Economics has an all-encompassing and unavoidable influence over the organization of society at every level.
Economics affects politics, gender equality, life expectancy, global conflict, homelessness, interpersonal relations and of course our relationship with our environment and the plants and animals of the planet. Perhaps, then, we should give economics more attention when we think about, research, and discuss social change and justice.
As a child, the consistent use of metaphor and analogy in the Baha’i writings to correlate our spiritual essence with the workings of nature captured my imagination. It allowed me to comprehend and discuss profound themes in simple terms. Even at the age of ten I could easily grasp ideas like this one:
The world of humanity has two wings—one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 302.
… ye are all the drops from but one ocean, the foliage of one tree, the pearls from a single shell, and sweet herbs from the same one garden. – Ibid., p. 280.
It wasn’t until two decades later, when I began working in the field of sustainability and environmental advocacy, that the consistent references to the natural world in the Baha’i writings began to take on a whole new set of implications when I considered them in the context of economic justice.
I wondered—is it just that the world of nature allows for the expression of ideas in such a universal, succinct and powerful way? Or can we glean something further and deeper from this consistent theme in the Baha’i teachings? The familiar Baha’i phrases like “waves of one ocean” and “leaves of one tree” began to mean something completely new to me.
For example: in gaining an awareness of permaculture design principles, the concepts of regenerative design and biomimetics, I began to see new connections forming between environmental sustainability and the Baha’i teachings on social and economic justice.
Obviously, alongside religion few topics inspire such passionate debate and visceral response quite like the themes of economics or environment, and it is beginning to dawn on me that the friction between the supposed polarity of economy and ecology indicates that perhaps the solution to many of our socio-economic issues actually exists in the reconciliation of the two.
The Baha’i writings do not propose an exact economic structure—instead, they give us overarching principles like the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty, establishing justice of all forms, and ensuring that the basic needs of all people are met. These spiritual and material principles became frequent themes in the lectures Abdu’l-Baha presented during his visits to Europe and North America a century ago. During his tour of the United States and Canada in 1912, Abdu’l-Baha advised us to:
Organize in an effort to help them and prevent the increase of poverty. The greatest means for prevention is that whereby the laws of the community will be so framed and enacted that it will not be possible for a few to be millionaires and many destitute. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 216.
More recently the Universal House of Justice wrote:
The inordinate disparity between rich and poor, a source of acute suffering, keeps the world in a state of instability, virtually on the brink of war. Few societies have dealt effectively with this situation. The solution calls for the combined application of spiritual, moral and practical approaches. A fresh look at the problem is required, entailing consultation with experts from a wide spectrum of disciplines, devoid of economic and ideological polemics, and involving the people directly affected in the decisions that must urgently be made. – The Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace, pp. 10-11.
In order to move closer to any solution however, we need to first acknowledge that injustice, inequality and more specifically, enduring poverty, are not naturally occurring phenomenon, but rather products of human society. The global economic structure that we currently exist within is a recent invention, and like all inventions it was an advancement at the time but also has much space to move further towards perfection.
The imperfections of the current economic paradigm have in a short period of time created gross disparity, poverty, malnutrition, homelessness, mortgage stress and burgeoning debt. Rather than blaming endemic problems within certain sectors of society we are becoming ever more aware that it is the structures governing our economic life that actually facilitate this injustice and exacerbate the situation.
As an ever-increasing proportion of the human population falls below the poverty line, as the extreme concentration of wealth becomes a more apparent and frequently discussed topic of public conversation, and the once prosperous middle class of western societies join the ranks of an ever-expanding economic proletariat, we find ourselves with a very wide opening for new ideas and conversations to be had. The tired rhetoric of consumerist capitalism is failing us and new questions are being asked.
The function of the economy should be to facilitate the exchange of goods and services so each member of society is able to apply themselves in various forms of work and also be able to exchange those hours of work for items they need.
The household has been mismanaged however and the ‘flaws’ that we recognize now are actually deliberate design constraints implemented to maintain what was thought to be the balance of justice and righteousness.
The current economic paradigm, in fact democracy as well, were both designed with attention to detail for the purpose of maintaining power and influence within certain classes of society. Over time, this design has led to the inevitable concentration of wealth which brings with it economic hardship for others.