Addressing sustainability challenges: a framework for material and spiritual transformation

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 8. August 2014 - 1:51
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Addressing sustainability challenges: a framework for material and spiritual transformation

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

Presented at the Association for Baha'i Studies - North America Annual Conference
and 18th International Environment Forum Conference
Toronto, Canada, 7-10 August 2014


The world is facing a combination of environmental, social and economic crises that are overwhelming the existing world order. The response needs to be as much spiritual as material. While the solutions in embryonic form are found in the teachings of Bahá'ulláh, there is a strong resistance to turning to these solutions in academic, social, economic and political circles, including both from religious orthodoxies and from modern materialists. While governments seem paralyzed, progress is still possible at the community level. The challenge of Bahá'í scholarship is to demonstrate the validity of spiritual principle as a necessary complement to sectoral approaches to the sustainability challenge, inspiring a more integrated systems perspective on the necessary transition to sustainability. Recent work on values, cooperation, well-being and happiness is opening the door to a wider dialogue on these issues. Since youth will be in the vanguard of the coming transformation, we need to inspire them with hope and accompany them with intellectually-sound proposals and frameworks for action across the full spectrum of challenges to civilization.


Most thoughtful people today see that the world is in serious trouble. Despite our technological prowess and an enormous increase in wealth, the prospects for the immediate future are not bright. The economic, social and environmental challenges can seem overwhelming. Our growing population and consumer society are hitting planetary limits and cannot continue their unsustainable trajectory. Part of the problem is that we seek technological solutions when the problems are largely with human society and its values, motivations and governance.

The necessary transformation to a more sustainable society will have to be as much spiritual as material. While major parts of the intellectual, economic and academic establishments take a purely materialistic position and deny the relevance of religion and spirituality to modern problems, their approaches have failed to change the destructive course that modern civilization is now taking. If we accept that the harmony of science and religion is relevant and even necessary, then a framework for transformation to sustainability should explore how this might work in practice. This should be reflected in both institutional arrangements and dynamic processes.

The sustainability challenge

The processes of globalization have created a single planetary human system within a single biospheric system (Capra and Luisi 2014). The first to profit have been the economic interests through which powerful governments and multinational businesses have build a global economic system for their benefit. At the same time, social globalization is being strongly resisted, as restrictions on the movement of people between countries are even being strengthened. Globalization of environmental problems is pushing us beyond planetary limits. Yet the system of governance remains constrained within the paradigm of sovereign nation states that is increasingly dysfunctional.

All the economic and social systems, cultures, institutions, and value systems of the past are challenged and stressed as the environment in which they evolved is replaced by a larger-scale global system. Persistent poverty continues alongside growing extremes of wealth. The economy seems incapable of creating adequate employment for all who need it. The result is increasing insecurity and social breakdown. With a more mobile population, there are growing risks to health, including emerging epidemic diseases, rising antibiotic resistance from excessive and improper use, and spreading obesity and "life-style" diseases. While we are reaching peak youth as a percentage of the population, and youth are better educated and networked than ever before, their prospects are less good than their parents, creating strong pressures for change (Turchin 2010). All these forces produce a risk of society destroying itself from within.

