Course on Sustainable Development - Module 4 Environmental Challenge

e-learning centre on sustainable development



The Environmental Challenge and Ethical Approaches

This planet is our home, and we have to learn to live within its limits. At smaller geographic scales we have usually been able to escape our environmental mismanagement by exporting our pollution or importing additional resources, but at the planetary level that is no longer possible. Therefore we have to understand how the planetary system works and the operating principles of the biosphere in what is called a systems-ecology approach. We also need to learn to relate the global and local scales, and understand how to turn global thinking into local action.

The planet Earth is orbiting in empty space, with the only significant input the energy from the sun. There are thus absolute limits to our material development and resources at the planetary level, and, as the previous module has shown, with rising population and consumption we are rapidly reaching those limits. It is thus essential for sustainability to understand what are the environmental limits on development at global, regional, national, and local scales. It is not possible to say how many people the Earth can support. The planet's carrying capacity is determined by our population size and density and by our life style and culture. We could fit many more people living like Indian villagers than like American suburbanites. Many environmental issues are important in determining the limits on development, such as the quantities of nonrenewable and renewable resources; our ability to create our own human environment; the impacts of technologies, both in increasing the resources and capacities available to us and in acccelerating the damage to planetary life support systems; and our accumulation of wastes relative to the environment's pollution absorptive capacity.

There are many spiritual principles to help us address these environmental problems. It is for us to consider how to apply them in our own daily life and life-style choices and in our communities.


Bahá'í Scriptures describe nature as a reflection of the sacred. They teach that nature should be valued and respected, but not worshipped; rather, it should serve humanity's efforts to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. However, in light of the interdependence of all parts of nature, and the importance of evolution and diversity "to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole," every effort should be made to preserve as much as possible the earth's bio-diversity and natural order.

As trustees, or stewards, of the planet's vast resources and biological diversity, humanity must learn to make use of the earth's natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable, in a manner that ensures sustainability and equity into the distant reaches of time. This attitude of stewardship will require full consideration of the potential environmental consequences of all development activities. It will compel humanity to temper its actions with moderation and humility, realizing that the true value of nature cannot be expressed in economic terms. It will also require a deep understanding of the natural world and its role in humanity's collective development -- both material and spiritual. Therefore, sustainable environmental management must come to be seen not as a discretionary commitment mankind can weigh against other competing interests, but rather as a fundamental responsibility that must be shouldered -- a pre-requisite for spiritual development as well as the individual's physical survival.
(Bahá'í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development,1998)


Environmentalsustainability has an ecological basis. From the beginning of life on earth, living organisms have modified the environment to improve the systems that make life possible, for instance by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and adding oxygen. It is increasingly recognized, as proposed in the Gaia Hypothesis, that the biosphere has evolved to form self-organizing systems, in which ecosystems provide many essential functions including capturing solar energy to produce organic matter, maintaining the atmosphere, purifying water, and recycling wastes and other materials.


This nature is subjected to an absolute organization, to determined laws, to a complete order and to a finished design, from which it will never depart - to such a degree, indeed, that if you look carefully and with keen sight, from the smallest invisible atom up to such large bodies of the world of existence as the globe of the sun or the other great stars and luminous spheres, whether you regard their arrangement, their composition, their form or their movement, you will find that all are in the highest degree of organization and are under one law from which they will never depart.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, Chpt. I, p. 3)

In surveying the vast range of creation thou shalt perceive that the higher a kingdom of created things is on the arc of ascent, the more conspicuous are the signs and evidences of the truth that co-operation and reciprocity at the level of a higher order are greater than those that exist at the level of a lower order. For example the evident signs of this fundamental reality are more discernible in the vegetable kingdom than in the mineral, and still more manifest in the animal world than in the vegetable.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, extract from an untranslated tablet)

Consider for instance how one group of created things constituteth the vegetable kingdom, and another the animal kingdom. Each of these two maketh use of certain elements in the air on which its own life dependeth, while each increaseth the quantity of such elements as are essential for the life of the other. In other words, the growth and development of the vegetable world is impossible without the existence of the animal kingdom, and the maintenance of animal life is inconceivable without the co-operation of the vegetable kingdom. Of like kind are the relationships that exist among all created things. Hence it was stated that co-operation and reciprocity are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the world of existence, and without which the entire creation would be reduced to nothingness.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, in Compilation on Social and Economic Development, p. 12)

