Laudato Si': A manifesto for a new world order

climate change, climate justice, environment, ethics, integral ecology, pope francis, religion, spirituality

Today Pope Francis released his long-anticipated Social Encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si’. I have had the privilege of spending the past three days immersed in this extraordinary document. The encyclical will require long, deep reflection – but here are my initial reactions to it.
You can’t read this encyclical and not be deeply moved. In his own, direct and ‘pull no punches’ style, Pope Francis presents a heartbreaking analysis of the various dramatic situations facing the world today – from the terror of climate change, to rapid biodiversity loss in every habitat, to the growing inequality of finite resources, against a backdrop of over-consumption and waste, which results in many people being regarded as disposable. It is a terrifying picture of a world on the brink of systemic collapse.
With a sense of urgency, he points to the deep ethical and spiritual roots of the current ‘socio-environmental’ crisis: a uni-dimensional paradigm founded on a blind faith in market-based technocratic solutions to resolve the world’s problems. He warns of the utter folly of seeking technical fixes to complex human problems, especially those which involve matters involving matters of human consciousness. In fact, he makes the point that we know very little about the interconnectedness of life – and often choose to ignore this fact. Overcoming this blindness requires an integral ecology – one that doesn’t try to solve problems in a piece meal fashion, but sees the deep interconnections between the different crises and seeks to resolve them in a holistic and interdisciplinary fashion.
The Pope dispels the common myths around the Judeo Christian tradition as being about domination of nature. He throws this out as a false interpretation – goes to great lengths to dispel this… need a new understanding of progress which embraces the ‘relationality’ of all things. A phrase that appears several times in the document is “everything is connected.”
In terms of what we can do, the Encyclical points to some very practical pathways for action. In this respect, it really gives hope! First, we each need to believe that simple actions make a big difference. We need to start by re-evaluating your own understanding of our place in the environment. He reminds us that we are made from the elements of the natural world. We do not sit apart from it. We are earth, and we need to re-find that deep connection. Reconnecting with our place in nature and refinding that “affectionate” relationship is the unavoidable starting point of an “ecological conversion.”
The Pope places a special focus on families and the role of parents in this regard. He makes a very simple call is for all families to start again to practice grace before meals as a sign of our appreciation of nature, and our dependence on God’s creation. It is a custom which has perhaps gone out of fashion. He also asks us to consider the Sunday day of rest – as a restorative day for nature and ourselves.
In our local communities, he affirms that integral ecology is central to the Christian message. He calls for an ecological spirituality – and asks us all to consider how we consume. He says that each act of consumption is a “moral and political act”. He reminds us of the power of boycott campaigns and the need to create a counter-culture based on ‘less is more’ and a new mindfulness, contemplation of nature. It calls for a new educational and spiritual awareness to ensure this happens.
It calls on NGOs like Trócaire, in particular, to continue to work for political change and to organise people to build political pressure for change. This is a strong endorsement of the work NGOs and social movements do to campaign and take political action on these issues.
At a political level, the Encyclical does not pull any punches. It highlights the way in which international finance has come to dominate politics at a national and international level, and how this is limiting and distorting our capacity to address common challenges. This is a failure of governance which requires a new way of governing the “global commons”. He says we need stronger, effective international agreements to combat environmental degradation, including climate change. In this respect, the need for a fair and binding agreement on climate change this December is essential to change course. Importantly, the encyclical stresses that poor countries should not have to bear the burden of this transition. They need to be supported both in terms of finance and technology transfers to make the transition to renewable energy.
At a national level, the Pope also has a timely message for Ireland, as we finalise our own climate legislation in the next few weeks. He points to the need for robust laws to protect the environment – and the need to ensure that they are enacted. These laws should not be subject to the whim of political cycles, but take the long view, thinking of the impact of their enforcement on future generations. In this regard, the need for addressing incoherences in Ireland’s climate legislation to be as robust as possible and to incorporate the principle of climate justice is very clear.
On the economic front, the Encyclical points to the need for macro-economic strategies and business plans in particular to integrate environmental costs. It points to the fact that the economy currently does not account properly for the use of natural capital – utilising it as if it were an infinite resource. We know now that it is not and that true natural capital accounting is essential. Similarly, all businesses need to implement Environmental Impact Assessments which take the full environmental impacts into account.
The most striking thing about this encyclical is the way it spans the simplicity of St. Francis example and the major problems of our time. In the end, the Encyclical starts and ends with a very compelling but simple message: we need to look at nature, and each other with new eyes. Before thinking about how we can use nature, we need to recover our capacity to contemplate it and give praise to God for its, and our existence.”

