In neighborhoods and villages around the world, tens, hundreds, and in some places, thousands of people, inspired by the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, are engaged in activities that aim to “build community.” In their efforts, we can already see signs of the emergence of new patterns of collective life: a village coming together regularly at the hour of dawn to summon divine assistance before the day’s work; a group of people combining skills and knowledge to carry out a reforestation project; neighbors consulting on ways to establish classes for the spiritual education of their children; a population beginning to shed age-old prejudices and build new patterns of interaction based on justice and unity; young adults, in rural and urban settings, initiating small-scale agricultural projects to support their communities—examples like these and many more are springing up from every continent and multiplying.
The current global crisis has raised awareness about the importance of human solidarity and collective action. Within this context, it seems timely to ask ourselves: What is the place of community in our modern world and what is the kind of community towards which we aspire?
The image that is evoked by the word community can be quite different from one person to the next. Some think of a community simply as those who live in the same geographic area, regardless of whether its members interact; others use the word to refer to a collection of people who share common interests or are motivated by the pursuit of a common goal; and, for many, community is seen as a population that shares a common ethnic identity and set of traditions. We also come across people who believe that the sense of togetherness that we need as human beings can be fulfilled through virtual networks, and some thinkers even predict that the whole concept of a community as it has been traditionally known will eventually disappear.
Although certain aspects of the conceptions above may be valuable, the relationships that sustain society are also being reconceptualized by many in light of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. Our understanding of community, then, will need to move beyond anything humanity currently knows or has experienced. To build a common vision of community, we turn to the messages of the Universal House of Justice. For instance, in 1996, the House of Justice described a community as
a comprehensive unit of civilization composed of individuals, families, and institutions that are originators and encouragers of systems, agencies and organizations working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its borders; it is a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.1Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 1996. Available at www.bahai.org/r/045175659
The House of Justice has also written about “vibrant communities,” describing them as being characterized by “tolerance and love and guided by a strong sense of purpose and collective will” and explaining that they provide an “environment in which the capacities of all components––men, women, youth and children––are developed and their powers multiplied in unified action.”2Universal House of Justice, from a letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors dated 26 December 1995. Available at www.bahai.org/r/864076551
Over the past decade, Bahá’í community-building efforts have unfolded in smaller geographic areas like neighborhoods and villages. This process has been very similar to the organic processes that take place in nature. Indeed, creating something new in social reality is, like the growth of a tree, an organic process that begins by planting a seed in fertile soil.
The process begins with a group of people inspired by a hopeful vision of change who take action together within the context of a neighborhood or village. The initial steps they take are not random or haphazard but rather unfold within a framework defined by the growing experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community. The various elements that cohere to advance this process include classes for the spiritual education of children; groups of junior youth who, together with an older youth, support one another, study together, and carry out acts of service; the opening of homes and community centers for collective prayer and discussions about the progress of a neighborhood or village; regular visits by neighbors to meet with one another and strengthen bonds of friendship; educational programs for youth and adults in which they reflect on the spiritual dimension of life and prepare themselves for a life of service; and in some places, initiatives that seek to enhance the social and material well-being of a population. Whatever the form and arrangement of activities, however, the process of community building is a process of transformation in which a population takes ownership of its own spiritual and social development.
The fruit of the process of community building is a unit of civilization that is characterized by the principles and teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. The House of Justice has explained the long-term nature of these efforts:
The work advancing in every corner of the globe today represents the latest stage of the ongoing Bahá’í endeavour to create the nucleus of the glorious civilization enshrined in His teachings, the building of which is an enterprise of infinite complexity and scale, one that will demand centuries of exertion by humanity to bring to fruition. There are no shortcuts, no formulas. Only as effort is made to draw on insights from His Revelation, to tap into the accumulating knowledge of the human race, to apply His teachings intelligently to the life of humanity, and to consult on the questions that arise will the necessary learning occur and capacity be developed.3Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2010. Available at www.bahai.org/r/178319844
We are, of course, too early in these efforts to know exactly what the entire process looks like, what stages we will have to pass through, what obstacles we might face along the way, and what capacities will need to be developed at each stage of development by the members of the community, individually and collectively. These are questions we must ask ourselves in the years and decades to come, and answers to these questions will become clear to us as we engage in a systematic process of learning.
Much has already been learned about the early stages of community building: A group of people turns to the sacred Writings and the guidance of the Universal House of Justice and takes action within a framework defined by the growing experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community; it draws insights from the existing body of knowledge and reflects on experience; it has regular conversations in which questions are asked and ideas are clarified; and, as understanding advances, the group adjusts its plans, approaches, and activities. The result is that its efforts become more and more effective, and the process it is trying to promote advances. In this way, the Bahá’í community is gradually developing its capacity to operate in a mode of learning and, as an organic global community, is advancing collectively.
As people learn more about the process of community building and how to effectively contribute to it, certain questions arise. For instance, what is my conception of community and what contributions can I make to the development of my community? What are those qualities, skills, and abilities that need to be developed in individuals and in groups to build vibrant communities? What are the things that are needed to enhance the relationships in a community? In seeking answers to these questions, we turn to the guiding and operating principles involved. As we understand these principles better and internalize them, they begin to find expression in our actions. They influence how we see ourselves in relation to others which in turn influences how we interact with others.
There are many principles that are relevant to the process of community building. Foremost among these is the oneness of humankind. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, talked about the principle of oneness as “the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve.”4Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/264008982 He said that it cannot be seen as a “mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope” and that it cannot be merely identified with the “reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men.”5Ibid. It has profound implications for every aspect of the organized life of society. Having the principle of oneness in mind as the guiding and operating principle sheds light on the process of community building and gives direction to our efforts as participants.
In His letter to Queen Victoria, Bahá’u’lláh writes: “Regard the world as the human body.” This metaphor of the human body, or a living organism, was also often used by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when He wanted to illustrate the implications of the principle of the oneness of humankind. Like any analogy, there are limits to how much it can explain. Nevertheless, like the elements of the human body, “all the members of this endless universe are linked one to another.” He urged us to act as the members of one body, each connected to the other with “a linkage complete and perfect” 6‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/189063524 and contributing its part for the benefit of the whole. He said that “man cannot live singly and alone. He is in need of continuous cooperation and mutual help… He can never, singly and alone, provide himself with all the necessities of existence. Therefore, he is in need of cooperation and reciprocity.” The House of Justice, in commenting on this metaphor, has further explained:
In the human body, every cell, every organ, every nerve has its part to play. When all do so the body is healthy, vigorous, radiant, ready for every call made upon it. No cell, however humble, lives apart from the body, whether in serving it or receiving from it. This is true of the body of mankind in which God “has endowed each humble being with ability and talent”7Universal House of Justice, letter of September 1994 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding subject of universal participation. Bahá’í Reference Library. Available at www.bahai.org/r/874127903
Some characteristics of the living organism suggest where to focus our efforts as individuals. For example, the cells of the body are intimately connected to each other; their existence is purely in relation to the whole body. There is no possibility for the cell to live without its connection to the rest. The purpose of the cell is to maintain the health of the body and, at the same time, its life depends on it. In this regard, a characteristic that stands out is the necessity for the basic units of the organism to be selfless. Cells, in their very essence, are selfless. They are made that way. They adapt their functions in order to respond to unforeseen needs or emergencies or to protect the organism. The cell also takes only what it needs from the organism. The behavior of healthy cells in the body illustrates well the high standard that the individual whose purpose is to work for the common good aspires to as a member of a group or community. This implies, for instance, giving of one’s time and energy generously, sacrificing when the situation requires it, being detached from the results of what we do, and carrying out our actions with sincerity and purity of heart.
This concept of selfless service and the responsibilities that everyone has in accomplishing the collective aim have many implications for the way we relate to others and to our work. It adds significance to various roles and responsibilities that we undertake. To see ourselves like the cells of the body implies that each of us gives our very best in fulfilling our responsibilities; each one is conscious that everything he or she does influences the functioning of the community. And since each of us is responsible not only for his or her part but also for the functioning of the whole, cooperation and reciprocity should characterize relationships. In such an environment, everyone strives to draw out the best in people and to help others develop their full potential and takes joy in the progress of others.
This concept of selfless service also has implications for the manner in which we approach the acts of service we undertake and our various roles and responsibilities in a community. Serving with selflessness and diligence requires making choices, because, unlike the cells, we have free will. To put the interests of the collective before our own and to devote ourselves to doing things with excellence; to be ready to collaborate; to prefer our brothers and sisters over ourselves; to orient ourselves toward that which brings about the well-being of the community; to move beyond the inertia that sometimes holds us back from working to the best of our ability––all of these are individual choices that have to be made consciously. To give of ourselves is embedded in our nature; it is a capacity within us that can be developed and strengthened through constant effort, prayer, reflection, and the acquisition of knowledge. Maybe a word of caution is also needed here: To put the interest of the community before our own does not imply that we lose our individuality. We do not become dissolved in the community. There are many references in the Writings that shed light on the question of serving the common good.
O My Servant!
Thou art even as a finely tempered sword concealed in the darkness of its sheath and its value hidden from the artificer’s knowledge. Wherefore come forth from the sheath of self and desire that thy worth may be made resplendent and manifest unto all the world.8Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/261142065
Senses and faculties have been bestowed upon us, to be devoted to the service of the general good; so that we, distinguished above all other forms of life for perceptiveness and reason, should labor at all times and along all lines, whether the occasion be great or small, ordinary or extraordinary, until all mankind are safely gathered into the impregnable stronghold of knowledge.9‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/574361742
How excellent, how honorable is man if he arises to fulfil his responsibilities; how wretched and contemptible, if he shuts his eyes to the welfare of society and wastes his precious life in pursuing his own selfish interests and personal advantages.10Ibid.
