Technological change is inherent to human progress. Technology, by definition, serves to augment human capacities and in so doing alters the environment in which we act. In a very real way, social reality and technology co-evolve or are co-constructed. It could be said that the industrial and information revolutions have fundamentally transformed the functioning and conception of human society. Further, the relentless pace of technical and industrial advancement over the last century has redefined the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Technology is a dominant fashioner of reality, influencing social arrangements, goals, and assumptions in a way that profoundly affects collective development, individual behavior, and the ecosystems upon which we depend. Its multifarious impacts thus must be carefully scrutinized.
A major idea emanating from current academic discourse is that technology both shapes and is shaped by social, economic, political, and cultural forces. As one writer has put it,
A technology is not merely a system of machines with certain functions; rather it is an expression of a social world.1David Nye, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 47. Automobiles and road networks, power and communications systems, and the Internet are not simply technical systems but also social processes shaped by social context. Technologies can empower us but may also embody or express existing relations of power and characteristics of culture, reinforce social inequities or pathologies, or manifest ideological or strategic goals.2In relation to reinforcing patterns of social inequity, modern technological infrastructures sometimes are designed or distributed in a manner that does not benefit all populations of a society. Examples of strategic deployments of technology at the national level include large investments in space and military programs. Notably, technology, in the words of one thinker, has become
a powerful vector of the acquisitive spirit; it expresses wants or desires—and sometimes feeds them.3Dennis Goulet, Uncertain Promise: Value Conflicts in Technology Transfer (New York: New Horizons Press, 1989), 24. Our technical choices define a social reality
within which the specific alternatives we think of as purposes, goals, uses, emerge.4Andrew Feenberg, From Essentialism to Constructivism: Philosophy of Technology at the Crossroads, in Technology and the Good Life, eds. E. Higgs, A. Light, D. Strong (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 294–315. Our identity and roles in contemporary society are strongly mediated by technology; it is something we create, but it also recreates or redefines us.
The Critical Issue of Technological Choice
Technical choices shape the contours of everyday life and give real definition to modernity. These choices take place at the level of societies as well as individuals. The variety of technologies we confront—and the uncertainty about how best to use them, if at all—is daunting. Further, when we consider complex technical systems that evolve at the macro level, such as the Internet, our ability to influence the overall development and deployment of these systems seems quite limited. Nevertheless, because complex technical systems and the specific components and innovations underpinning them are socially constructed, human volition and values define their purpose and impact. We find, for example, that the intentions and values of a designer or of a corporation behind a product are embedded in ways that often are not obvious. So a simplistic notion that technology is a neutral means to freely chosen ends is not tenable. Technological advancement increasingly shapes the moral terrain on which we make decisions.5As an example, the widespread use of fetal ultrasound technology has impacted decision making regarding childbirth.
For many decades, the subject of technology has been integral to public discourse concerning processes of social and economic development. Various objectives and descriptors have been used to define the appropriateness of technology in relation to development activity: small scale, labor intensive, advanced, intermediate, indigenous, energy efficient, environmentally sensitive. 6The notion of appropriate technology, as technology of small scale that is ecologically sound and locally autonomous was championed by the economist E.F. Schumacher in his work Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, 1973. Ultimately, the appropriateness of technology is determined by the values of those creating, using, or implementing it. The
appropriate technology movement perhaps lost momentum to some degree because the role of values in guiding technological choice was not systematically explored.7Farzam Arbab, Promoting a Discourse on Science, Religion, and Development, in The Lab, The Temple and the Market: Reflections at the Intersection of Science, Religion, and Development, ed. Sharon Harper (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2000), 149–237.
Technological development often proceeds in a manner decoupled from community values and broader questions of individual and collective purpose. In using technology, means and ends can be easily confused, and consequently community goals and requirements can be wrongly defined.8The One Laptop per Child initiative illustrates the failure to harmonize means and ends. While technical innovation allowed laptops to be produced for slightly more than $200 per device, little or no effort was made to develop pedagogical material utilizing the technology. Initial surveys from Peru, where the laptops were widely distributed in schools, indicate no improvement in educational performance by students apart from learning how to use the laptops. Critics contend that the funds used for the laptops would have been better applied to teacher training. See, The Failure of One Laptop per Child, http://hackeducation.com/2012/04/09/the-failure-of-olpc. When the link between material needs and values is ignored, the role of technology as a vehicle for upraising the human condition becomes supplanted by a process that often turns people into passive subjects rather than active users and shapers of technological instruments.
Any tool can be used productively or destructively. But the most serious consequences of technology use are often quite subtle. The rapid adoption of new technology without reflection about possible impacts has sometimes upended longstanding social and cultural patterns, where entire domains of meaning and purpose in traditional cultures are displaced.9See, for example, the case of the Skolt Lapps, Pertti J. Pelto, The Snowmobile Revolution: Technology and Social Change in the Arctic (Prospect Hts, Ill: Waveland Press, 1987). In such circumstances, technology itself becomes a bearer and even disrupter of values; it can cause individuals and communities to adapt to technology rather than use technology to extend human capability in harmony with social goals and mores. This pattern of
reverse adaptation, where technology structures and even defines the ends of human activity, is a widespread phenomenon.10An illustration of reverse adaptation is that the availability of SMS technology has transformed the nature, frequency, style and substance of personal communication. While SMS texting is undoubtedly a useful tool, in some respects it has also displaced other forms of meaningful communication or created a perceived need on the part of many for the constant sharing of trivial information. Outsourcing our personal decision-making to algorithms is another example of how many people have adapted to new technologies. Such outsourcing is, in a way, a moral choice; we may be gaining efficiency but at the cost of opening ourselves up to forces of persuasion that distort our intentions. The concept of reverse adaptation is discussed in Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977), 227–29. The choices we make about technology, then, particularly when not fully evaluating their implications, may be at variance with our essential purposes, ideals, and norms. For this reason, as individuals, families, communities, and societies, we must reflect about how we design and deploy technological tools.
Technology can embed values in several other ways. It encourages that primacy be placed on efficiency, which can result in a failure to recognize negative externalities;11The classic illustration of negative externalities is the failure to take account of environmental impacts of technical innovation or industrial activity. it emphasizes a reductionist approach to problem solving, which can lead to an atomistic versus a systems approach in addressing complexity;12A reductionist approach can be found in the emphasis on recycling versus the reconsideration of systems of production and consumption. The former is obviously easier to pursue than the latter. In relation to particular social needs, there are usually different levels of technical solutions possible, with each succeeding solution having a higher degree of organizational complexity and a more formidable set of institutional and economic obstacles. An example would be the development of a mass transit system in lieu of a system relying on personal transport via automobiles. The adoption of the most optimal solution in terms of efficiency and aggregate environmental impacts—mass transit—requires active engagement and assent of the citizenry affected as it entails a different distribution of social resources. and it fosters an instrumental rationality rather than a rationality concerned with overall quality of life and meaning.13Goulet, Uncertain Promise, 17–22. What is at issue here is a general attitude fostered by a technological way of life where technology and everything it affects become instrumental—a means to an end—but the ends aren’t defined. Technology can prevent us from appreciating what is of true significance in leading a purposeful life, and thus the meaning invested in relationships and other aspects of life becomes diminished. In the end, such an orientation can result in an exaggerated reliance on technology where it is easier to diffuse technology rather than effect change in human attitudes and behavior.14An example of this technological fix mentality is the idea of geo-engineering, which involves intentional, large-scale technical manipulations of the Earth’s climate system either by reflecting sunlight or removing carbon dioxide from the air. Many scientists are concerned about the unknown risks of such approaches to alter complex natural systems. See: Technological ‘Solutions’ to Climate Change, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/geoengineering-solutions/. A facile optimism that technology alone can ameliorate or resolve pressing social challenges often only serves to exacerbate the real problems at stake in a given context.
