Justice, Peace, the Protection of Creation. A Thesis Concerning the Political Feasibility of an Ecological Conversion
4.1.1989., Accademia Cusano. Bressanone/Brixen, 4 January 1989By an ecological conversion I mean the change of direction, today more necessary and urgent than ever, which is required to prevent the suicide of humanity, and ensure the continuing habitability of our planet and coexistence between its living creatures.
I prefer to use this term, rather than expressions such as “revolution”, “reform” or “restructuring”, because it has been less appropriated by other ideologies, and has a dimension of repentance, of shift, of turning towards a deeper awareness, and towards a repair of the damage caused. In addition, a note of personal involvement, the necessity for a personal and existential change, is more clearly implied in the concept of “conversion”.
The objective is thus extremely difficult and demanding. It is a matter of renewing, and sometimes preserving, an equilibrium which has been deeply disturbed by industrial civilisation - dominated as it is by the institutionalised search for profit and orientated towards maximum expansion.
This seems much more important than supporting “growth” or “development”. A global stabilisation, and guarantee of (not just material) conditions of life, and their equitable redistribution, and the opening up of real opportunities for autonomous self-development, are needed.
This requires overcoming many forms and structures of injustice, dependence, hetero-determination, and exploitation. It thus demands processes of disarmament and demilitarisation, and an enormous effort aimed at the reduction of violence, excessive competition, misery and destruction.
In the part of the world where we live, all this essentially postulates self-limitation (individual and collective, personal and social). And here we have the crucial political problem: how can a politics of self-limitation be implemented and succeed democratically, given that democracy depends so strongly on consensus?
Expressions such as “a politics of renunciation” or “renunciators” have almost always been used up to now in a derogatory sense - perhaps we should rehabilitate them!
I am speaking deliberately of a democratic politics of self-limitation, because I would not regard as desirable or effective a non-democratic politics (e.g. authoritarian or dirigiste) to achieve these or other very important objectives. At the end of the day, it would always represent an ‘own goal’, and would end up, moreover, imposing more costs (material and non-material) than advantages.
However pretentious, and even foolhardy, such an objective may sound, it is nevertheless encouraging to note some positive signs which demonstrate a movement in the direction of self-limitation. We can think of some significant progress in the politics of arms limitation, and we can think of the increasingly widespread awareness that the ‘arms race’ in the field of consumerism also leads us, finally, into a dead end. The state of global ecological threat puts us all in a new situation, in which “egoism” and “altruism” increasingly tend to coincide.
That “no-one can save themselves alone” has become more valid and verifiable. Global interdependence is becoming something one can experience directly. What, up to now, has appeared as a premise adopted by ‘altruistic movements’, is becoming increasingly a requirement of common sense and healthy self-preservation.
Given, however, that in general the interests of profit, power and short term advantages (not only for the super-privileged minority) obscure the view of a wider and longer term perspective, the spread of such consciousness does not translate automatically into concrete implementation. (Socrates was probably mistaken when he maintained that virtue, once recognised, would also be chosen and practised. Everyone wants to return to nature, but no-one wants to make the journey on foot.)
One asks the question, therefore, how can one bring to practical realisation similar new states of awareness. And here we find ourselves clearly facing a conflict between long term and short term objectives. And facing the question: how can one ensure that important decisions are taken by all those who are involved, and with real regard for all those who will be affected?
In practice, our current systems systematically exclude all those who, at the end of the day, pay the price for our erroneous decisions: the poor, the unemployed, immigrants, the ‘Third World’, nature, the defeated, children, the aged, those not yet born… When one speaks of a ‘society of two thirds’, in fact one is using a euphemism, because we are, at the most, a ‘society of a third’ which systematically excludes two thirds, or rather four fifths, of those who pay the price.
Nowadays politics envisages, and results in, very short term decisions and responsibilities, orientated towards objectives with very limited ranges (including in time), but which produce repercussions of enormous weight, in time and space, to an extent never known before.
Undoubtedly, this responsibility cannot be ignored, or cancelled, or delegated: each person decides, on a large or a small scale, always for those nearest to them, for the environment, and for those who come after (whether to plant trees or destroy woods, to build houses or demolish hills, to have children, to allow or prevent the construction of roads, nuclear power stations, or military bases).