In these early stages of building this new kind of community that reflects the divine teachings, we have to learn how to manage the apparent tension between pursuing our own interests and contributing to the common good. It is a very real tension within human beings. Undoubtedly, this will always be the case, since it is part of human nature. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has explained:
Man is in the ultimate degree of materiality and the beginning of spirituality; that is, he is at the end of imperfection and the beginning of perfection. He is at the furthermost degree of darkness and the beginning of the light. That is why the station of man is said to be the end of night and the beginning of day, meaning that he encompasses all the degrees of imperfection and that he potentially possesses all the degrees of perfection. He has both an animal side and an angelic side, and the role of the educator is to so train human souls that the angelic side may overcome the animal. Thus, should the divine powers, which are identical with perfection, overcome in man the satanic powers, which are absolute imperfection, he becomes the noblest of all creatures, but should the converse take place, he becomes the vilest of all beings. That is why he is the end of imperfection and the beginning of perfection.11‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions. Available at www.bahai.org/r/265818142
Although this tension will always be there, the Bahá’í writings also explain that the desire to do good is inherent in human nature because we are created noble. This desire to do good, however, needs to be cultivated and strengthened. It is through faith and our spiritual alignment with the will of God that we are enabled to do this.
The image of the functioning of the human body also gives us insights into the quality of the relationships that should exist within a healthy community. In the human body, we can appreciate how healthy interactions take place and how they contribute to maintaining unity and harmony among the diverse parts. Different organs, each with their own assigned functions, work together to allow new capacities to emerge––capacities that are manifested only when all the parts are functioning properly, each in its own sphere, and in perfect synchronization. Some of these capacities are associated with a specific organ while others do not belong to any particular one; the emergence of such capacities requires cooperation and reciprocity among the parts of the body. Whenever this cooperation breaks down or is replaced by competition, the body’s ability to manifest these capacities is inhibited.
The intention of this presentation is not to present a thorough analysis of the process of community building. It is simply to share a few ideas for reflection on the efforts of Bahá’í communities worldwide to bring about a new kind of community and ultimately contribute to the emergence of a peaceful and just world civilization envisioned in the sacred Writings. In this connection, we have spent some time examining the implications of the principle of the oneness of humankind. The analogy of a human body was used to see how the principle of oneness is foundational to our conception of a community and guides our choices and our actions.
The Bahá’í world is still in the early stages of the process of community building, and there is a great deal to be done before the process reaches fruition. In light of the challenges facing humanity, the task before us may seem daunting indeed, but we are committed to this process over the long term and are inspired to make constant efforts to better understand the relevant principles and to reflect this understanding in our approaches. We draw on spiritual forces to assist us and to propel us forward, and the most powerful force binding us together is the force of universal love. ‘Abdu’l-Baha addresses us: “Strive to increase the love-power of reality” and “to make your hearts greater centers of attraction and to create new ideals and relationships.”12‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on Divine Philosophy, (Boston: The Tudor Press, 1918), 107. Love, He writes, is “the magnetic force that directeth the movements of the spheres in the celestial realms” and “the establisher of true civilization in this mortal world.”13‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/407306067
Lack of unity among people of various races, ethnicities, and classes is a major problem for human society. Many nations face such disunity, which can cause social conflict, lack of empathy for “others,” discrimination, and exploitation. Bahá’ís think of such problems as symptoms; the illness is absence of the unity of the human race. One subset of the unity that is necessary is racial unity. As the term is used here, racial unity focuses on unity among various racial and ethnic groups.
Eliminating individual prejudice is a necessary, but insufficient, part of promoting racial unity. Human beings have embedded racial disunity within geographic space, where it is hard to change and is reinforced by political, economic, and social boundaries. Thus, individual people may believe themselves free of racial prejudice, but they may face no or weak testing of this belief if they are isolated in geographic circumstances that solidify racial disunity. Spatial geography can reinforce systemic racial discrimination.
This is a difficult problem, but throughout its history the Bahá’í Faith has always championed racial unity, even in difficult circumstances. Direct guidance from the Head of the Faith, in each period of Bahá’í history, has consistently counseled the Bahá’ís to abandon prejudice against different races, religions, ethnicities, and nationalities. In addition, the Bahá’í community has purposefully aimed to increase diversity within its own religious community by inviting people of diverse races, ethnicities, and nationalities into its ranks. The approach that the worldwide Bahá’í community now uses builds on these historic principles and strategies, while extending beyond them to offer lasting social transformation for all people in a community. It offers the world a process that can help promote racial unity, even in situations of geographic disunity. Considering how to accomplish this requires strategic thinking.
The Bahá’í Plans and Spatial Unity
The worldwide Bahá’í community’s dedication to the principle of racial unity dates back to the founding of the religion. Bahá’ís have held fast to key principles related to the unity of humanity, in general, and to racial unity, specifically, while learning to develop flexible new strategies that recognize contemporary challenges. They have done so within the framework of global plans that guide the growth and development of the Bahá’í community worldwide.
Since its birth in Iran in the mid-nineteenth century, the Bahá’í Faith has given rise to a religious community with significant capacity to unite people across traditional barriers of race, class, nationality, gender, and creed. Its cardinal teaching is the oneness of all humanity. Bahá’í administrative institutions have paid special attention to the issue of racial disunity in North America; much guidance on the subject relates to that continent. This has been true ever since the head of the Faith at that time, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, visited North America in 1912. Through both word and deed, He emphatically encouraged interracial fellowship and disavowed traditional norms of racial segregation and discrimination. He urged people to overcome racial barriers through means such as intermarriage and multiracial meetings, and He praised the beauty of such diversity. These were remarkable exhortations for that time, when interracial marriage was illegal in many American states and Jim Crow laws discouraged free association between people of different racial backgrounds.1“Jim Crow” was the label given to a set of state and local laws upheld in the southern United States and dating mostly from the late nineteenth century. Designed to separate blacks and whites in most social and economic settings, they covered such institutions and places as public schools, public transportation, food establishments, and public facilities such as parks. The principles He enunciated for North America also pertained to the world with all its various forms of prejudice and social conflict.
Following His visit, in letters sent to the North American Bahá’í community and later published collectively as Tablets of the Divine Plan, Abdu’l-Bahá presented a visionary spatial strategy for unity of the world’s peoples. He asked North American Bahá’ís to travel first to other states and provinces in their own countries and then to a long list of countries, territories, and islands in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe, spreading the unifying teachings of the Bahá’í Faith to peoples of diverse race and ethnicity. He also placed great importance on teaching America’s indigenous populations. His vision was to “establish the oneness of the world of humanity.”2‘Abdu’l Bahá, Tablets of the Divine Plan (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1993), 42.
When leadership of the worldwide Bahá’í community passed to Shoghi Effendi, the grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in 1921, he continued to emphasize interracial fellowship as a path to racial unity, even when custom discouraged such fellowship. Starting in the 1920s, his letters to North American Bahá’ís addressed these issues, with his most forceful communication being the book-length 1938 letter The Advent of Divine Justice. In that work, he laid out principles for the success of a global plan for the growth and development of the Bahá’í community. This Seven Year Plan covered the years 1937 through 1944 and encouraged North American Bahá’ís to travel to other North, Central, and South American states, provinces, territories, and countries—many of them mentioned in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Tablets of the Divine Plan—to share with peoples of all races, nationalities, and ethnicities the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. Bahá’ís were encouraged to reach out in particular to “the Negro, the Indian, the Eskimo, and Jewish races. … No more laudable and meritorious service can be rendered …”3Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1984), 45. This letter was completed in December 1938 and published in book form the next year; these were the terms (“Negroes,” “Indians”) used for those populations at that time. Among the three major requirements for success of that plan was freedom from racial prejudice, a necessary precondition in that momentous spiritual endeavor to share the Faith with diverse people. 4The other two of three principles were rectitude of conduct, primarily for institutions, and a chaste and holy life for individuals. The assumption in the two subsequent global plans that Shoghi Effendi initiated, the second Seven Year Plan (1946-53) and the Ten-Year Crusade (1953-63), was that freedom from racial prejudice would continue to be important as the geographic scope of the Faith expanded to the entire world. 5For confirmation of the current relevance of these principles, see Universal House of Justice, 4 March 2020, letter to an individual, par. 3, reprinted in “Extracts from Letters Written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to Individual Believers in the United States on the Topic of Achieving Race Unity, 1996-2020.” Notably, each global plan aimed to increase the number of nationalities, tribes, ethnicities, and races represented within a faith that could then shelter its members from the pernicious influences of division, prejudice, and materialism. As “pioneers” spread the Bahá’í teachings, thus increasing the Faith’s reach and diversity, Shoghi Effendi illustrated detailed global maps showing the increasing number of tribes, ethnicities, and peoples who were joining the Bahá’í Faith worldwide. 6Pioneers are Bahá’ís who travel to other places in support of the global plans. Usually moving without financial support from the Bahá’í Faith, they find jobs or other means of income and live among their new population as contributing members of the community. In addition to The Advent of Divine Justice, see for more description of the global plans: Melanie Smith and Paul Lample, The Spiritual Conquest of the Planet: Our Response to Global Plans (Palabra Press, 1993) and June Thomas, Planning Progress: Lessons from Shoghi Effendi (Association for Bahá’í Studies, 1999).
Since its first election in 1963, the worldwide governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, the Universal House of Justice, has continued to champion the central principles of racial unity and diversity. Between 1964 and 1996, it launched five global plans that reached the world’s diverse peoples in various ways, such as by sending travelers to various countries. 7“Preface,” The Four Year Plan: Messages of the Universal House of Justice (Palabra Publications, 1996), iii. As time passed, however, it became increasingly obvious that the ability of the Bahá’í community to effectively contribute to constructive social change and new models of social organization was limited. One reason was that, despite its wide geographic spread, the Bahá’í community was still relatively small in number. The other was the lagging moral and spiritual state of the world’s people in the face of rapid social, scientific, and technological developments and of a rampant materialism.
