Lord St. John of Bletso delivers annual Bahá'í lecture at University of Maryland, issuing a "call to action" on the environment

31 May 2002

COLLEGE PARK, MARYLAND, United States — Lord St. John of Bletso, a member of the British House of Lords and noted authority on environmental policy, told an audience of some 250 gathered at the University of Maryland on 31 May 2002 that the environmental challenges facing the planet will require both a passionate commitment to action as well as a balanced approach that does not dwell on "gloom and doom" predictions.

A hereditary member of the House of Lords since 1978, Lord St. John was at the University of Maryland as a guest of the Bahá'í Chair for World Peace to deliver the Eighth Annual Bahá'í Chair Lecture, on the theme of "Environmental Ethics and Public Policy."

The Bahá'í Chair is an endowed teaching and research chair established in 1993 at the University's Center for International Development and Conflict Management. Its mission is to develop alternatives to the violent resolution of conflict by identifying and applying universal ethical and moral principles.

Lord St. John began his talk by distancing himself from extremist or sensationalist forms of environmentalism.

"Environmental pressure groups have started to believe that they must depict worst case scenarios, and exaggerate their dire predictions, to 'scare' the world into paying attention to this issue," Lord St. John said, adding that such tactics often have the opposite effect by inducing a paralysis of will and a desire to ignore complex and seemingly intractable problems.

Instead, what is needed is a new global consensus that will engage and inspire people everywhere to make the changes and adjustments required to live in harmony with the earth's life support systems, said Lord St. John. He pointed to the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development, to take place in Johannesburg, South Africa, in August 2002, as an opportunity to forge this kind of consensus.

"The buzzword among the delegates around the hotels and conference centers of Johannesburg in August will be 'sustainability,' but as United Nations representatives readily agree, that word has become a pious invocation rather than the urgent call to action that it should be," said Lord St. John, who serves on the House of Lords select committee on trade, finance and foreign affairs and will soon move to the select committee on environmental affairs.

"It is crucial that the Summit succeed in showing that sustainability is far from being as abstract as it sounds, but rather is a life and death issue for millions upon millions of people around the world, and potentially the entire human race," he said.

Lord St. John applauded the fact that representatives of business and industry are expected to be present in Johannesburg in large numbers. Voluntary codes of corporate social responsibility and innovative business strategies that make sustainability profitable have shown that the business community can make valuable contributions to sustainable development.

However, Lord St. John emphasized that it would be a mistake to allow market forces alone to drive the globe's political, economic and social agenda. He said educators, religious leaders, civil society organizations and other social actors have a profound responsibility to exercise leadership. As an example, he recalled a discussion with a representative of the Bahá'í community in the United Kingdom who identified three contributions that the Bahá'í community could make to the wider environmental cause:

"The first act is to draw upon its deep-rooted belief in the oneness and interdependence of all nations," said Lord St. John. "The second is to sustain a cross-cultural practice of consultation as a non-adversarial means of making decisions and resolving conflicts. And the third is to pursue the Bahá'í tradition of facilitating learning and empowerment through social and economic development projects."

In his remarks, Lord St. John also paid tribute to the work of the Bahá'í Chair and its approach to world problems. The current holder of the Bahá'í Chair is Professor Suheil Bushrui, an internationally known scholar of English and Arabic literatures who is also an acknowledged expert on issues of religious and cultural reconciliation.

"I'm keenly aware of this Bahá'í Chair for World Peace and the incredible work of Professor Bushrui in developing alternatives to the violent resolution of conflict," said Lord St. John. "The Bahá'í movement is providing leadership in many fields, including ethics, and particularly since 9-11 the world has needed to revise its priorities."

The audience included several university officials, including Dr. Brodie Remington, Vice President for University Relations; Dr. Irwin Goldstein, Dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences; and Dr. Ernest Wilson III, Director of the Center for International Development and Conflict Management. Each made opening remarks expressing the University's appreciation for the Bahá'í Chair for organizing the annual lecture series and for enriching the campus community in other ways. Also present were members of the Bahá'í Chair's Advisory Board, including the honorable Judge Dorothy Nelson, the Chair's distinguished liaison to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States.

"At the University of Maryland our intellectual achievements must be matched by our achievements in promoting diversity, harmony and interdependence among our faculty, staff and students," said Dean Goldstein. "In this regard the Bahá'í Chair for World Peace is one of our most treasured possessions." He cited two undergraduate honors courses designed by the Bahá'í Chair, "The Spiritual Heritage of the Human Race" and "Global Ethics: Confronting the Major Issues," as well as its lectures and publications.

Dean Goldstein also cited the international recognition brought to the University by the Chair's activities. Last summer, for example, the House of Lords held a Diplomatic Luncheon to recognize the Bahá'í Chair's work. The event was chaired by Lord St. John and brought together a large gathering of Ambassadors, Members of Parliament, scholars and other dignitaries.

Lord St. John serves as a "cross-bencher," or non-partisan member of the House of Lords, and his parliamentary interests include foreign affairs, particularly South Africa and Hong Kong, environmental protection, science and technology, and financial services. He is also a Trustee of the Television Trust for the Environment and the Tusk Trust.

Professor Bushrui said he first met Lord St. John during travels to London as a fellow of the prestigious Temenos Academy, whose patron is His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. In June 2001 Professor Bushrui was invited by the Temenos Academy to deliver its annual L.M. Svinghi-Temenos Interfaith Lecture.

"We have come to know each other in these circles," said Professor Bushrui, "and I was struck by His Lordship's vision of world unity and his holistic approach to issues of peace and reconciliation."