The Ecological Gospel (With a Spiritual Tune)

By Jay Howden

Coverage of Arthur Lyon Dahl’s presentaton “Transforming Environments from the Inside Out.” Click here to listen to Dahl’s presentation, or here to access the abstract, transcript and accompanying PowerPoint.

The first plenary session of this year’s A.B.S. Conference reflected the joint participation of the International Environment Forum (this is the I.E.F.’s 13th gathering) in bringing forth the ideas behind the conference theme, “Environments”. Arthur Lyon Dahl, former executive member of the United Nations Environment Program and the founding President of the I.E.F., was actually giving his second talk of the Conference’s opening day. Earlier, he had outlined an exciting initiative, funded by the European Union and inspired in part by the Baha’i International Community’s 1998 statement Valuing Spirituality in Development.

That talk and discussion was called “Measuring the Intangible: Values-Based Indicators of Sustainable Development”, and outlined a two-year project in identifying the key ethical and spiritual factors that allow development to proceed in a positive way. Two Baha’i agencies are partners with academic, industrial and civil service agencies (including the Earth Charter Initiative) in determining the constellations of values that make for healthy community growth and, very importantly, how such values can be measured and tangibly encouraged. This first presentation by Dr. Dahl, focused as it was on a scientific approach to understanding and fostering spiritually based ethics, was a practical, microcosmic study. His plenary session later that evening, “Transforming Environments from the Inside Out”, was Big Picture, all the way.

Dr. Dahl began by assessing the state of the world, which has achieved a level of material wealth and invention such as earlier generations could never have imagined. And yet, he said, “we are clearly living beyond our means”: extremes of wealth and poverty grow ever more obscene, while the disparity between the ecological footprints of those in the highly developed Western economies and those in the largely impoverished southern hemisphere grows ever more problematic. (As he noted, if the entire world’s population were to consume at the level of American citizens, we would need several planets’ worth of resources.) Population “has tripled in my lifetime”, Dahl reported, in a world in which fundamental resources appear to have approached several critical limits. Our material advancement has been achieved at a frightening cost.

Many prominent scientists and experts are deeply pessimistic these days. The rise of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, so threatening to the stability of the planet’s climate, are proceeding at even faster levels than anticipated only a few years ago. Polar ice caps and glaciers are melting at alarming rates, and the consequent rise in sea levels threatens communities in every low-lying area of the world, including many of the world’s most vulnerable and impoverished peoples. (And Miami. And the Netherlands.) “We may soon be approaching a ‘tipping point’ where runaway climate change would be catastrophic…’Climate change represents the biggest market failure in human history,’” Dahl said, quoting a prominent European economist.

And so he laid out, with little drama but plenty of power, the challenges we face. Our fossil fuel-based civilization, in the face of the increasingly difficult search for ready sources of oil, gas and coal (not to mention the cost of the huge amount of carbon thus spilled into the atmosphere), “is almost by definition unsustainable”, and yet the world has made relatively tiny efforts to conserve energy or to find alternative sources. The implications for food production are also dramatic, since fossil fuels are also a prime source for the fertilizers and machinery necessary for large-scale agriculture. Fresh water? Threatened. Energy production? Problematic. Massive human migration? Almost guaranteed.

So what to do? Dr. Dahl quickly dismissed “business as usual”, or some fantasy retreat to old-world values of “I’ve got mine” exclusion, as options. Are we heading toward the collapse of global civilization? It is clear that our current economic paradigm of constant and unlimited material growth is no longer valid, if it ever was. Economists “don’t know where we’re going”, Dahl observed, because the complex planetary economic systems are so integrated, and based so obsessively on unrestrained growth – in a human body, such growth is called “cancer” – and what Shoghi Effendi called “unfettered national sovereignty”. Resources are depleting rapidly. Economic structures are overwhelmed. Natural wonders are being sullied or eliminated. “All that is left,” Dahl touchingly said, “is our brains and our hearts.”

What prevents us from solving these problems? Dr. Dahl highlighted several outstanding barriers: our compartmentalized world view; our view that the environment is “outside” of us, rather than a closely integrated and interdependent organism; short-term thinking, both on the political and the personal levels; and, a “self-centred materialism” which has become the “dominant world faith”, capturing all significant centres of power and information. Against such a materialistic roar, there are few competing voices. Billions have learned to long for the “car in every garage” American material ideal, but this rampant “consumer culture” cannot continue. Further, deep social divisions prevent united action in the common interest, and self-interest too often trumps solidarity. So how will we respond to these challenges?

