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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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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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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“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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I have to admit it – I LOVE St.Patrick’s Day! I love the parades, the eccentricity, the creativity and the sense of community spirit. Where else in the world would you get a whole country coming out in such a vibrant way to celebrate their national Saint? The essence of St. Patrick’s Day for me isn’t found in the big city parades in Dublin or New York – but in the hundreds of local parades up and down the country. Children are a big focus of activities, as are sports clubs and people with disabilities. Literally everyone who wants to has a chance to march!
A big feature of the national day is of course the colour green. It is everywhere – green hats, green hair, green pints… more cheap imported green paraphernalia than you could shake a stick at. Despite the fact that blue is the official national colour, green is the colour we associate most with St.Patrick and Irishness. The link dates back to the stories about the shamrock – the small native plant that Patrick used to explain the Holy Trinity. Of course, green also reflects the lush vegetation on his temperate island with rolling hills in the middle of the North Atlantic. An emerald green jewel. In the late 1700s when Ireland was struggling for independence, green was worn in sympathy for the Irish cause to such a degree that wearing it was outlawed around 1776. The colour has deep roots in Ireland’s history and its nature.
Sadly, there is little reflection nowadays on what the colour green signifies. For politicians, the colour green has taken on very pragmatic, global dimensions geared at marketing Ireland as a prime location for business investment and tourism. Evidence of this is the fact that back in February the government made a big announcement around 27 ministers travelling for St.Patrick’s Day – and the return on investment that this would bring. It is also seen in the buildings across the world which ‘turned green’ as part of a global strategy called #GlobalGreening.
Some may think this is harmless – and maybe it is on one level. But it strikes me that this kind of ‘green washing’ (or green lighting) risks becoming a parody of what the colour green stands for both in Irish history and in relation to its natural environment. At a time when concern for ecology is an absolute imperative, the disconnect between Ireland’s green image and green credentials is striking. In Trócaire’s recent policy report Feeling the Heat we highlighted the fact that Ireland’s climate emissions are currently among the highest per capita in the world, and that our emissions would be the equivalent of 400 million Africans. Ironically, it is our green fields – or rather the cattle that graze on them – that contribution to a large part of our emissions. Our national policies and are increasingly at odds with a truly green agenda, as I blogged about a few weeks ago.
But surely the Irish love affair with everything green – and the global love affair with everything Irish, at least for a day – is a massive opportunity to reclaim the #GlobalGreening for a more worthy green agenda – an ‘integral ecology‘?
I was very excited this week by the start of our Irish #climate conversations. The initiative brings together many sectors of Irish society to create a new narrative on climate change. It follows similar initiatives in Germany and Holland. The launch event took place in Liberty Hall and involved fantastic contributions from artists, musicians, faith -leaders, composers, politicians, business, campaigners, PR gurus… (If you missed it, you can watch the recording and find out about future events here). It is an opportunity to come together as a society – as concerned citizens of the small patch of ground called Ireland on planet earth – and to reflect together on the new conversation we need to have to respond to climate justice.
As Eamon Ryan put it so well on the night: ‘we need to slow down to speed up. We need to ‘put the kettle on’ and reflect together before rushing to save the world.’ There is something so true in that. It is a mammoth challenge which requires us to find new ways to come together and dialogue together. As I said at the recent Trócaire lecture, solving the problems of the future is all about collaboration rather than competition. It is about together discerning collective wisdom. Perhaps a new vision of Christianity rooted in St.Patrick’s Trinitarian God – a three-in-one God, ‘persons in community’ – could point us in the right direction.
What better country than the emerald isle to lead the way in going green for real. What’s stopping us!
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