Climate Change & Materialism: Challenges for an Ever-Advancing Civilization
Gary is a social and economic development worker with many years of experience at the World Bank. He currently lives in Ukraine. Combining a PhD in agricultural science with an MBA in management, he managed projects in Central America, Africa, South Asia and the ex-Soviet Union. His passion is to correlate Bahá’í social principles with current realities in the world and to work for a sustainable future in a united world. As a social activist, he lives on a small farm and runs a residential vacation school for groups of children, youth, and adults striving to build a culture based on universal spiritual principles.
Discourse and Social Action
Gary started the webinar with a video where he explained the need to focus on discourse and social action. To provide context, he shared the following quote from a statement prepared by the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the international Baha’i community:
The House of Justice has described three interrelated areas of endeavour — expansion and consolidation, social action, and participation in the prevalent discourses of society — which are central to the process of learning in which the Bahá’í community is engaged.
Our contemporary world is built on the belief that economic growth is positive. Yet this economic growth is now destroying the Earth’s living systems. This is a threat that should be discussed in every family and neighborhood. Indeed, as far back as the 19th century, Bahá’u’lláh, Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, warned humanity not to over-leap the bounds of moderation.
Today we are overshooting the biocapacity of the planet by 60% or more. Yet every day we consume more and every day it gets worse. We are overusing our water, land, soil, fossil fuels and more, leading us towards eventual catastrophe.
What can we do to conserve the resources of the planet? Discussions about integration and disintegration need to take place on every level, starting with families and neighbourhoods. This discourse includes reading the current reality of our world, learning about the issues and taking action together.
The coronavirus is showing us that transformative change is required. Our health care system must be improved. It needs to be affordable and accessible for all people, whether rich or poor, whether black, brown, red or white. We need to work together at local, regional, national, and international levels. As we examine these issues, we will see that a global civilization is a very large element of the solution.
Climate change will likely create far greater challenges than the coronavirus. Factors such as the use of fossil fuels, mega-industries spewing CO2, mega-agricultural producers, the proliferation of cars, and much more are all contributing to climate change. We need to learn all the facts and talk with our families, neighbors and communities. We need to carry this discourse to the regional, national and international levels. We live on one planet. We are one people. Time is of the essence.
Young people are learning about the climate risks and they want to see mitigation. They rightly point out that there is not enough action at the top. The politicians are not listening to them and not listening to the world. Historically, youth movements often catalyse change. How do we support the youth? How do we turn words into social action?
What are the solutions? Where is the integration that will help solve these issues? Here are a few ideas:
- Get rid of cars in major metropolitan areas.
- Replace coal with solar and wind energy.
- Remove all subsidies from fossil fuels immediately.
- Stop fracking.
- Keep fossil fuels in the ground wherever possible.
Black Lives Matter
Looking at the news in the last couple weeks, we see much agreement about the issue of racial prejudice in the United States and the readiness of many to arise and work for transformative change. Partnership with other groups, particularly youth groups, will help raise these subjects to a level where societies around the world, God willing, will stand up, find agreement, and take action together. The challenges of our time can be solved.
Talking about these issues is often depressing to people. But the world has all the capabilities it needs to solve these problems. In the Black Lives Matter movement, things have happened quickly and unexpectedly. This is what should be happening with climate change and healthcare. When we understand these issues and start talking about how to solve them on the local level, we’re getting somewhere.
Discussion, Question and Answers Session
How should we join movements? How do we choose which movements are worth joining?
The Baha’i teachings are clear: we must guard against identifying with any political party. At the same time, we must also guard against the other extreme of never taking part. We can participate in conferences and activities designed to address an issue. Look for movements that are harmonious with what we feel is important for this age.
How do we get involved with youth groups, if that’s where the energy is?
Ruhiyyih Khanum, one of the respected leaders of the Baha’i Faith, urged the youth to join these progressive groups, to work hand in hand with them, to collaborate with them. If the group is going in a direction we can’t support, then it’s not a good tactic. So find groups that have similar feelings and beliefs. No one can do it alone, not the Baha’is, not these groups, not even a single country. These movements are worldwide. If we’re going to make progress on these issues, this is what we need to do.
As a senior, I don’t know if I would be accepted into a youth organization. How do you get accepted?
Youth don’t like older people telling them what to do. I work with 9- to 18-year-olds in our camp here. They love it here. We give them the opportunity to express themselves. I help provide an environment in which they can move ahead. Give them the opportunity and support them. If they see you don’t want to take over, then there won’t be a problem working with them.
Give the youth support, maybe financial support for going in a direction you agree with as an adult. If you do it like that, they’ll talk to you and include you and allow you to provide some help, as long as you don’t push them too much.
What media are best to use in discourse with young people?
I’m not a fan of social media, although there are some advantages. The “medium” that works well for us here, is to invite a group of youth to a location and give them an opportunity to live together and work together. These face-to-face activities are so important. Bring the youth together and encourage them to work with other youth. It’s the youth who take the lead in making the youth movement grow.
How can we make our legislators do what’s right?
With Black Lives Matter, the legislators are making changes because they are under nonviolent social pressure, and are being forced to do something. The “same old, same old” approach won’t work for these issues, not for climate change, not for Black Lives Matter. This requires serious social action and serious public discourse.
In Ukraine, it was the young people who put nonviolent pressure on the rulers to change the laws from the old Soviet system. If they’d stayed at home, this would not have happened. They went to the streets and they took their parents with them.
How do you address the reality of obstructive elected officials?
The laws in the U.S. have changed significantly in the last 40 years. When I came to Ukraine, it was known for corruption. Oligarchs make laws that are beneficial to oligarchs. The same thing is happening in the U.S. Laws are being written by people for their own benefit, for companies, for agricultural firms, etc.