Depressingly, some of the responses are hugely dysfunctional, and may worsen the problem. For example, there is a “global land grab” by wealthy nations, looking for third-world land to raise the food the “haves” will need in the future, with massive disregard for the state of the “have nots”. One of the real dangers, too, is of a temporary rebound of the world’s economy, which might convince the complacent that we can go back to “business as usual” instead of embracing the opportunities afforded by the most current economic crisis. It exposes the problems in the system, and if we don’t act on them now, the future will be worse. We can deny. We can get despondent. Or we can act. But how?

Dahl’s prescription is simple but profound: we need to transform civilization. Whew! And how? Scientific advance doesn’t change the ingrown behaviours and attitudes of governments and peoples. But, while frank about the chaos possible in the ongoing collapse of many of our cherished material foundations, Dr. Dahl is very clear about the necessary human response, particularly for the Baha’i community. “Sustainability” might be another term for the overriding goal: realizing the oneness of humankind. This will require a profound change in our ethical viewpoint, our spiritual orientation and our sense of human solidarity, which is exactly the kind of work the Baha’is have been trying to do. Now, it is possible for us to see that the core work of our small community is precisely what the world needs.

Transformation must occur from the inside out, and environmental issues cannot be separated from spiritual ideals. Many Aboriginal cultures have taught this, and our growing world culture needs to learn it. “The environmental crisis is the result of a spiritual crisis,” Dahl argued. “…thou wilt behold the signs of thy Lord’s mercy in every created thing,” wrote ‘Abdu’l-Baha. And we can express our inner spiritual transformation by avoiding “the temptation to sacrifice the well-being of the world’s peoples”, as the B.I.C wrote, in pursuit of furious acquisition. We must refuse to fall prey to “trivial and often misdirected pleasures”, as Shoghi Effendi called them.

Dahl spoke also of “the spiritual danger of intellectual pride” and its foundation in individualistic, rationalistic and ultimately self-centred approaches. It requires humility, quietly respecting the earth and willingly renouncing selfish desire. Science, too, must “cease to be the patrimony of advantaged segments of society…{but] permit people everywhere to participate” (B.I.C.). Being able to think in global terms must be expressed in community, the intimate and local expression of lifestyle needs versus unbounded wants.

The diversity and mixing of the world’s peoples will continue apace, especially with the looming possibility of massive dislocation of human populations caused by climate change. We must prepare our communities, local and national, to face the challenge of uniting this diverse and challenging mixture of peoples. We must convince the leaders of thought, Dahl argued, of the spiritual essence of human life, and the need to develop spiritual foundations together. However, though religion can galvanize human potential and inspire self-sacrifice, the reputation of religion has been tarnished and is in need of restoration. That’s our job, too.

Dahl argued forcefully that teaching the Baha’i Faith and trying to better human societies are coherent and mutually reinforcing activities. This is what we are learning to do. (It is what we’ve been learning to do for over a century.) The challenges of the outer environment, informed by the transformation of our inner environment, must be bravely addressed. The future consequences of all economic activities must be considered in an attitude of moderation, humility and a forward-looking vision. A new vision of economics must be developed: that development is genuinely “the cultivation of the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness” (B.I.C). Governance needs to adopt a more global orientation, and civil societies must (and increasingly do, as his earlier presentation showed) adopt a more outward- and forward-looking orientation that will inspire masses of people to conscious and resolute action.

Spiritual transformation is the fundamental requirement, Dahl insisted. Ultimately, the world must come to adopt the admonitions of Baha’u’llah, overcoming our narrow, self-interested perspectives and our predominant materialism. Spirituality, balance, moderation and enriched consultation are required, as is the development of what ‘Abdu’l-Baha called the “learned”: people with massive and mutually connected knowledge of both spiritual realities and a wide range of scientific and artistic skills and knowledge. Super Generalists, if you will.

Dahl’s conclusion was clear: “transforming environments is only possible from the inside out.” The challenges are enormous, and he was unsparing in challenging the A.B.S./I.E.F. joint conferences to acknowledge and accept the responsibility for facing them.

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