SCIENTIFIC AND SPIRITUAL DIMENSIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
A STUDY COURSE
A Challenge to All of Us
Section 1: Dealing with the Emotional Stress Caused by Climate Change
Becoming aware of the immense climate crisis can be emotionally stressful. A variety of emotions can strike:
- A sense of loss because of the disappearance of species, of glaciers, of nature as we know it.
- A sense of anger at big polluters or at people in power who have been ignoring the issue and resisting decisive action to mitigate climate change.
- A sense of guilt at being part of society that pollutes the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.
- A sense of fear for the immediate future of many vulnerable people, for the future of our children, for the well-being of all life on Earth, and even for the survival of our civilization.
- A sense of despair about the complexity of the crisis and the inability of existing institutions and systems to avert a deepening of the crisis, and despair for the people suffering from the effects of climate change, and for the world we are leaving to future generations.
- A sense of frustration with the the lack of acceptance and action by our political leaders and fellow citizens in the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence.
- A sense of alarm at the changes which have been set in motion and the possible consequences for the natural world and of the unknown calamities yet to befall mankind. (*)
How can we deal with that stress? The most convenient reaction is to put our heads into the sand and continue with life as usual. In fact, it is quite tempting to deny the problem of climate change and to avoid learning more about it. By now we know that this is not really an option.
Openly acknowledging the potential devastation of climate change is a quite severe mental test. However, tests purify us and can help us progress in our spiritual development. The story of Job in the Jewish and Christian traditions tells us of his untold suffering and unwavering belief in God. It shows that God's justice and mercy is a mystery, way beyond our understanding. The Baha'i Writings say the following about suffering:
The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering.... Man is, so to speak, unripe: the heat of the fire of suffering will mature him. Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest men have suffered most. ... To attain eternal happiness one must suffer. He who has reached the state of self-sacrifice has true joy. Temporal joy will vanish. (1)
O Son of Man! If adversity befall thee not in My path, how canst thou walk in the ways of them that are content with My pleasure? If trials afflict thee not in thy longing to meet Me, how wilt thou attain the light in thy love for My beauty? (2)
O Son of Man! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. (3)
It takes great courage to recognize the scope of the threat of climate change. We can gain that courage by developing our capacities to know and to love, the most essential functions of the human being. (4) This is the same spiritual love which is at the heart of all religions: the love for our Creator, the love for creation or nature, and the love for our fellow human beings, including those we don't know personally, and who may live in a different country or a different continent. We need to include in that love future generations who will suffer the full extent of the impacts of climate change. We may want to include also the love for our own culture and the many diverse cultures all over the world, for music and art, and for all positive aspects of our civilization, because they are also threatened by the long-term impacts of climate change.
Religion provides us with spiritual disciplines or tools that can sustain us in our spiritual journey. We know that prayer can strengthen us to cope with any situation. It can also support and guide us in our actions to mitigate climate change. Meditation can help us get a deeper understanding of our place as humans in the universe. During meditation we feel connected to God, to nature, to all other human beings who have lived in the past and in the present and who will live in the future. This experience provides us with motivation, courage, and spiritual strength.
Summoning that courage we can continually educate ourselves about the reality of the state of our planet and the living conditions of people all around the world: “As individuals, our most important responsibility is a commitment to know the truth as best we can, truth that is both technical and ethical. Our saving grace will be a broadened scientific awareness combined with an empathy that enables us to understand the plight of the poor, the dispossessed, the young people without hope, or the rural communities challenged by bewildering change. Gandhi called his life an experiment in ‘living in truth’. That approach will have to become the experiment of our generation as well.” (5)
Psychologist Daniel Jordan explained how the Baha'i teachings can help us cope with the present-day challenges: “The Writings reduce general anxiety and doubt to manageable proportions by making sense out of human history and the world's present state of perpetual crisis. This means that we need not pretend the crises do not exist or refuse to face them. Thus understanding something of the problems which face us not only reduces anxiety but attracts courage.” (6)
Going out into nature can also help restore our body and soul. Working the soil with our own hands and growing plants is healing. It also provides the satisfaction that comes with creating beauty and at the same time taking good care of a small part of creation by nurturing soil quality, by helping to maintain biodiversity, and by growing some of our own food, which reduces one's personal carbon footprint.
Finally, we as individuals have the power to take some actions, large or small, in our own lives to mitigate climate change. We can reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions. We can also join an organization that is similarly concerned. Together with others we can make a contribution to the betterment of the world by, for example working together on an aspect of mitigating climate change. Our actions don't need to be grandiose. The small efforts of millions of people will accomplish much change including the necessary changes in laws and policies. And action is the best antidote to "doom and gloom".
