Perspective

Sustaining Societies: Towards a New “We”

In Brief: 
  • Sustainable development implies a relationship between present and future generations. Needed is the concept of a world-encompassing trusteeship — the idea that each one of us enters the world as a trust of the whole and, in turn, bears a measure of responsibility for the welfare of all.
  • Extremes of wealth and poverty undermine economic vitality, cripple participation in decision-making processes, obstruct the flow of knowledge, and distort the perception of human capacity.
  • What is needed is an effective process for exploring issues and making decisions that promotes genuine participation, facilitates collective action, and is responsive to the complexity inherent in efforts to forge sustainable systems.

Sustainable development assumes a relationship between present and future generations — a relationship defined not only by geography but also by time. An earnest exploration of these relationships provides a lens through which to evaluate the merits and shortcomings of any proposed institutional arrangements and, more importantly, helps us to articulate our aspirations for the future. The following thoughts are offered as a contribution on these themes.

Trusteeship

A critical dimension of the design and implementation of new economic and institutional frameworks is a world-encompassing trusteeship — the idea that each one of us enters the world as a trust of the whole and, in turn, bears a measure of responsibility for the welfare of all. This principle of trusteeship calls into question the efficacy of present-day expressions of sovereignty. It challenges the ethical basis of loyalties that do not extend beyond the nation state. While multilateralism has strengthened and expanded cooperation among nation states, it has not removed the struggles for power that dominate relations among them. The mere collaboration of self-interested actors in a multilateral enterprise does not ensure favorable outcomes for the community of nations as a whole. As long as one group of nations perceives its interests in opposition to another, progress will be limited and short-lived.

Trusteeship is a concept equally applicable to many other areas of concern to humanity. Human rights, for example, achieve their highest expression when understood in the context of trusteeship: they come to provide a framework for human relations through which all people have the opportunity to realize their full potential, and all are concerned with ensuring the same for others. The shift to sustainable modes of production and consumption is a further expression of this principle: put simply, to consume more than one’s fair share is to deplete the resources needed by others.

The principle of trusteeship implies the need for an intergenerational perspective in which the well-being of future generations is taken into account at all levels of decision-making.

Elimination of the Extremes of Wealth and Poverty

Today, over 80% of the world’s people live in countries where income differentials are widening. While poverty eradication measures have improved living standards in some parts of the world, inequality remains widespread. Numerous and wide-ranging deficits in human well-being are endemic in both poor and rich countries alike. Consider that nearly 800 million adults cannot read or write, two and half billion people lack basic sanitation, nearly half of the world’s children live in poverty, and nearly one billion people do not have enough to eat. At the other extreme, a mere thousand or so individuals seem to control nearly six percent of the Gross World Product. These are symptomatic of structural flaws in the economic system and its institutions, and need to be corrected.

A careful examination of how extreme concentrations of wealth distort relationships within and among nations is timely. Such extremes undermine economic vitality, cripple participation in decision-making and political processes, obstruct the flow of knowledge and information, and distort the perception of human capacity. Wealth needs to be acquired and expended by nations in a way that enables all the people of the world to prosper. Structures and systems that permit a few to have inordinate riches while the masses remain impoverished must be replaced by arrangements that foster the generation of wealth in a way that promotes justice.

Creating sustainable patterns of economic activity that extend from the local to the global level — covering urban and rural areas — will require a fundamental reorientation of both the principles and institutional arrangements related to production and consumption. The creation and distribution of wealth in rural regions and policies that prevent the forces of economic globalization from marginalizing grassroots initiatives deserve particular attention. Promising approaches include strengthening local capacity for technological innovation and fostering respect for the knowledge possessed by a community or culture.

There is much more to be learned about both extremes of the poverty-wealth spectrum. The voices and lived experiences of the people — including the poorest — must be heard. Beyond economic variables, for example, a much fuller appreciation must be gained of the social and spiritual resources upon which the masses draw in living their lives. A deeper, more widely held understanding of the implications of the global movements and uses of wealth is needed if the actions of governments and the international community are to advance in an informed and constructive manner.

Consultation

What is needed is an effective process for exploring issues and making decisions that promotes genuine participation, facilitates collective action, and is responsive to the complexity inherent in efforts to forge sustainable systems and structures. In this connection, we offer a model of “consultation” — a principle-based approach to collective decision-making practiced by Bahá’í communities around the world.

Current decision-making structures exclude the masses of the world’s people, perpetuate conflict, place too much emphasis on the concerns of a powerful few, are often subservient to struggles for political ascendency, and have proved inadequate for the task of building a better world in which all are able to prosper.

A Bahá’í approach to development is based on a conviction that all people not only have the right to benefit from a materially and spiritually prosperous society but also have an obligation to participate in its construction. If consultation is to be effective, it must promote the participation of the people in determining the direction of their communities — whether in analyzing specific problems, attaining higher degrees of understanding on a given issue, exploring possible courses of action, or making collective decisions. Facilitating the genuine participation of those traditionally excluded from consultative processes, including the poor, is of the utmost concern.

For progress on the international stage to be sustainable, it must take place within a framework that promotes the attainment of progressively higher degrees of unity of vision and action among its participants. Each forward step — far from representing a momentary triumph of a single person or faction in an environment of competition — becomes part of a collective process of learning by which international institutions, states, and civil society advance together in understanding.

In such a framework, ideas and suggestions do not belong to a single person or entity. Nor does their ultimate success or failure rest merely on the reputation, status, or influence of the individual or institution putting them forward. Rather, proposals and insights belong to the group, which adopts, revises, or discards them as needed. Frank and open discussion will often yield differing viewpoints, particularly given the diversity of culture, history, and experience represented on the international stage. This can reveal unexamined assumptions and bring to light new concepts and ideas.

We look at Rio+20 as the next step in an unfolding process by which the people of the world learn to reach solutions together. The bonds of affection, trust, and mutual care that bind individuals together are continually expanding to encompass an increasingly larger share of human society. The new ‘we’ is not an abstraction. It is an awareness that we must persistently challenge ourselves, our communities, and social institutions to reassess and refine established patterns of thought and interaction in order to better shape the course of human development throughout the world.

[Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of the Bahá’í International Community’s Statement to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held 20-22 June 2012. The full statement can be read online at: http://www.bic.org/statements/sustaining-societies-towards-new-we]

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