Wilmette Institute Course on Climate Change
- an Impetus for Service
ABS/IEF Conference, Toronto, 7-10 August 2014
The Wilmette Institute is an institution under the guidance of the US National Spiritual Assembly. It offers more than 50 online courses on a wide range of subjects. Participants come from all over the world. Last year, 51 countries were represented. The majority of participants are Bahá'í, but the courses are open to everyone. In one of the climate change courses we even had a group of ten nuns.
The course on climate change is relatively new. It ran twice last year and once this spring and will be offered again this September. The course provides a basic overview of the science of climate change, namely its causes and impacts, then it explores spiritual teachings and relates them to the climate crisis. Generally, participants are leaving the course with a deep commitment to service and action. In this brief presentation, my goal is to explain why I think the participants develop such a deep commitment to serve, and what kind of actions they have taken in their personal lives and in service to the community.
Some participants are taking the course because they are already very
concerned about climate change. These participants generally get
encouraged by learning how to apply spiritual teachings to the
environmental crisis. They also feel supported having found a community of
people who share their concerns. A participant wrote:
I have always seen this arena as my path to service, and seeing how this issue has come to the fore in the guidance from the House of Justice has been extremely exciting for me. I feel reinvigorated to engage with what is often a tiring and seemingly hopeless effort. (1)
However, most people who are taking the course don't know much about
climate change yet. So for them the course is a wake up call to the
reality of its threat and therefore quite a mental test. Another friend
Going through a process of shock, dismay, sadness, and then seeking guidance in the Writings and coming to hope, inspiration, strength, and courage, this course has been an interesting growth experience... It has been excellent to face down the fears climate change initially generated, and work through those issues and now feel inspired to move forward. (2)
Many participants gave voice to similar initial despair.
Why are many participants emotionally challenged by climate change?
• Not only a problem for the distant future
Before taking this course, I believed that climate change was something that might happen in the future. I did not realize that, not only is it happening now, but people in some of the poorest countries are experiencing the effects of drought and rising sea levels already. (3)
• Climate change impacts
Participants become aware of the serious changes in climate already happening such as more frequent extreme weather events, floods, droughts, worsening water scarcity, melting of polar ice and glaciers, rising sea levels, and loss of biodiversity.
• Social disruption
Climate Change worsens many social problems: Many people are already affected by higher food prices because of climate change impacts on agriculture. In some areas, droughts have at least partly contributed to civil unrest and war. Increasing numbers of people are forced to migrate to other areas and suffer the loss of their home and culture and the difficult life as refugees.
• Human suffering
The readings and videos confront the students with present and future human suffering.
• Estimated projection of future temperature rise
The estimated scientific projection of a 4°C (7.2° F) warming by the end of the century is frightening, especially as scientists agree that we must keep the increase below 2°C if we want to keep the Earth as a livable planet for human civilization.
• The challenge of effective mitigation
Students are also daunted by the challenge of the enormous changes that need to happen now to mitigate the warming. In the developed world we must reduce carbon emissions by about 90% by mid-century.
For all these reasons, most participants experience the climate crisis as a serious mental test, some even as an existential crisis. It is then a powerful experience to recognize on a deeper level that the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh provides the spiritual solution.
Bahá'u'lláh said: “Each one of the ordinances We have revealed is a mighty stronghold for the preservation of the world of beings.” (4)
As the ordinances of Bahá'u'lláh are a “mighty stronghold for the preservation of the world of beings”, we need to learn to look at these ordinances in this way. Discovering the meaning of the Bahá'í teachings in the light of the environmental crisis opens up new dimensions for understanding the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh.
New dimensions for understanding the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh
Here are five short examples:
1. Human relationship with nature
Participants come to see our interconnectedness and interdependence with
nature on a much deeper level. One participant created sculptures to
express this. These are her words:
“The appeal to combine the human form with elements from nature comes from my aspiration to evoke a sense of mutual reliance between the welfare of humanity and the health of the environment. I achieve this by constructing the two entities as a single unit. In an ever-crowded, consumer driven world our connection with the natural environment is weakened as we lose sight of our responsibility to act as stewards of this earth." (5)
2. The oneness of humankind
Climate change deepens our understanding of the oneness of
This topic gives a specific light to the oneness of mankind so it is not just a principle or an ideal. Having a genuine understanding about our oneness causes us to be genuinely concerned and more proactive about finding solutions, including modification of our life style. (6)
Climate change is foremost an issue of justice:
The impacts of climate change fall disproportionately on poorer people in poorer nations, although most of the fossil fuel burning has been done in the industrialized nations by the wealthiest people. We all stand to lose everything, but those with the most money will be hit last. (7)
Climate change is especially an issue of intergenerational justice. Our own children and generations to come will suffer most because of present economic activities.