The Role of Technology in Advancing Civilization
The concept of human betterment, of an ever-advancing civilization in which both material and spiritual well-being are continually fostered, implies a central role for science and technology and, in particular, an evolving capacity for making appropriate technological choices. Such a capacity represents an expression of human maturation. A key concept articulated in the Bahá’í teachings is that the creation, application, and diffusion of knowledge lies at the heart of social progress and development. In the latter part of the 19th century, Bahá’u’lláh urged:
In this day, all must cling to whatever is the cause of the betterment of the world and the promotion of knowledge amongst its peoples.15Bahá’u’lláh, cited in 26 November 2003 letter of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of Iran. And in a related passage, He affirmed:
The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquility of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God.16Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1978), 129. These and other statements in the Bahá’í writings underscore that the set of human capacities necessary for building up the material and moral fabric of collective life is derived from an expanded notion of rationality that references both mind and spirit.
the power of intellectual investigation and scientific acquisition as a
higher virtue unique to human beings, the Bahá’í writings recognize that scientific methodologies alone cannot tell us which ideas or norms best advance a specific social objective or competence.17‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912, rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 49. The knowledge required to advance social well-being must be multidimensional, encompassing not only techniques, methodologies, theories, and models but also values, ideals, qualities, attributes, intuition, and spiritual discernment. Drawing on both science and religion allows us to satisfy these diverse knowledge requirements and to identify new moral standards and avenues of learning in addressing emerging contexts of social dilemma.18The harmony of science and religion is an essential Bahá’í tenet: …faith in God and confidence in social progress are in every sense reconcilable…science and religion are the two inseparable, reciprocal systems of knowledge impelling the advancement of civilization (The Universal House of Justice, 26 November 2003). Religion is regarded as an evolutionary and civilizing phenomenon addressing knowledge at two principal levels: first, providing insight concerning human purpose, provenance, and identity; and second, informing us as social beings about the essential parameters of social interaction and the very nature of the social order, particularly how it should be constructed to reflect principles of fairness, empathy, and cooperation. As an essential expression of reality, religion is not to be dismissed as an atavistic phenomenon irrelevant to the processes of social advancement. Rather, it is a primary force shaping human consciousness, ensuring that humanity’s distinctive potentialities, particularly its rational powers, are constructively channeled. This sheds light on the full range of capabilities that must be employed in understanding, developing, evaluating, and using technology. In essence, technology is a magnifier of human intent and capacity, and consequently, it cannot become a substitute for human judgment or action.
technology derives from the Greek
techne, which is translated as
art. In this sense, technology is the branch of human inquiry and activity relating to craftsmanship, techniques, and practices; to innovation and provision of objects; and to systems based on such objects. While the term
technology is not explicitly used by Bahá’u’lláh or the Báb, we do find references to the
arts and sciences,
invention. Bahá’u’lláh wrote:
Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent.19Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), 26. The knowledge referred to here in the original Arabic is ‘ilm. Two principal types of knowledge are alluded to by Bahá’u’lláh: ‘ilm, referring to knowledge gained by the use of reason, investigation and sensory perception, and irfán, referring to spiritual insight, awareness and inner knowledge. That irfán and ‘ilm are deeply connected is underscored by Bahá’u’lláh throughout His writings. For example, He states: The source of all learning (‘ulúm, plural of ‘ilm) is the knowledge of God (irfán Allah). Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, 159. And in a prayer, the Báb wrote:
I yield praise unto Thee, O Lord our God, for the bounty of having called into being the realm of creation and invention.20The Báb, Selections from the Writings of the Báb (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1976), 195. The Báb and Bahá’u’lláh were the Twin Founders of the Bahá’í Faith. The Báb was both the inaugurator of a separate religious Dispensation and the inspired Precursor of Bahá’u’lláh. Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: Selected Letters (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991), 123. The deep connection between the rational and creative dimensions of human endeavor is strongly emphasized by Bahá’u’lláh:
Erelong shall We bring into being … exponents of new and wondrous sciences, of potent and effective crafts, and shall make manifest through them that which the heart of none of Our servants hath yet conceived.21Bahá’u’lláh, Summons of the Lord of Hosts: Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 2002), 1.67. It is fascinating that Bahá’u’lláh indicates that one principal sign of the
coming of age of the human race will be the mastery of a particular scientific and technological art:
the discovery of a radical approach to the transmutation of elements.22Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1993), n. 194. Physicists have transmuted bismuth into gold in minute quantities via particle accelerators but at considerable cost. See: Fact or Fiction?: Lead Can Be Turned into Gold, Scientific American (January 2014), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-lead-can-be-turned-into-gold/ . It appears that Bahá’u’lláh is alluding to great advances in the science of transmutation. Natural transmutation of the elements via nuclear fusion reactions in stars is responsible for the creation of the most common elements of the universe including helium, oxygen, carbon and iron. Heavier elements such as lead, gold, and uranium result from higher energy reactions associated with supernovas. The notion that something can be changed into something else reinforces the idea that it is not the material thing that is of value but rather the conceptual insight and knowledge that makes such a transformation possible. This is an affirmation of our primary spiritual identity and agency as manifested by the gifts of creative intellect.23The Bahá’í teachings indicate that we have three aspects of our humanness, so to speak, a body, a mind and an immortal identity—soul or spirit. We believe the mind forms a link between the soul and the body, and the two interact on each other. Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 7 June 1946, in Shoghi Effendi, Arohanui: Letters to New Zealand (Suva, Fiji: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 89. The noble and fertile powers of the human spirit can be seen in how the roles of the technologist and artist are in some sense equated and seen as central to the process of social advancement:
The purpose of learning should be the promotion of the welfare of the people, and this can be achieved through crafts. It hath been revealed and is now repeated that the true worth of artists and craftsmen should be appreciated, for they advance the affairs of mankind.24Bahá’u’lláh, in Compilation on the Arts, in The Compilation of Compilations, Vol. I (Monavale: Bahá’í Publications Australia, 1991), 3.
In attempting to elaborate the essential characteristics of technology, one prominent analyst offers this description:
Technology is a programming of nature. It is a capturing of phenomena and a harnessing of these to human purposes.25W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (New York: Free Press, 2009), 203. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s son and appointed successor, observes that
all the present arts and sciences, inventions and discoveries man has brought forth were once mysteries which nature had decreed should remain hidden and latent, but man has taken them out of the plane of the invisible and brought them into the plane of the visible.26‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 359. These words suggest that technology is more than a mere
programming of natureand that it serves as an evident expression of humanity’s innate intellectual and inventive power. But He also warns about how this power can be distorted or misapplied. Speaking of the
malignant fruits of material civilization, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stresses that
human energy must be
wholly devoted to useful inventions and
concentrated on praiseworthy discoveries.27‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Wilmette: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 303. Moving towards more conscious and purposeful patterns of technological innovation that are in consonance with the values and aspirations of individuals and communities depends on both practical and spiritual awareness. There is no question, though, as to the pivotal function that science and technology play in effecting constructive social change and unleashing human potential. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says:
Would the extension of education, the development of useful arts and sciences, the promotion of industry and technology, be harmful things? For such endeavor lifts the individual within the mass and raises him out of the depths of ignorance to the highest reaches of knowledge and human excellence.28‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization (Wilmette: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1990), 14.
Mechanisms of Technological Choice
How then can individuals and communities be empowered to make meaningful choices about technology? How do we move from being passive technological users or subjects to active agents in constructively shaping patterns of technological development? Clearly, developing the capacity for technological assessment, innovation, and adaptation is vital to social progress. This requires the creation of grassroots, participatory mechanisms that foster a dynamic process of learning about technology. It entails the creation of consultative social spaces where communities can evaluate technological needs, options, and impacts. Langdon Winner observes that
both evaluations of technology and the cultivation of lasting virtues that concern technological choice must emerge from dialogue within real communities in particular situations.29Langdon Winner, “Reply to Mark Elam.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 19, no. 1 (1994): 107. The main challenge in this regard is
how to expand the social and political spaces where ordinary citizens can play a role in making choices early on about technologies that will affect them.30Ibid. The philosopher Albert Borgmann echoes this point by emphasizing that our use of technology has deep implications for our essential relationships—as family members, parents, citizens, and stewards of nature—and consequently it is necessary for us to reassess notions of the
good life so that
technology can fulfill the promise of a new kind of freedom and richness based on deeper human
engagement.31Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of the Contemporary Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 248. In short, we need to create opportunities for reflection at all levels of society that allow us to consciously build ways of life that integrate technology into a desirable conception of what it is to be human. And such a conception of human purpose cannot be dictated by prevailing materialistic structures and forces. Making proper technological choices is therefore bound up with processes of social, political, and moral development.
