Spiritual Principles for Sustainable Development

Submitted by admin on 23. December 2011 - 0:18
Adriance, Peter

Spiritual Principles for Sustainable Development

A brief talk by Peter Adriance, prior to the 15th annual IEF conference
Bahá'í Center of Learning, Hobart, Tasmania, 9 December 2011


It’s wonderful to be here in the “Tasmanian Bahá'í Center of Learning”. What an appropriate name for this lovely, green and inspiring place! Over the next couple of days learning is exactly what we’ll be doing here. We’ll be focusing on some very important themes. The conference which begins tomorrow is entitled, “Ethical Responses to Climate Change – at the Individual, Community and Institutional Levels.” Climate change is one facet of the sustainable development prospect. It is one that has gotten many people’s attention and has helped clarify the concept of sustainability.

Making Sustainable Development Real

I remember well a comment by Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the UN, back in 2001. He said, “Our biggest challenge in this new century is to take an idea that seems abstract -- sustainable development -- and turn it into a reality for all the world's people.” It was in 2007 that that happened very much for me. I’d been working for the Bahá'ís on sustainability issues since 1990, but in 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the authoritative international advisory body on that issue -- released its Fourth Assessment Report.

In that report, with a high level of certainty, they said climate change is occurring, and it is doing so largely as a result of human activity. This information certainly had profound implications for all of us, and it adds a measure of clarity to the meaning of sustainable development. Climate change is requiring us to shift our consciousness at the deepest level. It will fundamentally change the ways we live, work, and think about our relationship to each other and to the vast array of other species in the world.

Sustainability, Science, and Religion

The UN launched the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) in 2005. Many organizations I work with have been very active in trying to develop ways of educating for sustainability in response to the call of this Decade. UNESCO, the lead agency for the Decade, identified faith communities as essential partners in this process. The Decade’s goal is to integrate principles, values, and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of learning -- to encourage changes in behavior that allow for a more sustainable and just society for all. I think that is a very worthy goal, and it relates directly to the topic of my talk.

In 2003, in anticipation of the coming DESD, the National Spiritual Assembly of the U.S. joined other organizations in forming the US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development. I serve as secretary of this network of hundreds of organizations that have coalesced around this idea of Educating for Sustainability.

One of my colleagues in the Partnership is the chief scientist at the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE). He contacted me one day regarding their annual conference and invited me to organize a workshop for it called, “People of Faith Respond to Climate Change with Concrete Actions.” He said that the scientific community wanted to know: What is the faith community doing about this issue? And how can we work with faith communities to make a difference in how people are responding to climate change? I said I’d be really happy to pull that kind of a workshop together. Across the faith communities this issue has become a great unifier. Simply put -- all faith communities believe we should love one another and care for God’s creation.

I contacted colleagues in different faith organizations – the National Council of Churches, Soka Gakkai International (USA) (a Buddhist organization), the US Catholic Conference, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and a few others – and we put our heads together, created a panel and had a very illuminating discussion on this. There were others that came to the workshop and contributed to the discourse both from scientific and religious perspectives.

Following our discussions, and during the remainder of the conference, I felt confirmed many times as a representative of religion among some 1200 scientists. Many of the workshops held were concerned with the key question -- how do we make the necessary changes? How do we get people to really pay attention and do something about this issue? And the consensus from the scientific community was, in essence, “We know what’s going on; we’ve got the facts, but we don’t know how to change people’s behavior. Religion is better at that. ” What I’m getting at here is that the scientific and the religious communities – together – have a very important role to play. They’re like yin and yang – they’re complementary.

The IEF, whose conference begins tomorrow, has been accredited by the UN as a scientific and technological organization. Of course it’s an organization that is also very much based on spiritual principles and values, animated by the Bahá'í teachings. The IEF aims to combine both the practical and the spiritual. Arthur will be speaking more on that following my brief remarks this evening.

Spiritual Principles – the foundation for sustainability

Regarding spiritual principles, or what some call human values, the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá'í Faith, said back in 1985, “The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.”1 Spiritual principles are actually deep truths by which we are enjoined to live and which have the ability to guide and motivate constructive actions.

In conceptualizing sustainable development, many people have compared it to a stool with three legs. There’s the environmental leg, the social leg and the economic leg. If any one of these legs is short or weak, the stool is not going to be very stable. In fact, it may even collapse. You need all three legs to be equally strong, to maintain balance. When the principles associated with each of these legs are spiritually based, it’s like reinforcing the legs of the stool. It is made even stronger. What then, are some of the spiritual principles connected to sustainability?

