Applying spiritual principles to climate change

Ian Hamilton | July 1, 2016

The last six years of my professional life have revolved around the concepts of environmentalism, sustainability and climate change. One of the most interesting experiences during this period was the three years that my family spent living and working in Tunisia. When people ask why we were based in Tunisia, I usually give a fairly standard answer: I worked for the African Development Bank which was, at the time, headquartered in Tunis.

However, the more honest and elaborate answer is that my wife and I decided to move to Tunisia to support the local Bahá’í Community in their efforts to more deeply engage in the life of Tunisian society following the ousting of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. My work with the Energy, Environment and Climate Change Department of the AfDB was a happy byproduct of being in the right place at the right time as a result of making a decision based upon my spiritual belief. Despite this, my faith belief and work rarely intersected with the exception of conversations touching on religion and spiritual themes.

Having recently joined the U.S. Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs, my professional and spiritual lives are now deeply enmeshed. As a result, I have been giving thought to the intersection of the Bahá’í Faith and climate change. A concept I keep returning to is that of the oneness of humanity. It is a core principle of the Bahá’í Faith and, I believe, has significant importance for the climate change movement.

Climate change has been recognized as a systemic issue. It has implications for our scientific, economic, political, societal, moral and ethical frameworks. As such it is a challenge that will not be solved by a single approach. International agreements, national and regional legislation, technological advancements and changes in our individual patterns of behavior will all need to work in unity to ensure that the worst consequences of a changing climate are avoided.

With this in mind, what are the implications of oneness for our society? Acknowledging that humanity is one does away with the dichotomies of rich and poor, of developed and developing and promotes the fundamental truth that, regardless of borders, we are all one race living in a shared ecosystem. Similarly, international agreements, such as the Paris Agreement, can be framed as an acknowledgement of our moral responsibility toward both each other and the natural environment in the form of tangible agreements, approaches and action plans.  Likewise, embedding unity at the core of our behavioral patterns may help shift our perception of prosperity away from one which prizes material consumption to one which enables all human beings to have the opportunity to work to meet their needs and contribute to the advancement of society. In the context of technology, thinking of the world as a unified, interconnected whole would better promote technology transfer, the application of technical solutions to diverse regional contexts and the generation of locally relevant knowledge.

Underpinning all of this is the belief that the abundance, beauty, majesty, diversity and richness of the natural world are all expressions of the attributes of God. Consequently, this inspires in many a deep respect for nature and a recognition that we all have a role to play as stewards of the planet’s plentiful resources as well as ensuring that these resources are used in a way that promotes the sustainable advancement of our society.

I am sure that many of the ideas I’ve shared are already evident to both people of faith and to those who do not adhere to any particular faith tradition. And, therein lies the importance of faith-based involvement in the climate, and broader environmental, debate: it brings a commonality to the debate based on universal principles such as respect, justice, equity and unity. These principles are understandable by all and accessible to all, regardless of Faith background or secular outlook. If everyone were to make such principles the governing instrument of their daily life, it could form the bedrock of the systems we must put in place to address the on-going environmental crisis, market failings and wholesale global injustice.

Ian Hamilton is the Representative for Sustainable Development with the Office of Public Affairs of the Baha’is of the U.S.