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Many of us who consider ourselves environmentalists have worked for decades to try to save the natural world from human-caused ecological disaster.
We started out, just as most movements begin, by reading creative, breakthrough books and considering their powerful new ideas. Sand County Almanac, the influential 1949 environmental classic by Aldo Leopold, set the stage for those new ideas. Starting from where Thoreau and John Muir left off, Leopold proposed his “land ethic” — “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
The most powerful essay in Sand County Almanac, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” effected the world enormously. Arguably, it started the entire ecology movement — by recounting a hunter’s killing of a wolf during a time when Teddy Roosevelt-style “conservationists” still operated under the assumption that eliminating top predators would make game more plentiful. “Thinking Like a Mountain” says that the mountain fears, more than anything, the birthrate of the deer. Unchecked by the wolf, the herds of deer reproduce without limit, and their ravenous appetites eventually consume the mountain’s vegetation – which keeps the mountain from eroding away in the rain.
In science, biology and ecology, this “trophic cascade” means that removing a single species inevitably causes serious implications for the rest of the ecosystem – and points to the harmonious and creative interdependence of all species, the basis for deep ecology. We have lost this idea of balance, an essentially spiritual concept, at our great peril.
For example — in Yosemite National Park, where my wife and I took our children many times during their early years, scientists have documented Leopold’s thesis. Essentially, they found that the increase in human visits corresponded directly to the decline of the native cougars around the Park. As a direct result, populations of mule deer erupted, which meant that the California black oak trees in Yosemite suffered from the deer’s intensified browsing. Because the trees suffered and died as a result of the deer population explosion, streams eroded and negatively impacted the diversity and abundance of amphibians, reptiles, butterflies, and wildflowers. Without the cougars, in other words, the flowers departed.
Today our world’s trophic cascade has become catastrophic.
Every environmentalist, and just about every scientist, and most aware and educated people in the world, and many of the world’s indigenous peoples, and just about anyone who works the land or the sea can tell you that we have reached and most likely passed a primary tipping point in the man vs. nature conflict.
But man won a hollow victory at a great cost, which we have yet to pay. We have dominated nature, bending it to our will. Our population has exploded, straining the natural resources we rely on to survive. Our seemingly insatiable hunger for material wealth has driven even greater environmental pollution. We have carelessly burned the earth’s fossil fuels as fast as we can extract them, creating the first great worldwide global environmental crisis. We have infected the water we drink, the air we breathe and the only planet we inhabit.
This crisis, many have begun to think and say and write, has pushed all the species of the planet into the “sixth great extinction,” a catas-trophic cascade that has already started to deplete the earth’s biodiversity in ways not seen since the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.
Because of that great die-off, happening right now; because we have lost the primal kinship the indigenous tribes once felt for the earth and its inhabitants; and because some activists have begun to say that the environmental movement has completely failed to stop the onward march of nature’s collapse despite fifty years of activism; a sense of hope has dwindled and grief for our ecological losses has begun to set in.
The Baha’is have faith, however, that all is not lost.
Baha’is believe that this environmental crisis arises out of a spiritual cause. “Man is organic with the world,” the Baha’i teachings say, and we learn that deep ecological lesson more seriously every day. This perspective focuses on the collective state of the human spirit, with its over-emphasis on a narrow materialism and a selfish outlook that inhibits our functioning as a global community, as the chief disruptor of Earth’s harmonious existence:
The unrestrained exploitation of natural resources is merely a symptom of an overall sickness of the human spirit. Any solutions to the environment/development crisis must, therefore, be rooted in an approach which fosters spiritual balance and harmony within the individual, between individuals, and with the environment as a whole. – Earth Charter, Baha’i International Community, June 1992.
The organic unity of the planet and the very interdependence of all life literally cries out to humanity to unite and work together to solve our ecological ills. Until we do, we cannot hope to adequately address, much less solve, our collective environmental crisis:
…the search for solutions to the world’s grave environmental and developmental problems must go beyond technical-utilitarian proposals and address the underlying causes of the crisis. Genuine solutions, in the Baha’i view, will require a globally accepted vision for the future, based on unity and willing cooperation among the nations, races, creeds, and classes of the human family. – ibid.
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