While the Bahá'í Faith is only about 150 years old, it
is now the second most geographically-widespread religion after Christianity.
The Bahá'í International Community has long been active in
environmental matters, going back to its participation in the UN Conference
on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, and including its significant
role in the Rio Earth Summit and the associated Global Forum in Rio in
1992. It maintains an Office of the Environment as part of its United Nations
representation in New York.
The essence of the Bahá'í approach to the relationship
between ecology, ethics and spirituality is founded in the fundamental
principle of the harmony of science and religion. Just as two wings of
a bird must be equally strong for it to fly, so must science and religion
be in balance. Science without religion tends to materialism, while religion
without science can fall into superstition. Science can give us tools to
help us live in the physical world, but only religion can tell us how to
use those tools for good rather than for evil. For Bahá'ís
there is only one truth, and ecology and spirituality are but complementary
facets of this truth. There can be no fundamental contradiction between
The following selections from the Bahá'í sacred writings
will give a general impression of the Bahá'í approach to
nature and ecology. Bahá'u'lláh, the Prophet-founder of the
Bahá'í Faith, wrote, "Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name,
the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes,
and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is
God's Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It
is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise."
The concepts of essential ecological processes and life support systems
appear frequently in the Bahá'í writings. For example, "...all
beings are connected together like a chain, and reciprocal help, assistance,
and influence belonging to the properties of things, are the causes of
the existence, development and growth of created beings."(2)
And again, "Consider for instance how one group of created things constituteth
the vegetable kingdom, and another the animal kingdom. Each of these two
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. In other words, the growth and development of the
vegetable world is impossible without the existence of the animal kingdom,
and the maintenance of animal life is inconceivable without the co-operation
of the vegetable kingdom. Of like kind are the relationships that exist
among all created things. Hence it was stated that co-operation and reciprocity
are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the
world of existence, and without which the entire creation would be reduced
to nothingness." (3) One could almost write an ecology
text with quotations from the Bahá'í writings.
Man is seen as having a special place in the natural world. "The human
body is like animals subject to nature's laws. But man is endowed with
a second reality, the rational or intellectual reality; and the intellectual
reality of man predominates over nature." (4) "...to
man God has given such wonderful power that he can guide, control and overcome
nature." (5) "Yet there is a third reality in man, the
spiritual reality.... That celestial reality... delivers man from the material
world. Its power causes man to escape from nature's world. Escaping, he
will find an illuminating reality, transcending the limited reality of
man and causing him to attain to the infinitude of God..." (6)
Material development is also important, because man "should be free
and emancipated from the captivity of the world of nature; for as long
as man is captive to nature he is a ferocious animal, as the struggle for
existence is one of the exigencies of the world of nature." (7)
Bahá'u'lláh warned a hundred years ago about the hazards
to the planet of too much material civilization. "The civilization, so
often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed
to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men.... If
carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil
as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation...."
(8) He also warned about the dangers of atmospheric pollution.
For Bahá'ís, nature and all the creation reflect the qualities
and attributes of God. "When... thou dost contemplate the innermost essence
of all things, and the individuality of each, thou wilt behold the signs
of thy Lord's mercy in every created thing, and see the spreading rays
of His Names and Attributes throughout all the realm of being...." (9)
The spiritual, social and physical environments of man are all interrelated.
"We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and
say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man
is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is
itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every
abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions."
Respect for the natural world is also reflected in the Bahá'í
prohibition of cruelty to animals: "Briefly, it is not only their fellow
human beings that the beloved of God must treat with mercy and compassion,
rather must they show forth the utmost loving-kindness to every living
creature.... The feelings are one and the same, whether ye inflict pain
on man or on beast." (11)
Finally, Bahá'u'lláh linked the beauty and verdure of
the country with our spiritual dimension. He said, "The country is the
world of the soul, the city is the world of bodies." (12)
Bahá'ís see the world today as evolving rapidly towards
a world society, pushed by the technical revolution in transportation and
communications which have broken down barriers between nations. Many of
our problems are those of this process of transition. We share the view
of Professor di Castri that the immediate future will be difficult, but
the more distant future will be positive and full of promise.
Scientific understanding is not a significant constraint to the solution
of most environmental problems. The barriers to the application of solutions
are largely economic, social and political. Changes in behaviour, sacrifices
of individual interests in the common good, and major adjustments in society
will be required. Many of the necessary solutions have even been agreed
by the leaders and governments of the world in Agenda 21, the action plan
from the Rio Earth Summit. It is the will to apply these solutions that
is lacking, and this lack of will is fundamentally a spiritual problem.
A change in values and a restoration of morality and ethical principles
are required. The leaders who agree to many declarations of principles
and plans of action, without the intention of carrying them out, should
listen to the warning of Bahá'u'lláh that "...he whose words
exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life." (13)
The Bahá'í Faith has an evolutionary concept of religion.
We believe that all great religions have come from the same source, and
represent but different chapters in the same book of guidance for our social
and spiritual evolution down through the ages. Even the indigenous peoples
have their legends of a great leader or ancester who brought the principles
and values underlying their society. We therefore should all work together
to restore this balance of the spiritual and the material in the world.
The belief in God has been dying out in every land. We should acknowledge
this spiritual need, and all the religions and ethical systems need to
be involved in applying the solution. There is a set of basic values that
is common to all the religions: values of unity, cooperation, harmony,
responsible behaviour, altruism and respect for the rights of others. These
should be universally incorporated into the education of children.
Society needs to be reorganized on a more organic pattern to reflect
the diversity and decentralized nature of planetary environments. Both
scientific awareness and responsibility should be decentralized, with widespread
participation, to be as close as possible to the scale of the problem.
Local problems should be addressed at the local level, but with a sense
of responsibility that extends to the whole planet.
At the same time, the global nature of the biosphere and of certain
environmental problems exceeds the capacity of national governments to
respond to them effectively. A rapid transition to a world society, with
the establishment of the appropriate institutions of a world federation
or commonwealth, will be necessary to address these complex global problems
effectively. All humanity needs to recognize its oneness and develop a
sense of world citizenship. The central aim of the Bahá'í
Faith is to help to lay spiritual foundations for a such world civilization.
As Bahá'u'lláh has said, we should become like the leaves
of one tree, the flowers of one garden, the waves of one sea.
1. Bahá'u'lláh, Tablet of Wisdom, in
Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas.
Haifa, Bahá'í World Centre, 1978. p. 142.
2. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions.
Chpt. XLVI, p. 207.
3. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, in Compilation on Huququ'llah,
p. 14-15; Compilation on Social and Economic Development, p. 12.
4. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity.
Wilmette, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1945. p. 51.
5. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks. London,
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1951. p. 122.
6. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity.
7. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings
of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Haifa, Bahá'í World Centre, 1978.
8. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the
Writings of Bahá'u'lláh. Wilmette, Bahá'í
Publishing Trust, 1990. CLXIV, p. 342-343.
9. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings
of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 41-42.
10. Letter written on behalf of the Guardian, 17
February 1933, Compilation on Social and Economic Development, p.
11. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings
of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. p. 158-159.
12. Bahá'u'lláh, in J. E. Esslemont,
Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era. Chpt. 3.
13. Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh,
* The views expressed are the author's own and do not
necessarily reflect those of the United Nations Environment Programme.