A Baha'i Perspective on the Environment and Sustainable Development

Submitted by admin on 30. May 2011 - 23:06
Richards, Michael


Michael Richards
Overseas Development Institute, London

Paper presented at the inaugural Conference of the International Environment Forum
de Poort, Netherlands, 24-26 October 1997

[This paper is as presented at the Conference, and has not been subject to editorial review by the IEF]


This paper aims to define the main spiritual principles at the root of the causes and potential solutions of the environmental and sustainable development crisis facing humanity. Five main interrelated principles or themes are highlighted here:

1. Unity and interdependence (from which all the other principles stem)
2. Economic and social justice (the equity dimension).
3. Education (especially spiritual education).
4. The integration of scientific and spiritual viewpoints.
5. New structures and systems of governance (allied to new models of consultation and the concept of 'world citizenship').

It is argued that spiritual education and a spiritual perspective must be developed to overcome the paralysis of will facing humanity, to develop a more holistic analytical basis for decision making, to develop a global ethic for sustainable development, for the evolution of society towards more democratic and effective systems of global and local governance, and above all to counteract and reverse the materialistic value system at the heart of the problems. The 'missing link' in the environment and development debate has therefore been the spiritual dimension.


'Even as the human body in this world, which is outwardly composed of different limbs and organs, is in reality a closed integrated, coherent identity, similarly the structure of the physical world is like unto a single being whose limbs and members are inseparably linked together.' The environment performs a number of biological, economic and social functions. Firstly it provides life-sustaining biological services (eg climate stability, water regulation, soil conservation, etc.); secondly it provides the raw materials for economic development (fossil fuels, minerals, timber, etc.); thirdly it acts as a sink or dumping ground for the waste (often toxic) of the economic system; and fourthly it supports human (and animal) habitats, cultures and livelihoods. The problem is that the more it contributes to the two economic functions (raw material inputs and waste absorption), the more the biological and social functions suffer. The interdependence of the environment, society and the global economy becomes immediately clear. Economic development has occurred primarily through running down the environment - in particular the stock of renewable and non-renewable natural resources.

Our national accounting systems purposefully disguise this depreciation in our 'natural capital'; whereas depreciation of man-made capital appears as a cost in the national income accounts, exploitation of natural resources appears as a positive entry in the form of increased economic activity, eg increased timber processing and exports, or increased fish extraction. Global warming, the thinning of the ozone layer, ground, water and air pollution, and the loss of forests and wetlands are all very serious consequences of the economic growth process as experienced, at an accelerating pace, over the last century.

These problems are made worse by what economists call market failure. Since there are no markets for environmental services, unless governments intervene there is no mechanism for people to pay the social costs of profitable private actions - like soil erosion and flooding caused by deforestation, or pollution from industrial processes - just as there is no means of remunerating the social benefits which arise from private actions, eg sustainable forest management by rubber-tappers in the Amazon Basin. Market forces therefore do not favour sustainable natural resource management - the sine qua non of sustainable development. Rather they reward the opposite - the mining of natural resources. We return to this theme later in the paper. The Bahá'í understanding of the threat posed to the future of humanity by environmental degradation is not unlike that of the influential 'GAIA hypothesis' - that the world is a single organic unity. The Bahá'í writings therefore liken the environment to the human body, as in the opening quotation.


