Collective Consciousness, Human Maturity, and the Challenge of Sustainability

Coverage of the panel discussion moderated by Tahirih Naylor. Click here to access the panel abstract and related resources.

By Jay Howden

The Essential Role of Religion in Fostering a Sustainable World
Presented by Peter Adriance | Listen now

The second A.B.S. plenary session was a three-pronged approach to “the challenge of sustainability”. Peter Adriance, an International Environment Forum board member and an external representative of the American Baha’i community, made a compelling argument for the importance of spirituality in the environmental dialogue. He began with an illustrated meditation from many faith traditions, from the Bhagavad-Gita to Chief Seattle to Baha’u’llah’s ever-resonant call that “the earth is one country…”

Following this devotional period, Mr. Adriance sketched a quick history of the Baha’i community’s contributions to the global discourse on sustainability. For example, it made a substantial contribution in 1991 in a statement on the proposed Earth Charter, in which it maintained that “the world’s religious communities have a major role to play in inspiring [the necessary qualities for sustainable development]…” In fact, much of Adriance’s career has paralleled this growing level of interaction between the Baha’is and many governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For example, Gary Gardner (of Worldwatch Institute) wrote in 2002, a paper: Invoking the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in the Quest for a Sustainable World that explicitly linked the effects and influence of religion to environmental issues. It was the first time Worldwatch had written about religion in its 25 years. (This later became a chapter in State of the World 2003, a major annual publication of the Institute, and Gardner continued to write in this vein. He lists five key “assets” that religious communities offer to the work of sustainability:
* strong capacity to shape the worldviews of members
* moral authority
* the sheer numbers of their adherents, a critical mass for making change
* material resources in support of the same
* capacity to build and reshape and repurpose community.
Tony Deamer, a Baha’i in Vanuatu, is cited early in Gardner’s 2006 book Inspiring Progress as an inventor and community activist, someone whose long-time commitment to the Faith was fundamental to the ethical and effective work he was doing to create sustainable practices in his island nation.

While the Baha’i International Community has been making its contributions to the discourse on environmental issues (and human rights, racism, development, et cetera) for decades, there are many other examples of this movement. Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-founder of the Forum on Religion and Ecology, said, “No other group of institutions can wield the particular moral authority of the religions.” In 2008, the Sierra Club published its first report on the engagement of religious institutions, called Faith in Action: “Lasting social change rarely takes place without the active engagement of communities of faith…” In an attempt to show the energy available in faith community, the Rev. Sally Bingham founded “Episocopal Power and Light”, which quickly widened its base in renaming itself “Interfaith Power and Light”. Mr. Adriance also mentioned the Unitarian Universalist church’s “Green Sanctuary Program”, which holds that “these environmental crises may be the greatest moral challenge facing humanity in the 21st century…” On a lighter but no less committed note, Jewish community initiatives have taken such titles as “How Many Jews Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?” (promoting the move away from incandescent bulbs) and “Take a Scientist to Synagogue”. Not least, the International Environment Forum itself, a Baha’i-inspired forum for knowledge-sharing, education and information exchange, is among the many faith-based projects that are making efforts, from neighbourhoods to nations, to green their practices and raise the consciousness of their communities.

Adriance then spoke of the need to balance scientific and spiritual insights. Scientist Gus Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry, had once believed that science could solve the earth’s pollution problems. He no longer does. He told an evangelical group in 2008: “I now see that we need a cultural and spiritual transformation” and that religious communities are indispensable to this process. Despite the public sense that evangelical forms of Christianity, for example, and scientists are inevitably hostile, there are growing collaborations and “meetings of the minds” between these two ostensibly enemy camps.

The Baha’i community’s major response is to develop a global network of training institutes and supporting activities, bringing spiritual and other forms of education to families and neighbourhoods. Certainly the raising of ecological consciousness at the grassroots is among the things such institutes can foster. In the words of the Universal House of Justice, in a May 2001 message, “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.”

Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy
Presented by Peter Brown | Listen now

Peter Brown is a Professor at McGill University’s School of Environment, a distinguished writer and a special guest of the I.E.F. at this year’s joint conference with the Association for Baha’i Studies. The title of his address comes from his 2009 book (co-written with Geoffrey Garver), which calls upon Quaker principles of “right relationship” to illuminate the current environmental challenges: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, resilience and beauty of the commonwealth of life. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” (adapted from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac)

Dr. Brown is appalled by the state of our relationship with the earth and the myriad living things on it, but he wonders: Could this be a moment of grace? With the growing convergence of science and religion, and despite the massive amounts of bad news, could this be a special turning point in human history? Brown saw no need, given Arthur Dahl’s talk the previous evening, to dwell on the environmental catastrophes. He did need, though, to define “right relationship” in part by exposing signs of our wrong relationship with the earth, from the shockingly rapid melting of polar ice to the rapid rate of extinctions. Startlingly – and his dismay at the attitude and actions of government leaders ran strongly throughout his talk – Brown compared the conduct of today’s governmental leaders to the actions of the Rev. Jim Jones in guiding his fanatical followers to commit joint suicide in Jonestown in 1978. (Dr. Brown’s talk was frequently witty, alongside nuggets of outrage such as this one.)

So: we need to change the questions we ask. We need to learn to ask not “how can we exploit the earth’s resources and dominate it?” but rather “how can we live with respect and an ethic of reciprocity for all life?” Brown’s talk went on to list four steps that humanity needs to take toward developing “right relationship” with all life.

Step 1: How we got on a tragic course. Some of the foundational ideas of our society, including Greek and Judeo-Christian thought, have been based on separating humanity from life in general, and favouring the former while disregarding the latter. A narrow conception of reality has assumed that justice and goodness are confined to our relationships with other people, rather than with all forms of life. Brown also notes how the basis of scientific thought changed from understanding nature to an ethic of controlling and overpowering nature. So, the seeds of environmental catastrophe, for Brown, are planted deep in the soil of western culture. He told a story of the Peter Sellers character in the film The Magic Christian, a corporate boss who fires his subordinates, hands them maps and sends them out into the countryside. Only one problem: their maps are of other places than where they are! For him, this is similar to how lost we get in our thinking and society-building. We tend, in the west, to think of salvation (both spiritual and material) as an exogenous process but, as Arthur Dahl pointed out the previous evening, must come from within us.

Step 2: How to revision who we are (an opening to grace?) Science is showing us that the universe is being created continually (he showed a stunning Hubble telescope photo of enormous pillars of gas that are “star factories”), not as some finished system for us to play with. With a view toward establishing a basis for the human humility he sees as essential to developing “right relationship”, Dr. Brown went on to describe “some features of an ever-advancing universe”: the law of entropy, for example, the tendency of the universe to reduce complexity and gradients such as temperature (the universe is trying to cool down and winds and ocean currents can be seen as our planet’s attempt to achieve temperature equilibrium). Energy is needed to prevent systems from breaking down or degrading (2nd law of thermodynamics), and of course, with the input of light and heat from the sun, the Earth is one of those places where complexity can increase (this is why the winds and oceans do not succeed in their entropic efforts), while the overall tendency of the universe is to become less complex (and less hot).

Brown argued strongly, in line with this human re-visioning, that mind and spirit are not exclusive to human beings and that, in fact, one of the major ways we’ve gone wrong is in this human-centric hubris. He quoted extensively from the 1926 writings of Henry Beston, who described animals as “fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth”. Even a maple tree can change its behaviour in response to its surroundings, as anyone who operates a septic system in the countryside knows! So we should not maintain this “above the rest” view of human life. Brown showed a photograph of Earth from the Voyager satellite, four billion miles away, which caused the American scientist Carl Sagan to remind us of the need to be humble and care for “this pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known…” In revisioning humanity, we need to redefine our conception of citizenship as well, recognizing that “we are finite players in an infinite game”. The ultimate “infinite game” is evolution, and we are in the process of trying to counter it by destroying biodiversity; however, we are now among the threatened species. Finally, Brown derides the conception of God “making man in his image and [giving] the world to him”, which has encouraged a sense that humans are exalted over creation, which is a huge source of our problems.

Step 3: How to get economics and government on the right path (“Rethinking the economy”). What does the forgoing have to do with the economy? EVERYTHING.
What is the economy for? How does it work? How big is too big? What’s fair? How should the earth be governed? These are the questions that Brown’s book asks, and he is furious that our governmental and financial leaders have no useful and wise answers to these questions. He argued that the notable economist John Maynard Keynes had it right, in general: “the principal goal of economic activity is social stability.” (To which Brown would add the care of the ecosystem, as well). In any Economics textbook, there is little reference to this, none to ecology, none to the fact that, as Brown says (“the most banal thing you’ll ever hear”), “the economy is part of the Universe”. General macroeconomic practice ignores that our most important currency is not precious metals, or stocks and bonds, but the energy from the sun that allows photosynthesis. We need to think about how to use the earth’s capacity for supporting life of all kinds, not as a mere economic resource.

