In this blog, Dr. Kevin Hargaden, Team Leader and Social Theologian at the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, reflects on the importance of solidarity when facing capitalism and its effects on the environment.
The Notre Dame theologian, Emmanuel Katongole, grew up in the village of Malube, twenty–five kilometres from Kampala, in Uganda. Reflecting on his childhood in the 1960s, he recalls a life lived with his six siblings which rotated around rich environments. Rising before dawn, the family would work in their garden, cultivating coffee, beans, corn, bananas, and other food crops. Before school, they would be dispatched to a forest spring, to draw drinking water. After school, there was more farming to do. Their tiny plot fed the family and earned them enough money to pay school fees and cover essential commodities.
When he returns to his hometown now, he cannot help but see the changes. The forest is gone, turned into firewood and cleared for cultivation. The spring has dried up and the village experiences acute water poverty. What trees do persist are cash crops ill–suited to the context; eucalyptus and pine. He writes, “On the whole, therefore, the land looks dry, and banana trees that dot the village, as well as the other crops, all look miserable.”1
It is a profound mistake to simply imagine that climate breakdown is “a problem we are passing on to our children’s generation”. It is not an issue that is coming upon us. It is already here. It is a coincidence of location and affluence that means that many Irish people engage with this issue in the abstract. In the many places on the globe that are not quite as temperate and not quite as prosperous, the soil is already thinning, the waters are already drying, and the air is already heating up.
The reason we must act now to mitigate the more extreme effects of climate breakdown is not that they will eventually impact on us in unavoidable ways. The reason we must act is because they are already impacting on our neighbours in unavoidable ways. Katongole is clear that a complex of factors are at play in explaining the “looming food, water, and ecological crisis” facing many in Africa, but underlying those causes is a theological malaise. A “wound” has opened up due to our “failure to appreciate our deep connection – in fact, intimacy – with the land our desperate attempt to escape from our human vocation to ‘till the land and care for it’.” 2 He locates the source of that disconnection in his nation’s commitment to contemporary capitalist myths:
“By the time my friends and I had graduated from high school, we had mastered the parts and mechanics of the four–stroke engine, even though we could count the number of times we had travelled by car. But I do not remember a single lesson about the goats, millet, bananas, and beans on which we lived!” 3
When we listen to the voices of those who live in places already fatally disrupted by climate breakdown, we hear clearly that their lament is not vague and diffuse, displaced into the future, or couched in sentimentally moralistic terms. Climate breakdown is a consequence of fossil capitalism. The only way to aid our distant neighbours who are suffering from carbon captivity is to act in concert with our near neighbours to transform our society and economy to adapt to reality. Our culture has entirely swallowed the myth of never–ceasing expansion of our economy. We have prided ourselves on our technocratic expertise and exported it to the Majority World, unaware that we were engaged in a mystified superstition. On a finite planet, infinite growth is impossible, even with the most refined and precise exploitations of marginal return.
At the end of his ground–breaking letter, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis draws our attention to the only unending reality that can exist: the love of God. He reminds us that “at the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God, and be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude” (§243) All the other promises of boundlessness are bound to disappoint, often with catastrophic consequences.
When it comes to environmental justice, solidarity with our distant neighbours is not a utopian commitment. We all share the same biome.
What is happening in Uganda is as much as an issue for me in Dublin, as what is happening in Urlingford. And as Pope Francis relentlessly teaches us, how we cultivate the home God has gifted us is at the heart of actually practicing Christianity. Climate solidarity is an expression of our faith. Rejecting the myths capital preaches is at the core of our belief.
1 Emmanuel Katongole, “The Bethany Land Institute”, in Fragile World: Ecology and the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018), 222
3 Ibid, 223.