Beds are Burning

A reflection on the Australian bushfires by Dr Sandie Cornish

The scale and intensity of the bushfires currently burning in Australia are ‘unprecedented anywhere in the world’ according to the Australian Academy of Science. The fire season is far from over and already estimates of up to 18 million hectares have burned. Twenty-seven people and literally more than a billion other creatures may have perished. More than 1,800 homes have been destroyed. The last remaining habitat of the long-footed potoroo has been destroyed. Rainforests long considered too wet to burn have burned for the first time and might not regrow. Endangered species such as the spotted-tail quoll, brush-tailed rock-wallaby and corroboree frog have been impacted and may now be extinct. The armed forces have been called in to help manage the biohazard risk posed by thousands of dead livestock whose carcases are strewn around the country. The extent of the impact on businesses, the supply and price of food, and the economy in general is yet to fully emerge. As public anger and frustration at the lack of insight, urgency and adequacy in Federal government’s response rise, the Midnight Oil lyric ‘how do we sleep while our beds are burning?’ keeps coming to my mind.

Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, Chair of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference Commission for Social Justice – Mission and Service, has called the bushfires a ‘wake-up call to Australia and all Australians’ that urges us all to an ecological conversion. In other words, the bushfires are a sign of the times, and we need not just to put them out but also to look into their meaning. We need to discern God’s call to us through this crisis.

‘How do we sleep while our beds are burning?’

How did we get to this point? How could we not see the need for change before our beds were burning?

Actually, many Australians did read the signs of the times. There was sufficient concern in the community and among politicians that Professor Ross Garnaut was commissioned in 2007 by Australian governments at the State and Territory level, together with the Federal Government, to investigate the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy. Having examined the scientific knowledge available at that time, he predicted that, if adequate action on climate change were not taken, we would, among other things, face a more frequent, longer and intense fire season by 2020.  His report also recommended medium to long-term policies and policy frameworks to improve the prospects for sustainable prosperity. In 2010 Garnaut was commissioned by the Federal Government to provide an update, which he did in 2011.

On the other hand, over the past two decades loud voices in the traditional and social media have persistently dismissed the reality of climate change, the role of human behaviour in it, and its seriousness for people and the planet. Political parties have been split over whether and how to respond, and leaders in both of the major political groupings have lost their positions because of fallout around the issue. Ideology rather than science has dominated the debate in recent times.

As a result, Australia has not had a coherent energy policy, a carbon transition plan, or adequate emission reduction targets. Bishop Long says,

‘as a nation, we cannot claim to be a responsible global citizen in addressing the moral challenge of our age while we lag behind other nations on climate action and continue to subsidise old polluting industries.’

Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen

Climate change has been impacting our Pacific neighbours in catastrophic ways for some time, and now the Australian community too is directly affected. We are suffering the consequences of our own actions and lack of action, and that of humanity at large. Equating the common good with national self-interest is not only morally bankrupt, but it also cannot work in practice in the interconnected web of life on this planet. Whether we choose to be responsible global citizens or not, we are in fact one human family sharing a common home with one another and all of God’s creatures.

Paying attention to the science, and to empirical evidence, rather than ideology, or thinly-masked self-interest, is not just good sense – it is a theological imperative. God communicates with us through the people, places and events of the world. The Federal government seems determined to focus only on immediate needs and rebuilding, and to avoid questions about causes. However an incarnational faith leads us to ask deeper questions about the meaning of events, as well as giving God’s love flesh and bones in practical responses to the needs of people, other creatures and the planet. The victims of these fires need many things: immediate material assistance; psychological support to deal with experiences of grief, fear, loss and anger; and a sense of safety and of hope for the future. They are entitled to have their questions about why this has happened taken seriously and not deferred or deflected through simplistic blame-shifting misinformation.

Bishop Long points out that lament (grieving with the bereaved, displaced and traumatized, and with creation itself) repentance, the effort to repair damage done, and the transformation of behaviour, are all elements of a process of ecological conversion. In his World Day of Peace Message for 2020, Pope Francis adds that ‘we need to change the way we think and see things’ and that an ecological conversion entails ‘a transformation of how we relate to our sisters and brothers, to other living beings, to creation in all its rich variety and to the Creator who is the origin and source of all life.’