The problem thus consists in reaching decisions that ensure the maximum environmental, social, and generational compatibility. It is a responsibility towards nature, towards those nearest to us, and towards our successors. And it is just this that is at stake when one speaks of a politics of self-limitation and of balance. This objective can be summed up well by the phrase “peace, justice and protection of the biosphere” (or of creation, to quote a term which the ecumenical movement in the Church coined to complete the triad). Certainly, ecological conversion cannot be entrusted solely to politics, which contributes strongly, however, to promoting or hindering it, given the large number and weight of the decisions which are brokered nowadays in the political sphere.
The enormous gap between these objectives and the acute dangers that humanity and the biosphere run nowadays, on account of the excess of arms and violent conflict, deep social injustice and mass misery, not to mention the degeneration and destruction of the environment, could make one lose hope, and make any effort towards an ecological conversion seem futile in advance.
The pace of destruction is incomparably faster nowadays than any process of reconstruction or protection of a compatible equilibrium. If one considers that more fossil fuels are burnt in a single day, than have been formed in the course of a thousand years, one gets an accurate picture of our situation, perhaps valid not just on a material level.
Thus, we are dealing with a veritable race against time. Faced with such a situation, there is the risk (and this affects not just green movements, but to a large extent also churches, trade unions, academies, institutes and parties) either of concentration solely on abstract moralism consisting of impotent ethical appeals (one recalls Pertini’s1 hopeless appeal to “empty the arsenals and fill the grain silos” or certain generic appeals by the Pope concerning the atomic bomb), or to be satisfied with narrow administrative or technocratic applications of ecological requirements (more filters and purification plants, fewer phosphates in detergents and less use of chemicals in agriculture, stricter maximum pollution limits, closure of nuclear power stations, introduction of environmental taxes, banning plastic, introducing compulsory catalytic converters etc.) without questioning the expansionist, profit-orientated spiral which keeps the wheels of economic growth of our civilisation turning in the name of “faster, higher, larger…”.
In view of the situation, thus briefly defined, I would like to offer for reflection and research three propositions and three instruments, while being well aware that such proposals will have difficulty in countering the powerful currents of supposed economic and political truisms.
Every political and economic decision and all their implications (planning, construction, regulating, promoting, investing) must be subject to examination from a short-term and a long-term perspective. A determining factor, which must be taken account of, is an accurate and rigorous evaluation of the environmental, social and generational impacts.
Every decision which does not take account of this is to be denounced as dangerous, irresponsible and illegitimate.
All ‘interested parties’ should be taken into account (including the ecosystems and future generations), and should participate to the maximum extent possible in the decisions that affect them. Where this is not possible, it will be necessary to find new alternative mechanisms to avoid going over the heads of those not provided for and represented, but nevertheless affected by the repercussions of the decisions taken.
In this connection it will be necessary to develop new principles (e.g. a ‘Charter on the rights of the environment and future generations’) and new rights to participation (e.g. for the ‘Third World’). Organs of democratic representation will need to develop criteria for the implementation of the self-limitation of the impact of their decisions, regarding the environment, the rest of humanity not represented in these organs, and future generations.
If not, democracy will become completely implausible and merely a transient situation. (For these new criteria, one can, for example, think of very qualified majorities, rights of veto, absolute prohibition of access to ‘common reserves of humanity’ or proliferation of damage etc.). An ecosystem as interdependent and vulnerable as the one in which we are living today, also requires decision-making processes with maximum interdependence and self-limitation.
Up till now, the price for the decisions and measures taken by the industrialised and highly ‘developed’ world (which has followed a consistent practice of “fraudulent insolvency”), has been paid by others, moreover, by those excluded from the very advantages that these decisions and measures may bring with them. Thus the bill was (and still is) sent to those who are remote relative to us - to those who are socially ‘remote’ (the poor, the weak levels of society), to those who are geographically ‘remote’ (the ‘Third World’, impoverished populations), and to those who are ‘remote’ in time (future generations).
