Transforming Environments from the Inside Out

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 30. May 2011 - 16:13
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Opening plenary paper presented at the
13th Annual Conference of the International Environment Forum
Association for Bahá'í Studies - North America 33rd Conference
Washington, D.C., USA, 13-16 August 2009


Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland


Climate change and the financial crisis are symptoms of an unsustainable world economy hitting planetary limits. The necessary rapid transformation faces barriers deeply rooted in our psyche, values and institutions, requiring spiritual as well as scientific solutions. The Bahá'í concept of oneness requires an integrated perspective and a profound reconsideration of every dimension of our lives, society and environment. Rather than falling into a doomsday depression, we need to see the present chaos as an opportunity to provide spiritual and intellectual leadership to transform our personal lives, families, communities, nations and the emerging world society from the inside out.


This conference with its theme "Environments" is an exploration of the relationship between our outer and inner environments, between the planet and our soul, between science and spirituality. We greatly appreciate that the Association for Bahá'í Studies-North America accepted the collaboration of the International Environment Forum in preparing a programme for you that we hope will both enlighten you and challenge you to explore the topic in new ways.

Most fundamentally, the Bahá'í approach to this and many other topics forces us to step outside the disciplines normally recognized in the academic and professional worlds, and to look at our challenges from an integrated, evolutionary and systemic perspective (Dahl, 1996). Those of you in the academic community will be obliged to go beyond your normal comfort zone in your discipline and the limits of what is usually imposed by your peers as "acceptable". We still look at economic issues quite separately from social or environmental questions despite all the efforts to integrate them in the concept of sustainable development.


How would you characterize our modern technological civilization, which used to be called "Western Civilization" before it globalized to the entire planet? The apex of human progress; wealth undreamed of by our forebears; the successful result of economic development; technological solutions to every problem; the greatest civilization the world has ever known led by a superpower? Perhaps the benefits have not yet trickled down to the poor, but is that not their own fault? From the inside, those who have profited from this success congratulate themselves in such ways. Until recently, such sentiments would have seemed obvious and been unquestioned. Economic success was proof that the system was right.

However if we stand back and look more objectively at the state of the world today, we see a very different picture. First of all, the half of the world's population trying to live on less than $2 per day is only on the margins of the world economy, on the outside looking in. Extremes of wealth and poverty have been widening, even if the recent rapid expansion in Asian economies has helped many to rise at least temporarily out of extreme poverty.

Second, evidence from many sides demonstrates that we have been living beyond our means, like the rich heir who consumes the capital of his inheritance until there is nothing left. As science and technology gave us the means to escape from traditional resource limits, our human population has soared, tripling in one lifetime and heading for about 9 billion by 2050, making us the most significant invasive species on the planet. We have benefited from the ancient store of solar energy in fossil fuels, burning through in a couple of centuries what took hundreds of millions of years to accumulate. In the process, we have reversed the primeval sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that made the world temperate and suitable for life, triggering global warming with consequences that will include sea level rise, increasing natural disasters and food and water shortages (IPCC, 2007; Oxfam, 2009). Many ancient civilizations collapsed because they exhausted the fertility of their soils and succumbed to famine; since World War II we have degraded 38% of all the arable land on the planet, an area equivalent to China and India together (Montgomery, 2007). The reserves of many significant minerals are near exhaustion (Cohen, 2007). With rapid land-use changes, deforestation and overfishing, we are causing the greatest extinction of species since an asteroid impact caused the demise of the dinosaurs.

The UK Chief Scientist recently announced (19 March 2009) that the world faces a 'perfect storm' of problems in 2030 as food, energy and water shortages interact with climate change to produce public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migrations (Sample, 2009). In ecology, this phenomenon is known as overshoot and collapse, when a species that escapes from natural controls on its population consumes its food supply until nothing is left and then dies off. The famous study for the Club of Rome on "The Limits to Growth" (Meadows et al., 1972), last updated in 2004 (Meadows et al., 2004), predicted a catastrophic decline in this century. While this report has often been derided, there is nothing yet to suggest that it is very far off. The imminent collapse of civilization is now being seriously contemplated (Diamond, 2005; Homer-Dixon, 2006; New Scientist, 2008).

