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Not a roadmap but a trail: Environmental reconciliation with the commons

15 June 2018
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Culture-based education for indigenous youth in the uplands of northern Mindanao, Philippines (Photo by P Walpole/Apu Palamguwan Cultural Education Center)

Ecojesuit shares the presentation of Pedro Walpole SJ, Ecojesuit Global Coordinator at the Bannan Memorial Lecture Series 2016-2018 organized by The Bannan Institute-Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education in Santa Clara University, 21 February 2018.1

I begin with the challenge we face in finding new ways to change the stranglehold that economic interests have on the health of our global ecology. Next, I present a more detailed description of the current state of the dominant economic model and the threats it poses. Third, I examine how we must respond to the challenge of the status quo by going deeper into our shared values within our communities. Finally, I address the significance of reconciliation and discernment in a communal context, considering how Generation 2030 will face critical choices over the next few years and how universities have a role in facilitating the work of the commons.

Networking new paths toward sustainability and social inclusion

Ecology and economy share the same word origin, oikos, and when held together in balance, they can be supportive of the whole of humanity and of our common home. But ecology and economy are becoming mutually exclusive. The commons – the health of the earth that we all share – is increasingly in the hands of corporate extraction and pollution. Justice and sustainability have never been so challenged.

The tollgate of technological intervention – technocracy – too often restricts basic access to many forms of sustainable resources for the most vulnerable populations. Exploitation for economic growth, licensed by the government, exhausts the land and water, often obliterating basic local rights and services. Economic growth is the primary value, while the resulting profit is restricted to the few. Media capture the imagination of the many, and using novelty as the perpetual lure, drive increased consumption.

This struggle is within and without, and ultimately the interior and the exterior seductions become indistinguishable. The path out and forward from this trap must begin with every person and with every community. Our source of change comes from within as we discover anew what we value and what we are willing to commit to in solidarity with others in our community who share our values and who are willing to move forward with us to reconciliation with the larger community and with nature.

The challenge is to remake the global model of ecology and economy involving the participation of all in a full cycle of sustainable production and healthy consumption. We are not going to see the present economic model simply flip over and be run by ecological concerns. The struggle to create new practices of sustainability, full cycle, where ecology and economy cooperate with integrity, are even now curbing the excesses of the status quo, but these practices are inadequate because many focused efforts to make changes are easily compromised by corporate interests and government complicity.

The challenge is: How can we act as a transformative force? This includes campuses, professional and volunteer organizations, local communities, states and countries, and ourselves as individuals tied to these organizations.
Those with vision and those with needs must meet. We are all familiar with the case of the water disaster in Flint, Michigan, where the civil servants in charge of protecting the community’s water resource actually poisoned it.
This could have easily been avoided with proper input from qualified members of the community.2

Today’s economic development Model

As we look more closely at today’s economic model we find that it creates and fosters individual-based, ubiquitous attitudes and aspirations of consumption and possession, having limited transparency and accountability. This engine of economic development dominates the social infrastructure now and for at least the near future, bulldozing and building over much that is integral to humane values, sustainable for a healthy environment, and supportive of communal involvement and control.

Even the World Economic Forum Report (WEF) identifies “the urgency of facing up to systemic challenges (that have) intensified over the past year amid proliferating signs of uncertainty, instability, and fragility.”3

When the WEF released the first Global Risks Report in 2008 (amidst the global economic downturn), it focused primarily on economic risks: asset price collapse, slowing Chinese economy, oil and gas price spikes, chronic imbalances, unemployment and income disparity. In measuring these trends and risks in terms of global likelihood and impact in 2018, the WEF report now shares perhaps a surprising message. Where once economic risks were primary, now environmental risks dominate, and water has become a social crisis.

