The Problem: The Centre Cannot Hold
The world as we know it is falling apart, but in a thousand different ways. A pandemic rages, but contrary to what the dystopian movies taught us, society is intact. Climate stability is disintegrating, and the delicate ecological balance that allows life to flourish on Earth is severely compromised. But mostly, it’s business as usual. Those willing to look could not fail to notice the marked decline in biodiversity, but we still use toxic weed killer to ensure the verges between our motorways look neat to us as we sit in gridlocked traffic.
The political theorist Frederic Jameson famously mused that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. Even as we live through the former, we prefer not to muse on the possible death of the latter. Writing in the summer of 2020, our airwaves, newspapers and social media feeds are full of talk about getting back to normal – meaning escaping the lethal threat posed by SARS-COV-2 – even though our old normal was propelling us deeper into a mass extinction event that will, within a few decades, threaten the very existence of civilisation. “Imagining the end of capitalism” feels like an idea from the 19th Century we forgot to update; another grand utopian vision destined to never get going or to quickly go off the rails.
Our political culture lurches from crisis to crisis. With our memories truncated by a constant stream of data reduced to 280 characters, we must reach back to remember what life was like before the planes hit the twin towers, before the Credit Default Swaps collapsed, or before we first heard about a sickness afflicting people in Hubei Province. We can weave a narrative that includes the disparate pieces of recent history, but the story does not make much sense.
Public exhaustion with political programmes has generated a dangerous cynicism. What can we expect when political campaigns triumph with slogans about “Change” or “The Republic on the Move!” or “A New Politics” and then go on to intensify the policies that have left people so alienated in the first place. We fixate on individuals or lose ourselves in data analysis while the climate and biodiversity crisis accelerates. We label everything we don’t like as “populism” while vast swathes of the population remain disconnected from the political process. We index all our political decisions towards economic growth using a measurement that cannot track what the growth is for or how its bounty is distributed.
The environment cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on it but we do not – we cannot – heed the warning because the system we have designed drowns out all objections. How can infinite growth come from finite resources? How can we be generating real wealth if we are impoverishing the very soil on which we stand? What’s the point of increasing numbers on balance sheets if the gap between the winners and losers in our society grows ever greater? These are not the complaints of idealists; this is the only realistic position left. To seek to return to the old normal is not just depressing. It is utterly delusional.
We can only understand the world we describe and precision in speech generates possibility in action but our political culture reaches in vain for metaphors or frameworks to help navigate this chaos. The great challenges of the last century – defeating fascism or exploring space – fall short in different ways. The threat of climate and biodiversity catastrophe is greater than fascism, and the challenge is almost the opposite of a war – seeing people as expendable to achieve our goals means we have already lost. The problem is more complex than putting a man on the moon because there are cultural factors at play more intricate than any technological issue and the benefits to be gained are much more profound. It is simply the case that climate and biodiversity breakdown is the biggest problem humanity has ever faced. Beginning by stating that we don’t have all the answers is worse than banal – it is as useless as someone intruding on an Allied planning meeting in 1940 to point out that no one knew how to get an army of men on to the beaches of northern France. If the threat is genuinely real, then it demands that we focus our resources, attention, and creativity in response. D-Day took longer than 24 hours and we won’t have a carbon-free (and nuclear-free) electricity system in the lifetime of this parliament. But as the current pandemic demonstrates, there are capacities for collective collaboration and massive, dramatic policy developments when we agree they are warranted.
The pedant contrarian can score points on prime-time radio programs by rephrasing the existence of this crisis as an excuse to not act against this crisis, but the more fundamental obstacle may be the categories of “environmentalism” itself. Easily maligned as a bourgeois movement, it has failed to make the case that the situation warrants dramatic intervention. Whether in thrall to the myths of capitalism or the utopian dreams of socialist revolution, Irish environmentalism, despite its very best efforts, has failed to connect the crisis now upon us with the lives and hopes of the fabled “ordinary person”. We do not point the finger at others, but include ourselves in this critique. Whether railroaded by sloppy philosophy, the savvy of our opponents, or the conformism of our own communities, it remains the case that a coherent narrative is rarely expounded. Whatever the “Green movement” has been doing has produced a situation where we are associated with urban elites and it is widely assumed are antagonistic towards rural Ireland. Whatever we have been doing needs to stop. It is not working.
The hunger to replace the politics of crisis with something genuinely new – not just the tired old dreams of the 1800s – grows daily. Around the edges we see how the assumptions of Modernity are already fraying: in a public health crisis, many people do not trust the health advice; in elections, many people do not use their voice; in the face of an ecological cataclysm in the physical world, people retreat to virtual entertainment. This is a system that benefits the very few at the expense of the very many. This is a system that is hurtling towards disaster, but the suffering will not be shared equally. Already it is the poor and the marginalised who suffer the most. Whatever we call this system – capitalism or neoliberalism or business as usual – is a zombie slouching towards total chaos Our prophets speak in unison – our house is on fire, the earth is in a death spiral, and the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together. Almost everyone agrees. The centre cannot hold. Yet no one can act.
