Spiritual Dimension of Climate Change: One Bahá’í’s Perspective
a talk by John Herbert
John Herbert, a Bahá’í and a native Floridian who grew up in Gainesville, gave this talk (one of three) on January 17, 2016, to a gathering celebrating World Religion Day 2016. The event was sponsored by the Gainesville Bahá’í Interfaith Climate Group. He received academic training in geology and has spent the last thirty-seven years as an environmental consultant helping to clean up contaminated sites and working on water-supply issues, making the best use of limited fresh-water resources, and using highly treated wastewater as a fresh-water resource rather than viewing it as a material that needs to be disposed of. Part of John’s concern with the environment comes from his concern as a grandfather for the world we are leaving to future generations and, more broadly, about the way in which human beings treat each other. In February 2013 John was one of five Bahá’ís from Gainesville who signed up for the Wilmette Institute’s first Climate Change course with faculty Christine Muller. The five, who included an educator, two environmental consultants, a psychiatrist, and a goat farmer, met weekly to discuss what there were learning in the course. They came to see the need for community building among people of faith in Gainesville as a way of facing the challenges presented by climate change. The result was their creating the Gainesville Interfaith Climate Group to engage people of various religious traditions in education, inspiration, and action for a sustainable world. In 2016 the Interfaith Climate Group continues to address climate-change issues, and John reconnected with faculty Christine Muller for advice on preparing his talk, which has been lightly edited for publication as a learner project.
Let me start by saying that I have titled my talk “Spiritual Dimension of Climate Change: One Bahá’í’s Perspective” rather than “The Bahá’í Perspective.” That is because I am an individual Bahá’í speaking about my understanding of the topic. In the Bahá’í Faith we have no clergy. I am not speaking for or representing the “official” Bahá’í position.
I have drawn on Bahá’í scripture and works by Bahá’í and Bahá’í-inspired organizations (the Universal House of Justice, the Bahá’í International Community, and the International Environmental Forum). Just a word about the Bahá’í Faith: it began in 1863 in Persia when Bahá’u’lláh revealed that He was Manifestation of God—like Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad—among others. The Universal House of Justice is the international governing body of the Faith today. I mention this because I use the terms Bahá’u’lláh and the Universal House of Justice in my talk, and I want you understand the context.
Let me start by saying that I am a scientist, a geologist. I like technical stuff, but that is not what I will be talking about today. So I thank you for the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and to look at the nontechnical, the spiritual side, of the climate-change issue.
When I started doing research for this talk, I quickly found that the Bahá’í approach to dealing with climate change is the same as the Bahá’í approach to addressing other pressing issues—such as justice, the equality of men and women, extremes of wealth and poverty, racial injustice, sustainable development, the unity of religions, and so on.
Now, from a Bahá’í perspective, in order to address all of these issues, including climate change: We (humanity, all of us) need a change of heart, a reframing of all our conceptions, and a new orientation of our activities. The central principle of the Bahá’í Faith is the oneness of humankind. This principle should guide us to seek—in all of our endeavors—solutions that are equitable and just, treating all people as members of one human family.
This calls for a change in the present-day order (political/social order) that we have yet to witness in the world. When each of us begins to see all of humanity as constituting a single human family, it will have profound implications for our approach to the climate issue and just about every other issue as well.
In a letter written on its behalf, the Universal House of Justice has stated: “Until such time as the nations of the world understand and follow the admonitions of Bahá’u’lláh to whole-heartedly work together in looking after the best interests of all humankind, and unite in the search for ways and means to meet the many environmental problems besetting our planet, the House of Justice feels that little progress will be made towards their solution.”1
To repeat: Bahá’u’lláh’s admonition is “to whole-heartedly work together in looking after the best interests of all humankind.”
The purpose of Bahá’í activity in the field of social and economic development is neither to proclaim the message of our Faith nor to serve as a vehicle for conversion. Rather, it seeks to promote the well-being of people of all walks of life, whatever their beliefs or background.
So what are the aspects of the Bahá’í message that relate to climate change and sustainability? They include unity, justice, the equality of women and men, agreement of science and religion, truthfulness, equity, trustworthiness, generosity, and cooperation—to name a few.
Let’s take a minute to look in detail at some of these topics.
Unity of Religions and Shared Values
Bahá’ís believe that all of the major world’s religions worship the same God and that God’s word has been revealed progressively as humankind and civilization have advanced.
As we look around us, we see that all faith communities believe we should love one another and care for God’s creation. The golden rule, common to all faiths, pretty much spells out the problem and the solution: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Our carbon emissions, mostly from burning fossil fuels and deforestation, now wreak havoc across the world. Sadly, the people that are most vulnerable to climate change have contributed the least to the problem—the poor, our children, and the world’s future generations. Climate change is as much a matter of justice, fairness, and equity as it is an environmental problem. Our faith traditions all hold the values of justice, fairness, and equity in high regard.
Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, founder and president of Interfaith Power and Light points out that, if we look at the Book of Genesis 2:15, we see that “God put us into the garden to till it and keep it” and God gives us “dominion” over all living things. She then points out that, properly translated “dominion” means “stewardship.” “Taking care of creation is a matter of faith,” she continues, “It’s as important as love, justice, and peace.”2
To quote Peter Adriance, a member of the Public Affairs section in the Office of the Secretariat of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States: “Spiritual principles . . . are deep truths by which we are enjoined to live and which have the ability to guide and motivate constructive actions.”3 Spiritual principles, according to the Universal House of Justice, induce “an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures.”4
It is notable that religious leaders and faith-based organizations have been increasingly active on environmental and justice issues as they relate to climate change, that there are now statements by many major religions that call for climate action, including the 2015 encyclical letter by Pope Francis (“Laudato Si’”), which focuses on fighting poverty and climate change; the 2015 “Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change”; and the Bahá’í statement Shared Vision, Shared Volition: Choosing Our Global Future Together.
