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If humanity’s relationship with the natural world is to be refashioned, notions of progress, civilization, and development will need to be redefined.
Efforts in this direction, such as budgets centered around well-being or indicators of progress more holistic than gross domestic product, must be expanded and deepened, and fundamental questions interrogated further. What are the qualities by which a person, nation, or corporation are judged successful? For what are they commended and appreciated?
So long as such questions are answered according to values that prioritize possessions over relationships or acquisition over responsibility, a sustainable world will remain out of reach.
Such values, by their very nature and effect on the human spirit, beckon incessantly to excess, exploitation, and depletion. They also give rise to gross extremes of alienating wealth and debilitating poverty. Only to the degree that these are set aside can the profound contradictions they give rise to — not least the expectation of infinite growth on a finite planet — be resolved. And only as progress is understood in new terms can the fundamental drivers of present environmental crises be accurately identified and lasting change be made.
What should be plainly acknowledged is that no country has yet mastered the process of sustainable development.
Certain forms of industrialization, technological capacity, and macroeconomic growth have often been equated with development. But the dissatisfaction and difficulties of multitudes living in areas traditionally considered developed, no less than the injustices facing numerous other populations around the world and the strain put on the natural world, demonstrate that such a vision is incomplete at best and often actively detrimental. No one pattern of life and vision of society can be taken as the model toward which all humanity should aspire.
Crafting a more holistic conception of progress will require an expanded understanding of ourselves as a species, including truths about the human spirit itself. The planet, its peoples, and creatures have suffered tremendously from a materialistic mindset that views the individual as a purely self-interested economic unit, competing with others to accumulate an ever greater share of the world’s material resources. This caricature has largely been rejected at the level of formal theory as simplistic and crude.
Many aspects of the global order still rest on these assumptions, however, and often reinforce and deepen them. A more accurate understanding of human nature would encompass qualities and attitudes such as trustworthiness, mutual support, commitment to truth, and a sense of responsibility, that are the building blocks of a stable social order. It would give rise to models which would avoid or ameliorate the ills of reductive materialism, ensuring that our pursuit of prosperity includes the many other facets of individual and collective well-being. To redefine progress is not to dismiss any legitimate accomplishments of the past, but to expand the boundaries of achievements yet to come. From new approaches to ownership and usership, to new forms of urban organization, to new methods of agriculture, power generation, and transportation, the possibilities before humanity are vast. Seizing them will require a far fuller expression of the stores of human potential latent within every individual and the combined efforts of humanity as a whole. But the coming decades hold the prospect of being an exceptionally rich and rewarding period of human history. Daunting as the unprecedented scale of transformation needed in numerous sectors of society might sometimes seem, it opens possibilities for a great flourishing of human creativity and initiative.
Rethinking Economic Arrangements
Modern economic arrangements have resulted in both the degradation of ecosystems and the impoverishment of many local communities and individual lives. Inequalities are rising and the harm inherent in the perpetual creation and gratification of wants has been demonstrated beyond objection.
Putting the world on more ecologically sustainable foundations requires a recasting of the global economic order. People and the planet need to be valued as explicitly today as profit and economic gain have been in the past.
As current imbalances are driven in large part by numerous forms of excess, the principle of moderation will need to find much fuller expression in global arrangements. Concepts of contentment, sufficiency, and simplicity, which find little place in growth-driven paradigms, will have to be reclaimed and expanded. Patterns of life that have come to be associated with extreme wealth — devotion to convenience and luxury, for example, or high levels of consumption and waste — will need to be set aside. Basic notions of progress, development, and prosperity will need to be recast in far more holistic terms.
Movement toward these goals will require economic arrangements to be disciplined according to values higher than their own ends.
The practical experience of individuals, communities, businesses, and nations leaves no room for doubt: there is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization of wealth and resources. Humanity’s collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbors, or pursues economic gain without regard for how the natural environment is affected. Every choice leaves a trace. Economic decisions must therefore be taken in accordance with lofty ideals. Wealth must serve humanity. There is no justification for continuing to perpetuate views, structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the common good.
The arrangements of the circumstances of the people must be such that poverty shall disappear, that everyone, as far as possible … shall share in comfort and well-being. – Baha’i holy writings.
Proposals for Exploration
SDG 17.19 [of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals] calls for the development of measures of progress to complement gross domestic product. This is a worthwhile aim that has been echoed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and that should receive due priority and resourcing. International gatherings, for example — both ad-hoc and in the regular United Nations calendar — could explore complementary measures from the perspective of the thematic focus particular to each. In addition to measurement becoming more holistic, contemporary conceptions of progress itself must be reconsidered and in many aspects recast. Toward this end, a committee of experts or similar body could build on promising efforts already underway, identify questions in need of exploration, outline alternatives, and define areas ripe for action. The aim would not be a single set of findings but rather an ongoing process of inquiry into what a sustainable civilization includes, and how its features might be appropriately valued and promoted. One example that holds lessons in this regard was the adoption of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, when the international community reached widespread consensus that global progress was served more fully by eliminating the use of chemicals that damaged the atmosphere, over the financial gains expected from continued sale of those substances.