Practices of collective reflection and public consultation would appear to provide precisely the creative mechanisms needed to appraise new technologies in relation to overall personal and community goals. Such practices move us away from simply being
against technology and instead represent a way for generating and applying knowledge in harmony with basic community aspirations. True community empowerment and learning, the bases of real sustainability, require local communities to define their own pathways of material development and progress. Such active and genuine participation, where practical knowledge is gained by the people most affected, lies at the heart of the Bahá’í approach to transforming social conditions and behavior. In the Bahá’í view, the primary task of material and social development activity is the raising of capacity among individuals, communities, and institutions across all regions and cultures, with the goal of a creating a civilization in which there exists a
dynamic coherence between the spiritual and practical requirements of life on earth.32The Universal House of Justice, 20 October 1983, in a letter written to the Bahá’ís of the world, online at: http://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages. This vision rejects
approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.33Social Action, a paper prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá’í World Centre, 26 November 2012.
Changing the locus of power in relation to technological decision making—or what one theorist calls the
democratization of technology that takes fuller account of human agency, needs, and values—has many dimensions.34Andrew Feenberg, Questioning Technology (New York and London: Routledge, 1999). Over the long term, communities need to establish institutional processes for systematizing learning about technology. This includes identifying, understanding, and internalizing relevant community values as they apply to the development and use of technologies. After many years of painful experience, it has become evident that the abrupt transfer of technology from outside a community or culture often doesn’t have the desired effect. Such transfers are plainly not sustainable. The process of harnessing and deploying technical innovation takes time. This is why organizational capacity building at the local level, including collective proficiency in pursuing structured research, training, and deliberation, must be a central component of social development practice.
Stated another way, how does a community learn? Apart from individuals acquiring skills, there has to be a learning process where local groups or local centers of technology are not only absorbing but also generating knowledge. Once a process of this kind begins, everything is possible, including the development of informed technological decision making, constructive patterns of technology usage, and invention appropriate to the needs of communities. As one development practitioner underscores,
Disseminating technology is easy, nurturing human capacity and institutions that put it to good use is the crux.35Kentaro Toyama, Can Technology End Poverty?, Boston Review (November 1, 2010), http://bostonreview.net/forum/can-technology-end-poverty .
Examples of such community capacity building and social capital formation abound.36A growing body of research underscores the central role of social capital in fostering economic development, social cohesion, and patterns of public participation. Social capital is an asset, a functioning propensity for beneficial collective action and is determined by the quality of relationships within a group, community or organization. The formation or enhancement of social capital in a community principally depends on the creation of social spaces and institutions that foster changes in thinking, attitudes and behavior—changes that promote collective exchange, learning and action. Research indicates that social capital builds up as a result of discursive or consultative processes in which stakeholders continually work to elaborate a common understanding of collective objectives. Anirudh Krishna, Active Social Capital (New York, Columbia University Press, 2002). In Kenya, the Kalimani Women’s Group, an initiative influenced by Bahá’í principles, employed consultative methods among community members in developing access to safe drinking water for 6,000 people. Public deliberations focused on underlying health needs, invariably leading to issues of clean water access. Through this public goal-setting process, technological options were considered, including the use of subsurface dams—an innovative, appropriate technology. With assistance from technical non-governmental organizations, community members themselves built and maintained dams, and pumping and storage systems. Processes of evaluation and further project planning all flowed from participatory decision-making mechanisms.37See In Kenya, consultation and partnership are factors for success in development, One Country 11, no. 1 (April–June 1999), http://onecountry.org/story/kenya-consultation-and-partnership-are-factors-success-development. This project, like other effective community-driven development initiatives, has demonstrated that technical learning optimally occurs through substantive and sustained social engagement and consultative interaction among key stakeholders. More broadly, mechanisms of accessible, ongoing community dialog can lead to new social understandings and transform arrangements of power affecting community members.38Transforming arrangements of power is intimately tied to social identity and to the primary values of a community. These factors directly affect, for example, local governance structures, the station and role of women, attitudes toward education, and allocation of community resources. Individual and collective behavior naturally change, and in a beneficial way, when attitudes and values become clear through community consultation. Some of the more dramatic development successes in recent years have involved the reaffirmation or redefinition of basic social norms through community dialog—for example, management of local environmental resources or elimination of practices adversely affecting young women and girls. For an overview of the Bahá’í community’s approach to social and economic development, see For the Betterment of the World, http://dl.bahai.org/bahai.org/osed/betterment-world-standard-quality.pdf.
Beyond specific social development initiatives, the global Bahá’í community itself, through its administrative institutions at the local, national, and international levels, has endeavored to utilize emerging technologies in a manner that aligns with goals of collective learning, organic growth, social empowerment and unity. In this respect, individuals and Bahá’í institutions are becoming increasingly aware that the development and use of technological tools must be determined by actual needs, patterns of activity, available resources, and overarching community objectives rather than any potentially novel methods that such tools can offer. A particular concern is that technologically driven approaches, without proper consideration of the reality of the pertinent administrative or community context, can result in solutions that are ineffective or even inconsistent with basic Bahá’í aims and norms. This has been especially true in relation to the introduction and use of information and communication technologies. As the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, has stressed:
The capacity of the institutions and agencies of the Faith to build unity of thought in their communities, to maintain focus among the friends, to channel their energies in service to the Cause, and to promote systematic action depends, to an extent, on the degree to which the systems and instruments they employ are responsive to reality, that is, to the needs and demands of the local communities they serve and the society in which they operate…In this connection, we are instructed to provide a word of warning: The use of technology will, of course, be imperative to the development of effective systems and instruments…yet it cannot be allowed to define needs and dictate action.39From a letter dated 30 March 2011, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly. Accordingly, circumstances in which technological devices and systems might distort individual and collective behavior through unanticipated cultural effects, promote efficiency at the expense of relationship building, lead to social fragmentation and disunity by serving only certain segments of a community, or undermine existing processes of capacity building and community building by diminishing the agency of community actors, would be closely scrutinized by Bahá’ís.40For instance, due to the dominance of technology platforms and tools created in the West, content or applications emanating from that source can have unexpected cultural impacts on communities in other parts of the world. The patterns of communication facilitated by technological tools can also adversely affect the culture of a community. In this respect, Bahá’ís “must aim to raise consciousness without awakening the insistent self, to disseminate insight without cultivating a sense of celebrity, to address issues profoundly but not court controversy, to remain clear in expression but not descend to crassness prevalent in common discourse, and to avoid deliberately or unintentionally setting the agenda for the community or, in seeking the approval of society, recasting the community’s endeavors in terms that can undermine those very endeavors.” From a letter dated 4 April 2018 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly. The development and use of technology, then, is grounded in essential Bahá’í values and the means by which those values are expressed in actual community practice. In this way, those directly affected by technological instruments become active protagonists in determining how such instruments are applied to local circumstances and needs.
Even with robust deliberation and learning mechanisms, it can be difficult for communities to exercise control over technological trends and forces, especially when new techniques, devices, or systems originate externally, or if market mechanisms dictate particular technological pathways. For instance, specific agricultural methods, types of energy sources, or modes of communication technology can quickly become prevalent before social, ecological, ethical, and economic impacts within a particular local context are understood. Evaluating technologies can be extremely difficult, as is resisting particular technological trajectories. In a global economy of production, cycles of technological development are increasingly rapid, making it challenging even for the appropriate questions about our choices to be formulated by relevant social institutions.
A strategy of participation and awareness is the necessary starting point in preventing seemingly irrepressible technological and market forces from overwhelming individuals and communities. Even though complex socio-technical systems (transport, telecommunications, energy) seem to have monolithic or intractable attributes, suggesting that technology penetrates society in an irreversible or deterministic way, new directions are possible if societies assess options and adopt different technology policies.42The emergence of demand-side management in the energy utility sector—emphasizing and rewarding energy conservation instead of building more power plants—is a significant shift from a few decades ago. The related integration of decentralized renewable sources is also contributing to the transformation of energy systems. These changes in the United States and other countries have been facilitated by changes in regulatory law. It should be noted, though, that the technology policies of governments rarely give explicit attention to social and environmental exigencies, while social and environmental policies rarely take account of technological opportunities. There is a need for greater coherence.This, though, requires immense moral and political will.
Agency or autonomy should not be attributed to technology, for it diverts attention from the human judgments and relations responsible for social change. As Leo Marx observes:
As compared with other means of reaching our social goals, the technological has come to seem the most feasible, practical and economically viable—resulting in
neglect of moral and political standards in making determinations about social directions.43Leo Marx, Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept, Technology and Culture 51, no. 3 (July 2010): 561–77. Because individuals and societies construct, select and shape technologies, determinism cannot be an accurate description of how technologies are conceived, developed, and adopted. We should not reify technology but grapple with it in light of essential principles such as moderation, justice, social harmony, and cultural integrity.
