People stock up on water in Dhaka, Bangladesh, because of drought (Kazi Salahuddin Razu/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Integral ecology. Against individualism

The environmental emergency is linked to migration, exploitation, unemployment, the struggle for resources that triggers conflict and generates poverty. Simona Beretta speaks about it in the January issue of Tracce.
Maria Acqua Simi

It is not easy to talk about ecological transition. And that is not because of the high risk of falling into polarizations or stereotypes that do little or nothing to help us understand what we are talking about. The struggle for the planet's resources that triggers conflicts and generates poverty and migration, the impoverishment of the Earth's assets, the unemployment of young people and its dramatic consequences. These are not unrelated topics, but are profoundly connected. Behind the many distortions that the world is experiencing, explains Simona Beretta, Professor of International Economic Policy at the Catholic University of Milan, is a misperception of our relationship with the Mystery. Abstraction? Absolutely not. "Today, considering the problem of ecological transition, of caring for creation, is no longer taken for granted because we only conceive of ourselves as individuals, so we find it hard to perceive ourselves members of a community. We think that the world, others, are something absolutely distant from us, as are politics and institutions. Instead, Catholic openness, openness to the universal is a trait we can educate ourselves to. We must educate ourselves.”

What do you mean by “openness to the universal”?
In Pensieri improvvisi [Sudden Thoughts], Andrei Sinjavskij writes of a peasant who stops under the stars of the immense Russian steppe, looks at them and makes the sign of the cross. At that moment, says Sinjavskij, that man has an incomparably more meaningful connection with the universe than the man sitting on the sofa, wearing Czechoslovakian imported leather boots and smoking a Cuban cigar. Globalisation is not smoking a Cuban cigar. When you look at the stars you have a true perception of the world. Immersing ourselves in the experience of others is the only tool we have to understand poverty, migration, the depletion of the Earth's resources. And then, eventually, to act. We are called to step out of our bubble.

Simona Beretta teaches International Economic Policy at the Catholic University of Milan

Today there are eight billion people on Earth, but access to resources is extremely unbalanced…
We live in a populous world. The percentage of young people is the largest ever recorded in history: over 40% of the world's population is under 24 years old – over three billion people – concentrated south of the Mediterranean. This is something beautiful, and yet the situation is problematic: youth labour and intellectual unemployment is a reality everywhere. Those who should be the bearers of the brightest, most vibrant human resources are cut off from helping to build the world, while gerontocracies are the norm. In addition to the demographic aspect, there is another decisive aspect: access to material goods is not guaranteed to all. The majority of the population does not have access to food, education, healthcare, social and political involvement. There is a lack of jobs. This creates a huge inequality of concrete opportunities to participate in life in a dignified manner.

A lack of work is an issue everywhere.
We cannot expect a society to develop in a healthy way if people do not have work. How do you create jobs? There is no recipe. One can create income in a false way, but not work. In work, the person expresses their right and duty to participate. A person’s dignity passes from being able to work. One of our research projects at the Catholic University is entitled 'Working out of poverty', a project that studies how to get out of poverty through stable accompanying relationships. Let us think about that difference between an organisation that only does welfarism and one that instead takes charge of the person in his or her entirety, pushes them to move in the face of a realistic and reasonable proposal. I still remember the beautiful phrase by Monsignor Eugenio Corecco, Bishop of Lugano and a close friend of Fr. Giussani, displayed outside Caritas Ticino in Switzerland: “The poor man is always more than his need.” That says it all. Let us not solve poverty, unemployment or the environmental problem technocratically or moralistically. Rather, let us realistically ask ourselves what the links between poverty and the environment are, why is the environment degraded or restored; let us study the substantial difference between welfarism and the promotion of people's capacity for self-sufficiency so that they can become protagonists.

Is there a balanced way to deal with these issues at a socio-economic level?
There are no easy solutions. The first point to regain is the principle of the dignity of the person, which is the backbone of Christian social teaching and the Social Doctrine of the Church. Living in a community is an essential part of a person's dignity because it gives the person the opportunity to participate in the common good and build tomorrow. But we live in an age in which we have flattened the time horizon: the future frightens us but it does not enter into our self-understanding of the present, of what it means for us to work or consume. We have no idea how to initiate processes of change.