Environmental unsustainability is illustrated by planetary boundaries that we are already crossing (Rockstrom et al. 2009). Climate change is being driven by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from human activities that have already crossed 400ppm in the atmosphere when the safe limit is 350ppm or less. Science says that the remaining capacity of the atmosphere to absorb CO2 without passing 2°C of global warming is 565 gigatonnes of carbon, but proven oil, coal and gas reserves already total 2,795 gigatonnes, not counting unconventional sources like tar sands and franking, so to prevent catastrophic climate change, we need to leave 80% of existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground (McKibben 2012), which seems politically and economically unthinkable. Sea level rise is accelerating with ocean warming and melting polar ice, and will displace hundreds of millions of people, yet with rising xenophobia, countries are rejecting immigrants and reinforcing their frontiers. Biodiversity loss is now a thousand times the sustainable level, and the global warming of 4°C likely in this century will exterminate half of all species on the planet (Pimm et al 2014; Root 2014). By 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in regions with absolute water scarcity, and two thirds of the world population could be subject to water stress as climate change reduces rainfall (Rockstrom et al. 2009). Many past civilizations collapsed because they degraded their soil. Since 1945, erosion has degraded 1.2 billion hectares, 38% of global crop land, with 12 million ha abandoned each year, 1% of total (Montgomery 2007). We face a coming food crisis. World cereal production per person peaked in the 1980s and has decreased slowly since, but feeding the growing world population and reducing hunger by half will require doubling world food production by 2050. Already in 2008 and 2012, there were absolute planetary food shortages with rising prices. The world population has tripled in one lifetime, and is expected by the UN to rise to 9.2 billion by 2050 before stabilizing. We seem to be following a classic ecological pattern of overshoot and collapse. The planetary carrying capacity depends on both numbers and the standard of living we can expect; increasing one reduces the other. As the United Kingdom Chief Scientist put it: 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 (Beddington 2009).

The consumer society

Behind this headlong rush towards catastrophe lies the consumer economy and society, with what might best be termed an ethical deficit. "Materialism, rooted in the West, has now spread to every corner of the planet, breeding, in the name of a strong global economy and human welfare, a culture of consumerism. It skilfully and ingeniously promotes a habit of consumption that seeks to satisfy the basest and most selfish desires, while encouraging the expenditure of wealth so as to prolong and exacerbate social conflict. One result is a deepening confusion on the part of young people everywhere, a sense of hopelessness in the ranks of those who would drive progress, and the emergence of a myriad social maladies." (Universal House of Justice, 2010). Materialism's vision of human progress has 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 (Universal House of Justice, 2005, p. 10).‏ Yet the consumer culture fills a vacuum in the absence of any deeper meaning in life, and people take it for granted.

The world economy is living beyond its means, accumulating debt, often hidden in financial derivative products that were estimated to total over $700 trillion in 2010, ten times global GDP. Many countries are on the brink of insolvency, and the economy has lost its way (Spiegel Online 2009). As long as the growth rate is higher than the interest rate, reimbursement is possible; if growth slows or stops, defaulting is inevitable. While governments struggle to keep afloat, businesses use transfer pricing and “creative” accounting in offshore tax havens to escape taxation, pay exorbitant salaries to corporate leaders and bonuses to bankers, fund disinformation about climate change to defend their short-term interests, and influence “democratic” processes through powerful lobbies. The consumer society was a necessary creation to maintain the economic growth/debt paradigm, but growth in energy and resource consumption cannot continue much longer. As the head of European Central Bank put it in February 2009: "We live in non-linear times: the classic economic models and theories cannot be applied, and future development cannot be foreseen." (Seager 2009).

None of this should be a surprise. More than 40 years ago, the famous report to the Club of Rome on "The Limits to Growth" presented computer-generated scenarios showing that business as usual could lead to a collapse of civilization in the middle of this century (Meadows et al. 1972, 2004). The most recent update suggests that society is following their scenario very closely and their conclusions still hold (MacKenzie 2012). One of the original authors has presented his own predictions for the next forty years that do not suggest any improvement, since there is a tendency in democratic systems and the capitalist economy to always choose least-cost short-term solutions and only change when we have to, too little, too late (Randers 2012). Social instability could have more dramatic consequences, as a young educated generation with no hope in advancing within the present system could produce political instability and impending crises in Europe and the USA by 2020 (Turchin 2010).

Behind all this is a deeply materialistic world view that considers religion and spirituality to be irrelevant if not dangerous. The early twentieth century materialistic interpretation of reality has become the dominant world faith in the direction of society. 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 (UHJ 2005). From the perspective of materialistic science, rooted in the Enlightenment focus on individualism: “I think therefore I am”, there is a strong rejection of any outside (Divine) authority. The collective egotism in science expects that we shall eventually know everything, while at the same time excluding anything that cannot be “proven”, such as “subjective” experience, not to mention spirituality. An opposite challenge comes from Religion and confirms the worst fears of many materialists. There is a rise of religious fundamentalism and intolerance, leading to social confrontation, violence and terrorism, while rejecting any possibility of a progressive, dynamic and evolutionary view of religion. This in turn supports an anti-science movement (against evolution, education, immunization, birth control, etc.), often in collaboration with the anti-science of climate skeptics.