The old revolutionaries worried metaphorically speaking, everything solid melts into air. Centuries into the project they protested, we have burned the fossils of long-dead creatures into the atmosphere to such a degree that the ice caps are receding, the coral reefs are dying, the sea water is acidifying, the soil is denuding, the forests are retreating, the deserts are expanding, climates are shifting, storms are strengthening, droughts are lengthening, extinctions are spreading. But at the same time the rich are getting richer, our lives are being processed into data to be surveilled and tracked and analysed without our intervention, capital can flow freely but people are trapped behind borders, wages stagnate even while productivity grows, services that are needed universally can only be purchased at a price, the West continues to pillage the South, but does so now with the awoken linguistic tics that suggest justice, and absolutely nothing can be achieved without recourse to debt.
It’s the end of our world as we know it, and we feel fine. The collapse is so gradual, so indisputably modelled, so intricately mapped that it does not deserve the term apocalypse, which in its true sense means an immediate and sudden unveiling. The Irish writer Mark O’Connell, in his excellent recent book describes his boredom at how the collapse of civilization is already normalised: “It’s all horsemen, all the time.” We change the station, we click to another site, we seek for something, anything, to distract us from this catastrophic normalcy.
It is time to build a new normal. It is past time to liberate ourselves from carbon captivity. It is time to construct a new narrative that refuses to mystify planetary devastation behind line graphs and percentages. Whether we call it a just transition or a green new deal or an ecological conversion, it is time to finally reject the story we are living, which is so baffling, confusing, contradictory, and boring. Our policies after the pandemic cannot be a more refined version of the old normal. A new tale must be told.
Is this really the end of the world? Surely some revelation is at hand?
A Solution: Integral Ecology
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has found an unusual source of insight as we seek to navigate this lamentable terrain: the Pope. Francis published Laudato Si’ five years ago to global acclaim. The document has had little impact in Ireland, no doubt for understandable cultural and historical reasons. Yet we are convinced that there is profound wisdom in the approach advocated by Francis, and that it has significance far beyond those who are Christians.
Although rightfully interpreted as an environmental text, Laudato Si’ is also a piece of trenchant political critique. Francis’ fundamental conviction is that there is no way to consider the climate and biodiversity crisis apart from the profound social problems created by our heedless commitment to GDP growth without qualification. The roots of the ecological crisis are established by human practices. The “dominant technocratic paradigm” reduces the complexity of life down to simple one-dimensional pursuit of more without reference to purpose, “a technique of possession, mastery and transformation”. All efforts to care for Earth will flounder unless we oppose this alienated parody of progress and instead seek to care for our brothers and sisters who are marginalised by an economic system that presents greed as virtue. We must fight against the extinction of species, but we must also resist the elimination of native cultures and indigenous ways of life. Laudato Si’ is thorough in its diagnoses of the exhausting contradictions we endure lurching from crisis to crisis, and is vigilant against how a reactionary response will easily lurch into a green technocracy, where expertise overrules democratic deliberation or some variety of eco-fascism which achieves mitigation through State-sanctioned force, repression, and dispossession.
But primarily, Laudato Si’ remains a theological argument. It is a conversation with Francis’ namesake, the saint from Assisi who so famously cherished the created world. It is predicated on an understanding that the order and beauty we find in nature has meaning. We love the world because the world was made, and is sustained, in love. Integral ecology is that approach which recognises that the response to the climate and biodiversity catastrophe is “inseparable from the notion of the common good.” We cannot love our neighbour without loving our neighbourhood, and equally, there is no remedy for environmental devastation that does not involve social rejuvenation.
That it is a theological document does not mean that its only audience is people already convinced by the claims of Christianity. Those who do not consider themselves Christians can still engage critically and respectfully with theological concepts. Francis states that “we need a conversation which includes everyone,” while interacting extensively and seriously with contemporary secular thought throughout the letter. Even those who are antagonistic towards Christian conceptions of reality can appreciate the distinctive tone of this manifesto; the fury directed at a “throwaway culture”, joined by a stubborn commitment to hope and generosity, as signalled by the title. Laudato Si’ is a call to praise, a recognition that the beauty and complexity of our environment calls out of us a response marked by joy, a super-abundant fertility that mirrors in our souls what we so commonly encounter in the world around us. This is a proposition that is markedly different from the cynicism and insincerity that marks so much of our political discourse.
Integral ecology, then, may be a theological claim, but it is the best kind: sourced in the rich history of Christian ethical and spiritual thinking and practice, but directed towards all people of goodwill. As Francis frames it, radical environmental action is the inescapable and distinctive responsibility of every Christian, but it is a responsibility to be shared in solidarity with all who believe differently and those who cannot say they believe anything at all. It is not a creedal document that requires agreement with every paragraph. It is an invitation into dialogue, recognising that the scale of the problem requires listening to all voices and hearing from all perspectives.