The issue of technological prognostication, of predicting how technologies emerge and evolve and what their social uses and effects might be, bears directly on the crucial issue of technological choice. It should be conceded that the manner in which technologies evolve and are used is not readily predictable. The history of technology is replete with examples of how particular devices and systems were ultimately used in unanticipated ways. The telephone was initially envisioned as an instrument to facilitate business transactions, but its adaptation by users at home, the so-called sources of
idle chatter, fundamentally transformed the telephone’s role.44This points to the key role of users in determining how technology is deployed and evolves. Both creators and users of technology play a role in how systems and tools are utilized.The Internet of today is something entirely different from what its military and scientific creators envisioned. Yet, specific applications can be analyzed from a functional as well as a values perspective and modified in accordance with our vision of a preferred implementation. The proper expression of technological choice, then, can affect the evolution and social adaptation of devices or technical systems.
Still, even with methodical processes of technological assessment in place, it is unlikely that we can discern the long-term implications of technological decisions made now. We can only do our best, using both reflective inquiry and ethical understanding to continually examine how technologies contribute to personal and collective advancement.
The Case of the Internet
The emergence of the Internet with its increasing penetration into all facets of human activity—social, economic, cultural, educational, political, and personal—offers a compelling illustration of the complex factors that determine whether technical innovation is deployed in a constructive or deleterious way. The Internet is dramatically reshaping patterns of communication and in so doing is effecting profound changes in human relationships encompassing individuals, families, the workplace, public institutions, and international affairs. Clearly, the Internet, as a socio-technical system, represents a far-reaching advance in the ability of the world’s peoples to engage in new forms of interaction and collaboration, simultaneously contracting the planet and deepening bonds of interdependence. It offers tangible evidence that
the human race is now endowed with the means needed to realize the visionary goals summoned up by a steadily maturing consciousness. Viewed more deeply, this empowerment is potentially available to all of the earth’s inhabitants, without regard to race, culture, or nation.45Bahá’í International Community, Who Is Writing the Future? Reflections on the Twentieth Century (February 1999). The Universal House of Justice observes that
the Internet is a manifestation of a development anticipated by the Guardian46Shoghi Effendi was the Guardian and appointed head of the Bahá’í Faith from 1921–1957. when, in describing the characteristics of a unified humanity, he foresaw that a ‘mechanism of world inter-communication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity.’ Yet, learning to utilize the Internet in a manner conducive to material and spiritual progress is an immense challenge.47From a letter dated 9 October 2015 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly. The Internet, in essence, mirrors social reality, expressing and amplifying contradictory instances of human achievement and moral breakdown:
It is useful to bear in mind that the Internet is a reflection of the world around us, and we find in its infinitude of pages the same competing forces of integration and disintegration that characterize the tumult in which humanity is caught up.48From a letter dated 9 April 2008 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual. Its striking and disruptive emergence cannot be viewed as being detached from the aims and norms of its users and creators.
An analysis of the impacts of the Internet is obviously beyond the scope of this commentary, but a brief look at the current discourse concerning online social media is instructive. Statistics tell part of the story: as the number of global Internet users approaches four billion people, the vast majority participate on one or more major social media platforms or sites revolving around voluntary social creation and sharing—Facebook, WeChat, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Weibo, Pinterest, Snapchat, Telegram, Reddit, YouTube, etc.49See: http://www.internetlivestats.com/ . At the end of 2017, Facebook alone had 2.2 billion monthly active users and YouTube 1.3 billion such users. But it could be said that the various forms of social media are now at a crossroads. The enormous social, cultural, and political impact of major online social platforms is now being closely scrutinized by governments, public interest groups, academics, and individuals. Issues of privacy and security, abusive behavior, and false or hateful content are some of the prevailing concerns. The role of these tools in affecting youth identity and behavior is another.50How youth navigate the complex nexus between online and physical realities is one major concern. The presentation of the curated self—involving a focus on superficial and fleeting interests—raises many questions. What happens to the internal self when the external world watches and comments on every thought, every interest, every mistake? The phenomenon of addictive behavior, along with the reduced ability to concentrate and socialize with others among children and adolescents is another emerging concern. See, for example, Jean M. Twenge, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? (September 2017), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/. These issues, coupled with the fact that these powerful services can be manipulated and misused by any individual or group in any part of the world, have served as a wakeup call to everyone concerned about the unintended impacts of technology. As Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, remarked in response to the discovery that Facebook had allowed advertisers to target users using the term Jew hater and other offensive phrases, We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way — and that is on us. One technology commentator referred to this as Facebook’s Frankenstein moment.51Kevin Roose, Facebook’s Frankenstein Moment, The New York Times (21 September 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/21/technology/facebook-frankenstein-sandberg-ads.html.Further disclosures that the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users had been improperly obtained and repurposed by a third party in an effort to politically influence those users has greatly amplified public demands for greater accountability in how such data is collected and safeguarded.52See Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel, Facebook Says Cambridge Analytica Harvested Data of Up to 87 Million Users, The New York Times (4 April 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/04/technology/mark-zuckerberg-testify-congress.html . In addition, Facebook admitted that most users should assume that their personal information had been scraped by third parties who have exploited certain search features. A challenging aspect of this circumstance is that any remedial actions are likely to be in tension with the prevailing online business model of collecting personal data for use in advertising.53Regulatory initiatives are one type of response to the issue of data protection. For instance, in May 2018, the European Union implemented the General Data Protection Regulation, a new data privacy law intended to ensure that Internet users understand what data is being collected about them and consent to that data being shared. It represents a proactive effort to treat data privacy and security as central variables in the design of technological systems. Whether such regulation will be effective in safeguarding data privacy is an open question. Some observers have called for regulatory policies that go beyond EU rules that would allow individuals to review all the data that a company has collected on them, including inferential information generated about individual preferences; limit data collection for specific purposes and limited time periods; monitor the use of aggregate data like health and financial information; and penalize companies for data breaches. See Zeynep Tufekci, We Already Know How to Protect Ourselves From Facebook, The New York Times (9 April 2018). https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/09/opinion/zuckerberg-testify-congress.html.
The developments of the past few years have resulted in a palpable shift in attitude of major technology companies from one of
we just provide the platforms for free expression and the content is not our concern to one of active engagement to detect and remove offensive, incendiary, or defamatory material. That their own policies on such objectionable content are still frequently violated and not understood by their own staff who make content decisions and that a reliance on technical algorithms to detect problematic accounts or content still requires much refinement reveal the challenges that exist in just this one area concerning corporate responsibility. Particularly deplorable examples include the harassment of individuals, especially women, and the incitement of violence against specific ethnic or religious groups.54See Debbie Chachra, Twitter’s Harassment Problem Is Baked Into Its Design, The Atlantic (16 October 2017), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/10/twitters-harassment-problem-is-baked-into-its-design/542952/ and Amanda Taub and Max Fisher, Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match, The New York Times (21 April 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/21/world/asia/facebook-sri-lanka-riots.html . Civil society groups have criticized Facebook for aggressively expanding into developing societies with fragile institutions and histories of social instability, where social media can be readily misused to channel anger and fear into physical violence. As a government spokesperson in Sri Lanka said, There needs to be some kind of engagement with countries like Sri Lanka by big companies who look at us only as markets. We’re a society, we’re not just a market.