This picture is made infinitely more complicated, and the interdependencies further heightened, when we introduce the issue of equity. The growth process has been accompanied by an increasing division of wealth due to a host of historical factors such as the technological, educational and military dominance of some countries over others, the inequities in the system of international trade, lack of redistributive land reform, and many others. About a quarter of the world's population live in 'absolute poverty'. This process is still continuing, and may still be accelerating: a United Nations study found that in 1990 the top 20% of the world's population earned 150 times more than the bottom 20%, whereas in 1960 the richest quintile was 'only' thirty times better off. This situation is exacerbated by the net capital outflow from developing to industrialized countries - for example, in 1993 the former paid some £170 billion in interest payments on their national debt, while receiving only about £50 billion in financial aid. Apart from the moral unacceptability of this situation, extremes of wealth also increase environmental degradation. At the poverty end of the spectrum, many countries are forced to mine their natural resources to pay the interest on their debt, and landless people cut down forests to grow subsistence food crops; at the richer end, over-consumption of energy and material goods directly contributes to environmental decline, for example through global warming and excess demand on the world's natural resources. Bahá'u'lláh, Prophet Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, warned humanity over 100 years ago of the dangers of over-consumption: 'if carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it has been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation'. These problems are further compounded by an annual population increase of 80-100 million people a year. Yet another example of the interdependence of the problem is the link between population growth and equity - economic historians have shown that population growth declines only when living standards rise.

The interdependent and politically highly charged relationship between growth, the environment and poverty is what led to the clash between poorer and richer country viewpoints at the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The poorer nations argued that only when their economic problems and poverty are seriously tackled can environmental decline be reversed, while the richer nations preferred to focus on the biological issues - thereby dodging the need to consider a fundamental restructuring of the world economic order, and the economic sacrifices implied. Indeed any such move has always been blocked in the past by powerful national vested interest groups.

Although Rio was a historic meeting of heads of state, it was disappointing in its impact on the problems - it resulted only in a few non-binding international agreements, and some new commitments to fund projects with environmental benefits (for example, the Global Environment Facility). Among the criticisms were that indigenous peoples were hardly represented. The main positive product of Rio was Agenda 21 - a blueprint for sustainable development in the twenty-first century which correctly diagnosed many of the interdependencies between the environment, society and economy discussed above.


'Man is the supreme talisman. Lack of proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess ..... regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can alone cause it to reveal its treasures.'

It is clear that a materialistic and ego-centred value system underpins all the above-mentioned problems. Materialistic values provide the essential fuel for high rates of economic growth (industrial economic growth rates in Western Europe are currently a very unsustainable 8-10% per annum) . The basic economic problem is demand not supply. Therefore we are bombarded by the media with messages to consume. It hardly seems necessary to point out that for genuine and effective action to tackle the problems of poverty and over-consumption, a major change in the value system is essential. Box 1 provides a case study of the way that ethical or value problems are contributing to one specific aspect of environmental degradation - tropical deforestation.


Analysis of the underlying causes of deforestation makes it clear that unsound ethics are bad for the environment. Firstly, market failure raises the question of WHO should be paying the costs of deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation. Currently society pays in terms of a reduced level of human welfare - for example people affected by periodic flooding due to upstream deforestation. Similarly, the consumers of environmental services do not pay the producers (eg, the rubber tappers of Amazonia) as there is no market mechanism for them to do so. Market failure also explains the problem of what economists call 'cross-border externalities': this is where a country, or several countries, lose out as a result of environmentally damaging activities in another country. For example, soil erosion from deforestation in one country often causes the build up of sedimentation, damaging wetland (and sometimes coral) ecosystems, and causing the loss of fishing benefits in downstream countries (an example of this is from West Africa where upstream deforestation in Cameroon results in downstream costs to Nigeria). An even more obvious example of this is acid rain. Ethically unsound policies invariably contribute to policy failure (which is both the failure of governments to intervene in the market to correct for market failure, and the pursuit of policies, like subsidising agro-chemical inputs, which provide disincentives for sustainable management) and thereby increase environmental degradation. For example, the inequitable distribution of land in Latin America and elsewhere, and failure to ratify and defend the constitutional rights of indigenous nations, are clear ethical and policy failure areas. Failure to tackle the extremes of poverty and wealth, or pursuance of policies that accentuate them, as has tended to be the case with structural adjustment programmes, is another issue. Inequitable policies have forced the urban and rural poor into forested and hilly areas in search for land for subsistence farming and woodfuel for cooking. In turn, deterioration of the forest resource has a negative effect on rural livelihoods, with women, children and indigenous people generally suffering most. Many of these problems are linked to injustices in the current world economic order - for example in the system of international trade. The erosion of indigenous societies by economic globalisation, and the intellectual property rights of forest dwellers are other ethically highly charged issues. A related problem is the distribution of the costs and benefits of forest conservation between the local, national and international levels. The benefits of forest conservation are usually lowest for local people, higher at the national level and highest at the global level, whereas the costs of protection or management are usually highest for local people (including the foregone benefits of not being allowed to exploit the forest), and lowest at the national and international levels. Again the question is raised of WHO should pay. Human ethics or values on another level also contribute importantly to deforestation. The tropical timber industry is riddled with problems of corruption and political patronage as loggers and politicians join forces against the real resource owners (the general public) - as well as more straightforward dishonesty in the public sector. Many tropical nations like Brazil and Papua New Guinea have adequate forest management regulations, but these are rarely implemented due to a lack of will or resources, and thus are not respected by loggers - in many tropical countries, over half the timber is extracted illegally. This depresses local and international timber prices, contributing to excess demand on the forest resource (when something is cheap, people demand more of it!). Just as ethical problems are behind environmental degradation, ethically-based policy solutions can be devised to rectify the situation. In fact it can be argued that the policy solutions to most of the problems pointed out in Box 1 are self-evident. There is, for example, an obvious role for governments to use taxes and subsidies to reduce the difference between private and social profitability, ie taxing the people causing the environmental costs (eg. a carbon tax on private car use). This is what environmental economists call 'true cost pricing' or 'the polluter pays principle'. This would result in environmentally harmful products being more expensive (due to the tax) than 'greener' products on the market place, and the latter would gradually replace the former. In other words the 'green' market would take over.

Governments should also stop subsidising unsustainable land uses, sanction and defend the property rights of indigenous and other forest communities, redistribute appropriate farming land to the landless, enforce forest management regulations, and make efforts to tackle the poverty problem. However, many of these actions require financial resources beyond most poorer countries, and national level actions, on their own, would have a limited impact. Just as the causes and effects of deforestation clearly transcend national boundaries, any proposed solutions must do so too. Thus international transfer payments are urgently needed from consumer (of environmental services) countries to producer countries and groups, as argued at Rio in 1992. Sadly, most donors have cut back on foreign aid since then. Another idea being promoted by environmental economists is for the development of a system of carbon offset payments - industries and countries with carbon deficits would finance reforestation projects which 'recapture' the lost carbon.

If the solutions to the problems of deforestation are self-evident, why have they not been implemented? A major cause has been the inertia in contemporary society. This brings us back to the problem of values and the importance of spiritual education. The Bahá'í Peace Statement sent to world leaders in 1985 described this as a 'paralysis of will' rooted in a 'deep-seated conviction of the inevitable quarrelsomeness of mankind'. In other words people are inherently selfish or egotistical, and therefore as a society we are incapable of developing the altruism and other qualities necessary to overcome the problems.

However a spiritual viewpoint would challenge such a viewpoint, and provide the key to overcoming the paralysis of will. It can be argued that the pessimistic view of human nature, which is at the root of the problem, is fundamentally mistaken. Evidence from many indigenous societies shows that it is possible to develop community-orientated values and behaviour. For example, in some Amerindian groups it is regarded as anti-social to accumulate wealth - the pressure is therefore to give it away. Values are therefore principally a product of education and culture. One of the eternal truths of divine revelation is that all human beings have a latent or potential spiritual capacity. To awaken this capacity is the real (divine) purpose of all religions. The Bahá'í Peace Statement goes on to point out that 'there are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are not usually enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitates the discovery and implementation of practical measures.' A similar point is made by the historian Arnold Toynbee who said that 'apathy can only be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: first by an ideal which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.'

Even an institution like the World Bank admits the need for 'spiritual' values. In the Proceedings of the First Annual International Conference on Environmentally Sustainable Development, the conclusion was that 'finally, changing hearts and minds is as important as changing policies. Indeed it is only through a much deeper appreciation of the urgency of the needs of today's poor and the potential threats facing the citizens of tomorrow that the required policy changes will be formulated, sustained and enforced. Economic values can help direct the needed change in course, but ethical and moral values must provide the motivation.' (However secular analysis stops short of being able to explain how such a change could be achieved).

The education of women and girls has a particularly important role to play. The Bahá'í writings state clearly that if family income is limited, priority should go to the education of girls as the primary educators of the next generation. Among others there are important Bahá'i projects in Guatemala and India focusing on the education of indigenous or tribal girls or young women. There are also a number of Bahá'í projects around the world attempting to promote integrated (spiritual/material) education programmes, among them a programme of non-formal rural education being developed in several Latin American countries, following some 25 years of experimentation and consolidation in Colombia.


Any balanced analysis of the problems facing the environment and sustainable development will reflect a bewildering complex of biological, economic, social, political, ethical, spiritual and psychological problems. At present these problems are being assessed mainly from the 'scientific' or 'western rational' viewpoint. It is clearly essential to understand the physical and socio-economic relationships involved. But many aspects of the problem, like prejudice in all its various forms and corruption, relate more to the human psyche; materialistic analysis does not really touch these. A partial analysis of the problem can only lead to a partial solution. Unfortunately, environmental and development problems are currently being mainly analysed from a narrow, reductionist, and 'western' perspective, and decisions made on this basis. This is what Denis Goulet refers to as the 'one-eyed giant' problem - he argues that most development 'specialists' derive their concepts from European ideologies of social change and the cognitive systems which grew out of the industrial revolution. Thus development strategies emphasise the pursuit of material well-being, and appear to ignore, or even deny, non-material influences and needs - as if 'man lives by bread alone'. This also stems from the unfortunate polarisation of science and religion, due partly to an understandable prejudice against institutionalised religion (which has often confused spiritual with material and political objectives), and which threatens to 'throw the baby (a spiritual perspective) out with the bathwater'.

It is argued here that the fundamental problem is one of human motivation and values. Introduction of the spiritual dimension not only enables us to adopt a more holistic analysis of the problems, but also introduces a complementary subjective and intuitive element into the equation. For example we are now able to observe (through science) the perfect harmony and interdependence of complex eco-systems. For someone with spiritual beliefs, an intuitive conclusion might be that the unity we observe in the environment reflects a spiritual principle or law. Or in other words our (temporal) material reality reflects an eternal spiritual reality. When a spiritual law is broken the consequences are likely to be severe. It is clear that many indigenous groups, who are often the real super-ecologists, have always realised this. There is an interesting parallel between the widespread Amerindian belief in indwelling spirits in plants and animals, which acts as a vital check on their extractive practices, and Bahá'u'lláh's statement that 'upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing He hath shed the light of one of His names, and made it a recipient of the Glory of one of His attributes.'

But in practice the spiritual dimension has been almost systematically excluded from the development and environment debate; this also reflects the very limited levels of consultation and genuine participation of the 'beneficiaries' of development. As a result the necessary human energy and enthusiasm has not been harnessed. A statement by the Bahá'í International Community comments that 'for the vast majority of the world's population, the idea that human nature has a spiritual dimension - indeed that its fundamental identity is spiritual - is a truth requiring no demonstration .....Why then have spiritual issues facing humanity not been central to the development discourse? Why have most of the priorities - indeed most of the underlying assumptions - of the international development agenda been determined so far by materialistic world views to which only small minorities of the earth's population subscribe? How much weight can be placed on a professed devotion to the principle of universal participation that denies the validity of the participants' defining cultural experience ...... ignoring the deepest roots of human motivation is a self-evident delusion.' More recently this rhetoric seems to have been picked up in the secular world. Remarkably, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada now has a research programme to try and answer the question Why have the most fundamental questions of human life - the spiritual, religious, ethical and cultural - been so systematically ignored (if not undermined) by the conventional development models imposed by the North or the South.


Any student of development will these days confirm that the grass-roots institutional basis, as well as supportive institutions at other levels, is critical for a sustainable development process. There is even a growing branch of economics, called institutional economics, devoted more or less to this theme. It is also widely recognised that countries acting on their own are incapable of solving environmental and economic problems which transcend national boundaries, like global warming, acid rain and the thinning of the ozone layer. Thus the need for global partnership and cooperation features strongly in Agenda 21.

A Bahá'í viewpoint is that an unbridled nationalism in which each country pursues an aggressive economic policy to secure as much as it can of the world's limited (economic) cake only succeeds in weakening the stability of the overall system upon which the welfare of each country ultimately depends (a problem of the apparent rationality of the parts, but irrationality of the whole). One consequence of this is the fragility of the world's financial system in the face of a combined third world debt of over £1,000 billion. In response to the problems of nationalism, the Bahá'í writings point out the need to take certain areas of control beyond the nation state - for example, a global legislature and judiciary body to deal with conflicts arising from economic, social and environmental abuses.

The Bahá'í community also offers society a new model of governance based on democratically elected institutions at the local, national and global levels and in which political propaganda and other divisive aspects of the party political system play no part. Power is not vested in individuals in the Bahá'í system. Allied to the need for new systems of governance is the necessity for a new approach to consultation that moves away from the adversarial model. True consultation can only take place when individuals become emotionally detached from their ideas, and is essential for the effective functioning of the Bahá'í (or any other) model of governance. Bahá'u'lláh described true consultation as 'the maturity of the gift of understanding'.

Agenda 21 correctly identified the need for global cooperation, but does not really say how this will come about. This is why the Bahá'í community's response to Agenda 21 has been a campaign for 'World Citizenship' as a global ethic for sustainable development. Bahá'ís believe that only when personal commitment broadens from family, ethnic and national concerns to a wider loyalty to the whole human race, will it be possible to effectively apply the principles of sustainable development contained in Agenda 21: 'world order can be founded only on an unshakeable consciousness of the oneness of mankind, a spiritual truth which all the human sciences confirm'. Many prominent thinkers also now realise this, as for example Dharam Ghai, Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development: 'the time has come to give formal recognition and substance to the concept of world citizenship.' Bahá'ís believe that the scientific principle of the oneness of mankind should be taught in schools and proclaimed at every possible level if we are serious about tackling the underlying problems.


For the Bahá'í, the problems of the environment, like the other problems besetting humanity, are a reflection of the 'world encompassing sickness of the human spirit'. Since the main problems are interdependent, involving the interplay of spiritual and material factors, it follows that the solutions are also interconnected, and must centre around a spiritual perspective (an attempt to summarise the main interconnected problems and solutions is attempted in Box 2).

Thus the best analogies for the environment are the human body and the family. Love is the essential force that maintains the unity of the family. The view of Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of Bahá'u'lláh, was that 'in the hearts of men no real love is found and the condition is such that unless their susceptibilities are quickened by some power so that unity, love and accord may develop within them, there can be no healing, no agreement among mankind.' Abdu'l-Bahá further points out the need 'to consider the welfare of the community as one's own ..... to regard humanity as a single individual, and one's own self as a member of that corporeal form, and to know of a certainty that if pain or injury affects any member of that body, it must inevitably result in suffering for all the rest.' Although such statements may sound idealistic, anyone who looks for solutions to the problems of the environment and sustainable development without such profound changes is under a far greater delusion.



Materialistic, partial and reductionist analysis/decision-making basis in development Nationalistic policies, control and allegiances Paralysis of will (pessimistic view of human nature) Unsustainable development is driven by the ethics of the prevailing 'free market' economic system - individual welfare/materialism/ nationalism (encouraged by the media and education)


Holistic and consultative analysis and decision making, including world view of 'beneficiaries' Global/multilateral policies, controls and allegiances Recognise and utilise the creative energies of the human spirit to find and implement solutions Sustainable development requires the guiding ethic of WORLD CITIZENSHIP based on the oneness of humanity (use of media and education)

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