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Going Green and Going to War

June 3, 2013, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by

I am a peaceful man, but I have always wanted to be on the “front lines” of life. I liked when the choir sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” when I was a kid, and as a young man I began learning to take my marching orders from Abdu’l-Baha, trying to be one of the “souls” in a “heavenly army” whose mission was to bring light and justice to a darkening world.

I love this part of an address by the American President, Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts…The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause…

From a speech titled “Citizenship in a Republic”, given at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

My wife, the warrior woman that I am trying to keep up with, has taught me much about another battle that Baha’is are learning how to engage in: the crisis we’ve created for the world’s ecology, and the search for sustainable ways to live with and within it. 

Baha’is don’t speak as often as we once did – especially during the chronic fear of nuclear war that built after the Second World War – about the “Calamity”, but it’s here. A prominent Baha’i thinker and builder mused publicly, in 2010 in San Francisco, that the environmental/climate crisis might be The Big One. Both professionally and personally, my bride has been deeply engaged in teaching and working about climate change. If you follow global summits on the issue, it’s a despairing time. She felt, How can I keep teaching this stuff when the game is over? We’ve blown it! Runaway climate change is inevitable now…

She didn’t just throw up her hands in rage or surrender. Typically, she reached for friends, smart and committed Baha’is who have long experience in the climate wars. Her question, boiled down, was this: What still gives you hope, in the face of humanity’s agonizing failure to respond to this looming global disaster? (I am not over-dramatizing: people who pay attention to this are way beyond worry.) Peter Adriance focusses on sustainable development in his work for the Office of Public Affairs of the American Baha’i community, and his was the first answer.

“Don’t stop encouraging”, Peter urged us in a personal email. The resource of hopefulness that the Baha’i vision gives us is necessary, though there is no downplaying the problems to come. (They are already here.) He wrote: “We know there will be impacts [but]…how do we tap the creative talents in a community [and] mobilize the necessary resources?” While humanity may have missed the chance to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we can (and must) still prepare to mitigate them.

Our ability to address the challenges posed by climate change [and other] serious stressors…is extremely dependent on the level of social capital we have established in our communities…Communities with strong social ties are much more resilient than those without them….The social fabric in the community can literally mean the difference between life and death when it comes to the ability to deal with disaster. So it is extremely important that…we focus on building resilient societies and tapping the collective genius that lies within them….Of course this is very compatible with [the] Baha’i…emphasis on community building through the core activities….We have to… strengthen the social fabric of our communities…and climate change is just one of the forces pushing us in that direction. (From a personal email from P. Adriance)

Arthur Dahl is a long-time United Nations sustainable development official, and the President of the International Environment Forum, a Baha’i-inspired NGO. Baha’u’llah’s familiar “carpet analogy” – a defective old system “rolled up” and a new one laid out – reminds us, he said, that “the question is, how much environmental damage will be done in the rolling up that we shall have to fix afterwards, and how much human suffering will be caused in the process?” He hopes that, though it seems agonizingly slow to dedicated ecologists, this drama will play out in short order: “This may be the critical decade to start the transition.” His further comments combine keen awareness of the possible dimensions of catastrophe with a faith in the activist, grassroots remedies that the Baha’i community is developing.

The acceleration in climate change…and the simultaneous rush…to find ever more sources of fossil fuels to try to keep the consumer economy growing [gives] every reason for despair….The best insurance…will be strong community solidarity, and the core activities are the best…tools to build that….Community building is inherently very positive and rewarding, and produces visible results…

The other positive approach is to learn detachment from the present system of materialism….We need to replace the superficial attractions of the consumer society by an alternative vision of a better future. If the ‘pull’ of the new vision is strong enough, the ‘push’ of a collapsing material civilization will pale into insignificance….There is an enormous challenge to steer [our] wasted human capacity in new and more constructive directions…at the community level, where many Baha’i principles are immediately relevant… (From a personal email from A. Dahl)

Mr. Dahl also finds a strange source of optimism, one that only comes from a recognition that business as usual just won’t work anymore: “The one thing that still gives me hope that a climate catastrophe can be…at least diminished is the likelihood of a global financial collapse. This would seem to be the one thing (apart from a world civil war or a global pandemic) that could…keep global warming below [the critical level of] 3° or 4°…” It appears, as one of my favourite singers has it, that “there ain’t no easy road”. Maybe that’s what it means to live on the front lines of life.

There are no quick fixes, only fundamental ones; we’re building from the ground up, with heavenly aims. While some despair, and more distract themselves madly with amusements or material comforts, we try to follow Shoghi Effendi’s conclusion to The Promised Day is Come. He was writing in 1941, folks:

Ours [is] the duty, however confused the scene, however dismal the present outlook, however circumscribed [our] resources…, to labor serenely, confidently and unremittingly to lend our share of assistance…to the operation of the forces which…are leading humanity out of the valley of misery and shame to the loftiest summits of power and glory.