Questions of authenticity and integrity also abound. An investigative piece exposed how various public figures and organizations systematically buy audiences and followers that are not real.55This with the goal of giving a false sense of an account’s popularity. See Nicholas Confessore et al., The Follower Factory, The New York Times (27 January 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/27/technology/social-media-bots.html. In early 2018, nearly fifty million users on Twitter and sixty million on Facebook were found to be automated accounts designed to simulate real people; in short, we not only have
fake news and fake facts, but fake people followed by fake audiences. This reality has been aptly described by some observers as an emerging battlefield between
falsehood and veracitythat will only deteriorate as new forms of sophisticated but counterfeit audio and video technology are increasingly deployed for purposes of manipulating public opinion. All of this diminishes social trust between individuals and between citizens and their social institutions, amplifying forces of cynicism, division, and disorder. Bahá’u’lláh’s affirmation that
Trustworthiness is the greatest portal leading unto the tranquility and security of the people. In truth the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend upon it, as well as His call to the news media to
investigate the truth and
vindicate it, resonate deeply at this moment.56Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, 37; and Bahá’u’lláh’s Tablet to the Times of London, cited in The Bahá’í World, Vol. XVIII, 977. A related issue is that calls for greater media literacy in society are likely to fail to address problems of propaganda, false news, and hate speech precisely because social and cultural identity are primary determinants of how people interpret reality.57The question of what constitutes truth is increasingly viewed as a question about the validity of the sources and methods used to gain knowledge, which for some is a subjective matter and frequently a question of power. One commentator refers to this circumstance as epistemological warfare, where the propagation of any point of view is understood not only as free speech but also as an uninhibited right to be amplified. See Danah Boyd, You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You? Data and Society: Points, https://points.datasociety.net/you-think-you-want-media-literacy-do-you-7cad6af18ec2 . The associations and values of individuals, sometimes referred to as cultural cognition, frequently predispose people in how they react to information, including scientific information. For example, ideological identity can determine how individuals understand certain facts such as evidence of climate change. See Dan M. Kahan, Fixing the Communications Failure, Nature 463 (2010): 296–97. It is apparent that, as Bahá’u’lláh avers, everything needs to be made
anew: human purpose and identity, values, and all social relationships must be reconceived in light of the essential spiritual nature of human beings and a more expansive conception of solidarity encompassing the boundaries of the planet itself.58For Bahá’ís, facts and values derived from scientific and religious understanding express different facets of a single reality, and thus serve as complementary tools for discovering meaning at the individual and collective level. In the end, knowledge and truth, in whatever form and whatever manner they are determined, must serve a higher aim—the realization of inner human potential, the betterment of the world, and ultimately the attainment of the good-pleasure of God.
The corrosive influences of materialism, moral relativism, incivility, and ingrained prejudice now battering society are not only magnified by online tools, but in some instances are assuming new, baleful forms. Even algorithms and data depicting apparently straightforward social facts are affected by these influences.59As a consequence of intrinsic structural biases with data relating to gender and race, the issue of ethics and artificial intelligence is becoming an important focus of Internet researchers and public activists. See, for example, Navneet Alang, Turns Out Algorithms are Racist, The New Republic (31 August 2017), https://newrepublic.com/article/144644/turns-algorithms-racist, and Will Knight, Forget Killer Robots—Bias Is the Real AI Danger, MIT Technology Review (3 October 2017), https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608986/forget-killer-robotsbias-is-the-real-ai-danger/. Online social networks increasingly express a prevailing ethos of
connected isolation and polarization, where ideological or group identity seemingly filters and categorizes every idea almost immediately. The scaling effect of technology, where large online networks allow content to reach heterogeneous and unknown audiences around the globe, can result in
context collapse where the intent of posters is misinterpreted or misrepresented.60For instance, exchanges online involving hundreds or thousands of participants from different social and cultural backgrounds would never exist in a physical space. More often than not, online spaces of this type have proven to be socially and dialogically unmanageable. See Context Collapse in Social Media, HLWIKI International, http://hlwiki.slais.ubc.ca/index.php/Context_collapse_in_social_media. Further, the subtle and distinctive cultural characteristics of different online spaces can distort interactions among participants and undermine individual and collective goals.61Different online spaces have a cultural logic often dictated by the designers of the spaces. For example, some social media platforms encourage immediacy of response and reaction or privilege dominant voices rather than valuing the quality of exchange or interactio Dedicated, more meaningful networks, focused on shared interests or based on local connections, and less driven by commercial imperatives, might serve as productive alternatives.62Customized social networks such as found on Ning.com or dedicated spaces within larger networks committed to civil and constructive exchange as on medium.com offer examples of what is possible. Networks based on privacy and no advertising, such as Diaspora and Ello, have drawn attention but have struggled to gain a critical mass of users. Greater public awareness and some forms of policy intervention by governments may mitigate the impact of the more egregious misuses of online social networks. Any effective policy intervention must ensure national and local community involvement in determining standards for online platforms. Relying on international human rights norms rather than the arbitrary judgments of the platforms themselves has been advanced as a better basis for the development of such standards.63This includes delineating the rights and responsibilities of users, as well safeguards to ensure that freedom of expression is not unduly curtailed. See, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, How to ‘fix’ social media without censorship, June 20, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kaye-media-commentary/commentary-how-to-fix-social-media-without-censorship-idUSKBN1JF34H. Still, that a few major profit-making platforms have taken hold in virtually every country in the world (Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter), basically serving as information gatekeepers of social reality, reveals technological and economic lock-in effects that are hard to overcome. Approaches to decentralization, such as blockchain applications, some with a communitarian, anti-market flavor, are a response to such
hegemonic online services.64See Steven Johnson, Beyond the Blockchain Bubble, The New York Times (16 January 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/16/magazine/beyond-the-bitcoin-bubble.html?_r=0 . Blockchains are cryptographically secure blocks of information linked by a network of ledgers that record these blocks in a verifiable and permanent way. Information within the blocks cannot be altered unless all the ledgers involved agree to the change. This is sometimes referred to as decentralized consensus. Blockchains and distributed ledgers underpin cryptocurrencies, but the real potential of these tools is seen by many to lie in the community-governed, decentralized networks with capabilities that will eventually exceed those of the most advanced centralized services. See Chris Dixon, Why Decentralization Matters, Medium (February 2018), https://medium.com/@cdixon/why-decentralization-matters-5e3f79f7638e. That our
attention is captured by these online services and then repackaged and sold is a particularly seductive characteristic of these tools.65Some observers have assailed this practice of major Internet platforms as surveillance capitalism, as most users are unaware that their online activity is being systematically tracked, which, when combined with other personal data gathered by online platforms, allows for highly targeted advertising based on user preferences and behavior. Indeed, the ultimate expression of technological passivity perhaps is the idea that individual users become the
product when they provide personal information in exchange for free use of these commercial platforms.66That autonomous individuals becomes so subsumed by technology that they become extensions of technology and consumer culture is a notion advanced by the theorist Herbert Marcuse. See his 1964 work One Dimensional Man.
Moving to an Internet that is less dominated by Western institutions, worldviews, and forms of expression is also of vital importance. Reconceiving how devices and online services can serve the diverse populations of the planet speaks to the centrality of knowledge generation and application as the principal social process of every community and society. Relevant local values and objectives must guide the design of tools and the types of content generated and shared. For instance, online social spaces might be configured to reinforce processes of trust-building and cooperative action characteristic of many cultures. Such a shift could work to supplant the excessive focus on the self which is fostered by popular social media spaces in the West with the more communal and oral forms of expression found throughout the world.67In this regard, user interfaces might be designed to foster oral communication in the many indigenous languages of the world. See Ramesh Srinivasan, The People’s Internet – Supporting the voice and values of billions of new technology users, https://medium.com/thrive-global/the-peoples-Internet-284ce046fabd. The increased presence of such diverse contributions and perspectives would surely enrich patterns of collective learning and endeavor.
While it is undoubtedly true that new online media have been dominated and co-opted by commercial influences and very much reflect the disintegrative and adversarial modes of society, all is not negative. These same tools and services simultaneously offer countervailing examples of how digital media can inform, uplift, and be a source of social mobilization. First, at the level of technological infrastructure, the various
open source systems, designed and implemented largely through voluntary collaboration of large numbers of people across the globe, have enabled the Internet to emerge as the world’s most accessible form of universal communication and exchange. More important, the platforms of interaction that this infrastructure provides have led to new forms of social outreach, relationship building and sharing, cooperation, and creative expression. Examples such as the instance of thousands of teenage girls in South Korea networking and forcing their national government to change public policy, the remarkable case of Wikipedia as a form of massive voluntary social production, the new tools of online higher education opening the doors of knowledge to students around the world, the different vehicles for marginalized voices to express themselves and find solidarity with others, and the ability for hitherto isolated peoples to interact and learn from each other illustrate how the Internet and its social manifestations are an unparalleled phenomenon and an expression of a global age.
Where will social media be in five years? Ten years? What new forms of social interaction might emerge? However innovative augmented reality, artificial intelligence, advanced security systems, and other technical developments might be in transforming the existing online experience, the human need for meaningful connection, integrity, beauty, dignity, and higher individual and collective purpose certainly will matter more. Here, Bahá’ís will endeavor to discover how elements of this technology can be used in a way that coheres with the goals of personal and social transformation. Essential concepts such as the oneness of the human family and the nobility and equality of all human beings will guide such efforts. Ensuring equity in how technological resources are cultivated, allocated, and utilized by diverse communities will be an important corollary goal. At the level of human interaction, given the prevailing characteristics of the online environment, perseverance and discipline will be required if Bahá’í standards of courtesy, fairness, amity, forbearance, probity, accuracy, empathy, wisdom, and an impartial search for truth are to be upheld and emulated.68In this day man must investigate reality impartially and without prejudice in order to reach the true knowledge and conclusions. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 75.