Place and the Institute Process
In a new series of global plans initiated in 1996 with the call for a “network of training institutes,” the worldwide Bahá’í community began to approach expansion in a different way.8The Universal House of Justice initiated in 1996 a series of five plans that would lead the worldwide community until 2021, the anniversary of the death of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “Preface,” The Five Year Plan, 2011-2016: Messages of the Universal House of Justice (Palabra Publications, 2013), iii. One innovation was the creation of training institutes. These “centers of learning” aim to build human resources and improve communities through a spiritually-based training program designed for different age groups, ranging from children to adults.9Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 1996 letter, par. 28 and 29. Listed are only a few of the skills that the training institute facilitates. They embody a form of distance education that can reach even remote areas of the globe. By 1999, these centers of learning had made “significant strides in developing formal programmes and in putting into place effective systems for the delivery of courses.”10Universal House of Justice, 26 November 1999 letter, par. 2. The program involves direct education as well as participatory study circles open to youth and adults, with all activities open to people of all faiths, races, and creeds. The Universal House of Justice calls the efforts for capacity building for advancing community building and propelling social change the “institute process.” After a few years of reflective learning, the worldwide Bahá’í community adopted, from among several options, the curriculum that first arose from the Ruhi Institute in Colombia.
As the Universal House of Justice learned more about the institute process and as Bahá’ís gained more experience with Ruhi educational materials, they began to focus their efforts on neighborhoods and villages.11Bahá’ís organized groups of metropolitan areas, cities, villages, or rural areas into “clusters,” defined by Bahá’ís but based on existing secular conditions, specifically “culture, language, patterns of transport, infrastructure, and the social and economic life of the inhabitants.” Universal House of Justice, 9 January 2001 letter, par. 10. The Universal House of Justice sent messages between 2010 and 2016 that described salutary experiences in several such receptive locations. It advised the world’s Bahá’ís to look for “smaller pockets of the population” that would benefit from the institute process. It defined such pockets: “in an urban cluster, such a centre of activity might best be defined by the boundaries of a neighbourhood; in a cluster that is primarily rural in character, a small village would offer a suitable social space for this purpose.”12Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2010 letter, par. 5.
In such places, the role of the institute would be both to nurture the population spiritually and to enable the building of capacity and community. The means for doing so were deeply participatory: to “enable people of varied backgrounds to advance on equal footing and explore the application of the teachings to their individual and collective lives.”13Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2010 letter, par. 5, 14. By 2013, the Universal House of Justice could report clear evidence for the power of “community building by developing centers of intense activity in neighbourhoods and villages.” In 2016, the Universal House of Justice reported that, because of such strategies, the Teachings of the Faith were influencing people in many different spaces: “crowded urban quarters and villages along rivers and jungle paths.”14Universal House of Justice, 26 March 2016 letter, par. 5.
All of this was an effort to support salutary transformation in the lives and fortunes of the world’s people. In 2015, the Universal House of Justice described the following: “A broader cross section of the population is being engaged in conversations, and activities are being opened up to whole groups at once—bands of friends and neighbours, troops of youth, entire families—enabling them to realize how society around them can be refashioned. … Prevailing habits, customs, and modes of expression all become susceptible to change. … Qualities of mutual support, reciprocity, and service to one another begin to stand out as features of an emerging, vibrant culture among those involved in activities.”15Universal House of Justice, 29 December 2015 letter, par. 24.
Addressing Racial Unity through Institutes
In 2010, the Universal House of Justice bemoaned that “prejudices of all kinds—of race, of class, of ethnicity, of gender, of religious belief—continue to hold a strong grip on humanity.” It noted, however, that its current global plans could “build capacity in every human group, with no regard for class or religious background, with no concern for ethnicity or race, irrespective of gender or social status, to arise and contribute to the advancement of civilization.” It expressed the hope that the process set in place by these plans would steadily unfold to “disable every instrument devised by humanity over the long period of its childhood for one group to oppress another.”16Universal House of Justice, 28 December 2010 letter, par. 34.
Indeed, institute-related activities began to bring into collaboration members of diverse faiths, creeds, and ethnicities, as whole villages, cities, and neighborhoods around the world studied unifying spiritual principles and turned away from separations by race, ethnicity, caste, or class. In 2018, the Universal House of Justice reported on results “from country to country.” “As the work in thousands of villages and neighbourhoods gathers momentum,” it wrote, “a vibrant community life is taking root in each.” The House of Justice then explained that, as this happens, a “new vitality emerges within a people taking charge of their own development. Social reality begins to transform.”17Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2018 letter, par. 3
The Universal House of Justice sent special assurances to North American believers about the effectiveness of the institute process. Steady promotion of the institute process “will usher in the time anticipated by Shoghi Effendi … when the communities you build will directly combat and eventually eradicate the forces of corruption, of moral laxity, and of ingrained prejudice eating away at the vitals of society.”18Universal House of Justice, 26 March 2016 letter, par. 3. In this letter and in many others, the Universal House of Justice affirmed the potential benefits of the institute process as a tool for racial unity.
The North American community needed such assurance. The United States, especially, continues to experience problems of racial disunity, characterized by lingering racial segregation, social and economic lags for minority-race people, and political/cultural confrontation. Racial prejudice continues to be a problem ingrained in society and in its geographic places. Metropolitan areas in the United States demonstrate spatial inequality, implanted by historic federal and state policies or by ongoing discrimination and exclusionary zoning. Efforts to resolve problems falter: “Any significant progress toward racial equality has invariably been met by countervailing processes, overt or covert, that served to undermine the advances achieved and to reconstitute the forces of oppression by other means.”19Universal House of Justice, 22 July 2020 letter, par. 2.
Not just in the United States, but in other countries, place-based action in small geographic areas could encounter such built-in racial disunity. Many metropolitan areas and cities around the world contain sectors or neighborhoods set aside for specific racial, ethnic, or national groups and habitually marginalize the poor. Spatial segregation by race, ethnicity, or income level persists, often oppressing the disadvantaged. How, then, could the current plan’s institute process, an educational initiative based in discrete neighborhoods or localities—some of them defined by racial exclusion—promote racial unity?
Consider two hypothetical families as examples. The first family lives in a modern metropolitan area. That family lives a life of relative prosperity, is not a “minority,” and holds no antagonism toward people of minority races—although its everyday life is isolated by race and income level. Only families of its own, comfortable income bracket live in its section of the city, because of historic circumstances or municipal laws limiting access. Because of longstanding exclusionary practices, the city where this family lives is home to few minority-race people. Schools are similarly homogeneous, and the family’s children have no friendships with diverse people. How might this family help promote racial unity?
The second family lives in the same metropolitan area. That family is of a minority race and has low income. It lives in an isolated neighborhood, housing families with very similar characteristics to its own. Like the first family, this family also has no antagonism toward other racial groups. Its most challenging issue is not overcoming its own individual prejudices, but surviving in a hostile environment. Its children go to inferior schools; its adults suffer from underemployment or unemployment; and the public services it receives are grossly inferior to the norms for its nation. How might this family make sense of the concept of racial unity, while hemmed in by the geographic proof of disunity?
The Universal House of Justice has explained that different circumstances call for different approaches. Both families and the neighborhoods they live in contain people who can benefit from the institute process, but the utility of the process may manifest itself differently in the two neighborhoods. The specific approach to racial unity would vary as well. Here are four of several possible approaches:
Become free from racial prejudice
The first principle is individual freedom from racial prejudice. The Bahá’í Writings offer much guidance on exactly what this means, but they refer to both attitudes and actions. What binds this guidance is a fundamental recognition of our common humanity and an unwillingness to prejudge people because of race, color, or other exterior characteristics. The Bahá’í teachings also counsel action. In 1927 Shoghi Effendi gave specific spatial advice; he told Bahá’ís to show interracial fellowship “in their homes, in their hours of relaxation and leisure, in the daily contact of business transactions, in the association of their children, whether in their study-classes, their playgrounds, and club-rooms, in short under all possible circumstances, however insignificant they appear.”20Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages, 1922-1932 (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1995), 130. Bahá’í institutions have continually confirmed the importance of mirroring forth freedom from racial prejudice in both attitude and action.
Both the family of comfortable means and the family of circumscribed means should treat others without racial prejudice, but their charges differ. Although Shoghi Effendi noted that both blacks and whites should make a “tremendous effort,” he called on whites to “make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem.” Blacks, in turn, were to show “the warmth of their response” when whites did reach out.21Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, 33. In conditions of geographic isolation, a majority-race family may need to make special efforts to help promote racial unity. This might require seeking diverse friendships, associations, and social activities, as a matter of general principle and as a service to its own children. It is important to replace racism with “just relationships among individuals, communities, and institutions or society that will uplift all and will not designate anyone as ‘other.’ The change required is not merely social and economic, but above all moral and spiritual.”22Universal House of Justice, 22 July 2020 letter, par. 4.
Reach out to minority peoples
This, too, is a principle enshrined within Bahá’í history and widely assumed in the present activities of the global community.23Universal House of Justice, 29 December 2015 letter, par. 25. This principle applies to both families in our hypothetical examples. Assume they are all Bahá’í. The more privileged family might consider how to help greater numbers of minority people gain access to the capacity-building potential inherent in the institute process. This would require some form of access and communication; fortunately, a range of possibilities exists. In a letter, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States recommended that Bahá’ís consider homefront pioneering into communities predominantly populated by African-Americans, Native Americans, or immigrants.24National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, 31 January 2018 letter, par. 4. Alternatively, such a family might steer toward mixed-race neighborhoods when it makes its next move from one domicile to another. Another strategy would be to befriend and engage minorities in their own locality, or to reach across municipal boundaries and associate with people who live in areas segregated from their own. This may require a concerted, conscious effort to overcome the geographic boundaries that exist and to offer genuine friendship. The second family, living in a high-minority, low-income area, could find it easier because of location to offer neighbors local opportunities for collaboration as part of the institute process, although that family, too, may face challenges of agency and receptivity.
