Changing the zeitgeist – Reflections on climatejustice2015

climate change, climate justice, environment, integral ecology, pope francis

There is a joke going round Trócaire that I have a hot line to the Vatican. How was it that we managed to time our recent conference on Climate Justice to take place just four days after Pope Francis launched his new encyclical Laudato Si’ on ecology? Without a doubt, the timing was impeccable! I’ll let you in on a secret – there is more than a grain of truth to the idea that we may have influenced the timing. In fact, I suggested the date of 18th June for the Encyclical launch to Cardinal Turkson when he visited Ireland in March this year for the Trócaire Annual Lecture! In any case, the timing of the Encyclical and the #climatejustice2015 conference this week in Maynooth could not have been more perfect.
The dust is still settling on the Conference, which brought together many high powered speakers on climate justice – Mary Robinson (UN Special Envoy on Climate Change), Professor van Ypersele (IPCC vice-chair), and Bill McKibben (co-founder of global climate movement 350.org). Over 500 people participated in the event, which was livestreamed around the world and at one stage was trending globally on twitter. The heads of almost all religions in Ireland were present – as was the humanist association. Senior executives from over 25 companies attended. Many politicians, policy makers, young people, academics, teachers, religious, film makers, poets… And they came from all over the country. Ireland was in the room. The event was free and open to all who wanted to come and learn about the challenge of climate justice. Some prominent journalists found the first day so interesting, they came along on the second “just to learn more.”
The Climate Justice Conference took place in Maynooth University, but the purpose of the conference was far from “academic” – in the sense that we understand the term “purely academic” to mean detached from reality! The main purpose was to inform people about the mounting scientific evidence around climate change, the moral imperative it presents as a justice issue, and to inspire them to action. More than once, the process was described as a journey – a spiritual, moral and intellectual journey. In that sense, it was a profoundly normative initiative, grounded in the perspective that with climate change, we have moved into a new era, where the production of knowledge – and how we choose to use it, is a profoundly political and moral choice.
This idea was crystallized in the inspiring talk given by Bill McKibben entitled “we are all activists now”, positing the view that regardless of our profession or position, now is a time to be taking action. Appealing to the older generations in the audience to engage in direct action (and risk arrest), he said “If you have kept your powder dry till now, waiting for a big cause, your time has come.” Just eight years ago, in fact, he started out with seven students – and formed what is now one of the most powerful global social movements in 350.org and Peoples Climate. The movement is made up of young and old, from every corner of the globe. The inter-generational solidarity in the movement is very strong: the older people are on teh front line in direct action – so the youth will not suffer a criminal record.
Indeed, he used himself as the prime example of an unlikely activist. By character and by preference, he would much rather be at home thinking and writing books… but he came to a realisation that books alone would not change the world. I could really identify with that – having moved out of academia over a decade ago and into public policy and advocacy. He said that collective strategy, embracing evidence, moral arguments and action is required. Tackling climate change is not something one person can do on their own – since nobody can know all of the sides of the story. It requires a group effort, a movement. “If the people with power have money, we have to find a different currency – our currency is in movement building.” He urged us to use our efforts to build collective action here in Ireland. Bill talked of the priority now being about “changing the zeitgeist” rather than focusing on individual initiatives. Yes, we can all live more sustainably, and make a contribution to reducing emissions by an insignificant amount – but the problem is systemic, so systemic responses are needed. We now need a movement on the scale of the anti-aparthied movement in the 1980s, perhaps bigger.
Mary Robinson also talked about her reluctant “journey” from a human rights campaigner to a climate justice campaigner. She realised that it is impossible to talk any more of human rights when the most basic conditions for human survival are being undermined by climate change. She talked of the need to overcome our individualism if we are to build a movement for change. “We need to recover that ancient Irish saying ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhairimid ‘- we live in each others shadow. A value so akin to the African value of Ubuntu.” Without rediscovering that value, and even celebrating it in music and dance, it is difficult to envisage the shift required to tackle climate change. Making that leap is not something easy, yet it is one required of each of us if we are to make the shift from isolated actions and campaigns with limited impact, to achieving a “paradigm shift” rooted in compassion, justice and love for our planet.
At the end of the Climate Conference I was honored to give the closing remarks. What struck me most was the spirit of hope which underpinned the conference. It was as if the 500 people there embraced the hard scientific and moral truth – looked it straight in the eye – and came out the other side with courage and determination to move forward. In truth, denial is the worst state to live in. It destroys the human spirit. Once you start to face the truth, you realise there are many things which can be done, and many new friends waiting to be made on the journey ahead.