The Promised Day Is Come, Shoghi Effendi, p.124

We aren’t in the midst of a World War – or maybe we are – but people are full of distraction and disillusion, denial and despair. As Baha’is we can’t fix the world, and we don’t have to, but we have better tools, more capacity, and perhaps a greater urgency to serve humanity than we have ever had. Front lines, indeed.

Posted by

James Howden

James Howden is an educator, writer and coach who lives in Ottawa, Canada with his wife and the youngest of his four sons. He has been searching for the Baha’i way since his teens. You can read more on his blog:
James Howden

Discussion 7 Comments



Janna (June 6, 2013 at 9:27 PM)

Not all Baha’is, as with the general public or with the powers that be, share James’ view about an unavoidable and imminent environmental collapse of unprecedented proportions. Here in Adelaide in southern Australia we officially entered winter one week ago and yet – unbelievably – the weather is mild and the forecast max all week is about 67 degrees Fahrenheit with minimums over 50. And, our neighbours in Kiribati and other islands in the S. W. Pacific know all too well about sea level rises. I think an environmental disaster will be one catalyst bringing about economic ruin and social havoc on a global scale. Not a few Baha’is of influence do not agree and take the view too that the scenario depicted by James and many environmentalists will roll out gradually over centuries which will allow humanity time to adjust. As far as gaining in the Baha’i world community a forum re an environmental collapse and-or the consciousness therein of big trouble imminently ahead and how to mitigate it immediately, one needs as a priority to reach Baha’is of influence and capacity; this can only be attained in relation to the religious side of life, individually or collectively, by referring to and widely disseminating authoritative, unalterable and unequivocal Baha’i texts which I think you’ll find are not specific time wise or scale wise as far as natural disasters are concerned. However, and this is crucial i m o, in simple terms I’m calling for meaningful and widespread systematic consultation in easily digested but none the less high quality English by these same Baha’is of prominence because the rank and file look up to them in droves and follow their actions. Baha’i leaders have no alternative but to accept and ergo hopefully alert our coreligionists as to the world wide destruction facing humanity and the various ways of mitigating it if one proves from Baha’i texts the scale of the disaster and the means of mitigating it. It’s time I submitted my article (THE PRICE OF WORLD PEACE) for review on the part of Baha’i Blog’s editors because its content is based on the Guardian’s prophecy as to what the USA, among many nations, is now facing – a fate making the devastation of WW2 appear as a mere foretatse. Thank you James and apologies re this hastily composed letter which I hope is visibly not the case re THE PRICE OF WORLD PEACE

Paul Desailly

Paul Desailly (June 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM)

Your article, James, reminded me of a quotation from the American writer Henry Miller(1891-1980) who sang the praises of the Baha’i Faith. He also wrote, at the height of WW2 in 1941, that: “When the destruction brought about by the Second World War is complete another set of destruction will set in. And it will be far more drastic, far more terrible than the destruction which we are now witnessing in the midst of this global war. The whole planet will be in the throes of revolution. And the fires will rage until the very foundations of the present world crumble.”-Henry Miller quoted in The Phoenix and the Ashes, Geoffrey Nash, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.55.

Ron Price

Ron Price (June 6, 2013 at 5:02 AM)

Thank you James for your lucid, sobering yet optimistic article. Your words reminded me of Bahá’u’lláh’s ominous admonition and prophecy:

“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…. The day is approaching when its flame will devour the cities.”

Indeed, civilization has been carried to excess and its “flame” is devouring the cities even as we speak. As sad as it is, it’s good to know Bahá’u’llah knew we had it coming. Because he also said we’ll come out of it!


Sam Karvonen

Sam Karvonen (June 6, 2013 at 5:14 AM)

I was grateful for the comments posted to “Going Green”, and to Baha’i Blog for publishing my take in the first place. Sam Karvonen aptly cites Baha’u’llah’s warning about civilization being “as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness” when it loses a sense of moderation. I see this principle at work in all kinds of “excesses”, including the sports I love having become expressions of consumer greed, questionable morality and insane loyalties. As far as ecology and environment, our lust for consumer comforts and material satisfactions now has unintended environmental consequences that we can’t ignore. Thanks to Ron Price for the Henry Miller reference — I’ve never read The Phoenix and the Ashes, and now I’m curious. Paul Desailly is right, of course, that not all Baha’is share the sense of alarm that we have in my house, which is one of the reasons I’m particularly glad that BB saw fit to run this article; it’s also why Peter and Arthur were willing to have their privately expressed views shared with a wider audience. I’m not sure that we can find any “unequivocal Baha’i texts” that point towards the nuts and bolts of how an environmental crisis might play out. “The day is approaching when [civilization’s] flame will devour the cities,” to go back to Mr. Karvonen’s reference, led many Baha’is to regard it as a clear and definite allusion to nuclear war. (And who can confidently say now that they were wrong? There are alarming pilgrim’s notes about the Guardian’s views on this, and those weapons still exist in enormous numbers.) I am a little puzzled by Mr. Desailly’s references to “Baha’is of influence and capacity” and their effect on the rest of us. I have the impression that environmental consciousness is pervading the Baha’i community as much from the “bottom” (i.e. youth, for example, or from communities in the so-called “developing countries”) as from some top-down modality. Although the Baha’i International Community has produced superb major statements (in 2010 and 2012) on sustainability issues, and has been contributiong to U.N. environmental forums since at least 1990), I’m just as jazzed by what local communities are attempting. Junior Youth groups patrolling their neighbourhoods with garbage bags might seem like a temporary or cliched approach to environmental concerns, but these are tangible, local and apparently (if the recent “Frontiers of Learning” video is any barometer) *world-wide* efforts that Baha’i groups share in common with other ecologically conscious and service-oriented movements. As in many situations, the youth are leading us towards awareness and action in one of the areas of “need” and “exigency” that Baha’u’llah urged us to be “anxiously concerned” about.