In the end, despite the motives and values of their creators and the many unforeseen, adverse impacts on individual and collective life, online social tools can be used constructively. It is human beings who determine how technologies are developed and applied. For many, the physical and online worlds are increasingly merging. If utilized in a balanced fashion, in accordance with primary human norms and community objectives, social media and related technologies can serve to broaden vision concerning challenging social and moral questions, shape public discourse in a unifying way, promote mutual understanding and learning, and emphasize the potentialities and promise of the present moment in human affairs.
The overall vision guiding pathways of technological development and use cannot come from technology itself; it must be informed by essential ideals, spiritual insight, and actual participatory practice that promote the common good. A constructive pattern of technology development, as described here, emerges as a natural outgrowth of community-building processes, where specific technical solutions are conceived through collective identification of needs by affected populations and refined through an iterative process of learning. Rigorous processes of technological assessment at all levels of society provide the only basis for ensuring that technology is used in a manner that advances individual and collective well-being. Raising the capacity of individuals, communities, and institutions to make appropriate technological choices is therefore critical, for such choices are themselves an expression of values—social, cultural, economic, political, ethical, and spiritual. In this regard, Bahá’í-inspired models of consultation and knowledge generation offer precisely the mechanisms required to make suitable and proactive technological decisions in light of fundamental needs and mores. Ultimately, as technological innovation occurs within well-defined social, economic, and political contexts, broader societal transformation must occur so that technological trajectories can become aligned with our aspirations and purpose as noble agents advancing civilization.
In recent decades, scientific and technological discoveries have rapidly accelerated the dissolution of the traditional obstacles that long separated the nations and peoples of the world. At the same time, with the erosion of cultural barriers, society is undergoing a spiritual transition. The impact of improved educational standards and information technologies is increasing global awareness, and the fundamental unity of the human race is becoming increasingly apparent.
Bahá’u’lláh clearly anticipated these changes and provided an ethical framework in which to address them, but this has largely been ignored until now. However, as climate change accelerates and its implications for the future of humanity become clearer, it may become a driving force for unity since a massive world undertaking is now necessary to mitigate further global warming and to adapt to the climate change that is already underway.
What, then, are the ethical concepts and spiritual principles that are now necessary to transform society in order to make solutions to global warming possible?
The Science of Climate Change
For some time, science has predicted that the planet is vulnerable to global warming caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Those that live in cold regions might feel that a little global warming would be desirable, but any significant change in our climate will result in losers as well as winners. The regions which may benefit often have few inhabitants while many heavily-populated and highly-developed areas will suffer. Some may become completely uninhabitable. Change at this scale will be extremely stressful and expensive.1‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from a Tablet recently translated from Persian, quoted in a memorandum on Gaia and Nature, to the Universal House of Justice from the Research Department, 8 June 1992.
The problem has its origins in the way life evolved on Earth. The conditions necessary for life in the biosphere are the result of a complex set of delicately balanced systems which are still poorly understood. The atmospheric composition that permits life to exist was itself created in part by the action of the first living things. The earliest plants removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and added oxygen, making animal life possible. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, writing early in the 20th century, referred to this interdependence of the vegetable and animal kingdoms. “Each of these two maketh use of certain elements in the air on which its own life dependeth, while each increaseth the quantity of such elements as are essential for the life of the other.”2Nicholas Stern, “The Economics of Climate Change. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20080910140413/http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/sternreview_index.cfm 2006. Dead plants, both the remains of marine plankton and terrestrial vegetation, were buried and their energy-containing carbon compounds fossilized to produce coal, oil, and gas, while their carbonate skeletons became layers of limestone, locking a significant part of the Earth’s carbon away in geological formations.
Carbon cycles through the biosphere, as plants take up carbon dioxide to make organic matter, while animals and decomposers oxidize organic compounds and return the carbon dioxide to the oceans and atmosphere. Today, the long-standing global balance between these processes has been upset by the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas—over the last 150 years, returning carbon to the atmosphere and oceans that has long been out of circulation.
The significance of this for the climate is that carbon dioxide, along with another carbon compound—methane, is among the most important greenhouse gases, trapping heat in the atmosphere in the same way as the glass in a greenhouse lets in light but prevents heat from escaping.
The climate has changed in past geological epochs, with both ice ages and much warmer periods associated with rises and falls in plant cover and carbon dioxide levels. These changes over hundreds of millions of years were due in part to the Earth’s orientation with respect to the sun and to the changing positions of the continents which affect the way the linked ocean-atmosphere system redistributes heat around the world. With the present configuration of continents, a global “conveyor belt” of ocean currents sees cold salty water flow along the bottom from the North Atlantic down to the Antarctic, looping through the Indian and Pacific Oceans and returning as a warm shallow current to the North Atlantic, where the freezing of Arctic ice in winter turns it back to cold water. The sinking of this water draws up the warm current from the Caribbean known as the Gulf Stream which maintains the relatively mild climate of northern Europe. Recent research has shown that these currents can alter quite quickly in correlation with abrupt changes between warm and cold climatic periods.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution powered by fossil fuels, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen from 290 to 370 parts per million (ppm), and it could easily reach 550 ppm or more in mid-century. Every tonne of fuel oil burned produces 2.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide, while extracting the same energy from coal produces 3.8 tonnes of CO2. Deforestation and the loss of humus from degrading soils also release significant quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, representing one third of the increase.
While the rising levels of greenhouse gases will trap more heat and change the air circulation patterns and climate, the effects will be highly variable around the world and are not easy to predict. Using various computer models of the global climate system, more than a thousand scientists contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have confirmed a significant human effect on the climate through global warming, and more is expected. While powerful political and economic interests have questioned the reality of any link between fossil fuel consumption and climate change, none of their arguments has withstood closer scientific scrutiny.
The evidence for accelerating global warming is accumulating rapidly. The global average surface temperature has risen markedly since the late 1970s. Nine of the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1995. The models project an even faster rise in global temperature over the next century as greenhouse gas emissions continue. The greatest temperature changes are expected in polar areas. A rise of more than 2°C in the mean global temperature could trigger positive feedbacks that would make major climate change irreversible, and we could reach that point by 2035 if we continue business as usual, with a rise of up to 5°C possible by the end of the century. This is change at a speed and scale for which there is no planetary precedent.
The effects are already apparent. Many species in temperate areas are shifting their distributions, with cold-adapted forms retreating toward the poles, to be replaced by species from warmer climates. Similar shifts in altitude are occurring among mountain species. Arctic species like polar bears that are dependent on the ice are in great difficulty. Coral reefs around the world have bleached and died from unusually high water temperatures. The number of the most intense cyclones (hurricanes) has increased in all oceans over the last 30 years, driven by greater heat energy in tropical ocean waters.
Climate change on the predicted scale will profoundly affect the environment and human activity in many fundamental ways. Food insecurity will increase and many regions will experience water shortages as rainfall patterns shift and mountain glaciers disappear. Rich countries can probably afford to adapt their agriculture with changed crop varieties and new technology, but all scenarios show a severe decline in food production in developing countries. The greatest human impact of climate change will be on the poor, who are especially vulnerable to the predicted increase in extreme weather events such as floods, cyclones, and droughts—the latter particularly pertaining to Africa. Ocean fisheries will also be affected. Already fish stocks in the North Sea are shifting to other areas. As populations are displaced there will be increasing flows of environmental refugees, possibly reaching tens or hundreds of millions, and the related social disintegration could lead to increasing anarchy and terrorism. Natural, economic and social disasters will become more common and more severe.
Ecological systems and species will be severely impacted, greatly accelerating the loss of biodiversity. American scientists have calculated that climate change would cause conditions appropriate for the beech forests of the south-eastern United States to move to north-eastern Canada. Thus, whole ecosystems will shift over long distances if they can move fast enough. In the past, such changes happened more gradually. Birds can fly, but trees cannot get up and move to find a better temperature, and human transformations have blocked migration paths. We may have to replant the forests ourselves.
