The Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability in Seattle University recently held Just Sustainability: Hope for the Commons, a conference that drew attention “on the intimate connections between environmental justice and sustainability” as both are “inextricably connected. True sustainability can only be achieved when all communities have healthy air, water, food, green space, and security, and when all people have meaningful involvement in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Jim Hug shares with us his updates of the three days of the conference.
Four speakers responded to questions that we all could profitably ask ourselves: What keeps you awake at nights? What are your fears? What gives you hope? What gives you pause? What call to action do you want to issue?
The first speaker, Sarah Augustine, works with Indigenous Peoples under onslaught against their land and way of life by mining companies in Suriname. She underlined the hope she gets from Indigenous Peoples and their alternative worldviews, highlighted new initiatives by the World Council of Churches, and called on people everywhere to “activate your collective.” Individual actions aren’t enough, we have to address the institutions and structures globally that protect and legitimate corporate destructive activities worldwide.
Denis Hayes, the original founder of Earth Day and now director of the Bullitt Foundation had a very long list of the frightening issues keeping him awake at night – from the impending collapse of the Western Antarctic ice field, to the loss of Bangladesh and the Southeast Asian rice-producing regions, to the inevitable masses of climate refugees. He admitted to being a pessimist by nature but pointed the hope that comes from the progress made by various social movements during his lifetime, such as the civil rights movement, the end of the Vietnam war, among others. He admitted that his wife affected his approach to overwhelming environmental issues when she said to him, “You’re a Darwinist. What is the survival value of pessimism?”
He urged the young to become active now and not to wait as social movements were usually led by students. “You have the advantage,” he told them, “that you don’t know what you can’t do! So be bold! Get involved now.”
Effenus Henderson is the previous Chief Diversity Director for Weyerhaeuser, one of the world’s largest owners of timberlands. In his talk, he encouraged attention to the diversity of worldviews on the issues of justice and sustainability and the inclusive engagement that reaches down to the grassroots where people are often just trying to survive and are asking whether the sustainability activists “really care about me and my family and our struggles.” He also encouraged attention to institutions and structures beyond individual actions.
Bill McKibben shared via Skype and talked about the hope he is finding in the global movements spreading and joining around the world. He pointed to the ability of his organization, 350.org to inspire more than 20,000 demonstrations in every nation of the world except North Korea. He warned students that if they don’t get involved now, they would be spending the prime years of their lives working in disaster relief and rebuilding “until there is no civilization left to do such things.” And he challenged the Jesuit universities to catch up with the University of Dayton by disinvesting in fossil fuels and investing in alternative clean energy production.
In a comment from the floor during the question period, I urged that the challenges facing us must be seen in a global context where a billion people don’t have enough to eat or clean water to drink and more than half the global population live in dehumanizing poverty. Without a doubt we need to work to address the ecological and climate issues urgently. But our vision must include making our ways of living on the planet sustainable for all its peoples, including those who must have their basic needs met with more food, drink, education, shelter, health care, and more.
In a final comment over dinner, plenary speaker David Korten observed that an important difference between Bill McKibben and Denis Hayes was that Bill is organizing a movement to stop something. Denis inspired a movement to begin something new – Earth Day – which has since spawned countless new ideas and initiatives.
A panel discussion featured a case study of the displacement by climate change and sea rise of the village of Kivalina, a remote community in northwestern Alaska and home to about 400 Iñupiat people . Six participants brought a variety of alternative perspectives on the present day displacement and migration processes already underway. It provided a good illustration of what it might mean to listen to Indigenous Peoples’ worldviews, values, and perspectives. While there was no emerging consensus on solutions, there was a small taste of the diversity of worldviews that Day 1 encouraged us to embrace and explore.
Dr Jorge Huete-Pérez is the Senior Vice President of Universidad Centroamericana (University of Central America) in Managua, Nicaragua and the founding president and current Vice President of the Academy of Sciences in Nicaragua. He gave an eye-opening presentation on a new trans-oceanic canal to be built by China across Nicaragua. It is being pushed quickly through government processes that will both endanger rainforest and other precious ecological resources and serve as a larger canal for shipments of fossil fuels to China. Government requirements for environmental impact studies are being swept aside or entrusted to the company that will build the canal. Opponents to the canal such as Dr Huete-Pérez are trying to raise international awareness and resistance.
In the closing plenary session, David Korten previewed the argument of his forthcoming book, Change the Story, Change the Future: To Find Our Human Place of Service as Members of Earth’s Community of Life. He identified the current framing narrative for so much of contemporary life as a machine model organized in service to money and markets. He pointed out the overwhelming evidence of the failure of that story to provide a healthy and fulfilling life for all. He offered an alternative narrative in which life is central, a story rooted in community and ecology that is participatory and life supporting. The metaphor that captures its essence is not that of a machine winding down, but of a seed giving birth to emerging and expanding life.
Pedro Walpole, SJ, Coordinator for Reconciliation with Creation, Jesuit Conference Asia Pacific, picked up on the alternative story from a Jesuit background and highlighted the importance of a foundation in an appreciative spirituality in approaching all life. With an implicit nod to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, he suggested that the next great challenge facing the human community is getting the emerging complexity of 9 billion people evolving a conscious self-organization in and through Earth’s natural feedback systems into a higher unity that will live sustainably and justly on and as an integral part of Earth and Cosmos.
Day 3: Some ponderings and take-aways
The conference stimulated many reflections and questions.