Utilize the institute process as a matrix for racial unity
The institute process can help build community as a part of a process of social transformation. Both hypothetical neighborhoods could benefit; usefulness of the institute process is not dependent on the socio-economic status or racial characteristics of any geographic area. The institute process can support racial unity in part because it allows people to converse on related topics in a warm and loving atmosphere, and because it allows them to walk together along several paths of service to humanity.25See for example Universal House of Justice, 10 April 2011 letter. Other relevant letters compiled in “Extracts from Letters Written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to Individual Believers in the United States on the Topic of Achieving Race Unity, 1996-2020.” This process would work best as a tool for racial unity, of course, with diverse participants. For the two families that we have described, both in homogeneous areas, it could be difficult to arrange activities for racially diverse participants, dampening the ability of the institute process to support racial unity. Even so, the spiritual principles enshrined within the institute curriculum are a useful foundation for raising consciousness in people about the importance of racial unity, since those principles include such virtues as respecting the nobility of human beings, valuing kindliness and generosity, seeking justice, and nurturing the life of the soul as opposed to materialistic pursuits. If more people of privilege understood and acted on such principles, this would help counteract self-righteousness, prejudice, and lack of empathy, shortcomings that pose major barriers for racial unity. Likewise, understanding such principles could be of tangible, even life-saving importance for a minority-race family living in a low-income area experiencing social disintegration. Indeed, a main protection against pernicious influences in such a situation may be spiritual education for themselves and for their surrounding neighbors, giving rise to a process of social transformation.
Aim toward social and economic development
We have already mentioned several benefits that could come from engagement in the institute process, including elevation of spiritual dialogue, the education of children, the nurturing of junior youth, and the promotion of moral conduct. All of this could lead to various forms of social action. Built into the institute process is the idea that groups of people can raise up protagonists for social action from within their own communities. This happens by nurturing individuals’ capacity and then enhancing collective capacity as the community consults on possibilities for action that address complex needs. These needs could range from health and welfare to water safety, the provision of food, or neighborhood beautification. Although this level of collective action is still, in some nations, only in embryonic form, in other nations the institute process has led to a flowering of social and economic development initiatives that are borne out of a deep understanding of the needs of local inhabitants of all faiths, races, and ethnicities, joined together in unified action.
Such action could take place in a wide variety of neighborhoods of various economic means. This characteristic would be of particular importance, however, to the hypothetical low-income family. From their perspective, a necessary aspect of “racial unity” could indeed be support for their movement toward sustenance and survival. The training institute could offer short-term support from visiting helpers, teachers, or study circle tutors. The aim, however, would be for residents to arise to become tutors within their own neighborhoods, becoming indigenous teachers and accompanying growing numbers of their fellow residents to contribute to the betterment of their community. The institute process is “not a process that some carry out on behalf of others who are passive recipients—the mere extension of the congregation and invitation to paternalism—but one in which an ever-increasing number of souls recognize and take responsibility for the transformation of humanity.”26Universal House of Justice, 10 April 2011 letter, par. 4. People living in a particular place could begin to reshape their destinies as they engaged growing numbers of friends and neighbors in collective action.
Furthering the Racial Unity Agenda
The struggle for the unity of humanity is a long-term one that requires much concerted action along the way. Members of the Bahá’í Faith have continued to advance international, national, and local plans and efforts designed to further such unity. On the specific matter of racial unity, both ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi provided unifying spiritual guidance within the framework of visionary, international plans designed to bring the world’s people into one human family. They also addressed such matters as how to change both attitudes and actions in order to overcome racial prejudice and help bring about unity. The Universal House of Justice has supported and advanced these strategies.
This worldwide governing body has now offered humanity a potent tool in the form of the institute process, an educational strategy that can help prepare people to build up their communities and contribute their share to the betterment of humanity. The Universal House of Justice has also turned the attention of Bahá’ís to the challenge of helping to bring about such social transformation within small portions of nations, such as villages or neighborhoods that are part of cities or metropolitan areas. This article concerns one of the dilemmas connected with efforts to advance unity, particularly racial unity, in such places: society has segmented people and communities by divisive lines that have cemented disunity. This poses a spatial problem that needs thoughtful action in response.
We used two hypothetical (but realistic) examples to serve as thought experiments, efforts to think through the implications of geographic space for race unity action within the framework of the institute process. The examples were just that; the point is that people in many places face difficulties of various kinds in promoting a race unity agenda in contemporary times. The challenge is to assess our own situations and to take appropriate action. We do know, based on experience from around the globe, that the institute process offers a powerful tool for social transformation and for bringing about several forms of social unity, including racial. It is also capable of raising up individual protagonists who can begin to reshape themselves and their communities in myriad positive ways, a matter of great importance particularly to neighborhoods suffering the consequences of historic racial inequality.
Study circles, a fundamental element of the institute process, have an essential function in what the Universal House of Justice sees as a process of community building starting with spiritual empowerment and moral education, extending to social action at a small scale, and ultimately expanding to include progressively complex community-building projects. The experience that is being gained opens the possibility for the greater influence of spiritual principles in important matters of public discourse, such as racial unity, the environment, health, and other areas of concern. In such ways, the process of implementing Bahá’u’lláh’s vision, furthered by the institutions of His Faith, is advancing.
At the heart of human experience lies an essential yearning for self-definition and self-understanding. Developing a conception of who we are, for what purpose we exist, and how we should live our lives is a basic impulse of human consciousness. This project—of defining the self and its place in the social order—expresses both a desire for meaning and an aspiration for belonging. It is a quest informed by ever-evolving and interacting narratives of identity.
Today, as the sheer intensity and velocity of change challenges our assumptions about the nature and structure of social reality, a set of vital questions confront us. These include: What is the source of our identity? Where should our attachments and loyalties lie? And if our identity or identities so impel us, how—and with whom—should we come together? And what is the nature of the bonds that bring us together?
The organization and direction of human affairs are inextricably connected to the future evolution of our identity. For it is from our identity that intention, action, and social development flow. Identity determines how we see ourselves and conceive our position in the world, how others see us or classify us, and how we choose to engage with those around us. “Knowing who we are,” the sociologist Philip Selznick observes, “helps us to appreciate the reach as well as the limits of our attachments.”1Philip Selznick, “Civility and Piety as Foundations of Community,” The Journal of Bahá’í Studies, Vol. 14, number ½, March-June 2004. Also see Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 388—9. Such attachments play a vital role in shaping our “authentic selves” and in determining our attitudes toward those within and outside the circle of our social relationships. Acting on the commitments implied by these attachments serves to amplify the powers of individuals in effecting societal well-being and advancement. Notions of personal and collective identity can thus exert considerable influence over the norms and practices of a rapidly integrating global community.
As we have many associational linkages, identity comes in a variety of forms. At times we identify ourselves by our family, ethnicity, nationality, religion, mother tongue, race, gender, class, culture, or profession. At other times our locale, the enterprises and institutions we work for, our loyalty to sports teams, affinity for certain types of music and cuisine, attachment to particular causes, and educational affiliations provide definitional aspects to who we are. The sources of identification which animate and ground human beings are immensely diverse. In short, there are multiple demands of loyalty placed upon us, and consequently, our identities, as Nobel laureate Amaryta Sen has noted, are “inescapably plural.”2Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence—The Illusion of Destiny (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), p. xiii.
But which identity or identities are most important? Can divergent identities be reconciled? And do these identities enhance or limit our understanding of and engagement with the world? Each of us on a daily basis, both consciously and unconsciously, draws upon, expresses, and mediates between our multiple senses of identity. And as our sphere of social interaction expands, we tend to subsume portions of how we define ourselves and seek to integrate into a wider domain of human experience. This often requires us to scrutinize and even resist particular interpretations of allegiance that may have a claim on us. We therefore tend to prioritize which identities matter most to us. As the theorist Iris Marion Young stresses: “Individuals are agents: we constitute our own identities, and each person’s identity is unique…A person’s identity is not some sum of her gender, racial, class, and national affinities. She is only her identity, which she herself has made by the way that she deals with and acts in relation to others…”3Iris Marion Young, Inclusion and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 101—2. The matrix of our associations surely influences how we understand and interpret the world, but cannot fully account for how we think, act, or what values we hold. That a particular identity represents a wellspring of meaning to an individual need not diminish the significance of other attachments or eclipse our moral intuition or use of reason. Affirming affinity with a specific group as a component of one’s personal identity should not limit how one views one’s place in society or the possibilities of how one might live.
While it is undoubtedly simplistic to reduce human identity to specific contextual categories such as nationality or culture, such categories do provide a strong narrative contribution to an individual’s sense of being. “Around the world,” the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, “it matters to people that they can tell a story of their lives that meshes with larger narratives. This may involve rites of passage into womanhood and manhood; or a sense of national identity that fits into a larger saga. Such collective identification can also confer significance upon very individual achievements.”4Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 68. Social, cultural, and other narratives directly impact who we are. They provide context and structure for our lives, allowing us to link what we wish to become to a wider human inheritance, thereby providing a basis for meaningful collective life. Various narratives of identity serve as vehicles of unity, bringing coherence and direction to the disparate experiences of individuals.
In the wake of extraordinary advances in human knowledge, which have deepened global interchange and contracted the planet, we now find ourselves defined by overlapping identities that encompass a complex array of social forces, relations, and networks. The same person, for instance, can be a Canadian citizen of African origin who descends from two major tribes, fluent in several languages, an engineer, an admirer of Italian opera, an alumnus of a major American university, a race-car enthusiast, a practitioner of yoga, an aficionado of oriental cuisine, a proponent of a conservative political philosophy, and an adherent of agnosticism who nevertheless draws on insights found in the spiritual traditions of his forebears. One can simultaneously be a committed participant in local community affairs such as improving elementary-level education and an ardent supporter of transnational causes like human rights and environmental stewardship. Such juxtapositions of identity illustrate how individuals increasingly belong to multiple “communities of fate” in which long-existing spatial boundaries are being entirely redrawn and reconceptualized.5David Held and Anthony McGrew, Globalization/Anti-Globalization (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2002), p. 91. Modernity has transformed identity in such a way that we must view ourselves as being not only in a condition of dependence or independence but also interdependence.
