Living within Environmental Limits: Implications of Baha'i Principles for Sustainable Development

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 28. May 2011 - 12:05
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Sidcot, UK, 15-18 August 1999


Arthur Lyon Dahl*
[Draft notes for presentation at the conference]

What is sustainable development from a Bahá'í perspective?

Sustainable development is usually defined as development that meets the needs of the present generation without reducing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is generally accepted that this implies some justice in the sharing of resources both within this generation and with future generations. The concept of sustainability thus already has a strong ethical component.

What then is distinctive about the Bahá'í approach to sustainable development? Most fundamental is the recognition that the nature of humanity is essentially spiritual, and that development must respond to both material and spiritual needs in a balanced way. Bahá'ís also believe in respecting nature and the ecological balance of the world.

The most complete Bahá'í definition of the characteristics and processes of sustainable development can probably be gleaned from the Bahá'í International Community statement "The Prosperity of Humankind". Briefly paraphrased, it states that the purely materialistic conceptions of development so current today should be replaced by a recognition that human prosperity requires both spiritual and material well-being, implying the simultaneous transformation of human consciousness and social institutions. Its beneficiaries must be all of the planet's inhabitants, and all the peoples of the world should participate in designing their own future. Consultation should be the organizing principle of every development project.

The necessary new levels of human capacity will require a significant increase in access to knowledge and its application. The two great knowledge systems of science and religion should work in concert and dialogue. Scientific and technical activity should be expanded through viable centres of learning to permit people everywhere to participate, and to learn to think in terms of process.

The real purpose of development, as defined in the statement, is to lay the foundations of a new social order, with justice as its ruling principle, that can cultivate the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness. The full participation of women will be essential. Within this new order, service to humankind will be the purpose of both individual life and social organization, providing the basis for a new work ethic. New economic models will be required that will be strongly altruistic rather than self-centred. Our inherited understanding of the use of power will be abandoned and replaced by the power of truth, the force of character, the influence of example, and the achievement of unity. Democratic administrative institutions will operate on the basis of widespread confidence, consultation, and scientific and moral advancement, maintaining a global perspective.

Other relevant principles in the Bahá'í writings include the importance of wealth creation for the benefit of the whole society while individually being content with little, the recognition of our interdependence (self-sufficiency is no longer possible), and the need for justice in the distribution of resources, with the full utilization of all raw materials and sources of energy on the planet, and their global management. Since Bahá'ís believe that the present cycle of ever-advancing world civilization now beginning is to last 500,000 years, they have an unusually long-term perspective on sustainability. A strong Bahá'í emphasis on the importance of agriculture suggests that renewable resources will be the primary basis of this future civilization.

What are the environmental limits to development?

The Earth's natural systems, capacities and resources provide very real if flexible limits to the possibilities for human material development. While nature demonstrates surprising capacities to maintain rich and productive ecosystems in areas very poor in essential resources, such as tropical rain forests and coral reefs, we presently lack sufficient scientific understanding to improve on or even manage effectively the more complex natural systems. We may be sitting at a keyboard of a powerful computer, but we are still wearing mittens. Present development strategies and trends emphasize short-term gain, and have a limited sense of perspective or responsibility. They are causing rapid destruction of many natural resources and upsetting global biogeochemical systems. The damage they are causing could take hundreds of years to repair, reducing the development capacity of the planet and laying an increasing burden on future generations.

It should be understood that environmental limits are relative in both time and space. Viewed over time, many natural systems have considerable resiliency and can recover quite rapidly from short-term excesses. Indeed nature itself is full of excesses and extreme events. What are often more damaging are the continuing pressures of human activities that erode the resource base, perhaps almost imperceptively to a human observer, until finally some threshold of no return is passed. On the other hand, in the very long term, natural systems have evolved over thousands and millions of years to increase their productivity, diversity and resilience, and there is no reason why human societies cannot similarly push back many environmental limits through the wise application of science and technology. Unfortunately our recent experience suggests that we are still far from being able to do this on anything like a sustainable basis. The motivations and rewards of present society are for short-term gain, not long-term sustainability and efficiency, and our understanding of complex systems is still very poor. While future civilizations will certainly be able to advance beyond our wildest dreams, we need to be more realistic about what can be accomplished in the short term of our own lifetimes. It will be enough of a challenge to salvage as much as possible of the remarkable natural systems that nature has bequeathed to us and to avoid ecological catastrophes. The technological fix for our environmental limits is not for tomorrow, and we should not put all our trust in the pervading technological optimism that borders on wishful thinking.