In the physical realm of creation, all things are eaters and eaten: the plant drinketh in the mineral, the animal doth crop and swallow down the plant, man doth feed upon the animal, and the mineral devoureth the body of man. Physical bodies are transferred past one barrier after another, from one life to another, and all things are subject to transformation and change, save only the essence of existence itself - since it is constant and immutable, and upon it is founded the life of every species and kind, of every contingent reality throughout the whole of creation.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 157)

In the same way the growth and development of all beings is gradual; this is the universal divine organization, and the natural system.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, Chpt. LI, p. 231)

All these endless beings which inhabit the world, whether man, animal, vegetable, mineral - whatever they may be - are surely, each one of them, composed of elements. There is no doubt that this perfection which is in all beings, is caused by the creation of God from the composing elements, by their appropriate mingling and proportionate quantities, the mode of their composition, and the influence of other beings. For all beings are connected together like a chain, and reciprocal help, assistance, and influence belonging to the properties of things, are the causes of the existence, development and growth of created beings.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, Chpt. XLVI, p. 207)

Ecosystems have evolved just like species in a continuous adaptive process. The flow of energy through ecosystems supports their organization and increasing complexity, creating nested systems within systems with their own processes and characteristics which are more than their component parts. This is the origin of the enormous biological diversity of this planet, with millions of species each with its role and function. In nature, everything is interrelated, and effects on or damage to an ecosystem can have widespread repercussions, often in unpredictable ways. Ecosystems also vary greatly in their vulnerability to human impacts and their resilience or ability to re-establish essential processes and functions after damage.

If we look with a perceiving eye upon the world of creation, we find that all existing things may be classified as follows: First - Mineral - that is to say matter or substance appearing in various forms of composition. Second - Vegetable - possessing the virtues of the mineral plus the power of augmentation or growth, indicating a degree higher and more specialized than the mineral. Third - Animal - possessing the attributes of the mineral and vegetable plus the power of sense perception. Fourth - Human - the highest specialized organism of visible creation, embodying the qualities of the mineral, vegetable and animal plus an ideal endowment absolutely minus and absent in the lower kingdoms - the power of intellectual investigation into the mysteries of outer phenomena. The outcome of this intellectual endowment is science which is especially characteristic of man. This scientific power investigates and apprehends created objects and the laws surrounding them. It is the discoverer of the hidden and mysterious secrets of the material universe and is peculiar to man alone. The most noble and praiseworthy accomplishment of man therefore is scientific knowledge and attainment.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, in Bahá'í World Faith, p. 242)


Consider the world of created beings, how varied and diverse they are in species, yet with one sole origin. All the differences that appear are those of outward form and colour. This diversity of type is apparent throughout the whole of nature.... Let us look... at the beauty in diversity, the beauty of harmony, and learn a lesson from the vegetable creation. If you behold a garden in which all the plants were the same as to form, colour and perfume, it would not seem beautiful to you at all, but, rather, monotonous and dull. The garden which is pleasing to the eye and which makes the heart glad, is the garden in which are growing side by side flowers of every hue, form and perfume, and the joyous contrast of colour is what makes for charm and beauty. So is it with trees. An orchard full of fruit trees is a delight; so is a plantation planted with many species of shrubs. It is just the diversity and variety that constitutes its charm; each flower, each tree, each fruit, beside being beautiful in itself, brings out by contrast the qualities of the others, and shows to advantage the special loveliness of each and all.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 51-53)

Much of our success in development has come from understanding ecological processes and adapting or domesticating them for our benefit, for example with agriculture. But to be sustainable, this must be done while respecting the ecological balance of the planet and the natural richness and biodiversity which is our biological heritage and natural capital. This ecological understanding has important policy implications, especially with respect to balancing economic, ecological and social factors in sustainable development. As we exhaust the non-renewable resources of the planet, it becomes increasingly evident that future civilizations will have to be based primarily on renewable resources including agricultural resources.