Economists were often the most critical of these suggestions that growth could not continue indefinitely. The growth paradigm was firmly entrenched in economic, business and political thought. Yet the main drivers of growth - the rising human population, the discovery of new resources, and the energy subsidy from fossil fuels - are all coming to an end, leaving only technological innovation as a significant force for economic growth. It is only with the crisis in the financial system, and the first global recession that resulted, that the underlying assumptions of the economic system have been challenged. The head of the European Central Bank recently said: "We live in non-linear times: the classic economic models and theories cannot be applied, and future development cannot be foreseen." (quoted in Seager, 2009) One analysis of the financial collapse suggested that, while great efforts were made to calculate the risk associated with each financial instrument and derivative, no one considered the risks and vulnerabilities associated with the behavior of the financial system as a whole (Jamison, 2008). This is symptomatic of a larger problem. Just as greed, competition for market share and blind confidence allowed the multiplication of risks and the accumulation of excessive levels of financial debt, so have we similarly been accumulating massive quantities of social and environmental debt without any consideration of their implications for the functioning of the biosphere and of human society. There are multiple instabilities and vulnerabilities in our present situation, any one of which could trigger impacts on all the others.


How did we get ourselves into such a situation? Most of us in North America and Europe have inherited from our society and education a compartmentalized view of our world, notably that the environment is something outside of us. The planet's resources were free for the taking according to economists, not part of natural capital to be managed sustainably.  There was a short-term perspective on everything, with everything beyond a few years discounted. Business leaders are judged by their results on quarterly balance sheets. The herd mentality of investors and speculators inevitably leads to bubbles. When the benefits of consumption are immediate and obvious, there is no motivation to question the larger social and environmental implications. We have come to expect that things will always get better; that is what growth is all about. Yet in natural systems there is no such thing as endless growth; everything moves in cycles, with optimal sizes, and uncontrolled growth is like a cancer. This disjunction, also reflected in our institutions, has resulted in assaults on the planetary environment that now threaten our physical survival. The economic crisis, climate change, pollution, the erosion of our natural resource base, the social instability that comes from extremes of wealth and poverty, the vacuum in ethics and morality, are just some of the symptoms of a civilization without direction hitting planetary limits.

Recent Bahá'í statements have summarized the situation very well. Economic thinking is challenged by the environmental crisis. It can no longer insist that there is no limit to nature's capacity to fulfil any demand made on it. Attaching absolute value to growth, to acquisition, and to the satisfaction of people's wants is no longer a realistic guide to policy. Furthermore, economic decision-making tools cannot deal with the fact that most of the major challenges are global. (Bahá'í International Community, 1995).

The early twentieth century materialistic interpretation of reality has become the dominant world faith in the direction of society. Rational experimentation and discussion are expected to solve all the issues of human governance and development. Dogmatic materialism has captured all significant centres of power and information at the global level, ensuring that no competing voices can challenge projects of world wide economic exploitation (Bahá'í International Community, 2005).

Materialism's vision of human progress produced today's consumer culture with its ephemeral goals. For the small minority of people who can afford them, the benefits it offers are immediate. The breakdown of traditional morality has led to the triumph of animal impulses and hedonism. Selfishness has become a prized commercial resource; falsehood reinvents itself as public information; greed, lust, indolence, pride, violence are broadly accepted and have social and economic value. Yet it is a culture without meaning  (Bahá'í International Community, 2005).

This disjunction with reality also lies behind many of the barriers to change. No politician will sacrifice the short-term economic welfare necessary to win the next election even while paying lip service to the need for long-term sustainability. The deep social divisions within societies and between countries prevent unified action in the common interest, since there is a profound (and often justified) lack of trust. The concept of national sovereignty is used to maintain the primacy of self-interest over solidarity.

From a scientific perspective, it is clear that continuing with business as usual is not an option. The risks and costs of climate change alone are so great that fundamental economies and changes in energy systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must be implemented within a decade. Significant food shortages must be anticipated, and not just by rich countries buying up agricultural land in poor countries to ensure their own food security at the expense of the poor (The Economist, 2009; Vidal, 2009). With rising sea levels and water shortages, the world must prepare for forced migrations of environmental refugees on a massive scale beyond anything previously experienced. The economic system is also fundamentally broken. Indeed, as Augusto Lopez Claros pointed out in a letter to the Financial Times last December: "The main danger we face is...  that by late 2009 the global economy will be perking up again (because the housing sectors will have bottomed and the unwinding of commodity prices will boost consumption among oil importers) and governments will go back to business as usual, missing a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to address the serious vulnerabilities in the world’s financial system which the current crisis has revealed. In that scenario, the next crisis would find us with little ammunition left. That is the real danger." (Lopez Claros, 2008).