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice seeks to explore what integral ecology means on a practical policy level as we respond to the housing and homelessness crisis, to the injustices apparent in our criminal justice system, and in our economic arrangements. It is our contention that the disparate, diluted, often half-hearted political policies that have left Ireland as a climate laggard are informed by a philosophical failure. For a generation, the Green movement in Ireland has pursued technocratic expertise and developed admirable, sophisticated policy stances to address this issue and answer that question. But the lack of a coherent narrative means that all our efforts are rejected by the reigning hegemonic power or recapitulated in a domesticated form.
Integral ecology is a source from which we can weave a coherent, compelling, and convincing counter-narrative to the tired and increasingly desperate calls to return to business as usual. To say there is no ecological transformation without social transformation is to state an objective truth, but we need one that spills over in a way that reorganises our political priorities. The only humanism left is one that seeks to remedy social inequality as a means to avert ecological collapse. All these crises that consume us and all this fear induced in us remains a distraction from the definitive catastrophe that looms above us, lurches towards us and already lurks all around us. The climate and biodiversity catastrophe is not just one more problem along with all the others. It is the singular issue that exposes the suicidal nature of our current course.
Incremental change may be all that is possible in practice. Moderate rhetoric might be a winning strategy come election time. But we must speak with ringing moral clarity: the end of our world is already upon us. The voices within the establishment posture about realism and maturity, but their stalling is reckless. Our time to make a difference is short, so we must take positions of power that are open to us. We cannot wait for a better time than now; our time to make a difference is short. We must not squander the power we have on yet more of the same sort of thinking that got us here.
We must be clear that while consensus builds in words around the need for action, those who occupy the controlling seats in our parliaments and our marketplaces will not willingly vacate their place or discard the practices and projects they have developed, regardless of whatever elegant and articulate argument we deploy to demonstrate the futility of their thinking. Success in the face of this imminent breakdown will require struggle against forces with more resources than we have. Our rebellion against the status quo requires an agitating philosophy sufficiently different from prevailing wisdom to disorientate those who oppose adaptation and attract those yet on the fence. This is a moment when integral ecology demands our attention.
Through an integral ecology framework, the fundamental reality can be remembered: the economy exists to serve society, not the other way round. Growth for its own sake, without reference to the common good, is nihilism wrapped in the promise of comfort. Everything is connected: there is an intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, and reorganising our society and economy to adapt to the reality of climate and biodiversity breakdown is not a “cost”, it is an opportunity. The narrative that emerges from seeing what is plainly true – that our ecological crisis is inseparable from our social crisis – transforms even how we describe simple policy decisions. Every euro spent is not sunk, it is invested. Every step away from the growth mindset is a step back towards strength. Liberation is impossible without aiming to be carbon-free. We only truly care for Earth when we care for each other.
Integral ecology clears space to describe our political miasma more compellingly. Francis talks about the rapidification of our societies as a consequence of the techno-economic paradigm which prevails. In lieu of the haste with which we lurch from crisis to crisis, integral ecology demands the patient attention to connect the micro with the macro, embedding the individual’s experience of the climate and biodiversity catastrophe within the social challenges that are generated. Integral ecology allows us to join the environmental and the social together in terms that do not require a familiarity with the long-term effect of methane dispersion in the atmosphere, to describe the problems we face without reducing them to private individual actions in response. In this framing, housing is no longer a separate issue from ecology that we can get around to retrofitting at some point. In this understanding, how we welcome immigrants is no longer a distinct sphere from environmental care. From this perspective, the sustained period of asset price inflation which we are enduring, which benefits the wealthy at the cost of everybody else, is no longer some unfortunate happening beyond our control; it is a product of the rapidification which looks at our common home as a resource to be exploited and treats us similarly.
Before we can construct a meaningful Green New Deal for Ireland, we must first enact this takeover of our political imagination by the terms of reality revealed in the ecological crisis. Climate and biodiversity breakdown are not specialised problems to be addressed by a niche office within a single ministry. The closest present analogy is that the challenge of the ecological crisis is greater even than our present half-century long obsession with GDP growth. Education has been replaced with job preparation, the arts has been repackaged as an industrial sector, and priorities across the public sector have been manipulated by an empty-vessel concept called “efficiency”. The narrative that has been spun – exposed as threadbare by the pandemic – emphasised personal autonomy and the pursuit of self-interest but it also reconstituted questions that were previously outside the remit of economic analysis as cost-benefit proposals.
A tool designed for the narrow purpose of budgetary planning is now recited ad nauseam as justification for an entire way of life. Any political conversation that cannot guarantee growth in the measurement known as GDP can’t get off the ground. GDP captures all that is wrong with our obsession with data: it is a useful tool, extended so as to often be worse than useless. It bypasses well-being, it ignores pollution, it leaves untouched the vast realm of altruism and social care that is not economically transacted but upon which the economy rests. Instead it offers a truncated picture of reality that functions to narrow all conversations that suggest fundamental change. It grows and expands, while employment, living standards, and the real facts of social mobility retract.