Faced with so many negative forces, how can we build a framework for material and spiritual transformation to find a path towards sustainability? The challenge of Bahá'í scholarship is to demonstrate the validity of spiritual principle as a necessary complement to scientific and sectoral approaches to the sustainability challenge, inspiring a more integrated systems perspective on the necessary transition to sustainability.

Spirituality and sustainability

A starting point is to acknowledge that there are three human realities:
- our physical or biological reality, with needs like other animals for food, water, shelter, security, a healthy environment, basic social relationships and emotional drives;
- our intellectual reality, the realm of reason and science; and
- our spiritual reality, rising above the material reality and escaping from it.

It is the spiritual reality that is most difficult to accept in many academic circles. It is marginalized in secular societies, and actively denied in some atheist circles. Yet the vast majority of humanity takes it as given that humankind has a spiritual nature and purpose. It is at this level that we find the best expression of the ethical and moral principles associated with our relationship to each other and to nature, and relevant principles on how to re-establish a better balance with nature. This spiritual knowledge complements and even reinforces scientific knowledge.

An even greater challenge is to demonstrate the positive benefits of religion, yet they are numerous. Religious belief can reinforce an ethics of hope and a positive vision of the future. Religions emphasize a higher human purpose. The acceptance of an absolute reality (God, Allah, Brahma, nirvana, etc.) supports a drive for individual improvement and the acquisition of spiritual qualities. Cultivating love for the unknown and unknowable overcomes fear and encourages exploration of the potential in oneself, in others and in the world through science. Since people who know they are being watched will cheat less, one could say that a watching, all-knowing God encourages good behavior, as does belief in an after-life where reward and punishment continue. Religions provide role models and spiritual figures who exemplify how an ideal human should behave, translating abstract ideals into something each person can relate to. Religious practices such as meditation, prayer, fasting, charity, and study of religious texts help to overcome selfish desires and cultivate altruism. All spiritual traditions speak of individual transformation from the egotistical pursuit of self-interest based on a materialistic concept of human life and purpose, to an altruistic orientation of service to others, with the happiness that comes from leading a virtuous life. Religious communities provide social reinforcement for individual efforts.

Religious scriptures are a significant source for sustainability principles that carry great significance for believers. There are exhortations about respect for nature, moderation in its use, and a prohibition on waste. Nature is described as having a spiritual significance, with the qualities of God (or absolute perfection) being reflected in nature. Contemplating nature is a path to spiritual understanding. The wisdom in the revealed religions about nature is reinforced for believers by the power of Divine authority. However, Christianity has the least reference to nature, relying more on Old Testament sources, while the Baha'i Faith has the most detailed references. There have been a variety of religious summits, gatherings and publications on faith and ecology, conservation of nature, climate change, ethics and Agenda 21, spiritual reflection and action, education for sustainable development, etc. In 2009, at the request of UNDP, all the major religions launched action plans on climate change (Dahl 2014).

Just as life on a frontier requires social cohesion which can provide the force necessary to build a civilization (Turchin 2006), so can the rise of a new religion create a cultural and ethical frontier. Those sharing the new values build social cohesion as they transform society, and a highly cohesive social and spiritual movement can overcome the negative forces around it. Social cohesion from an inner spiritual force for unity in diversity can achieve sustainability in the use of resources, prevent the excessive concentration of wealth in an elite, and slow the cycle of rise and decline seen in past civilizations. Such a vision should be highly motivating to young people.

