“Navigating the Storm: The Transition to Sustainability”: Dr. Arthur Lyon Dahl Plots a Course from Disaster to a Balance between Nature and Need

Dr. Arthur Lyon Dahl’s talk on sustainability, filled as it is with many lists, statistics, charts, and graphs, proved very difficult to summarize. However much this summary falls short of capturing the totality of the talk, we think you will find it useful as a filter for judging social, financial, economic, and ethical issues in the news, whether they be climate change, sustainability, disparities between rich and poor, financial meltdowns, treatment of forests, melting ice sheets, water shortages, degraded land and ecosystems, pollutants, materialism, food shortages, obesity, reinforcing borders, rejection of immigrants, poor governments, generational rebellion, poverty, and more. All of these issues and more are related to climate change and sustainability. We strongly encourage you to listen to the talk.—THE EDITORS 

Dr. Arthur Lyon Dahl, who spoke to a capacity group of learners on “Navigating the Storm: The Transition to Sustainability,” was the featured speaker for the Wilmette Institute’s eighth Web Talk on September 6, 2015, part of its Twentieth Anniversary celebration. Using colorful PowerPoint slides, charts and graphs, photographs, and quotations from the Bahá’í writings and Bahá’í statements, scientists, the UN Secretary-General, and recent documents on climate change published by the Pope and by a gathering of Islamic scientists, Dr. Dahl broke his talk into two parts. The first part is called “The Storm,” in which he discussed the grave sustainability challenges facing humanity. The second part is called “The Transition to Sustainability, in which he shows a path to humanity’s saving itself and the planet.

Arthur Lyon DahlDr. Dahl said that he chose the title “Navigating the Storm: The Transition to Sustainability” for his talk because “the future does not look too great” for the planet and its peoples. Yet there is hope for both if we pay attention to “what we need to do for transitioning to sustainability.”

Dr. Dahl began by quoting the standard definition of sustainable development included in the 1987 report by the World Commission on Environment and Development called Our Common Future: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” “needs” being a word to which Dr. Dahl returned a number of times. Another aspect of sustainability Dr. Dahl stressed is that is “not something you can get to and then stop and rest.” Rather, it is “a balance to be maintained in space and in time.” It includes an environmental component, the complex interactions that maintain life on Earth, and social and economic components, including the human system. Both must respect planetary limits and ethical standards.

The Storm: Sustainability Challenges Facing Humanity. Dr. Dahl began his discussion of “The Storm,” or “The crises of environment and unsustainability,” by asking what are the planetary boundaries, or the earth-system processes, with limits we must not cross. These, according to Will Steffen, in a 2015 publication include Climate Change; Novel Entities; Stratospheric Ozone Depletion; Atmospheric Aerosol Loading; Ocean Acidification; Biochemical Flows; Freshwater Use; Land-System Change; and Biosphere Integrity. The boundaries for some of these have not yet been quantified; others are below safe boundaries; some are in a zone of uncertainty with increasing risk; and yet others (biochemical flows and genetic diversity) are beyond the zone of uncertainty and are at high risk.

Focusing on threats from Climate Change, Dr. Dahl drew on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 Synthesis Report drafted by scientists and approved by most governments. The report states that greenhouse gases are the highest in history, with concentrations of some chemicals that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Continued greenhouse gas emissions increase “the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impact for people and ecosystems.” As for the impact of fossil fuels on climate change: to prevent catastrophic climate change, humans should be leaving 80 percent of the world’s oil and coal in the ground. Vulnerable areas risking catastrophic collapse in the twenty-first century are: the Arctic Ocean and the Greenland ice sheet; the Amazon rain forest, which is drying out and could burn; Northern boreal forests, which could be attacked by insects; El Nino, which affects North America, Southeast Asia, and Africa; the collapse of the West African monsoon; erratic (rains and drought) Indian summer monsoons; and seal-level rise of two or more meters (which will cover half of Florida, most of Manhattan, and much of London).

Other planetary boundaries include Loss of Biosphere Integrity (extinction rates are 1,000 times pre-industrial levels; a 2°C increase will kill 20 percent of the species; 4°C, will kill 50 percent of all species); Freshwater Use (by 2015 1.8 billion people will live in regions with absolute water scarcity); Land-Use Change (growing populating and technologies convert landscapes and ecosystems to human use, degrading land and reducing ecosystem services); Release of Novel Entities (chemical pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, microplastics, and novel life-forms can contaminate the entire planet); and Energy (industry, agriculture, transportation, urbanization, consumer lifestyle all depend on unsustainable fossil fuels).

Moving to other challenges facing humanity, Dr. Dahl then discussed the increase in human population: by 2050, the expected rise is to 9.7 billion; by 2100, 11.2 billion. Humanity seems to be following the “classic ecological pattern of overshoot and collapse.” He observed that “we can live more simply and have more people, or we can continue to live like we live now and have fewer people.” Next he discussed the coming soil crisis, noting that many past civilizations have collapsed because they degraded their soil. Since 1945, he said, erosion has degraded 1.2 billion hectares (the surface area of China and India combined), or 38 percent of global cropland.

Other crises, according to Dr. Dahl and other scientists, include: food crises; health threats; refusal of social globalization; the materialistic interpretation of reality as the “dominant world faith directing society”; and a consumer society living beyond its means with accumulating economic, social, and environmental debts. Dr. Dahl gave many examples for each looming crises, enough to make one rethink how he or she is living life. He also quoted the Chief Scientist of the U.K., who in March 2009, said that “the world faces a ‘perfect storm’ of problems in 2030 as food, energy, and water shortages interact with climate change to produce public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migrations.”