The risks that the WEF listed from an economic – and now climatic – standpoint complement the warnings we have from the scientific community. Commitment to social upliftment and development challenges all countries to seek a better world locally and universally in alignment with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.4 There is still the need to bridge the gap of social inequalities, but also to reform the dead-end production system that is 90 percent waste-prone.5

There are currently many good works by social organizations and human development programs.6 Yet the game plan has changed, and these good works are not adequately mainstreamed nor connect with the educational culture of getting ahead, or with consumer opportunities and communication, or with the social media of today.

Conservation of land, for example, has been enshrined in the laws of many countries but is easily reversed by government agencies. Society today has not been part of the process or does not value the importance of national parks in a way that sustains ecological resources or gives meaning to preservation for the future. The contribution of local communities has not always been integrated in conservation efforts, even when these efforts show increasing social responsibility. However, conservation is not part of a system that is valued today when resources can be converted to short-term, economic dead-end use. The social concern has shifted its focus to urbanization and to the opportunity for the influential individuals to get ahead.

Likewise, many people subscribe to an attitude or brash political leadership statements that ignore the underlying implications of their policy and opinions. In seeking sociopolitical advance, a false concept of harmony is used (implying broad consensus), which does not actually include human rights or democracy as fundamental elements. The rights of the individual must yield in the name of claimed national progress. Value systems, including religious and cultural practices, can simply be walled up as private matters, and the only medium of value expression is reduced to the dollar. The common good is no longer common to all.

Pankaj Mishra recently quoted the Chinese philosopher Zhang Junmai (1887–1969): “An agrarian country has few material demands and can exist over a long period of time with poverty but with equality, with scarcity but with peace.”7 However, as agrarian nations continue to embrace the West’s model of consumer capitalism, these countries are subject to endless political and social chaos. Returning to an austere age of wisely managed expectations is no longer possible – even if it were desirable. But there is no doubt that many more people across a wide swathe of the world will awaken with rage to what Zhang warned against: “A condition of prosperity without equality, wealth without peace.”

All the above are tough words for a time when the common good has been marginalized, and rage mounts in a rough world. Often these words are too tough for us to act on, as we feel compromised and diminished and may withdraw. Yet we must not be overtaken by the rage or yield to the urge to withdraw.

Present economic, scientific, and social analyses along with the reflections of Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ and our own social commitment can lead us in finding new ways to reform the dominant economic model.

However, before I go any further, let me break for a moment and share a few experiences of where I am coming from.

  • I live in the Philippines with a local (indigenous) community, the Pulangiyen, where they are enriching their own culture-based education and taking control of forest land management for the future. Our religious practices vary. Yet like them, I am in constant awe of the land and live in the valley with the youth who struggle to find options for their future. All this is my source of hope.
  • I facilitate courses on human development and natural resource management, on disaster risk reduction, and on cultural integrity with graduate students of the UN Asian Peacebuilders Scholarship Program. I am humbled by the challenges they face in their own personal struggles to find meaning and friendship, community and commitment. They are the generation of change: to be the changer, and to be themselves changed.
  • Recently I have begun communicating on a global level, mainly with Jesuit advocates, schools, and social apostolates through Ecojesuit,8 and I often see where the youth underestimate their own contribution in addressing climate change and economic disparity. I fear at times they lose commitment, or they despair in valuing their capacities, as they seek a path forward with deeper hope.
  • From these corners in the world I seek to share my experiences and to cooperate in building a path of reconciliation and of hope today.

One evaluation of the current situation might be: In today’s world, society’s relation with landscape and neighbor is not reconciled with what is sustainable or just; there is inadequate understanding and accountability and little recognition of who bears the consequences. In order for this reconciliation to occur, several things are needed beyond the mere recognition of the problems and my own inadequacies to change anything.

A starting point: Gratitude and community, youth and the year 2030

In grappling with this view of the world and its dominant economic model of individual consumption and development at all cost, there is a need first to go deeper into our own meaning of life, and the commitment and choices we make in community with others.