In addition to the problem of how to ensure peace, and all the implications of such a step, it is clear that the economic and social development of all countries is of vital importance.... In this area, agriculture and the preservation of the ecological balance of the world are of fundamental interest....
(Universal House of Justice, 31 March 1985 to an Association for Bahá'í Studies)


The fundamental basis of the community is agriculture, tillage of the soil.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 37)

The state of the environment today is not good. There have been some improvements over the last 30 years, but the general trends are still negative. Our land resources are threatened by agricultural malpractices, land degradation, desertification and soil pollution, putting at risk our future food security. The loss of forests continues through logging and land clearing for agriculture, and the degrading effects of air pollution and acid rain, threatening their important roles as carbon sinks and in soil restoration and water management. The planet's biodiversity is also treatened by a mass extinction caused by human impacts, creating great challenges for nature conservation. Our fresh water resources are shrinking through over-exploitation and pollution, placing an increasing proportion of the world population at risk from water scarcity. Much of our food production depends on irrigation from non-renewable groundwater reserves or is vulnerable to salinization. Coastal and marine areas are subject to sewage pollution, over-fishing, and physical alteration to coasts.

The atmosphere suffers from air pollution, acid precipitation, climate change, depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, and extensive transboundary transport of pollutants such in the Asian brown cloud. About half the world population now lives in urban areas, which have seen a rapid uncontrolled growth in developing countries with great problems of sanitation, pollution and environmental health. While extreme natural events have always occurred, the growing population is more subject to natural disasters. Climate change is causing an increase in weather-caused disasters, with the poor the most vulnerable, and little effort yet to adapt to threats such as rising sea levels and increasing intensity of storms, floods and droughts.


For an overview of the state of the world environment, there is a good summary in: United Nations Environment Programme (2002), Global Environment Outlook 3, ch. 2, at:

Addressing these environmental challenges to sustainability requires fundamental changes in our attitude toward nature. The economists' definition of nature only as free resources to be exploited for profit must give way to an understanding of our dependence on nature for our well-being and survival, based on a combination of scientific and spiritual perspectives. The natural world is not only significant as our physical environment essential for our survival, it also plays an important role in our spiritual development. For many of the world's peoples, there is no separation between them and nature. All are part of an interrelated whole, and those relationships are as much emotional and spiritual as rational and physical. These spiritual ties reinforce an individual's appreciation of and respect for nature.



Nature is God's Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.
(Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 142)

When... thou dost contemplate the innermost essence of all things, and the individuality of each, thou wilt behold the signs of thy Lord's mercy in every created thing, and see the spreading rays of His Names and Attributes throughout all the realm of being.... Then wilt thou observe that the universe is a scroll that discloseth His hidden secrets, which are preserved in the well-guarded Tablet. And not an atom of all the atoms in existence, not a creature from amongst the creatures but speaketh His praise and telleth of His attributes and names, revealeth the glory of His might and guideth to His oneness and His mercy....

And whensoever thou dost gaze upon creation all entire, and dost observe the very atoms thereof, thou wilt note that the rays of the Sun of Truth are shed upon all things and shining within them, and telling of that Day-Star's splendours, Its mysteries, and the spreading of Its lights. Look thou upon the trees, upon the blossoms and fruits, even upon the stones. Here too wilt thou behold the Sun's rays shed upon them, clearly visible within them, and manifested by them.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 41-42)

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.
(Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 17 February 1933, Compilation on Social and Economic Development, p. 4)

The country is the world of the soul, the city is the world of bodies.
(Bahá'u'lláh, in J. E. Esslemont, Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era. Chpt. 3, p. 35)

Briefly, it is not only their fellow human beings that the beloved of God must treat with mercy and compassion, rather must they show forth the utmost loving-kindness to every living creature.... The feelings are one and the same, whether ye inflict pain on man or on beast.

Train your children from their earliest days to be infinitely tender and loving to animals. If an animal be sick, let the children try to heal it, if it be hungry, let them feed it, if thirsty, let them quench its thirst, if weary, let them see that it rests.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 158-159)


Why are environmental problems relevant to development?

What do environmental systems teach us about sustainability?

What do planetary environmental limits mean for sustainable development?

What do spiritual principles tell us about our responsibility for the environment?

What are the implications of environmental vulnerability for our local resource use and waste management?


Compilation from the Baha'i writings:
Conservation of the Earth's Resources

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Last updated 10 April 2006