The Dasgupta Review in a Bahá'í perspective

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 28. February 2021 - 17:17

The Dasgupta Review in a Bahá’í perspective

Commentary on The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review
published by the UK Government on 2 February 2021

The Dasgupta Review on The Economics of Biodiversity is a very useful addition to the munitions available to us to push for the necessary fundamental transformation in society towards sustainability. Just as the Stern Review put climate change in a language that economists understand, Professor Dasgupta has done the same for biodiversity. It is for us to leverage this with policy makers and the private sector for whom economics, especially the neoliberal version, is the only reality. This will require the efforts of many actors beyond the conservation community itself, including the religions and faith traditions such as the Bahá’í Faith.

The report makes a number of important statements that resonate with the Bahá’í community, starting with the acknowledgement that we are part of nature. The Bahá’í writings are full of references to the importance of nature, not only in describing the ecological functions of the natural world, the interdependence of all living things, and the importance of cooperation and reciprocity as emergent properties in the evolution of complexity. The son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, said in a talk at Stanford University in 1912: “The elements and lower organisms are synchronized in the great plan of life. Shall man, infinitely above them in degree, be antagonistic and a destroyer of that perfection?

The importance of nature is more than practical. As the report acknowledges, nature is also intrinsically valuable in itself, and contact with nature has psychological and spiritual benefits. The final chapter in the abridged version is on “Nature’s Intrinsic Worth: Sacredness”. Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, said: “The country is the world of the soul, the city is the world of bodies.” We can discover so much in nature about the qualities of God or the divine, wonders greater than ourselves, and our own higher human potential. This transcendent dimension of nature is found in most cultures apart from the materialist economic culture of today, and we need to return to it in all its cultural diversity to restore our respect for the natural world and to motivate us to protect and restore it.

While diversity has long been recognized as important in ecological science, and in the Bahá’í appreciation of human as well as natural diversity, the report demonstrates the equal importance of diversity in economic terms. Every loss of a species or erosion of an ecosystem makes nature more fragile and constrains future generations.

The Dasgupta Review identifies three broad transitions that are necessary.

1. Balancing demand and supply

The first transition identified in the review is that demands do not exceed supply. We have failed to engage with nature or to manage its assets sustainably, with what it calls impact inequality, endangering the prosperity of present and future generations. On the supply side, this requires restoring natural assets and increasing the supply if possible, but it will take time to reverse all the damaging activities that have driven us to the brink of collapse. There are also planetary limits to supply that have to be respected. Bahá’u’lláh warned that “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.” Our material development must be moderated.

There is less talk about the demand side, yet that is where the most immediate possibilities for action reside, and where the Bahá’í approach is particularly relevant. Bahá’u’lláh said we should be content with little, and “Take from this world only to the measure of your needs, and forego that which exceedeth them.” This is far from today’s consumer culture fed by an endless cultivation of material desires. The science shows that most environmental impact comes from the affluent, and only a reduction in the GDP of the wealthiest countries will enable us to reach climate and biodiversity goals. This is not a message that economists and politicians want to hear. We know that happiness does not increase with wealth once basic needs are met, and there are ample opportunities for growth in non-material aspects of life like sciences, arts, culture, human relationships and living a life of service. The Bahá’í Faith calls for eliminating the extremes of wealth and poverty through an equitable distribution of resources, far from the growing inequality we see in the world today, aggravated by the pandemic and increasing climate impacts.

2. Changing measures of economic success

Dasgupta’s critique of the narrow focus of economics ignoring social and environmental “externalities”, emphasizing short-term profits and financial flows while failing to consider what is happening to capital accounts, especially natural capital, and assuming that technology will resolve every problem, corresponds to the Bahá’í warning about dogmatic materialism, which, having penetrated and captured all significant centres of power and information at the global level, has ensured that no competing voices would retain the ability to challenge projects of world wide economic exploitation.

As the international governing council of the Bahá’í Faith has put it:
“The welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Humanity's collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbours' or pursues economic gain without regard for how the natural environment, which provides sustenance for all, is affected. A stubborn obstruction, then, stands in the way of meaningful social progress: time and again, avarice and self-interest prevail at the expense of the common good. Unconscionable quantities of wealth are being amassed, and the instability this creates is made worse by how income and opportunity are spread so unevenly both between nations and within nations. But it need not be so. However much such conditions are the outcome of history, they do not have to define the future, and even if current approaches to economic life satisfied humanity's stage of adolescence, they are certainly inadequate for its dawning age of maturity. There is no justification for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples….

“There is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization of wealth and resources. The stresses emerging out of the long-term process of transition from a divided world to a united one are being felt within international relations as much as in the deepening fractures that affect societies large and small. With prevailing modes of thought found to be badly wanting, the world is in desperate need of a shared ethic, a sure framework for addressing the crises that gather like storm clouds. The vision of Bahá'u'lláh challenges many of the assumptions that are allowed to shape contemporary discourse—for instance, that self-interest, far from needing to be restrained, drives prosperity, and that progress depends upon its expression through relentless competition. To view the worth of an individual chiefly in terms of how much one can accumulate and how many goods one can consume relative to others is wholly alien to Bahá'í thought. But neither are the teachings in sympathy with sweeping dismissals of wealth as inherently distasteful or immoral, and asceticism is prohibited. Wealth must serve humanity. Its use must accord with spiritual principles; systems must be created in their light. And, in Bahá'u'lláh's memorable words, ‘No light can compare with the light of justice. The establishment of order in the world and the tranquillity of the nations depend upon it.’" (Universal House of Justice, To the Baha’is of the World, 1 March 2017)

3. Transforming institutions and systems

The review’s call for polycentric institutions from the local to the global level is similar to the Bahá’í system of administration, with local, national and global elected consultative bodies, ensuring global coherence while allowing for a great diversity of applications depending on local conditions, and ensuring participation and empowerment even at the local community level.

The report also calls for supranational institutional arrangements for global public goods. The climate, atmosphere and open oceans are obviously environmental components that require global governance, and perhaps the creation of charges or rents for global use. Even natural resources like forests that are within national jurisdictions need to be managed from a global perspective, with the review proposing payments for protecting ecosystems when this is in the global interest.

The Bahá’í Faith has always acknowledged that the Earth is a single global system, the home of humanity, requiring that we accept our oneness as citizens of one homeland above our lesser loyalties to nation or group. It has called for a federation of nations with collective security and legislative, executive and judicial institutions able to organize, manage and equitably distribute the planet’s resources, while safeguarding the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of every individual.

Such ambitious proposals also require a massive effort in education to build public support and participation, again an area where the faiths have enormous reach and influence. One dimension of this must be to reconnect people with nature, counteracting the present trend towards increasing urbanization.

The review concludes that transformative change is possible, but will require hard choices. For Bahá’ís, those choices will be easier when motivated by spiritual values of the oneness of humankind, humility, moderation, generosity, solidarity, and the hopeful vision of the ever-advancing planetary civilization that can emerge from this age of transition.

To access The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review:…

Last updated 28 February 2021