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"One Company is Not Enough" – Changing the World, One Business at a Time

business, ethics, religion, spirituality

We are living in times not dissimilar to the Reganite and Thatcher years of the 1980s, when the market logic of economic growth was definitely in the ascendance. The resurgence of market dominance brings with it very serious, potentially destabilising down sides. Can markets, as currently structured, ever deliver solutions to the gross inequalities which are increasing exponentially? Can markets solve the global existential threat that is climate change? Can markets deliver on human rights in the fullest sense? As things stand, I have to say no. It just isn’t possible. Businesses lack the foundation of a social contract, which only democracy can deliver. As the recent Trócaire report “Where aid meets trade” shows, there are serious issues of accountability at stake.
Yet last week I attended a global conference which made me realise how much more the business community has to offer – and the powerful role businesses can play if underpinned by a deep philosophy and vision. Back in the 1990s I wrote my PhD on a little known global project called an “Economy of Communion” (EOC). The idea behind it was simple: engage business leaders in a spirit of communion (taken to mean a deep, enduring commitment to sharing with those in need rather eucharist bread and wine) and it will have transformative effects. The businesses involved committed to sharing their profits in three parts – as a direct contribution to addressing inequality, but also as a sign of their commitment to a new kind of economy.
When I did my PhD on the EOC it was early days. The project had just been launched in Brazil by Chiara Lubich in 1991. It had experienced an initial burst of enthusiasm, but was beginning to struggle in its attempt to delineate the respective roles of the faith-based inspiration, business acumen, and the practicalities of operationalizing a form of truly global sharing before Web2.0 existed! Certainly there were many inspiring individuals involved, but the potential for widespread impact was less clear to me. In the first book I wrote on the subject in 2004, I didn’t hold back my critique, pointing to many serious questions that needed to be answered if the project was to fly. In my second book in 2011, launched in UCD,  I was a bit more optimistic, but I still questioned the capacity of the EOC to transcend its Focolare roots.
Fast forward to 2015. I received an unexpected invitation to speak at a conference organised by the EOC and the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi. On an impulse, I accepted the invitation. It was the most unexpected, extraordinary experience. I found myself in a hall of 400 business people and young entrepreneurs who subscribe to the EOC philosophy. The people present represented many thousands more who were watching online or running the businesses. Most of them were Africans, many were from Burundi and Congo. One after the other they shared their stories of how they try to “live communion” in their businesses, in their local communities, and in global initiatives. They outlined projects of all sizes designed to bring the spirit of integrity and communion into the most diverse environments. They called on others to support them and they did not hold back. Their stories all demonstrated the same thing: business can play an extremely positive role today. It can be an agent of transformative change – a paradigm shift.
Having stepped back from the EOC for a number of years, and focused on political advocacy, I felt like I was witnessing the blossoming of the most extraordinary movement for good in the world. Here were business people from all over 40 countries coming together at their own expense to freely share their advice, their technologies, their ideas, and their capital with others who badly needed it – not for their own personal gain or out of paternalism, but in a genuine spirit of fraternity. The focus had shifted from singular, isolated EOC business people, who had a commitment to redistributing profits, to building a global network of communities who were connected in a common bond of building a more just, sustainable economy. Someone said it was about ‘loving’ the company of the other as your own, in a shared effort to support others in need and build a new economic culture. As one person put it “one company is not enough.” And the social impact of the idea is already significant.
Whilst I was at the conference I had an intuition, which hopefully is a sign of things to come. We live today in an era defined by resource scarcity: there are not enough resources to go around. The resources we have are ununequally distributed. It’s the basic conundrum at the centre of the climate change debate and post-2015. But what if those resources were shared – in a spirit of communion? What if “yours and mine become ours”? What if this can take place not only on the level of individuals or small communities – but also in businesses which define success in terms of communion? Business like this can become an invaluable instrument for good. Suddenly resources are multiplied, because the bonds of fraternity put in motion a tsunami of generosity which knows no bounds. Scarce resources paradoxically become abundant when they are shared in common. “Ubuntu” (the traditional African word for the feeling of community) is has far greater value than the claim to individual property.