We cannot dismantle the Master’s house with the Master’s tools, but we can learn from them how things are put together. A successful intervention against the climate and biodiversity catastrophe now unfurling demands a political imagination that integrates the demand for justice and the demand for sustainability as the basis for a rejuvenated society. This is the beginning of a story that can shatter the misconception that environmental concern is an indulgence of the wealthy or the young, and a death sentence to the tired call-and-response discourse that allows soft-climate sceptics to present themselves as hard-nosed realists.
A Method: Deliberative Democracy
What would it look like in practice to try to implement an integral ecology approach to policy? Engaging with the finest, evolving scientific expertise is essential for any response to this crisis. It is impossible to grapple with the catastrophe that is coming without recourse to advanced expertise. We rely on a vast number of scientists in dozens of fields to track and model the changes that are occurring and to generate possible responses. The effort spans society, from public research universities, to private firms, to citizen ecology that conducts biodiversity censuses or community groups engaged in grassroots environmental restoration. We also need poets and musicians, artists, and pastors to help us integrate this learning. In the contemporary arid jargon, this crisis calls for collaboration across STEM and the Arts and Humanities.
But while these responses are essential, we are again bound to fail as long as these domains remain the primary point of engagement with the problem. As such, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice proposes a comprehensive social and political experiment in consultative democracy as the preparatory step towards a formalised Green New Deal. Integrating democratic wisdom with technical and creative expertise is a solid methodological approach to explore what policies would best encapsulate the vision of integral ecology. How do we specify the responses needed to ensure a just transition into a carbon-free future? The path forward is dialogical, not technocratic.
The malaise with electoral politics cannot be addressed by refined slogans or A/B tested campaigns from marketing executives who have successfully rebranded as change-makers. For the last decade we have seen progressive politics trade in the language of seeing and hearing and standing with those on the margins while remaining blind and deaf and passive in the face of the escalating extinction event. Those left behind by the onward march of a growing economy that never seems to benefit them do not need a more calculating political representation. They need to represent themselves. Gathering people – diverse and disagreeing people – around tables to talk and listen and debate is the only viable method for crafting a genuinely new politics. Integral ecology will arise from integrating conversations.
The Constitutional Convention and the Citizens’ Assembly were the first steps towards this sort of an approach. We propose that this collective deliberation be designed so as to inform and equip the widest selection of our citizenry in a sustained conversation about the kind of society they want to pass on to the next generation. The reigning common sense is so committed to private property, private self-interest, and private autonomy that no narratival transformation is likely to occur without such deliberation. A pandemic arrives and the middle-classes and the middle-aged long to get stuck back into the middle of how life used to be when we were exhausting ourselves and our planet in pursuit of illusory percentage points of productivity gains. But a large-scale conversation – the like of which we have never attempted before – will offer the foundations to think through, with a green political imagination, what we want to have on offer for the children born today as they reach adulthood. The children of Millennials, Generation Alpha, will face unique challenges as they grow up in a world that is scrambling to cope with the cascading effects of climate breakdown.
The scale of the problem we face is so complex, that only a complex arrangement of conversations can hope to help us think through possible solutions. The steps that need to be taken presently appear beyond the reach of the electorate. Only when bringing everyone to the table can we hope to generate the conversations where no strategy is automatically off the table. The forces that seek to dampen or oppose climate and biodiversity adaptation know how to win if we allow the struggle to occur in their territory. Returning power to people in their localities is an insurrectionist move which establishes the maximum space of response instead of allowing the terms of the conversation to be set by the people who have thus far failed to act.
As we read it, Laudato Si’ is an inoculation against the risk of tyranny hiding behind these crises. Without intervention, it is not the case that everyone’s homes will be swept up in seasonal flooding, nor that everyone’s pantries will run dry during years of bad harvests, nor that everyone’s standard of living will fall without ceasing. Some will profit massively – as we see with their net-worth gains during the pandemic, the 1% need never let a crisis go to waste. The two practical threats facing our political stability as the climate and biodiversity catastrophe bites deeper are fascism and/or autocracy. We should take a page out of the ruling classes’ playbook – let’s not waste this crisis but use its arrival as an opportunity to re-establish the truly democratic nature of our discourse and our policy formation and how it is we share in common the things we love the most.
Sceptics will reject all manifestos for a changed world with a brush of the hand, declaring that it’s just all talk. They underestimate the power of simply talking, and more importantly, listening. Meeting with the other, with the opponent, even with the enemy, around a table and hearing their perspective, their position, their hopes and fears and taking that seriously – there are few avenues open to us with more potential for deep-rooted, authentically revolutionary change. By its nature, it will be an open process. We cannot guarantee in advance that the outcome will meet our particular policy preferences or reflect our deepest values. But whatever emerges it will be a compromise that is generated not as it stands currently – from a failure of principle, a weak hypocrisy – but from the integrity of welcoming our neighbour as an equal and recognising that the only way forward is to move together.
