Course on Sustainable Development - Module 5 Future Perspectives

e-learning centre on sustainable development



Future Perspectives on the Prosperity of Humankind

Sustainability requires the integration of all the dimensions of development in one systems framework. One way to learn systems thinking is to imagine what the future will, or should, be like. While we cannot predict the future, we can have a vision of the future that we should like to have, and, more scientifically, we can imagine or model various alternative futures by making some assumptions and then using systems thinking and computer modeling to project their consequences to various times in the future. These projections are called scenarios, and they address the significant but unknowable future, perhaps 50 years ahead, with plausible and pertinent alternative stories. One well-known set of scenarios, most recently described in the book Which World? proposes three alternatives:

The Market World sees business as usual continuing into the future with little change. Economic and human progress are driven by free markets and human initiative, but after a few decades the world is faced by serious environmental and social instabilities.

In the Fortress World, industrialized countries give up on the developing world and close themselves behind their borders. The unattended social and economic problems in the rest of the world produce rising conflict and violence, which eventually affect the entire planet. This is a negative but plausible projection of some current political trends.

In the Transformed World, with some optimistic assumptions, sustainable development is shown to be technically possible. Human ingenuity and compassion can offer a better life to all humanity if we accept fundamental changes in society.

Another set of scenarios from the United Nations Environment Programme compares what happens when priority is given either to economic markets, government policy, security or sustainability.

The scenarios are:
- Markets First (p. 329) - a free market approach
- Policy First (p. 334) - favoring state intervention and regulation
- Security First (p. 339) - giving priority to security
- Sustainability First (p. 344) - reorienting society towards sustainable development


United Nations Environment Programme (2002), Global Environment Outlook 3, ch. 4: Outlook 2002-2032 (pp. 320-357 especially the scenarios), and Lessons for the future (pp. 394-397)

Another set of scenarios based on computer-systems models of the whole world system and described in the book by Meadows et al p(1992), Beyond the Limits, demonstrate how unsustainable our present world system is. Almost all the options show our economy pushing beyond the limits the planet can support and collapsing. However, by implementing the radical changes necessary to move to a more sustainable path by 1995 (shortly after the book was published), it would have been possible to stabilize civilization at a relatively high standard of living. However, waiting until 2015 to start applying sustainability would inevitably result in overshoot, a serious decline in the economy and population, and then recovery, but at a lower standard of living because of the destruction of more of the planet's resources. The conclusions the modelers draw for a sustainable society are enlightening:

*Selected readings: Meadows, Donella et al (1992), Beyond the Limits:
Conclusions for a sustainable society (p. 206-208)
Guidelines for a sustainable society (p. 214)
Challenges: poverty, unemployment, unmet nonmaterial needs (p. 215-216)
Vision (p. 225-226), Keynes quote (p. 233)

Western materialistic civilization is rapidly exhausting many resources like fossil fuels on which its prosperity is based. The scenarios show that this cannot continue and that fundamental changes are needed. One requirement is to shift more towards renewable resources like agriculture as the basis of civilization. The institutions of society also need to change to become more socially and politically sustainable. The scenarios define clearly the challenges facing society, but not the solutions. They can indicate where we want to go, but not how to get there. This requires motivation, political will and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good.

Given the failure of material solutions, what are the alternatives that can come from a consideration of spiritual principles? The following texts present a broad and coherent alternative vision of the future and how to get there.

Read: Dahl (1996), The Eco Principle, ch. 9,Visions of an eco-civilization (pp. 157-179)
This reading provides a hopeful vision of the prospects for sustainable development, showing that new information technologies combined with spiritual values will make a new, more organic, knowledge-based society possible.

Part of the challenge of sustainable development is to redefine the goals of development and the concept of prosperity in a way more broadly acceptable to all of humanity.

Read: Bahá'í International Community, The Prosperity of Humankind (14 pp.)
This statement is so rich in creative thinking about development that it is worth reading several times. It reexamines the attitudes and assumptions in current approaches to social and economic development and provides a new wider vision of human prosperity. Part I emphasizes that a strategy for global development must be based on the oneness of humankind, requiring a transformation of both human consciousness and the structure of social institutions. Part II reviews the essential principles of justice, human rights, and cultural diversity. Part III calls for a fundamental redefinition of human relationships and institutions, in which the principle of consultation becomes the operating expression of justice in human affairs. Part IV shows that development requires access to knowledge, combining the two basic knowledge systems of science and religion. Knowledge empowers universal participation in development, founded in spiritual commitment and moral principle, with service to human kind as the purpose of both individual life and social organization. Part V describes the economic issues that face humanity, including poverty, unemployment, work, the environment, and participation of women. It shows the necessity for new economic models to achieve the real purpose of development: laying foundations for a new social order that can cultivate the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness. Part VI addresses issues of power and authority in the political realm and the way in which they are expressed in institutions of governance. Part VII concludes with an appeal to all humanity to look beyond the present turmoil in society and recognize that we are at a turning point in social evolution that will make this vision of human prosperity a reality.