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Answering the call to Gospel Justice

ethics, pope francis, religion, spirituality

The past week has seen harrowing images on our TV screens, opening our eyes and our hearts to the plight of tens of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean seas. The question on all our minds is how to respond? Seeing their plight brought to mind a fable (adapted from a well known story) which I wrote for Intercom magazine earlier this month. The story reminds us that for Christians, justice is not an alternative to charity but about a deeper love: a love that is restless and has the courage to ask why.
“And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?” Luke 18:7
Once upon a time, there was a young nun working in a faraway land. One day she was walking by the river and saw a baby floating by. She jumped straight into the river and pulled the baby out. She brought the baby back to her congregation and they made a place for it in their home. The next day she was walking by the river again. She saw another baby in the river, and once more jumped straight in and rescued it. The next week there were two more babies, then four, six, until there were babies coming every day.
Soon their house could no longer cope with the babies, so the congregation called in extra support. People were very generous and started to build a special house for the abandoned children and a school to educate them. People were posted to look out for babies on the river bank. They devised a special recovery system for getting the babies out the water, and made sure they were fed and had proper medical care. Many people from far and wide came to support their efforts. The local government even offered support to them. They grew to love the children like their own. The children were healthy and seemed content.
One night the young nun woke up and heard a young boy crying. He wanted his mummy and to go home. She hugged him tight and comforted him, but he continued to sob inconsolably. Eventually he fell asleep, but the cry of that boy would not leave nun and she spent the rest of the night awake wondering about the mother.
At dawn, she got up and left the compound without telling anyone where she was going. She started to walk up river. She walked for many hours under the hot sun. Eventually she came to a village and saw a long queue of women by the river. She wondered what on earth was going on. She approached one of the women who was holding a young baby tight in her arms.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“We have heard our children can have a better life down the river. There are some very kind people there. They will be safe. There is nothing here for them – they have taken everything.” The woman replied.
At the top of the queue were two armed men. One was taking money, whilst the other put the babies into containers and send them down stream. Each mother kissed their baby tenderly and handed it over, wiping away their tears.
The nun ran all the way back to her congregation. In floods of tears, she told them about everything she had seen. She realised that something had to change if they were to prevent more families from being torn apart. But what to do?
She realised that they were being asked to have a far deeper love. It wasn’t enough to simply help the children in the river. They needed to understand the reasons why the mothers were so desperate they would pay someone to send their children away. They had to have the courage ask why? They had to speak out about the injustice and help to address the root causes.
Asking why was not easy. It meant going into unfamiliar places and talking to unfamiliar people. It meant working to resolve age old disagreements and educating the community to understand their basic entitlements. It took time, perseverance and a solidarity that went far beyond what she could have imagined. There were also many risks involved and they were often accused of meddling in politics. Some people even made threats against them.
With the nun’s support, local leaders started to speak up about their situation in the community, asking that they be given what was truly theirs. The community, in fact, was entitled to communal land and water but it had been stolen by corrupt officials. Soon the media reported on their story and people far and wide began to tweet about their courage. The courageous nuns stood side by side with the community – their love was unfailing. Eventually, after much perseverance, the lands of the community were restored to them and the government started respect their human rights. There was great rejoicing when the last child returned home.
The young nun reflected on the cry of that child, and that of many others, now reunited with their mothers. A far greater love had been asked: a love that met the demands of justice.

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In Gratitude to our President

