Inclusive Development and its Spiritual Indicators

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 7. July 2020 - 16:29
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Inclusive Development and its Spiritual Indicators

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum

International Conference on Education for Social Cohesion
11-12 July 2020
24th International Environment Forum Annual Conference

Defining the problem

Before we can talk about inclusive development, we need to be clear about what we mean. Development implies a process of fulfilling a potential. In the human context, that means fulfilling our human potential, which requires that we understand what is our human purpose. Most people would agree that this includes physical, social, intellectual and spiritual dimensions. In a human lifespan, the first three are all transitory. For many, only the spiritual dimension is not limited to this physical life. The ultimate goal of individual development should be to acquire and live by spiritual qualities that contribute to the endless development of human consciousness.

However, development cannot just be at the individual level. Humans are a social species, with years of dependence within a family and the gradual enlargement of social circles until as adults we can create ever-wider forms of social organization, now reaching to the global level. This is also a dimension of human development, and the rise and fall of civilizations demonstrates the long history of successes and failures in our efforts to fulfil our collective potential.

The science of complex systems sheds some light on the characteristics of collective organization. In general, more complex systems are highly diverse, featuring well developed cooperation and reciprocity as the multiple entities increase their collective efficiency and resilience. It is to the advantage of the system to be inclusive, drawing on the unique contributions of each entity to enrich the whole system. In a complex ecosystem like a coral reef, thousands of species each add something for the benefit of the whole. It is not just the fastest growing or most dominant, which may in fact be more vulnerable to inevitable shocks to the system, but even the most insignificant and obscure organisms that play some vital role at particular moments in the system’s continuing success.

What would be successful development?

Within this framework, what would individual and collective success look like? Since we all depend on each other, there can be no individual success if there is a collective failure. The time scale is also important. What good is immediate success, if it ultimately leads to long term failure. Overshoot and collapse are well-known features of unstable ecological systems, where a species with an extensive food supply and no population controls multiplies and eats until the food is exhausted, when all die off.

Development in a collective sense would involve a community collaborating to succeed together, meeting all the needs of the community on a sustainable basis, ensuring resilience in the face of a variable environment, and providing for constant renewal of its component members, transmitting and enriching the collective wisdom of the community. This is why education is so important. No individual lives forever, no matter how highly developed, so sustainability requires the collective transmission of all the acquired knowledge and experience in a culture or community.

Communities can also be at many scales, from an extended family to a village, neighbourhood or tribe, to larger scales of cities, nations and even the whole of the human race. There can also be other kinds of institutional communities, like corporations, associations, faith-based groups, etc. Complex systems, to remain efficient, are always organized into nested subsystems, each performing specific functions within the larger system. The successful functioning of the whole depends on the proper performance of each subsidiary part, or at least with sufficient replication and resilience that the failure of any one component is compensated for in the interest of the whole.

Why is it important to be inclusive?

It follows that each individual has potential to contribute to the well-being of the whole if properly developed, and the more such individuals are included, the greater the collective wealth and wellbeing of the whole system, community, nation, or indeed the whole human race. Every individual who is marginalized or excluded represents a loss of potential in the system. Every child who is not educated, every person who is left unemployed, everyone whose potential is blocked because of the colour of their skin, their social background, their faith or other arbitrary distinction, represents a failure of the collective whole to profit from all the resources available to it. This is even more the case when half of the population is excluded because of gender, especially female. This is not only an injustice to the individuals concerned, but diminishes the whole, like throwing away money. This is the meaning of the UN goal to leave no one behind, in its call for inclusive development.

For the individual as well, it is important to develop all those human capacities that can contribute both to individual welfare and to the wellbeing of society. Too often in our present society, a person is employed in an occupation for one skill, and all other potential capacities are ignored. Yet those capacities vary at different stages in life, from the energy of youth to the wisdom of old age. Ideally, each person should be empowered to render services to the community using as much as possible of their physical, social, intellectual and spiritual potential throughout their life.

Imagine what the collective potential of the whole human race would be if everyone strives and is empowered to develop their skills and abilities in service to their community and the larger society, and if at each level of social organization, every effort is made to maximise individual contributions for the collective benefit, with nothing going to waste. What an enormous potential that would create for an ever-advancing civilization!

Can we use indicators for values?

We are accustomed to use indicators to tell us if we are going in the right direction and to measure the progress we are making. Obvious examples are the dashboard of a car or GDP as an indicator of economic performance. The Sustainable Development Goals adopted by all the nations of the world at the United Nations in 2015 include targets to be achieved and indicators to measure progress. In a world still plagued by poverty and suffering, these obviously focus on the material, social, economic and environmental dimensions of development, with the aim to make them sustainable by 2030.

However, if the ultimate human purpose is more than this, and must include, if not give priority to, a spiritual dimension, then we need to ask how do we measure progress at this level? What might be good indicators of values or spiritual qualities? I helped to initiate a research programme a decade ago on values-based indicators of education for sustainable development (Burford et al, 2012, 2013, 2016; Dahl 2013, 2014a, 2014b; Harder et al. 2014; Podger et al. 2015). We identified hundreds of terms used to describe relevant values like empowerment, integrity, justice, trust and trustworthiness, and unity in diversity, but the language used varied too much in different contexts and communities to be of much use. However we did find that the behaviours that expressed these values in action could be observed and even quantified using various social science techniques from action research. The result was an initial set of values-based indicators that proved to be useful in many educational settings when appropriately selected and adapted. These have been adopted by organizations like the Earth Charter Initiative and the Red Cross to assess the values transmitted in their educational programmes. We even produced a set of toolkits for secondary school use (PERL 2014a,b,c).

Spiritual values for inclusion

Values reflect the most fundamental level of individual development and social organization. Many have their origins in and are common to all spiritual traditions. To make a fundamental transformation in society, the most effective leverage point is at the level of values (Meadows 1999). The UN 2030 Agenda calls for a fundamental transformation in society, a paradigm shift for people and the planet (UN 2015). What then are some of the values that can enable this transformation from a materialist consumer society focussed on short-term profit for the few to a more equitable and sustainable global civilisation?

Individually, the values that best enable people to make their contribution to the collective good are things like humility, moderation, justice, equity, and service to the common good. People with a strong framework of ethical or spiritual values have a more positive motivation (Dahl 2019). Values-based indicators can help to measure the presence of such values in individual behaviour.

Collectively, an overall indicator might be unity, how well all individuals see themselves as members of a single human family. This would result in a number of characteristics, such as an economy that was socially just, altruistic and cooperative, providing meaningful employment for everyone, and eliminating the extremes of wealth and poverty that are so destabilizing today. In a world that has overshot many planetary boundaries (Steffen et al. 2018), and is destroying the natural resource base while destabilising the climate and other life-support systems, that unity would find expression in materially simpler lifestyles and a more equitable distribution of resources, with a focus on those things for which there is no limit to growth, such as knowledge, science, art, culture, beauty, and harmony with the natural world. Communities would need to be at a more human scale to favour strong social relationships, with unity at this level providing the foundation for unity at higher levels of organization. This would be the aim of inclusive development guided by spiritual indicators.


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What steps might we take to overcome the present fragmentation within and between countries and set as our goal more inclusive development?
How might we change the focus of our collective attention as a society from the material dimensions of life to a more just and sustainable society enabling each individual to attain their higher spiritual purpose?

Last updated 7 July 2020