One effect of global warming is a rise in sea level, due both to the thermal expansion of water and to the melting of glaciers and ice caps. Sea level rise will flood low-lying areas and islands, including many port cities, creating millions of refugees. The projections for Bangladesh show a 1.5 meter rise will displace 17 million people from 16% of the country’s area. If the Greenland ice sheet is destabilised—which now appears to be likely—it will raise the sea level by more than 6 meters. Already some low-lying islands and coastal areas are being abandoned.
The costs of mitigation and adaptation will be enormous, but the cost of doing nothing is already very high and could rise astronomically. The insurance industry estimated a few years ago that the economic impact of natural disasters linked to global warming would reach an annual cost of $130 billion within 10 years, but hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the USA in 2005 alone caused damage reaching $204 billion. A recent report commissioned by the UK government estimated the annual cost of climate change if no action is taken at over $600 billion, or the equivalent of both World Wars and the Great Depression, while mitigating action would only amount to 1% of global GDP.3 Immediate action will be very cost effective, and any delay will raise the cost significantly.
The latest scientific evidence suggests that the worst predictions about climate change may be realized. The Gulf Stream has recently slowed by 30%. If the Gulf Stream stops, the temperature could decrease by seven degrees in northern Europe, limiting agriculture and raising energy consumption. Half of the permafrost in the Arctic is expected to melt by 2050 and 90% before 2100, releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Major parts of the Arctic Ocean were ice-free in the summer of 2005 after 14% of the permanent sea ice was lost in one year, and oil companies are already planning for the drilling they can do in an ice free polar sea in the future. Greenland glaciers have doubled their rate of flow in the last three years. The rate of sea level rise had already doubled over the last 150 years to 2 mm per year, and melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now adding another 4 mm per year and Greenland 0.6 mm per year. We may be approaching a tipping point within a decade where runaway climate change would be catastrophic.
The Energy Challenge
Global warming is driven by our addiction to cheap fossil energy. Our industrial economy was built on cheap energy, mostly from fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas. Transportation, communications, trade, agriculture, heating and cooling, and our consumer lifestyle all depend on high inputs of energy. Energy demand is rising rapidly and the supply is shrinking. Global warming is just one more reason to address the energy challenge urgently. Given the enormous investment in present infrastructure, adaptation will be extremely expensive, with the required investment in energy alternatives estimated at $7 trillion.
Some governments have decided to control greenhouse gases. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, established the framework for international action. The Kyoto Protocol on reduction of greenhouse gases set a first target to return emissions to 1990 levels by 2012, a limited reduction of 5% when at least 60%–80% is necessary. However CO2 emissions rose 4.5% in 2004 to 27.5 billion tonnes, 26% higher than 1990. China and India have doubled CO2 production since 1990, while the USA has increased by 20% and Australia by 40%. The USA released 5.8, China 4.5, Europe 3.3, and India 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2004. Despite its good intentions, humanity is rapidly going in the wrong direction.
Fossil energy consumption is still growing. World oil use is rising at 1.1% per year, with Latin America increasing 2.8%, India 5.4%, and China 7.5%. From 2001—2020, world oil consumption is expected to rise 56%, with OPEC production doubling, but non-OPEC production has already peaked. Oil provides 40% of the world’s primary energy. Two thirds of future energy demand will come from developing countries where 1.6 billion people have no electricity. Energy demand and global warming are on a collision course.
The end of the fossil fuel era is coming anyway. At present consumption rates, reserves of oil are estimated to last about 40 years, gas 67 years and coal 164 years. Geologists estimate the recoverable oil reserve at 2000 Bb (billion barrels). Past production over the last 100 years has already consumed 980 Bb, while the known reserves total 827 Bb and another 153 Bb have yet to be found, so almost half the expected reserve has already been consumed. Production peaks and starts to decline at half of the recoverable resource, because we use the most accessible oil first, and it becomes harder and harder to get the remainder. We could reach peak production within the next decade, after which production will fall at about 2.7% per year, dropping 75% in 30 years. The heavy oil/tar reserves in Canada and Venezuela (600 Bb) equal only 22 years of current consumption. Even without global warming, energy sources and consumption patterns must soon be changed.
Coal also has a significant impact on global warming. The major coal producing and consuming countries (USA, Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, China) formed the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate in July 2005. Together they have 45% of the world’s population; they consume 45% of world energy and produce 52% of the CO2, with both expected to double by 2025. They have agreed to develop and share clean and more efficient technologies, especially for carbon sequestration, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to provide secure energy supplies. However these goals may appear contradictory when China is planning to build 560 new coal-fired power plants and India 213, although India’s coal reserves are expected to be exhausted in 40 years. Today, one quarter of global CO2 emissions come from coal-fired power stations.
Some hopes have been placed on nuclear power but, at least with present technologies, it is not a long-term option. Uranium reserves are expected to be exhausted in about 40 years. Economically and ethically, the technology is also doubtful. The research costs and development of nuclear technology have been highly subsidized, particularly for military uses. There is a high energy input in nuclear plant construction and fuel fabrication, so it is not entirely carbon free. The risks of accidents are so high as to be uninsurable. Decommissioning costs of old plants are not usually included in cost comparisons; decommissioning the Three Mile Island plant in the USA after a minor accident was estimated to cost $3–4 billion. The UK was unable to privatise its nuclear power industry, suggesting it is uneconomic without heavy government subsidies. No country has yet completed a safe long-term disposal site for high-level nuclear wastes which must be secure for at least 10,000 years, so the high continuing waste disposal costs are being imposed on future generations, which is unethical. While research continues, generating electricity from nuclear fusion is still “40 years” away, as it has been for many years.
Our globalized world has become overly dependent on fossil fuels for road transport, shipping, aviation, tourism and therefore global trade. The energy and raw materials for industrial production, including chemical feed-stocks, plastics and synthetics, come largely from oil, gas and coal. Most electricity generation for lighting, heating and cooling is similarly dependent, as are modern cities and the suburban lifestyle. Fossil energy is behind our mechanized agriculture, fertilizers and pesticides, and the whole system of food processing and distribution. What happens when these become much more expensive? The business community is so concerned that the Carbon Disclosure Project representing more than half the world’s invested assets has invited 2,100 companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions.
More worryingly, the world’s population has increased six-fold, exactly in parallel with oil production. Can we maintain such a high world population without the subsidy represented by cheap fossil energy? What will happen if we cannot?
There is also the question that energy planners never ask: even if we could exploit every fossil fuel reserve, can we really afford to cause so much global warming? Burning all extractable fossil fuels would raise CO2 in the atmosphere to well over 750 ppm. The ethical challenges of this situation are profound. On the one hand, the selfish desire of a minority of the world population to maintain a materially excessive civilization despite the enormous damage it is causing and the threat this represents for future generations is contrary to basic principles of justice and equity. The poor have every right to demand the same standard of living as the rich, but the planet cannot support present consumption, not to mention any increase. On the other hand, if a reduction in fossil fuel availability and use causes food production and distribution to collapse or become unaffordable, pushing many to starvation, this is equally unthinkable.
Energy is so fundamental to human welfare and civilization that we clearly cannot do without it, but there could be much more moderation and efficiency in its utilization. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote in 1936 that the world federal system anticipated in the Bahá’í teachings, will “consist of a world legislature, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations. . . The economic resources of the world will be organized, its sources of raw materials will be tapped and fully utilized. . .” This system will exploit “all the available sources of energy on the surface of the planet.”3See UK Meteorological Office. 2005. Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Quoted in UNEP Finance Initiative Bulletin 47, February 2006. http://www.unepfi.org/ebulletin/ It will clearly be an aim of such a civilization to develop forms of renewable energy, in environmentally appropriate ways. These energy sources are mostly low density and widely distributed, which would suggest that future communities will be smaller and more wide-spread, unlike the urban concentrations of today. Given the moral unacceptability of the alternatives, the only responsible approach to the energy challenge is to replace fossil fuels with alternative renewable energy sources as rapidly as is humanly possible. The United Kingdom’s Meteorological Office has said that “the biggest obstacles to the take up of technologies such as renewable sources of energy and “clean coal” lie in vested interests, cultural barriers to change and simple lack of awareness.”4See UK Meteorological Office. 2005. Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Quoted in UNEP Finance Initiative Bulletin 47, February 2006. http://www.unepfi.org/ebulletin/
With the present size of the global population, the consequences of going back to the world as it was before fossil fuels are unacceptable. The urgent challenge is to rethink civilization in a new and more sustainable way, and to begin the transition as rapidly as possible. This is where the principles of the Bahá’í Faith can suggest some ways forward.