current affairs, ethics, international politics, religion

“International ethics is a difficult business – in fact most world leaders take an interest in it once they have left office.” This was one of the opening gambits of an insightful, visionary speech which Michael D Higgins, the Irish President, gave at a seminar I attended on Saturday. It was the culminating event of his year long ‘Ethics Initiative’ which has involved people up and down the country of Ireland in an examination of the values we want to shape our society. The event was attended by around 130 leaders of different sorts from across Irish institutions, including NGOs, all faiths, academics and business leaders. All of them have been involved in the Ethics Initiative in some way in the course of the past year. It was one of the most inspiring, hope-filled days I have attended in a long time. And to think that there, right in the middle of it, sitting at a round table as ‘one of us’, was the President of Ireland. It is remarkable. I can’t think of any other country where it would happen.
The Office of the President in Ireland gets a lot of stick. I get the feeling sometimes that people do not really see the value in a constitutional President. People are quick to point to the weaknesses, the lack of power, the fact that the President has to spend most of his time cutting ribbons and hosting garden parties. What people often fail to see is the creative power that this kind of President can have in terms of the well-being of the nation – on issues that are much deeper than day to day political cut and thrust. Issues that speak to our common sense of being a nation, our common humanity like ethics. Like previous outstanding presidents before him who have championed human rights, Michael D is also making his mark. His way is perhaps a ‘slow burner’ – but through his ethics initiative, his intellect, his capacity to communicate complex messages and his convening power is making waves. I am sure it will generate a rich harvest.
One thing I really admire about President Higgins, which was evident again yesterday, is the dogged way in which he sticks to his core message (which happens to be an analysis I share whole heartedly!) In his speech he talks about the way in which mainstream economics is based on flawed assumptions about human beings. He spoke of the way in which the wide spread acceptance of this flawed conception of economic theory has resulted in many problems we see today. The ‘invisible hand’ may be questioned nowadays, but in fact we are increasingly seeing what Michael Taillard calls an ‘invisible fist’. I can certainly see evidence of this in the way that transnational finance and commerce is penetrating into every sphere of policy and life here in Ireland. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP, which has been in the news this week, is just one example.
Yesterday’s seminar was very enlightening and I just wish we had more time to get to know all the people who were there. It feels like we just started the conversation. Issues discussed ranged from the instrumentalisation of our esteemed seats of learning, the role of taxation in cementing solidarity, the need for inter-religious dialogue on ethics, to the need to rediscover our ‘moral imagination’. It was so interesting to hear from all the groups who have taken the President’s initiative seriously and started their own conversations about ethics at a local level – like University College Cork’s ‘communities renewed‘ project and the ‘peoples’ conversations‘ hosted by Dochas and the Wheel.
Of course the big question is where to take these conversations? How do we turn them from a nice day out into change? Inevitably, the discussion gravitated towards the political system. On the one hand, the absence of opportunities for genuine participation in decision-making… and on the other hand, an electorate who can seem (in focus groups at least) to be only interested in their own self-interest. The issue of the need for more visionary political leadership came through very strongly. Should politicians pander to the PR focus group mentality or demonstrate leadership? Focus groups are deeply flawed. If I’m honest, I would probably focus on very local issues myself – things that matter to me and my family – but that does not mean that the bigger society, and indeed the world doesn’t matter to me! We need bold, visionary leadership to marry both. As Michael D said at one point during yesterday’s conversation “You don’t actually have to be engaged in a good act to enjoy a good society. There is something wonderful about also being an onlooker, and gazing in wonder at goodness in society. There is a value in that.” Valuing social bonds is central to that. As journalist Olivia O’Leary said in her conclusions: “Goodness, softness, forgiveness, mercy are words we have forgotten in Europe.” Lets hope conversations like these can start to bring them back.
So thank you, President Higgins! Thank you for convening the ethics conversation with such grace and dogged persistence. Thank you the opportunity to part-take in such an inspiring day. As you said, it is just a ‘punctuation mark’ – and it is over to us to multiply the ‘ethics initiatives’ across the country.

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Alliance Francaise Talk – Towards a Positive Agenda for Climate Change – Reasons to Hope

climate change, climate justice, current affairs, environment, ethics, Uncategorized

