by Christine Muller
All men have been created to carry forward an
Sustainable Development? Isn’t that just for developing countries? And doesn’t the responsibility for development rest with the United Nations and Non-Governmental Organizations? The answer to both questions is an emphatic “No!” Today every corner of the earth is in need of sustainable development, even so-called developed countries. And all of us are called to play a part in it. Bahá’u’lláh writes that “All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization” (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh CIX: 214).
The Wilmette Institute Course on Sustainable Development. On September 1, 2018, the Wilmette Institute course Sustainable Development and the Prosperity of Humankind 2018 begins with faculty Arthur Lyon Dahl, Christine Muller, and Laurent Mesbah. Summer is winding down, Labor Day is around the corner in the United States, and, if you have children, they are probably back in school, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. But what about you? It is not too late to sign up for a course that will provide tools for helping to build and carry forward the “ever-advancing civilization,” for which Bahá’u’lláh says we have been created.
A Vision for a Spiritual Civilization. To what end should civilization be advancing? The Bahá’í writings provide a clear vision of a spiritual civilization, the time of the Most Great Peace, the Golden Age promised in many religions. The earth will be a place where people live in peace, where every individual is equally respected, no matter what their race, nationality, gender, or economic status is. Nobody will be hungry or live in poverty, and nobody will own excessive amounts of wealth. People will regard their work as worship and do their best to serve their fellowmen. Human interactions will be characterized by trustworthiness. People will live in harmony with each other and with nature. The extreme pollution that caused the massive extinction of plants and animals and that warmed the earth and changed its climate will have ceased, and much effort will have gone into cleaning up and restoring the earth’s ecosystems. All will have access to education and basic services and will have the opportunity to develop their full spiritual potential and to contribute to the common good.
What Is Development, and What Does It Have To Do with a Spiritual Civilization? Development is the two-pronged process by which humanity will get to a mature state of a global civilization. Spiritual development is the foundation for all development, and all material development must include a spiritual dimension. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh, and the authorized interpreter of His writings, said in 1912, that
All the Prophets have come to promote divine bestowals, to found a spiritual civilization and teach the principles of morality. Therefore, we must strive with all our powers so that spiritual influences may gain the victory. For material forces have attacked mankind. The world of humanity is submerged in a sea of materialism. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace 12)
Development efforts must consider the specific needs of each country or area. In developing nations, sustainable development often needs to address abject poverty and to improve access to fresh water, food, education, clean energy, sanitation, and health care. In the so-called developed world, development means adding a spiritual dimension to existing systems and rethinking other matters—for example, the economic system must be more equitable, and there must be an end to the destruction of nature, the life-support systems on which we all depend. Among many other things, this means moving away from fossil fuels and implementing clean energy. It also means switching to agricultural methods that are in harmony with nature and healthy for farm workers and that puts food production in the service of people instead of profit. It also requires a major change in the transportation system. Last, but not least, it means abandoning consumerism.
How Can You Contribute to Development and Work for Social Change? Everyone has a part to play a part in sustainable development. The Universal House of Justice, in its Ridván 2010 message (emphasis added), writes that social action’s “primary concern must be to build capacity within a given population to participate in creating a better world. Social change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another.” The Bahá’í International Community, in its 2009 “Seven Year Plan of Action on Climate Change ,” par. 4, says “Bahá’ís believe that progress in the development field depends on and is driven by stirrings at the grass roots of society rather than from an imposition of externally developed plans and programmes.”
The Bahá’í core activities (classes for children, junior youth spiritual empowerment programs, devotionals, and Ruhi study classes for adults) especially the study classes, aim to empower individuals by developing their capacity for service. Depending on the size of the community and its needs, the desire to be of service leads to social action. The Bahá’í International Community describes these efforts in detail:
Bahá’ís all over the world are engaged in a coherent framework of action that promotes the spiritual development of the individual and channels the collective energies of its members towards service to humanity. Thousands upon thousands of Bahá’ís, embracing the diversity of the entire human family, are engaged in certain core activities. These activities promote the systematic study of the Bahá’í Writings in small groups in order to build capacity for service. They respond to the inmost longing of every heart to commune with its Maker by carrying out acts of collective worship in diverse settings, uniting with others in prayer, awakening spiritual susceptibilities, and shaping a pattern of life distinguished for its devotional character. They provide for the needs of the children of the world and offer them lessons that develop their spiritual faculties and lay the foundations of a noble and upright character. They also assist junior youth to navigate through a crucial stage of their lives and to become empowered to direct their energies toward the advancement of civilization. As Bahá’ís and their friends gain experience with these initiatives, an increasing number are able to express their faith through a rising tide of endeavours that address the needs of humanity in both their spiritual and material dimensions. (“Bahá’í International Community’s Seven Year Plan of Action on Climate Change,” 2009, par. 4)
Everyone is welcome to participate in these efforts to up-lift the human spirit, to improve neighborhoods, and to build a better world.
The Wilmette Institute Course: Sustainable Development and the Prosperity of Humankind. You are welcome to join a group of learners seeking to understand more about sustainable development by participating in the online course Sustainable Development and the Prosperity of Humankind offered by the Wilmette Institute. In this seven-week course you will have the opportunity to study the economic, social, and environmental issues that humanity faces in achieving sustainability and to discuss the spiritual principles that can help us find solutions. You will be able to explore the implications of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for your individual and community action, reflection, and consultation.
Course materials will also cover the importance of education for sustainable development, reinforced with spiritual values, as the basis for helping each of us detach ourselves from Western materialistic civilization, reexamine our present lifestyles, and begin to live more sustainably in accordance with the Bahá’í teachings. The Sustainable Development course starts on September 1, but you may join anytime until September 7. Watch a video about the course.