Ethical framework for a positive alternative

It is easy to identify what is wrong with society and what needs to be torn down. This is the origin of most revolutionary movements. It is much harder to decide what should be put in its place. Utopian visions are generally so far from reality that it is hard to identify how to go from here to there. A reasonable alternative from a systems perspective is to follow the model of neural networks in computer programming: give a set of computers some basic instructions and ask them to evolve the most effective solutions over many generations. If we can identify a set of basic ethical principles that should underly a socially-, economically- and environmentally-sustainable society, they can provide a framework for transformation. "There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem.... 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." (UHJ 1985, p.13). This can allow a variety of solutions to evolve, adapted to the great diversity of situations around the world, while ensuring a harmony of purpose and a coherent direction for an ever-advancing world civilization.

To motivate people to change, and to give the youth a positive vision of the future they are facing, we need to propose an alternative to the consumer society that is sufficiently attractive to overcome resistance and habit, and is worth sacrificing the superficial for what is deeper and more fundamentally rewarding. The effort to do this will be comparable to religious conversion, and will need to combine individual transformation with social action.

That vision is best embodied in a set of moral values and ethical principles. Moral values state what is good and of primary importance to human civilization, often articulated as ideals, that define right from wrong. Ethical principles are the operational expression of moral values, and provide guidance to decision-making and action. A capability of moral reasoning starts from abstract general ethical principles to resolve conflicts that arise from moral dilemmas and ethical problems (Anello 2008).

Ethics encourage a more positive process of social change. Both law and ethics are concerned with the application of justice. Law focuses on correcting the negative side of human behavior through a top-down regulation of society. It requires institutions for enforcement and punishment, with the use of force if necessary. This is all very costly. Ethics work through individual attachment to the principle of justice and its application. This is a bottom-up process that is self-motivated, emphasizing reward more than punishment. The stronger the ethical framework and its application, the less need for law. It is a more cost-effective, process-based solution.

Fundamental to this is the recognition of a higher human purpose that comes from acknowledgement of the spiritual dimension of human nature. "How... can we resolve the paralyzing contradiction that, on the one hand, we desire a world of peace and prosperity, while, on the other, much of economic and psychological theory depicts human beings as slaves to self-interest? The faculties needed to construct a more just and sustainable social order―moderation, justice, love, reason, sacrifice and service to the common good―have too often been dismissed as naïve ideals. Yet, it is these, and related qualities that must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production." (BIC 2010).

In this context, we need to rethink the purpose of development and the goals of a sustainable society. We can formulate ethical principles to guide our collective actions as communities and social groups. We should focus on the ground rules for social organization, allowing a diversity of solutions that can adapt to each environment and culture while ensuring coherence as society advances. "The moral dimensions of just and peaceful human relations include the generation of knowledge, the cultivation of trust and trustworthiness, eradication of racism and violence, promotion of art, beauty, science, and the capacity for collaboration and the peaceful resolution of conflicts." (BIC 2010). There is no need to waste energy on revolting against the present system, as it will probably bring on its own downfall. We can already start with small scale experiments with alternatives, which we can scale up when the opportunity presents itself, as it may in the not-to-distant future. "Ultimately, the transformation required to shift towards sustainable consumption and production will entail no less than an organic change in the structure of society itself so as to reflect fully the interdependence of the entire social body―as well as the interconnectedness with the natural world that sustains it." (BIC 2010).

Research is already exploring some of the characteristics of the new social structures that will emerge. A world order characterized by competition, violence, conflict and insecurity needs to give way to one founded on unity in diversity (Karlberg 2004). Cooperation rather than competition is the best foundation for social and economic progress (Beinhocker 2006; Nowak 2011). We need a multi-level approach to values, from individual to international (Dahl 2013). Acknowledging that everything is connected by a complex set of relationships, we need to take an integrated dynamic systems perspective including the spiritual dimension (Capra and Luisi 2014), in which sustainability will be an emergent property of social, economic and environmental subsystems all guided by a coherent ethical framework (Dahl 1996).

Sustainability itself is ultimately an ethical concept. As trustees or stewards of the planet's resources and biodiversity, we must ensure sustainability and equity of resource use into distant future, consider the environmental consequences of development activities, temper our actions with moderation and humility, value nature in more than economic terms, and understand the natural world and its role in humanity's collective development both material and spiritual. 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).