Jorgen Randers, in a book published in 2012, forecast the following by 2052: the beauties of nature and undisturbed ecosystems will disappear; there will be resources to meet demand but not need, leaving 5 billion people poor and 1 billion still starving; nothing will have been done to address extremes of wealth and poverty; and the increasing inequity in the rich world will produce more social instability. Wildcards include a financial meltdown, revolution in the United States, and generation rebellion. Randers goes on to pinpoint five central issues: (1) capitalism leads inevitably to extremes of poverty and wealth; (2) economic growth produces over-consumption; (3) democracy is too slow for the needed changes; (4) intergenerational harmony will fail, producing more things like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring; and (5) the climate will become increasingly unstable.

In 2010, Peter Turchin, a mathematical ecologist, predicted political instability and an impending crisis in Western Europe and the United States. To avoid it, we need to “reduce social inequality.

The Transition to Sustainability. Moving into the second part of his talk, Dr. Dahl said that by now he had probably depressed those listening. But he said that “there is hope for the future,” hope that will come about with a new sustainability paradigm (voiced by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá many decades ago). It will include balance, optimal size (for communities and factories), subsidiarity, efficiency (not wasting so much), de-materialization (doing more with less and recycling), and closed systems. All of these require systems thinking to achieve sustainability. We must replace linear thinking with circular thinking, closing loops, inviting feedback, studying response times, and achieving balance. In the long term, we must know where we want to go, keep our direction in spite of distractions, remember our principles and goals, and be flexible in finding local solutions.

3 TurbinesOne cannot help but think of the community-building process the Universal House of Justice is now asking Bahá’ís all over the world, at the local level, to implement. As a sample of how circular “thinking” works, Dr. Dahl asked his audience to consider how sustainability in the coral-reef ecosystem works (efficient capturing of solar energy and materials and of energy transfers within the system; little waste and effective recycling; high complexity and integration; maximizing total productivity).

Then Dr. Dahl stated that “sustainability is fundamentally an ethical challenge.” This, he said, was the “real theme of his lecture.” Sustainability is a matter of egotism vs. altruism, me first vs. all together—in the individual and in society.

The values for a sustainable society, Dr. Dahl, said are justice and equity; solidarity and altruism (every human being should be considered as a trust of the whole); cooperation and reciprocity (characteristics of all highly evolved and complex systems); trust (“Trustworthiness,” according to Bahá’u’lláh, “is the greatest portal leading to the tranquility and security of the people”); moderation (Bahá’u’lláh says, “Take from this world only to the measure of your needs, and forego that which exceedeth them”); and the primacy of the oneness of humanity (each person is born into world as a trust of the whole, and each bears a responsibility for the welfare of all humanity).

Drawing on the Bahá’í International Community’s statement Valuing Spirituality in Development, Dr. Dahl discussed the true purpose of economics (cultivating the limitless potentialities in human consciousness) and a new values-based economic models. Then he discussed preserving ecological balance and basing economy on renewable energy and resources (agriculture, forests, fisheries, and bio-industries), closed materials cycles, and integrated product life-cycles, reducing human impacts and restoring damaged systems. All this requires innovation, a world legislature, and a world federal system, as the writings of Shoghi Effendi say.

The year 2015, Dr. Dahl says, is a “make or break year for the climate-change process,” with “make” turning the tide and “break” leading to global catastrophe. The UN climate conference to be held in Paris in November and December faces an enormous challenge: adopting a legally binding treaty to reduce by 80 percent by 2050 and then to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in this century.

Dr. Dahl quoted from the Bahá’í International Community’s 2008 statement called Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the Challenge of Climate Change, which discusses the “opportunity to take the next step in the transition from a state-centered mode of interacting on the world stage to one rooted in the unity which connects us as the inhabitants of one biosphere, the citizens of one world and the member of one human civilization.” But he stressed that Bahá’ís are not the only ones talking about a unified approach to climate change. In June 2015 Pope Francis released an encyclical addressed to all the peoples of the world called Laudato Si’: on care for our common home, summarizing the major environmental challenges and offering strong critiques on consumerism, the economy, multilateral corporations, and materialism. In August 2015 an Islamic Declaration on Climate Change calls for changes to be made by well-off nations and oil-producing states; people of all nations and their leaders; and corporations and finance and business sectors. All groups are invited to collaborate and cooperate, and all Muslims are instructed not to “strut arrogantly on the earth.” The synthesis report of the Secretary General of the United Nations, released in December 2014, The Road to Dignity by 2040: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet, says the same things.

In September 2015, in New York City, seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (including ending poverty, ending hunger and achieving food security, achieving gender equality, ensuring sustainable management of water and energy for all, reducing inequality, reversing land degradation, halting biodiversity, providing access to justice for all) will be signed by all governments. Indicators of progress on the SDG goals are being developed.

While the U.N. process, which is top-down, is building global consensus among governments, now the task is for individuals, communities, and civil society to start a bottom-up process. No one needs to wait for governments to act, which will probably be too little and too late. Dr. Dahl ended with a Bahá’í International Community assessment of the road ahead:

the pathway to sustainability will be one of empowerment, collaboration and continual processes of questioning, learning and action in all regions of the world. . . . As the sweeping tides of consumerism, unfettered consumption, extreme poverty and marginalization recede, they will reveal the human capacities for justice, reciprocity and happiness.

Dr. Dahl’s final assessment was that “The storm of the multiple challenges of sustainability is pushing nations to work together in their collective interest. The years ahead will be difficult, but there is reason for hope.”

The question-and-answer session following Dr. Dahl’s talk started a bit slowly but picked up momentum. At the end of the forty-five minute Q/A session, there were at least thirty questions waiting for answers.

You can listen to the talk again or listen to it for the first time by clicking on this link http://www.youtube.com/WilmetteInstitute and then scrolling down to Dr. Dahl’s talk.

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