by Paul Hanley. 408 pages, Victoria, BC: Friesen Press, 2014.

reviewed by Benn McGregor for The Journal of Bahá’í Studies. Available at Amazon and at Friesen Press.

Paul Hanley’s book Eleven asserts that by the end of the twenty-first century, the world population will have grown to nearly eleven billion people before it plateaus. As a sixteen-year-old high school student who might still be alive by that point in time, this prophecy is of particular interest to me. What shifts and challenges will the world face as I move into adulthood? What kind of world will my children inherit? And how does this potential future scenario relate to today’s education systems within both the Bahá’í community and our broader society?

According to Hanley, the majority of this growth will happen in what are currently less developed countries, where survival is more dependent on having many helping hands and education and birth control are somewhat neglected (2). In developed countries, annual population growth is already occurring at a rate of zero percent—and some even have a negative growth rate. Eventually, as more countries become “developed,” the global growth rate will also level out at zero percent per year. Nevertheless, the current growth trend is a major problem for the entire globe because human population is already overshooting by sixty percent the earth’s capacity—in terms of resources—to support it (337). A population increase to eleven billion will inevitably reveal all of the stress points in the current social-ecological order (337).

As one example of these stress points, Hanley looks at the impact on the ecosphere of current methods of resource extraction. Forests are important habitats for plants and animals and a major source of biodiversity. Forests are also carbon sinks, removing vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into biomass. However, unsustainable deforestation—which generally means clear-cutting all the trees in a given area—currently adds nearly two billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year, significantly impacting the biosphere (168). This increase of carbon dioxide, along with other greenhouse gases, in the atmosphere causes the heating of the earth’s climate. This rising average world temperature brings more severe environmental consequences, including floods, droughts, and fires (2). As the population continues to grow and countries continue to develop and adopt practices that release greenhouse gases (such as driving cars), the deleterious effects will become more and more obvious.

Another illustration Hanley provides is the “American style” diet—one replete with processed and fast foods—which he attributes to the consumer lifestyle of developed countries. According to Hanley, this style of diet is becoming more prevalent in developing countries around the world. China, for example, has over 4,000 Kentucky Fried Chicken stores and 1,400 McDonald’s outlets (12), with huge health effects. These statistics coincide with the fact that ninety-two million Chinese are suffering from type 2 diabetes, with the country expecting heart disease and stroke rates to increase by seventy percent over the next fifteen years (13). By giving these examples of the destructive consequences of our current practices and lifestyles, Eleven warns us of the human suffering to come if we continue on this path.

For Hanley, the heart of the problem is “not how many but what kind of people” populate the earth (338). He urges us to look not only at quantifiable elements that define who we are as a species, but also at those aspects of our inner reality—our perspective on the world, the principles that guide our actions, and the purposes that motivate us—that would allow eleven billion people to coexist in a constructive, sustainable, and peaceful manner. In line with the Bahá’í teachings, Hanley writes that “the outer world reflects the inner world” (338). In other words, our current ecologically destructive habits reflect values and principles that are problematic. If we are to change our outer relationship with the world, we need to change our inner reality in accordance with the directives of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation.

Hanley points to our unduly materialistic culture and orientation as the biggest cause for our destructive lifestyles and unsustainable relationship with the earth. Throughout the book, he gives many examples of how our perspectives, values, and purposes are all motivated by material desires—one example is the connection between a person’s worth and status in society and the car he or she owns (42). According to Hanley, education is the best way to move away from this materialistic worldview—a theme that runs throughout the Bahá’í Writings and is seen most vividly in The Secret of Divine Civilization, where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes the centrality of education to social change. Hanley gives examples such as the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) to show how education can make a difference. MVP aims to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals[1] for addressing extreme poverty by providing support to impoverished communities to help lift them out of the poverty trap—a vicious cycle that makes it impossible to escape poverty. The project addresses the root causes of extreme poverty, such as a lack of education or means of making money, by providing women and men in the community with basic resources, tools to build businesses and turn a profit, and democratic processes of community-led decision making that promote equality (347–48). Through these tools and others, MVP uses education to make change possible and to trigger virtuous cycles that lift the community as a whole out of poverty.