How come?
We are used to fast times, to instantaneous, instinctive, emotional reactions and not to the identification with a universe larger than ourselves, with an economic, social, political reality larger than our small interests. So we only tackle small problems with technocratic tools, with a fragmented use of science that can no longer hold all the pieces together. For example, we no longer know what university work really is, whereas universities were once the place where we somehow sought a unified understanding of the world. Building connections is the great work that the Russian peasant did while contemplating the stars on the steppe, and that is up to each individual. Let me give another example, related to ecological transition: it seems that we can no longer follow the path of the whole, that is, multilateralism. This is the very realistic observation that was echoed in the Pope’s message at Cop28 last December. He also says that this generation must lay the foundations of a new multilateralism, leaving behind national particularisms and even the shallows of sterile debates between catastrophists and climate deniers. A necessary change, but “there are no lasting changes without cultural changes” (Laudate Deum, 70).

Can everyone be educated about ecological transition?
Certainly, one must! Again at Cop28, Francis' message for the inauguration of the Faith Pavilion stated that the climate drama is a religious drama, the root of which lies in the creature's presumption of self-sufficiency. The coming together of religious communities, in our plural world, is a realistic way to act for cultural change. We look to the Christian message – which is anything but moralistic (“you must be a vegetarian”, “you must consume little water”, “you must consume little energy”) – when it reminds us that there is a meaning, there is a common destiny that is not foreign to personal experience. Being rooted in reality and the certainty of destiny allows one to chart a path. Awareness of where we are and what our task is allows us to walk, no matter how intricate the problems, because everything is connected. The method of the journey is that of human dignity: everyone we meet is a recipient of the gift of God who has made us all in His image. So is the migrant who attempts the Mediterranean crossing, and so are those who flee their artificially desertified land to extract rare earths. From this point of view, Fratelli Tutti is very powerful. And it touches on a decisive topic for the transition: the principle of the universal destination of goods.

What does this mean in concrete terms?
Private property is a fine concept, but only within the horizon of universal destination. Today man tries to hoard everything: resources and even the stars. Let me ask a trivial question: who do the precious minerals found in Africa belong to? Of those in power. This is where wars originate from: from a claim on reality. We live immersed in what Pope Francis calls the “technocratic paradigm”: we look at reality as an object, we no longer know how to see the mystery of which it is woven. A solution can only exist within a fraternity, which is our deepest identity: true justice, that is, giving each person their due, comes from here. But beware: judgement is needed, without judging reality we are lost.

What do you mean?
Judgement means the total commitment of the person, of their intelligence and heart, to reality. This is what Caritas in Veritate says, an encyclical that will be true even in a hundred years because it has the simplicity to affirm that Christ is the principle that moves the development of the person and the development of humanity. We solve the world's problems within this capacity, this desire, at least, to hold intelligence and love together.

But do the efforts of the individual not risk being insufficient?
No, never. It is those gestures that change history. Let me give two examples. The first is about Dorothy Day who said: "I want a religious realist. I want one who prays to see things as they are and to do something about it.” Hers was not a good life, but she had this intuition, the realisation I would say, that the poor are there and you have to help them. And how did she do it? Using her heart and intelligence she opened up her small house and there, not elsewhere, she began to write The Catholic Worker magazine and to do outreach to the poor. We must pray to understand what the real causes of poverty, of hardship are, otherwise we will only develop palliatives.

What about the second example?
I was very struck by a detail in Laudate Deum. Point 38 says that if peoples come together (it makes me think of the great religious traditions) a multilateralism 'from below' becomes possible and not simply decided by the power elites.

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Let us go back to the transition and its consequences: institutions also have their role. How can we, in Europe, deal with it? If we look at the issue of migration, for example, there is little understanding between countries.
We rediscover the task of this extraordinary continent. Figures like Schumann, Adenauer and De Gasperi – and here lies their genius – have interpreted the sense of the people, the radical sense of fraternity that is the mark of Europe. A Europe that has been able to experience, despite all the wars, a common understanding linked to the certainty (lost today) that we are brothers because we are loved by God. Leo Moulin, the well-known Belgian sociologist, sought to understand how institutions and technology evolved in Europe and his studies today are fundamental to understanding which direction to take. He was a great fan of the Cistercians: they were the first to realise that democratic elections were necessary (the abbot), they studied new technologies and from their genius came not only beer and jam, but also the roads that connected Europe. This is a heritage that we throw away, if we think that Europe is a matter of balancing the balance of power. Europe, says Moulin, is great because historically it has always been open to the other, hit by new flows of different people, by ‘invasions’ that have gradually generated original forms of coexistence. Let us not forget that the Europe of monasteries really did cultivate and guard the earth in a harmonious way! Servants of God, masters of technology and not subjugated by technocracy. The technocratic drift has instead deprived us of the ability to enter into the experience of the other with total affability. But it is only this last glance that changes social organisation and also changes the capacity to innovate, to create institutions, to engage in politics, to initiate virtuous processes of change and to think about a far-reaching ecological transition.