Earth Overshoot Day 2020
Life felt unencumbered as we washed and sliced the carrots, cucumbers and courgettes that had been harvested that afternoon.
It was the end of the second day of our Ecology Retreat at the Campus de la Transition, a community near Paris where Jesuits work alongside university professors, students and volunteers of all stripes, to bring about the ecological transition. We had begun the morning with yoga exercises to unite our body, breath and mind, cultivating an embodied consciousness in order to feel our connection to the world around us. We then created imaginative exercises based on Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, such as role playing a discussion with our seventh-generation decedents in order to expand our moral imagination out to future generations. These morning activities brought new meaning to the afternoon work of cleaning in the house and weeding and harvesting in the garden. By remaining attentive and present to ourselves and those around us, we enjoyed the freedom of feeling truly satisfied as we chopped vegetables under the hazy glow of the setting sun.
The retreat was not just a pleasant way for us to escape from the pressures of Parisian life. It was a hopeful response to our accelerating trajectory towards ecological collapse. We were joining the rest of the Campus de la Transition community in an effort to learn how to reduce our ecological footprint. This is necessary because the current rate at which we are consuming the planet’s resources far exceeds their regeneration. This is illustrated by the fact that humanity is overshooting natures budget (or biocapacity) for 2020 on the 22nd August this year. This date is slightly later than it was last year (29th July) because the corona virus pandemic has forced us to reduce our global consumption levels. One thing that this pandemic has taught us is that we can act quickly as a global community when we must. This should give us hope that we are capable of taking the urgent action necessary to continue to reduce our consumption levels until they fall within our planet’s limits.
Why are we choosing to live in a way that is destroying our common home? At the heart of this problem is the Western narrative of value, which encourages us to consume. People are often valued on the basis of their annual income or by how many frequent flyer miles they have accumulated. The more energy they consume, the more they become ‘somebody’. This narrative has led us to the edge of social and ecological collapse.
It’s time for a new narrative.
Under the old narrative, happiness was sold as a luxury flight to an exotic location where one could eat and drink without limit. The emerging narrative under the ecological transition challenges the claim that we need to be so destructive in order to be happy. In contrast to this narrative of consumption, it draws inspiration from the gently creative work of nature. Value is recognised as intrinsic, it does not need to be manufactured. Happiness is derived from nurturing and caring for what exists, not consuming or exploiting it. Jesus drew our attention to this when he gestured towards the sky and said, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26, NIV)
Our consumption is often driven by the fear that we do not have enough, that we need to attain more in order to be happy. But have we stopped to ask what it is that we need to be truly happy? Can a large house and a high income make us happy? Can international travel and fame make us happy? We must ask these questions, because the belief that we can be happy by attaining certain goods or positions in society may be causing a lot suffering for ourselves and others. This belief assumes that my personal needs are separate from the needs of others. We must consider, however, if we can derive true happiness from actions that are harmful to others. The narrative that glorifies the glamorous globetrotter ignores the obvious fact that we all inter-dependent. It even encourages us to forget our inter-connectedness.
It is time to remember who and what we are.
Our experience at the Campus de la Transition helped us to recognise four ways in which we must shift the narrative of our time if we wish to live within our planetary boundaries:
- From contradiction to coherence
We must educate ourselves about the facts of our situation so that we can make choices that are coherent with our values. For example, if we desire to minimise the number of climate refugees and slow the extinction rate of species, we must try to reduce our personal CO2 emissions to around 2 to 3 tonnes per year. This requires us to pay attention to what we eat, minimise our use of carbon emitting transport and reduce our waste.
- From consumption to care
We must learn to care rather than consume our way to happiness. A contemplative look at our world can help us to see its beauty, to appreciate what we have. With this way of looking, we will learn to value and care for creation. Our desire to care will lead us to transition from individualism to solidarity as we seek to improve the relationships around us.
- From apathy to agency
We must take responsibility to transition structures in society that are exploitative towards structures that serve the common good. Building community and taking political action on behalf of the marginalised will help to increase the resilience and wellbeing of society as a whole. In order to do this skilfully, we must learn to communicate and discern more effectively.
- From avoidance to acceptance
We must learn how to live peacefully with the tensions in our life rather and accept those things that we find challenging. Embracing our weaknesses and fragility can be a source of strength when facing the challenge of meeting the many needs of our world today. If we can embrace our inter-dependence, rather than constantly trying to exceed our personal limits, we can achieve more than we might imagine possible.
A new narrative that reflects the reality of our situation, as part of creation, is necessary if we wish to cultivate lasting personal and collective happiness. Our experience on the Ecology Retreat helped us to recognise that happiness is not an individual matter. We took the time to pay attention to the needs of our minds and bodies, the environment and all living and future beings, and to identify how they can be met harmoniously. Recognising our inter-connectedness with everything was a step towards being truly happy in that moment, as it liberated us from the need to run after something more. When we learn to appreciate and care for each other in the present, rather than competing to consume, our sustainable future will become a present reality.
If this content was of interest then you might like Season of Creation. Jacques and other Jesuits will be contributing to this.