Environmental limits in space represent a nested set of rather different constraints at the local through global levels. At the local level, the challenge is to maintain the necessary quantity and quality of environmental resources that the community depends on. Hardly anyone lives in complete isolation any more, so there will always be some dependence on imports from outside the local area, which generally make a higher standard of living possible (like fresh foods in the off season). The challenge is to maintain existing local resources and their productivity so as to avoid any involuntary increase in outside dependence. There also needs to be sufficient productivity and wealth generation in the community to pay for the imports, so that the community accounts are in balance. Other dimensions of local sustainability are to avoid continuing dependence on outside subsidies, and to meet the needs of the whole community, leaving no one deprived of the benefits of development.

At the national level, the variety and diversity of local situations means that some additional factors relevant to sustainability must be considered. It is usually at the national level that some solidarity is expressed between areas well endowed with resources and those that have more limited resources, face difficult conditions, or suffer calamities or disasters. The sustainability of the whole depends on some mutual assistance and reciprocity among the parts. There is often also a need for subsidiarity, delegating as much authority and responsibility as possible to lower levels of organization to maintain efficiency and adaptability and to prevent the growth of unwieldy bureaucracies. At the same time, nations are able to achieve economies of scale in certain functions, services and economic activities. At both the national and local levels, environmental limits are not very fixed, because there is always the possibility to call for outside assistance, or to go elsewhere if conditions are truly unlivable.

It is at the planetary level that the environmental limits to development have now become quite evident. For generations, the world seemed so large as to be inexhaustible, but between our population growth and the scale with which science and technology have multiplied our impacts, planetary limits suddenly seem very near. We have punched holes in the stratospheric ozone layer with man-made chemicals, generated so much greenhouse gas that the climate is now changing, spread invasive species around the world while accelerating the rate of species extinctions to 1000 times natural levels, and contaminated the whole planetary environment with toxic chemicals, some of which are demonstrating a capacity to damage the health of humans and other life in surprising ways. We shall run up against planetary limits in energy production, as we exhaust the stored energy of fossil fuels and must rely on the renewable energy of solar radiation and its derivatives (wind, waves, hydropower and biofuels) and the energy of radioactive decay (natural geothermal or artificial). There will be limits on the global capacity for food production, as well as trade-offs between the production of food, biomaterials and energy crops. The planet also has limits on the wastes it can absorb and neutralize, whether on the land and in soil, in the air or water, and in the ultimate repository of the oceans. It is not possible to define the human carrying capacity of the planet, since that depends on the standard of living we are prepared to accept. The earth can support many more Chinese villagers than American suburbanites. We can be sure, however, that there is a human carrying capacity to the planet dependent on our level of scientific and technological development. Some studies suggest that we are already very close to those planetary limits, if not beyond them. With the time lags between the causes and effects of environmental damage, we shall probably not know for sure until it is too late.

What is unsustainable in present society?

Bahá'u'lláh warned us about material civilization carried to excess, and the evil it would bring upon society. Many characteristics of present Western civilization would seem to fit this prediction. Our agriculture has so far managed to keep pace with population growth and rising living standards among part of the population, but it is based on unstable monocultures whose development is increasingly driven by the profit needs of agroindustry, rather than by preserving soil productivity, supporting a strong rural population, or maintaining the insurance provided by genetic diversity. Many regions suffer from a rapid loss of forests and the environmental services that forests provide. This destruction is driven by the pressures of land conversion, even if the alternative land uses are unsustainable, and by the global commerce in forest products that does not value other forest services. Forest loss, habitat conversion, direct exploitation and invasive species are together taking a heavy toll of the world's biological diversity, and species extinctions can never be reversed.

Industrial society depends on rapidly diminishing fossil fuel supplies, yet the imminence of another energy crisis is far from being matched by the search for alternatives, whether in energy supplies or in energy economies. The nuclear alternative has run into its own problems of security concerns, unresolved long-term waste disposal problems, and poor economics when the full life cycle of nuclear plants is taken into consideration. The industrial drive to market as many chemicals as possible in the largest possible quantities has driven us to excessive use of chemicals with lasting effects. Even at the level of human culture, there is a widespread loss of traditional knowledge and local responsibility, which is not being replaced by sustainable alternatives.

What do Bahá'í principles suggest are the alternatives?

The Bahá'í writings describe a pattern for future society, but do not give details as to how it will be achieved. What they do define are a number of concepts and mechanisms which, taken together with a basic spiritual transformation in society as a whole, should guide communities towards a more sustainable future.

The recognition of the oneness of humankind and of the importance of global solidarity will ensure that decisions taken about the local management of resources will consider the global perspective. Just as no one will want to hurt another person, so will they not want to damage the environment on which other people depend. With a wider scientific understanding of the linkages between local behaviour and global environmental impacts, local decision-makers will do their best to reinforce the general good, and will support efforts to conserve the environment in ways which blend with the rhythm of life in their communities.