We need to understand why things happen the way they do. Maybe we let it happen. Maybe we should have read the reality and made things go in the right direction. Generals, academics and journalists are all saying we let this happen. This is the discourse we need to have so the politicians wake up.
Does a materialistic mindset push people to think short term?
How did materialism come to be so dominant? It didn’t happen by accident. What was the role business played in this materialistic mindset? Are companies producing things we really need? Or are they mostly interested in making a profit for the next quarter?
In 1991, Moscow was largely unchanged from the Soviet era; it was dismal and gray. Now it’s like an American mall, totally materialistic. People are focused on getting these material things.
Having more things does not lead to more happiness; it actually causes more problems. Having a materialistic mindset takes us away from our true purpose: developing spiritual qualities and becoming better people. Instead we focus on what we’re wearing and what car we drive. It causes us to work long hours to acquire these material possessions, which we probably don’t need. We’ve been brainwashed through very intentionally designed advertising to create this materialism for the benefit of business. In the long run, it’s taking away our life, our time with our families and time for the important things in life.
From an economic point of view, the overproduction of things we don’t need is leading to climate change and environmental degradation. In the 60’s and 70’s, we activists were anti-materialistic. We need to talk about living a minimalist life. Many of the things we think we need, we don’t need at all.
Why do we “need” certain things that we really don’t need? What pushes us there? How do we use that lever to shift to what is really giving us well-being and happiness?
As children, we are constantly bombarded by advertising. It creates a mental infrastructure that sees a “need” for these things in order to be happy. I don’t think that’s right.
When I was 15–17 years old and became an activist, my mind changed and I realized I don’t need those things. At the end of the day, we really don’t need all of these material goods.
Why is it that great inventions to manage climate change do not easily find their way to implementation? What do we need to tackle to facilitate the application of innovative approaches?
We’re being distracted away from making the changes that are needed. Climate change is very important. The youth are saying, “You are doing nothing and my generation will suffer.”
The structures of the world (laws, businesses, etc.) are actually pushing forward more issues that will create more climate change. Some countries are making strides by getting rid of coal, etc. But the only way we’re going to succeed is if we actually start doing these things. The reason why we’re not is:
- People are too calm about these issues. They are not doing enough to move these things in the right direction. There should be no reason to subsidize fossil fuels — it’s a crime against humanity.
- People need to understand how this works. We understand that switching to alternative energy is a good thing. But do we understand overproduction of goods? Do we understand the inequalities between the rich and poor?
We need education. We need to understand how these subsidies work. We need to understand how these laws get made. When we see things that don’t make sense, what do we do about it? Do we vote? Do we talk to our family and colleagues? If we don’t talk about it, there will be a crisis and then we will wake up and do something about it.
Housing, in many places, takes half of your paycheck. Many people work so many hours just to survive.
When you’re in a situation in the U.S. where housing and healthcare are extremely expensive, you get squeezed and you have to work and work just to survive. This is all out of balance.
As a university professor in the U.S., I bought a small house and an old car. My friends bought big houses and new cars. Then they didn’t have time for anything but cleaning the house and the pool. There’s no need for all these big houses. In the Netherlands, they have smaller houses and both parents don’t need to work full-time. It’s the best place to raise children.
Part of the housing issue is that we’ve just gone crazy with this materialistic viewpoint, buying bigger and bigger houses. Do we really need them? No. We have to think small and green and find satisfaction in a simpler life.
Some Ashoka Fellows ran some interesting projects in Mexico, Brazil, and the U.S. where they created cheaper, smaller, more sustainable houses, accompanied by microcredit concepts. Now they are replicating these models around the world.
What does minimalism mean for the future of the economic system and economic growth?
If you look at the facts, we are overproducing goods, mostly in North America and Europe. To balance this out and have a planet that is survivable, the richest countries will need to give up some of their wealth. If we make Africa and Asia like America, that will double our problems with climate change. It’s not a solution.
I’ve been in development all my life. Now I think we need to go back to the U.S. and do a reverse development activity to reduce overproduction and overconsumption and make things more equitable.
Which do you address first: the need for discourse and understanding climate change OR the application of science to minimize our impact?
The science side is way ahead of the discourse side. You can’t ignore science. These micro-financed, smaller homes should be everywhere. We have the capacity to accomplish it.
But the discourse is lagging. Too many people have been put to sleep by too much commercialism, too much materialism, and too much time at the office. We are moving in ways that are not beneficial to us, our families, or society.
All these issues have an international component. We need to not just convince our politicians about the need for international collaboration, but also the need to police our governments to keep their promises on the sustainable development goals.
Science is more attuned to the issues and more ready to deal with solving the issues. Discourse needs to impact the decisions being made by the leaders. If the leaders continue going in the wrong direction, it doesn’t matter how good the science is.
Isn’t unity a prerequisite for achieving these goals? How can we bring economic justice for all? How can we work together with our sister nations to address these challenges? How can we change the economist mindset to a more balanced and moderate style?
Unity brings it together. Everyone knows that racism is a social construct. My understanding from science is that we are all one race, the human race. A little pigmentation of the skin does not constitute another race. We have to get over the idea that we are not one human family. I’ve worked in over 60 countries around the world. It’s clear that human beings are the same everywhere. We want the same things, for our families, for our children, for our lives.
Unity is a prerequisite. If we fight one religion against the other, that’s ridiculous. The Pope said climate change is a moral responsibility. We need to work together with all the religions. We need to be unified with science. Unity is a prerequisite.
Why, as Baha’is, are we so reluctant to stand up and say what we believe?
Maybe it’s because we don’t know exactly how to position ourselves and what to say. This concept of unity is critical to moving forward, finding the bridge with youth, and engaging with people. Each of us needs to look for a way that best fits us to make this happen.
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