Journeying on the path of ecological accountability and advocacy in Europe

Journeying on the path of ecological accountability and advocacy in Europe

In rural areas in Germany, the transition to renewable energy is happening with the increasing number of homes with solar panels on their roofs.

Pedro Walpole SJ

While recently navigating different events as Ecojesuit coordinator in Central Europe. I am learning much about ecological awareness and action, and the broader social dialogue as it develops over time. For someone not living in Europe and not familiar with various differences and histories, I share a few limited thoughts as to different responses and processes to climate change in Europe and invite comment. There is no intention to be seminal or comprehensive but rather to simply share some reflections.

Facts like 10 percent of German society is vegetarian (while many more have reduced their consumption of meat to once a day or twice a week) are simply surprising to me. The awareness and decisions people have made with specific reference to reducing their carbon footprint are noticeable in society and the commitment is clearly articulated. One can drink water from the tap without risk or sensing a chemical overload. The use of small-scale non-fossil fuel energy sources is growing and significant attention is given to transport availability, access, and frequency, while culturally, riding the bike is widespread.

It is in this context that I experience anew the broader social call for environmental care, climate change discussions, and all that are happening in recent years in Europe. I have viewed Germany as leading the call for climate action in Europe in recent decades, but I now sense a tiredness that I seek to better understand.

Is there in Germany a “disillusionment” with the environmental cause? What are the attitudinal shifts to be understood? What room is called for in dialogue today with a growing generation?

Despite the different actions taken, the national total carbon footprint is not going down due to structural problems. Ecological knowledge is widespread and people understand that something major can happen by way of climate events and changes. Past flooding and recent temperatures are not simply forgotten or covered over.

There is a sense of historical responsibility even if mainly amongst those intellectually engaged. There has been much action and integrity coming from individual commitment, yet the message that the individual must act alone is no longer seen as credible or significantly effective.

There is also a significant level of disillusionment and tangible fear amongst the youth that cannot simply be classified as radical and extreme. The youth are especially conscious of the absolute emergency they face, with the increasing probability of passing dangerous tipping points if there is no immediate major action in the richer countries of the North.

A peaceful gathering in Bavaria on 1 September, with Fr Jörg Alt SJ and other Jesuits, several Protestant ministers, and youth, to call for the political action needed and the connection with Pope Francis’ letter as the Season of Creation begins

Recent government politics sustains a strong relation with corporations and the government is seen as blocking international policies for greater carbon accountability. So at this time it is not surprising that local level action is focusing on the State to make changes.

Discussing recently with businesses (family business and global corporations) in Switzerland and the possibility of greater action for hope does give breadth for what might be achievable beyond the complications of government regulations. Civil dialogue with business requires a broader scope, not simply debating the policy framework and academic analyses but incorporating experiences of local actions and listening intently to the other.

Stories and programs in the Global South are an essential part of what still must be discussed in terms of climate justice to include the already severe impacts of climate change. These are critical in identifying some paths forward and the greater participation of all. Serious dialogue is called for everywhere possible as food and water vulnerability is increasingly an occasion of great suffering at the local level for the vast majority who are poor.

Today we talk of adaptation and resilience, but the language appears to mean a small payment so that business continues as usual and basic services remain inadequate.

The Bavarian Palace Administration is working on an expansion and networking of wildflower areas in garden monuments so that species-rich meadows are reclaimed, as they existed in the English Garden in Munich until the 1970s. The Wildflower Meadows in Garden Monuments project is promoting biodiversity and the conversion of species-poor and partly compacted lawns unsuitable for flora and fauna into species-rich flowering meadows.

What is needed is a radical investment in rural livelihoods to protect ecological services and promote a more organic and sustainable agriculture and not the corporate agriculture focused on a global market. Only in this way are we going to find justice for a vulnerable humanity and address the local and the global concerns of food, water, and biodiversity.

In Germany, large numbers of refugees (430,000 Syrians, over one million Ukrainians, and 400,000 Afghans) composed of youth and families are evident in the towns. This has its challenges and yet there is an astonishing coexistence. There is also a growing intent to sustain the dialogue across different faith practices with greater tolerance and mutual respect. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Europe continues with its mission and increasing challenges in accompanying, serving, and advocating for the rights of refugees and others forcibly displaced.

There may be different treatments that have to be understood with greater equity needed, but again, Church asylum is deeply respected by the state and there are some beautiful experiences of “who is my neighbour.” In an outward direction and very unique way, Jesuit Worldwide Learning plays a significant role in developing the path for tertiary education, including greater understanding of sustainable development and agroecology in its different programs for youth in the Arab world and the Global South.

Religious practice is something that is seen as very personal, yet with careful collaboration is shared publicly in very encouraging ways. During a recent peaceful demonstration on the streets of Munich, the greeting and sharing with Protestant ministers and me as a Jesuit priest were valued and taken as a significant occasion for sharing social concerns both on the street and across the religious communities. There is a long tradition of ecumenical dialogue over several decades as the Churches are seen as working together in the context of civil society.

Similarly, the sharing of spiritualities, which I often refer to as the recognition of the human spirit, is welcomed and people listen to this diversity with great respect for the preference of the other. Religious and meditational practices, especially Zen meditation, coexist and are shared in many religious facilities, upholding the importance of being present in a world full of pressures, anxieties, and the business of life. Jesuit centers in Lassalle-Haus in Zug, Switzerland and Nordwald-Zendo in the Bavarian Forest in Spiegelau, Germany, amongst others, highlight meditation, openness, respect, and discernment for Christians and non-Christians.