How Do We Integrate Policies?
In a journal dedicated to the theme of Policies After a Pandemic, it would be a cop-out to simply state that the crisis will be addressed by just getting together and talking it out. We have a conviction – which is precisely analogous to faith – that a method which foregrounds democratic deliberation will not lead us far astray and is a much more fertile investment of energy than the current technocratic system of centralised control where a select few ‘expert’ voices are listened to, public participation is a facade tick box exercise and where policies tend to lean towards sectoral interests.
The hunger for an alternative to slow collapse already has a shape – rampant inequality, precarious and meaningless labour, inaccessible housing, years of our lives spent commuting, the ceaseless demand to leave more and more of ourselves at work, if we are lucky enough to have it, the creeping suspicion that subsequent generations will have it even worse again – which marks out what people want in lieu of the present system. While we wholeheartedly support traditional ecological preoccupations it is important to note that the growing political appetite is not directed towards saving the whales, but about somehow retrieving the idea that people have a right to medical care without needing to pay for it.
We integrate the reality of climate and biodiversity into our political agenda through the means of an ecological conversion which allows us to see how these issues are not in competition for our attention and affection with traditional green concerns. They are only addressed when we see them as green concerns.
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice is one of a number of groups that has already begun thinking about what this means in an Irish context. There is no aspect of our political life that is detached from this concern, but we will focus on five central social questions – housing, transport, education, agriculture, and human services – and explore how they integrate with the ecological challenge.
Housing Policy is Environmental Policy
Homelessness has been normalised in Ireland. The number of people living without a home at any one time is about three times as high as it was six years ago. An entire industry has risen up to facilitate the government in sheltering people who fall into this dire situation – the majority of whom suffer from nothing more complex than a failure to pay stratospheric market rents. For decades, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has been at the forefront of the analysis of this problem and has insisted that this is not a crisis, so much as the logical endpoint of the policy positions pursued by successive governments. What is required is an ambitious commitment to publicly owned housing, a medium-term ban on evictions, and an expanded mortgage-to-rent scheme.
These steps would alleviate the homelessness crisis. But the housing crisis would persist. For a long time now, assets and investments have accrued value far faster than wages or inflation. There is no way we can have a situation where homes are a store of growing value and have a situation where everyone is housed – the market will always price homes beyond the reach of some.
This apparently intractable problem is utterly transformed when we reconceive the issue around environmental concerns. If housing becomes the forefront of our ecological response, we suddenly slice through the long-established distorting and unproductive orientation of the Irish economy towards real estate. By committing to a large-scale public housing project, the State can relieve the trauma of child homelessness, which is a scandal. But by using those developments as the means by which to lay out communities ready for the 21st century, they can catalyse a series of changes which make climate and biodiversity rehabilitation possible.
Ireland has a rich tradition in public housing developments that pre-dates the establishment of the State. It used to be a policy arena where experimentation occurred, whether that was with early rent-to-buy schemes or cutting-edge design. Developments in the 1960s and 1970s that are often caricatured as abject failures – with ideological intent – contributed to a culture that overwhelmingly favoured the model of private ownership. Building projects waxed and waned depending on the larger economic and political context but we went from being an impoverished nation that habitually built 7500 social houses a year to being a wealthy nation that managed in 2015 to build only 75.
Development fit for the challenges we face would reject the idea that public housing is a residual service provided to those with the least means. Following the example of some of the most liveable cities in the world – Copenhagen, Berlin, and Vienna are often cited but dozens of European cities could serve as role-models – we propose that this public housing would consist of a rich arrangement of traditional public housing, affordable housing, cost-rental housing, and co-operative housing. These developments should be designed with the expressed purpose of adapting to life stages and generating communities where there is a real demographic mix. They should be populated by space orientated towards flourishing biodiversity and designed to a specification that minimises the carbon footprint of the family home.
Alongside a large-scale State-subsidised retrofitting project – which will go some way to addressing fuel poverty, which is one of the most obvious forms of deprivation exacerbated by complacent environmental policy – this initiative alone has the capacity to transform our environmental performance, promote our economic recovery after the pandemic, and to do so in a way that enshrines a fundamental facet of any just transition by offering secure and meaningful jobs to those who will be affected by the closure of highly polluting industries.
Housing Policy Spills Into Transportation Policy
The standard suburban development model in Ireland since at least the 1970s has assumed private car ownership. By planning these new towns to be traversable by foot and bike and by connecting them to efficient public transport options, the contentious issue of transport gets reorganised on the local level towards environmental sustainability.
