Love Made Visible:
Reflecting on Climate Action in Light of the Bahá'í Teachings
Dedicated to Faith Climate Action Week 2020
This is San Diego, not New Delhi. There is a now famous photo montage of New Delhi showing pollution before (left, brown sky) and after (right, blue sky) the COVID-19 lockdown. It looks something like this imaginary vista, only worse. I don’t have the right to reproduce it here.
Imagine if this clearing of the skies, occurring all over the world, were due to a massive reduction of fossil fuel use and other industrial activities that produce the particulates choking the air in every major city.
That would be love made visible.
The air pollution in the previous image was brown, and obviously problematic. But the heat trapping gases that are driving climate change, such as carbon dioxide and methane, are colorless.
We cannot see the damage so readily. Yet the science is abundantly clear: these and other gases are driving up the average temperature of the Earth, causing untold suffering through droughts, famines, and increased storm intensity.
While that brown pollution we can see is not the same thing as climate change, it is part and parcel of the same human phenomenon, and solutions to one are generally solutions to the other as well.
Consider the health impacts of climate change, as summarized by the WHO:
“Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.”
“Areas with weak health infrastructure – mostly in developing countries – will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond.”
“Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases through better transport, food and energy-use choices can result in improved health, particularly through reduced air pollution.” source
Consider the clear scientific evidence of the links between pollution and health impacts, especially on people of color in the United States
“For PM [particulate matter] of 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, those in poverty had 1.35 times higher burden than did the overall population, and non-Whites had 1.28 times higher burden. Blacks, specifically, had 1.54 times higher burden than did the overall population.”source
“… someone who lives for decades in a county with high levels of fine particulate pollution is 15% more likely to die from COVID-19…” source
Reflect for a moment on how each of these tenets calls us to be and what they call us to do in response to climate change.
“Address yourselves to the promotion of the well-being and tranquillity of the children of men. … Ye dwell in one world, and have been created through the operation of one Will. Blessed is he who mingleth with all men in a spirit of utmost kindliness and love.”
The COVID-19 pandemic highlights this fact: that we "dwell in one world." Does it not also show that we should act for the betterment of the world, rather think of our own individual interests?
“Knowledge is as wings to man's life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth, and not those which begin with words and end with words. Great indeed is the claim of scientists and craftsmen on the peoples of the world. … In truth, knowledge is a veritable treasure for man, and a source of glory, of bounty, of joy, of exaltation, of cheer and gladness unto him.”
The science of climate change is clear, and it knows no politics. The knowledge it gives us must not end in words alone. Let it be a treasure for turning humanity toward a sustainable path, full of joy and exaltation rather than calamity after calamity.
“The Great Being saith: The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion. Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.”
In resolving to act on climate change and pollution more generally, we must consult, one with another, seeking out experts and the inviting the equal participation of people from all walks of life. What will it look like to heed the call to compassion as we take counsel together?
“Justice and equity are two guardians for the protection of man. They have appeared arrayed in their mighty and sacred names to maintain the world in uprightness and protect the nations.”
Where "justice" refers to application of legal rights and the establishment of order, "equity" moves into the realm of fairness and equal treatment. What does it mean when each term is brought to bear on the other?
“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. Thus warneth you He Who is the All-Knowing. 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.”
What is moderation? Is it a "moderate" reduction in consumption? Is it minimalism? Is it ascetism? What does this mean at the level civilization, beyond the realm of individual action?
We we are learning how to avoid or overcome dichotomous thinking: the tendency to pit two ideas against each other, with a consequent refusal to accept that both may contain elements of the truth.
Within the environmental movement we can find two major strains of thought about the scope of action required to halt the drivers of climate change: some organizations and activists, on the one hand, emphasize the primacy of individual actions, while others dismiss the value of individual action in relation to the overwhelming impact of industrial activity.
Scenario: there's a call to reduce driving, thereby reducing oil consumption. 1% heed the call. Drop removed from the bucket; no one notices. Alternately, call on fossil fuel companies to stop drilling; 1% response would be far more impactful, because of the myriad ways oil is used. Which is more important?
We need much more than 1% response in both categories. Those who produce the resources will only respond to two pressures: regulation, which is not forthcoming or acting quickly enough, or reduced demand (which could be driven by carbon taxation). Individuals need to step up to help reduce demand for fossil fuels used in the transportation, household, commercial, and manufacturing sectors. Businesses need to heed the call to shift their investments to sustainable uses, while governments continue to ratchet up the regulatory restrictions at the behest of the individuals they serve.
The Bahá'í institute process takes people of all ages on a journey of discovery, inviting us to follow a path of learning that begins with virtues such as kindness, honesty, and unity. Each individual moves at their own pace, and the path is not always linear. While accompanied and encouraged by a skilled facilitator, the individual has ultimate responsibility for their own progress, for their own follow-through on practices such as daily prayer and study, participating in the life of the community, and learning to be detached from the overwrought materialism of “modern civilization.”
