Intergenerational Perspectives on Visions for the Future
5 June 2022
Part of the 26th CONFERENCE OF THE INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENT FORUM
This panel brought together a participant from the original 1972 Conference reflecting on his aspirations at that time and what we have learned since, alongside youth expressing their hopes and vision for the future and articulating their ongoing efforts to lay a foundation for that future locally and globally.
- Arthur Dahl (Switzerland)
- Desta Mesbah (Bosnia/The Netherlands)
- Kiara Ehsani (Kenya/Israel)
- Matteen Kashef (USA)
- Sayali Dubash (India)
- Elsa Deshmuk (Puerto Rico)
- Cedric Åkermark (Sweden)
Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen (The Netherlands) and Cedric Åkermark (Sweden) opened the event with a beautiful montage of images depicting the panelists’ artwork and presentations and shared opening remarks about the significance of this event.
This two-minute slideshow was creatively put together by Cedric Åkermark. You can watch it here, and this is the title page:
Arthur Dahl (Switzerland), President of the International Environmental Forum, introduced the vision of an elder, past, present and toward the future. He reminded the audience of the early warnings published by the Club of Rome in “Limits to Growth” and of his own experience as a youth in early ecological disasters portending an unsustainable future. Beyond his international field work on the impact of humans on coral reefs, he represented the Bahá’í International Community at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, drawing him into a career building intergovernmental cooperation to address environmental challenges. He went on to describe a life combining his spiritual values with his purposeful service to both the scientific and the United Nations communities.
After retirement, Arthur Dahl served as a consultant to UNEP, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, taught advanced courses in environmental diplomacy and sustainable development, and lectured around the world. He has authored several books including “In Pursuit of Hope: A Guide for the Seeker” (2019), in which he acknowledged the scientific and social reality of the world but showed that spiritual values could provide the courage to work toward solutions.
Most recently, with economist Augusto Lopez-Claros and international lawyer Maja Groff, Arthur Dahl launched a project on UN reform and global governance, winning the New Shape Prize in 2018, publishing “Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century” with Cambridge University Press (2021), launching a Global Governance Forum to take this work forward and preparing a Global Catastrophic Risk Index. His message to young people was, “While you cannot predict where the future will lead you, if you strive to be of service and let your values guide you, amazing things can happen.”
Sayali Dubash (India), Program and Curriculum Development Co-ordinator at the Baha’i Academy in Panchgani, India, reviewed the grim state of environmental conditions across India to begin her talk entitled Together, Stronger and Sustainable. Air pollution, poor management of waste, growing water scarcity, falling groundwater tables, water pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and land/soil degradation gave India a world environmental ranking of 117 of 192 nations, but poverty is the greatest polluter of all.
Sayali quoted the late Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India, who said at the 1972 UN Conference in Stockholm “… poverty is the greatest polluter of all,” but, unfortunately, today we see many educated and rich people polluting the environment.
The world today is caught up in the destruction of the environment, increased poverty and economic imbalance, declining moral values, the disintegration of social cohesion, and prejudices of various kinds, emphasizing the interdependence of all the three aspects of sustainability, namely environmental, social and economic. Nevertheless, there have been subtle signs of progress in the conservation of natural resources, the creation of a global mind-set on both environmental and economic concerns, and increased efforts to promote social cohesion and Human Rights.
The Baha’i Academy (a University Recognized Institution of Higher Learning) in Panchgani, India, developed a curriculum for Education in Universal Human Values to foster personal development and social progress. Thousands of college and university students participate to become morally capable and to contribute toward social progress, including community projects using the Service-Learning approach, some directed toward environmental and social issues. They create awareness about environmental challenges including conservation of biodiversity, the importance of certain trees, development of gardens, appropriate disposal of waste, hazards of water pollution and solutions to overcome them. Moreover, they work on social issues including eliminating tensions created through superstitions and ignorance. Each project produces fruitful learning experiences and first-hand knowledge of environmental issues and universal human values. Students collaborate with stakeholders, work for positive, viable solutions, inculcate scientific attitudes, and circulate information on environmental laws and use of technology. Caring for the environment, and working towards creating a sustainable environmental life, brings people together to practice universal human values and principles that we learn from nature itself: cooperation, unity, love, and interdependence.
As a result, families use and advocate solar panels for cooking, water heating, and charging the batteries of phones and other appliances in the house. Appropriate disposal and sorting of garbage are also addressed. Electronic waste is disposed of at government-authorized centers. All these experiences provide a very positive way of thinking about the future ahead. Dr. Lesan Azadi, the director of the Baha’i Academy, emphasizes moral and spiritual factors in efforts for sustainability such as cooperation, an attitude of optimism, equality, and respect.