 Talk given at the Alliance Francais Dublin Debate on Climate Action, 24.2.15
The title of our round table tonight is about moving “towards a positive agenda for climate change”. What do we mean by a positive agenda? It seems like an oxymoron. Is there anything about climate change which is positive? Here I am certainly not talking about the possibility that Ireland will become like the Mediterranean and we will enjoy summers like those in Provence! That would be very nice indeed.
The only agenda for climate change that is positive – the one we need to advance this year – is one which is in line with the science and equity. This means the rapid lowering of emissions (to keep within the 2 C upper limit); support for poorer countries to adapt (the $100 billion per year) and ultimately a universal, fair and binding treaty coming out of the COP21 in Paris. The question is, after 20 years of COP negotiations, which have seen emissions rise by 61%, how to make it possible.
In my remarks, I am not going to speak so much about the technical policy negotiations. I am going to focus more on the broader political picture – and where you and I come in. In particular, I will focus on signs of hope. There is a great need to spend more time in that positive, hopeful space, especially in this critical year of global change.
Three signs of hope
I see at least three signs of hope in the debate on climate change at this juncture in history.  Firstly, the era of denial is ending. This is extremely positive. For decades the power of climate deniers has been prevalent in the media and in political circles. Those trying to call for change have been side-lined as hippy alternatives. The science is now pretty much conclusive[1] – 95% certainty – like smoking and lung cancer. This provides a real opportunity which perhaps we have not grasped yet.
Western society, founded on the principles of the modernity, Enlightenment, is based on the idea of scientific reason, rationality based in objective truth. From a rational European tradition, the first step is knowing through scientific method. Once that step is done, we need to rationally respond to that new truth.
What we are facing today is no different to the astronomical revolution of Copernicus in the 16th Century. Even in the face of scientific truth, powerful interests can dominate. Back in Copernicus day, however, there was no social media, no wikileaks to expose those who deny the truth. I believe we are on the cusp of a rapid cognitive shift – and also a greater awareness of the particular power interests that are preventing us from adapting to this new paradigm.
Secondly, we are realising climate change is actually quite simple. We often hear that the issue of climate change is complex. But sometimes we fall into the trap of believing our own rhetoric. As a result, we can make the issue overly complicated. The call to divest in Fossil fuels is drawing attention to the fact that the issue is actually quite simple: we are simply pumping carbon into the atmosphere and in the long term it will destroy us if we don’t stop.
Climate change might be a huge, systemic challenge, the effects of it are very complicated and responding to it is complex, but we have to recognise that the cause is quite simple. We can’t afford to lose sight of that, since human beings ultimately have control over the cause. It is our economic systems which drive fossil fuel production, our diets which drive agro-industrial food systems.
Thirdly, climate change is galvanising local-global action. Since climate change is such a universal threat, it is opening up great potential for cooperation, collaboration, sharing, action across many sectors. Many of the changes which make sense in addressing climate change also make sense in terms of human flourishing – living healthy, productive, fulfilling lives and communities.
Even in the last few weeks I have come into contact with hundreds of people in Ireland who are working to make their communities more sustainable, to counter consumerism, to build local food systems. It is deeply heartening to see people recognise the transformative potential of addressing climate change.
Here, the internet and the new sense of ‘one world’, which can emerge through social media is a really exciting development. I think we are going to see in the next few months a massive shift forward in terms of the capacity of the internet to harness popular concern into coordinated political action. Much of this will be focused on the negotiations in Paris, but I think it is just the beginning of a revolution in democratic accountability.
Climate change is forcing us, as a species to think in new categories which go beyond our nationality. I will talk in a minute about what those new categories might be.
2015 – a critical year
2015, we know, is a critical year. As we look towards Paris in December is whether this collective ‘cognitive leap’ can have any bearing on the key political processes. How can this new awareness be translated into political action at national and regional level? How can it be harnessed to raise the level of ambition in the negotiations?
To be successful, I would argue that what we actually need is a new leadership spirit in international politics – one which the French people really understand. This spirit may sound a bit airy fairy, but the worrying levels of mis-trust which already exist between different blocks will only be overcome if a new spirit of cooperation is somehow reached.
It is not enough for delegates to be personally moved to tears by the words of those who are on the front line of climate inaction, but to allow that same humanity, compassion, solidarity – whatever word you use – to become embedded in national positions and policies.
Moreover, there is an urgent need to see all the major summits in 2015 as being linked. If the COP is to succeed, that same leadership spirit needs to be embedded within all the major global summits, starting with the Development Financing summit in Addis Ababa in July. If there is no commitment to adequate public finance to support international development and adaptation, for example, then it is hard to see how the trust will be there to move to a successful conclusion in New York on the SDGs in September or on Climate Change in Parish in December. A successful COP starts (but doesn’t end) with money on the table – and re-commitments to core agreements like the UN target of 0.7% of GNI going to development aid.
‘liberty, equality, fraternity’
In many ways, what I see in international politics today is an urgent need for a revival of the public values of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ that were at the heart of the French Revolution, and are deeply held by many millions if not billions of people today. Re-interpreting these values for the world we live in today is something the French could provide leadership on. Let me give some brief pointers, and then I will conclude.
On liberty: Climate change is urging all of us to waking up to the ultimate ‘tragedy of the commons’… which, if not addressed, will undermine basic freedoms, our liberty and that of generations to come. Just imagine a world 30 years from now if we haven’t substantially addressed climate change? Our children will not enjoy the freedom to do what we do, go where we go… the world will be far more unsafe, the economy will be more unstable. Safeguarding liberty is central to the question of climate change.
On Equality: This also has a central role to play in building a positive agenda for climate change based on justice. French economist Thomas Picketty has written about the corrosive effect of inequality and the ‘fiscal revolution’ which has to underpin every major social upheaval. Climate change represents a Copernicus revolution for economics and society at large. The term climate justice is all about addressing climate change in a way that embodies equality.
On fraternity: Climate change is making us realise that we need a new sense of global responsibility: what I do here in Ireland has impacts on people far away. My emissions know no boundaries. This is extremely positive – but only if we can harness that awareness and translate it into a new sense of personal and collective responsibility. This has to be rooted in a new global understanding of fraternity which transcends national interests and embraces a belief in being one human family.
Conclusion
The challenges in the year ahead are very great, but the signs of hope are many. Climate change is real, it is simple, and it is galvanising action. As someone who has been out on the climate campaign trail over the past few months, I am excited about the level of engagement I see around me. We need to focus on that hope – as hope is what changes things. In the words of Martin Luther King, the father of another great movement for change: “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.”
[1] IPCC 5th Assessment Report

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