Spiritual principles for social sustainability

As peoples and cultures are increasingly mixed in diverse communities, we need to learn how to go from prejudice and withdrawal to open integration and unity. A number of spiritual principles are relevant to this challenge. The starting point is the primacy of the oneness of humanity. Since humanity is one, each person is born into the world as a trust of the whole, and each bears a responsibility for the welfare of all humanity. This collective trusteeship constitutes the moral foundation of human rights and a sustainable society. It follows that the welfare of each country and community can only be derived from the well-being of the whole planet.

"Social justice will be attained only when every member of society enjoys a relative degree of material prosperity and gives due regard to the acquisition of spiritual qualities. The solution, then, to prevailing economic difficulties is to be sought as much in the application of spiritual principles as in the implementation of scientific methods and approaches." (UHJ 2010) It is unjust to sacrifice the well-being of most people -- and even of the planet itself -- to the advantages which technological breakthroughs can make available to privileged minorities. Only development that is perceived by the masses of humanity as meeting their needs and as being just and equitable in objective can hope to engage their commitment, upon which implementation depends (BIC 1995). The new society should be characterized by solidarity and altruism, with the goal of wealth to make everyone wealthy. Spiritually-motivated voluntary giving is more meaningful and effective than forced redistribution.

Cooperation and reciprocity are essential properties of all natural and human systems, increasing in more highly evolved and complex systems, so these will be strengthened in the society of tomorrow. No society can function without trust and trustworthiness, including such values as honesty and reliability. These are the foundation of contracts and work relationships, and a bulwark against corruption. Trust is equally important in the relationships between states. If governments cannot trust each other to respect their engagements, agreements that require shared efforts become impossible. Humility, to never consider oneself above someone else, is another spiritual principle that is the ideal lubricant for social relationships. It is an antidote to pride and the egocentric search for power and wealth that corrupts much political and corporate leadership, and can inspire everyone to bring themselves to account each day in an effort to improve.

To make our economy sustainable, we need moderation in material civilization, as reflected in the golden mean. As Baha'u'llah put it: “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.” He also gave guidance on our individual lifestyles: “ content with little, and be freed from all inordinate desire.” “Take from this world only to the measure of your needs, and forego that which exceedeth them.” (Baha'u'llah)

For too long, growth in economic statistics like gross domestic product (GDP) has been the measure of success, but this does not reflect human well-being. The ultimate purpose of development should be to improve the prosperity and well-being of individual people. Therefore, the best measure of successful development should be that it enables every human being to fulfill his or her potential in life both in cultivating individual qualities, personality and capacities and in contributing to the advancement of society. Human well-being is of course a dynamic concept. It operates at several levels over the whole human lifecycle from infancy to old age. Well-being is evaluated with respect to others, and with respect to one's own previous experience. Also, past and present limitations on well-being can limit future well-being, as when childhood malnutrition can leave sequels throughout life. There are now efforts to give this broader view of development practical application, as described below.

A new dialogue on ethics and values

Despite many years of resistance to any discussion of ethics, spirituality and religion among governments or in the economic, business and scientific communities, there is an increasing recognition that other solutions will not work if they are not also addressed at this more fundamental level. A new dialogue on ethics and values is opening up, as the examples below will illustrate.

In the economic area, a groundbreaking study commissioned for the French government called for new indicators beyond GDP (Stiglitz, Sen & Fitousi 2009), and much research is now going on in this field.

