On this, the fifth year of Laudato Si’, our Justice Officer, John McGeady, draws on Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann’s book, The Prophetic Imagination, to reflect upon Irish climate policy and ideology, and the alternative vision offered by Pope Francis.
We begin our series by examining the failings of Irish climate policy and the role ideology plays in shaping politics and policy.
In his book The Prophetic Imagination, Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann introduces the concept of “royal consciousness”; the attitude and values of the powerful, shaped by a limited field of perception, and propagated throughout the culture. A consciousness in which memory is lost and our sense of time truncated, making the present appear inevitable, so that no alternative to the system upon which power rests is conceivable. In political thought, this concept of royal consciousness complements Antonio Gramsci’s theory of ideology. Today’s dominant neoliberal and technocratic ideology shapes – and hinders – the public policy responses required to tackle the existential threat posed by climate change. The failure of Government to respond meaningfully to climate change can best be understood as a moment of royal consciousness. The prevalent ideology can further be thought of as a form of idolatry that presents a circumscribed vision of reality that restricts rather than liberates, and weakens our capacity for action. In opposition to the royal consciousness, Brueggemann points to the “prophetic imagination”: a way of thinking, energised by faith, which enables the community to imagine a future different from the present. Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’, in which a vision of integral ecology articulates a challenge to the dominant consumer culture, constitutes such prophetic imagination.
Climate Change and Public Policy
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that climate change ‘will bring pain, suffering, and death to between two hundred and six hundred million people by the year 2060 [and] between 1.1 and 3.2 billion people face water shortages by 2080. […] The current rate of carbon release […] is ten times that which preceded the last major species extinction.’ (McDonagh, 2016, p. 27) In the face of such a forecast one might expect urgent and transformational policies across the globe. Instead, the response has been slow, ineffective and even counter-productive. The Irish response has been no different.
When Richard Bruton TD was appointed Minister for Climate Action and Environment he said there needs to be a revolution in the way we live (O’Sullivan, 2018). Yet on 27 May 2019 a license was granted for exploratory offshore drilling of natural gas.On the following day Government attached a money message to the private member’s Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill which proposed banning any further carbon extraction. The inclusion of a money message requires approval by Government for a Bill to proceed, thus halting its passage. ThisBill had initially been passed on first reading on 8 February 2018 with overwhelming support: 78 to 48. Given this clear democratic expression, as well as the State’s obligations under the Paris Agreement, there is no mandate for offshore drilling.These decisions were framed in terms of energy security, however meaningful energy security can only be achieved by eliminating dependence on fossil fuels and transitioning to renewables. It is unclear how Government can achieve its stated aim of carbon reduction while pursuing a policy of hydrocarbon extraction which will further contribute to the total quantity of carbon released globally.
This contradiction between Government action and rhetoric reveals a disjuncture between our leaders’ professed values and their effective values. Furthermore, apparent blindness (even wilful) to the magnitude of the challenge, rhetorical cynicism, and even a sense of futility can be detected: all of which characterise a royal consciousness. It has been suggested that our inability to face this challenge is because ours is an age dominated by an ideology of consumerism: ‘The age of neoliberalism is totalizing both in terms of preventing imaginable alternatives but also in terms of its vast consumption of created materials’ (Hargaden, 2018, p. 28) In other words, our inability to imagine alternatives is linked to our inability to imagine life without the present volume of consumption.
Ideology can be described as the set of ideas that are – consciously or otherwise – axiomatic in society and constitute our underlying assumptions (whether such ideas prove durable under scrutiny is another matter). These key ideas frame our thinking and direct perception, deliberation and decision-making, thus perpetuating social and economic patterns that exclude alternative possibilities for organising society. Gramsci used the term hegemony to describe the dominant ideology: ‘[the] predominance of the cultural norms, values and ideas […] in which a certain way of life and thought is dominant, in which one concept of reality is diffused throughout society’. (Woolcock, 1985, p. 204) These ideas and assumptions need not be coherent (at least not in practice); as long as they appear coherent and are repeated enough to form a hook on our thinking: ‘there are then many different types of ideological articulations within capitalism itself, and they operate as factors legitimizing the capitalist order, even in opposing ways […] a disjointed series of ideological remains held together by a hegemonic force.’ (Filippini, 2017, p. 13) In short, hegemonic ideology can be thought of as the prevalent “common sense” or “conventional wisdom”.
Neoliberalism constitutes the present hegemonic ideology; a set of economic principles that have invaded politics and culture: ‘a peculiar form of reason that configures all aspects of existence in economic terms.’ (Hargaden, 2018, p. 14) The dominant ideology hinders policy response to climate change precisely because effective transformational policy is an existential threat to the assumptions upon which the present system rests: ‘Our societies and economies, particularly in the West, but increasingly around the world, are structured around increasing material consumption.’ (Gold, 2018, p. 100) Our commitment to the system is motivated by an inability to imagine a future in which we consume less: ‘If there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism, it is because no other system can generate such volumes of wealth.’ (Hargaden, 2018, p. 23)
If neoliberalism shapes our discourse and promotes so-called “realistic” policy, it expresses a deeper set of assumptions that frame value and motive, the technocratic paradigm described by Francis: ‘humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm.’ (Laudato Si’, p. 106) This technocratic mode of thinking, with its emphasis on efficiency, has long been viewed as a threat to human flourishing within Christian thought. John Paul II described it as the underlying mode of thought that gives rise to a “Culture of Death”: ‘This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency.’ (Evangelium Vitae, p. 12) Benedict XVI also spoke of the ‘the contemporary technological mindset’, warning that the ‘“technical” worldview that follows from this vision is now so dominant that truth has come to be seen as coinciding with the possible. But when the sole criterion of truth is efficiency and utility, [integral human] development is automatically denied.’ (Caritas in Veritate, pp. 70-76) Francis describes the totalising nature of this promethean power, and warns that lacking a spirituality to orient us in the world, we cannot escape being seduced: ‘we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking […] a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.’ (Laudato Si’, p. 105) Given that technology is so intimately linked with economic production, the technical mode of thinking has become the organising principle for economy. In relation to environmental degradation we can see that whereas consideration for human and ecological well-being ought properly to constitute the organising motive in our politics, ‘Instead of ecological knowledge mutually informing economic practice there is now a mismatch, a kind of category error where economy-technology is paired rather than economy-ecology.’ (Kennedy, 2017)
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Filippini, M. (2017). Ideology. In Using Gramsci: A New Approach (P. J. Barr, Trans., pp. 4-23). London: Pluto Press. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1h64kxd.7
Francis. (2015). Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. Dublin: Veritas.
Gold, L. (2018). Climate Generation: Awakening to Our Children’s Future. Dublin: Veritas.
Hargaden, K. (2018). Theological Ethics in a Neoliberal Age: Confronting the Christian Problem with Wealth. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books.
John Paul II. (1995). Evangelium Vitae: On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life. Vatican.
Kennedy, C. B. (2017, August 28). Agrarian Insights on Ecological Conversion’. Church Life Journal: A Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life. Retrieved April 27, 2020, from https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/agrarian-insights-on-ecological-conversion-living-laudato-si/
McDonagh, S. (2016). On Care for Our Common Home: Laudato Si: The Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis on the Environment: With commentary by Sean McDonagh. New York: Orbis.
O’Sullivan, K. (2018, November 7). Threat of climate change requires ‘revolution in how we live’, says Bruton. The Irish Times.
Wood, R. C. (2005). Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Cambridge: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Woolcock, J. A. (1985, September). Politics, Ideology and Hegemony in Gramsci’s Theory. Social and Economic Studies, 34(3), 199-210. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/27862802