The Bahá'í Faith and Ecology
Arthur Lyon Dahl, Ph.D.
While individual Bahá'ís have been involved in ecology and environmental restoration with the encouragement of Bahá'í institutions since the 1930s, the formal implication of the Bahá'í International Community in environmental issues began with its representation at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, where two professional ecologists formed the Bahá'í delegation and a statement on the environment and human values was distributed. This was a natural extension of the fundamental Bahá'í principles of the oneness of humankind and the harmony of science and religion. The Baha'i International Community has subsequently presented statements and engaged in activities relevant to the environment and sustainability at many United Nations events relating Baha'i principles to the practical problems of the world today.1
A unifying vision
Bahá'í teachings apply the evolutionary concept to religion, describing the process of progressive revelation whereby all the great teachers or Manifestations of God, in founding the revealed religions, have renewed essential spiritual truths while adapting the social laws to the needs of their epoch and society. Civilization similarly evolves through higher levels of social organization, from tribe to city-state to nation and now to a world society. As Bahá'u'lláh, prophet-founder of the Baha'i Faith, put it, "All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.”2 He also warned about material civilization carried to excess, and the need for justice and moderation. The nations must heed His call to unite in the search for ways and means to meet the many environmental problems besetting our planet.
The Bahá'í writings emphasize the interrelatedness of all things. They contain a unifying vision of the nature and purpose of human life including an understanding of humanity's relationship to the natural environment. The human body is, like animals, subject to nature's laws, but human beings are endowed with a second reality, the rational or intellectual reality, and the intellectual reality of humans creates science and predominates over nature. Finally, there is a third reality in humans, the spiritual reality or soul, whereby the human being transcends nature and can evolve to achieve his or her higher human purpose.
Nature is seen as a reflection of the sacred. The perfections and attributes of God are reflected in all things. Many ecological principles are found in the Bahá'í teachings, which accept the scientific evidence for evolution, recognizing that the growth and development of all things is gradual and their perfections appear by degrees. The physical world is a closely integrated, coherent entity like the human body. Cooperation and reciprocity are essential to the functioning of both nature and society. The interdependence of plants and animals is described, demonstrating that all beings are connected like a chain, and are subject to transformation and change, illustrated with the example of a food chain. There is beauty in diversity, whether in a garden or in the human family. The earth trodden beneath our feet is the source of our wealth and prosperity, and a model of humility. Bahá'ís are enjoined to show forth the utmost loving-kindness to every living creature.
The human relationship to nature is both physical and spiritual. "Nature is God's Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.”3 We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us. Humans are organic with the world, and contact with nature is spiritually uplifting. All the Manifestations retreated to the wilderness to prepare for their spiritual missions. As Bahá'u'lláh put it: "The country is the world of the soul, the city is the world of bodies.”4
Sustainable environmental management
Sustainable environmental management is an important challenge. 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. Agriculture and the preservation of the ecological balance of the world are of fundamental interest, and every effort should be made to preserve as much as possible the Earth's biodiversity and natural order. Therefore sustainable environmental management must come to be seen not as a discretionary commitment humanity 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. Only a breakthrough in understanding that is scientific and spiritual in the fullest sense of the terms will empower the human race to assume the trusteeship toward which history impels it.
To achieve this requires a critical look at the present economy and consumer culture. Where belief in God has faded and traditional morality has been abandoned, selfishness is accepted as normal, corruption has spread, and greed, lust, indolence, pride, and violence have social and economic value. The dogmas of materialism and world-wide economic exploitation dominate political and economic thinking. The alternative Bahá'í vision sees each member of the race as born into the world as a trust of the whole. The challenges of climate change, environmental degradation, and the crippling extremes of wealth and poverty, require the transformation of the world from a culture of unfettered consumerism to a culture of sustainability. Bahá'í communities around the world are working for an organic change in the structure of society itself so as to reflect fully the interdependence of the entire social body‚ as well as its interconnectedness with the natural world that sustains it. This will require economic systems that are strongly altruistic and cooperative in nature, provide meaningful employment and help to eradicate poverty. Institutionally, we need a federated world government with legislative, executive and judicial powers able to apply collective security and to manage the planet's natural resources and assure their equitable distribution.
At the individual level, similar spiritual principles apply. Bahá'u'lláh said that wealth is a mighty barrier between the seeker and his desire. We should be content with little, be freed from all inordinate desire, and take from this world only to the measure of our needs, foregoing that which exceeds them. Everyone has an obligation to work, and work performed in a spirit of service is worship. Wealth is good, provided the entire population is wealthy, and that wealth is used in service to society. This change in our relationship to material things provides an antidote to excessive consumption and its environmental impacts. It frees us to focus on the real purpose of development, that is, the cultivation of the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness. These teachings help to develop a sense of responsibility towards the natural environment and a long-term perspective towards planetary sustainability and the rights of future generations.
About this Author
Arthur Lyon Dahl chose to study ecology because it reflected the Baha'i concept of unity in diversity. With a Bachelor's degree in Biological Sciences from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of California at Santa Barbara, he began a research career specializing in coral reef ecology at the Smithsonian Institution, before becoming the Regional Ecological Adviser with the South Pacific Commission in New Caledonia, and eventually a Deputy Assistant Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya, and Coordinator of the UN System-wide Earthwatch in Geneva, Switzerland. At the same time he represented the Baha'i International Community at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 1972, and the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (2009), and participated in the World Summit on Religions and Conservation (Windsor, 1995), the Conference on Religion, Science and the Environment: the Black Sea in Crisis (1997), and the World Parliament of Religions (Barcelona, 2004) among many other meetings. His books include Unless and Until: A Baha'i Focus on the Environment (London: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1990) and The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis (London: Zed Books and Oxford: George Ronald, 1996). He is President of the International Environment Forum, a Baha'i-inspired organization for environment and sustainability, and Chairman of the Board of ebbf - ethical business building the future.
1 See for example “A Bahá'í Perspective on Nature and the Environment” (1986) http://iefworld.org/bicpne.htm; “The Bahá'í Statement on Nature” (1987) http://iefworld.org/bicnat.htm; “Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Bahá'í Faith” (1995) http://statements.bahai.org/95-0406.htm; “Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the challenge of climate change” (2008) http://www.bic.org/statements/seizing-opportunity-redefining-challenge-climate-change; and “Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism” (2010) http://www.bic.org/statements/rethinking-prosperity-forging-alternatives-culture-consumerism.
2 Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1952, CIX, p. 215
3 Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978, p. 142.
4 Bahá'u'lláh, in J. E. Esslemont (1923), Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era. London: George Allen & Unwin, Chpt. 3, p. 40.