Bahá’ís and Social Action

The Bahá'í ethos of easing the burdens of others inspires believers to build schools and improve hea

There is an oft-quoted Bahá’í maxim that says that if religion brings about more hatred than harmony then we are better off without religion. It is by this measure that Bahá’ís also measure their own worth as a community.

Service to the world of humanity, becoming the cause of harmony, easing the burden of everyone whose path they cross, and making sure that their behaviour each day is better than the previous day's - these are all goals which Bahá’ís worldwide attempt to realize through their daily lives.

As a matter of faith, Bahá’ís – since the earliest days of their religion - have been active in setting up social projects to serve the needs of communities around the world. The vast majority of these have looked beyond the confines of self-help objectives for the Bahá’í community alone. In fact, it may be fair to say that such Bahá’í projects have only been ‘inward looking’ when intense persecution in certain countries has made it impossible for them to extend their desire to serve the wider community.

Schools have been the most popular amongst these social action projects and there are numerous well established Bahá’í inspired schools the world over – for example in Macau, India, Guyana and Zambia. However, projects also relate to other areas of life - such as agriculture, literacy, empowerment, health, challenging racism and environmental protection. The Bahá’í ethos in initiating such projects is simple. They are designed to raise the capacity of populations to take charge of their own lives and to develop the skills, knowledge and insights to progress their communities. Projects are developed in free and open consultation and in a spirit of equality and respect for populations and their traditions.

In recent years, the entire Bahá'í world community has become engaged in three lines of social action that are proving to be core activities for community building. In a predominately voluntary capacity, Bahá’ís are getting involved in a comprehensive syllabus of child and young teenage education, hosting meetings for prayer and reflection, and propagating study groups in neighbourhoods which use the Bahá'í sacred writings to train participants to become useful members of society.

As Bahá’ís we believe that a human being’s purpose is essentially a spiritual one. We are born into this life to develop our spiritual potential. But in Bahá’í metaphor this physical existence is a mere shadow of our true reality. The body is the temple of the soul and is destroyed on our physical death only to release the bird of our soul from its mortal cage. Since life’s purpose is to develop spiritual qualities while in a physical frame, then projects that aid individuals to focus on the spiritual – by pausing to reflect in devotional gatherings or by considering spiritual texts and reflecting them in a life of service to others – is actually core to human development.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.