Dwelling on the negative vision of environmental apocalypse can only produce denial and depression when we need to motivate action. From the Limits to Growth in 1972 to the Great Transitions Initiative ( and other forward-thinking groups today, there is an acknowledgement that a transformation in values is necessary, but no one knows how to achieve this. Science has no particular competence in this area, and scientific information alone is rarely sufficient to change behavior.

Rather than falling into a doomsday depression, we need to see the present chaos as an opportunity to provide spiritual and intellectual leadership in finding solutions for our personal lives, families, communities, nations and the emerging world society.

Fortunately, times of crisis are also times when resistence to change has lessened and barriers have been weakened or removed. In nature as well, evolution is not always gradual, but can show a punctuated equilibrium with periods of stability interspersed with spurts of creative innovation. We are living in such times, and the opportunities for a fundamental transformation of human society are opening before us.

What might this transformation look like, and how might it be implemented? The vision in the Bahá'í writings provides important guidance to the direction we need to take. Just as the problems have arisen because of our narrow fragmented views of the human and natural systems from within our national boundaries and specializations, so must the solution be integrated and all-embracing across the environmental, social and economic dimensions incorporated in the concept of sustainability. This is reflected in the Bahá'í principle of oneness, which requires a profound reconsideration of every dimension of our lives and society, including our relationship to the environment.

The transformation must start at the individual level: "We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions." (Shoghi Effendi, 1933).

We must simultaneously give a higher priority to the environment in our community, economy and society. As the Bahá'í International Community put it: "...sustainable environmental management must come to be seen not as a discretionary commitment mankind can weigh against other competing interests, but rather as a fundamental responsibility that must be shouldered - a pre-requisite for spiritual development as well as the individual's physical survival." (BIC, 1998)

One point to note in both of these quotations is that they imply an intimate link between the environment and spirituality, even if this is not presently widely recognized in our materialistic society. It is within this framework that we can explore together transforming environments from the inside out.


There has always been a connection between spirituality and nature. Love and respect (and sometimes fear) of nature are deeply rooted in most indigenous cultures, for example in the native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Jains and many Buddhists. It is only in modern urbanized and materialistic societies that we have largely cut ourselves off from nature. There are many examples of how native Americans were shocked by the colonizing European attitude to the ownership of land and resources and their exploitation and destruction for profit. The environmental crisis is therefore ultimately the result of a spiritual crisis, through which we not only cut ourselves off from our spiritual nature and from God but also from our roots in and dependence on the natural world.

The Baha'i approach sees no separation between the natural environment and spiritual reality. "Nature is God's Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world." (Bahá'u'lláh, 1978, p. 142) Contact with nature is conducive to spiritual health. "The country is the world of the soul, the city is the world of bodies" (Bahá'u'lláh, quoted in Esslemont, 1970, Chpt. 3, p. 35). The study of nature advances both scientific and spiritual understanding. "When... thou dost contemplate the innermost essence of all things, and the individuality of each, thou wilt behold the signs of thy Lord's mercy in every created thing, and see the spreading rays of His Names and Attributes throughout all the realm of being.... Then wilt thou observe that the universe is a scroll that discloseth His hidden secrets.... And not an atom of all the atoms in existence, not a creature from amongst the creatures but speaketh His praise and telleth of His attributes and names, revealeth the glory of His might and guideth to His oneness and His mercy.... Look thou upon the trees, upon the blossoms and fruits, even upon the stones. Here too wilt thou behold the Sun's rays shed upon them, clearly visible within them, and manifested by them." ('Abdu'l-Bahá, 1978, p. 41-42). Such understanding can lead to a better balance of material and divine civilization.

An individual spiritual effort is also necessary to detach us from the attractions of the consumer lifestyle so damaging to the environment and wasteful of the planet's resources.  We must avoid "the temptation to sacrifice the well-being of the generality of humankind -- and even of the planet itself -- to the advantages which technological breakthroughs can make available to privileged minorities." (BIC, 1995).

