Why Should I Care about Sustainable Development?

By Christine Muller 

The editors of the Wilmette Institute eNewsletter asked Christine Muller, lead faculty for our popular course Climate Change, to tackle the important question of why should we care about sustainable development. She digs into the Bahá’í writings to find reasons why everyone should be concerned about this important question that informs discussions of broad social concern. We cannot always control political discussion or actions, but we can start at home, making changes in our own lives and becoming informed about the topic so that we can talk about it with friends, neighbors, and more.

Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, said “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.” 1 In our age, among the most urgent needs is sustainable development.

We have come to a critical point in human history: Today humans are using the Earth’s resources much faster than they can be replenished and are polluting water, soil, and air at a much faster rate than the pollution can be absorbed or cleaned by natural systems. In fact, it takes the Earth a year and a half (eighteen months) to regenerate what we use in a year.2 Some of the pollution will have extremely harmful effects for hundreds and thousands of years, especially the unprecedented increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations that are changing the climate and acidifying the oceans. Continuing with the “regular” life we know will result in a collapse of human civilization and in a mass extinction of plants and animals.

At the same time, the disparity between rich and poor has widened to unthinkable proportions, and large numbers of people are being exploited to serve an unjust economic system. This situation is clearly unsustainable. It does not take much imagination anymore to appreciate the words of Bahá’u’lláh:

Consider the peoples of the West. Witness how, in their pursuit of that which is vain and trivial, they have sacrificed, and are still sacrificing, countless lives for the sake of its establishment and promotion.3

There are many reasons why we should care deeply about the plight of humanity and promote sustainable development. Among them are four fundamental spiritual and practical reasons.

LOVE FOR GOD’S CREATION
Today creation is being destroyed by increasing numbers of people with growing demands on the Earth’s resources. All religious teachings call for stewardship of creation. Bahá’u’lláh explained that God “created the reality of all things,4 that “Nature is God’s Will,”5 and that the reason for creation is God’s love: “I loved thy creation, hence I created thee.”6

LOVE FOR JUSTICE
The poor, who contribute the least to the environmental crisis, are the first to suffer from the destruction of the environment. Here are a few examples: Poor people are more likely to live in contaminated areas. Many farmers, especially in Africa, already suffer from changing precipitation patterns and drought. And the poor everywhere are impacted the worst by rising food prices.

But we are also facing an intergenerational justice issue. Present generations are robbing future generations of the beauty of biodiversity, a diversity that is important for providing the life-support system for humans. In addition, this diversity has spiritual significance as in it “there are signs for men of discernment.” 7 Bahá’u’lláh said:

Whoso cleaveth to justice, can, under no circumstances, transgress the limits of moderation. . . . The civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men. . . . If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation.8

LOVE FOR HUMANKIND
Globally, there are almost a billion people who go hungry every day, 783 million people do not have access to clean water,9 and over 1.3 billion people are without access to electricity.10 If we believe that humankind is one family, these facts concern us. Poor countries must have the opportunity to develop. However, if they repeat the developed countries’ mistakes, building their economies on fossil fuels, there will be no future for anyone on this planet. These countries must be helped with technology and funding for sustainable development.

At the same time, the rich countries of the world also need to develop—but toward a civilization that lives in harmony with nature and that is just toward all the people in the world. They must build a renewable-energy economy, quickly phase out the use of fossil fuel, and cut down on waste and luxuries.

SPIRITUAL INTEGRITY
All efforts moving humankind toward sustainable development must happen on a global, national, and local level. Individuals have the responsibility to support such efforts and, at the same time, to change their own lifestyles. There is much we can do to use less of the Earth’s resources and to produce less waste. Many of these measures are easy to do and also make a lot of economic sense.

Such actions are imperative, if we want to live according to the ethical teachings of the Bahá’í Faith. They are also a prerequisite for our personal spiritual growth and hence for the fulfillment of our potential as human beings. Bahá’u’lláh says that a true spiritual seeker “should be content with little, and be freed from all inordinate desire.”11 He also says:

Take from this world only to the measure of your needs, and forgo that which exceedeth them. Observe equity in all your judgements, and transgress not the bounds of justice, nor be of them that stray from its path.12

He warns us: “Fear ye God, and take heed not to outstrip the bounds of moderation, and be numbered among the extravagant.” 13 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reminds us: “Content thyself with but little of this world’s goods!” 14

In essence, we should care about sustainable development so that we can all help “carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.” 15 We can accomplish this by applying the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh in our personal and community lives and by infusing them into the life of society with public discourse.

To learn more about sustainable development and to prepare yourself for discussing this topic of broad social concern, you will find much information in the Wilmette Institute’s course Sustainable Development and the Prosperity of Humankind. The course begins on September 15. Click here to sign up.

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  1. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh CVI: 213.
  2. See Global Footprint Network  http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/world_footprint/.
  3. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings XCVI: 196.
  4. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings XXVII: 64–65.
  5. Bahá’u’lláh, Lawḥ-i-Ḥikmat (Tablet of Wisdom), Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, 9: 142.
  6. Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic #4.
  7. Bahá’u’lláh, Lawḥ-i-Ḥikmat, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh 9: 142.
  8. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings CLXIV: 342–43.
  9. See http://www.unwater.org/water-cooperation-2013/water-cooperation/facts-and-figures/en/.
  10. See http://www.iea.org/topics/energypoverty/.
  11. Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán ¶214: 178–79.
  12. Bahá’u’lláh, Suriy-i-Muluk, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts 193.
  13. Bahá’u’lláh, Suriy-i-Muluk, Summons 188.
  14. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in Bahá’í World Faith 374.
  15. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings CIX: 215.

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