The recasting of longstanding narratives of identification and affiliation is giving rise to widespread anxiety, grievance, and perplexity. In the eyes of many, the circumstances of daily life lie beyond their control. In particular, “the nation-state…that preeminent validator of social identity—no longer assures well-being,” the anthropologist Charles Carnegie avers.6Charles Carnegie, Postnationalism Prefigured: Carribbean Borderlands (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), p. 1. Other established sources of social cohesion and expressions of collective intention are similarly diminished in their efficacy to ground the actions of populations around the planet, resulting in a sense of disconnection and alienation. The philosopher Charles Taylor attributes such disruption of customary social patterns to the “massive subjective turn of modern culture,” involving an overly atomistic and instrumental view of individual identity.7Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 26. This exaggerated individualism accompanies the dislocation from historic centers of collectivity that is a repercussion of the centrifugal stresses of globalization. Against this kaleidoscope of change, including the major migrations of peoples, the international nature of economic production, and the formation of communities of participation across territorial borders through the means of modern communications, the concept of citizenship, as membership in a confined geographic polity, is in need of reformulation.
Our connections to others now transcend traditional bounds of culture, nation, and community. The unprecedented nature of these connections is radically reshaping human organization and the scale and impact of human exchange. But globalization has been with us a long time; the movement of peoples, goods, and ideas is an inherent feature of human history and development. Virtually every culture is linked to others by a myriad ties.8For example, many important concepts in modern science and mathematics find their genesis in the work of Chinese and Indian thinkers, some of which were later elaborated and transmitted to the West by Muslim innovators. Asian culture and architecture was greatly influenced by the movements of the Mughals and Mongols. The Bantu migrations spread ironworking and new agricultural methods across Africa. The great distances covered across oceans by the Vikings and the Polynesians; the movements and engineering achievements of indigenous societies in the Americas; the existence of Ming china in Swahili graves; and the spread of the tomato and the chili from the Americas to Europe and Asia illustrate the extent of human migration and interchange throughout the ages.
Culture is neither static nor homogeneous. Anthropological and sociological research reveals that cultures cannot be seen as fixed, indivisible wholes. The various manifestations of “social belonging” exhibit a “constructed and pliable nature.”9 Charles Carnegie, Postnationalism Prefigured, p. 9. Cultural resiliency has much to do with heterogeneity, assimilation of outside ideas, and the capacity to adapt. “We should view human cultures as constant creations, recreations, and negotiations of imaginary boundaries between ‘we’ and the ‘other(s)’,” the political scientist Seyla Benhabib emphasizes.10Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 8. The multifarious processes of integration now at work are serving to accentuate and accelerate such social, economic, and cultural interchange. Under these conditions, Benhabib adds, presumed lines of cultural demarcation are increasingly “fluid, porous and contested.”11Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 184. To perceive cultures, then, as objects of stasis, immune from the complex dialogues and interactions of human existence, is a fundamental epistemological and empirical error. As Appiah maintains: “Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.”12Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Case for Contamination,” The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 1, 2006.
Often, the insistence that the essence of cultural distinctiveness is its putative immutability emerges from a sincere desire to preserve and honor the power of an existing collective narrative. What is at issue here is a legitimate fear that valued identities may be lost or overwhelmed by unfamiliar external forces. Although an advocate of cultural rights designed to prevent such unwanted change, the theorist Will Kymlicka notes that “most indigenous peoples understand that the nature of their cultural identity is dynamic…”13Will Kymlicka, cited in Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 132. From this vantage point, Kymlicka believes that globalization “provides new and valued options by which nations can promote their interests and identities.”14 Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 323. This suggests that a balance must be sought between the requirements of self-determination and the possibility of defining an aspect of self-determination as participation in the construction of a broader collectivity. Participation of this kind by a diverse array of cultures and peoples offers the promise of enriching the entire fabric of civilized life.
Recognition of the reality of globalization, however, does not mean that the current inequities associated with the process—how resources, opportunities, and power are distributed—should go unchallenged. And perhaps more important, the exhausted ideologies and intellectual frameworks that allow such inequities to persist must also be directly confronted.15For a in-depth exploration of this point, see the Bahá’í International Community statements, “The Prosperity of Humankind”, 1995, and “Who is Writing the Future?”, 1999. It is here where the insights provided by diverse human traditions and value systems can engage with the constructive phenomena of contemporary change to open new frontiers of identity—frontiers offering a peaceful and just future.
In 1945, aware of the imminent test of the first atomic weapon, Franklin D. Roosevelt warned: “Today we are faced with the pre-eminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace.”16These were among the last words penned by Roosevelt which, due to his death, were not delivered. See http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1945/450413b.html Clearly, the perceptions that human beings hold of themselves and each other matter. In a world convulsed by contention and conflict, conceptions of identity that feed the forces of prejudice and mistrust must be closely examined. Assertions that certain populations can be neatly partitioned into oppositional categories of affiliation deserve particular scrutiny. The notion of civilizational identity as the predominant expression of human allegiance is one such problematic example.17Samuel Huntington, in his seminal article “The Clash of Civilizations?”, posits that global stability will be determined by the interactions among what he calls Western, Hindu, Islamic, Sinic, African, Latin American, Buddhist, and Orthodox Christian civilizations. Huntington writes: “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” See Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993. For Amartya Sen, such thinking leads to “conceptual disarray” that can undermine international stability.
To view the relationships between different human beings as mere reflections of the relations between civilizations is questionable on both logical and pragmatic grounds. First, civilizations themselves are not monolithic in character; indeed, their vast internal diversity is among their distinguishing features. Second, as we have seen, reducing personhood to a “singular affiliation” denies the essential variety and complexity of human experience.18Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. 20. Of most concern, argues Sen, is the danger that assigning “one preeminent categorization” to human beings will exacerbate and harden conceptions of difference between peoples.19Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. 16. This presumption of a “unique and choiceless identity,” that people are what they are because they have been born into a certain ethnic, cultural, or religious inheritance, is an “illusion” that underlies many of the “conflicts and barbarities in the world.”20Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. xv. “Reasoned choice,” Sen believes, must be used to examine the intrinsic merit of our antecedent associations as well as the broader social ramifications of identity.21 Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. 8.
“A tenable global ethics,” Kwame Anthony Appiah concurs, “has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices.”22Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Case for Contamination,” The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 1, 2006. For this reason, there exists an intimate relationship between cultural diversity and liberty. A sustainable and authentic expression of collective development must be a freely chosen path pursued by the members composing the group in question; current generations cannot impose their vision of what a desirable form of life is upon future generations. Existing mores, practices, and institutions can inform, validate, and even ennoble the human condition, but cannot or should not foreclose new moral or social directions for individuals and communities. Indeed, collective learning and adjustment are defining characteristics of social evolution. Because our perceptions and experiences change, our understanding of reality necessarily undergoes change. So too, then, do our identities change. “The contours of identity are profoundly real,” Appiah states, “and yet no more imperishable, unchanging, or transcendent than other things that men and women make.”23Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 113. At the same time, “if we create a society that our descendants will want to hold on to, our personal and political values will survive in them.”24wame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 137.
Significant portions of the world’s peoples, we know though, are deprived of the autonomy necessary to develop a plan of life or a corresponding identity that can inspire and assist them to realize life goals. The widespread subordinate social position of women and minorities restricts the latitude of their self-determination; members of these groups are frequently denied, in a systematic way, the chance to fully explore their individual potential and to contribute to the processes of cultural, social, and moral advancement. Constructions of identity can therefore be quite tenuous for marginalized groups or individuals whose personal characteristics fall outside received categories of classification. This can be especially true for persons of mixed ethnic, racial, or religious descent. Concepts of race and nation can serve as powerful instruments and symbols of unity, but can also lead to the isolation, dispossession, and “symbolic dismemberment” of minorities.25Charles Carnegie, Postnationalism Prefigured, p. 17. In this regard, Charles Carnegie’s call for a “new consciousness of belonging” seems vital.26Charles Carnegie, Postnationalism Prefigured, p. 9.
The prevalent stance that identity is about difference is untenable. Perceiving identity through the relativistic lens of separation or cultural preservation ignores compelling evidence of our common humanity and can only aggravate the forces of discord and disagreement now so pervasive in the world. The only alternative to this path of fragmentation and disunity is to nurture affective relationships across lines of ethnicity, creed, territory, and color—relationships that can serve as the warp and woof of a new social framework of universal solidarity and mutual respect. A one-dimensional understanding of human beings must be rejected. As Amartya Sen underscores: “The hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies to a great extent in a clearer understanding of the pluralities of human identity, and in the appreciation that they cut across each other and work against a sharp separation along one single hardened line of impenetrable division.”27Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. xiv. This is an appeal for imagination in creating new ways of being and living; for a new vision of human nature and society—one that recognizes the unmistakable shared destiny of all peoples. The resolution of the problems now engulfing the planet demands a more expansive sense of human identity. As articulated by Bahá’u’lláh more than a century ago: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”28Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/696472436
The crucial need of the present hour is to determine the conceptual and practical steps that will lay the foundations of an equitable and harmonious global order. Effectively addressing the crises now disrupting human affairs will require new models of social transformation that recognize the deep interrelationship between the material, ethical, and transcendent dimensions of life. It is evident that such models can emerge only from a fundamental change in consciousness about who we are, how we regard others who enter our ambit—no matter how near or distant, and how we collectively design the structures and processes of social life, whether local or global.