By giving priority to spiritual growth and learning detachment from material things, each individual is naturally led to a more sustainable lifestyle and a reduced environmental footprint. Bahá'u'lláh advised that we "should be content with little, and be freed from all inordinate desire." (Bahá'u'lláh, 1931, p. 193-194). He told us: "Take from this world only to the measure of your needs, and forego that which exceedeth them." (Bahá'u'lláh, 2002, p. 193). He said that it was unjust to allow people "to lay up riches for themselves, to deck their persons, to embellish their homes, to acquire the things that are of no benefit to them, and to be numbered with the extravagant." None should be allowed to "either suffer want, or be pampered with luxuries."(Bahá'u'lláh, 1952, CXIV, pp. 235-236). Shoghi Effendi called for "the exercise of moderation in all that pertains to dress, language, amusements, and all artistic and literary avocations," and "the abandonment of a frivolous conduct, with its excessive attachment to trivial and often misdirected pleasures." (Shoghi Effendi, 1939, p. 30). This transformation from the inside would revolutionize our relationship with the environment and our excessive demand on natural resources, while freeing up the means to address the needs of the poor.

There is another dimension of our inner environment that is critically important to our success in addressing the challenges of the outer environment, especially in intellectual and academic circles. That is the spiritual danger of the desire to know everything and the pride to think that we can know everything through science. It has roots in the Enlightenment and Descartes' "I think, therefore I am". We are educated in a rationalist/individualist approach, in which the individual is the final arbiter of what is right or wrong. We decide what is true. This is not the same as the independent investigation of truth. It tends to become another expression of egotism, of the self-centeredness that has placed us above nature and led us to exploit and destroy nature. An excessive ego is as damaging in science as it is in other human relationships. Spiritual growth requires "opposing our passions", and we are warned that "desire is a flame that has reduced to ashes uncounted lifetime harvests of the learned." ('Abdu'l-Bahá, 1957, p. 59)

In this context, transforming the inner environment means the humility to acknowledge that there is an unknowable essence which we must love and worship, even though we are perturbed that our minds cannot grasp it nor our hearts contain it (Bahá'u'lláh, 1954, p. 19). This is not incompatible with scientific research. On the contrary, the humility to look objectively at evidence may help us to free ourselves from our scientific preconceptions and to interpret the data in creative new ways. While we should appreciate scientific expertise in others, we should not single ourselves out as experts, since we should aspire to no distinction other than spiritual distinction ('Abdu'l-Bahá, 1957, p. 39).

We also need to become more humble with respect to the natural environment. "Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men. There can be no doubt that whoever is cognizant of this truth, is cleansed and sanctified from all pride, arrogance, and vainglory...." (Bahá'u'lláh, 1988, p. 44).

Humility will help us to see science not as the preserve of an intellectual elite, but as a field of knowledge  accessible to everyone - an extension of the institute process of action, reflection and learning. "The expansion of scientific and technological activity...  must cease to be the patrimony of advantaged segments of society, and must be so organised as to permit people everywhere to participate in such activity on the basis of capacity.  Apart from the creation of programmes that make the required education available to all who are able to benefit from it, such reorganisation will require the establishment of viable centres of learning throughout the world, institutions that will enhance the capability of the world's peoples to participate in the generation and application of knowledge" (Bahá'í International Community, 1995).

When everyone is educated to become an "environmental scientist" at their own level, we shall have the means to find diverse local solutions to environmental management adapted to the great diversity of situations around the world, within the global context of responsibility.


The community is the basic unit of social organization within which our material needs, economic and educational activities, and social and spiritual life are organized. It is also the fundamental level at which we determine the sustainability of our relationship with our local environment. While today in our interdependent world economy, the self-sufficiency of local communities is a distant memory, it may be necessary to evolve a new balance of local autonomy and larger integration in the decades ahead as transport costs and resource limitations become more significant. Communities are being called upon to assist " endeavours to conserve the environment in ways which blend with the rhythm of life of our community..." (Universal House of Justice, 1989).

Perhaps the most significant challenge to communities in the years ahead will be the mixing that must occur as environmental impacts such as climate change force millions of people to become environmental refugees. The resulting mass movements of people will produce a mixing of nations, races and cultures unprecedented in its speed and scale. The impact will be particularly evident at the community level, challenging widespread chauvinism and prejudice against immigrants when faced with the imperative need for human solidarity. We must rise up to the challenge of rebuilding human communities from this diversity.