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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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On the power of remembering together

history, memory, pope francis, religion, spirituality, Syria

This week we marked a number of important anniversaries. I was reminded of the importance of taking time to stop and remember. The act of remembering together or ‘commemorating’ is something so powerful.
The fourth anniversary of the start of the ongoing conflict in Syria is one that should cause us all to reflect. The media this week has been full of pictures of families torn apart by war, mothers unable to grieve for their babies, unbearable scenes of inhumanity made all the more poignant due to today’s mother’s day celebrations. Twenty humanitarian organisations published a scathing report on the crisis and the inaction of governments to resolve it. This article by Trócaire’s director Éamonn Meehan illustrates the situation many NGOs, like Trócaire now find themselves in. They are trapped in an intractable, horrific conflict which has no end in sight, with unimaginable scale of need. Most NGOs were never designed to cope with such need. The whole crisis meanwhile seems to have slipped into the background as other crises have overtaken it. It has become a new kind of ‘normal’. It is hard to see where the political will is going to come from to start to resolve the growing regional crisis in the Middle East. No country, no leader seems prepared or able to act to stop the carnage.
This week also marked the seventh anniversary of the death of Chiara Lubich, an Italian woman whose cause for  beatification and canonisation is being considered by Pope Francis (who also celebrated an important anniversary this week!). Chiara Lubich is a spiritual hero of mine and is one of the great spiritual teachers of our age. Her message of unity today is very timely for Christians, but also people of other faiths and none given the context of conflict in Syria and across the world. Events are being held all over the world this week to highlight the political and policy relevance of her message. It is a message borne out of the utter destruction and despair of the Second World War. It invites everyone to embrace a new consciousness of being and becoming one human family.  
What appeals to me most about Chiara is that hers is not a theoretical or ‘top down’ message nor a ‘soft’ fussy message nor one of ‘charity’ as commonly understood. It is a message of sisterhood and brotherhood that is actively lived, constructed, born and reborn each day in small and big acts of heroic love. It is a pedagogy of love. Heroic in the sense that living it involves a daily commitment, an orientation – a willingness to embrace, move through or beyond the suffering, isolation, self-doubt, that is part of being human. It is this ‘discipline’ of love that Chiara saw creating something like a bridge that draws down a ‘divine’ presence on earth. It is a message of ‘synthesis’ which I reflected on here in response to Cardinal Turkson.
I was fortunate to meet Chiara on many occasions. I corresponded with her regularly since my mum first met her when I was just eight years old. I owe her a great deal in terms of the support and wisdom she shared so generously. Like great spiritual leaders before her, she was the embodiment of her message – ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, as Ghandi said. Her memory lives on in the great spiritual ‘family’ she generated, the Focolare Movement, and in the many millions of people she continues to touch by her charism.
Both of these anniversaries, in their own way, reminded me of the importance of valuing memory and historical perspective, especially for those who believe in big ideals. This is not about sentimentality, as I was reminded this week in Berlin at an event on the histories of humanitarianism. The workshop was looking at the role of religion and empire in shaping humanitarian cultures since 1945. It was fascinating to uncover the interlocking influences which shape the work of NGOs today. I’m not a historian, but I have to say I found the whole discussion extremely relevant to the complex issues that Trócaire and other NGOs are grappling with in Syria and globally. Pressure tends to result in frenetic activism, but there is a great need within NGOs to take time to remember together, to learn about our histories and play the long game. Only through understanding where we have come from will it be possible to face future challenges with confidence.

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And so the 2015 blog begins…

climate change, current affairs, international politics

My blog has been a long time coming. Given the year that is in it (probably the most important year in global politics since I started thinking about such things in the early 1990s), I’ve decided there is no time like the present to get blogging. As a complete novice, I am not sure how it all works. Who on earth is going to read my random thoughts? Is this like Twitter but with more words? Or is it facebook with more meaty content? So this is a total leap in the dark – or rather into the blogosphere.
So what am I going to blog about? I guess I am going to share my thoughts on where the BIG DEBATES are going in relation to global issues – reporting on any big events I attend, and reflecting on what it all means for you and me… and especially our children. I have my two boys (aged 5 and 3) at the forefront of my mind when I write this. It is their generation that will feel the real effects of the leadership – or the lack of it – shown in 2015. It is about their freedom. If we take the bold steps and address climate change and sustainability, then they will have as much freedom to do all the wonderful things I have had the chance to do… if we don’t act, they will lack many of the freedoms we take for granted. And lets not forget – they will still be blessed in the grand scheme of things. Many millions of children will have far less than them in a climate changed world.
If you would like to know a bit of background to me and what is at stake this year, this article in the Village a couple of months back gives a good overview. This article on the climate summit in New York which I wrote last year also gives a flavour of where things are heading in this big year.
Why ‘charityandjustice’? For me, engaging in these issues is essentially about LOVE – our love for our world, our love for our children, love for those with less, and those with more…. and they are about JUSTICE – speaking up for the voiceless in these debates about the world we want to build. I have decided to call my blog – ‘charityandjustice’. From a Church point of view, I think we need a new understanding of charity and justice – but more on that topic in another blog. Let’s see where this goes.
I work for www.trocaire.org, but all things blogged about are my own views.

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