Before the Next Storm: Exploring Faith-Based Responses to Climate Change Challenges.

 

Financial justice ireland.jpg

 

The conference took place on Monday, 25th March 2019 at the Carmelite Community Centre on Aungier Street, Dublin 2. Speaking at the conference were Heron Belfron of the Jubilee Caribbean; Sheila Curran, Justice Coordinator with AMRI; Kevin Hargaden of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice; and Michael O’Sullivan, the Columban Justice and Peace Officer. Our Lady of Apostles sisters Janet Nutakor, Patience Ezimigbo and Mary Connaughton were in attendance, accompanied by  OLA Justice Officer, John McGeady.

 

Climate Change and its effect on debt in the Caribbean – Heron Belfron

Heron spoke on the topic of climate change and its effect on debt in the Caribbean. Heron is the project manager of Jubilee Caribbean an NGO established with the aim of changing the approach of financial institutions with regards to debt in the aftermath of ever increasing natural disasters. Established in Grenada with the support of faith-based groups, Jubilee Caribbean seeks to have sovereign debt restructured in light of the significant damage being done to the Caribbean islands by climate change; something which the Caribbean must suffer the consequence of, without having contributed to the cause.

After Hurricane Irma in 2017, Barbuda had to be evacuated. The following day was the due date for a sovereign debt repayment to the IMF, the government of Antigua and Barbuda asked for a moratorium – a delay in repayment – but were refused and at a moment of disaster were forced to hand over much needed money to the IMF. Such an incident is patently unreasonable and unjust, and precisely the target of the Jubilee Caribbean campaign.

Climate change has led to the following problems: destruction caused by extreme climate events such as torrential rains and hurricanes; rising sovereign debt due to compound borrowing (borrowing on top of borrowing) in order to invest in damage repair; economic downturn in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The economic effects include the destruction of infrastructure, increased trade deficit, slow growth and loss of tourism (tourism is the main economic activity of most of the islands).

Jubilee Caribbean has offered possible solutions to the increased economic burden of climate change as it affects the indebtedness of a country.

  • A moratorium in the aftermath of natural disasters – this would see a deferral of payment to creditors.
  • Debt Forgiveness – this would be tied to investment in greater climate resilience.
  • Investment in Climate resilience strategies – money saved from debt forgiveness would be used to prepare defences before the storm to reduce the damage and cost of rebuilding.
  • Regulation for stronger buildings that could better withstand the impact of storms. (However, this would lead to higher costs in building and an increase in private debt so that this would also impact on the debt to GDP ratio)

Thinking Theologically about Neoliberalism – Kevin Hargaden

Kevin, the Social Theology Officer with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, began his presentation with the problem of defining neoliberalism, by arguing that we should not be surprise that it cannot be defined. Any real social construction resists the limits of definition so we should not expect to be able to neatly define such an expansive real world experience, instead of attempting to define it, we ought instead to begin by mapping the terrain of neoliberalism.

First is should be acknowledged that neoliberalism is not simply a theory, but rather an historical project intended to replace the liberalism of the Long Nineteenth Century. In the aftermath of the Second World War, and especially following the economic decline of the seventies, policy makers opted to reshape the global economy. With regards to philosophy, neoliberalism can be described as a peculiar form of reason that configures all aspects of existence in economic terms. We no longer make choices based on the values we profess to hold, for example a belief in the value of art, instead we ask the cost-benefit of everything. Neoliberalism alters our approach to the psychology of the person engaged in the economy. Under classical or default capitalism, the human being is imagined as a rational consumer, whereas under neoliberal capitalism, we become entrepreneurs – responsible for making ourselves into beings who are productive. Neoliberal policy is preoccupied with monetary discipline, deregulation initiatives, market-based solutions and privatization.

Turning to politics, neoliberalism expresses the disenchantment of politics by economics; no longer is politics about creating a better world. Margaret Thatcher said “there is no alternative”: this has become an article of faith of neoliberalism. The need to accept the economic “realities” means that we cannot imagine a different future and so politics becomes a reduced, and even hopeless, endeavour. We no longer ask what sort of society do we want to live in, we ask how much will it cost. In this environment political decisions are no longer made by political leaders elected by the people, instead political action is curtailed by officials whom nobody sees: an opaque machine that makes sure we don’t spend too much. As a result, we end up with a system like Direct Provision which everybody knows to be wrong, but the costs-benefit analysis means that it doesn’t matter that it is wrong as long as it is cheap.