The redistribution of wealth to ensure that there are no extremes of wealth and poverty is another principle relevant to sustainable development, both because the injustice of such extremes is not socially sustainable, and because some of the most environmentally damaging forms of behaviour come from the extravagances of the very rich and the desperate struggle for survival of the very poor. The mechanisms to achieve this redistribution include concepts such as a graduated income tax, a local community "storehouse" able to provide for those unable to meet their own requirements, and an emphasis on voluntary sharing and philanthropy. The creation of wealth is encouraged, but with an emphasis on making the whole society wealthy.

There seems to be no place in the Bahá'í vision of things for the present consumer society with its materialistic emphasis. Individual attitudes to wealth will be very different, and the difficulty of being both rich and spiritual will be generally recognized. The principle of moderation will find practical expression in everyday material consumption, with the ideal to be content with little. The goods of this world will be seen as tools which can render useful services and as pleasures which can be appreciated, but from which one should be detached lest they interfere with more important spiritual things. With such attitudes, it will be much easier to reduce the present excessive consumption of resources and to redistribute those that are available with more justice. However it should be recognized that this transformation implies fundamental changes in present economic systems and employment patterns, changes which ideally should be implemented gradually to moderate painful social transitions.

Agriculture is recognized as the foundation of society, which fits well with the importance of renewable resources for any kind of sustainable civilization. Agricultural occupations will have a high status. However there is nothing to suggest that agriculture in the future will resemble that practiced today. The emphasis in both the Bahá'í writings and the science of ecology on the importance of diversity suggests that new approaches to agriculture may involve diverse species maintained in a productive harmony. We may evolve complex and efficient ecosystems with local human communities as an integral part. It is already clear from the scale of present human impacts that undisturbed nature no longer exists, and that humanity has unwittingly taken on the responsibility for managing and cultivating the entire biosphere. Bahá'ís view the physical creation as standing in need of development by man in order to create not only a higher degree of order and beauty, which are standards upheld in the Bahá'í teachings, but also to increase its fertility and productivity (Conservation of the Earth's Resources, section 2.2.4).

The science of health is certain to advance far beyond present understanding. Just as agriculture should evolve towards an ecological balance requiring a minimum of heavy chemical interventions, so will medical treatments emphasize supporting the body's own equilibria and powers of defense rather than treatment with powerful medicines which may create as many problems as they solve, both for the patient and for the environment. Our understanding of nutrition will make great progress, and meat will no longer be eaten except in special circumstances. This will in itself contribute to sustainability be reducing the inefficiencies of meat production, which is only one tenth as efficient as primary agricultural production.

There are even concepts of community planning in the Bahá'í teachings that suggest that future communities will be on a more human scale, with a house of worship in the centre where all the community can gather for morning prayer before going about the business of daily life, surrounded by institutions of social and community service. The concept of community meetings in the 19-day Feast, and of local houses of justice to administer the affairs of a locality also seem best adapted to communities of moderate size which should be inherently less of a burden on their surrounding environment than large cities and thus more sustainable.

The above are all concepts that can find their application at the local level and in social and economic development projects. While some of the greatest challenges of sustainability are at the planetary level, it is clear that problems at that level can only be resolved once adequate institutional mechanisms for global cooperation and decision-making are in place. A letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice states: "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, the House of Justice feels that little progress will be made towards their solution." (Universal House of Justice, Department of the Secretariat, from a letter dated 18 October 1981 to an individual believer)

What are the implications for social and economic development projects?

In the light of these principles and concepts, it is clear that social and economic development projects need to incorporate certain approaches if they are to be sustainable. One obvious one is to think through the environmental implications of all plans and actions, exploring the possible chains of causes and effects, using consultative processes with the participation of the whole community. Consideration should be given to both the scientific and the spiritual principles involved. The implications of the project that extend beyond the local community, and even to the global level, should be reviewed and understood.

Sustainability should itself become one of the goals of development activities, including attention to the long-term requirements of the community and the interests of future generations.

Where there is a heritage of traditional knowledge of the environment, it should be integrated into the development process. Such knowledge can often help to understand past environmental limits, and can contribute to disaster prevention by preserving a record of extreme events that are beyond living memory.

The application of both spheres of knowledge, science and religion, should be one of the distinguishing features of Bahá'í-inspired social and economic development. This will inherently lead towards more environmentally sensitive and sustainable actions and behaviour.

Finally, every effort should be made to encourage a variety of bottom-up approaches. Environmental and social conditions around this planet are too diverse for any one set of solutions or formulae to be appropriate everywhere, and the science of ecology is too poorly developed for it to anticipate many things that would be evident to those with an intimate and lifelong knowledge of their local environment. This is a time to encourage creativity and diversity as we learn how to combine science and religion in order to explore the many paths towards more sustainable development.

*The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Last updated 13 August 1999