The Club of Rome, which commissioned the original "Limits to Growth" report in 1972, and recently issued a global forecast for the next forty years (Randers 2012), has now recognized that scientific studies and models are not enough, and launched "ValuesQuest" to explore the values required to motivate the transition to sustainability (

The World Bank commissioned research on new indicators of individual human development (Dahl 2013a). The work started with classic studies like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, all the human rights which are necessary for full development, and various measure of happiness and values (see below). It considered the characteristics of being human: as a biological organism with purely physical requirements for life; as a social organism, with emotional or psychological needs that can only be met through relationships with others in a family, community and society; as a thinking and reasoning being with intellectual needs and capacities to develop, a desire to know and to understand; and having a spiritual dimension to life as the highest realization of human purpose, including acquiring spiritual qualities, refining one's character, and contributing to the advancement of civilization. It identified potential indicators for the multiple dimensions of individual development: physical growth and health, security and safety, education, work, financial security, justice and fairness, human rights and freedoms, a place in the community, and a cultural and spiritual identity (Dahl 2013a). If development starts to be measured in this way, it will inevitably begin to move towards a sustainable society.

Another pioneering initiative has been the work over twenty years by the Kingdom of Bhutan to define its own index of Gross National Happiness (Table 1) to replace GDP as a measure of development more appropriate to its culture and spirituality (Ura et al. 2012a). This index has now been put on a sound methodological footing (Ura et al. 2012b), and while it is only appropriate in its local context, it is inspiring other countries to consider measuring their own well-being and happiness more widely. "In the GNH Index, unlike certain concepts of happiness in current western literature, happiness is itself multidimensional – not measured only by subjective well-being, and not focused narrowly on happiness that begins and ends with oneself and is concerned for and with oneself. The pursuit of happiness is collective, though it can be experienced deeply personally. Different people can be happy in spite of their disparate circumstances and the options for diversity must be wide." (Ura et al. 2012a, p. 1). As the Prime Minister of Bhutan put it "We have now clearly distinguished the ‘happiness’ … in GNH from the fleeting, pleasurable ‘feel good’ moods so often associated with that term. We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realizing our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds.” (Ura et al. 2012a, p. 7).

Table 1 - Dimensions of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness

i. Psychological Well-being - Life satisfaction - Emotional balance (positive and negative emotions) - Spirituality

ii. Health - Self-reported health status - Healthy days - Long-term disability - Mental health

iii. Education - Literacy - Educational qualification - Knowledge - Values

iv. Culture - Language - Artisan skills - Socio-cultural participation - Driglam Namzha (Way of Harmony: formal etiquette)

v. Time Use - Working hours - Sleeping hours

vi. Good Governance - Political participation - Political freedom - Service delivery - Government performance

vii. Community Vitality - Social support - Community relationships - Family - Victim of crime

viii. Ecological Diversity and Resilience - Pollution - Environmental responsibility - Wildlife - Urban issues

ix. Living Standards - Household income - Assets - Housing quality

There have now been two issues of the World Happiness Report. Prepared by the Earth Institute of Columbia University, it was first launched at the UN in 2012, with a second edition in 2013. The report is based on data from the Gallup World Poll, the World Values Survey, the European Values Survey and the European Social Survey. It measures subjective well-being and happiness, both as felt at one point in time (affective), and as evaluated in a reflection on life satisfaction. To explain the variations in happiness, it analyzes both external factors (income, work, community, governance, values and religion) and personal factors (mental health, physical health, family, education, gender and age). In 2013, Jeffrey Sachs added a chapter on the happiness that comes from leading a virtuous life (Helliwell et al. 2012, 2013)

A European Union-funded research project starting in 2009 has developed values-based indicators of education for sustainable development ( Researchers from the University of Brighton (UK) and Charles University in Prague collaborated with civil society organizations (Alliance of Religions and Conservation, Earth Charter Initiative, ebbf, Peoples Theatre, Red Cross) to find indicators for their own values as expressed in their activities. It produced indicators of empowerment, integrity, justice, trustworthiness, unity in diversity, and respect and care for the environment, expressed in behaviours that strengthen social relationships and build collective and individual well-being (Burford et al. 2013; Dahl 2012; Podger et al. 2013).

The Partnership for Education and research about Responsible Living (PERL) ( brings together researchers and educators from 150 universities, teacher training colleges, consumers organizations, NGOs like the International Environment Forum (IEF), UNEP and UNESCO, to develop educational materials to change lifestyles and behaviors in support of the transition to sustainability. Values play an important role in PERL, and a recent project led by IEF is adapting the values-based indicators for use in secondary schools.

