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
Concluding the series, we look to Pope Francis’ liberating encyclical Laudato Si’ as an expression of prophetic imagination that points to a way out of our present carbon-consumer culture.
An Alternative Vision: Integral Ecology and Prophetic Imagination
In the midst of society dominated by royal consciousness, Brueggemann points to prophetic imagination as a means of exodus; not only by challenging the deadening culture, but also by imagining a path out of the present: ‘It is the task of the prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God.’ (Brueggemann, 2018, pp. 59-60) Laudato Si’ is such a prophetic response to the hegemonic ideology, as it offers a way of imagining the world anew, and escaping the grip of royal consciousness. The encyclical proposes an alternative vision for orienting ourselves and our community: integral ecology. This way of thinking about our relationship with our world from an ecological perspective, in which everything is not only connected, but fraternally interdependent, stands opposed to the hegemonic ideology of individualism, efficiency and consumerism: ‘From an ecological standpoint, however, the autonomous individual [at the centre of neoliberalism] is more of a fetish than a fact. […] there is a need to reconsider radically the anthropological foundations of the current economic order.’ (Cronin, 2017, pp. 97-103) Thus, integral ecology provides a perspective for evaluating and orienting our priorities such that, ‘politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy.’ (Laudato Si’, p. 189)
Francis explains that developing environmental and social policy without moving towards an alternative paradigm that rejects consumerist culture is inadequate: ‘it is not enough to include a few superficial ecological considerations while failing to question the logic which underlies present-day culture.’ (Laudato Si’, p. 197) In line with the prophetic ministry described by Brueggemann, Francis not only focuses on changing systems, but converting people. He insists that the reshaping culture requires the emergence of new consciousness: ‘it is we human beings above all who need to change.’ (Laudato Si’, p. 202) Francis recognises that, unanchored from history and tradition, such interior conversion is impossible if exposed solely to the hegemonic culture: ‘a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence which makes it difficult to develop other habits.’ (Laudato Si’, p. 209) 209. The ability both to imagine a future different from the present, and to live oriented towards that vision, is made possible by the capacity to remember a past that was also different; in this way memory breaks out of the totalizing present tense: ‘a community rooted in energising memories and summoned by radical hope is a curiosity and a threat in such a [dominant] culture.’ (Brueggemann, 2018, p. 1) Laudato Si’ is rooted in such memory and tradition as it looks to St. Francis of Assisi whose choice to embrace poverty stands as inspiration: ‘“[his] refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (LS §11) stands as a radical counter-example to the current technocratic drive to dominate.’ (Kennedy, 2017) This vision of life directed by ecological consciousness is hope-filled and fruitful: ‘Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. […] It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full.’ (Laudato Si’, pp. 222-223)
The pursuit of an alternative way of life requires imagination and hope sustained by energizing memory; as such, even this approach represents a challenge to the technocratic mindset: ‘The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing.’ (Brueggemann, 2018, p. 40) Furthermore, an ecological attitude, which invariably instils a sense gratitude, is necessarily non-individualistic: ‘Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit.’ (Laudato Si’, p. 159) According to Francis, the interdependence essential to integral ecology, and the sense of fraternity and gratitude it inspires, inevitably leads to the development of prophetic communities motivated by love: ‘social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society. […] Thus, a community can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism.’ (Laudato Si’, pp. 231-232) The prophetic imagination essential to such alternative communities is an assault on the royal consciousness, and a vanguard towards a new paradigm: ‘The creed that “There Is No Alternative” begins to topple when we suspect there’s something more than at first appears to be. To show that there is space outside of the system is to destabilize the entire edifice, since its authority stems from appearing total.’ (Hargaden, 2018, p. 33)
To sum up, Irish government policy has not only lacked ambition, but lacks the vision needed for ambition, and represents an attempt to respond without actually responding. Underlying this failure of policy is an inability to commit to the necessary system change, which in turn is due to an inability to imagine an alternative to our present system. Such lack of imagination is characteristic of the royal consciousness, and is profoundly anti-human insofar as the distinguishing human trait is our imagination and creativity – our dreaming and hope. Thatcher’s slogan “There Is No Alternative” (Evans, 1997, p. 45) represents an abdication of our moral duty to find alternatives to an unsustainable present. Furthermore, our commitment to such a narrow field of perception, enclosed imagination, and false security is a form of idolatry: a decision to trust in something other than God, to trust in “old certainties” even as they fail to respond to the new reality. In so doing, we forego the liberty to explore new possibilities because it entails the risk inherent in a leap of faith into an as yet unimagined future. A prophetic imagination, on the other hand, remembers things were not always thus, and is therefore open to new possibilities. This openness comes from a renunciation of misplaced trust in human mastery of creation, replaced by faith in God through whom all things are possible: ‘The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely.’ (Laudato Si’, p. 233) Emerging from this alternative consciousness, Francis offers a vision of society with integral ecology as its organising premise; that sees our world not merely as a resource to be exploited but a good in itself, and which trusts in moral action and imagination to cultivate a flourishing future: ‘seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.’ (Matthew 6:33)
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