Friday, June 28, 2019

‘Leo Varadkar said that the Government plan would involve “nudging people and business to make the right decisions”. We need more than a nudge. What is needed today is a good strong ‘GAA style’ shoulder’


“WE must discover the mystical meaning in a leaf, a dew drop.” Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ (LS), is surely one the most significant and important documents ever to be issued by a Pope. In this encyclical, Francis enters into dialogue with Christians, people of other faiths, humanists, scientists and politicians to share his views on the environmental crisis which threatens us all and how we might respond. He states quite bluntly that “due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn the victim of this degradation” (LS 4). Rather starkly, he states, “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (LS 21).

He issues a stark warning on the threat posed by global warming or climate change. In a serious challenge to all climate deniers (including Donald Trump) he states that a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic systems. Most global warming is due to the concentration of green-house gasses in our atmosphere. Pope Francis links this to the model of development based on fossil fuels.

Climate disruption is having a wide-ranging impact on Ireland’s environment and natural resources. We are experiencing more intense storms and rainfall, there is increased likelihood of river and coastal flooding and greater threats to biodiversity. Unfortunately we can so easily be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of and magnitude of the challenge posed by climate change (and indeed environmental degradation generally) that we can give up in despair.

Pope Francis believes that things can change. But he recognises that efforts to protect our environment will involve massive changes in lifestyle and models of production and consumption. The ‘Climate Action Plan to Tackle Climate Breakdown’ recently launched by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton is to be welcomed as it suggests that such change is indeed possible. The plan, which has been well-publicised, includes targets for putting 1 million electric vehicles on Irish roads, retrofitting of 500,000 homes and achieving 70 per cent renewable energy in power generation. Gas-fired boilers will be banned from homes after 2025. The plan represents a highly ambitious project to cut Irish carbon emissions on a sustained basis up to 2030. (Ireland is obliged under the EU greenhouse gas emissions target to reduce emissions by 30 percent before 2030.) Most importantly there is a commitment to make Ireland carbon-neutral by 2050.

However, Ireland’s leading eco-theologian Sean McDonagh has criticised the plan as it lacks vital practicalities such as infrastructural changes around transport, electricity and housing without which the plan cannot succeed.

But something much more radical is needed. Francis recognises that to remedy the damage we have done, no form of wisdom can be left out and that includes religion and its language. He calls for an “ecological conversion”. He wants us to adopt a new spirituality that is nourished by the world around us, that embraces it, that lives it and is committed to protecting it. Francis is inviting us to adopt a contemplative approach to nature, to enable us to be serenely present to each reality. We must pay attention to the trees and flowers around us and allow them to evoke an emotional response from us, “Every creature”, Francis reminds us, “has its own purpose, none is superfluous. The entire universe speaks of God’s love, God’s boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains, everything is as it were a caress of God… Sky, light, clouds, living things, the delicacy of the flower, these are the caress of God” (LS 84 ).

In a radical move, he challenges us to recognise that, “All creatures have intrinsic value in themselves independent of their usefulness. Each organism as a creature of God is good and admirable in itself. The same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system” (LS 140). The implications of this teaching are enormous. If each species has intrinsic value, we must be attentive to them and respect them. Francis puts bluntly: “Our attitude to nature must change… it cannot be one of dominion… which infers that nature’s role is simply to serve human interests, after which it can be discarded as useless rubbish.”

The Pope is exhorting us to recover a “capacity for wonder which will take us to a deeper understanding of life” (LS 225). “From the panoramic vistas to the tiniest living forms, nature is a constant source of wonder and awe. It is also a continuing revelation of the divine… There is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop” (LS 220).

This perception, this new outlook or new awareness should awaken within us a profound realisation of our connectedness with all of life. Francis talks of “a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion” (LS 220). We are an integral part of the web of life, the cosmos. When we abuse any part of the web, there is a ripple effect which effects every part. But if we feel “intimately united with all that exists then care will well up spontaneously” (LS 70).

We must of course give concrete expression to this feeling of care. Leo Varadkar said that the Government plan would involve “nudging people and business to make the right decisions”. We need more than a nudge. What is needed today is a good strong ‘GAA style’ shoulder.

Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column

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By Fr Liam Power
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