In our latest post for the Environment and Religion series, President of the International Environment Forum Robert Dahl writes for RGS. Dahl explores how religion – specifically the Bahá’í faith – and its values of cooperation, justice, and unity across difference lends itself to the world’s ability to take action on climate change.
Coinciding with COP26 taking place in Glasgow, the LSE Religion and Global Society blog is pleased to host a new series on the environment and religion, showcasing how faith communities respond to and influence the discourse around climate change. This series will feature voices from specialists, diplomats, and activists on the topic.
The COP26 conference provides a vital opportunity for us to not only face our environmental existential threat, but also to examine the value systems that led us down this path.
The severity of climate change is, as confirmed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment, undeniable. Undeniable too is that the human causes of climate change will, and do, impact every part of the world.
We can, however, make a difference – we can move away from the existential threat of the environmental crisis that finds expression across the entirety of our social order. For this change to happen and to be long-lasting it must also be connected to another, often unseen crisis: one of values.
With our primary indicator of social progress being gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the flow of money through the economy, instead of human well-being, economic and political systems have become intertwined with economic growth and consumerism, effectively removing all obstacles to world-wide economic exploitation. This leaves us not only with the challenge of climate change, but also other fundamental issues of inequality.
Growth and profit are the primary values in this materialistic system, with social and environmental concerns simply externalities. It is no wonder then that there is a strong resistance by such vested interests to taking action on climate change.
However, we are not trapped in this value system. We can choose which values govern our social and economic systems. We can find inspiration for this among a range of sources, from prominent philosophers to public servants. It would also be wise to put religion to good use – a body of knowledge which continues to be a significant and influential source of our values.
By religion, I do not mean the forces of division, strife and repression – the rituals or communitarian identity groups that we too often associate with the word today. Rather, as a scientist and Bahá’í, I view religion as the dynamic movement that has shaped civilisations, and has helped to provide the systems of knowledge, ethics, and the scientific basis for today’s technological advancements and governing systems.
Today, as climate change, the pandemic and other challenges so obviously demonstrate, the need is to accept that cooperation on a monumental scale, never envisioned by humanity, is necessary to support us in common action.
The key and the driver to achieve this understanding is the realisation of our oneness as a human race, and envisaging an appropriate role for national autonomy that benefits each part as well as the whole. Indeed, as the Baha’i Writings state: ‘the well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established’.
As such, humanity needs to acquire a vision that goes beyond economic ties and embraces shared responsibilities and genuine concern for the well-being of all nations. This is especially important as climate change knows no borders. Significant barriers to achieving this are vested national or corporate interests, and narrow understandings of sovereignty and leadership in an undeniably entangled and integrated world. These elements alone are capable of paralysing the process of collective decision making which is so desperately needed.
The principle of the oneness of the human race at the heart of the Bahá’í Faith encompasses many values, including justice, equality, altruism, cooperation, service and unity in diversity. To bring about change, we need to apply these values to achieve behavioural change and policy formulation at the local, national and international levels. The scale of action required to avert climate change is colossal, but reinforcing our basic values can have a positive impact at all levels.
We will also need to alter our consumption habits, our modes of transport, our diets, and how we manage our wastes, among others. As the Baha’i teachings put it, ‘take from this world only to the measure of your needs, and forgo that which exceedeth them.’ However, if we chose to simply stop all of the human activities that drive climate change, some major economies would collapse, bringing about untold suffering and chaos.
A humanity conscious of its oneness will find a way and a common vision to compensate those industries and regions that have to make hard choices and sacrifices. We need a paradigm shift to design dynamic economic systems that are strongly altruistic and cooperative, and provide meaningful employment for all. Corporations can be given a legal framework and a new charter with a social purpose of service to society, with profit only one measure of efficiency among others. It is naïve to envisage a lasting solution to such complex problems without values at the heart of our motivation and decision-making.
If values have a role to play in motivating the population, it is undeniable that through religion, and other systems of belief, we can make this a moral imperative, at least for a considerable segment of society, joining many other people of good will.
Let us not forget our more recent and immediate experience in the UK, where noble values gave expression to sacrificial acts that sustained the National Health Service as it responded to the devastation caused by the pandemic. Such values can be more powerful in mobilising large numbers than the greed and competition promoted in the present system.
Religions have another great advantage, in that faiths and belief systems are rooted in local communities. Solutions imposed top down from higher authorities have little chance of success. But, if we work for this moral transformation to reverse the drivers and impacts of the climate crisis in each neighbourhood, town and village, we can build from the bottom up and sustain the momentum. In the climate crisis, communities, including religious communities, have an opportunity to mobilise their youth to take action.
Religious communities can use their networks and form groups to learn about climate change and to consult on the solutions relevant to each local reality. In our devotional activities, when we gather to pray and worship, we can seek the strength to make the sacrifices necessary for the common good. Such energy and power coming from the grassroots can reinforce and accelerate the necessary transformations led by governments and involving the private sector. The necessary rapid change called for by the IPCC requires that everyone work together.
As we gather at COP26, where we attempt to avoid a climate catastrophe, it would be wise perhaps to consider those faith communities attempting to live the values that will play a fundamental role in creating a sustainable future. The Baha’i writings tell us, ‘Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions’. It is clear that religion holds within it some of the building blocks of the fundamental transformation needed within society – let’s tap into it.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.