Everyone should look at sustainability from an angle of spirituality, feel strong emotion for change and development, assume responsibility, take initiative, and become capable to engage in community action without ulterior motives. The immediate vision is to create an action and service-oriented mind-set in the youth for community engagement during their years of formal education. Whatever field they may select, community engagement for environmental, social, and economic sustainability should be an integral part of their undergraduate and graduate study. Together with their education and active community engagement directed toward creating sustainable development of the environment, they can become morally capable individuals and will be able to lead the society at large. This will direct their efforts toward the conservation and protection of nature, and in turn, the survival of humanity itself.
By selflessly spreading and practicing universal human values such as love, affection, and empathy, and being in harmony with nature, all of us together can create a sustainable future for our environment.
Matteen Kashef (USA) explored the link between healthcare and the environment. His interest in anthropogenic climate change informed his realization that the healthcare industry’s dependence on single-use plastics needed reform. For example, in his chosen field of dentistry, there are the plastic sterilization sleeves in which all dental instruments are placed after use, the use of plastic suction tips to remove oral fluids, the plastic sleeves placed on the headrest for each patient, and of course, a more recognizable one, the use of plastic toothbrushes by the general population. Dental offices generate a large amount of paper, gloves, masks, cotton squares, and shipping boxes. Some potential greener substitutes are more practical than others and, in his opinion, the health and safety of patients should never be compromised in reducing waste in dentistry.
Addressing our materialistic society, Matteen quoted Baha’u’llah, the prophet founder of the Baha’i Faith: “Take from this world only to the measure of your needs and forego that which exceedeth them. Observe equity in all your judgements, and transgress not the bounds of justice, nor be of them that stray from its path.”
If, instead of accumulating materials, we become conscious of the waste we produce and reflect on our purchases and uses, our communities will naturally become a more wonderful place.
He further pointed out the need for sustainable development with this excerpt from a statement by the Baha’i International Community in 1998: “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: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development, 1998)
Recent research on alternatives to plastic and Styrofoam in the dental and medical settings has led to eco-friendly dental products and “green dentistry.” For example, bamboo toothbrushes are completely biodegradable. As research for products like these continues and becomes increasingly present in dental offices, this perspective will influence learning and the practical application of dentistry. Although it seems to be a small part that is overlooked in the overall equation of considering the effect of humans on the environment, it is effective to consider every possible solution to the greater problem.
Matteen ended his talk with the words “I hope I can continue to learn and grow, and hopefully be a protagonist and creator of change as I advance in my career.”
by Kiara Ehsani
Kiara Ehsani (Kenya/Israel) spoke in the first person, “If my childhood had a color scheme, it would be green and brown. I spent so much of my childhood gazing at these two colors. The lush vegetation of Nairobi Kenya is something that was almost always in my field of vision. When I think of back home, what comes to mind is the thick forests where plants and trees of all shades and shapes comingled in beautiful chaotic mosaics and collages, the roads that wind through jungle and forests, the animated and flourishing life everywhere.”
However, she recounted, subtle transformations gradually occurred, adding more and more garbage that grew into little hills at the sides of the roads and clogging waterways. She felt helpless, seeing the green wonderland being slowly suffocated and the color scheme transforming to sprinkles of greys, translucent whites, and faded reds and blues. The insatiable production of plastics, disposable products and other materials is fuelled by the perverse priorities of society. The current capitalistic approach has fed into the corrosive materialistic values that rule the world of production and consumption. The result is environmental chaos and social injustice, such as a greater gap between the rich and poor.
“When I think about a future that I would want for humanity and the planet, I think of one where the framework of values that informs every decision is coherent with humanity’s true spiritual nature. A society based on simplicity, moderation, trustworthiness,” she said.
Global justice for the planet, for future generations, and people of different backgrounds and economic situations would address various social issues such as race and gender equality, education, and economic justice - all key principles to a new world order that promotes an environmentally stable future. The overarching value for the fundamental basis of humanity’s future is the oneness of mankind, which is inseparably linked with a sustainable future. Until there is a general recognition of this wholeness and interdependence, humanity's problems will only worsen. Baha’u’llah says, “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”
To reach an economic model that would support a society where these values are the basis, we need a model that allows humanity to live up to its higher nature - a model that mimics the regenerative, sustainable and interconnected systems found in the natural world. One possible model is a circular economy, where there is the regeneration of nature, elimination of wastage, and continual circulation of products and materials. In this economic model, outputs lead back to inputs, which is environmentally sound but will require greater collaboration of the different working parts of humanity and more altruism, and generally more nobility in choices. In a society that operates in a circular economy, we might change the narrative of ownership, so instead of each person owning a washing machine, there is more sharing. An old chair could be given back to its manufacturer for materials and repurposing. This model would create a more collaborative spirit in the social organization rather than a competitive one.
