February 17, 2020 —Spiritual depth and ecological engagement are the two main aspects of the mission of the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph. Greg Kennedy, SJ, therefore, tries to “do a little bit of both.” He is spiritual director at the centre, provincial assistant for the spirituality apostolate of the Jesuits of Canada, as well as one of the authors of the Ecological Examen. Greg’s interests are focused on reconciling humanity with the rest of Creation.
During our conversation, he shed light on the difficulties of bringing about ecological conversion and indicated some concrete solutions to certain problems surrounding the climate emergency. How concerned should we feel about the disasters occurring elsewhere in the world? What can we do on our part to limit the damage caused, in part, by our choices here in Canada? Fr. Kennedy sees spiritual conversion as an essential step in our struggle to change the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that lead to the abuse of our common home and the current climate crisis.
How can our personal connection with the environment be a spiritual experience? Why is such a direct connection important?
Pope Francis wrote a letter on September 1st, saying that, in addition to the Seven Works of Mercy (e.g. welcoming strangers), there are two more works of mercy. One is actually taking care of our common home and the other is appreciating the beauty and the intricacy of nature. That is kind of neat.
"Fear is a really poor motive for people to care for things, but love is the ultimate motive, so if people love Creation, the Earth that gives us life, they will actually take care of it. And love comes with spending time with things, watching them really closely."
We are always thinking of seeing the poor, visiting the sick, visiting prisons, but now the Pope says that taking care of the environment by simple means— saving water, saving electricity— is actually a work of mercy and that makes a lot of sense, because in a world of limited resources, the more I use, the less there is out there to be used by others; it’s simple mathematics.
But also, it’s a spiritual act of mercy just to appreciate the beauty and complexity of nature. The more we spend time with nature with an open heart and a kind of inquisitive mind, and not one that seeks to exploit but seeks to understand, is in itself a way of caring for Creation. We finally come to understand that fear is a really poor motive for people to care for things, but love is the ultimate motive, so if people love Creation, the Earth that gives us life, they will actually take care of it. And love comes with spending time with things, watching them really closely.
And this love, this care, is important. First of all, if not the survival, then at least the well-being of everyone on the planet, humans and non-humans, is tied up with taking care of our common home. The phrase Pope Francis used in Laudato Si, “taking care of our common home,” makes a lot of sense, because no one wants to live in a dump. People take care of their literal house, people clean, people repair; there is no difference between our common home and the local one with a roof over our head. The same logic needs to apply on a global scale or our lives will be much shorter, much more miserable. So, if nothing, it is in our interests to say “If I don’t care from my home, I will be less happy than if I do.” Not only that, it's not only a consequence, but by caring for it, I actually feel good because we are meant to care for things. We feel less than human if we just trash things, so it's both in our self-interest and in our call as Christians, because to love myself means to love others and their home is as important than mine— and by others I mean all others, not just human others but all creatures as well. In a way there is not much choice because we take care of it or we are miserable, and we make other people and creatures miserable.
"It is in our interests to say 'If I don’t care from my home, I will be less happy than if I do.' Not only that, it's not only a consequence, but by caring for it, I actually feel good because we are meant to care for things. We feel less than human if we just trash things, so it's both in our self-interest and in our call as Christians."
What concrete actions can we take as individuals and communities to have a positive (or less negative) impact on the environment?
First is understanding that we are doing this for our Christian beliefs, because it’s at the heart of what we believe. That is really important and has to translate into real actions. How do we actually spend our money? Are we buying products that are conscientiously made in terms of human labour or in terms of the consequences of the production or the consumption of that product? Are we spending our money (which is often donated to us by friends of the Jesuits, donors) responsibly, in ways that promote justice and more ecological harmony? Are we actually taking time in our community and apostolate to reassess how we are doing; are we open to new ideas? Are we willing to receive help from other people that know more than us? All these kinds of things are necessary, and the basic idea is to go lightly with our resources— water, electricity, gas, planes and cars— all things we take for granted in Canada.
"(We should understand) that we are doing this for our Christian beliefs, because it’s at the heart of what we believe. That is really important and has to translate into real actions."
Let’s take a concrete example. The deforestation in the Amazon is due to the production of beef and palm oil. When we buy processed food, we are encouraging an industry that is doing clear cuts, not only in the Amazon but elsewhere as well. Some of the destruction is due to mining, so when we buy gold which has not been carefully mined, we are supporting this destruction. As consumers we need to be really vigilant to what we buy and not only the quantity, but also the quality and where it comes from.
Finally, just by the fact that we have this very high standard of living, it encourages other people to live like us; it's human nature. Other countries look at us and want what we have, with good reason, so we need to reduce our standards of living so not to drive this whole crazy viral consumption.
What can we do, as Jesuits, colleagues or friends, to build awareness of the need to care for our common home?
Education is the first thing. Many people don't understand why it is necessary, for example, to eat less meat, because that is just food. If people understand that meat is an ecologically intensive way of eating and has all kinds of consequences on poor people in places like the Amazon, the Middle East and Asia, if they understand the consequences, hopefully they will think: "oh, I don't need to do that, and I can change voluntarily because I believe I am not alone on this planet." So, education is really important, but I am not really sure how to start that. The information is more than plentiful, but for some reason it is hard sometimes to become educated and to become interested. Again, it is something important Pope Francis said: it is part of our faith.
"(For example,) the deforestation in the Amazon is due to the production of beef and palm oil. When we buy processed food, we are encouraging an industry that is doing clear cuts, not only in the Amazon but elsewhere as well."
More specifically, what can we do to make a connection between an action here and its consequences elsewhere?
It's a great question and many people hit their head against it because it takes a lot of imagination to see that burning fossil fuel here is making life miserable for others in other places. For me, it is part of this philosophical term that if consequences are separated from their actions, it's really difficult to make this simple leap from one to the other. I don't think technology helps us with that because it often separates an action from its consequences. It's geography. If we buy all our stuff from China, we don't see the pollution that all this production creates; we don't see Beijing where they can hardly breathe. While we have really strict laws here in Canada about pollution, they don't, but we are buying all their stuff, so in a sense we are creating that situation for them. If we stop buying that stuff, they will stop producing it. But again, it's so hard for people to make that connection.
"We need a conversation; we need to be open and have humility involved. These are all Christian virtues. How does one become open to conversion? That takes the whole being of one person: the intellect, the heart, the affective side of people."
Many people who go to developing countries see that and they are kind of converted. Now the answer is not that everyone must fly around the world! We need a conversation; we need to be open and have humility involved. These are all Christian virtues. How does one become open to conversion? That takes the whole being of one person: the intellect, the heart, the affective side of people. How can we be open to something that challenges us? If we knew the answer, we wouldn't be in this mess! Part of it, I think, is that people who are already faithful in terms of ecological care, live their faithfulness in that area, with joy and patience and hope and no recrimination on others. It's much more attractive.