The Disruptive Power of a 'Dangerous Book'

breast feeding, climate change, climate justice, current affairs, ecology, environment, ethics, integral ecology, pope francis, spirituality

The past few days at the Vatican have been full of quite surreal moments. First I found myself introducing Naomi Klein, as I chaired (possibly) the first ever all female panel at a high level Vatican Conference. Later the same day, I was sitting on a bus beside Mary Robinson our way to an open air mass in an ancient pine forest. We were Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mulsims, athiests, feminists, liberals, conservatives, and everything in between. As the sun set over the beautiful pine trees, and the red full moon rose in the sky, the whole thing had strange dream like quality about it. I pondered how on earth I came to be there, in that moment, giving praise to God, Allah, Yaweh, Mother Earth with such an unlikely group of people. Something very strange was happening.
The occasion was the Conference “People and Planet First – the imperative to change course”, which focused on Pope Francis Encyclical Laudato Sí. I certainly wasn’t alone in sensing a surrealness at the event. What I think what we experienced was due to the disruptive power of Pope Francis’ encyclical.  Someone described the Encyclical as “the most dangerous book”. Others, such as Ben Phillips, in his blog on  NGO Courage made the point that we have been “out radicaled” by the Pope. He has said the unsayable, disrupting well positioned lines of defence and throwing them into disarray.
This isn’t just Pope Francis mania either. The group in the Vatican were the an unlikely Papal fan club. For many who associate themselves with this, there is a cost to pay for aligning with the Pope. But the encyclical has the power to bring very divergent views together for the greater good. It disrupts because it speaks the Gospel truth, with all its raw beauty and its pain, in an uncompromising and compelling way. The Pope takes a different perspective – like opening google earth and panning right out as far as you go into space. He brings us right back to the sense of wonder of existence, calling us back to a sense of awe at life on this fragile planet. It stops you in your tracks. It resonates something deep in our hearts and moves us to care. Essentially, in changing the viewpoint to one of integral ecology, Pope Francis offers us a new vocabulary to express in concrete terms the world we want to see. He has given permission to everyone to say what has to be said.
Listening to the many wonderful women speakers in the Conference, I was struck by the intensely maternal, and sisterly perspective Laudato Sí encapsulates. Mary Robinson correctly pointed out the lack of a specific focus on the role of women in the encyclical, but for me the maternal, sisterly dimension is profound and essential. The whole Encyclical in fact revolves around this opening sentence: “Our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” Miss that, and you miss the point. In fact, the image that best sums up the new viewpoint that Pope Francis is proposing, is the image of mother feeding her newborn child. It is the image that best embodies the most fundamental, natural, intimate relationship of mutual love and dependency. It is the icon par excellance of the culture of care that is now needed. It is an idea I stumbled on several months ago, as I wrote here, but is one that seems increasingly relevant.
This image of mother and child, the first tender bond of inter-generational care is the measure of the love we now need to save us from ourselves, and the perils of a climate changed future for our children. This poem of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands to her baby speaks volumes of the mother-child tragedy unfolding before us. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu reminded us that thousands of children are already faced with an uncertain future as climate refugees. Rather than getting lost in useless arguing, above all we need to draw our children and grandchildren close to us and make them a solemn promise to do everything in our power to change course. For me, in fact, my main motivation in the struggle against climate change and injustice , which makes me do what I’d normally not consider doing, is simply to be able to answer the questions of my children when they grow up: “you mean you knew – so what did you do?”
Mary Robinson spoke beautifully at the Conference of this deeply maternal perspective. In her speech she focused on the encyclical theme of earth as our common home. She made the connection to motherhood and the need to see the earth as a home – and us as all as one family. For mothers all over the world, the concern with the running of the home is second nature. This gives women a better sense of limits, as they are the ones who usually focus on tending for the family, ensuring there is enough to go round. Extending that simple idea of being one family to the world scale can help us find new ways to care for our shared home. The word ‘economy’ in fact, comes from the greek word for home – oikonomia ‘household management’, based on oikos ‘house’ + nemein ‘manage’. Through re-imagining the economy from that image of the home, from maternal care, sisterhood, and Ubuntu we can start to build a truly transformative vision.
Perhaps the encyclical’s most profound message is that the earth is our mother, with whom we need a loving relationship to survive and thrive. As Naomi Klein pointed out, we are simply realising we are not the masters of creation. The truth is we utterly depend on mother earth – in reality we are as helpless in the face of nature, as a newborn child feeding from its mother’s breast. We urgently need to feel that again. When that loving relationship with the mother is broken, the impact on the child is devastating, and often irreparable. Repairing that loving relationship once more is essential. That is a dangerous message to those who wield unscrupulous power.
 

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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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