Papers presented at the 4th Annual Conference of the International
organized jointly with the Social and Economic Development Seminar for the Americas
12-14 December 2000, Orlando, Florida, USA
Applying the Baha'i Teachings to the Environmental Challenges Facing the World
Arthur Lyon Dahl*
Many people are concerned about the growing environmental problems facing the world. Climate change, ozone depletion, the loss of biodiversity and other symptoms of human pressures on the planetary environment are regularly in the headlines. Yet the challenges are so vast that people often wonder what single individuals can do about them. Can we really make a difference?
The environmental challenges reflect impacts on the natural world caused by growing human populations whose impacts are multiplied by increasingly powerful technologies. They are usually approached first as scientific issues which can be defined, measured, monitored and modelled with scientific tools and methodologies. The immediate solutions will generally require the application of engineering and technologies to modify or replace the causative factors. They may be the subject of legislation and regulation at the national level and under international conventions, requiring policy development and political action. Economic incentives, charges or penalties may be required under the polluter-pays principle. Seldom does anyone consider what religion may have to offer, or the relevance of spiritual principle to what seem to be very practical questions.
For Bahá'ís and those interested in the Bahá'í Faith, there is another issue. Bahá'u'lláh has given us many spiritual principles and teachings to solve the world's problems, but it is not always easy to see how to apply them in practice. We have been warned not to let our words exceed our deeds, and to teach by example, but how is not always evident. Often there are a number of principles relevant to a particular question that might imply quite different approaches. There may be no one clear-cut solution, but a variety of options each relevant to particular situations. Principles that seem opposed or paradoxical may need to be balanced. Moderation is also important, as any good quality carried to an extreme can become damaging. This encourages diversity, which can often be healthy in a complex and rapidly evolving world. In fact, the challenge of considering and applying spiritual principles to every aspect of our lives is an important means of individual spiritual growth.
The power of spiritual principles lies in their ability to place problems in a whole new light, to set them in a larger context, and often to suggest approaches to their solution, or at least processes to be followed to help society find a way forward. They help us to question unspoken underlying assumptions which may be faulty, and to suggest new bases for action. Bahá'u'lláh said His teachings were the touchstone of truth against which the validity of all other truths needed to be measured. The Bahá'í vision of future society also helps to understand where our highly materialistic society has gone wrong and what changes of direction are now required.
Applying spiritual principles to the environment
How then do we apply spiritual principles to the environment? We are challenged to break down the compartmentalization that so often occurs in society and in our own thinking and behavior. For each aspect of the world's environmental challenges, we must ask what spiritual principles and teachings may be relevant.
For someone exploring this exciting area, the creative interplay of professional knowledge and experience and Bahá'í teachings is a rich and rewarding endeavour, leading to new insights and innovative approaches that can have a positive impact in the field concerned. There two levels at which spiritual principle can operate. Collectively, spiritual principle can guide the institutions we establish, the laws we adopt, the procedures we follow, the technologies we develop or phase out, and the solutions we apply. Our role there is to introduce the principles into decision-making processes, to influence leaders and public opinion, and to work to give the principles practical expression in society. Individually, spiritual principle should guide our lifestyle, our daily behaviour, our career and family choices, and our forms of service to society.
Three factors need to be kept in mind as we explore this challenging area. The application of spiritual principle in such fields as the environment is generally a matter of individual interpretation of Divine teachings combined with technical or professional competence in the matter. As such there can be no one "authoritative" viewpoint, but only questions of individual judgment which others can accept or not as they wish. Secondly, we are only at the embryonic beginning of a process that will only reach maturity in the flowering of the golden age of the Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh. Spiritual principles are so potent, and our understanding so limited, that we cannot hope to do more than scratch the surface of their potential. Future generations will be able to go much farther. Thirdly, the Universal House of Justice has told us that the environmental problems of the world can only be solved when the full range of Bahá'u'lláh's solutions has been applied to world society. The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh is a package that cannot be applied piecemeal. Its principles are all interrelated and mutually reinforcing. While we can make progress with individual spiritual principles, the world will only be able to resolve the major environmental crises facing it when the institutions of world order are in place and society is operating within the comprehensive framework of new and more spiritual values.
All that this paper can hope to do is to whet your appetite for an exciting process, and to suggest some directions to follow. It will do this in two ways: by reviewing the general context of the transformations in world society for which Bahá'u'lláh has provided both the pattern and the spiritual impetus, and by suggesting some of the spiritual principles relevant to particular environmental challenges facing the world. It will then be for each of you to examine these connections, to develop them further, to explore new applications, and to ask how can you put them into practice in your own lives.
