INTERNATIONAL BAHÁ'Í ENVIRONMENT CONFERENCE
(de Poort, Netherlands, 24-26 October 1997)
Arthur Lyon Dahl
The environmental problems of the planet and the challenge of achieving more sustainable forms of development have been high on the political agenda for some years. As we consider the role and activities of a Bahá'í Environment Forum, it may help to sketch out what we understand about the world and where it is going from a Bahá'í perspective, how the Bahá'í community has responded to the opportunities created, and what kind of roles might be appropriate to a network of Bahá'is concerned about these issues.
Our present world is clearly on an unsustainable course environmentally and economically. The recent UNEP Global Environment Outlook report shows that the state of the world environment continues to deteriorate overall despite progress in some areas. Extremes of wealth and poverty are also increasing within and between many nations, a trend which is socially unsustainable. The population continues to grow, the well-off consume an ever-increasing proportion of the world's resources while the numbers of very poor increase, and growing damage to the Earth's productive capacity constrains future options. Our civilization is living beyond its means, accumulating not only financial debt, but resource debt, pollution debt, and the human debt represented by poverty and deprivation. There are known risks of increased damage and suffering from air and water pollution, resource depletion, climate change, and other environmental problems. We can also be certain that there will be surprises from interactions between complex systems, unexpected chemical effects, new or resurgent diseases, and overconfidence in technological fixes. Bahá'u'lláh's warning on civilization carried to excess is sufficiently clear on this point.
When we look at the Bahá'í vision of future society, we can see how different it is from life today, showing that fundamental changes are required, and indeed inevitable, in our social and economic structures and life-styles. The critique of the present system in The Promise of World Peace is very clear. We know that the present-day order is lamentably defective and will soon be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead. (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings, p. 216 and 7). How and when this will happen we cannot predict, but the process of change could at times be traumatic or even catastrophic, and the transition at the end of this century will be significant. The speed with which the former Soviet Union collapsed should be an appropriate warning. These events should not worry us, as they are part of God's plan for the world, and they will create many opportunities to teach the Faith and to introduce constructive change.
In response to these problems and challenges, the world has seen an increasing number of events and responses over the last quarter century. Internationally these started with the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, and the founding of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Twenty years later this activity reached a high point at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where over 100 heads of state and government gathered to adopt the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21. Other conferences relevant to sustainable development followed, including the Population Conference in Cairo, the Social Summit in Copenhagen, the Womens' Conference in Beijing and Habitat II in Istanbul. June 1997 saw the UN General Assembly in a special Earth Summit+5 session to evaluate progress since Rio. While the special session acknowledged many significant advances in implementing Agenda 21and adopted plans for the coming 5 years, it was evident that there was a lack of political will among governments to carry out the Rio commitments. It was not even possible to agree on a political declaration. The courage for an act of consultative will was lacking. The next such major event among governments may be the conference on the reform of the UN system proposed by the Secretary-General for the year 2000.
There has also been major activity by non-governmental organizations, ranging from the spectacular media-attracting events of Greenpeace (which incidentally has some spiritual roots in Bahá'í-inspired ideals) through the work of Friends of the Earth Netherlands and Europe on a Factor 10 reduction in consumption of resources. Some of the most exciting progress has been at the local level, where many communities have adopted local Agenda 21s and other initiatives for environmental improvement and sustainable development.
These activities and their preparatory processes have created many opportunities for Bahá'í involvement internationally through the Bahá'í International Community, which established an Office of the Environment for this purpose, as well as through national and local Bahá'í institutions and individual initiatives. From an initial delegation of two at the Stockholm Conference, plus some local assistance with the display at the NGO Environment Forum, to a hundred Bahá'ís at Rio and more in Copenhagen and Beijing, the Bahá'í presence has been felt and appreciated, making many friends for the Faith and providing many substantive inputs of Bahá'í principles and concepts to larger processes. Bahá'í ideas can be very powerful, and others can take them up and develop them far beyond what we could do with our own limited capacities. There are thus real opportunities to influence the course of future events.
The environment has also proven to be a very productive theme for teaching and proclamation activities, often in situations where a more direct "religious" approach would have been impossible. As people become more frustrated with the present situation of the world, they are searching everywhere for practical solutions that could give them a ray of hope in the surrounding darkness. The Bahá'í teachings on environment can be most attractive, and can lead to a broader appreciation of the comprehensiveness of the Bahá'í vision and principles. Examples include the Workshop on Sustainable Development and International Cooperation (Bucharest, 1996), where the then President of Romania requested a Bahá'í speaker on the spiritual dimensions of sustainable development, and the International Ecological Congress in Almaty, Kazakstan, earlier this year, where the National Spiritual Assembly was invited to provide a Bahá'í keynote speaker for a scientific congress.
Another growing area of opportunity is in the dialogue between religions, where the need for ethical and moral foundations for environmental action is bringing the religions together at a variety of events, ranging from the Assisi meeting organized by WWF in 1986 and the Klingenthal colloquia organized by Pax Christi France to the World Summit on Religions and Conservation in 1995 and the Patmos Symposium of the Orthodox Church later the same year. The environment is truly a theme on which all the religions agree and which is helping to build a new unity of action. More recently, it is the dialogue between science and religion that is being driven by environmental imperatives, as in the recent Symposium on Religion, Science and the Environment: The Black Sea in Crisis, under the joint patronage of the European Commission and the Orthodox Church.
While official representation of the Faith at the international level will continue to be organized by the Bahá'í International Community, there are many occasions on which it has been necessary to rely on individual initiatives. An organized Bahá'í presence would be more visible and effective. The European Bahá'í Business Forum has already demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach in many contexts. By uniting our forces, and learning from and supporting each other, we can both increase the impact that Bahá'í principles are having on the processes of change and transformation in the world, and attract increasing numbers of people to investigate the Faith more closely.
The environmental problems of the world may seem like a growing tragedy, but they are also one of the tools by which the Divine plan is being implemented in the world. Our role is to take advantage of the ever-growing opportunities created by these problems, so as to advance the Bahá'í contributions to the constructive forces that will ultimately lead to a more sustainable world society.
* The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations Environment Programme.