Despite 2019’s “green wave”, just a small percentage of the electorate says the environment is their top priority when choosing who to vote for in next month’s general election. To see it as disconnected from the other electoral issues is an error, says Kevin Hargaden.
There was once a man who lived a life of plenty. He never knew the sting of hunger because there was always food at hand to sate his desire before it even formed.
One morning, a young woman interrupted his luxury with a warning. “The path you are on is terminal,” she cautioned. “What you think is a good life will be a short life. Your fine wine and rich food, your servants doing your work and your ingenious devices to save you labour have left you sick. Stop, change direction, go another way, for the way you are on is heading nowhere.”
“I want you to panic,” she said calmly.
The man did not panic. He scoffed. He assured all who were present that all was well, as he poured out more wine and ushered more servants to the table. “How can I be sick,” he proclaimed, “when my stomach has never once been empty!”
That very night his heart gave up and his life was demanded of him.
The Dangers of Specialisation
Sometimes the most modern problems require the most ancient tools of engagement. I am not sure if my attempted parable rises above the level of allegory, but it is an effort to make a point that is so simple, clever people have a habit of missing it: when it comes to nature, everything is a system.
Our society is built upon specialisation. Whatever advances we have made in technology or law or culture have come about because we train up experts who know their particular niche skills and practices inside out. Famously, it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something and once you invest that time in piano concertos or three-point shots or German idealism, you necessarily have less resources to give to pointillism or deep-sea fishing.
This approach to life has largely served us well, but it does have drawbacks. We can end up like the man in our story, who recognises the headline fact that humans need food and water to thrive but neglects the fact that human bodies are systems that must be kept in balance. We can have too much food and wine. We can have too much of a certain kind of food and drink. Our bellies should be full, but health requires many other considerations.
The specialist who recognises a fundamental truth is a prerequisite for many kinds of progress. The specialist who can only see one or two truths has pressed themselves into a kind of blindness.
The “Green Wave” Narrative
Throughout 2019, as popular recognition of the scale of climate and biodiversity breakdown grew, there was hope among environmentalists that the next general election – whenever it was called – was going to be the decisive moment when Irish society began to make the changes necessary for a just and safe transition. The reported “Green Wave” in local and European elections buoyed hope. Each month brought a new encouragement. But now that the election has arrived, we find that just 7% of the electorate think that the environment is the top priority.
At the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, we seek to develop what Pope Francis calls an “integral ecology”. We refuse to reduce the challenges we face into cleanly compartmentalised silos, separate from each other. The environmental crisis is not disconnected from the social crisis. We can take meaningful measurements in both instances – for example the amount of C02 in the atmosphere or the rate of economic inequality in a society – but a mountain of facts does not make an argument. Meaning arises when we are able to piece the fragments of truth we have gathered together into an accurate description of reality. Without a story to tell, we understand nothing.
The “green” story that has been told this election cycle is a tired repeat of the narrative we have been fed for at least two decades. It focuses on private, individual changes or depressing attempts to pretend “green” concerns are in conflict with farmers’ interests. What has been notable is the total failure to understand that the issues that top the agenda – protecting the economy, improving our health service, and resolving the scandal of homelessness – are all fundamentally best understood as environmental issues.
A culture trained to see things in the silos of specialisation imagines there is a thing out there called “the environment” which we have to somehow, in a diffuse and complex way, “care for”. In reality, we have an economy that is dramatically unprepared for the inevitable shift away from carbon capitalism and we need a green new deal. We have a medical system unsustainably dedicated towards crisis-care when we need to be encouraging health – through clean air, green spaces, nutritious food – instead of just treating sicknesses. We have a housing system which imagines that we can get rich from building homes and are surprised when everyone who is poor gets priced out of having a place to lay their head. As Orla Hegarty has so compellingly put it, “housing policy is climate policy”.
Climate Change is Every Other Issue
At the JCFJ we have done extensive research into the ethical failures of our current economic system. We have laid out how the solution to our housing crisis demands an environmental perspective. We have sought to fight back against the blinders brought about by our specialised silo-ification. It would be easy to think the response to the often inane engagement with climate issues in contemporary Ireland ought to be to fight and lobby and protest until everyone recognises climate breakdown is more important than every other issue. That instinct is wrong. Climate change is every other issue.
“Nature” is systemic. Everything is connected. The environment is not “out there”. You are in it. You are it. As you cannot be healthy just by ensuring your stomach is always full, we cannot respond to the crisis without addressing it from all angles. By allowing the conversation around climate and biodiversity to occupy space in competition with all the other siloed-issues, we are bound to lose out. That game is rigged so that economic issues always reign supreme. An integral approach, which understands that questions of social justice are inextricably wound together with the challenges of environmental justice, is not just the best approach for gaining serious, widespread support for radical transformations, it also happens to be true.