Adapting our transportation network features a number of stubborn challenges. As an island nation, we cannot easily forsake air travel. As an island with a small population, it is crucial that we maintain easy and affordable routes for foreign trade. As an island marked by sparse population spread, solutions like high-speed rail may be permanently out of reach. Industrial lobby groups which oppose moves to decarbonise the economy almost always make good arguments – as long as they are interpreted as if we are not actually in a climate and biodiversity crisis – and we should not assume that a magical technology will arise that means that road haulage transmutes as if by magic towards carbon neutrality.
Recognising that there are aspects to this problem that remain knotted only emphasises the extent to which we should commit fully to the aligned areas that are open to transformation. Ireland has a temperate climate. All but one of our cities are still within the scale that can be traversed easily by bike. The massive rise in cycling brought about by the Covid-19 lockdown has encouraged some local authorities to proactively develop solutions that make cycling a possibility for more and more people. For most of our journeys, most of the time, the majority of us do not need a car. With sustained and increased funding for public transport, especially focusing on accessibility for those who are mobility impaired, the question of where we live would be radically altered. As it stands, our housing developments and our cities, towns, and villages provoke us back into the gridlocked traffic.
One of the knock-on benefits of the kind of integrated housing policy we envision is the way in which it will provide genuine competition to the private market property development, which has been protected for too long by complacent government policy. If you can rent high quality housing at predictable and affordable rates in a local authority development or through a co-op, that is also arranged in a fashion that makes the need for a car optional, the developers who have been satisfied to hastily throw up copy-and-paste dwellings for decades will have to get on board with the local loop transformation of transport policy.
We cannot solve all the problems at once, but when viewed as an environmental issue, housing suddenly cascades into a renewed vision for transportation. And that, in turn, affects other areas of policy.
Transportation Policy Spills Into Educational Policy
There are many significant trends in Irish education policy. One of the most striking is how the mode of transport to school has shifted towards private car ownership. There are few people who can step back and see this as a positive development. But it is a coherent response to the malaise in housing planning, to the pressure to balance the competing demands of work and family, and because there is often no option to walk safely, never mind cycle.
Integral ecology integrates the primary school into the heart of the community. The school already is a site of social mixing, where families with different stories of origin, different class positions, and different views on the world come together to participate in the kind of shared good which serves everyone. One of the slogans that Pope Francis calls upon most commonly is that “time is greater than space”. What he means by this is that lasting change occurs when processes shift. It is tempting to fight for domination and control of an issue, but it is much wiser to commit to developing the habits and practices that bring about the change needed without recourse to crushing opponents.
When we consider the physical fact of a school in the communities that we are calling for as a response to the housing and homelessness crisis, we will quickly recognise a significant difference. While current schools are sometimes equipped to receive a few students on bikes – you’ll often find one or two bike shelters and they are now allied to the positive trend of community “cycling buses” – the school placed within a community planned to adapt to the ecological crisis will have secure, demarcated cycling and pedestrian routes established as a default so that every student can get themselves to school.
This appears to be a small change, but is in an example of a change-for-time. Children raised to get to school in the back of an SUV never need to be convinced by glossy advertisements that the car should be the default mode of transport. They are raised in captivity to the carbon machines. Against that, a primary school population that walks and cycles to school has all kinds of pro-social implications – reduced obesity, increased self-confidence, even reduced journey times for those who have to use motor transport – but it also inculcates the habit of active transport. There is an old aphorism attributed (without shaky documentary evidence) to the Jesuits – give me a child to the age of seven and we’ll give you the adult. The ability to shape local transportation policy towards human-powered modes of mobility allows us to adopt that old Jesuit canard and direct it towards ecological ends. The new narrative which rejects rampant individualism in lieu of a solidarity born from the realisation that everything is connected is just fine theory – literally a mere story – without the habits and practices that support living it out.
The implications of integral ecology don’t end at the bike shed. As it stands, our educational system is comparable to the best in the world, but it is geared towards third-level participation and towards job acquisition. While we are not against either of these ideas in principle, the underlying commitment behind curricula development has been that school is about producing shovel-ready workers to keep the economy growing. Environmentalism is a subsection within the sciences or a module within geography. A student might stumble over ecological poetry or be exposed to Laudato Si’ in religion class. But the fundamental fact that will shape her future – the escalation of the already unfurling climate and biodiversity crisis – is not integrated into the curriculum.
We are not preparing our young people to be active citizens or even to be competitors in the vast globalised economy while we are not equipping them to think critically and creatively about the ecological, political, societal, cultural, economic, and ethical implications of this crisis. There is no subject that cannot be advanced through this perspective and framing the idea of schooling around sustainability can creatively open up opportunities for many rich tangential conversations. It is time to green our schools. Unlocking the potential of our education system goes beyond teaching the younger generation the importance of ecological integrity. Ireland is a land of Saints and Scholars – we need the full power of both in the climate emergency. There is huge potential within Ireland’s 3rd level teaching and research institutes that could be harnessed to tackle the environmental crisis. Funding for these institutes could pivot towards environmental solutions with resources and funding given to communicate findings to the public.