Watch this brief video:
Katharine Hayhoe: Climate Change Evangelist 2:50
Katharine Hayhoe is Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas Tech University. She co-wrote a book with her husband about climate change from an Evangelical Christian perspective.
Section 2: The Role of Religious Communities
As long as humans have existed, the Earth has always been here, providing us with all life-support systems, seemingly inexhaustible and taken for granted. Now, climate change threatens to destroy the foundations of life on this planet and the survival of human civilization.
"How, faced with the largest crisis humans have yet created for themselves, have we simply continued with business as usual?" (7) Many people are wrestling with that question. Lester Brown writes quite optimistically in his book "Plan B" about how we could use new technology and build a new economy that would be climate friendly and sustainable. However, he then openly agonizes about the seemingly insurmountable difficulty of mobilizing large numbers of people and governments to quickly implement these profound and far reaching changes: "It is hard to find the words to convey the gravity of our situation. How can we convey the urgency of this moment in history? Will tomorrow be too late? Do enough of us care deeply enough to turn the tide now?" (8)
Apart from widespread ignorance about climate change, the major reason for our slow response may be that we are still trapped in our animal nature. Probably for the first time in history, each person on the planet will have to make sacrifices to benefit the survival of our species. This kind of cooperation fundamentally goes against our animal nature. Evolutionary theory expects us all to be selfish, even if cooperating would benefit the species as a whole. Self-sacrifice and cooperation for the good of the whole goes against our "biology" or the "rules of nature" in the physical dimension. (9) Thus we are forced to rise up to the divine dimension and seek spiritual solutions. It's the ultimate test for humanity as a whole: are people willing to rise above their personal desires to save the species? Can our cultural and spiritual development override the deeply set animal tendencies to put ourselves above others, even when the personal sacrifice is marginal compared to the potential calamity facing mankind as a whole?
The greatest achievement of religion has been the elevation of human beings to their spiritual station, thus transforming their moral character: "Through its teachings and through the examples of human lives illumined by these teachings, masses of people in all ages and lands have developed the capacity to love. They have learned to discipline the animal side of their natures, to make great sacrifices for the common good, to practice forgiveness, generosity, and trust, to use wealth and other resources in ways that serve the advancement of civilization. Institutional systems have been devised to translate these moral advances into the norms of social life on a vast scale. However obscured by dogmatic accretions and diverted by sectarian conflict, the spiritual impulses set in motion by such transcendent figures as Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, and Muhammad have been the chief influence in the civilizing of human character." (10) In fact, they have been the spiritual driving force behind the unfoldment of human civilizations. Their message is "endowed with such potency as can instill new life into every human frame." (11)
The disease which afflicts the body politic is lack of love and absence of altruism. The spiritual teachings of the religion of God can alone create this love, unity and accord in human hearts. (12) 'Abdu'l-Baha
Be compassionate as God is compassionate. (13)
So, whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. (14) The Bible
Religion helps us to overcome egoism and to be concerned with loving, helping, and serving our fellow human beings. It is a prerequisite for us to be willing to adopt a simpler lifestyle and to change long-standing habits that couse pollution. At the same time, religion raises the consciousness of whole cultures and societies. Today, religion can expand our spirit of solidarity to include all of humankind, indeed all living beings on this planet.
Therefore, religious communities are especially responsible for responding to the moral imperative to take action, to apply spiritual principles to action, and to initiate the necessary changes in lifestyle. It is heartening to see how environmental awareness and ethical response in religious communities are growing. There are now many faith based environmental initiatives. The USA, for example, has the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Studies, the Eco Justice programs of the National Council of Churches, and the interfaith organizations Green Faith and Interfaith Power and Light. (15) Similarly in the UK, we find the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science (16) , the Christian Operation Noah (17), and Big Green Jewish, a Jewish web-based environmental resource (18). And in Australia, the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (19), a multi-faith network, is committed to taking action on climate change.
It is necessary though that this movement doesn't remain at the fringes of religious life, but becomes a priority in every community and in the heart of every individual.
Discussion: Discuss how the following passage sheds light on the necessary process of spiritualization.
Chaos and confusion are daily increasing in the world. They will attain such intensity as to render the frame of mankind unable to bear them. Then will men be awakened and become aware that religion is the impregnable stronghold and the manifest light of the world, and its laws, exhortations and teachings the source of life on earth. (20) Baha'u'llah
Section 3: What is Progress?