Such observations lead to yet more questions. In a world of pluralistic identities and rapidly shifting cultural and moral boundaries, is a common understanding of human purpose and action possible? Can a genuine cosmopolitan ethic, one that fully embraces human diversity, emerge from the multiple experiences and perceptions of modernity?
A basis of an affirmative Bahá’í response to these questions can be found in Bahá’u’lláh’s exhortations to the world’s peoples to “set your faces towards unity, and let the radiance of its light shine upon you,”29Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/407719266 and to “let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self.”30 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/294539200 For Bahá’ís, though, such a perspective is not simply a matter of belief or hopeful aspiration, but is grounded in experience.
A conviction of the practicality of world unity and peace, coupled with an unwavering dedication to work toward this goal, is perhaps the single most distinguishing characteristic of the Bahá’í community. That this community is now representative of the diversity of the entire human race, encompassing virtually every national, ethnic, and racial group on the planet, is an achievement that cannot be casually dismissed. The worldwide Bahá’í community, as an organic whole, eschews dichotomies prevalent in public discourse today, such as “North” and “South,” and “developed” and “underdeveloped.” Bahá’ís everywhere, irrespective of the degree of material well-being of their nations, are striving to apply the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to the process of building unified patterns of collective life. In this undertaking, every member of the community is a valued participant. In this respect, the roots of Bahá’í motivation and the formation of Bahá’í identity have a long history.
In the early part of the twentieth century, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—Bahá’u’lláh’s son and appointed successor—urged the some 160 Bahá’í inhabitants of a small village in a remote part of Iran who were experiencing persecution to “regard every ill-wisher as a well-wisher.… That is, they must associate with a foe as befitteth a friend, and deal with an oppressor as beseemeth a kind companion. They should not gaze upon the faults and transgressions of their foes, nor pay heed to their enmity, inequity or oppression.”31Cited in Century of Light, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/031947140. And further, they should “show forth love and affection, wisdom and compassion, faithfulness and unity towards all, without any discrimination.”32Cited in Century of Light, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/690838011 But apart from enjoining upon them an attitude of remarkable forbearance and amity, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not address these followers as simple rural people with narrow parochial concerns. Rather, He affirmed their innate dignity by speaking to them as citizens of the world who had the capacity and the power to contribute to the advancement of civilization:
O ye beloved of the Lord! With the utmost joy and gladness, serve ye the human world, and love ye the human race. Turn your eyes away from limitations, and free yourselves from restrictions, for … freedom therefrom brings about divine blessings and bestowals…
Therefore, so long as there be a trace of life in one’s veins, one must strive and labour, and seek to lay a foundation that the passing of centuries and cycles may not undermine, and rear an edifice which the rolling of ages and aeons cannot overthrow—an edifice that shall prove eternal and everlasting, so that the sovereignty of heart and soul may be established and secure in both worlds.33Cited in Century of Light, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/416856683
In short, the perceptions, preferences, and assumptions of the denizens of this small, isolated village were radically transformed. Their identity had been remade. They no longer were concerned just with local matters, and even though they were far removed from the mainstream of intellectual and cultural exchange, they regarded themselves as “servants” of the “entire human race,” and as protagonists in the building of a new way of life. They understood their “ultimate sphere of work as the globe itself.”34Cited in Century of Light, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/463388482 That the broader Iranian Bahá’í community achieved, over the course of three generations, levels of educational advancement and prosperity well beyond the general population, even under conditions of severe religious discrimination, underscores the capacities that can be released when the moral and spiritual dimensions of human consciousness are awakened and purposively channeled.35Through adherence to and active implementation of spiritual precepts, the Iranian Bahá’í community effectively eliminated poverty and achieved universal literacy over the span of six to seven decades. Commitment to the principles of human equality and nobility, moral rectitude, collaborative decision-making, education—particularly of girls, of the exalted station of work, cleanliness and good hygiene, and respect for scientific knowledge as applied to agriculture, commerce and other avenues of human endeavor constituted the basis of a spiritually inspired process of social advancement. For additional perspective on the Bahá’í approach to social and economic progress see Bahá’í International Community, “For the Betterment of the World”, 2002; and In Service to the Common Good: The American Bahá’í Community’s Commitment to Social Change, National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, 2004. For those interested in apprehending the sources and mechanisms of individual and community empowerment, it would be difficult to find a more compelling example of social transformation than the case of the Iranian Bahá’ís.
In response to Bahá’u’lláh’s call for the creation of a universal culture of collaboration and conciliation, Bahá’ís drawn from almost every cultural and religious tradition “have achieved a sense of identity as members of a single human race, an identity that shapes the purpose of their lives and that, clearly, is not the expression of any intrinsic moral superiority on their own part…”36One Common Faith, Bahá’í World Centre, 2005. Available at www.bahai.org/r/969956715 It is an accomplishment “that can properly be described only as spiritual—capable of eliciting extraordinary feats of sacrifice and understanding from ordinary people of every background.”37One Common Faith, Bahá’í World Centre, 2005. Available at www.bahai.org/r/969956715
So it is clear that from a Bahá’í perspective, a universal identity is a vital precursor to action that is universal in its effects—to the “emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and culture.”38Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/580032274 In emphasizing our global identity, Bahá’u’lláh presents a conception of life that insists upon a redefinition of all human relationships—between individuals, between human society and the natural world, between the individual and the community, and between individual citizens and their governing institutions.39Bahá’í International Community, The Prosperity of Humankind, 1995. Humanity has arrived at the dawn of its maturity, when its “innate excellence”and latent creative capacities can at last find complete expression.40 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/494001842 Accordingly, new social forms and ethical precepts are enunciated in the Bahá’í teachings so that human consciousness can be freed from patterns of response set by tradition, and the foundations of a global society can be erected.
Bahá’u’lláh thus speaks to the reshaping and redirection of social reality. That all individual action and social arrangements must be informed by the principle of the oneness of human relationships, gives rise to a concept of moral and social order that safeguards personal dignity while deepening human solidarity. In recognition of this central insight, the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í community, urges all to “embrace the implications of the oneness of humankind, not only as the inevitable next step in the advancement of civilization, but as the fulfillment of lesser identities of every kind that our race brings to this critical moment in our collective history.”41Universal House of Justice, Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, April 2002.
From the basic principle of the unity of the world’s peoples are derived virtually all notions concerning human welfare and liberty. If the human race is one, any assertion that a particular racial, ethnic, or national group is in some way superior to the rest of humanity must be dismissed; society must reorganize its life to give practical expression to the principle of equality for all its members regardless of race, creed, or gender;41 each and every person must be enabled to “look into all things with a searching eye” so that truth can be independently ascertained42Bahá’u’lláh emphatically states that “women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God.” He insists upon the emancipation of women from long-entrenched patterns of subordination and calls for the full participation of women in the social, economic, and political realms of civilized life. Women: Extracts from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice (Thornhill, Ontario: Bahá’í Canada Publications, 1986), No. 54. Concerning racial equality, Bahá’u’lláh counsels, “Close your eyes to racial differences, and welcome all with the light of oneness.” Cited in Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice. Available at www.bahai.org/r/486554855 ; and all individuals must be given the opportunity to realize their inherent capabilities and thereby foster “the elevation, the advancement, the education, the protection and the regeneration of the peoples of the earth.”43Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Available at www.bahai.org/r/473374410
In the Bahá’í view, social origin, position, or rank are of no account in the sight of God. As Bahá’u’lláh confirms, “man’s glory lieth in his knowledge, his upright conduct, his praiseworthy character, his wisdom, and not in his nationality or rank.”44Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Available at www.bahai.org/r/327958234. It should be noted, however, that the Bahá’í teachings recognize the need for authority and rank for the purpose of ensuring functionality in the pursuit of community goals. In this regard, all decision-making authority in the Bahá’í administrative system rests not with individuals but elected corporate bodies. A distinction is thus made between the moral and spiritual equality of all human beings and the differentiation that may exist in how individuals serve society. This emphatic declaration of the essential moral and spiritual worth of every human being is echoed in an epistle of Bahá’u’lláh’s to a devoted follower: “Verily, before the one true God, they who are the rulers and lords of men and they that are their subjects and vassals are equal and the same. The ranks of all men are dependent on their potential and capacity. Witness unto this truth are the words, ‘In truth, they are most honored before God who are most righteous.’”45 Bahá’u’lláh, provisional translation, courtesy of the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice. Hence, embedded in the Bahá’í understanding of human identity is a fundamental expectation of justice and equality of opportunity, as well as an imperative of striving for greater moral awareness and responsibility.
It must be stressed that the “watchword” of the Bahá’í community is “unity in diversity.”46Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/895919188 Oneness and diversity are complementary and inseparable: “That human consciousness necessarily operates through an infinite diversity of individual minds and motivations detracts in no way from its essential unity. Indeed, it is precisely an inherent diversity that distinguishes unity from homogeneity or uniformity.”47Bahá’í International Community, “The Prosperity of Humankind”, 1995. Available at www.bahai.org/r/406673721 Just as integration of the differentiated components of the human body makes possible the higher function of human consciousness, so too is global well-being dependent on the willing give and take, and ultimate collaboration, of humanity’s diverse populations.48The sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to such coordinated interaction among society’s diverse elements as “organic solidarity”—a solidarity governed by the “law of cooperation.” See Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth, pp. 142-3. Acceptance of the concept of unity in diversity implies the development of a global consciousness, a sense of global citizenship, and a love for all of humanity. It induces every individual to realize that, “since the body of humankind is one and indivisible,” each member of the human race is “born into the world as a trust of the whole” and has a responsibility to the whole.49Bahá’í International Community, “The Prosperity of Humankind”, 1995. Available at www.bahai.org/r/616572370 It further suggests that if a peaceful international community is to emerge, then the complex and varied cultural expressions of humanity must be allowed to develop and flourish, as well as to interact with one another in ever-changing forms of civilization. “The diversity in the human family,” the Bahá’í writings emphasize, “should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord.”50‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks. Available at www.bahai.org/r/268841058 More than creating a culture of tolerance, the notion of unity in diversity entails vanquishing corrosive divisions along lines of race, class, gender, nationality, and belief, and erecting a dynamic and cooperative social ethos that reflects the oneness of human nature.
