August 7, 2020


by Jay Howden

Back in January, Ottawa’s Big Ideas series began in a way that now seems remarkable – in person in a crowded, hug-friendly upper floor of the Bahá’í Centre on McArthur Avenue. Diana Cartwright, a clean-tech analyst at Global Affairs Canada, spoke on ways in which the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í Faith, and the global response to them, pertain to climate change. Recently, she shared further thoughts on how that emergency has been complicated by Covid-19.

“Why does everything seem to be falling apart?” she wondered rhetorically. Twin processes, in this turbulent era, are on one hand destroying societal standards and institutions; on the other, the groundwork is being laid for a new order in the world. Inevitably, the destructive process is more loud and photogenic, but Ms. Cartwright argued that both the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing climate disruption show that tired old concepts hold us back in dealing with planet-level problems. These two emergencies also clarify the foundations for progress, especially recognition of the singleness and interdependence of the human race.

Ms Cartwright offered an analogy: We’re living in a decrepit old house. Major structural problems. Many love the old place. Some work hard to make it habitable. But it’s falling apart. Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings offer the blueprint for a wonderful new building, whose foundation is sound and whose amenities can justly and beautifully house ALL of us…

Covid-19 and climatic craziness have exposed the weaknesses of the “house” of our current global order: neither respects national borders, and both thrive on selfish, narrow and exploitative thinking. Also, both crises underline our need for greater humility, for action on racial and other injustices, and for scientific rigour. But the climate emergency remains a much bigger challenge. It’s less visible, more subject to anti-scientific and corporatist bias, and much easier to put off for the ever-tempting “another day”.

Still, we are learning. We see that living more simply has benefits, that thoughtful governance matters, that massive societal changes can be made, that scientific consensus and human solidarity are powerful medicines. But we cannot “go back to normal” in areas that affect climate – a return to unrestrained consumption (widespread air travel, for instance) and fundamentally unjust systems is foolhardy and unfair; the poor everywhere bear the brunt of climate chaos. Ms. Cartwright offered ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s three-part recipe for change. Bahá’u’lláh’s son said that knowledge comes first, and science provides it. We need united action on what we know, but there is a critical third ingredient: volition. Where can we find the will, the motivation, to get us past our collective insecurities to take massive action?

Ms. Cartwright cited sources of volition: visible examples (keeping up with neighbours’ recycling), fear of future consequences (so long as it doesn’t paralyze us), government policies, and the desire of businesses to appear responsible. But volition ultimately springs from love, the growth of concern for our sisters and brothers everywhere. Volition is evident in Pope Francis’s Encyclical on climate change, in the work of myriad faith-based organizations, including the Bahá’í community worldwide. Faith moves us to committed action for the common good.

“The light of men is Justice,” wrote Bahá’u’lláh over a century ago. “Quench it not with the contrary winds of oppression and tyranny. The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity” within the human family, nowhere more necessary than in facing climate change. As Diana Cartwright noted, our best pandemic responses illustrate how to address climate problems that are already devastating to humanity’s most vulnerable. The Bahá’í call to oneness is the key.

The Big Ideas series are held regularly and hosted by the Ottawa Bahá'í community at the Ottawa Bahá'í Centre. During the Covid-19 health crisis, the sessions have moved online. Previous presentations have focused on different topics including human rights, international development and climate change.

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