At the same time, this path is explicitly linked to the better of the community around us. From the outset participants are tasked with visiting with their friends and neighbors, elevating their conversations from the mundane to the spiritual — and treating the well-being of their community as the spiritual. They carry out service projects large and small; provide virtues education to children; promote literacy and upright self-expression; and accompany others on the self-same path. At its most complex, the process facilitates the deep involvement of participants in social discourses and social action relevant to the needs of the community in which they live.
These activities, along with the devotional gathering, inculcate a spirit of worship and service acting in harmony together. Prayer is important. Action is important. Neither acts alone. Neither will save the soul — or the world — without the other.
The framework for action instituted by the Universal House of Justice invites participation in community gatherings for prayer and meditation, and in an institute process with elements designed for children, junior youth, and youth and adults. As small groups and larger communities grow in their unity and resolve to improve the conditions of the society around them, they naturally become engaged in social action and contribute to the broader discussions around the future of their community. The Department of the Secretariat, writing on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, notes that climate change is one of the key challenges that may be addressed by these efforts:
”The House of Justice trusts that, in pursuing the many facets of their work of community building, social action, and involvement in the discourses of society, individuals, communities, and institutions will continually grow in their capacity to make a distinctive and effective contribution to addressing the multitudinous problems afflicting society and the planet, including those associated with climate change.“ source
We know that climate change is occurring; we know that the climate change and air pollution are causing unnecessary suffering for humans and the natural world alike (indeed the distinction between the two is a false one). We can accept that both individual and collective action are necessary in facing this epic challenge. What are the most effective actions we can take?
Project Drawdown is one attempt to identify and quantify the solutions to the problem of climate change. It evaluates solutions through three inter-connected topics: reduction of emissions (pollution) to zero, utilization of natural carbon cycles, and social equality.
Below are the five most important solutions for meeting the Paris Agreement's aspirational goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, based on Project Drawdown's analysis of the impact in the three areas of concern.
The top two solutions address the question of how we generate the energy we use, so that we shift from burning fossil fuels (and from generating nuclear waste) to using the power of the sun via wind power and solar radiation.
In the City of Austin, where I live, those who can affor to do so can choose to subsidize wind or solar power, at an estimated additional cost of $7.50 or $14.00 per month, respectively. In addition to our individual consumption, we can ask our places of business to change their electricity supply, and we can support city-wide efforts. Austin's citywide goal is to source 65% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2027; as of early 2020, it has already passed the 50% threshold. Many other cities have similar goals for renewable energy development and use.
The agriculatural sector, while attempting to feed the world, is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Again we can see the urgent need for individual action: taking more care with the food we purchase and choosing to reduce the consumption of animal products (especially damaging: cow, sheep, and camel meat and milk products). These are changes that begin with the individual, and continue through to the community (restaurants, institutional foodservice, etc.).
It is interesting and gratifying to see that Project Drawdown does not advocate a strict abandonment of meat consumption — an approach that arguably turns more people away than it attracts. Furthermore, there are strong ecological arguments for continued grazing of cattle on grasslands (not feedlots). In any case, it is clear that we do consume more animal products than the world can sustain, and the diets of rich and poor alike need to shift quickly toward sustainable agriculture.
What are the implications for community potlucks?
Although “health and education” is the general theme, Project Drawdown is very clear that the pressing need is for improved education of girls and provision of family planning services. The education of girls is a particular strength of Bahá'í communities, where education of children is compulsory and favors the education of the girl-child if a choice must be made.
These two measures effectively reduce continued population growth and the consequent unsustainable growth in consumption. Improved education is also essential to adaptation and more equitable distribution of resources.
”Thou hast written that they have pledged themselves to observe maximum austerity in their lives with a view to forwarding the remainder of their income to His exalted presence. This matter was mentioned at His holy court. He said: Let them act with moderation and not impose hardship upon themselves. We would like them both to enjoy a life that is well-pleasing.“
Is this a recipe for austerity? The call for moderation in the Bahá'í Faith is not a call for ascetism. Likewise, the call to lower our use of electricity, to shift to a more plant-rich diet, to spend more of our precious wealth on education of girls, to drive less, and ultimately to spend more time in prayer, reflection, study, and action is not a call for a life less-well-lived. Rather is it a call to live our best lives, in harmony and concern for the well-being of all instead of the well-being of only one or a few.
Concretely, what more can and should each of us — and our communities and institutions — do to make progress on these and other solutions?
The journey ahead will be a long one. It will require continuous attention. We will encounter setbacks, and we will overcome them through reflection and consultation.
Below is a collection of resources that may be useful for making love visible.
Consider the latest advocacy campaigns from repuatable organizations, such as
Each of these is a non-profit organization that does not engage in political campaigning and lobbying. Nonetheless, some of the actions promoted by these organizations might not be fully consistent with Bahá'í principles of non-involvement in politics. We are not endorsing any specific campaign and encourage readers to evaluate any call to action/activism dilligently.
GreenBahai.com is an individual initiative, not directly affiliated with any institutions of the Bahá'í Faith. Quotations from the Bahá'í writings are used by permission, and unless otherwise noted, are Copyright © 2004–7, Bahá'í International Community, All Rights Reserved.
Original text, photos, and web site design are copyright © 2020, Stephen A. Fuqua, and available for re-use under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.