One only has to think of the question of refuse, of the plundering of raw materials, of the dissipation of natural resources such as the tropical rainforests or energy reserves. Now it is high time the industrialised world began to earn its own keep and pay its debts, ceasing to consume credit stolen from the biosphere and the poor. It is time that a realistic ‘ecological balance sheet’ was drawn up and observed, the settlement of which will be a duty more urgent than that of the state budget or the external balance of payments. Ecological insolvency and inflation have far more devastating consequences, and trigger more terrible ‘boomerang’ effects, than financial, or even social, insolvency.
How can this be brought about? How can such an approach, now more urgent than ever, be introduced into politics? The current political systems are really unsuited to producing self-limiting decisions with long term perspectives, to taking account of everyone and everything affected by them, and to implementing the payment of our unsettled accounts.
Undoubtedly there are no miraculous or easy prescriptions. But we will have more success in finding an effective therapy if the convictions about the state of the illness, and the objectives of the cure, become more widespread. In the meantime one can highlight three modest instruments:
a) The role of citizens’ initiatives, associations, voluntary organisations, ecological groups and the green movement seems essential in a wide sense, understood as a movement of solidarity towards nature, one’s neighbours and future generations.
Particularly in our system, which operates entirely at the expense of the excluded, there is a great need for someone inside the super-armed, super-fed and super-desensitised industrial citadel to raise their voice in the name of the excluded, and all those who are not borne in mind, and to make an effort to give weight to their interests too. This can take place in many ways, by means of direct action, positive intervention and boycotts, civil protests, non-violent resistance, ecological conversion of even small-scale organisations, insistence on human rights, and the refusal to participate in, finance, and tolerate political and economic systems which are destructive and contrary to life etc.
The role of such movements as ‘organs of conscience’ cannot be over-emphasised; they do not depend immediately and directly on electoral interests, and can challenge a certain consumerist commonsense more bravely, without being worried about possible unpopularity and loss of short-sighted consensus. (A little more encouragement on the part of churches, unions, and other organisations who aim to promote communal decisions, would not do them any harm.)
b) It also appears positive that, thanks to the emergence of a politicised ecological movement - which is expressed primarily through the Greens, in different countries and in different ways - the question of the environmental emergency has become a subject of indisputable priority, and a subject of intense political competition. Given that in liberal-parliamentary democracies things work rather as in commerce - and thus the plurality of demand and competition stimulates the supply - one can hope that everyone will be forced to bring their range of wares up to date (hopefully not just to decorate the shop window) by trying to fill in the most obvious environmental gaps.
It is not necessary to stretch things as far as the Archbishop of Canterbury, who in a recent assertion (1989) greeted the Greens as the “party of God”, in order to recognise that the presence of the Greens (with all their undeniable limits and faults) produced a salutary effect and a definite impetus to the addressing of ecological subjects, right from their early years.
It is still not possible to forecast how many of their promises the Greens will succeed in keeping - but just for this reason it would be unacceptable for those to whom the objectives mentioned above are dear, simply to wait for their decline, and the passing of the wave of green attention. On the contrary, it is necessary that there are others, not just the green organisations, who multiply and reinforce the ecological initiative.
c) A third point concerns the necessity for an increasingly close connection between local and global plans and actions. The more all the problems become global in scope and interdependent, the more one could be tempted to invoke the intervention of superior powers and authorities, and to trust them blindly - particularly given the extreme complexity of the issues and the extreme difficulty in resolving them, and given the widespread fear of remaining powerless anyway, and not knowing how to intervene effectively.
A shift in the direction of ecological conversion - towards peace, justice and the integrity of the biosphere - appears possible only if everyone decides to act like inflexible and brave ‘natives’, there, where they are living and working. Naturally this would always be with a communal global vision, but with their specific roots and specific responsibility for their own ‘small piece of the biosphere’, putting into practice there the action that is proposed for the whole planet: giving priority to long-term over short-term objectives, involving all the interested parties, keeping an eye on the ecological balance.
In a local context, these objectives seem, apart from anything else, more tangible. And one must always hope that many others in their respective local situations are doing the same, and also behaving as inflexible and communal-spirited ‘natives’.
Bressanone/Brixen, 4 January 1989