The Problem with Balance

agriculture, breast feeding, climate change, climate justice, environment, pope francis, Uncategorized

Balance is always a good thing. We talk about people being balanced, about approaches being balanced and about having a good work life balance. Balance never seems to be bad. Saying something is unbalanced, or worse, that a person is unbalanced, has negative undertones. If it refers to an issue, it either assumes that something is unfair or biased. If it relates to a person, it usually insinuates that the person is facing some kind of emotional problem, often related to stress – “that person is a bit unbalanced.” It is often used to dismiss their opinion or perspective. But is balance always so good?
Yesterday, after a year of internal wrangling, the European Commission presented its ‘balanced’ proposal on how the EU member states will share the burden of tackling climate change. It outlines all the national targets countries have agreed on, based on criteria of fairness, solidarity and cost-effectiveness. Ireland has come out of this pretty well when it comes to minimising targets – in fact, it has managed to achieve nearly +10% “flexibility” in its already reduced -30% emissions target. Given that Ireland is significantly off track with its 2020 target, this is an added bonus. It is breath-taking. Other countries have already made serious in-roads in their emissions, and are aiming to make further cuts of up to 40% – with no extra flexibility for wriggle room. 
For some, especially those who have long argued for this special status on behalf of Ireland’s agri-food sector, this is a political triumph. The media seems to be presenting it as such. For others, who really know what this means from a climatic perspective and who have deep understanding of the massive political capital expended in the process, it is very disheartening – and that’s putting it mildly. Trócaire called Ireland’s approach it a ‘derogation of global responsibility’, particularly towards the millions of people Ireland claims to be helping through its aid programme centred on alleviating hunger.
At the MacGill Summer School in Donegal, last night, almost by coincidence, a debate on this very issue was held between some of Ireland’s leading lights on this very issue. A balanced debate, you might say. Professor John Sweeney, Ireland’s leading climate scientist, outlined in meticulous detail the extreme urgency of the climate catastrophe. No hyperbole needed – this is an emergency. He demonstrated the impact the nearly 1.5 degree rise in global temperatures is having on the world’s poorest people. He described Ireland’s approach within the EU as “freeloading”, having won a “get out of jail card” to maintain the status quo in our farming sector. Fr. Sean McDonagh, an eco-theologian and close advisor to Pope Francis, then described the deep moral questions raised by humanity’s failure to face up to this issue of existential proportions. 
New Irish Farmers Association President, Joe Healy, then took the floor and presented the perspective of his organisation. Perhaps reading the situation well, he didn’t gloat or present the EC decision as a victory for the hard bargaining of the farmers. He recognised that there are many initiatives that can be undertaken by farmers in order to address emissions – and indeed the IFA is working with other agencies to ensure these are rolled out and that farmers profit from being better stewards of their environment. However, he ignored the fact that this watering down of targets – which we know are already too little, too late – is purely about facilitating the scaling up the beef and dairy industry which already accounts for 47% of our emissions at the expense of everyone else, without so much as a discussion. The recurring theme of his presentation was balance. The balance between the need for the agricultural sector to continue to focus on increasing carbon intensive beef and dairy exports and the moral responsibility of our country to reduce emissions for future generations.
The problem is, when it comes to tackling climate change, balance can actually be a bad thing. Yes, we need to understand winners and losers in the transition to a sustainable future and compensate losses. But we can’t let this transition issue stand in the way of the need to shift toward more ecological food production – changing our consumption habits, and therefore producing and eating less polluting food. But our fixation with balance, level headedness and our misplaced belief that maintaining a good balance will solve this issue is actually leading to the destruction of the planet. It provides cover for those who wish to prolong old perspectives and vested interests which are preventing more transformative change. It starves us of the innovation that comes about through accepting the urgent necessity for change. Isn’t necessity the mother of invention?
We urgently need to become a bit unbalanced. When my house is on fire, the last thing I want is a balanced approach. I don’t want a little bit of water and a bit of petrol mixed in for good measure. I don’t want the 999 call centre to put me on hold or worse, negotiate with me around how much water is available! I want the emergency services to arrive – now. Not tomorrow, not next week. I want them to come immediately. Our planet is burning. That’s the reality which we now face – it is so evident in the long-term data, in what we observe around us, in the experience of the millions now facing starvation across East Africa. Professor Sweeney’s message last night was so stark: the atmosphere does not unfortunately take heed of our balanced approaches. Rather, it betrays a deep disconnect with our physical reality. Yesterday’s EU decision reveals that our political establishment – certainly in Ireland – currently has no intention of shifting tack. They are hell bent on maintaining business as usual, albeit with a little bit of green paint. When will we wake up and smell the coffee?
 