As the destruction continues, we also continue to lament, but we do not, as Bishop Long says, ‘simply remain in lament’. We should all examine our consciences on the question of intergenerational justice and the universal common good. Are we only now concerned about climate change adaptation and risk mitigation because we can see how we ourselves are directly affected – because our own beds are now actually burning? Have we been willing to prioritise action to reduce carbon emissions and to contribute materially to a just carbon transition for all people and communities – or have we been kicking the can down the road? Did we vote in the last election in ways that placed our own short-term interests ahead of the fate of our common home? Are we willing to change the way we live in order to repair the damage done and rebuild a better future?

‘How can we dance when our earth is turning?’

There are lessons to be learnt about the need for critical reflection on opinions that are presented as news or facts, and the danger of not effectively challenging misinformation. Even now, apologists for the status quo continue to seek scapegoats, to spread dangerous untruths, and to peddle simplistic ‘silver bullet’ solutions (for example, there should have been more back burning) to complex problems. We need regularly to ask ourselves if what we read, hear or see is actually true. We should ask ourselves who benefits from these positions – is it the poor or the earth or our grandchildren?

More than ever, we need a properly funded, apolitical, national broadcaster that can be relied upon to provide timely, factual information, especially in times of crisis.

Privately owned media organisations may be driven by profit or the political agendas of owners. They may, or may not, serve the public interest.

We also need to consider anew the responsibilities of people, communities, business, and governments. All have a role to play. Our personal actions matter. They might not achieve the systemic changes that are necessary, but they give external expression to our values and commitments. They focus our minds and hearts on the important questions, and they engage our will to play our part. Our personal actions can manifest the desire for change and even provide a market signal.

Business groups have long asked for a clear energy policy to provide greater certainty for investment. It is astonishing to see some businesses moving towards renewable energy sources and divesting from carbon for economic reasons while governments that profess a commitment to free markets seek to entice or even force them to keep polluting and uneconomic coal power stations running! Beyond the short term, sustainability is good business.

A philosophical commitment to small government should not excuse the political parties which have formed government from the role of proactively organising and promoting the common good. Only governments can legislate the requirements for urban planning, building standards, land, water and wildlife management. It is the role of governments to provide emergency services, to plan for and coordinate disaster responses, and to regulate economic activity as necessary to protect people and the planet. A clear and coherent energy policy would provide certainty for investment in renewable energy and green technologies thus hastening the emergence of sustainable jobs for the future. Jobs and care for creation are not opposed – they are both part of an integral ecology, that is, a way of living in right relationships on this planet.

It is heartening to see the generosity of so many people in response to this crisis, but we should not need to rely on celebrity donations and fundraisers. Don’t our elected governments have the power to organise the contributions of the whole community through a progressive tax-transfer system? Writing in a section of Laudato Si’ (On Care for our Common Home) on dialogue and transparency in decision-making, Pope Francis warns that

‘if in a given region the state does not carry out its responsibilities, some business groups can come forward in the guise of benefactors, wield real power, and consider themselves exempt from certain rules …’

Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, n 197

How accountable are big name donors to the people of Australia?  Do we want them to shape our response to this crisis? Are we happy for our governments or essential services to become beholden to donors?

‘We need to change the way we think and see things’

Today the church year enters Ordinary Time, but these are not ordinary times. However this bushfire season might be the new normal if we do not act.

We are all called to live simpler, more ecologically sustainable lives. It means disengaging from a consumerist culture and facing anew questions of value and meaning. We will need to adapt to changed conditions of life on the planet.

We are called to understand ourselves as creatures among God’s creatures. This is the big shift in teaching in Laudato Si’. Our relationship with the other beings and things of creation is not one of management or supervision – which is what a theology of stewardship often amounts to – but one of care and kinship. For many mainstream Christians this will be a spiritual revolution! Habitat restoration, biodiversity and species preservation, together with land and water management must be part of our bushfire rebuilding.

