Integral ecology and the ‘interior’ world

This week I had the honour of giving a reflection at the Trócaire Lecture given by Cardinal Peter Turkson, the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The lecture was on “integral ecology” – the topic which Pope Francis’ much anticipated Encyclical will cover later this year. I have to confess that before this week I knew very little about integral ecology. After immersing myself in the subject in preparation for the lecture, I am fascinated by the idea and look forward to learning more. Three aspects of it appealed to me:

  • integral ecology demands that we put care for creation and a planetary perspective at the heart of all our decision-making. Environmental issues have to come out of their ‘special interest group’ box and become an integral part of all decisions. In the words of Pope Francis, Christians are not being asked to ‘go green’ but to ‘be Christian’.
  • integral ecology requires us to shift to a systems way of thinking. It is about integration and synthesis rather than individual, isolated perpsectives. I was really taken by this idea.
  • integral ecology means placing far greater value on ‘interiority’ – the awareness that is present within all living beings. This aspect of the concept really appeals to me – and is of huge value in a world which tends to devalue or disregard interiority.

The absence of integration and synthesis today is everywhere, especially in the political world. It results in incoherence in policies at every level, like that I mentioned in my previous blog. I see this especially when I go to the UN. It is remarkable to witness the sheer numbers and industriousness of NGOs, policy makers, officials… all fighting for very worthy goals. “I’m for disability” “I’m for indigenous peoples” “I’m for small island states” “I’m for people living in extreme poverty”… and so on. Yet everyone is so caught up in fighting their own corner. The end result is 17 new Sustainable Development Goals with 169 targets!!! This sounds fine until you realise that virtually no-one is thinking about the sum of the parts, the systemic questions which make the achievement of these goals possible. It is just too complicated, the power interests are too great. The result is ineffective action, not seeing the wood for the trees.

If we begin to focus on the ‘whole’, the ‘systems’, as an integral ecology proposes, it becomes evident that we need to rethink of our hierarchy of public values which currently puts economic growth above ecology – consumption above conservation, private gain above the universal destination of goods. As a placard at the Climate march last September put it “tell the next generation: it was the economy, stupid!” Despite so much research on human and planetary well-being, governments still define progress in terms of national and global economic growth, even when that growth is predicated on the destruction of the planet we call home. There is something seriously wrong in our accounting system! Rethinking global economic governance in a way that reduces excessive, wasteful consumption but still allows those living in poverty to achieve a decent standard of living is the major challenge today. Redistributive justice is also an ecological issue.

Developing an integral ecology is a collective exercise. This means focusing energy on breaking down the intellectual and political silos and finding ways to achieve new insights through shared knowledge. This demands a very different skill set to what is valued today. Yes, it still requires technical expertise. But above all, it requires an ability to dialogue, to share perspectives, to listen, to try to engage and understand the others perspective and appreciate what is good about it. It requires a certain humility – an ability to see that none of us has the whole truth, but many of us have partial truths.

What is most exciting about the ide of an integral ecology to me is the value it places on ‘interiority’: the spiritual and cultural renewal required to make the shift to a just and sustainable future. This transition, which prioritises care for creation and the poor, can only be achieved through a change of heart, a valuing of interiority. As Cardinal Turkson said at the lecture, ‘we will care for what we cherish and revere’. It means cultivating a sense of ‘wonder and awe’.

Western culture traditionally has placed little value on interiority, almost assuming that a rational, technical, materialist culture is adapted to address the problems of the 21st century. Religion is widely regarded as a private affair. Yet the attitudes, behaviours and values needed are far different. Rather than focusing on quick technical fixes, the key questions for society has to be ‘What is the interior world, the thought systems, the values that sustain or undermine an integral ecology?’ It strikes me that a communitarian spirituality, which is deeply attune to dialogue and mutual understanding, in this regard, becomes a critical public good. As Pope Francis points to, the horizon of hope needs to open up and be underpinned by a new interiority – a change of heart, a ‘revolution of tenderness’. In fact, the flourishing of a counter-culture which actually recognises the beauty and value of less is a profound paradox. It is a hard sell for those who are bought into the dominant culture, but perhaps not for those who have made the Gospel of love and justice the motivating force for their life!

6 thoughts on “Integral ecology and the ‘interior’ world

  1. I like the phrase, ‘revolution of tenderness’! I also like the idea of conservation plus interiority. I think that is sometimes called ‘deep ecology’ isnt it?

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