The general context
The preservation of the ecological balance of the world is of fundamental interest to Bahá'ís and will be a responsibility of the institutions of a federated world government called for by Bahá'u'lláh. All steps in that direction, such as the increasing responsibility being assumed by nations collectively through the United Nations and international conventions, are to be encouraged. The Bahá'í approach to administration, combining planetary responsibility and authority with decentralization and subsidiarity allowing great flexibility and adaptability at the national and local levels, makes perfect sense in an environmental context. Environmental problems affect the world at many scales of action, and need to be addressed at all appropriate levels.
The need to harmonize science and religion, and to recognize their complementarity, is also fundamental to solving environmental problems, which generally combine scientific and technical issues with fundamental questions of human values. Through their efforts to apply spiritual principles to practical problems, Bahá'ís should become experts in this field.
Universal education is increasingly equipping people to understand and respond to environmental problems. When combined with the new communications technologies that can make information available to everyone, education will become a powerful tool to implement solutions to various environmental challenges. Developing these approaches is one of the areas where Bahá'ís can have, and are already having, significant impact today.
The individual spiritual transformation that comes with accepting the Bahá'í message provides a powerful motivation to change values and behavior, including reconsidering the lifestyles and consumption patterns that contribute to some of the most serious environmental problems.
Bahá'u'lláh's warning about civilization carried to excess and his admonition to keep material civilization within the restraints of moderation, are relevant to all the environmental challenges. The planetary systems on which life depends have their limits, and we must learn to live within those limits.
Specific environmental challenges
OZONE DEPLETION - Bahá'u'lláh warned about the contamination of the atmosphere, and the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer by man-made chemicals is a first example. It is also one where nations have accepted their collective responsibility and legislated through an international convention to solve the problem. Global solidarity has been applied with the Montreal Fund to help poor nations phase out ozone-depleting chemicals. There are signs that these measures are having some effect, but the time lags are such that it will be decades before the solution is really effective.
CLIMATE CHANGE - The problem of global warming by greenhouse gases illustrates civilization carried to excess pushing the global system beyond its natural limits. It is also a symptom of our generation selfishly placing its own interests above those of future generations. Shoghi Effendi referred to the need to exploit all the available sources of energy on the surface of the planet, which underscores how fundamental energy is to civilization. Spiritual principles that need to be applied are global solidarity and respect for the rights of others, the need for local action in a global perspective, and the application of moderation and being content with little. For the moment, national self interest and political paralysis are blocking significant progress.
BIODIVERSITY LOSS AND ECOSYSTEM DISRUPTION - The biological diversity of millions of species of all kinds and functions is fundamental to the ecological balance of the planet. Diversity is highly valued in the Bahá'í perspective. The many species created by millions of years of evolution deserve our respect as parts of God's creation and reflections of Divine qualities. We have been enjoined to show kindness to animals, and to protect the ties of interdependence and reciprocity that bind all living things. Like a wise gardener, we must work to improve the productivity, beauty and health of the natural world we have inherited. Our impacts, including the spread of invasive species, have pushed many ecosystems beyond their natural limits. We have unwittingly taken on responsibility for managing nature on this planet. Nature can no longer do it for itself at time scales of interest to us.
LAND DEGRADATION - The earth is the provider of all of our wealth, while humbly allowing itself to be trod beneath our feet. Agriculture and careful husbanding of the land are of fundamental importance. The Earth's capacity to produce food, materials and essential services will determine its carrying capacity for the human population and the standard of living it can maintain sustainably. Preventing or reversing land degradation is thus a moral imperative for human prosperity.
WATER SHORTAGE - Water is essential for development, and indeed survival. It also has great spiritual significance in all of the religions, where life-giving waters symbolize the Holy Spirit and the teachings. Ablutions are performed with water before prayer. The physical cleanliness of water and its freedom from pollution are also important, and Bahá'u'lláh provided specific standards of water quality. In water-short regions where disputes over water could easily lead to warfare, processes of consultation and the application of principles of justice in the management and sharing of water resources will be necessary to achieve any lasting solution.
POLLUTION - The problems of chemical pollution are another illustration of civilization carried to excess, releasing more chemicals than the environment can reasonably cope with. Bahá'u'lláh prohibited the use of polluted water, just as he warned of the potentially lethal effects of contaminating the atmosphere. External cleanliness has a spiritual as well as physical significance. Given the importance placed in religion on human health, anything that damages it is widely condemned.
The above points are far from exhaustive either in their coverage of environmental challenges or in the spiritual principles applied. There is enormous potential to develop the spiritual interface with science and environmental management in the years ahead. Many scientists can propose solutions to environmental problems, but they do not know how to motivate society to apply them. Applying the Bahá'í teachings to the environmental challenges can open many doors and create new fields of service, while helping to build practical solutions to some of the greatest threats to human well-being and prosperity. You can explore this topic throughout this conference, and then set out to draw on the wealth of spiritual principles to make a difference in your own field.
* The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.
Last updated 6 December 2000