Can we imagine God asking us: ‘where is your sister long-footed potoroo? Where is your brother corroboree frog?’

We are called, both personally and nationally, to a commitment to the common good which is universal and intergenerational in character. We cannot put off ecological questions, leaving them to future generations – or future governments – to deal with. Nor can we refuse to engage seriously with efforts to limit global warming because our contribution seems small. Much more ambitious carbon reduction targets are needed along with an energy policy and an economic transition plan informed by science. We are all in this together and we are responsible for each other.

We are called to dethrone the market economy which we have made into an idol. We need to engage in serious ethical reflection on how we organise the allocation of resources and the production and distribution of goods. What part can the market rightly play? What else is needed to ensure an integral ecology that heeds the cry of the poor and the earth?

Our beds are burning. It is time to wake up and smell the smoke.

The Right to Climate Strike?

#ClimateStrike 20 September 2019

Some Catholic schools actively supported the 20 September 2019 school climate strike, providing the scaffolding to ensure that it would be a balanced learning experience, while others simply allowed students to be absent with parental permission. At the Sydney rally I saw many adults from Catholic groups and religious institutes attending to support the striking students. My social media feeds, and the general media coverage, show that this was also the case in other places too. Meanwhile, some Catholic education bodies cited Catholic Social Teaching to encourage students to stay in school instead of striking.

The Fridays for the Future campaign ensures that the question of whether or not to support student strikes for climate change action will be on-going. So, how might Catholic Social Teaching help us to decide whether or not to support further school strikes for climate change action?

The Right to Strike

Catholic social teaching has a long tradition of affirming the right to strike. However, it does set some limits and conditions on this right; the right to strike is not absolute. Furthermore, Catholic teaching on the right to strike developed in response to workers’ efforts to achieve social and economic justice. It doesn’t directly address student strikes on ecological issues. We have to interpret what Catholic Social Teaching says about strikes in the context of the broader body of teaching, including teaching on care for creation, and teaching on political participation, in order to discern our position.

Let’s start by recalling what Catholic Social Teaching has to say about the right of workers to strike. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes a strike in the following way:

… the collective and concerted refusal on the part of workers to continue rendering their services, for the purpose of obtaining by means of such pressure exerted on their employers, the State or on public opinion either better working conditions or an improvement in their social status.

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church n 304.

So we see that the right to strike presupposes a right to association. In other words, people have a right to act collectively to defend the rights of a group within the context of the common good (See Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens n 20). As long ago as 1891, Pope Leo XIII understood that the imbalance in power between workers and employers made trade unions necessary. By acting together in solidarity through unions, workers would have a better chance of achieving just wages and working conditions (Rerum Novarum n 50-51). We can see a parallel here with the power imbalance between students and governments.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that:

Recourse to a strike is morally legitimate when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit. It becomes morally unacceptable when accompanied by violence, or when objectives are included that are not directly linked to working conditions or are contrary to the common good.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, n 2435.

Limiting strikes to matters connected with the employment relationship prevents workers from harming the interests of employers, or society in general, in an instrumental manner. Businesses, or the community, should not be treated as collateral damage in pursuing matters that are beyond their control or responsibility.

The Compendium also recalls that Pope John Paul II saw striking as ‘a kind of ultimatum to the competent bodies’ which could be used as a peaceful method of making demands or fighting for one’s rights (n 304, see also Laborem Exercens n 20). An ultimatum should be a last resort when other methods have failed. Furthermore, the good to be achieved by a strike should be proportionate to the disruption caused.

How does this help us in thinking through the student strikes for climate change action?

Education as the ‘Work’ of Students

In Australia, attending school is a duty imposed on young people between certain ages by the State through legislation. Students are expected – by their families and the community as well as the State – to study in order to develop their skills, knowledge and capabilities in order to participate in society as active citizens, and to make their contribution to the common good.  Like workers and employers, there is a relationship of mutual obligation and benefit between students and the State. Attending school and participating in educational activities is the social obligation of school students.