This is exactly what Bahá'í communities are developing through the institute process and the core activities of devotional meetings, group study, children's classes and pre-adolescent activities. "The ultimate testimony that the Bahá’í community can summon in vindication of His mission is the example of unity that His teachings have produced."  ( Bahá'í International Community, 2005, p. 43)

This is a learning process for bottom-up grass-roots change without leaders or the learned, and thus not limited in its ability to scale up. It is a process of self-organizing transformation. It starts at the spiritual level through contact with the creative Word, the power of the Scriptures, study with the heart as well as with the mind. Academia is also a word based system, so we should try to understand this process so that we can explain it to those outside. "A fair-minded observer is compelled to entertain at least the possibility that the phenomenon may represent the operation of influences entirely different in nature from the familiar ones -- influences that can properly be described only as spiritual -- capable of eliciting extraordinary feats of sacrifice and understanding from ordinary people of every background."  (Bahá'í International Community, 2005, p. 44)

"The culture of systematic growth taking root in the Bahá’í community would seem... by far the most effective response the friends can make to the challenge.... The experience of an intense and ongoing immersion in the Creative Word progressively frees one from the grip of the materialistic assumptions... that pervade society and paralyze impulses for change. It develops in one a capacity to assist the yearning for unity on the part of friends and acquaintances to find mature and intelligent expression." (Bahá'í International Community, 2005, p. 51)

As this transformation builds the capacity to change at the community level, it creates the potential to extend this experience to the world's problems - with environment as a priority because of climate change, food and water shortages, and the potential for conflict and mass migrations. "...the parallel efforts of promoting the betterment of society and of teaching the Bahá'í Faith are not activities competing for attention. Rather, are they reciprocal features of one coherent global programme....  The obligation of the Bahá'í community is to do everything in its power to assist all stages of humanity's universal movement towards reunion with God." (Bahá'í International Community, 2005,  p. 51-52)

"As you continue to labour in your clusters, you will be drawn further and further into the life of the society around you and will be challenged to extend the process of systematic learning in which you are engaged to encompass a growing range of human endeavours. In the approaches you take, the methods you adopt, and the instruments you employ, you will need to achieve the same degree of coherence that characterizes the pattern of growth presently under way." (Universal House of Justice, 2008) This is a perfect model of transformation from the inside out and will allow us to maintain coherence between our words and our actions.


As human society has globalized, so have our environmental impacts, and environmental challenges like climate change must be addressed at the global level as well as in each community and in our own individual behavior. Fortunately, in contrast to the apocalyptic environmental scenarios, the Bahá'í perspective is full of hope in its vision of the potential in future society and its scenarios of sustainability, at least in the long term. It is reducing the pain and damage of the transition that is the challenge.

The balanced view of the material and spiritual must also be reflected in our general approach to the environment at the national and international levels. As the Bahá'í International Community puts it: "Bahá'í Scriptures describe nature as a reflection of the sacred. They teach that nature should be valued and respected, but not worshipped; rather, it should serve humanity's efforts to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. However, in light of the interdependence of all parts of nature, and the importance of evolution and diversity 'to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole,' every effort should be made to preserve as much as possible the earth's bio-diversity and natural order.

"As trustees, or stewards, of the planet's vast resources and biological diversity, humanity must learn to make use of the earth's natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable, in a manner that ensures sustainability and equity into the distant reaches of time. This attitude of stewardship will require full consideration of the potential environmental consequences of all development activities. It will compel humanity to temper its actions with moderation and humility, realizing that the true value of nature cannot be expressed in economic terms. It will also require a deep understanding of the natural world and its role in humanity's collective development - both material and spiritual. Therefore, sustainable environmental management must come to be seen not as a discretionary commitment mankind can weigh against other competing interests, but rather as a fundamental responsibility that must be shouldered - a pre-requisite for spiritual development as well as the individual's physical survival." (BIC, 1998)

Implementing this will require institutions of global governance able to address global problems like climate change, and to organize the management and equitable distribution of the earth's resources. It will also require a new vision of economics. We must detach ourselves from our preconceptions of what is today a "normal" view of economic development based on self-interest, competition, maximizing return and individual wealth accumulation - values behind the recent implosion of the financial system. For the Baha'i International Community, economics should further "a dynamic, just and thriving social order."  "The ultimate function of economic systems should be to equip the peoples and institutions of the world with the means to achieve the real purpose of development: that is, the cultivation of the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness." "Such economic systems will be strongly altruistic and cooperative in nature; they will provide meaningful employment and will help to eradicate poverty in the world." (BIC, 1998)