In Germany, the police have clearly said they will not use rubber bullets to break up demonstrations which is not the case in some countries. Police are trained for de-escalation of confrontation and have, for example, opened dialogue with the Last Generation where there are occasions of mutual testimony. This is not to say there are no racial problems or there have never been any brutal events, but that there are serious checks and balances.

On 1 September, I joined a very peaceful gathering in front of the offices of the Bavarian Chancellery and Ministry of Transport, protesting the possible removal of corporate accountability required by the Supply Chain Due Diligence Act and the call for greater vehicle regulation given the impacts of climate change especially in the Global South.

Father Jörg Alt read the statement on the political action needed and reminded us of the connection with Pope Francis’ letter for the beginning of the Season of Creation, directly highlighting the debt of the Global North and climate disasters in the South:

“The effects of this war can be seen in the many rivers that are drying up. Benedict XVI once observed that: ‘the external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast’. Consumerist greed, fuelled by selfish hearts, is disrupting the planet’s water cycle. The unrestrained burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests are pushing temperatures higher and leading to massive droughts. Alarming water shortages increasingly affect both small rural communities and large metropolises. Moreover, predatory industries are depleting and polluting our freshwater sources through extreme practices such as fracking for oil and gas extraction, unchecked mega-mining projects, and intensive animal farming. ‘Sister Water’, in the words of Saint Francis of Assisi, is pillaged and turned into ‘a commodity subject to the laws of the market’ (Laudato Si’ 30).”

Participation is generally peaceful and the police are very patient in their approach and follow due process on the right to demonstrate. The whole “event” lasted about 45 minutes while the public gathered around, watched, and discussed the issue openly. There were several Protestant ministers in the gathering and Jesuits, as well as youth from different groups. There was one angry outburst from a driver caught in the protest, but who was calmly engaged and the tension reduced. Many in the sidewalk and bicycle lanes stopped and engaged in conversation and while there were a few who were outspoken, the mood was surprisingly understanding if not supportive.

Meanwhile, some of the 30 activists who were part of Friday’s action were presented to a judge and it is not known how many of them are, or will be, sentenced. Already 27 activists from previous actions of recent weeks are currently under preventive arrest with some of them detained to the maximum of 30 days.

So the protests against the government will continue. Sixty constitutional experts (professors and judges) have made their voices heard along with 600 Scientists for Future in support of greater policy change. The Fridays for Future movement also plays a significant role in bringing social and political attention the excesses of fossil fuel and climate change.

This general supportive attitude is certainly a change over recent years and signifies a backing for such action calling the government, in this case the state of Bavaria, to improve its policy framework for addressing climate change. Ecojesuit supports this peaceful action for integral ecology and the call for more serious dialogue.

A recent publication of the Jesuit Centre for Faith & Justice (Irish Province), the Manifesto for a Green New Deal, lays out a citizen’s challenge to engage humanity and has been a very helpful companion in these discussions. The Jesuits in Britain continue to engage with others in the COP process for all its limitations. The Jesuit European Social Centre (JESC) is set to engage the European Union on environment and climate policy affecting the Global North and Global South. Xavier Network seeks to work more strategically with the needed advocacy, projects, and emergency responses, while the Kircher Network of Europe and the Near East supports world citizenship programs.

Finding further ways to accompany youth in their expression and action is growing while occasions for wonderfully renewing the human spirit and fellowship, particularly at this time when society is challenged, are a significant focus. Casa Velha in Ourém, Portugal has been a wonderful venue for Magis this year during World Youth Day and Campus de la Transition in Forges, France is an immediate attraction.

Also from previous trips, INEA in Valladolid, Spain that is now teaching organic agriculture has much to contribute while the Châtelard eco retreat house in the outskirts of Lyons, France runs ecological Ignatian retreats. The Eco Summer Camp at Lassalle-Haus in Switzerland is also an intensive week-long series of scientific and social input while giving time to build relations and occasion for meditation as a participative process of conversion. The joy and sense of gratitude for life, nature’s abundance, and beauty strengthen the soul and commitment with hope. Now the Ukama Center in Nürnberg, Germany begins as a platform for youth groups where Jesuits have longstanding relations in supporting youth movements while engaging local policy, local communities, scientists, NGOs, and the broader ecumenical community.

These are some of the fruits over the years of seeking to build deeper social commitment at the local and now regional levels.

Munich’s IAA (Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung or International Automobile Exhibition) Mobility 2023, the largest auto show in Europe, was held 5 to 10 September 2023, and featured European and Chinese automakers and their heightened competition in introducing lower-cost electric vehicles (EVs). As with the peaceful blockade on 1 September, this world event also closed roads in the city.

These initiatives steadily contribute to the expanding social contract amongst generations that in more recent times has been forgotten and betrayed, and grown weak in the face of consumerism and globalization. Democratic deliberations at the local level are building more active communities that can grow to influence the national.

These processes need to go beyond simply a new narrative, for the present centers of wealth and power will not relinquish their hold when simply faced with scientific and social facts. A more serious parliament of the streets can call for radical political shifts in establishing a more critical Green New Deal.

While traveling over the last month I have felt the presence, compassion, and volition of the youth, found also in broader society. The challenge of participation is groaning and must involve greater democratic dialogue. Meanwhile, the earnest efforts of many and the growing interconnectivity and active awareness provide deep hope and commitment as the urgency grows.

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