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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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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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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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Integral ecology and the 'interior' world

climate change, pope francis, religion, spirituality, sustainable development goals

This week I had the honour of giving a reflection at the Trócaire Lecture given by Cardinal Peter Turkson, the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The lecture was on “integral ecology” – the topic which Pope Francis’ much anticipated Encyclical will cover later this year. I have to confess that before this week I knew very little about integral ecology. After immersing myself in the subject in preparation for the lecture, I am fascinated by the idea and look forward to learning more. Three aspects of it appealed to me:

  • integral ecology demands that we put care for creation and a planetary perspective at the heart of all our decision-making. Environmental issues have to come out of their ‘special interest group’ box and become an integral part of all decisions. In the words of Pope Francis, Christians are not being asked to ‘go green’ but to ‘be Christian’.
  • integral ecology requires us to shift to a systems way of thinking. It is about integration and synthesis rather than individual, isolated perpsectives. I was really taken by this idea.
  • integral ecology means placing far greater value on ‘interiority’ – the awareness that is present within all living beings. This aspect of the concept really appeals to me – and is of huge value in a world which tends to devalue or disregard interiority.

The absence of integration and synthesis today is everywhere, especially in the political world. It results in incoherence in policies at every level, like that I mentioned in my previous blog. I see this especially when I go to the UN. It is remarkable to witness the sheer numbers and industriousness of NGOs, policy makers, officials… all fighting for very worthy goals. “I’m for disability” “I’m for indigenous peoples” “I’m for small island states” “I’m for people living in extreme poverty”… and so on. Yet everyone is so caught up in fighting their own corner. The end result is 17 new Sustainable Development Goals with 169 targets!!! This sounds fine until you realise that virtually no-one is thinking about the sum of the parts, the systemic questions which make the achievement of these goals possible. It is just too complicated, the power interests are too great. The result is ineffective action, not seeing the wood for the trees.

If we begin to focus on the ‘whole’, the ‘systems’, as an integral ecology proposes, it becomes evident that we need to rethink of our hierarchy of public values which currently puts economic growth above ecology – consumption above conservation, private gain above the universal destination of goods. As a placard at the Climate march last September put it “tell the next generation: it was the economy, stupid!” Despite so much research on human and planetary well-being, governments still define progress in terms of national and global economic growth, even when that growth is predicated on the destruction of the planet we call home. There is something seriously wrong in our accounting system! Rethinking global economic governance in a way that reduces excessive, wasteful consumption but still allows those living in poverty to achieve a decent standard of living is the major challenge today. Redistributive justice is also an ecological issue.
Developing an integral ecology is a collective exercise. This means focusing energy on breaking down the intellectual and political silos and finding ways to achieve new insights through shared knowledge. This demands a very different skill set to what is valued today. Yes, it still requires technical expertise. But above all, it requires an ability to dialogue, to share perspectives, to listen, to try to engage and understand the others perspective and appreciate what is good about it. It requires a certain humility – an ability to see that none of us has the whole truth, but many of us have partial truths.
What is most exciting about the ide of an integral ecology to me is the value it places on ‘interiority’: the spiritual and cultural renewal required to make the shift to a just and sustainable future. This transition, which prioritises care for creation and the poor, can only be achieved through a change of heart, a valuing of interiority. As Cardinal Turkson said at the lecture, ‘we will care for what we cherish and revere’. It means cultivating a sense of ‘wonder and awe’.
Western culture traditionally has placed little value on interiority, almost assuming that a rational, technical, materialist culture is adapted to address the problems of the 21st century. Religion is widely regarded as a private affair. Yet the attitudes, behaviours and values needed are far different. Rather than focusing on quick technical fixes, the key questions for society has to be ‘What is the interior world, the thought systems, the values that sustain or undermine an integral ecology?’ It strikes me that a communitarian spirituality, which is deeply attune to dialogue and mutual understanding, in this regard, becomes a critical public good. As Pope Francis points to, the horizon of hope needs to open up and be underpinned by a new interiority – a change of heart, a ‘revolution of tenderness’. In fact, the flourishing of a counter-culture which actually recognises the beauty and value of less is a profound paradox. It is a hard sell for those who are bought into the dominant culture, but perhaps not for those who have made the Gospel of love and justice the motivating force for their life!

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