Every crisis is also an opportunity. Climate change is an issue that demands global cooperation on a level never before attained. It is quite possible that the climate crisis will pressure humankind to come together in order to survive. "Whether in the life of the individual or that of society, profound change occurs more often than not in response to intense suffering and to unendurable difficulties that can be overcome in no other way. Just so great a testing experience, Bahá'u'lláh warned, is needed to weld the Earth's diverse peoples into a single people." (21)
The unification of humankind can set the stage to solve other social problems as well. Abandoning war and weapons production could provide more than enough resources to build a carbon free economy, to restore such natural resources as forests and fisheries, to eradicate poverty, and to provide education and health care for everyone on the planet.
Building an environmentally sustainable society could be the beginning of a new civilization that is more conducive to the individual's spiritual and society's cultural development. In rich countries, the widespread individualistic lifestyles, with their major objective of increasing personal wealth, may gradually give way to a more community oriented way of life. Such community building can happen in many ways, for example through community gardens, with decentralized renewable energy projects, with the use of public transportation, and the sharing of resources. Such a reorientation has the potential to free the human mind from pursuing excessive material goods and to make space for creativity, more social interaction and spiritual development. Everyone will be more fulfilled and happier than in today's isolated and stressful way of life.
In less developed countries, hunger and malnutrition could be eradicated, education and health care improved, thus enabling people to develop their potentials and to be full participants in their local and global community. This can only be achieved if their economic development is sustainable, which means based on renewable energy. If the mistakes of fossil fuel dependency are repeated in developing countries, all other efforts to restore the Earth or to eradicate poverty would fail.
There is no question that such propositions challenge long held, but obsolete, values, such as the limitless liberty of individuals to do whatever they want or the myth of unlimited economic growth. Thus we may need to redefine what constitutes true progress. In the past, a growing economy could justifiably be considered as desirable, and this still holds true for many poor people and countries of the world today. However, for the rich countries and for the planet as a whole, we have reached the limits of growth; in fact we have already surpassed them. The current capitalistic economy exploits the Earth and destroys its life-support systems. It also exploits many people and exacerbates the extremes of wealth and poverty. A mental and spiritual re-orientation is necessary which embraces the concept that a sound economy depends on a healthy environment. Shoghi Effendi said, "Political and economic theories are solely designed to safeguard the interests of humanity as a whole, and not humanity to be crucified for the preservation of the integrity of any particular law or doctrine." (22) One of the concepts that must be abandoned is that of a limitless economic growth. The new thinking will see the economy as a tool for the well-being of all people and for the sustainable management of the Earth's resources.
"We need a change of heart, a reframing of all our conceptions and a new orientation of our activities. The inward life of man as well as his outward environment have to be reshaped if human salvation is to be secured." (23)
The Earth Charter speaks directly to this issue: "The dominant patterns of production and consumption are causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a massive extinction of species. Communities are being undermined. The benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Injustice, poverty, ignorance, and violent conflict are widespread and the cause of great suffering. An unprecedented rise in human population has overburdened ecological and social systems. The foundations of global security are threatened. These trends are perilous-but not inevitable.
"The choice is ours: form a global partnership to care for Earth and one another or risk the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life. Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions, and ways of living. We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more. We have the knowledge and technology to provide for all and to reduce our impacts on the environment. The emergence of a global civil society is creating new opportunities to build a democratic and humane world. Our environmental, economic, political, social, and spiritual challenges are interconnected, and together we can forge inclusive solutions.
"To realize these aspirations, we must decide to live with a sense of universal responsibility, identifying ourselves with the whole Earth community as well as our local communities. We are at once citizens of different nations and of one world in which the local and global are linked. Everyone shares responsibility for the present and future well-being of the human family and the larger living world. The spirit of human solidarity and kinship with all life is strengthened when we live with reverence for the mystery of being, gratitude for the gift of life, and humility regarding the human place in nature." (24)
Section 4: A Promise and a Responsibility
One generation goes and another generation comes; but the Earth remains forever. (25) Ecclesiastes 1:4, Judaism
Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead. (26) Bahá'u'lláh
In the past 200 years, humanity has gone through unprecedented growth in every area: steep advances in scientific knowledge, the industrial revolution, and a quickly growing world population. The enormous pressures on the planet to feed and satisfy the needs and luxuries of the growing world population have assumed huge and dangerous proportions, bringing humanity to the brink of self-destruction.
At the same time, new ethical principles and standards of moral conduct have emerged and are becoming mainstream. For example: The concept of the equality of men and women, although not established everywhere, has become a commonly accepted standard of human civilization. Slavery, although unfortunately still widespread, is rejected as an unacceptable practice in our time. The concept of the planet as one homeland for one human family has started to permeate the thoughts and feelings of people all over the globe. And within only a few years, the knowledge about climate change has dramatically increased; we could say it has truly exploded. More and more scientists in many branches of science, ranging from geology to biology, are intensely studying the innumerable aspects of climate change. That knowledge is available to the general public. Movements to mitigate climate change are sprouting up in large numbers in all corners of the world and are gaining increasing momentum and strength. And governments and people in leadership positions have begun to take the issue seriously and to take action.