Dealing with hope and hopelessness
This was a frequently recurring theme throughout the conference. How can we keep hope alive? The data revealing the kind of future climate change is preparing for the human community over the next century, the already emerging, massive threats that are so serious and extensive that they are almost impossible to even imagine – they too often crush hope. People can only listen to so much and the very natural human defense mechanisms kick in: “You can see the wall go up right in front of your eyes!” We need to learn to respect and work with these very real human limitations in ourselves as well as others.
A number of things can be said, though none of them is in the end adequate. Here are some that emerged during the conference conversations:
- These are immense and important issues. Most of us older folks have known for a long time that we will not see the long-term outcomes of our justice efforts. We need to face that reality and accept it. But our blessing is to be part of the struggle in solidarity with really good people, working – to the best of our lights – in union with God’s Spirit.
- More and more young people “get” the problems and have great energy and resilience. As one speaker put it, they don’t know yet what they can’t do, so they need to be bold, and can be.
- Another participant, a local high school student, urged the participants not to try to protect the young. “We need to hear and we want to hear the truth and grapple with how to address it.” Youth energy and idealism are powerful and have usually been at the forefront of successful social change efforts.
- Sometimes it helps to simply focus on something manageable and doable, and get a sense of achievement to rekindle motivation and energy. “Sometimes you just have to be able to see (and touch and hear and smell and taste) that you’ve accomplished something!”
- Through publications like Yes! Magazine, the mission is to broadcast. There is a lot more going on in our networks across the country and around the world than is recognized or realized. Hope is fermenting almost everywhere.
- More connections need to be made, more networking organized. We need to think more structurally and strategically to organize all this energy and experimentation to be more effective. Who knows when it will come together globally and erupt to take us past another important milestone? Social change is rarely gradual and linear.
- Coming together in communities to share our hopes, fears, and struggles provides the foundational strength for continuing to confront the challenges.
Are universities awakening giants?
As indicated above, I come away with a renewed sense that there is a huge amount happening and great possibilities are emerging on campuses across the country. Can it all come together to present a courageous and prophetic witness to the nation? Can Jesuit universities as a network provide the outspoken moral leadership so badly needed in our time?
Student organizations are forming to urge their schools to disinvest from fossil fuels and reinvest in clean energy. The University of Dayton has made that commitment; students at Seattle University are pushing for a similar commitment but meeting pushback. What a great educational opportunity for all involved – including administrators and Board members. Couldn’t this movement catch fire on campuses across the country? Think how much learning would go on, how much training could shape future transformational leaders! Could Ignatian Solidarity Network light those sparks? How many billions of dollars would this kind of collaborative action leverage? Surely the nation would take notice. Divestment was eventually an effective tool in the global effort to end apartheid in South Africa. Could it be effective for us in this our time, in dealing with these our critical issues?
Universities are major respected institutions in their local communities. Can they leverage that credibility and moral authority more effectively? The members of a university’s Board of Directors are often key influential actors in their cities and states. Some are national leaders in their own fields. Many of them, if they are truly informed and wise businesspeople, know the climate issues and other ecological crises we face as a human community. They have to know them for the sake of the future of their own enterprises. Is their Board membership providing them formation in Ignatian values and discernment? The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities or AJCU has put great energy and resources into board development programs in recent years. The presidents and Board Chairs met with the Jesuit Fr. General Adolfo Nicolás last fall. Can those experiences be parlayed into a national board member collaboration on these issues? Who can or should lead this effort?
Or what about the food served on our campuses? Is it organic? Sustainably grown? Locally sourced? What is its carbon footprint? Might this be raised on large factory farms like those whose runoff fed the algae in Lake Erie and made the water of Toledo, Ohio undrinkable? Who wants that sort of thing going on under our noses? Isn’t it like finding the telltale marks of child labor and sweatshops on our alma mater T-shirts and other merchandise?
Teachers are developing new courses to bring deeper understanding to the issues related to climate change. These issues pervade practically every discipline in the curriculum. We Jesuits claim with pride our commitment to transformational education. Can we move further and faster in reorganizing our programs of study to serve social, economic, political and cultural transformation in the face of our current climate crises?
Business schools are also acknowledging their crucial role in transforming our global economy into one that reverences and cares for creation, works within the ecological limits of Earth, and meets the needs of the global common good as well as building healthy economic institutions and graduating successful business students. Do they have a sense of the urgency of the crisis we face and are they responding appropriately? The International Association of Jesuit Business Schools held its 20th Annual World Forum in Seoul, South Korea in late July entitled “Mobilizing the Worldwide Jesuit Network: Collaboration for Global Sustainability.” Will there be fora on your campus for your business school professors to talk about the Forum and indicate what they brought home from it? And how they hope to mobilize that collaboration for global sustainability?
As a key element in its mission integration work, Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio engaged staff at all levels, from grounds keepers to executives, in training as Sustainability Ambassadors. These ambassadors are trained to tell anyone who will listen what their departments are doing to further the university’s sustainability goals. Most Jesuit universities now have Sustainability Officers of some type. I hope – and presume – that they are networking under the leadership of the AJCU so that best practices can spread rapidly and bear public witness to local communities of grave importance which this major institutions with great moral credibility take the climate crisis and our moral responsibility to build global and just sustainability for all.
Questions and actions
So what gives us hope? What feeds our hope and renews our spirit for the mission? What gives us pause? What call to action do we want and do?
This article is also featured as a series of blogs in Ignatian Solidarity Network