The State also has duties towards students. Like other members of society, students expect the State to protect and foster their human rights, and to organise and promote the common good. In fact, this is what the role of the State is, according to Catholic Social Teaching (Catechism, n 1910). The State has a duty to consider the future impacts of its policies and priorities, its action and inaction, on young people and generations to come.

School students say that the State is failing to protect their rights – to clean air, drinkable water, a liveable climate – in sum, their right to a future. This claim goes to the heart of the mutual obligation between students, and the State, which is the authority that requires them to attend school. For the students, demanding effective action on climate change is analogous to demanding a more just work contract.

The students are correct in identifying the State as the competent body in relation to climate change policy. While individuals, businesses and civil society can make a difference, only the State can provide the politico-juridical framework for action on climate change. Only the State can set energy policy. Only the State can enact laws for the protection of endangered species. Through the school strike, students withdrew their time and attention from the task required of them by the State, which is the competent body to address their demands.

Proportionate Benefit and the Common Good

It can hardly be said that the student strike was over a trivial matter, or one that is contrary to the common good. The gravity of the situation, and the lack of effective response, made their ultimatum proportionate, and, many might say, necessary. Even Pope Francis has adopted the language of ‘climate emergency’. In his message for the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Pope Francis says:

The increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather phenomena and the desertification of the soil are causing immense hardship for the most vulnerable among us. Melting of glaciers, scarcity of water, neglect of water basins and the considerable presence of plastic and microplastics in the oceans are equally troubling, and testify to the urgent need for interventions that can no longer be postponed. We have caused a climate emergency that gravely threatens nature and life itself, including our own.

Pope Francis, Message for World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, 2019.

The good at stake is certainly proportionate to a day off school and a bit of disruption to traffic in the city. Far from being contrary to the common good, the student strike draws attention to the intergenerational nature of the common good. In his Message Pope Francis calls for ‘prophetic action’ and acknowledges that:

Many young people all over the world are making their voices heard and calling for courageous decisions. They feel let down by too many unfulfilled promises, by commitments made and then ignored for selfish interests or out of expediency. The young remind us that the earth is not a possession to be squandered, but an inheritance to be handed down. They remind us that hope for tomorrow is not a noble sentiment, but a task calling for concrete actions here and now. We owe them real answers, not empty words, actions not illusions.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis takes up the global and intergenerational nature of the common good in more detail in his encyclical on care for our common home, Laudato Si’. In it he affirms that ‘the notion of the common good also extends to future generations’ and calls for intergenerational solidarity as ‘a basic question of justice’ because ‘the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us’ (n 159).

The Right to be Heard

Many schools, including Catholic schools, are doing a good job in educating young people about ecological issues. It is one of the reasons that so many young people are passionately committed to climate change action; they understand the urgency of the matter. In fact, they may well have researched the issues, considered different opinions, and assessed evidence more thoroughly than their parents and politicians.

Suggesting that school students should study and delay action until they are adults dismisses and disrespects their agency as human persons. The capacity and responsibility to act of one’s own free will is an essential element of human dignity and is not acquired at adulthood. School students do not yet have a vote, but they have a right to be heard in decision-making that will affect them for decades to come. They have a responsibility to take action according to their ability. And, unfortunately, many of the actions that young people are calling on governments to make cannot wait several years.

Importantly, attending the climate strike rally, and learning about the issues at school in order to equip oneself for effective action, are not mutually exclusive options. In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis notes that ecological education cannot be ‘limited to providing information’ and that it ‘can take place in a variety of settings’ (n 211, 212). Good ecological education supports young people to exercise their freedom and responsibility as persons, and to take action according to their ability. I met school teachers and parents at the Sydney rally who were attending with students. They will help the students to critically assess all that they saw and heard and experienced, deepening the learning experience, and providing formation in reflection on action.