  • Do I have moments in my life today when I can step back from all the social connectivity and academic research and listen to my needs and wants, aspirations and challenges, so as to reach a level of balance and of meaning?
  • Can I reach a peaceful level of understanding in my life right now as to where I am – in balance with what I have and what I want to be?
  • Am I comfortable with who I am and all my limitations? Am I able to say, for where I am now, I have enough? Do I have a sense of enough-ness, or is there always more, more, more? When do I have enough?
  • At what point does that enough-ness become sustainable, at what point does this sense of sustainability turn into gratitude for a sense of abundance?

These are not easy questions, and they are not always answerable. Students can face unreasonable demands and carry many responsibilities, but the ability to balance is the most valuable skill in moving forward with hope.
The outcome – despite all the uncertainty—can be gratitude: gratitude for life and for how I chose to live. This can be one of the most personally transformative experiences, because such a change is not based on power gained but on personal acceptance and vision.

In the coming decade a growing challenge will be: How do I want to live with others? If I focus on my profession, I will probably have periods of unemployment, which should help me question where I get my strength and meaning from and should challenge my expectations. But what sort of a community do I envisage living with in 2030?

We may increasingly seek “communities of practice” or “communities of justice,” of shared values where there is an ethics of enough-ness. I will have to actively work for this sense of community given today’s myth of self-sufficiency and where there is much isolation and not knowing of others.
Community is not a social given any longer.

The common good and intergenerational solidarity are best nurtured through communities of practice. For example, a college networking group promoting sustainability programs with students in community, or a global webinar sharing experiences and opportunities in project implementation, or local neighborhood involvement in organic food production; all of these can form occasions for sharing (listening and learning) about common interest, skills, and values. Within the basic context of a working community, we need to dare to re-envision the world by linking, learning, and sharing. These are not automatic social skills in our society or education today.

Such communities act in these ways:

  • Share values and principles
  • Invite others to share
  • Call for deeper listening and response
  • Address vulnerabilities and youth insecurities
  • Are occasions for seeking peace and freedom from fear.
  • Heal the landscape and seek greater sustainability in all their actions

We are called to connect our lifestyle and community with our environment and planet. We learn more deeply when we participate in community action together, allowing us to build commitment. This is where we find and understand what the common good is. We can care for ourselves and so celebrate failure by living through it, always seeking a restorative justice.
It is where spirituality and solidarity weave a process of deepening (reflection) of mind shift, and of hope, and can result in a transformation of my person and how I see society with all its problems.

Terms: The deaning and Depth of reconciliation and discernment

Reconciliation and discernment can be understood as part of specific religious traditions, but we need to transcend that usage. In colloquial language rather than theological, religion is not about what I believe in, but what that belief brings me to do and the vision I can share; otherwise I am but a noisy gong. Religion is community, lived culture and values; it does not have to be a closed form: Any religion or none can equally respect and share in the depth of human relations. Today sometimes religions are closed by fear, or politics, or presumed superiority; however, we can choose to share a sense of belonging and a sense of hope and looking forward beyond traditional religious boundaries.

Let me turn to the 36th General Congregation of the Jesuits, where we can reflect on justice and understand how it is deepened when placed in the broader mission of reconciliation.

The letter of Father General Adolfo Nicolás SJ on reconciliation and the teaching of Pope Francis has given this vision (of God working in the world) greater depth, placing faith, justice, and solidarity with the poor and the excluded as central elements of the mission of reconciliation.

What the 35th General Congregation had identified as the three dimensions of this ministry of reconciliation – namely, reconciliation with God, with one another, and with creation – assumes a new urgency. This reconciliation is always a work of justice, a justice discerned and enacted in local communities and contexts. The cross of Christ and our sharing in it are also at the center of God’s work of reconciliation.

We too desire to contribute to that which today seems impossible: a humanity reconciled in justice, which lives in peace, in a common home well-cared for, where there is a place for all, because we recognize each other as brothers and sisters.9

This for me does two things; first it places justice clearly within Jesus’ mission of reconciliation. Second, it gives me the courage not to give up.
We can face the impossible not from a position of needing greater power or even strength, but from a position of humble faith, hope, and mercy. In this context environment and reconciliation is relationship, is solidarity!
Environment is personal action, communities of practice, and networking for transformation; the environment is not just out there.