The Unity of Humankind
According to the Bahá’í International Community’s statement Shared Vision, Shared Volition, a heartfelt “consciousness of the oneness of humankind is the only way that the obstacles inherent in dichotomies like rich/poor, north/south, developed/developing, can be overcome.”5
It is commonly recognized that we all need to cooperate if we are to have any chance of solving the climate challenge, that no nation or community can solve it alone, that we need universal participation. According to the Bahá’í International Community, “The principle of the oneness of humankind . . . seeks to move beyond utilitarian notions of cooperation to anchor the aspirations of individuals, communities and nations to those of the progress of humanity. In practical terms, it affirms that individual and national interests are best served in tandem with the progress of the whole.”6
Again quoting the Bahá’í International Community, the “design and implementation of new economic and institutional frameworks” will involve realizing that we each are part of “a world-encompassing trusteeship—the idea that each one of us . . . bears a measure of responsibility for the welfare of all. This principle of trusteeship calls into question the efficacy of present-day expressions of sovereignty. It challenges the ethical basis of loyalties that stop at the boundaries of the nation state.”7
The 2015 UN Climate Agreement (Paris) may be the latest indication of a paradigm shift in our view of national sovereignty as it relates to global consequences of national policy.
The Elimination of Extremes of Wealth and Poverty
Both extremes—wealth and poverty—exacerbate climate change. The poor of the world are often forced to cut down forests for fuel and agricultural lands. This contributes to climate change and in the long term further contributes to their poverty, as their land will be degraded. Those who are extremely wealthy consume an inordinate share of the world’s resources and have a large carbon footprint. Justice and the eradication of poverty is a central teaching of all religions.
Bahá’í Community Action on Climate Change
The Universal House of Justice has stated that the deepening environmental crisis is “driven by a system that condones the pillage of natural resources to satisfy an insatiable thirst for more.”8 Note that this includes—but covers much more than—climate change. And it circles back to the oneness of humanity and the golden rule. How can we engage in wanton consumption of nonrenewable natural resources to the detriment of future generations?
The Bahá’í perspective is that we need to educate ourselves about the issue and follow up with grassroots activities. In churches, mosques, synagogues, and Bahá’í centers around the world, we need to be discussing climate change from a spiritual perspective, taking action to reduce our own emissions, and sending messages to our political and social leaders asking them to do their part in moving us toward a low-carbon energy future.
At the foundation of all changes is the principle of the oneness of humankind, which, according to the Bahá’í International Community, must become the “ruling principle of international life” in the twenty-first century and beyond.9
Ultimately it is people, whatever their role or place in society, who implement the policies of a central administration—or ignore them. Establishing sustainable patterns of individual and collective life will, therefore, require more than new technologies. It does no good to have all the whiz-bang technologies in the world if we are not willing to use them. And a large part of the solution may have nothing at all to do with technology; it may simply involve consuming less.
The key, in my opinion, is to cultivate a new consciousness in all of us, a consciousness that recognizes the unity of the human family. That new consciousness will be infused with:
- a new conception of ourselves and our place in the world
- a recognition that we are stewards of God’s creation
- qualities such as the capacity to sacrifice for the well-being of the whole
- the ability to trust and to be trustworthy
- the ability to find contentment in nonmaterial ways
- the ability to give freely and generously to others
These characteristics are derived not from pragmatism or political expediency. Rather they arise from the deepest sources of human inspiration and motivation. Faith and spirituality have, throughout history, been key to instilling such virtuous qualities in humankind. These are the spiritual virtues that we must have, individually and collectively, to succeed in addressing climate change and the other pressing challenges of our time.
- The Universal House of Justice, Department of the Secretariat, letter to individual, October 18, 1981, in “Conservation of the Earth’s Resources,” in The Compilation of Compilations, I:85.
- Huffington Post Blog; “The Faith-Climate Connection,” March 14, 2014, 05:20 pm ET; Updated May 14, 2014; Original source: YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPNpF5CcKWA.
- Peter Adriance, “Spiritual Principles for Sustainable Development,” talk, par. 10, Bahá’í Center of Learning, Hobart, Tasmania, Dec. 9, 2011. http://iefworld.org/dAdriance11a.
- The Universal House of Justice, 1985, quoted by Adriance, “Spiritual Principles for Sustainable Development,” par. 10.
- Bahá’í International Community, Shared Vision, Shared Volition: Choosing Our Global Future Together, 2015, par. 11. https://www.bic.org/statements/shared-vision-shared-volition-choosing-our-global-future-together#Gm4Wv3edd1SI5bez.97.
- Bahá’í International Community, Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the Challenge of Climate Change, 2008, final par. https://www.bic.org/statements/seizing-opportunity-redefining-challenge-climate-change#j30z7891sZB0TCH8.97.
- Bahá’í International Community, Sustaining Societies: Toward a New “We,” 2012, par. 3. https://www.bic.org/statements/sustaining-societies-towards-new-we#lvQzQATqZ2Maymqp.97.
- The Universal House of Justice, letter to Bahá’ís of Iran, March 2, 2013, par. 6.
- Bahá’í International Community, Seizing the Opportunity, par. 4.