The complexity of implementing a circular economy would require the participation and collaboration at all levels of society, from individuals to governments. This level of organization and interconnection would require a dramatic change in global policy and leadership. Kiara believes in a future where the basis of society rests on the values of unity, reciprocity, justice, and altruism, so problems of pollution, climate change, and social injustice could be eradicated. Humanity has the capacity to reach such a civilization when guided by the ideals found in the teachings of Baha’u’llah. There are concrete and realistic ways to transform the world around us so that someday every childhood has a green and brown color scheme.
Desta Mesbah (Bosnia/The Netherlands) Desta Mesbah addressed the question of what can be learned from nature. Growing up in Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina, surrounded by forest, she spent time outdoors almost daily no matter the weather conditions. Physical work, learning to use garden and construction tools, cultivating a vegetable garden, building a shed for the tools, and constructing a greenhouse, a treehouse or a pond are were normal activities in her school.
She has since explored the strategy of using green areas as a teaching tool for children to learn basic life skills that help them prepare for challenges later in life such as responsibility, self-confidence, communication, the skills of observation, cooperation and more. After spending time connecting with nature, children feel relaxed and more focused to learn as they study. Working on different outdoor projects strengthens bonds of friendship and teaches cooperation, working in unity and consultation.
Children can observe how weather affects plants; how seeds sprout; how plants grow; how gardeners cope with plant problems; how soil, water and sunshine interact; how butterflies and other insects play a role; how water is filtered by reeds in the pond where frogs and dragonflies reproduce; how to manage our compost. Their understanding of the water cycle, nature in general and its biodiversity, of the interaction between the living and mineral worlds and their processes, increases day by day. When they use their hands to prepare the soil, sow seeds, remove weeds, water regularly and harvest the crops, they develop a sense of care, and when they experience the loss of plants because of neglect, they learn the tragedy of improper stewardship. Through these real-life lessons in gardening, students develop the virtue of responsibility.
“Hope is nature’s greatest gift to children around the world. I was lucky enough to experience a glimpse of the educational potential our natural environment has to offer. I hope that an increasing number of schools around the world would incorporate green outdoor activities in their curriculum, so that children around the world could experience what I experienced, and grow a sense of care, love and responsibility for the environment,” she stated. “I am hopeful that we can reach this goal to a higher and higher degree.”
She closed by quoting Albert Camus who wrote, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
by Elsa Deshmuk
Elsa Deshmuk (Puerto Rico) moved to Puerto Rico ten days before hurricane Maria hit in 2017. She watched as the hurricane knocked over trees, stripped bushes of their leaves, and flooded the ground cover with torrents of rain. After the hurricane finally left, she went outside to look, and everything was silent except for the sound of water rushing down the rain gutter. The yards and streets were filled with debris, so her family walked down the street to check on their neighbors. Emerging from their houses with saws, gloves, and garden tools, they helped each other pick up all the debris. In the subsequent weeks, most people had to deal with the resulting electricity and water outage, and there were large gas shortages. Food shortages were common. Without power, large quantities of food that had been stored in refrigerators went bad, and many were left with the little canned food they had been able to store. But her uncle and aunt, as well as a few neighbors, had squash and other root vegetables that they were able to harvest from the community garden.
This garden, which was originally an empty lot in the neighborhood, was started by her uncle years before, and the small plot of land served many purposes, including as a green space, a social center, and as a source of nutrition. The garden has a small field and many raised beds in which they grow local fruits, vegetables, and herbs. It is a joint effort, as many neighbors come to plant seeds, maintain the area, and harvest the produce. The garden is also a center for the community and a place where children, youth, and adults gather. The community garden is a place to learn and practice renewable agriculture techniques such as no-till farming and crop rotation, and they also use the indigenous technique of combining the cultivation of squash, beans, and corn to benefit from their symbiosis. Furthermore, on an island where most of the food is imported, the garden provides the health and environmental benefits of locally grown food and contributes to food security, so much so that they have been able to do several community cookouts using their harvests.
A community garden can connect people to their cultural identity and increase their knowledge and respect for agriculture. When they plant and harvest root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, yuca (cassava), and yautia, they remember ancient inhabitants of Puerto Rico, such as the Taínos, who grew these same crops thousands of years ago. They value the beauty in the plants as well as their diversity just as their ancestors did, and their appreciation and interest in agriculture is growing.
Elsa then quoted the Baha’i Writings that say “The fundamental basis of the community is agriculture.” Even though the community is made up of many different professionals, they are still connected to the garden as an important part of their lives. The garden has been a source of unity, happiness, learning, and resilience over the years. It is community spirit that fosters the garden, and the garden fosters community spirit.
Considering the multi-faceted problems that the world is facing, such as disunity and climate change, we need solutions that can combat all these problems. Based on these experiences, Elsa Deshmuk’s vision is that many more urban and suburban communities should have community gardens to build unity, sustainability, and human welfare.