And maybe that’s why Janna added such a multi-exclamatory “Thank-you!” ;-D For some people, we’ve been a little slow on this, and maybe Janna is of them.

James Howden

James Howden (June 6, 2013 at 12:52 AM)

Now I feel compelled to offer a bit more “comment”. Although I WAS just standing in the kitchen, procrastinating doing the dishes while my two preschoolers tore their room apart 🙂

My good friend and I have been having this conversation recently. From GMO to water usage to composting to buying organic and local, it’s all a bit overwhelming. In addition, we are trying to raise awareness in our neighbourhood of the vision of community building, advancing the core activities and raise our own children to be the light of the world! Thank goodness we have the House of Justice patiently and lovingly guiding us, again and again, along the right path.

I felt like this article was so grounded and real yet very encouraging and hopeful. I’m still going to compost, recycle and buy used as much as possible but now I have a greater perspective of the efforts we are exerting in our neighbourhood.

So…. Thank-you!!!


Janna (June 6, 2013 at 1:08 AM)

It is really important that we continue to have discussions about this, and take action, however modest, as we seek to place environmental stewardship and responsibility as part of the emerging culture of the Baha’i community.

We might usefully begin by moving away from thinking of climate change as punishment for environmental mismanagement, to thinking of it as an incentive to re-orientate our enterprises towards more benign, sustainable and socially responsible outcomes. While we may not be qualified to give the technical advice needed, we are all consumers and have the good sense to know when something is wrong, and should press for the change we see necessary whether we are captains of industry or at home, at work, at school or wherever.

“Be anxiously concerned for the needs and exigencies of the age in which ye live” are Baha’u’llah’s words which are an appropriate rallying cry, yet how often, and to what extent do we make decisions for ourselves, or encourage our children to focus on the priorities the world now faces – for we must direct our efforts directly as farmers, scientists, lawyers, meteorologists and more, as well as find ways to harness the use of other less obvious interests towards these needs.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the President, articulating the possibility of Japanese invasion as a clear a present danger to the nation, called on US industry to re-tool for military purposes within a year or so. Yet this was achieved within a matter of months because the purpose was clear, the goal credible, and the need was expressed by an authority we yet trusted.

We are again at war, in some ways, with ourselves, where consumerism and economic interest take precedent over resource management and social justice. Whether the change to our climate is a direct result of human activities, or a natural process amplified by the same is not as important as recognising that the physical nature of our world is changing, and will make life increasingly difficult when compared with the complete freedom of choice we have exercised thus far. Arguably transitioning to a “green” economy (or however you may wish to stylise more benign outcomes necessary) will have limited effect on the causes, and at seeming great cost; but such transition is of itself the better path to take for all the economic and social justice issues it will address as a global community emerges. It just makes better sense. As Mr Dahl says, it will NOT be business as usual.

This is the period of the Baha’i fast, and while the slight discomfort of mild hunger and thirst might be as a constant reminder to focus on spiritual behaviour and attitudes and make appropriate adjustment, we shall as with each fast, use the same mechanism to focus on our environmental behaviour – reducing power and water consumption, minimising waste and packaging and private transport, and eat food produced as locally as practical. Maintaining the daily discipline of being a Baha’i promotes a purposeful responsibility beyond our immediate remit in our personal lives, and participating in Baha’i community activities as well as others similarly aligned, helps develop the network of social acceptance and appreciation of the flume of history unfolding before us, so we can make informed and intelligent decisions as best we can. We have a marvellous mechanism of administration and community structure unlike anything in the world, and while the Universal House of Justice can no more tell us what the future holds than we can, they do know how we can take the best steps to ensure the future of civilization based on the teachings of the Faith.

Charles Boyle

Charles Boyle (March 3, 2014 at 8:57 PM)

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