Schools take their responsibility for the safety and well-being of students very seriously, and rightly so. Out of school learning experiences may raise legitimate concerns regarding risk management. Such risks might arise in relation to specific places, events, and cohorts of students. Any risks need to be identified, mitigated, and assessed. Are they proportionate to the good that could be achieved? We should acknowledge too that the resources available to schools in order to manage risks varies. Some schools may not have been in a position to responsibly support the climate strike. Of course, it is parents who have primary responsibility for their children, including primary responsibility for their education. Some exercised this responsibility by accompanying their children to the rally rather than leaving the decision to the school.

It is true that striking is not the only way in which a young person can take action on climate change. School students have grown impatient with petitions, letters to politicians, and meetings that have not resulted in change – and they are not the only ones. A strike is not a routine action, it is an ultimatum.

Intergenerational Solidarity

In the lead up to the climate strike, People of Faith for Climate Strikes published an open letter that said, in part:

On Friday, September 20, 2019 young people around the world are engaging in a Global Climate Strike to demand urgent action by world leaders based on values of compassion, love, and justice. Organizers are inviting their peers and adult allies to join them in stepping away from school, work, or their normal activities to join them.

We fully support this strike. We urge people of faith and spirit everywhere in the world to join this vital action.

People of Faith for Climate Strikes

One of the signatories was Fr. Joshtrom Isaac Kureethadam SDB, Coordinator of the Sector on Ecology and Creation of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development in the Vatican. This is hardly surprising given Pope Francis’ clear and urgent teaching on social, economic and ecological justice – and his encouragement to young people to ‘make a noise’.

Intergenerational solidarity calls us to support young people in their efforts to address urgent issues of ecological justice. It calls us to be ‘adult allies’ who respect their agency and accompany them rather than taking over.  Parents, teachers, family members – and adults in general – can walk with young people, assisting them in processing information and experiences, in assessing positions, actions and strategies.

Fridays for the Future

Catholic Social Teaching provides orientations for action, and principles and criteria that assist us in assessing strategies for action, but it recognises a legitimate plurality of responses (see Pope Paul VI, Octogesima Adveniens, n 4). As we have seen, a strong case can be made supporting the climate strike drawing on Catholic Social Teaching. Furthermore, this practical judgement is shared by senior officials of the Holy See. It is not a fringe view.

The Fridays for the Future website provides a range of ideas for sustained, ongoing action. It points out that ‘strikes’ can take a number of forms. A number of the actions mentioned could easily be adopted by schools and parishes without major on-going absences from school.

One suggestion is to strike a bell each Friday. We can connect this action with our Catholic tradition by doing it at midday and praying the Angelus. The Angelus reminds us, among other things, of the power in salvation history of one young woman’s courageous openness to God’s call. It can encourage us to be open to how God is acting through young people today.

Intercessions for the Season of Creation

Pope Francis encourages Catholics to join in celebrating the Season of Creation throughout the Sundays of September until 4 October – the Feast of St Francis of Assisi. Find out more about the history of the Season of Creation here.

Although it is not a liturgical season, we can celebrate the Season of Creation within our liturgies in a number of ways. For example, we can include current ecological concerns in our prayers of intercession.

Here are some examples that you can adapt for your own community. For example, I hope that my parish will pray for the little penguins that live in our area.

Week One: 1 September

For political leaders, that they may act to protect the web of life on the planet.

For local communities in cities and regions, that all may understand their place in creation and their impact on the web of life.

For our parish community, that we may nurture the human and ecosystem ecology of our common home.

Week Two: 8 September

For our political leaders, that they may care for the poor and the earth by planning wisely for a just energy transition away from fossil fuels.

For communities that are currently reliant on fossil fuels for energy and employment, that they may see the development of sustainable energy sources and jobs for the future of their children.

For our parish community, that we may understand and take to heart Pope Francis’ call for a just energy transition to a low carbon future.

Week Three: 15 September

For our world and all it’s endangered species, that we may learn to respect and protect all of God’s creatures.

For our Nation’s leaders, that they may act to protect the unique creatures of our country.

For our parish community, that we may appreciate and protect the plants and animals native to this area, and listen attentively to what they teach us about our Creator.