4. The harmony of science and religion
Climate change is a field where the principle of the harmony of science
and religion finds an urgent practical application. One participant
explained his deeper understanding of that principle:
…For a non-physical scientist I probably had a good general understanding of what climate change is ... However, there was a disconnect between that intellectual knowledge and my own spiritual life; I was having difficulty in finding the junction between them. This class has helped to change that disconnect particularly to our personal responsibility and the necessity of stewardship for the earth. (8)
5. The historical significance of our time
In the last unit of the course, the environmental crisis is put into historical context from a Bahá'í perspective. Of course, we don't know what Bahá'u'lláh meant when He said “there shall suddenly appear that which shall cause the limbs of mankind to quake” (9) or when He talked about an “unforeseen calamity” (10).
But participants are getting a deeper understanding of the impending convergence of the many worsening social problems with the escalating environmental crisis, especially the dire impacts of climate change.
Understanding the spiritual significance of our time helps participants overcome a doom and gloom attitude as they recognize that a world-encompassing crisis will force humanity to come together and to solve its problems with global cooperation. Such a deep crisis also seems to be necessary for humankind to turn to God and to accept the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, as “...Then, and only then, will the Divine Standard be unfurled, and the Nightingale of Paradise warble its melody." (11)
One participant put it this way: I now see the climate change crisis as an exact counterpart to the spiritual crisis currently afflicting humanity. The spirit of the age brought by Bahá'u'lláh is propelling us toward a united planetary civilization, and issues such as climate change are also forcing us in this direction, in spite of our unwillingness to do so in both cases. (12)
To wrap up this topic, l will encapsulate why I think participants become motivated for service and action:
• Some knowledge about the causes and impacts of climate change is necessary for any meaningful application of spiritual principles in this area. But knowledge seems to be only an essential prerequisite, not the decisive factor in motivation for action.
• Learning about the dire reality of climate change makes the soul thirsty for spiritual answers. It's a test that propels spiritual growth.
• Realizing that the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh are “a mighty stronghold for the preservation of the world of beings” engenders hope and energy to apply these teachings and to share them with others.
• Bahá'í teachings are seen in a new light, with a new dimension, namely how they provide guidance in the utterly confusing world of climate change.
...Before the course, I was nonchalant but now I know more about the subject ...and my feelings of stewardship toward the earth and my concern for the well-being of mankind have even increased more. Probably amazing because the course is so short but this is what the course did to me. Maybe because the approach in this Wilmette course is different - spiritual? It is definitely the power of the Word. I know I have taken environmental classes before but it just ended with knowledge and did not stir any ethical feelings for me or lead me to a path of service. This Wilmette course did. (13)
Actions taken by participants
Actions have encompassed all areas of participants' lives: Personal lifestyle changes, Bahá'í community life, particularly core activities, teaching, interfaith collaboration and social discourse.
I have found how to remain hopeful when facing a very complex and enormous problem and to value it as a gift to the Bahá'ís to further the Cause. I more strongly value our study circles, devotionals, and education efforts in advancing civilization. I have more gratitude for my fellow Baha'is and more compassion for humanity on this planet. My biggest change is a very much increased mindfulness about my day-to-day actions and how I can modify them to help the planet. (14)
Changes in lifestyle
These are some practical actions participants mentioned:
- Reduced meat consumption
- Reduced consumption of all products
- Shorter showers
- More frequent walks to grocery store
- Reduced waste
- Plans to insulate the roof, to install solar panels
- Bought a bike
- Reduced driving
- Car pooling
- Fewer plane trips
- Turned down the thermostat
- More local food
- Reduced the amounts of electricity and natural gas
- Started turning off my computer and chargers at night
- Stopped buying bottled water
- Divested from fossil fuel companies
A friend reported:
I have improved those activities: turning out lights, using less hot water, hanging clothes on the line, reducing car trips, using our bikes for transportation, being more thoughtful with every purchasing decisions, consuming less. Our family's electric bill was 25% lower after starting this class and our gasoline bill was also lower. (15)
Another participant wisely observed: Easy, small efforts as recycling and using less water and electricity will not be nearly enough to prevent a world-wide catastrophe. It will take a greater level of unity and effort than mankind has ever manifested before. (16)
Therefore, many participants have been reaching out to the Baha'i community and to society at large.