Baha'i-inspired organizations have played a significant role in bringing the dialogue on ethics and values into their areas of interest. The International Environment Forum (, a Baha'i-inspired professional organization for the environment and sustainability with over 330 members in over 60 countries, has been contributing to the international dialogue for 18 years, including at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 and Rio+20 in 2012, in collaboration with the Baha'i International Community. ebbf - ethical business building the future (, another Baha'i-inspired organization focusing on values in business and the world of work, has built a significant reputation over 25 years for its constructive contributions to corporate responsibility and business ethics, with sustainable development as one of its core values. Such organizations empower and accompany their members to play an active role in dialogues at the local, national and international levels.

A better society and economy

While navigating change, it helps to know your ultimate destination. There are many potential visions of a just and sustainable future society. Most people want a world that is more peaceful, just, secure and prosperous. Imagining such a world and the steps one might take now in order to build it can be a significant support to a hopeful viewpoint on the future. Since sustainability is a global challenge that must be managed at the planetary level, it requires further development of a world order. In the Baha'i vision, this should include "a world federal system, ruling the whole earth and exercising unchallengeable authority over its unimaginably vast resources,... liberated from the curse of war and its miseries, and bent on the exploitation of all the available sources of energy on the surface of the planet,... such is the goal towards which humanity, impelled by the unifying forces of life, is moving." (Shoghi Effendi 1936, p. 203-204)‏.

The economy also needs a new ethical framework. Economics has ignored humanity's broader social and spiritual needs, resulting in corrosive materialism among the wealthy, and persistent poverty for masses of the world's peoples. Economic systems should give the peoples and institutions of the world the means to achieve the real purpose of development, that is, the cultivation of the limitless potentialities in human consciousness (BIC 1998). Sustainability requires new values-based economic models. The aim should be a dynamic, just and thriving social order, that is strongly altruistic and cooperative in nature, provides meaningful employment, and helps to eradicate poverty in the world (BIC 1998).

In an interesting recent study, the economist Eric Beinhocker has rethought the economic system from a complex systems perspective. He shows that there is no equilibrium or perfect actors as hypothesized by economists, but constantly evolving networks of agents and business plans. Such systems show what is called a punctuated equilibrium, with relative stability followed by rapid change. We need consultation, not competition, to avoid crises and bubbles. He demonstrates that true wealth is information and knowledge, and that the economic system uses entropy to increase carrying capacity, efficiency and complexity. With this perspective, businesses must balance present efficiency with innovation to prepare for the future, through a culture of learning. Since people are both self-regarding and altruist, they seek strong reciprocity, doing good in exchange for good, but punishing those who cheat. To create a sustainable economy, we must reduce inequality and favour social cohesion (Beinhocker 2006).

Based on this framework, Beinhocker derives a set of norms for individual behavior. For the individual, these include a strong work ethic, individual accountability, and a belief that you are the protagonist of your own life, with benefits from living a moral life in this world, being realistic about the present situation but optimistic about the future. More cooperative behaviour requires a belief that life is not a zero-sum game and that cooperation has benefits, that generosity and fairness have value, and that free-riding and cheating are sanctioned. The values to encourage innovation are valuing rational scientific explanations of the world, tolerating heresy and experimentation, supporting competition and celebrating achievement. These need to be complemented by an ethic of investing for tomorrow, saving for future generations, sacrificing short-term pleasures for long-term gain, and enjoying high levels of cooperation.

Beinhocker also proposes norms for society. Both a strong sense of community and values, complemented by government leadership, are needed. Inequalities should be reduced to build social cohesion, and priority given to health, education and a minimum living wage for the poor to empower them for their own development. Justice and altruism can be increased through education to address the challenges of wealth distribution. These proposals would go a long way towards making the economic system more just and sustainable.