Week Four: 22 September

For our thirsty world, that we may care for and share access to clean water which is God’s gift to all.

For our political leaders, that they may ensure the protection of our common heritage of the great artisan basin for the good of all.

For communities affected by drought, that they may receive the rain that they need and the assistance of others to see them through.

Week Five: 29 September

We pray for the church leaders in our country, that they may help us to live more deeply an integral ecology.

We pray for political, corporate and community leaders, that they may they foster the global common good keeping in mind the good of future generations.

We pray for all those displaced by climate change, that they may find welcome and assistance to make a new home.

We pray for our local community, that we may rise above self-interest to protect our common home for generations to come.

Week Six: 4 October, the Feast of St Francis of Assisi

We pray for Pope Francis, that he may continue to inspire us to care for God’s creation.

We pray for the leaders of Pacific island nations threatened by rising sea levels, that they may find ways of providing a secure future for their people.

We pray for those whose traditional livelihoods are threatened by changing weather patterns, that they may find assistance in transitioning to new ways of living and working.

We pray for First Nations peoples, that their relationship with their traditional lands and waters be respected, and that their wisdom may guide us all in forming right relationships with creation.

Violence Will Not Have the Last Word

Lost for Words

When a compatriot of mine killed fifty people at worship in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on 15 March 2019, I had no words for the horror, the anger, the grief, the sadness. No words for the shame that one of us could do such a thing, no words for my steadfast belief that things do not have to be this way. New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, found the words to comfort and encourage her people.

The Passion Continues

Again, our hearts are breaking for people killed and many injured while at worship. The final death toll for those killed at churches and hotels on Easter Sunday in Columbo, Sri Lanka is yet to the reckoned.

During Holy Week, just concluded, Christians all over the world walked with Jesus the Way of the Cross. It is a drama that is always unfolding in time and space. As the Easter bombings in Columbo so cruelly remind us, Jesus continues to be crucified today.

Jesus is crucified in the victims of extremism that uses faith as a cover for hate and the lust for power.  Jesus is stripped naked and humiliated in the children and vulnerable adults sexually abused in so many institutional settings, including our church.  Jesus continues to be tortured in each person being tortured right now by political regimes that will not tolerate dissent and which supress human freedom. In these, and so many other ways, the via Crucis goes on. The whole of creation groans in pain from the violence of those who reject the Prince of Peace, as it awaits its resurrection.

Until the fullness of time, it is always Good Friday, but at the same time Easter Sunday.

Finding Words and Actions

As Easter people, Christians know that violence does not have the last word.  Jesus is the Word and his death was not the end of the story. He is alive and active in the world today. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of him in small gestures of kindness – or in grand and hopeful efforts for world peace like the seminar on The Path of Nonviolence recently co-hosted by Pax Christi and the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development.

We are called to follow Jesus’ path beyond violence to new life.  When we relinquish violence and vengeance, we refrain from crucifying one another. To be people of the resurrection, we need to find the words and actions that will take the crucified peoples down from their crosses. And we have to stop building crosses. We have to give up our addiction to violence and trust in the Prince of Peace.

As Cardinal Turkson said at the seminar on The Path of Nonviolence:

“Jesus’ resurrection was not a symbol of revenge, but rather a new life that brought the gift of new peace to his community and to the whole of the universe. The resurrection was in fact the ultimate symbol of the victory of love over evil, of active non-violence over violence, of the way of peace over the way of war and vengeance.”

Cardinal Turkson, The Path of Nonviolence Seminar, 4-5 April 2019.

It is the hope of many who participated in the seminar that Pope Francis will find the words to effectively encourage Christian nonviolence in a new encyclical that would further develop Church teaching affirming nonviolence.

Peace Be Upon You

Jacinda Ardern recognised the power of the Arabic greeting As-Salaam-Alaikum, peace be upon you. Peace comes from just and loving relationships with one another, with creation, and with God. It is an insight shared by many faiths.

Let us wish peace upon one another, and work with steadfast love for it at every level.

Sandie Cornish

22 April 2019