• Many friends have initiated devotional programs on humanity's relationship with nature. One participant prepared devotions for the Feast of Dominion on the relationships of God, nature, and humanity. (17)
• Some participants incorporated topics of the course in their children's
and youth classes:
Last Sunday I had to interrupt my history about THE BAB, and talk to my 6 graders about climate change.
I actually reviewed unit 5 with them and they loved it .
My surprise was that only one of five brilliant students knew about climate change and this was alarming to me. (18)
• One participant organized a two-day Junior Youth Empowerment Summit at the Gainesville Baha’i Center in Florida. She presented an introduction to “The Climate Challenge: A Serious Collaborative Game for the Human Family.” (19)
• A friend in Michigan initiated a local study class on climate change.
Several participants wrote that it is much easier for them to
initiate a spiritual conversation about the climate than about religion.
These are the words of two participants:
Since the solution requires a spiritual foundation, ... I have found a great way/link to enhance my teaching capabilities. (20)
I have started many dialogues with non-Baha'is about viewing climate change through a spiritual perspective. (21)
Many participants feel empowered to engage in social discourse:
I feel now that I have a good beginning foundation in the hugely-complex area of global climate change, and can therefore speak out with confidence -- in informal conversations, at meetings, doing presentations or leading discussions. (22)
Participants have engaged in social discourse in various ways. Many created their own papers, talks, art projects, and power-point presentations on climate change and were planning to present them in various settings. One participant was planning to use some of his new insights in his classes as an English teacher and another one was inspired to integrate Baha'i quotes and principles in a course on ecology at a university. One participant had some of her sculptures included in two exhibitions. Another student wrote letters to members of congress about taking action on climate change and letters to the editor of the local paper.
A study group initiated the formation of the Gainesville Interfaith Climate Group. They started with monthly devotional gatherings called “Interfaith Prayers for People and Planet." These interfaith gatherings have been very successful and are continuing in 2014 on a quarterly basis.
Many participants became inspired to collaborate with other organizations such as ECO, the Citizens' Climate Lobby, the Sustainable Energy Resource Group, and especially with their state chapter of Interfaith Power and Light.
After the course last year, a participant joined the board of the New
Mexico Interfaith Power and Light. She reports:
Since then, the Santa Fe LSA joined NM IPL. They've asked me to talk about climate change ... during the consultation part at Feast. I have made presentations for Bahá'í communities in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, as well as St Bede's Episcopal in Santa Fe, where my husband is a member. …
I also represent IPL at various faith and public events. I take the opportunity to talk about how the Bahá'ís are active in climate change. (23)
Several participants created devotionals and registered them as part of the National Preach-in on Climate Change by Interfaith Power and Light.
A Passion for Service and Action
Many students shared a stronger sense of purpose and a passion for serving humankind. We will end this presentation with the words of two participants:
I feel even more powerfully the need to address climate change, now. It is the paramount problem of our time, and Bahá'í communities must start talking about it. … We cannot afford to delay this conversation and the changes that must follow it, if deeds are to be our adorning. (24)
Our voices are small, but they count and add up.
We are each as one grain of sand on a vast beach. But without each small grain you can't have a beach.
This course has raised our consciousness. Now it's up to us to take it from here - in small ways and large, right now and tomorrow and next year. (25)
(1) Tania Homayoun, Climate Change Course Feb. 2013
(2) Josette Bevirt, Climate Change Course May 2013
(3) Carolyn Alperin, Climate Change Course Feb. 2013
(4) Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, Words of Paradise, Ninth Leaf
(5) Cynthia Crampton, Climate Change Course May 2013
(6) Nancy Yavrom, Climate Change Course March 2014
(7) Dayna Klitzke, Climate Change Course March 2014
(8) Terry Edwards, Climate Change Course March 2014
(9) Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh LXI
(10) Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh CIV
(11) Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh LXI
(12) Lawrence Staudt, Climate Change Course March 2014
(13) Roland Maddela, Climate Change Course Feb. 2013
(14) Mary Hansen, Climate Change Course, March 2014
(15) Lisa Kelly, Climate Change Course May 2013
(16) Carolyn Alperin, Climate Change Course Feb. 2013
(17) Stephen Fuqua, Climate Change Course Feb. 2013
(18) Manuchehr Rahmani, Climate Change Course March 2014
(19) Sue Blithe, Gainesville, Florida
(20) Nekicia Luckett, WI Course on Sustainable Development 2011
(21) Lisa Kelly, Climate Change Course May 2013
(22) Rita Erickson, Climate Change Course March 2014
(23) Elizabeth Pawlak, Climate Change Course Feb. 2013
(24) Stephen Fuqua, Climate Change Course Feb. 2013
(25) Dwight Allen, Climate Change Course March 2014
Last updated 7 August 2014