“The economy is too big”, argued Dr. Brown, and yet we cling to every hint that the economy might be recovering from its recent slump. We treat our traffic jams, said Brown, as inconveniences when, in fact, they are killing people all over the world by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which Brown argues makes us, through our materially overwhelming civilization, the greatest human-rights violators on the planet. He called the heads of the American economy (as well as others) “the most dangerous men in the world”, because they are the directors and arbiters of an economic approach that is based on the principle of aggressive and never-ending growth, and the unrestrained exploitation of the planet’s resources. He agreed with the Baha’i insistence on the need for global governance, and expressed admiration for the Baha’i models and principles of governance. His book contains a series of prescriptions, including a strengthening of the influence of the World Court and a recognition of its jurisdiction.

Step 4: How to create a whole earth economy. As his conclusion, Dr. Brown quickly enumerated four major necessities in creating the sort of “right relationship” to the earth that he advocates:
* Grounding and Clarification. We need to find common and beneficent sources of values.
* Design. We must actively search for models and pilot new approaches.
* Witness. Brown uses the Quaker conception of “witness” to call for a mass epiphany, a widespread transformation of public consciousness.
* Non-violent reform. Brown espouses Quaker notions of non-violence, but strongly believes in the need to oppose injustice and anti-sustainability; he cited the anti-slavery movement in England as a model precedent.
Dr. Brown and his book urge that we need to understand our place, and the Earth’s, in the universe, and then reorient our economic practices and beliefs. He echoes the words of Thomas Berry in his belief that humans “can become a mutually beneficial presence on the Earth”.

“The challenge is great,” concluded Brown, “but it has been done before. The alternative is unthinkable.”

Response and Dialogue
Presented by Arthur Lyon Dahl (and questioners)
Listen to Arthur Dahl | Listen to Q&A

The previous night’s speaker, Dr. Dahl, began his response to the preceding pair of talks by echoing Mr. Adriance’s reference to the involvement of Baha’i institutions and individuals in the sustainability discourse. Dahl mentioned the early British believer Richard Ste. Barbe Baker, founder of the Men of the Trees; the American Vinson Brown, whose book on Aboriginal and Baha’i spirituality Warriors of the Rainbow became something of an inspiration to the founder of Greenpeace; and, as well, his own involvement as a Baha’i representative to the 1972 Stockholm Conference, the first United Nations global summit on the environment.

Dahl also noted the clear parallels between Dr. Brown’s conceptions of “right relationship” and the Baha’i writings on the need to be careful stewards of the environment, especially ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s discussion of the “reciprocity” among all elements of creation. He mentioned as well the statement of the B.I.C. that only “a breakthrough that is both scientific and spiritual” can meaningfully address the problems of the world. Regarding Brown’s comments on the deficiencies of government, Dahl added that even where there is some recognition and acknowledgement of environmental problems, the resources have so far been drastically lacking.

A number of questions from the audience, with brief responses from all three speakers, concluded this very stimulating session. Once again, the participation in an IEF/ABS conference of a prominent non-Baha’i scholar proved to be exciting and rewarding, much as when Thomas Homer-Dixon presented his ideas two summers ago.


One response to “Collective Consciousness, Human Maturity, and the Challenge of Sustainability

  1. Charles Boyle

    The Men of the Trees is now a worldwide movement, and we seek to work alongside them by encouraging our junior youth and others to work with them and thus develop greater environmental sensitivity and awareness. The MoTT were very happy to have a Baha’i presence at their recent anniversary of establishment in Western Australia which is an interface we now seek to explore.

    This year our Local Spiritual Assembly turned off the Ayyam-i-ha presents and opted instead for contributions on behalf of the friends to various environmental, social and educational development projects mainly with OXFAM. This was well received by OXFAM, welcomed by the friends and inspiring for school friends of our younger Baha’i members when they related what they had done that weekend.

    As the friends in Montreal, we must not assume we can take upon our extremely modest shoulders the full burden of leadership and responsibility for these activities, but can more successfully assist and leverage other programmes of action.