The Upcoming Referenda are not Making Environmental Proposals

Environmental politics are heating up. Over the last year, we have observed a backlash to the “Green wave” across the continent. Whether it is farmers in the Netherlands or France or coal workers in Poland, long-forgotten pop stars in the UK, or Irish aviation billionaires, there are increasing signals that large numbers of citizens are not convinced by the need for climate mitigation, or in some cases, are invested in outright climate denial.

Those who are paying attention to biodiversity loss or to the terrifying signals like the temperatures in the North Atlantic know that we are long past crunch time for environmental action. Had we begun the transition to renewables in 1995, a few years after the first Earth Day, when things were less dire, our societies would have saved a vast amount of money, avoided vast amount of extinction, and escaped a great deal of disruption, suffering and loss of human life. Continuing with business-as-usual, even as the science had settled, was an expression of our collective fundamentalist faith in the myth of endless economic growth. The only trajectories as terrifying as climate and biodiversity trends over the last thirty years have been the graphs charting economic inequality.

It ought to prompt serious reflection among environmentalists that we cannot persuade large groups of people even though the facts are undeniable and the consequences of continued inaction are personal. There are many factors at play in this devastating failure. But who has time for a thorough post-mortem as we can’t even get cycle lanes to schools installed successfully?

As an international movement opposing climate reality emerges, alongside politically effective local campaigns, it is not enough for environmentalism to settle for symbolic gestures. Just this week we read an op-ed that called for people to vote yes to the upcoming Irish referendum on care and the family because it may have environmental benefit in the future. It is important to state that the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has no position on the referendum and we cannot conceive of a situation where the present wording of Article 41 hinders our work. We wholeheartedly agree that “we must create a world that truly cares for people, nature and biodiversity” – indeed we would say ultimately the word care is too weak and love is actually what we owe our neighbour, human and non-human together. But a constitutional clause that has been carefully drafted to relegate “care” to the domestic domain (that is why the decisive final clause only speaks of the State striving to support care) is of zero benefit to the environmental movement, today or in the future. No sequel to the climate case can be launched from this amendment.

The article rightly points out, “[v]aluing care, essential to the wellbeing of all people, will allow our society to become more resilient in the face of the sheer scale of transformation required for our net-zero transition”. We can all agree on such analysis. Indeed, we have written in the past of how important it is to develop our social provision in this area. But as we face a renewed anti-Green populist agenda in the local and European elections this year, we must plot a coherent, politically realistic path forward using the strongest levers we have. The decision to vote yes or no (or even vote at all) in the upcoming referendum is independent of a citizen’s commitment to environmental care. Environmental concerns are integrated into all our political and cultural positions. But not in so direct a fashion that we can equate environmentalism with any and every movement or campaign that is deemed progressive, even to save Ministerial face.

What does matter now is that Irish environmentalists become more politically savvy and more politically effective. For example: the logical conclusion of the op-ed in the Irish Examiner is not that environmentalists are compelled to vote one way or another in the upcoming Referenda but that we should update the Climate bill so that it is meaningfully directed towards care.

The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice attempts to approach this topic through the framework of integral ecology. This is the conceptual lens that Pope Francis uses for all his environmental analysis and it basically tears down the walls that seek to isolate environmentalism as a niche issue of interest only to birdwatchers and a few atmospheric scientists. As he puts it:

We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

By drawing the connections clearly between the environmental catastrophes unfurling around us and the social crises we face, we move towards an environmentalism that is properly, humbly humanist (in the sense that it rejects all the various Malthusian misanthropies that plague the movement). It foregrounds not cold scientific calculation but the visceral longing for justice. It undermines all the technocratic fantasies that mingle around the edges of environmental activism, bringing the conversation back always and everywhere to the one who is vulnerable, to the one who is oppressed, while proclaiming to even the strongest and most privileged that, as Francis puts it, we’re all this boat together.

Working through the implications of integral ecology and the wider analysis offered by Laudato Si’ has been the focus of the work of the Jesuit Centre for almost ten years. It informs our approach to housing and prisons and transforms how we think about theology. Just last week we wrote about how – through integral ecology – we should think about war as an environmental issue.

Environmentalism touches everything. It ought to be a consideration in how we make our family meals and what we do with our annual leave and how we get from one place to another. But if we try to make everything everywhere about environmentalism, we fail on a number of fronts. It dilutes the potency of our basic message about caring for our common home and it fails to actually achieve its aim. When we hitch environmentalism indiscriminately to all the positions we hold, we run the risk of undermining our effectiveness in the areas that really matter. Things are getting too serious for us to simply make compromises with the consensus opinion. The most vulnerable in our society deserve more.