The ideology of difference so ubiquitous in contemporary discourse militates against the possibility of social progress. It provides no basis whereby communities defined by specific backgrounds, customs, or creeds can bridge their divergent perspectives and resolve social tensions. The value of variety and difference cannot be minimized, but neither can the necessity for coexistence, order, and mutual effort. “The supreme need of humanity,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá underscores, “is cooperation and reciprocity. The stronger the ties of fellowship and solidarity amongst men, the greater will be the power of constructiveness and accomplishment in all the planes of human activity.”51‘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. Available at www.bahai.org/r/322101001 Diversity by itself cannot be regarded as an “ultimate good.”52 Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 153.
Unity, in contrast, “is a phenomenon of creative power.”53Cited in Century of Light. Available at www.bahai.org/r/202372160 To foster a global identity, to affirm that we are members of one human family is a deceptively simple but powerful idea. While traditional loyalties and identities must be appreciated and recognized, they are inadequate for addressing the predicament of modernity, and consequently, a higher loyalty, one that speaks to the common destiny of all the earth’s inhabitants, is necessary. And so, in our quest for solutions to the problems that collectively confront us, a first step must involve relinquishing our attachment to lesser loyalties. Yet, while Bahá’u’lláh is saying that at this moment in human social evolution a global identity is vital, an inherent aspect of such a universal identity is recognition of the spiritual reality that animates our inner selves. 54It should be noted that for one who does not arrive at a spiritual understanding of existence, Bahá’u’lláh urges that individual to “at least conduct himself with reason and justice.” Bahá’u’lláh, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts: Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 2002. Available at www.bahai.org/r/653038584 To be sure, a global identity grounded in awareness of our common humanness marks a great step forward from where humanity has been, but a strictly secular or material formulation of global identity is unlikely to provide a sufficient motivational basis for overcoming historic prejudices and engendering universal moral action. Establishing a global milieu of peace, prosperity, and fairness is ultimately a matter of the heart; it involves a change in basic attitudes and values that can only come from recognizing the normative and spiritual nature of the challenges before us. This is especially so given that the vast majority of the world’s peoples do not view themselves simply as material beings responding to material exigencies and circumstances, but rather as beings endowed with spiritual sensibility and purpose.
In light of ongoing social turmoil and the upheavals of the last century, it is simply no longer possible to maintain the belief that human well-being can arise from a narrow materialistic conception of life. The persistence of widespread human deprivation and despair speaks to the shortcomings of prevailing social theories and policies. Fresh approaches are required. A just social polity, Bahá’ís believe, will emerge only when human relations and social arrangements are infused with spiritual intent, an intent characterized by an all-embracing standard of equity, unconditional love, and an ethos of service to others. Addressing practical challenges through a spiritual lens is no easy task, but it is to this objective that Bahá’ís are firmly committed. Through recognition of the centrality of spiritual values and the deeds they inspire, “Minds, hearts and all human forces are reformed, perfections are quickened, sciences, discoveries and investigations are stimulated afresh, and everything appertaining to the virtues of the human world is revitalized.”55 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/008934837 The power of a spiritually-actuated identity in furthering human betterment cannot be overestimated, for those “whose hearts are warmed by the energizing influence of God’s creative love cherish His creatures for His sake, and recognize in every human face a sign of His reflected glory.”56Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/194578922
It is still regrettable that the identity of certain individuals or groups emerges from a shared experience of oppression—from being the victims of systematic discrimination or injustice. In addressing this dimension of human identity, Bahá’u’lláh speaks forcefully and repeatedly about the rights and dignity of all human beings, and the indispensability of creating mechanisms of social justice, but He also explains that spiritual oppression is the most serious of all: “What ‘oppression’ is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth…should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it?”57Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán. Available at www.bahai.org/r/621220243 From this standpoint, it is in the displacement of a transcendent understanding of life by an ascendant materialism that we find the source of the disaffection, anomie, and uncertainty that so pervades modern existence. All forms of oppression ultimately find their genesis in the denial of our essential spiritual identity. As Bahá’u’lláh earnestly counsels us: “Deny not My servant should he ask anything from thee, for his face is My face; be then abashed before Me.”58Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic No. 30. Available at www.bahai.org/r/172419670
These words tell us that we must choose who we wish to be; we must “see” with our “own eyes and not through the eyes of others.”59 Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic No. 2. Available at www.bahai.org/r/099947277 We must create our own sense of self and belonging. To have such power of choice affirms human nobility and is a sign of divine grace. Our different senses of identity consequently become fully realized through the development of our spiritual identity; they each provide a means for achieving our basic existential purpose—the recognition and refinement of the spiritual capacities latent within us. Through the tangible expression of such capacities—compassion, trustworthiness, humility, courage, forbearance, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good—we define a path of spiritual growth. In the end, though, whether we have attained our spiritual potential is enshrouded in mystery: “the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers.”60‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/199999278
Connected with the idea of spiritual identity, then, is the inalienable sanctity of every human soul; that a unique destiny has been bestowed upon each of us by an all-loving Creator—a destiny which unfolds in accordance with the free exercise of our rational and moral powers. As Bahá’u’lláh indicates, “How lofty is the station which man, if he but choose to fulfill his high destiny, can attain!”61 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/397234171 This promise of new vistas of accomplishment for both the individual and society, is, for Bahá’ís, a source of enduring confidence and optimism. The forces now buffeting and recasting human life, Bahá’u’lláh attests, will serve to release the “potentialities inherent in the station of man,” thereby giving impetus to “an ever-advancing civilization.”62Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/494001842
The Bahá’í belief in the spiritual nature of reality, and its underlying unity, sheds new light on the question of religious identity. In stressing that “the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God,”63Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/407719266 Bahá’u’lláh is confirming a basic intuition that the truth underpinning the world’s great religions is in essence one. This explicit rejection of exclusivity and superiority, which have so dominated religious thinking and behavior, and suppressed impulses to reconciliation and unity, clears the ground for a new ethos of mutual understanding. For indeed, to believe that one’s system of belief is somehow superior or unique, has only led humankind to misery, despair, and ruin. In warning His followers never to assume what their own spiritual end might be, Bahá’u’lláh plants the seeds of humility and spiritual maturity so necessary for the creation of a world of tolerance and tranquility. In recognizing the divine origin of the world’s great religions, and that they have each served to unlock a wider range of capacities within human consciousness and society, the Bahá’í Faith does not and cannot make any claim of religious finality, but rather a claim of paramount relevance to humanity’s current spiritual and social plight. Its role as a reconciler and unifier of religions is clearly anticipated by Bahá’u’lláh: “A different Cause…hath appeared in this day and a different discourse is required.”64 Bahá’u’lláh, The Tabernacle of Unity (Bahá’í World Centre, 2006). Available at www.bahai.org/r/855801133
Bahá’u’lláh clarifies that a moral logic pervades the fabric of human life, and that it is through observance of spiritual principles that the individual can realize the divinely intended goal of his or her existence. As beings capable of spiritual and moral development, our autonomy and welfare are not only determined by the laws and constraints of the natural world, but also by an objective spiritual world that is integrally related to it. To follow a moral path is not only to carry out the duties that we have to those around us, but is the only means for realizing true happiness and contentment. Our obligations to God, our inner selves, our family, and the wider community give definition to who we are and what our aims should be. For Bahá’ís, fulfillment of these obligations to the Divine will and to our fellow human beings ensures the emergence of a stable and progressive society. Moreover, by honoring such responsibilities, the nobility and rights of others are protected. In this sense, it is the requirement of individuals’ being able to meet primary spiritual and moral obligations that safeguards human rights.65This is not to suggest that duties prevail over or precede rights, but that the recognition and exercise of such duties provide the very framework for actualizing human rights. There is a complementary relationship between rights and duties. That individuals have specific entitlements or needs, informs us of particular duties that attach to other individuals or the broader society.
The Bahá’í teachings explain that moral insight is both transcendentally and dialogically derived. The values and ideals that bind human beings together, and give tangible direction and meaning to life, find their origins in the guidance provided by the Founders of the world’s great religious systems. At the same time, it is human action in response to such guidance that gives real shape to social reality. Bahá’u’lláh makes clear that all such action must be consultatively-inspired and directed. Given that human life has a “fundamentally dialogical character,” it is through interchange that individuals and the communities they compose are able to give definition to their identities and their long-term goals.66Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, p. 33 Consultation can lead to the creation of new social meanings and social forms that reflect what is reasonable and fair for society to achieve. But any such process of collective deliberation and decision-making, the Bahá’í writings insist, must be devoid of adversarial posturing as well as dispassionate and fully participatory in spirit. It is through discourse which is inclusive and unifying that the religious impulse finds expression in the modern age.
Clearly, there can never be an absolutely objective or static understanding of what constitutes concepts such as social equity, human security, power, “the common good,” democracy, or community. There is an evolutionary aspect to social development—a dynamic process of learning, dialogue, and praxis in which social challenges and solutions are constantly redefined and reassessed. There are always multiple understandings of particular social questions and these diverse perspectives each typically contain some measure of validity. By building a broader framework of analysis that encompasses not only material and technical variables but the normative and spiritual dimensions of various social issues, new insights can emerge that enrich dialogues previously locked into narrow conceptual boundaries. A unifying sense of identity can obviously play an important role in facilitating and sustaining such a consultative path.