All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.
(Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CIX, p. 215)

The unity of the human race, as envisaged by Bahá'u'lláh, implies the establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded. This commonwealth must, as far as we can visualize it, consist of a world legislature, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations, and will enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs and adjust the relationships of all races and peoples. A world executive, backed by an international Force, will carry out the decisions arrived at, and apply the laws enacted by, this world legislature, and will safeguard the organic unity of the whole commonwealth. A world tribunal will adjudicate and deliver its compulsory and final verdict in all and any disputes that may arise between the various elements constituting this universal system. A mechanism of world intercommunication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity. A world metropolis will act as the nerve center of a world civilization, the focus towards which the unifying forces of life will converge and from which its energizing influences will radiate. A world language will either be invented or chosen from among the existing languages and will be taught in the schools of all the federated nations as an auxiliary to their mother tongue. A world script, a world literature, a uniform and universal system of currency, of weights and measures, will simplify and facilitate intercourse and understanding among the nations and races of mankind. In such a world society, science and religion, the two most potent forces in human life, will be reconciled, will cooperate, and will harmoniously develop. The press will, under such a system, while giving full scope to the expression of the diversified views and convictions of mankind, cease to be mischievously manipulated by vested interests, whether private or public, and will be liberated from the influence of contending governments and peoples. The economic resources of the world will be organized, its sources of raw materials will be tapped and fully utilized, its markets will be coordinated and developed, and the distribution of its products will be equitably regulated.

National rivalries, hatreds, and intrigues will cease, and racial animosity and prejudice will be replaced by racial amity, understanding and cooperation. The causes of religious strife will be permanently removed, economic barriers and restrictions will be completely abolished, and the inordinate distinction between classes will be obliterated. Destitution on the one hand, and gross accumulation of ownership on the other, will disappear. The enormous energy dissipated and wasted on war, whether economic or political, will be consecrated to such ends as will extend the range of human inventions and technical development, to increase the productivity of mankind, to the extermination of disease, to the extension of scientific research, to the raising of the standard of physical health, to the sharpening and refinement of the human brain, to the exploitation of the unused and unsuspected resources of the planet, to the prolongation of human life, and to the furtherance of any other agency that can stimulate the intellectual, the moral, and spiritual life of the entire human race.

A world federal system, ruling the whole earth and exercising unchallengeable authority over its unimaginably vast resources, blending and embodying the ideals of both the East and the West, liberated from the curse of war and its miseries, and bent on the exploitation of all the available sources of energy on the surface of the planet, a system in which Force is made the servant of Justice, whose life is sustained by its universal recognition of one God and by its allegiance to one common Revelation - such is the goal towards which humanity, impelled by the unifying forces of life, is moving.
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 203-204)

If you want to know more:
*Read: Bahá'í International Community (1998): Valuing Spirituality in Development
This remarkable paper prepared for an interreligious dialogue with the World Bank discusses spiritually based indicators for development. Since indicators are what we use to guide our development, spiritually based indicators should help to make development more spiritual. The paper highlights some of the necessary spiritual principles: unity in diversity, equity and justice, equality of the sexes, trustworthiness and moral leadership, and independent investigation of truth (pp. 14-18). It then outlines some of the priority policy areas where these principles could be applied: economic development; education; environmental stewardship; meeting basic needs in food, nutrition, health and shelter; and governance and participation (pp. 19-24). It provides some of the most direct guidance from the Bahá'í community about sustainability.

While a vision of the future is important, and is often lacking in today's world, the implementation of such a vision remains a challenging process. When a vision is based on an underlying set of values, they provide the creative force for its realization. By implementing those values in the life of each individual, and in each community and institution of society, the vision will gradually unfold and become reality.

It is certain that momentous undertakings cannot be brought to a successful conclusion in haste; that in such cases haste would only make waste.... ...the political world...cannot instantaneously evolve from the nadir of defectiveness to the zenith of rightness and perfection. Rather, qualified individuals must strive by day and by night, using all those means which will conduce to progress, until the government and the people develop along every line from day to day and even from moment to moment. ...when the pure intentions and justice of the ruler, the wisdom and consummate skill and statecraft of the governing authorities, and the determination and unstinted efforts of the people, are all combined; then day by day the effects of the advancement, of the far-reaching reforms, of the pride and prosperity of government and people alike, will become clearly manifest.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 107-108)


How are economic, social and environmental dimensions linked?

What do scenarios tell us about the sustainability of present Western civilization?

What changes are necessary to make society more sustainable?

What are some of the spiritual principles that would make those changes possible?


Hammond, Allen (1998). Which World? Scenarios for the 21st Century: Global Destinies, Regional Choices. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Meadows, Donella et al. (1992). Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future. Chelsea Green Publishing Co., Post Mills, Vermont

Go to Module 6

Return to e-learning centre

Last updated 10 April 2006