Education Policy Spills Into Rural Development Policy
One of the recurring problems facing the environmentalist movement in Ireland is the consistent framing of the cause as antagonistic towards the concerns and priorities of rural Ireland. There is no single political obstacle to be overcome that is more significant than this one. Considering it objectively, the farming community ought to be the core of the Green movement in Ireland. They are the group most closely and directly affected by the climate and biodiversity crisis. Also, it is important to note that for all the framing of the issue in media discourse, it is simply not the case that farmers are set firmly against environmentalism and vice-versa. But granting that there are rich spheres where fertile overlapping occurs, the fundamental suspicion that climate and biodiversity mitigation is a threat to communities outside our urban centres must be acknowledged and addressed.
Once we recognise the truth that our schools are restricted in fulfilling their potential by the pressure placed on them to serve GDP growth, we begin to crack open the space to talk seriously about the challenges that rural Ireland faces. It is not just that in theory that farmers should be environmentalists. It is that the only solution to the malaise ahead of rural communities is through an integrated ecological revolution. This is the case because for decades rural Ireland has been limited by the fundamentalist pursuit of economic growth.
There are few areas of our life more subject to the logic of rapidification than agriculture. There are fewer and fewer people able to farm as a fulltime vocation because the demands of the market are increasing while the rewards – in most instances – are reducing. There are many ways to describe this decline – and it ought to be a priority of the environmentalist movement to more clearly chart how the environmental decline in rural Ireland is mirrored and complexly created by the social decline in rural Ireland – but the most effective for our present purposes is to simply consider the question of debt.
The European Union extensively subsidises farming across the member nations. This is one of the merits of EU membership. Food should be available at an affordable price, with a high nutritional value, and produced in a way that cares for the animals and environments involved – all this can be shaped by strong EU intervention. But partly because anything framed as a “cost” is perceived within the old normal narrative as bad and partly because it would serve the priorities of large farming and agri-food interests, this subsidy scheme is directed towards a bogus “marketisation” system. To compete – in a game that is already rigged to help the strong grow ever stronger in the name of efficiency – ordinary farmers around the country have taken on high levels of debt to improve their productivity. Notice the prevalence of key words from the old normal narrative here – competition, efficiency, productivity. What do they mean here but that the political system pits neighbour against neighbour, that creatures are converted into commodities, and that what counts as progress is making more even if how we make it is worse and no one quite knows what we are making it for.
Incomes are stagnating or declining. Villages are depopulating. The pressure to produce is inducing people into debt – and the person who is indebted is a person who is domesticated because they can’t take a wild risk that might pay off big time if next month and the month after that for years to come, the bank needs another big cheque. The meat processing firms and the supermarkets have controlling stakes in how to dictate the price – what a sham of a market has been constructed on top of the subsidy scheme. It is not the environmentally inclined politicians who are ruining rural Ireland, but the so-called “moderates” who pretend to think that the farmer is the fulcrum of traditional Irish values while slowly erasing that way of life from the landscape.
Farming lobby groups – which are often in thrall to the concerns of the large producers who have benefitted from these developments – will not publicise the simple facts but everyone who considers it for a moment knows that markets never expand constantly without contraction. And when farming hits a recession – a prospect only heightened by climate instability and biodiversity decline – those heavily indebted traditional Irish farmers working every hour God sends to produce more out of less will be the ones holding the bill. What will happen to those farms? They’ll be hoovered up in liquidation fire sales by the meat processors.
This is the current vision offered by the old normal. Eventually, a debt tsunami will wipe out those stubborn farmers who don’t leave for greener pastures. Politicians who are trusted at the moment to protect rural Ireland must be aware that this devastation is coming. “Don’t worry,” they may counsel, “you can get a precarious, low-paid, seasonal job tending to the land that you used to own and farm.”
Education has been truncated to job preparation and farming has been contorted into commodity production. The prospect of an environmental transformation of agriculture is the best hope left for rural Ireland. Farming communities know the decline they are enduring is accelerating. An integrated ecology promises the possibility of renewing rural Ireland by remembering what farming is for. No farmer is excited by the prospect of contributing to global commodity trading. Farmers care about their animals and their land. The subsidy scheme has been redesigned in the past, and can be redesigned again to reward care and attention instead of benefitting blind output growth. Attempts in this direction are already being made and schemes that support high nature-value farming are important signposts to what the future can look like. What is lacking is how to piece these important, disparate pieces together into a narrative that allows people to see the truth as it is: the restoration of vibrant, traditional rural Irish communities can’t happen without the rejection of rapidification, and of debt-laden, industrial agriculture.
Integrated Ecological Thinking Cascades Into Universal Basic Services and Protections
Elaborating how different political problems are reorganised when we address climate and biodiversity breakdown with appropriate seriousness could be extended across all 18 government ministries in Ireland. This is the important work ahead of us – presumably through a series of iterative, radical sectoral proposals under a cohesive Green New Deal for Ireland. But underpinning each of these rejuvenated political conversations lies a baseline which, if established, offers us the foundation for transformative change.