A particular challenge for those of us working with leaders of thought and in academia is the prejudice in many circles against any acknowledged role for religion in this process. Just as inner transformation depends on the harmonizing of the material and spiritual at the individual level, so must the transformation of our attitude to our outer environment depend on the harmonizing of science and religion at the social and intellectual levels. "A global intelligentsia, its prescription largely shaped by materialistic misconceptions of reality, clings tenaciously to the hope that imaginative social engineering, supported by political compromise, may indefinitely postpone the potential disasters that few deny loom over humanity's future.... As unity is the remedy for the world's ills, its one certain source lies in the restoration of religion's influence in human affairs." (Bahá'í International Community, 2005, p. 42-43). We must rehabilitate the reputation of religion as an intellectually legitimate knowledge system complementary to the scientific knowledge system on which our civilization has been built, and demonstrate their necessary complementarity.

There has been a stubborn resistance by governments to recognize that national sovereignty is no longer an adequate basis for addressing global challenges to the environment, as it is to peace and human security. One can only hope that the looming environmental crisis of climate change may finally convince governments to take unified action in their common interest. This will be easier if there is already a groundswell of demand coming from individuals and communities, as well as business and the organizations of civil society. Only governments, individually and now collectively, can establish the framework of laws and environmental and social standards embodying the shared values of society, within which innovative solutions to many problems can be found.

Parallel to this, civil society, including academic institutions and research centers, can already respond at the national, regional and international levels. For example, much has been done through the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development , including by faith-based groups. In Europe, the EU-funded Consumer Citizenship Network ( and its successor, the Partnership for Education and Research for Responsible Living (PERL) are developing curriculum materials and programs. Another EU-funded project is researching values-based indicators of education for sustainable development for civil society organizations ( Much good work is being done, but it is far from the level of effort required. In our largely secular society, there is still something fundamental missing: the pace and scale of change in values that humanity has only known in the religious conversion accompanying new religions. Too many intellectual efforts lack the vision to imagine transformation taking place at the spiritual level, as well as the tools of individual and community transformation necessary for an accelerating process of organic change.

We also must recognize that "until such time as the nations of the world understand and follow the admonitions of Bahá'u'lláh to whole-heartedly work together in looking after the best interests of all humankind, and unite in the search for ways and means to meet the many environmental problems besetting our planet, ...little progress will be made towards their solution...." (Universal House of Justice, 1981). We cannot solve environmental problems separately from the other challenges facing humanity today. An integrated systems perspective shows that everything is interrelated, and partial solutions can only go so far. Only the framework of world order called for by Baha'u'llah and outlined so well by Shoghi Effendi (1938, p. 204-205) can provide the principles and the instruments necessary for the global management of the planet's resources. Once such mechanisms are in place, the environmental challenges will be addressed naturally, with resources managed globally and distributed equitably, while developing all available sources of energy on the surface of the planet (Shoghi Effendi, 1938).


It should be obvious from the above that many of our problems with the environment and society are due to the narrow disciplinary perspectives within which most of us have been educated and which are reflected in the institutions of society and government. In particular, the dominance of economics reflects the materialistic value system of today's society. The same narrowness has marginalized recognition of the fundamentally spiritual nature of humankind, preventing a healthy balance of the material and spiritual sides of life. Individual leadership in government and business only accentuates this, whereas consultative groups of diverse individuals allow a collective wisdom better able to produce decisions integrating many dimensions.

Perhaps we need a new field of generalists or whole systems specialists able to integrate across all the disciplines. This would approach the vision that 'Abdu'l-Baha had of the Learned in The Secret of Divine Civilization, which required "knowledge of the sacred Scriptures and the entire field of divine and natural science, of religious jurisprudence and the arts of government and the varied learning of the time and the great events of history" in order to meet "the necessary qualification of comprehensive knowledge." ('Abdu'l-Baha, 1957, p. 35-36).

Such individuals would be equipped to lead the transformation of our society and its relationship to the environment at all levels, from the individual through the family and community to the nation and the whole of planetary society. We are all challenged to equip ourselves for this task, to consider creatively how spiritual principles can guide us in laying new intellectual foundations for social change from the inside out, and to pioneer in building the economic and social systems and institutions necessary to bring is into a sustainable balance with our environment as a solid foundation for an ever-advancing civilization.


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Last updated 26 August 2009