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A safe and just operating space for human identity: a systems perspective
By Tom H Oliver, Bob Doherty, et al.
The Lancet Planetary Health, Vol 6, November 2022
Link to paper: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(22)00217-0
A Brief Overview with Highlights
I found this paper to be quite interesting and relevant to the current scientific and public discourse on the systemic crises of social and environmental disruption facing humanity today, as well as, potentially, elements of the causes and solutions to them. Although the paper does not specifically address these issues from a “religions” or “spiritual” perspective, I believe the ideas presented may resonate with Bahá’ís considering these same issues and possibly provide ideas that can link some related Bahá’í concepts to more secular views, especially as they relate root causes of these crises and the need for the fundamental transformation of the thinking of individuals, communities, and societies.
The primary focus of the author’s “Review” and analysis is the concept of “self-identity.” While the term is not unfamiliar to me, it is framed in a more complex way than I’ve encountered before. As such, it strikes me as being very close what the Bahá’í Writing refer to as the “human heart”. This can be seen clearly in their “Introduction” (p. 919a), where they say:
“A key aspect underpinning how social systems influence environmental systems is people’s sense of self-identity (i.e., the integrated image of themselves as a unique person), which is determined by a complex interplay of social context and individual history. Self-identity is ultimately linked to behaviours, including those associated with protecting or damaging the environment. Equally, the behaviours of those around us affect our self-identity and, relatedly, what we find important: we are shaped by the social norms that we are exposed to and the corresponding values (i.e., abstract ideas of what is important to us that guide our behaviour) and goals (i.e., concrete aims we set based on those values) that we hold and expect others to hold.”
While neither as elegant, concise, nor complete, this statement reminds me of Shoghi Effendi’s well-known admonition that “We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved.” (The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 84)
Also, I find it compelling that the author’s thoughts on “self-identity” and its relationship to our actions in the world may be related to `Abdu’l-Bahá’s statement on that:
“The reality of man is his thought, not his material body. The thought force and the animal force are partners. Although man is part of the animal creation, he possesses a power of thought superior to all other created beings.
“If a man's thought is constantly aspiring towards heavenly subjects then does he become saintly; if on the other hand his thought does not soar, but is directed downwards to centre itself upon the things of this world, he grows more and more material until he arrives at a state little better than that of a mere animal.” (Paris Talks, p. 17)
Would not self-identity, thoughts about who I am, be the primary impetus the rest of my thoughts?
The authors go on to point out that:
“Researchers have long discussed both values and self-identity as key factors in global sustainability, although both are neglected if government policy focuses predominantly on structural (e.g., technological or economic) solutions. This Review focuses on interactions between self-identity and its corresponding values and the state of the natural environment, with the aim of developing improved understanding to allow effective and strategic stewardship of planetary health.” (p. 919b) [Note that the author’s often refer to only “planetary health”, although they also sometimes mention it in conjunction with “social health”.]
The authors spend a good deal of time discussing the various complex feedbacks between our self-identity/values and both the social and natural environments that, depending on the values involved, can lead to either vicious or virtuous cycles; to either further degradation or amelioration of our social and environmental challenges. They provide two diagrams (figures 1 (p. 920) & 2 (p. 921b) that nicely illustrate these feedbacks and potential positive and negative outcomes.
They also point out that, in their view, the “concept of a safe and just operating space for humanity…neglects the multiple feedback loops between individual psychology (particularly in terms of self-identity) and both social foundations and environmental planetary boundaries.” (p. 922b; [they are referring to Rockström, Steffen, Noone, et al.’s 2009 paper on a “safe and just operating space”]).
The major innovation of this paper, I think, is the author’s postulation that “there might be an analogous safe and just operating space of individual self-identity”, and that “Exceeding the threshold [of this space] at one end…is excessive individualistic behaviour, which drives accelerating transgression of both planetary and social boundaries.” On the other hand, “at the other end of the spectrum, there might be a minimum level of individual self-care for maintaining personal health and prosperity.” Interestingly, in respect to this necessary modicum of self-care, they suggest that “even if the apparent independence and autonomy of the self is illusory, it is still essential for human survival.” (p. 923a)
From a Bahá’í perspective, we might say that, rather than hanging on to this egoic “illusion” of individual independence, we could replace it with the knowledge of universal connectedness (oneness), our God-given individual unique qualities, dignity, and self-worth, which we would in turn, knowingly extend to all other individuals and beings (the world system); survival of the spirit rather than the mere animal.
Another implication of their hypothesis, they point to is that:
“…the systemic feedback effects between self-identity, values, and attitudes and environmental quality that are outlined in this Review is that there might be rapid and unexpected changes in socioecological systems that we fail to predict or understand.” (p. 923b)
These “rapid and unexpected changes”, they note, could either increase or lessen the social and environmental degradation we’re witnessing. However, they point to a “key implication” of their Review as being “the crucial importance of considering the role of these inner transformations in creating feedback cycles with rapid environmental change and how the effects can sometimes be detrimental for society and planetary health (i.e., leading to a vicious cycle).”
The last section of the article is about “Reorienting self-identity for prosocial and pro-environmental outcomes”, which starts with the observation that:
“There have been marked advances in understanding the science behind global environmental degradation, along with a growing policy response by governments. However, there is now an increased recognition of the need for a substantial change in how our institutions function and in individual behaviors, which might require deep cultural shifts in worldview and self-identity” (emphasis added).
While stating that “Government and civil society might wish to explore a proactive role in reorienting self-identity and values”, there has been a reluctance to do this, perhaps “unsurprising given the tragic history of such interventions in some past communist and fascist regimes.” Thus such efforts have been “limited to small nudges…without addressing fundamental values.” They then go on to say that there is growing evidence that “self-identity [is] shifting towards individualistic values and attitudes in most countries….” Therefore, they suggest, “the role of the state and civil society” in this process would be a good area for “ethical governance research.” With such considerations, and quoting Benjamin Sovacool, they note that “We are entering territory that is very much taboo.” Here, the so called “culture wars” raging in the United States are instructive of what may lie ahead, especially if such work is pursued solely by governments, and only at the national or international levels.
To help rectify the situation, they suggest that “government and civil society” could effectively manage “inclusive processes of dialogue and deliberation…to create shared values and assist in systemic transformation….”
It is in this section that it is, perhaps, most notable that the authors never mention a potential role for religion in this process of deliberation, although that might be included in “civil society”. Also, while occasionally referring to “moral” and “ethical” considerations, there’s no mention of anything spiritual with regard to either self-identity or the various psychological and social processes they are discussing.
Again, these musings are only highlights of a few points made in this paper; it is rich in what appear to be useful references to a few books and a large number of scientific articles on the concepts they present. If this subject is of interest, I would highly commend it to your study.
A final note: In an email from the Wilmette Institute Learning Center’s “Science and Religion” study group calling attention to a new book by Mikhail Sergeev (author and editor), Religion and Science in the Globalized World, published November 8, 2022, which “explores contemporary trends in religion, science, and globalization from a Bahá’í perspective” (from the publisher: https://mgraphics-books.com/product/religion-science-globalization/). Interestingly, and related to the subject of the paper reviewed here, the last chapter, by Sergeev, is titled “The Issue of Self-Identity in Transhumanism and the Bahá’í Writings” (from the write-up on Amazon).