The Ethical Implications of Climate Change
The world’s present institutions have failed to address adequately the threat of climate change. No politician has been willing to sacrifice the short-term economic welfare of his or her country, even while agreeing that sustainability is essential in the long term. Furthermore, the deep social, economic, and political divisions within societies and between countries prevent united action in the common interest. Global warming is just one symptom of the fundamental imbalances in our world and of the failure of our systems of governance to resolve the most critical challenges of our age.
We must recognize the failure of our present economic system to address global long-term issues like global warming. Economic thinking is challenged by the environmental crisis—including global warming. The belief that there is no limit to nature’s capacity to fulfil any demand made on it is demonstrably false. A culture which attaches absolute value to expansion, to acquisition, and to the satisfaction of people’s wants must recognise that such goals are not, by themselves, realistic guides to policy. Economic decision-making tools cannot deal with the fact that most of the major challenges are global.5See Bahá’í International Community, Office of Public Information. The Prosperity of Humankind. (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1995).
Climate change is a consequence of the present self-centred materialism of our economic paradigm. The materialistic view became the dominant interpretation of reality in the early 20th century. Through rational experimentation and discourse, humanity thought it had solved all issues related to human governance and development. Dogmatic materialism captured all significant centres of power and information at the global level, ensuring that no competing voices could challenge projects of world wide economic exploitation. Yet not even the most idealistic motives can correct materialism’s fundamental flaws. Since World War II, development has been our largest collective undertaking, with a humanitarian motivation matched by enormous material and technological investment. While it has brought impressive benefits, it has nevertheless failed to narrow the gap between the small segment of modern society and the vast populations of the poor. The gap has widened into an abyss.
Consumerism drives much of the emission of greenhouse gases. Materialism’s gospel of human betterment has produced today’s consumer culture in pursuit of ephemeral goals. For the small minority of people who can afford them, the benefits it offers are immediate, and the rationale unapologetic. The breakdown of traditional morality has led to the triumph of animal impulse, as instinctive and blind as appetite. Selfishness has become a prized commercial resource; falsehood reinvents itself as public information; greed, lust, indolence, pride—even violence—acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value. Yet material comforts and acquisitions have been drained of meaning. In the USA the indicators of human welfare and satisfaction have been diminishing since the 1960s. The economy may be richer, but people are not happier. This self-centred, hedonistic culture of the rich, now spreading around the world, refuses to acknowledge its primary responsibility for global warming. The challenge, then, is fundamentally a spiritual one, necessitating a change in the understanding of humanity’s nature and purpose.
What role can religion play in the challenges of today, including global warming? We used to be relatively content living within the limited perspective of our own communities, but now we can closely observe developments all around the world. We know about the extreme differences and injustices and we can no longer tolerate them. This progressive globalizing of human experience increases the stresses of modern life. There is a loss of faith in the certainties of materialism as its negative impacts become apparent. At the same time there is a lack of faith in traditional religion and a failure to find guidance within them for living with modernity. Yet, it would appear that it is an inherent characteristic of the human experience to understand the purpose of existence. This has led to an unexpected resurgence of religion, built upon a groundswell of anxiety and discontent with spiritual emptiness. People lacking in hope are readily attracted to radical, intolerant, fanatical movements. As a result, the world is in the grip of irreconcilable religious antipathies, a situation which paralyses our ability to address global challenges including climate change.
Humanity can choose to conduct “business as usual” in its materialistic way, ignoring the future. The consequences however will soon catch up with us. We can retreat into a fortress of old values, but the pressures of globalization will make this untenable. The alternative is to make the effort to transition towards a unified world civilization based on equity and sustainability, drawing on the complementary strengths of both science and religion. This is the approach that the Bahá’í Faith has championed for more than a hundred years.
Unity is the essential prerequisite for action to remove the barriers to collaboration on global warming. In its 1995 statement, The Prosperity of Humankind, the Bahá’í International Community observed:
“The bedrock of a strategy that can engage the world’s population in assuming responsibility for its collective destiny must be the consciousness of the oneness of humankind. Deceptively simple in popular discourse, the concept that humanity constitutes a single people presents fundamental challenges to the way that most of the institutions of contemporary society carry out their functions. Whether in the form of the adversarial structure of civil government, the advocacy principle informing most of civil law, a glorification of the struggle between classes and other social groups, or the competitive spirit dominating so much of modern life, conflict is accepted as the mainspring of human interaction. It represents yet another expression in social organisation of the materialistic interpretation of life that has progressively consolidated itself over the past two centuries. . .. Only so fundamental a reorientation can protect them, too, from the age-old demons of ethnic and religious strife. Only through the dawning consciousness that they constitute a single people will the inhabitants of the planet be enabled to turn away from the patterns of conflict that have dominated social organisation in the past and begin to learn the ways of collaboration and conciliation. “The well-being of mankind,” Bahá’u’lláh writes, “its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”6See World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission): Our Common Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
Only by agreeing that we are a single human race and live on one planet can we create the ethical and moral basis for addressing a challenge such as climate change.
Some governments have already agreed. They promote the concept of sustainable development as one that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.7Bahá’í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development: A concept paper written for the World Faiths and Development Dialogue (Lambeth Palace, London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 18–19 February 1998). The nations of the world have repeatedly accepted this as a goal and priority. This is precisely the challenge of climate change. With high fossil energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, we are precipitating damage to our planetary system that will compromise future generations. Governments have agreed they have to act but, faced with a paralysis of will, they do not.
Expressed by the Bahá’í International Community, sustainability is fundamentally an ethical concept. We, the human race, are trustees, or stewards, of the planet’s vast resources and biological diversity. We must learn to make use of the earth’s natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable, in a manner that ensures sustainability and equity into the distant reaches of time. This requires full consideration of the potential environmental consequences of all development activities. We must temper our actions with moderation and humility, and recognize that the true value of nature cannot be expressed in economic terms. This requires a deep understanding of the natural world and its role in humanity’s collective development both material and spiritual. Sustainable environmental management is not a discretionary commitment we can weigh against other competing interests. It is a fundamental responsibility that must be shouldered, a pre-requisite for spiritual development as well as our physical survival.8Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1952). pp. 342–343.
Sustainability requires the rethinking of economics. The present economic system is unsustainable and not meeting human needs or able to respond adequately to global warming. Fifty years of economic development, despite some progress, has failed to meet its objectives. The global economic system lacks the supra-national governance necessary to address such global issues. It is not the mechanisms of economics that are at fault, but its values. Economics has ignored the broader context of humanity’s social and spiritual existence, resulting in corrosive materialism in the world’s more economically advantaged regions (driving global warming), and persistent conditions of deprivation among the masses of the world’s peoples. Economics should serve people’s needs; societies should not be expected to reformulate themselves to fit economic models. The ultimate function of economic systems should be to equip the peoples and institutions of the world with the means to achieve the real purpose of development: that is, the cultivation of the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness.
What values do we need for an economic system able to accept responsibility for and address global warming? The goal of wealth creation should be to make everyone wealthy. Society needs new value-based economic models that aim to create a dynamic, just and thriving social order which should be strongly altruistic and cooperative in nature. It should provide meaningful employment and help to eradicate poverty in the world.
All religions teach the “Golden Rule,” namely, to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Should a minority of high energy consumers have the right to cause such damage to others and to future generations? Many faith-based organisations are drawing increasing attention to the ethical implications of excessive consumerism and one of its impacts, climate change.
Justice and equity will be essential to achieve unity of action at the global level. It is unjust to sacrifice the well-being of the generality of humankind—and even of the planet itself—to the advantages which technological breakthroughs can make available to privileged minorities. Only development programmes that are perceived as meeting their needs and as being just and equitable in objective can hope to engage the commitment of the masses of humanity, upon whom implementation depends. The same is true of action to reduce global warming.
Solidarity is another essential value in times of rapid change, when many will become victims of climate perturbations and natural disasters. The poor are the most vulnerable to climate change and the least able to protect themselves. We should consider every human being as a trust of the whole, and recognize that both governments and individuals share this responsibility. Voluntary giving is more meaningful and effective than forced redistribution.
Trustworthiness will also become increasingly important. Trust is the basis for all economic and social interaction. Public opinion surveys show little trust in politicians and business, key actors in this area. The repeated failure of governments to respect the commitments that they have made has not helped. Re-establishing trust will have to be part of the solution to global warming, a solution in which everyone will have to make sacrifices.