In many ways, the struggle to understand our identity is tied up with the question of meaning in modern life. Increasingly, calls are being made for rooting meaning and identity in community, but when the community is religiously, morally, and culturally pluralistic in character it is challenging for diverse voices to find common ground. It is here where the Bahá’í concepts of unity in diversity and non-adversarial dialogue and decision-making can offer a potent alternative vision of social advancement. Engaging in a cooperative search for truth will no doubt lead to the discovery and implementation of shared perspectives and values. Such open moral dialogue within and among variegated communities can lead to a process of action, reflection, and adjustment resulting in genuine social learning and progress.67The evolving international human rights discourse is one significant example of such cross-cultural moral exchange. As Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes, “No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.”68 Bahá’u’lláh, in Consultation: A Compilation (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980), p. 3.
Meaning emerges from an independent search for truth and a chosen freedom grounded in social experience and social participation—a participation that leads to the enlargement of the self. Participation creates new identities and new solidarities. In Bahá’í communities around the globe, patterns of fellowship, knowledge-building, and collaboration among diverse peoples are giving rise to a new human culture. Bahá’ís have found that encouraging new modalities of association and participation is key to promoting meaningful social development and effective local governance that is democratic in spirit and method. Hence, Bahá’u’lláh’s statement that fellowship and sincere association “are conducive to the maintenance of order in the world and to the regeneration of nations.”69Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/787830813
Human beings are social beings. The self, therefore, cannot evolve outside of human relationships. Indeed, the self develops principally through endeavors that are participatory in nature. Virtues such as generosity, loyalty, mercy, and self-abnegation cannot be manifested in isolation from others. The Bahá’í teachings affirm that the essential arena of moral choice is the autonomous person. But this autonomy is exercised within a broader social context, as well as an all-encompassing spiritual reality that informs the nature of that social context. The Bahá’í teachings thus offer a social conception of human identity in which the inner aspirations of the self are aligned with the goals of a just and creative global polity. In this way, the Bahá’í community is able to reconcile “the right” with the “good.”70In the vocabulary of moral philosophy, “the good” refers to a vision of happiness, human well-being, or a specific way of life. Thus, many conceptions of “the good” are possible. “The right” refers to types of principled or just action—binding duties, codes and standards that regulate and guide how individuals pursue their particular notions of “the good.” Modern liberal thought, going back to Immanuel Kant, places emphasis on “the right” over “the good.” Communitarians have critiqued this view, arguing that it has led to the exaggerated individualism of Western society.
Individual well-being is intimately tied to the flourishing of the whole. It is a reciprocated benevolence, founded on the ideals of service and selflessness, rather than utilitarian self-interest, that underlies the Bahá’í idea of social life. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states, “the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good.”71‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/006593911 While preservation of “personal freedom and initiative” is considered essential, so too must the relational aspect of human existence be recognized. The “maintenance of civilized life,” the Universal House of Justice explains, “calls for the utmost degree of understanding and cooperation between society and the individual; and because of the need to foster a climate in which the untold potentialities of the individual members of society can develop, this relationship must allow ‘free scope’ for ‘individuality to assert itself’ through modes of spontaneity, initiative and diversity that ensure the viability of society.”72 Universal House of Justice, Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/437022378
Given the social matrix of human reality, the quest for true self-determination and true identity involves finding one’s place within a moral order, not outside it. But in the Bahá’í view, such “ordered liberty” concerns the awakening of the soul to the capacities of integrity, kindness, and sincerity that lie within it. And spiritual growth of this kind must be fostered by the community in which the individual is embedded. Any conception of “the good”—an equitable society promoting the development of individual potential—must recognize the necessity of imbuing the concept of duty into society’s members. In this respect, laws and ethical standards are intended not to constrain but to liberate human consciousness so that a moral ethos can come into being. To a great degree, then, the emergence of the citizen devoted to a moral praxis results from the collective voice of the community. Although a path of social virtue and service must be freely chosen, the community must strive to cultivate and empower this voice.73 For more on this point, see Amitai Etzioni, The Monochrome Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 221-45. The ultimate expression of this spiritually motivated moral voice is a culture where action flows not from externally imposed duties and rights but from the spontaneous love that each member of the community has for one another. From our shared recognition that we are all sheltered under the love of the same God comes both humility and the means for true social cohesion.
This spiritually-based conception of social life goes beyond notions of mutual advantage and prudence associated with the idea of the social contract. While the principle of self-interested, rational exchange implied by the social contract indisputably represents an advance over coercion as a basis for social existence, there surely exists a step beyond exchange. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum states, the pursuit of “individual ends” must “include shared ends.”74Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap and Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 9-95. Social cooperation, as manifested through a “global society of peoples,” she argues, cannot be based on seeking mutual advantage, but can only result from recognizing that “a central part of our good is to live in a world that is morally decent, a world in which all human beings have what they need to live a life with dignity.”75Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap and Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 9-95. Yet, Nussbaum’s thoughtful critique of current social forms falls short in outlining a pathway for mediating among divergent identities and value systems so that unity on a global scale becomes a realistic possibility. For without a genuine, transcending love emanating from the heart of human consciousness and motivation, it is unlikely that contending peoples and cultures can come together to form a harmonious and interdependent whole. Under the pluralism of the social contract, however enlightened that pluralism may be, disunity reigns.76To acknowledge the limitations of pluralism, however, is not to deny the centrality of individual and group autonomy, civil rights, and democratic values to human well-being. What is being critiqued here is a pluralism that is unable to foster a definite vision of the common good.
Bahá’u’lláh instead offers a covenant of universal fellowship, a spiritually-empowered ethic of deep and abiding commitment, as the basis for collective life. As a result of this covenant of oneness, in the deprivation and suffering of others we see ourselves. Such a frame of reference opens the door to critical reflection and real social transformation. In the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.”77‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/015747998
The Bahá’í concept of an inhering human diversity leading to higher forms of unity suggests that we can and must move beyond a liberal construction of pluralism that is unable to provide an overarching vision of human development. But rather than engaging in a quixotic quest to overcome the innumerable evils at work in society or right the “countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age,” Bahá’ís are devoting their energy to building the world anew.78Universal House of Justice, May 24, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/413655933 As we have seen, recognizing the essential spiritual character of our identity is a defining feature of this project. Further, at this moment in our collective evolution, the appropriate locus for action is the globe in its entirety, where all members of the human family are joined together in a common enterprise of promoting justice and social integration. Here, it should be noted that the Bahá’í teachings envision social and political development unfolding in two directions: upward beyond the nation-state and downward to the grassroots of society. Both are vital and interlinked. In this regard, the Bahá’í community offers its own unique system of governance as a model for study.79Bahá’ís attach great importance to cooperative decision-making and assign organizational responsibility for community affairs to freely elected governing councils at the local, national, and international levels. Bahá’u’lláh designated these governing councils “Houses of Justice.” This administrative system devolves decision-making to the lowest practicable level—thereby instituting a unique vehicle for grassroots participation in governance—while at the same time providing a level of coordination and authority that makes possible collaboration and unity on a global scale. A unique feature of the Bahá’í electoral process is the maximum freedom of choice given to the electorate through the prohibition of nominations, candidature and solicitation. Election to Bahá’í administrative bodies is based not on personal ambition but rather on recognized ability, mature experience, and a commitment to service. Because the Bahá’í system does not allow the imposition of the arbitrary will or leadership of individuals, it cannot be used as a pathway to power. Decision-making authority rests only with the elected bodies themselves. All members of the Bahá’í community, no matter what position they may temporarily occupy in the administrative structure, are expected to regard themselves as involved in a learning process, as they strive to understand and implement the laws and principles of their Faith. Significantly, in many parts of the world, the first exercises in democratic activity have occurred within the Bahá’í community. Bahá’ís believe that this consultatively-based administrative system offers a useful example of the institutional structures necessary for global community life. For more on the underlying principles of the Bahá’í Administrative Order see Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/922842353.
Bahá’u’lláh provides us with a potent new moral grammar that allows us to appreciate and nurture human diversity while expanding our horizons beyond the parochial to a solidarity encompassing the boundaries of the planet itself. By extending human identity outward to embrace the totality of human experience, Bahá’u’lláh offers a vision of a comprehensive good that recognizes and values the particular while promoting an integrating framework of global learning and cooperation. His summons to unity articulates an entirely new ethics and way of life—one that flows from a spiritual understanding of human history, purpose, and development. He also gives us new tools that allow us to negotiate amongour diverse perceptions and construct unified modes of living without resorting to adversarial means and the culture of protest that heretofore have characterized even the most advanced democratic polities. He exhorts us to “flee” from “dissension and strife, contention, estrangement and apathy…”80 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah. Available at www.bahai.org/r/852608044
By redefining human identity, the Bahá’í teachings anticipate the moral reconstruction of all human practices—a process that involves the remaking of individual behavior and the reformulation of institutional structures. It entails the internalization of spiritual concepts so that the theory, assessment, and reformation of social affairs reflect the ideals of altruism, moderation, reciprocity, and justice. When society draws upon the spiritual mainspring of human identity and purpose, truly constructive avenues of social change can be pursued. “Among the results of the manifestation of spiritual forces,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá confirms “will be that the human world will adapt itself to a new social form…and human equality will be universally established.”81‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/841208804
In our very longing for a world free from violence and injustice, lie the seeds of hope. But such hope can only be sustained by the certitude conferred by faith. As the Universal House of Justice assures us: “The turmoil and crises of our time underlie a momentous transition in human affairs…That our Earth has contracted into a neighbourhood, no one can seriously deny. The world is being made new. Death pangs are yielding to birth pangs. The pain shall pass when members of the human race act upon the common recognition of their essential oneness. There is a light at the end of this tunnel of change beckoning humanity to the goal destined for it according to the testimonies recorded in all the Holy Books.”82Universal House of Justice, On the Occasion of the Official Opening of the Terraces of the Shrine of the Báb, May 22, 2001. Available at https://news.bahai.org/story/119/
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.