In the social area – you have spiritual principles such as the oneness of humankind. This is the core spiritual principle around which all the Bahá'í teachings revolve. From that principle, others may be derived: the equality of women and men; the elimination of all forms of prejudice, unity in diversity. Beyond personal behavior, these principles have profound implications for decision making and policy in all areas.

In the economic area – consider the elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty. This is a spiritual principle proclaimed by Bahá'u'lláh, and it is an issue that the Bahá'í International Community at the UN has recently been discussing with others. Poverty eradication is something that the UN has had on its agenda for a long time, but the elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty is not something that the UN has effectively addressed.

Last spring at the Commission on Sustainable Development, we floated this concept as a key spiritual principle and tried to get the discourse moving around it. Some people really resonated with the idea. Others needed greater clarification -- they didn’t want to see any kind of limitation on the amount of wealth they could generate. But that wasn’t the point we were trying to make. There is nothing wrong with wealth. It’s what you do with it that matters.

So we have worked to fine tune our efforts to get this idea into the mainstream, because it’s actually essential for sustainability. Deeper discussions with colleagues who recognize the importance of eliminating the extremes at both ends have helped advance the discourse. Parallel to that and since then, interestingly -- the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movements – major social upwellings -- have been dramatizing these inequities, these gross disparities in wealth and poverty. Related principles -- the concepts of giving, generosity, profit sharing – are some additional economic principles we can apply here, based upon Bahá'u'lláh’s teachings.

On the environmental side – the concept of unity in diversity also applies. Diversity is a very, very important element of the created world – biodiversity. The UN has just had a Decade about that. The biodiversity of the planet is very much threatened. Large portions of natures’ species are likely to become extinct in the decades ahead. The figures are really shocking. According to the official video of the International Year of Biodiversity (2010), 70% of plants could be extinct at the end of this century if we keep on doing what we’ve been doing. Preserving biodiversity is associated with the spiritual principle of unity in diversity and the interconnectedness of all life.

Also, Bahá'u'lláh tells us, through nature we can learn about God; nature is a reflection of the divine. Through observing nature, Bahá'u'lláh says ‘there are signs for men of discernment’ – we can learn about reality, about our own nature, and about the nature of God. The implication of this principle is that we should respect and cherish nature, and learn from it.

Tomorrow I’m going to be speaking about the history of Bahá'í involvement in environmental issues, going back to the time of Baha’u’llah and moving forward. Since the beginning of the Bahá'í revelation -- about 168 years ago -- dramatic change has taken place in the world – tumultuous change that will likely increase over the coming years.

But we see in that change and tumult a divine purpose. It is impelling us toward recognition of the oneness and unity that really represents reality. As the Bahá'í International Community has said, the challenges of sustainability can’t be fully addressed without a magnitude of cooperation and coordination at all levels that far surpasses anything in humanity’s collective experience. The resource paper called, “Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the Challenge of Climate Change: initial Considerations of the Bahá'í International Community” made this point. Climate change presents us with an opportunity to see ourselves as a single human family and to devise the means for working together collectively.


The spiritual qualities that go hand in hand with the transition to sustainability, then, are many. Let me list just a few to summarize:

  • A deep sense of world citizenship2

  • A commitment to justice3

  • An inclination toward treating one another with love and compassion.

  • A commitment to stewardship of the earth

  • A willingness to sacrifice for the betterment of society.

  • Moderation

  • Detachment from the things of this world.

At the foundation of all this is the principle of the oneness of humankind, which, according to the Bahá'í International Community, must become the “ruling principle of international life”4 in the 21st century and beyond. Spiritual principles such as these form the underpinnings of a sustainable future. Ultimately, they will find full expression in the glorious civilization envisioned by Bahá'u'lláh some 168 years ago, toward which humanity is inexorably moving.

See also:

Sustainable Development: the Spiritual Dimension, Bahá'í International Community (2001)

Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Baha’i Faith, Bahá'í International Community (1995)

Earth Charter, Bahá'í International Community (1991)

1. The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace, p. 4

2. The BIC produced a statement in 1993 entitled, “World Citizenship: A Global Ethic for Sustainable Development”. The essentials of this principle are outlined there.

3. Bahá'u'lláh said, “The best beloved of all things in My sight is justice. Turn not way from it if thou desirest me...” Justice is a spiritual principle that underpins not only our nearness to God but our ability to foster a sustainable world.. It blends perfectly with the principle of the oneness of humankind.

4. Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the challenge of climate change, Initial Considerations of the Bahá'í International Community (2008)

Last updated 22 December 2011