Under neoliberalism, production has increased rapidly but wages have flat-lined, as a result new lines of credit have been opened to people that never existed before to replace wages – of course debt has to be repaid. Likewise, debt as the proportion of GDP has also increased rapidly. These rapid increases in the levels of production, share-prices, and debt, have created an unstable economic system – as we saw clearly with the crash of 2008. However, this feature of the global economy is not seen as a problem because neoliberalism has actually reconciled itself to the boom-bust cycle: the overheating of the market and the crash that follows is not looked upon as a mark of instability; rather it is actually the way the system works.

Nietzsche said of debt that is had the same root as guilt in the German language. Of course Martin Luther had expressed the same idea centuries beforehand. In Aramaic, Jesus Christ used the same word for sin and debt as well. Just as sin imprisons us, so too does debt. People who are in debt are prisoners of the present because they have sold the future in order to feed the present. In this context, prayer is a statement that we do not own the future – the future belongs to God. As such, as Christians, we cannot legitimately sell our future. Of the Parables of Jesus, half are about money; these parables are irreconcilable with the logic of the neoliberal model.

Neoliberalism is pervasive and, perhaps, if you were to ask the neoliberal advocate what it means, the answer you may receive is “God”. In response to this damaging ideology and socio-economic phenomenon, the Jesuits have made neoliberalism one of their targets for attack. The Society of Jesus stated in their new Universal Apostolic Preferences: “We want to help counteract the pernicious consequences of the diverse forms of neoliberalism”.

 

The Consequences of Having Faith – Sheila Curran RMS

Sheila, the Justice Coordinator of AMRI (Association of Leaders of Missionaries & Religious of Ireland), began her presentation by quoting the gospels: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” She followed this with “when the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” Our faith, if we are serious about it, must transform our relationship with the world, but this is not easy – the rich young man left unhappy because he decided that the road was too difficult for him. Too often we treat faith as something safe, so that when we read the Magnificat, which is a great spiritual resource, we treat it as something nice and easy, when in fact it is about reordering our lives. We read the lines “He has filled the hungry with good things”, the temptation is to think that I will give some food to the poor and I have done my bit, but really in the context of the time (and today) food is fundamentally an economic and political animal.

If we want to understand how we and the Church have reconciled ourselves to the world over the centuries, but also how we can be transformed to challenge the world, we should look to South America. A good place to begin would be to read Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, which outlines the centuries of exploitation of South America. Only in 2015, did the Church for the first time make an apology for its role in providing a defence of the persecution of indigenous people, when Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the attacks done in the name of faith. In 2014 the Catholic Church has established REPAM, a network of nine churches of the Amazon region that promotes the rights and dignity of the people living in the Amazon.

The awakening of the prophetic voice of the Church to challenge injustice came with the publication of Gaudium et spes by Pope Paul VI in 1965 which called anew for the faithful to read the signs of the times. We do this with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. This became central to the development of Catholic Social Teaching following the Second Vatican Council. We are called to more than simply responding to the consequences of poverty – we are all too happy to put our hands in our pockets to give to charity when confronted with a humanitarian crisis, but we do not want to change the way we live, but this is what is required. Christ was not crucified because he was a nice guy, we must keep in mind the words of Gustavo Gutiérrez: “The Word of God is a double edged sword.”

How do we, as people of faith, live justly in line with the Magnificat and Catholic Social Teaching? How do we ensure that we serve God and not wealth? How do we become a serious global network – because we are a global network – committed to changing the world? So that the world will look at us and say once again: “See how those Christians love one another.”

Where Next for Financial Justice Ireland – Michael O’Sullivan

Michael, who has been working as the Justice and Peace Officer with the Columban Centre since 1993, was involved in the Jubilee Debt Campaign in 2000 and the establishment of the Debt and Development Coalition which was subsequently renamed Financial Justice Ireland. The change of name and the broadening of focus were as a result of a realisation that there needed to be discussion about more than debt forgiveness and that the financial system itself had to be critiqued and challenged.

The Jubilee campaign had been made up of a broad coalition, but at its root the idea came from the concept of jubilee in the Hebrew Scripture. This idea recognised that our world is ruled by Another, but that the human systems we create tend towards injustice. We therefore need mechanisms like the jubilee that right the system and restore justice. Margaret Thatcher’s phrase was TINA – “There Is No Alternative” – but a jubilee is all about taking a year out from the ongoing system to just that – offer an alternative – and to right the injustices that emerge through our human system.

Having gone through the financial crisis and economic crash of 2008, there was a realisation among many that the system is flawed. Furthermore there is increasing awareness of the impending crisis of climate change and that climate justice and financial justice are related. The neoliberal perspective that everything is tradable, and that there is a market solution to every problem, has led to the system of carbon trading. However, all this does is to offer ways to continue to extract carbon and contribute to the problem – there must be an alternative.

The question we must ask, and endeavour to answer, is what can faith communities offer in order to imagine the world in a different way?

 

John McGeady, OLA Justice Officer
3 April 2019