Maintaining hope in the face of uncertainty

With so many things going wrong in society, it is easier to simply deny the reality of what is obviously happening around us, or to become depressed and confused and simply disconnect and focus on our own immediate concerns, considering the rest to be too big to do anything about. Several additional factors can help us to maintain hope and a positive attitude towards the future in spite of the uncertainty (Dahl 2014).

One is to understand the processes of change operating around us, and to see them in a larger systems perspective. Processes of change are well documented in biological systems. Complex evolving systems show punctuated equilibria, periods of relative stability interspersed with rapid, sometimes chaotic change. These changes can be triggered by new factors such as genetic mutations, invasion by other species, or a change of scale in the way systems are connected or organized. All complex systems, whether species, ecosystems or civilizations, advance and decline or collapse. None last forever. We are in such a period of rapid change in our own civilization as it adjusts to the process of globalization driven by technological innovation. In this context, change is not so much a catastrophe as an opportunity. Old system collapse encourages creativity and innovation. Human society must evolve a whole new set of institutions and functional relationships at the global level. This is where we can turn to ethics and human values to provide the information and knowledge that can guide the newly evolving systems (Dahl 1996).

While it is clear that most people cannot by themselves change the course of world events, this does not mean that we are just helpless bystanders being swept along by the currents of history. The hopelessness brought on by overwhelming problems can be overcome by taking charge of ourselves and acknowledging our responsibility for our own individual development. We can all show moral courage and live by our ethical principles, and through our actions build a momentum for positive change. Even small successes at this level are mutually reinforcing. We are part of families, live in a community, and have relationships in our workplace and social networks. We can therefore invest in improving our family life and community, contribute to the education of the next generation, reinforce community solidarity and collective action to solve local problems, take part in meaningful discussions with those around us, and establish spiritual ties with our neighbors through local devotional gatherings and worship. Building such a strong sense of community is in fact the best insurance against whatever problems may come as the parallel processes of disintegration and integration advance.

No individual lives forever, so the only real sustainability in human society comes through education, passing on our values, culture, knowledge and wisdom to the next generation. Education for sustainability should include moral education in human virtues to lay a foundation for spiritual transformation. It is particularly important to focus on pre-adolescence, when young people are establishing their independence from their family circle and adopting their own values and directions in life. They can learn the happiness that comes from altruistic attitudes through practical activities of service. Often older youth are best placed to help their younger peers. In schools, the activities and indicators for values-based learning mentioned above could contribute to this process. Education is essential to transmitting the ethical framework for a more sustainable and hopeful society.


A sustainable society is technically possible, and the necessary knowledge already exists and could be applied with adequate political will overcoming the resistance to change from powerful vested interest. To maintain the planet's ecological balance, we must base the economy on renewable energy and resources, closed materials cycles and integrated product life-cycles; reduce human impacts to a level appropriate to the vulnerability and resilience of the natural systems; restore damaged systems to the level necessary to maintain natural and human ecosystem services; and allow population growth and development only to the extent that system improvements extend the carrying capacity of the planetary system. The longer we wait, the more damage we do to the planet we depend on for survival.

It should be clear from all the above that a major societal transition is inevitable, whether evolutionary or catastrophic. The longer we wait, the more painful the change is apt to be. The best insurance in times of rapid change is community solidarity. We need to mobilize and empower the youth, who are best placed to lead this change in the years ahead. This requires that we detach ourselves from the present system, and not cling to a sinking ship. We must make the “pull” of the new vision of our future stronger than the “push” out of the old disfunctional system. With so much wasted human capacity from economic and social decline and population displacement, we need to steer this capacity in constructive directions, rather than letting the disillusioned and desperate fall prey to fundamentalism and radicalization. A framework for reflection and action that is both scientific and spiritual should enable us to do this.

"The pathway to sustainability will be one of empowerment, collaboration and continual processes of questioning, learning and action in all regions of the world.... As the sweeping tides of consumerism, unfettered consumption, extreme poverty and marginalization recede, they will reveal the human capacities for justice, reciprocity and happiness" (BIC 2010).


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Last updated 7 August 2014