Importantly, while Hanley applauds the success of MVP in lifting people out of poverty, he warns that if this means that they will assume the way of life and ecological footprint of the middle class, ecological collapse could ultimately result in even more poverty (353). He suggests, instead, that the education process must aim at bringing out “the innate moral capacity of human beings and guide them toward thoughtful and effective involvement in the process of carrying forward an ever-advancing civilization” (343). Hanley brings forward one Bahá’í example of such a moral education—the Ruhi Institute process[2]—which is being adopted around the world and especially promoted in Bahá’í communities. Central to this process is making education accessible to everyone—the young children, youth, and adults of a community—in order to build a moral framework of virtues and principles like truthfulness, trustworthiness, justice, and respect by engaging the participants in service projects for their community (356–57). Another essential part of the process is regular devotional gatherings, where community members get together to “share inspirational writing and prayers which can provide a deep source of motivation” (358) and in so doing refine that inner reality that Hanley emphasizes as so critical. The ideas explored in Hanley’s book overlap with many of the ideas that I have studied in my high school civics class, which is a core requirement of the Province of Ontario curriculum in Canada. So I can’t help but to think what a civics class would look like if Hanley’s book became a studied text?

Rather than looking at our civic responsibilities as a citizen of Canada, Eleven challenges us to think and act as global citizens who are concerned with how our actions and attitudes shape not just our local communities, but also the world as a whole. For instance, the common Canadian experience of using the local Tim Hortons[3] drive-thru contributes to the franchise’s yearly use of one million barrels of oil, which further exasperates the problem of climate change that the world faces (8). Even though we are increasingly bringing a global perspective to our role as citizens, the Ontario civics curriculum still focuses on Canada as the basic unit of analysis. Students do not learn about the United Nations and the many international processes of civic and political participation. Unless we reframe our interests and concerns in global terms, the solutions at which we will arrive as we attempt to solve the challenges of a highly interdependent world will, at best, be limited.

Hanley’s emphasis on looking at our inner reality and how it is manifested in our outer social and environmental conditions points to the need for a systematic study of the idea of a worldview. In other words, we need to ask how our current social processes and ideals reflect certain worldviews and how they compare with other worldviews out there. A civics class that takes seriously the moral and ethical concerns that Hanley emphasizes would challenge its students to look deeply into the world and examine the values, principles, and assumptions that underlie a particular situation or problem.

However, Hanley’s suggestion for a moral education in a global context also raises the ongoing challenge of how it is possible, given the diverse cultures, traditions, and backgrounds of the world’s peoples and the diverse social meanings associated with a given situation, to have a universally agreed-upon set of moral principles. This is a challenge with which the Bahá’ís are systematically grappling as we strive to more fully understand and apply the cardinal teaching of unity in diversity in concrete, practical, and ever more significant ways in our own lives and communities. To meet this challenge we need to keep asking ourselves key questions such as the following: What kind of process of education should we adopt so that it is inclusive and fair to all people? How do we respond to, and find ways to engage and include, those who won’t accept scientific evidence—deniers of climate change, for example? How do we inculcate a focus on inner reality, and its connection to outer reality, in ways that address the diversity of human belief systems and the need to avoid conflict, division, and exclusion? Hanley’s reference to the Ruhi Institute gives one concrete example of the kind of moral education for which he advocates. Participation in the Ruhi process is entirely voluntary and open to anyone who is interested. Further exploration and work is needed to identify how such a curriculum, and the framework or principles underlying it, might be adapted and applied to inform the development of new models of civics and moral education around the globe in contexts of ever-increasing diversity. This is some of the work I expect will be carried on by my generation and future generations to come.

Benn McGregor is an eleventh-grade student at the University of Toronto Schools. A passionate music lover, he, along with a group of friends, initiated a service project called Music Without Borders (musicwithoutborder.com) that taps into the power of the arts as a way of helping others. It engages peers to explore ideas relating to service, civic responsibility, and the oneness of the world. Last year, the project provided an opportunity for the participants to dialogue with a Nobel Peace Prize recipient on the connection between humanitarianism and music.

[1] The eight specific goals can be found at http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/goals/.

[2] An educational program developed by the Ruhi Institute. More information can be found at http://www.ruhi.org/.

[3] Canada’s largest quick-service restaurant chain. Many of its locations feature drive-thru service.