In many religions and traditions there are prophecies or visions of a glorious future for humankind.
These words are from the Judeo-Christian Religion:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD. (27)
The following words are from the Baha'i Writings:
Justice is, in this day, bewailing its plight, and Equity groaneth beneath the yoke of oppression. The thick clouds of tyranny have darkened the face of the earth, and enveloped its peoples.
Through the movement of Our Pen of glory We have, at the bidding of the omnipotent Ordainer, breathed a new life into every human frame, and instilled into every word a fresh potency. All created things proclaim the evidences of this world-wide regeneration. This is the most great, the most joyful tidings imparted by the Pen of this wronged One to mankind. Wherefore fear ye, O My well-beloved ones? (28)
The positive spiritual developments and the assuring religious prophesies and visions provide us with hope and encouragement. Far from being a license for inaction, religious teachings call on us to take responsibility: The Universal House of Justice writes: "Humanity's crying need ... calls ... for a fundamental change of consciousness ... that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family." (29)
"Climate change is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, challenge ever faced by human society. But it is a challenge that we must confront, for the alternative is a future that is unpalatable, and potentially unlivable. While it is quite clear that inaction will have dire consequences, it is likewise certain that a concerted effort on the part of humanity to act in its own best interests has great potential to end in success." (30)
If we want to realize the vision of an ever-advancing civilization and of a spiritually developing world community, we must act now to preserve our Earth's living conditions.
That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race.…
Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. (31) Bahá'u'lláh
A spiritual transformation of humankind is required to solve the climate crisis. It is quite exciting to be part of that process. Consider the following statement by 'Abdu’l-Bahá:
And the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world's multitudes should become a source of social good. Is any larger bounty conceivable than this, that an individual, looking within himself, should find that by the confirming grace of God he has become the cause of peace and well-being, of happiness and advantage to his fellow men? No, by the one true God, there is no greater bliss, no more complete delight. (32)
Can we build an environmentally sustainable economy and a spiritually ever-advancing civilization? Quite possibly—but that clearly will require great effort on the part of each of us!
Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self. (33) Bahá'u'lláh
Be the change you want to see in this world. (34) Anonymous, often attributed to Gandhi
Great is the station of man. Great must also be his endeavours for the rehabilitation of the world and the well-being of nations. (35) Bahá'u'lláh
Congratulations for finishing this course! Now, express what you have learnt in your personal and community life, and carry out your group's community service project. You are now part of a quickly growing world-wide community of individuals and groups who are working toward the same goal - a spiritual, just, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable world civilization.
*The emotions despair, frustration, and alarm, as well as their descriptions were shared by Brad James, participant of the 2018 Wilmette Institute Climate Change Course
1. 'Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 178/179
2. Baha'ullah, The Persian Hidden Words, No. 50
3. Baha'ullah, The Persian Hidden Words, No. 51
4.according to psychologist Assad Ghaemmaghami
5. Jeffrey D. Sachs, Common Wealth, p. 336
6. Daniel Jordan, Becoming Your True Self
7. Bill McKibben in Less carbon, more community building CS Monitor, March 28, 2007
8. Plan B 2.0 by Lester R. Brown, p. 259
9. According to biologist Martina Muller (in an e-mail to the author)
10. The Prosperity of Humankind, Baha'i International Community
11. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 141/142
12. 'Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 171
13. Luke 6:36
14. Matthew 7:12
15. Information from Inspiring Progress: Religions' Contributions to Sustainable Development by Gary T. Gardner, p. 168 – 172
20. 'Abdu'l-Baha, quoted in: From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to the Iranian believers resident in various countries throughout the world, February 10, 1980, Lights of Guidance, Page 126/127
21. Who is Writing the Future? Baha'i International Community
22. Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 42
23. Secretary to Shoghi Effendi, from a letter dated 27 May 1932 to an individual believer.
24. Earth Charter, http://earthcharter.org/discover/the-earth-charter/
25. Kesuvim (Writings), Koheles (Ecclesiastes 1:4)
26. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, section IV.
27. King James Bible, Isaiah 2:2-5
28. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, XLIII, p.93
29. The Universal House of Justice / 24 May 2001 – To the Believers Gathered for the Events Marking the Completion of the Projects on Mount Carmel
30. Dire Predictions – Understanding Global Warming, the illustrated guide to the findings of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) by Michael E. Mann and Lee R. Kump, p.197
31. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 250
32. 'Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 2
33. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 94)
35. Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed After the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p.174
© Christine Muller and International Environment Forum