Patxi Álvarez de los Mozos, SJ
It was during the General Congregation (GC) 32 in 1975, when the Society of Jesus in describing its mission, mentioned the word “justice.” Since then, our mission can be identified under the expression of “the service of faith and the promotion of justice.”
Justice has multiple meanings, both in the Church and the secular world. In the Ignatian family, an essential component of justice is the preferential option for the poor. Perhaps today we have acquired a greater awareness of justice, which in various forms, was always present in our history.
GC35 in 2008 incorporated a new sensibility which had been taking shape in recent decades: the concern for the environment, the care for Creation. It has been formulated as “reconciliation with creation.”
It may look like this is an ‘added value,’ a new element of the mission; that maybe in the future others could join. But this is not the case, in fact it is a deepening of our way of understanding justice and the concern for the poor, because “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together” as stated in the encyclical Laudato si’. (LS 48)
This encyclical enlightened the connections between the defense of the poor and the protection of nature, indicating that one cannot work separately from the other. The inclusion of the latter and the care for creation are two objectives to be pursued simultaneously: “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach… so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (LS 49) Today, the justice we promote is always a socio-environmental justice.
These can be viewed merely as theoretical statements, too general, and there is a need to move closer to reality in order to understand how environmental degradation affects mainly the poorest. And so, responding to environmental concerns is a way of defending socially excluded people.
A poor environment that impacts on the poor
There are many specific ways that show how environmental degradation is particularly affecting the poor, as in the following:
The increase of air pollutants is affecting all people, but especially the poorest. They cannot move their homes to less polluted areas and they inhale higher levels of harmful smoke. Some companies move their polluting activities to developing countries, even running activities forbidden in their countries of origin. Toxic solid waste is also exported to developing countries.
It is estimated that 663 million people do not have access to safe drinking water, which is a constant source of diseases. Children are the worst off with increasing infant mortality. There is also the frequent contamination of headwaters of rivers and aquifers by extractive activities where again, rural marginalized populations are the most affected.
Declining fish stocks particularly affect communities that depend on fishing for their survival, making them more vulnerable. Fish stocks are exploited in unsustainable ways in many regions of the world.
Climate change is multiplying the number of natural disasters and their effects and altering weather patterns. The most affected are the populations from poor countries since they depend more directly on ecosystem resources such as agriculture, fisheries and forestry. Moreover, there are devastations caused by extreme climate events. They also generate pests and diseases, adding extra costs. The loss of crops raises food prices. The poor are more vulnerable to these phenomena because they have lower initial capital and because their protection systems are limited.
Global warming also lead to rising sea levels, affecting a large part of humanity. But its impact will fall again especially on the poorest, those who are forced to migrate as they lose their homes.
Indigenous Peoples deserve special attention, as they are especially affected by the degradation of the environment and natural resources. Corporate agriculture, forest clearing, and mineral development often occur in areas where indigenous communities live. They are displaced from their own land, they experience the contamination of soils and waters, and their livelihoods and culture are threatened.
Many environmental degradation processes have a particular impact on the poorest communities. Ecological deterioration appears to be a side effect of poverty and increasing inequality hence the defense of the poor must necessarily include the protection of nature. Social justice is linked to ecological justice and both must come together as a single socio-environmental justice.
Apart from the direct impact of a poor environment on the impoverishment of marginalized groups, the logic that excludes people who are already marginalized, (social exclusion) and that degrades the environment is the same.
Laudato si’ indicates that a first component of this degrading logic lies in the human heart. There are ethical and spiritual roots that lead to environmental degradation, where the post-modern individual runs the risk of falling into an individualism that does not look beyond one’s self and one’s own interests. Hence there is a need and a call for internal conversion.
A second component referred to by the encyclical is the cultural relativism which gives humans the illusion that we are the creator of our own ends. This explains how easily we can forget the intrinsic value that entities have in themselves. We ignore the inner value, replacing it for the value of use.
A third component is the current model of development that is driven by an immediate desire for consumption. This consumption is deliberately injected into our culture by increasing the desire to spend and devaluing the moral of savings.
This model of economic development is based on the “throwaway culture” so often alluded by Pope Francis, “which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.” (LS 22) Poor people are not only exploited, but become superfluous. With the same apathy by which food that belongs to the poor is thrown away, the excluded are marginalized.
This development is based on a technocratic paradigm imposed by the logic of profit at any cost without thinking of social exclusion or the destruction of nature. Hence, there is one single logic that simultaneously causes both social exclusion and environmental degradation and that is characterized by a model of development driven by an unsustainable and discriminatory consumerism that uses techno-science to impose its domain – and it is in the hands of the powerful.
To engage for justice today implies to protect the environment, and vice versa and so we speak about socio-environmental justice. This is the perspective so strongly highlighted by Pope Francis and his encyclical Laudato si’ and will most probably guide the discussions about the Jesuit mission during the forthcoming GC 36.
Patxi Álvarez de los Mozos, SJ is the Secretary of the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Society of Jesus.