As Arturo Sosa SJ, the new Superior General for the Society of Jesus recently affirmed, Jesuit discernment in common “takes place both in our communities and in our apostolic works, with the active participation of our partners in mission.”10

Fr. Sosa goes on to reflect:

The positive tension between discernment in common and apostolic planning requires, according to the Ignatian vision, a spiritual examen of what we have experienced, so that we continually grow in (perception of and) fidelity to the will of God. Therefore, a systematic evaluation of our apostolates is not sufficient. We must supplement that systematic evaluation with the spiritual perspective of the examen, a practice by which Ignatius invites us to recognize the action of God in history.

It is possible and necessary also for those who share in our mission but not in our Christian faith to acquire that interior freedom which enables them to divest themselves of selflove, self-will, and self-interests. This interior freedom is the human possibility to grow as persons in gratuitous relationship with others, seeking the greater good of all, even when such a pursuit involves as a consequence personal renunciation and sacrifice.

Thus, apostolic planning born of discernment in common becomes an instrument of our apostolic effectiveness, and we avoid the dangers of a trendy type of planning that makes use of only the techniques of corporate development.11

For me this whole dynamic of examen is about keeping all things in balance, including what I spoke of earlier: my own sense of belonging, the communities I live with, the science and the policies I work with.

Justice in the commons is but a trail

This is why justice in the commons is but a trail. Every university and institute has to negotiate, with the greatest participation of interested parties, the path forward; and it must exert the extra efforts needed to get both the in-house participation and an equitable participation of all affected voices to contribute much more broadly than simply to the university’s or the institute’s own self-sustainability, but to that of the whole of society. We have a journey that must begin with every community and every village. The path is not laid out; it must be worked out through our attitudes and commitments from within and together.

As we consider the challenges that face all of us, but especially the Generation 2030 that is coming of age, we find hope in the guidance provided in Laudato Si’. We who have lived with the degradation of our global ecology and have gained the wisdom of age owe it to the next generation of our youth to assist them in facing the challenge of transforming our economy from one of 90 percent waste to one of 90 percent recycling, the challenge of bringing justice to the poor and marginalized who suffer most from the current state of our economy/ecology. Through individual choices and through communities of shared values, we can support each other in our efforts to be the very change that we wish to achieve.

This article was originally published in the Explore Journal (Winter 2018) of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, Santa Clara UniversityEcojesuit previously featured this event.

  1. Pedro Walpole SJ, “Not a Roadmap but a Trail: Environmental Reconciliation with the Commons,” Bannan Memorial Lecture, 2016–2018 Bannan Institute series, February 21, 2018, Santa Clara University. This essay is an excerpt from the lecture; a video of the full lecture is available here
  2. Merrit Kennedy, “Lead-Laced Water in Flint: A Step-ByStep Look at The Makings of a Crisis,” NPR: The Two-Way (April 20, 2016).
  3. World Economic Forum, The Global Risks Report 2018, 13th ed., 6.
  4. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sustainable Development Goals, available at sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs. For more on these goals see “Sustainable Development Goals: All You Need to Know,” The Guardian (September 3, 2015).
  5. Circle Economy, The Circularity Gap Report (January 22, 2018).
  6. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ On Care for Our Common Home, encyclical, (March 24, 2015), §38.
  7. Pankaj Mishra, “The Dead End of Globalisation Looms before Our Youth,” The Guardian (August 25, 2011).
  8. Ecojesuit, connecting Jesuits, People, and Ecology.
  9. General Congregation 36 of the Society of Jesus (2017), Decree 1, 3
  10. Arturo Sosa SJ, “On Discernment in Common,” letter, (September 27, 2017).
  11. Ibid.
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