During the ensuing question and answer discussion, Matteen Kashef stressed the importance of grassroots activities that can expand from local to global scales.
Kiara Ehsani recommended experimenting with an increasingly vegetarian diet and reducing consumption of single-use plastics as personal projects.
Sayali Dubash stated that the mindset of materialism and addiction to growth creates a fundamental obstacle for human progress and that education provides hope for eradicating ignorance and prejudice with the power to transform the lives of others. What is needed is a vision with projects and welcoming initiatives at every level – by institutions, communities, and individuals.
In response to a question about how to attract more youth to this work, Elsa Deshmuk stated that unity and action are very attractive to people and will lead to growth.
Desta Mesbah followed up by suggesting that each individual should offer their talents and capacities in the form of service with unity as a goal.
Arthur Dahl reminded the panelists of the earth’s resilience when allowed to recover from natural or man-made catastrophes. He warned of monetary indicators such as GDP as institutionalized greed, and urged the panelists to seek other indicators for human progress and to work for a better environment and more justice in their lives.
Arthur Dahl, PhD: From Stockholm 1972 to 50 years later
As a young environmental activist and researcher who represented the Bahá'í International Community at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, Arthur Dahl set off on a life of service through an international career working from the village to the intergovernmental levels, building the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, as a senior UNEP official, helping to write Agenda 21, developing indicators of sustainable development, coordinating the UN System-wide Earthwatch, and now trying to improve international governance. There are lessons that may inspire the youth of today to have the courage of their convictions to work for the better world that is possible. Arthur Dahl is president of the International Environment Forum. After many years in the Pacific Islands and with UNEP in Kenya, he is now living in Geneva, Switzerland.
Desta Mesbah, at 19 years old, is pursuing a bachelor's degree in Global Sustainability Science at Utrecht University. Desta grew up in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and was fortunate enough to have teachers at school who utilized the surrounding natural area as a learning environment. This experience made a great impact on Desta’s perspective on nature.
When growing up in Kenya, Kiara Ehsani was able to witness so much beautiful and wild nature such as the thick diverse forests, free open grasslands, mountainous regions, long stretching beaches and colorful coral reefs. However, she noticed a subtle but plausible transformation occurring gradually as she grew up with more and more garbage “popping up” everywhere. Kiara Ehsani is now 19 and about to start university in Canada to study natural resource conservation. For the last year she has been volunteering at the Baha’i World Centre in Israel which has helped her gain much insight into how to better serve humanity for the rest of her life - specifically through environmental work.
Matteen Kashef is entering dental school at University of Florida, in Gainesville, Florida. He has recently completed his bachelor's degree in Nutritional Sciences, with a minor in Health Disparities in Society. As he moves forward further into the healthcare setting, he has become more cognizant of the waste that is accumulated. Why is it that there is so much dental waste? What are some ways to reorient our mindset and be more environmentally conscious? And further, what can inspire this new approach to reducing waste and being more sensible for our next generation of healthcare professionals?
Sayali Dubash is a Program and Curriculum Development Coordinator at the Baha'i Academy in Panchgani, India, working in the field of value education and research. Her main tasks include handling different aspects of the Academy's work. This includes curriculum design and development and content creation. She conducts workshops and online courses for post-graduate and under-graduate students as they create educational materials. She is also involved in value education research. Sayali would like to encourage others to be the change and take initiatives for personal and social transformation.
Elsa Deshmuk is a high school student in Puerto Rico, having moved there in 2017 a few days before Hurricane Maria hit. She has experienced first-hand the resilience of the people and the spirit of community that arose from the challenges related to the storm. Prior to that she lived in China, which helped her to expand her perspective and be less influenced by nationalistic prejudices. As a result of these experiences, she sees the beauty in all cultures.
Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen is an Associate Professor with the Public Administration and Policy Group of Wageningen University. She strives to give students opportunities to understand the actors, mechanisms and processes of global governance for the environment and to reflect on what role they could have in such processes. She grew up loving nature and studied biology first and then later moved her focus to trying to understand humanity. She struggles to create a more harmonious relationship with nature than what has been shown in the past century in many parts of the world. Since 2016 she has served with an international panel of experts (IPBES) which attempts to develop positive visions of the human/nature relationship and how it can develop those visions and bring them to fruition. She loves being in nature, especially the vast pine forest of Northern Europe, and growing vegetables and berries in her garden.
Cedric Åkermark, who is 24, majored in biology at Stockholm University, earning a Bachelor of Science degree. He plans to enter the Masters' program in Ecology. Growing up in Sweden he has always loved everything that had to do with nature and the creatures that exist in it. He witnessed the forest where he lived cut down for the production of forestry products. That made him reflect on how society needs to find a balance between getting utility from nature and preserving it for the future, and to live more in harmony with nature.
Last updated 8 June 2022