Because we cannot separate the human crisis from the environmental crisis, what is called for is nothing less than the guarantee of universal provision of basic human services and of basic environmental protections in all contexts. What is to be considered a basic service can be discerned through democratic deliberation. The contrarian pedant will raise various reductio ad absurdum arguments. They can only be knocked back down if we remember that standalone policy proposals will be robbed or rejected; what is required is a compelling narrative that envisions a new normal.
We cannot have a healthy social environment while fundamental basic needs like housing, healthcare, and education are only available to those with resources. It is becoming a prerequisite that we must take on debt to make ends meet, which is devastating in the long term for everyone so burdened, but utterly crushing to the underclass that will be created, who cannot access credit in the first place.
So what constitutes a basic need? Does broadband count, for example? Some would mock the mere suggestion, but those who have tried to continue education for their children during the pandemic lockdown might silence such guffaws. There are complex policy questions about payment – are all these services to be free at point of use or should some services be accessed by some fee applied to some people? The details of what is entailed will not be laid out in a manifesto or a policy scheme but through democratic deliberation of the kind we insist is central to the adaptation.
The provision of single-tier, universally accessible services can restore health to our society which is weakened by growing inequality and deepening rapidification, but it must be paired with a range of universal protections of our shared environment. The water we drink, the air we breathe and healthy functioning ecosystems are central to life. Protecting these is complex, considering that we impact their quality in how we travel, grow our food, and function as a society. In the same way that universal services provide a floor on which society can stand, setting a threshold on these impacts could provide a ceiling which shelters our shared environment.
The Irish environmentalist movement – from the grassroots groups of volunteers, through the NGO sphere, and up to our elected representatives – must navigate a treacherously narrow path. There is no time to settle for incremental change, but what other change can we insist on when electoral support for the green agenda is rarely above 10%? We cannot settle for incremental progress but simultaneously we must take every opportunity to shape policy. Every bill that is passed, every policy that is proposed, every initiative that is implemented must be orientated towards the cleaning of our air, the restoration of our biodiversity, the reduction of our carbon outputs and towards the restoration of our social fabric that has been systematically weakened by decades of aggressively pro-market policies informed by the famished delusion that humans are motivated primarily by self-interest.
Integrated ecology leaves behind the idea that the challenge before us can be won by securing a policy here for carbon reduction and a programme there for species protection. Fighting on all fronts to guarantee universal access to the basics of a dignified life is a sort of political north star for a movement seeking to navigate this narrow path. This commitment is spacious enough to allow a compelling narrative to form. The good life in the old normal was to be found in affluence without limit, autonomy without purpose, and a common home that was treated like a resource waiting to be captured and processed for profit. The new normal waits to be established but insisting that everyone in Ireland works together to guarantee that everyone gets the fundamental goods demanded by our innate dignity and to guarantee that we protect the environment because of its innate value is a better story than what the establishment dares to offer. It is possible, we just have to build it with a patience and creativity that moves at a speed incomprehensible to those who think rapidification is the only way to achieve anything.
The world as we know it is falling apart. We currently settle for vague yet still aspirational commitments to be carbon neutral by 2050, but reality demands that we shift our efforts to true carbon zero faster than we think is possible. A zero-emission, ecologically integrated society is easily described as idealistic. That is not the damning condemnation that establishment spokespeople like to think it is. What, after all, is their vision except more of the same old normal but with green fringes? A faux Green New Deal will not cut it.
Voices from across the political spectrum called for a green stimulus after the 2008 crash. Political movements across the planet have called for various versions of a green new deal after the publication of “H. Res 109”, a 14-page sketched bill presented to the United States Congress in February 2019. In the midst of the pandemic, organisations as moderate and established as the OECD have echoed these calls. There is almost inescapable momentum behind this idea. The detail in each sector will have to be worked out piece by piece and more than once as the cultural, political, technological, and environmental context shifts. The JCFJ hopes to play a leading role in that process, through its independent research and its membership of various coalitions and alignments with different movements.
As a result of being a policy research centre informed by deep philosophical and theological commitments and active across a range of issues, we at the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice are keenly aware that there must be a coherent and compelling narrative that people can commit to. Simply restating the nightmare that will come upon us if we do not act will not be enough. No one wants to live in a horror movie. The story we are telling need not be a tragedy. There is time to act. There are grounds for hope. Recognising that there is no way to separate our care for the environment from our care for our neighbours is the first step out of the chaos of a world hurtling into dystopia. “Genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.” We do not yet know how all the pieces will fit together that will tackle this monumental challenge. We know grassroots democratic discourse is central. We know our entire political imagination must undergo an ever-deeper ecological conversion. We know that establishing this respect for others and for the earth as our fundamental value – not efficiency, not ideological purity, not even success – is the place to start.
The old normal is suicidal. Let’s start telling a better story.
Authors: The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice team