Course on Sustainable Development - Module 3 Social Development

e-learning centre on sustainable development



Social development: Crises and Solutions

With so much attention being devoted to economic development in our present materialistic world, the human side of sustainability, its social pillar, is often neglected. Our world has become polarized between the economic and the social, the political right and left, as if we had to choose one or the other. Sustainable development tries to bring all aspects of the issue together as complementary aspects of a whole that is human development. Social sustainability requires adequate institutions of governance, participation, an efficient legal system, strong involvement of civil society, and elimination of social inequalities, particularly concerning women who are often central actors in achieving sustainability.

The greatest challenge today for our social development is globalization. The great diversity of human cultures evolved in the smaller more isolated social units of the past, but today the revolutions in transportation, information and commucations technologies have eliminated all physical barriers to the unity of the human race, causing all the forces for separation: racism, nationalism, fundamentalism and fanaticism to rise to the surface, precipitating chaos, confusion and violence. Human sustainability today requires that we root out these forces of division and acknowledge and celebrate our unity in diversity.

It is therefore logical to turn to spiritual values to provide the context and guidance for the next stage in our social development. The following principles on social sustainability can help to bring back the balance between the economic, environment and social dimensions of sustainable development.


Acceptance of the oneness of mankind is the first fundamental prerequisite for the reorganization and administration of the world as one country, the home of humankind.
(Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace, p. 13-14)

...all the members of the human family, whether peoples or governments, cities or villages, have become increasingly interdependent. For none is self-sufficiency any longer possible, inasmuch as political ties unite all peoples and nations, and the bonds of trade and industry, of agriculture and education, are being strengthened every day. Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 15, p. 32)

The bedrock of a strategy that can engage the world's population in assuming responsibility for its collective destiny must be the consciousness of the oneness of humankind. Deceptively simple in popular discourse, the concept that humanity constitutes a single people presents fundamental challenges to the way that most of the institutions of contemporary society carry out their functions. Whether in the form of the adversarial structure of civil government, the advocacy principle informing most of civil law, a glorification of the struggle between classes and other social groups, or the competitive spirit dominating so much of modern life, conflict is accepted as the mainspring of human interaction. It represents yet another expression in social organisation of the materialistic interpretation of life that has progressively consolidated itself over the past two centuries....

Laying the groundwork for global civilization calls for the creation of laws and institutions that are universal in both character and authority. The effort can begin only when the concept of the oneness of humanity has been wholeheartedly embraced by those in whose hands the responsibility for decision making rests, and when the related principles are propagated through both educational systems and the media of mass communication. Once this threshold is crossed, a process will have been set in motion through which the peoples of the world can be drawn into the task of formulating common goals and committing themselves to their attainment. Only so fundamental a reorientation can protect them, too, from the age-old demons of ethnic and religious strife. Only through the dawning consciousness that they constitute a single people will the inhabitants of the planet be enabled to turn away from the patterns of conflict that have dominated social organisation in the past and begin to learn the ways of collaboration and conciliation. "The well-being of mankind," Bahá'u'lláh writes, "its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established."
(The Prosperity of Humankind, Bahá'í International Community, Office of Public Information, Haifa)

People are what development is all about, yet too often we seem to sacrifice people for the benefit of the economic system. This results in social conflict and even terrorism. Putting our human capital back in the center of development concerns is one step toward sustainability. For the great majority of the world's people, there is more than a material reality to the human species. It is what might best be called our spiritual or ethical reality that distinguishes us from the animal kingdom. Acknowledging the importance of human consciousness and morality helps to define the place of people in sustainable development. We have a moral responsibility for sustainability, and achieving a civilization in harmony with nature and the environment has a spiritual as well as material significance.


The human body is like animals subject to nature's laws. But man is endowed with a second reality, the rational or intellectual reality; and the intellectual reality of man predominates over nature.... Yet there is a third reality in man, the spiritual reality.... That celestial reality... delivers man from the material world. Its power causes man to escape from nature's world. Escaping, he will find an illuminating reality, transcending the limited reality of man and causing him to attain to the infinitude of God, abstracting him from the world of superstitions and imaginations, and submerging him in the sea of the rays of the Sun of Reality.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 51)

[Man] should be free and emancipated from the captivity of the world of nature; for as long as man is captive to nature he is a ferocious animal, as the struggle for existence is one of the exigencies of the world of nature.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 302)

This places values, knowledge, and education at the centre of concerns for sustainability. We need both the knowledge of science and the wisdom of religion (not in any sectarian sense but as embodied in the ethical framework common to all religions) to redefine true prosperity and the purpose of development.


...concerning arts, crafts and sciences. Knowledge is as wings to man's life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth, and not those which begin with words and end with words. Great indeed is the claim of scientists and craftsmen on the peoples of the world.... In truth, knowledge is a veritable treasure for man, and a source of glory, of bounty, of joy, of exaltation, of cheer and gladness unto him.
(Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 51-52)

...the central role that knowledge plays in human life and human society: that it is the process of generating and applying knowledge that lies at the heart of civilization.... advancement, including economic, political, and social change, flows from it.
(External Affairs Strategy approved by the Universal House of Justice 1994)

Reality is one, and when truth is investigated and ascertained, it will lead to individual and collective progress. In the quest for truth, science and religion – the two systems of knowledge available to humankind – must closely and continuously interact. The insights and skills that represent scientific accomplishment must look to the force of spiritual commitment and moral principle to ensure their appropriate application.
(Bahá'í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development, 1998)

The development of a global society calls for the cultivation of capacities far beyond anything the human race has so far been able to muster. The challenges ahead will require an enormous expansion in access to knowledge on the part of individuals and organizations alike. Universal education will be an indispensable contributor to this process of capacity building, but the effort will succeed only to the extent that both individuals and groups in every sector of society are able to acquire knowledge and to apply it to the shaping of human affairs.

Education must be lifelong. It should help people to develop the knowledge, values, attitudes and skills necessary to earn a livelihood and to contribute confidently and constructively to shaping communities that reflect principles of justice, equity and unity. It should also help the individual develop a sense of place and community, grounded in the local, but embracing the whole world. Successful education will cultivate virtue as the foundation for personal and collective well-being, and will nurture in individuals a deep sense of service and an active commitment to the welfare of their families, their communities, their countries, indeed, all mankind. It will encourage self-reflection and thinking in terms of historical process, and it will promote inspirational learning through such means as music, the arts, poetry, meditation and interaction with the natural environment.
(Bahá'í International Community. Valuing Spirituality in Development, 1998)


The relationship between population, natural resources and the environment is critical to sustainability. Although the human population has more than doubled in the last half century, and is expected in the UN median projection to reach about 9 billion people, rapidly declining birth rates in many countries are producing lower growth curves, with an expected stabilization of the world population around 2050, followed by a possible decline, with an aging world population presenting a different set of challenges. Whether a growing population should be seen as positive or negative depends on other factors: the availability of resources, wealth distribution, equitable land distribution, and technology.

Along with the absolute numbers of people, their levels of consumption are critical to sustainability. Consumption rises with both population and incomes. Consumption is high in industrialized countries, with the USA requiring 55 barrels of oil per person per year when Bangladesh only uses 3 barrels/capita. One quarter of the world population consumes 75% of the energy, 79% of the fuels, 85% of wood products, and 72% of steel products. The world's major polluters produce 3/4 of municipal, industrial and nuclear wastes. Consumption also drives changes in land use. Since most suitable cropland is already in use, the transformation of land necessary to feed the next 3 billion people will be in forests, hillsides, semi-arid and coastal areas, often at the expense of natural areas and biodiversity conservation. The excessive consumption of the wealthy, driven by the needs of a materialistic economy, also has social and spiritual consequences.


Consumer culture, today's inheritor by default of materialism's gospel of human betterment, is unembarassed by the ephemeral nature of the goals that inspire it. For the small minority of people who can afford them, the benefits it offers are immediate, and the rationale unapologetic. Emboldened by the breakdown of traditional morality, the advance of the new creed is essentially no more than the triumph of animal impulse, as instinctive and blind as appetite, released at long last from the restraints of supernatural sanctions. Its most obvious casualty has been language. Tendencies once universally castigated as moral failings mutate into necessities of social progress. Selfishness becomes a prized commercial resource; falsehood reinvents itself as public information; perversions of various kinds unabashedly claim the status of civil rights. Under appropriate euphemisms, greed, lust, indolence, pride - even violence - acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value. Ironically, as words have been drained of meaning, so have the very material comforts and acquisitions for which truth has been casually sacrificed.
(Universal House of Justice, One Common Faith, p. 10)

One of the most critical challenges to the sustainability of the Western economic and industrial system is its energy consumption. The demand for fossil fuels is expected to double in the next few decades, but as the reserves diminish, the cost of energy will rise significantly. While the rich will find the money necessary, the poor will be pushed out of the market. Already subsistence firewood and other biomass provide 35% of total world energy use, drawing on diminishing forests, and developing country energy consumption is growing rapidly. There are significant environmental impacts of energy use, largely air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, methane) and oil pollution.

There are great inefficiencies in energy use. Developing countries lose 18-28% in electric distribution worth $30 billion. Sustainability requires a great increase in energy efficiency, where there is a potential for 30-60% savings, as well as internalizing the cost of environmental damage. Nuclear energy is not a sustainable solution either, with problems of economics (high subsidies, insurance risks, dismantling costs) and of nuclear waste disposal, with safe storage of high level waste required for at least 10,000 years.

Human health is another critical dimension of sustainable development that is intimately linked to the environment. Poor environmental quality is responsible for 25% of all preventable ill health, mostly among the poor, especially children, who are vulnerable to diarrhoeal diseases from polluted water and respiratory infections from indoor and urban air pollution. Poor household environments (sanitation, water, indoor air pollution, overcrowding) cause 30% of the total disease burden. 1.3 billion people lack access to clean water, and over 2 billion lack sanitation. Indoor air pollution affects 1 billion women and children. In many cities, overcrowding affects 30-60% of the population. The working environment causes an additional 3% of the global disease burden.

Wastes and pollution are the damaging consequences of our high consumption. 1.3 billion people live with air pollution above safe limits, including lead, particulates, ozone, sulphur and nitrogen (causing acid rain). Air pollution is so bad in Asia that a brown cloud has been measured extending over the Indian Ocean and significantly lowering the amount of sunlight reaching the land surface in India. Sewage is a major urban problem, causing significant eutrophication in inland waters and coastal areas. Water pollution has an important impact on water supplies, raising the cost of water purification. Other waste problems are associated with plastics, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and food contaminants, with significant health effects.

As both the human population and consumption levels have grown, human impacts have begun to reach global limits, threatening our future. One of the most significant global impacts of pollution is climate change, which recent evidence suggests is accelerating faster than even many environmental extremists predicted. While governments have adopted a wide variety of international conventions and other legislation, supported by scientific advisory processes, these are inadequately supported because of the problem of short-term costs and long-term benefits, and the lack of sanctions to apply the agreements effectively.


The civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men.... If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation.... The day is approaching when its flame will devour the cities...
(Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CLXIV, p. 342-343)

Strange and astonishing things exist in the earth but they are hidden from the minds and the understanding of men. These things are capable of changing the whole atmosphere of the earth and their contamination would prove lethal.
(Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 69)

A challenge of similar nature faces economic thinking as a result of the environmental crisis. The fallacies in theories based on the belief that there is no limit to nature's capacity to fulfil any demand made on it by human beings have now been coldly exposed. A culture which attaches absolute value to expansion, to acquisition, and to the satisfaction of people's wants is being compelled to recognise that such goals are not, by themselves, realistic guides to policy. Inadequate, too, are approaches to economic issues whose decision-making tools cannot deal with the fact that most of the major challenges are global rather than particular in scope.

The earnest hope that this moral crisis can somehow be met by deifying nature itself is an evidence of the spiritual and intellectual desperation that the crisis has engendered. Recognition that creation is an organic whole and that humanity has the responsibility to care for this whole, welcome as it is, does not represent an influence which can by itself establish in the consciousness of people a new system of values. Only a breakthrough in understanding that is scientific and spiritual in the fullest sense of the terms ill empower the human race to assume the trusteeship toward which history impels it.
(The Prosperity of Humankind, Bahá'í International Community, Office of Public Information, Haifa)

However, until material achievements, physical accomplishments and human virtues are reinforced by spiritual perfections, luminous qualities and characteristics of mercy, no fruit or result shall issue therefrom, nor will the happiness of the world of humanity, which is the ultimate aim, be attained.  For although, on the one hand, material achievements and the development of the physical world produce prosperity, which exquisitely manifests its intended aims, on the other hand dangers, severe calamities and violent afflictions are imminent.... Progress and barbarism go hand in hand, unless material civilization be confirmed by Divine Guidance... and be reinforced by spiritual conduct...
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 225, p. 283-284)


What do world social crises have to do with sustainability?

Can terrorism be considered a symptom of unsustainability?

What are some of the principles of social organization that can guide society to a more sustainable course?

Why is it important to consider the spiritual dimension in social development?


Community Sustainability Assessment, section on Social Indicators: (

Dahl, Arthur Lyon (1996). The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis. Zed Books Ltd, London; George Ronald, Oxford. 180 p.
A systems perspective of our economy and environment and their implications for future society, helpful in understanding the complexity of sustainable development.

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Last updated 10 April 2006