4 March 2019, Global Environment Outlook 6 (GEO6) report https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/global-environment-outlook-6
7. IPBES (2019): Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). Link to the Summary for Policy Makers: https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_r…
8. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, Final Report of the Independent Review on the Economics of Biodiversity led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, 2 February 2021 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/final-report-the-economics-o…
9. Arthur Dahl, The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis, George Ronald, Oxford & Zed Books, London, 1996
10. Orjollet Stephane, Collapsology: Is this the end of the world as we know it? 21 April 2020 PhysOrg https://phys.org/news/2020-04-collapsology-civilisation.html
11. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 14 April 1912 Talk at Church of the Ascension https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/promulgati…
12. Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah CLXIV, https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/bahaullah/gleanings-w…
13. IPBES 2019, Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. https://ipbes.net/global-assessment
14. UN Environment, Local Biodiversity Outlook 2 https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/report/2nd-edition-local-biodiv…;
15. The Convention on Biodiversity https://www.cbd.int/convention/
16. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), The World Now Protects 15% of Its Land, but Crucial Biodiversity Zones Left Out https://www.iucn.org/news/secretariat/201609/world-now-protects-15-its-…
17. United Nations Summit on Biodiversity https://www.un.org/pga/75/united-nations-summit-on-biodiversity/
18. Leaders Pledge for Nature https://www.leaderspledgefornature.org/
19. One Planet Summit, 2021, https://www.oneplanetsummit.fr/en
20. UN Environment, Faith and Biodiversity https://www.unenvironment.org/faith-and-biodiversity
21. 2020 Faith Call to Action for UN Biodiversity Summit https://www.weacreationcare.org/faith-biodiversity-call-to-action and https://iefworld.org/node/1086
22. Mesbah, Laurent and Teclemariam-Mesbah, Rebecca, “Community Gardening: A Fertile Ground for Spiritual Growth?” International Environment Forum, 2020 September Newsletter https://iefworld.org/newslt135
23. Ferrier, Simon, 2020, “Prioritizing where to restore Earth’s ecosystems”, Nature 14 October 2020, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02750-2
24. Rights and Resources https://rightsandresources.org/
25. Baha’u’llah, Tablet of Wisdom https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/bahaullah/tablets-bah…
Last updated 15 April