Panel Discussion about Knowledge for Sustainable Development
Papers presented at the
5th Annual Conference of the International Environment Forum
19-21 October 2001, Hluboka nad Vltavou, Czech Republic
[This paper is as presented at the Conference, and has not been subject to editorial review by the IEF]
Throughout the recorded history of mankind, knowledge has been obtained through two different sources: Religion and Science (see Prosperity of Humankind, a statement produced by the Baha'i International Community in 1995).
1) Religion as a source of knowledge
Nowadays science is widely recognised worldwide as being the source of knowledge. It has not always been the case. Religion or spirituality based on belief used to be the main source of knowledge. Religious leaders used to be the source of knowledge. They still are considered as the reference in many societies. Referring only to religion as a source of knowledge can easily lead to obscurantism and fanaticism. Fanaticism can have a very destructive effect as has been shown many times throughout history, and in our century with terrorism based on fanaticism which has started to become one of the most threatening plagues of the 21st century.
2) Science as a source of knowledge
Science has shown its ability to improve the quality of life through its technological advances. Through the last three centuries, the increase in scientific knowledge became exponential and resulted in a profound change in standards of living. These improvements can be observed in the different fields of science:
There has been great progress in biology and medicine, improving human health and resulting in extended life expectancy;
Improvements in communications, including means of transportation as well as information exchange, with the rapid improvement of information technology, have make the world much smaller.
Agriculture and food:
This 10 000 year old science saw a tremendous acceleration of progress with the arrival of hybrids and chemical fertilisers during the green revolution in the 1970s, allowing an impressive increase in crop yields. In the 1990s, new genetic technologies allowed crop scientists to pass the barrier of species and bring a new dimension to genetic improvement. The human capacity to produce and improve its own food has improved tremendously. It includes not only the improvement of production and quality, but also brings a new perspective for a future integrating traditional and modern food science.
As a result of improvements in health, food quality, easy communications, and heating, material life for human beings has become much easier on a global scale. For some of us, the change in one generation is quite impressive.
Problems due to the lack of justice
For many of us however, our life has become materially poorer than the previous generation. Because of the widening gap between rich and poor, an increasing portion of humanity is not able to get the minimum material means they need, like food and shelter. As a result, many children die of hunger or malnutrition. The inequalities exist despite the increased capability of humankind to improve its material standards of living. These inequalities are clear signs of injustice in the world. Here we touch the roots of the question of sustainability. Science has shown its limitations. It has failed to address the question of justice. The knowledge brought by science is not sufficient if justice is not firmly established. This is where we need to include values. In the panel discussion on values, we could study the question of their source. There should be a common global ground on which society agrees as a universal source of values, like for instance the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Values have to be universal. We have to agree at a global scale on the foundation on which we want to build a just and prosperous world.
The most prosperous societies in the past have been those who developed using both science and religion as their sources of knowledge. It is time now for humanity to investigate the possibility to combine these two sources of knowledge and to implement them for a prosperous and sustainable world. The challenge is great and it is on a world scale. Do we have any choice?
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Last updated 31 October 2001