As a member of the ethical reflection team of Terra Reversa, an environmental think tank in Flanders, I was present on Sunday May 18th, 2008, at a discussion panel on “New Ethics for an Old Planet: A debate about Sustainability and Justice”, held in the eldest building of Ghent, the Sint-Baafsabdij. The photgraph shows the main participants in the discussion panel: Alma De Walsche who is active in the periodical MO*, Jef Peeters who is a philosopher and responsible for the periodical Oikos, the Dutch environmental philosopher Koo van der Wal, Marian De Blonde from the University of Antwerpen, Annick De Witt from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and Toon Vandevelde from the Centre for Ethics and Economy at the K.U.Leuven.
Koo van der Wal started by claiming that the modern society in which we live is inherently unsustainable: this is the consequence of our ways of thinking about the world and ourselves, from the operational types of rationality we favour, and from the fact that we equate well being with high material living conditions. This struck me as a very strong claim, as I am not used myself to so clearly linking the inherent unsustainability of our western societies (I would agree with that point) with “modernity”, but rather with perversions of modernity particularly on the level of how we organize our live together economically and how we see the relationship between politics and economics. Both Annick De Witt and Marian De Blonde gave their full support to Koo van der Wal’s approach, while at the same time pointing in the direction of some hopeful movements in our societies: many people begin to develop new worldviews and to situate themselves differently in the world, they think about their consumption habits and change them, they are increasingly aware of the rich-poor imbalances in our world and about the unevenness in the use of non renewable energy resources. At the core of all of this clearly stands the question: what kind of society do we want to live in and are we willing to make choices?
Marian De Blonde emphasized the importance of dreaming together – as a theologian I would refer to the eschatological vision and perspective. How do we imagine the future in such a way that that image and vision already begins to inform and to shape our actions in the present? This point was further emphasized in the debate. I feel that here lies a very important space for celebration, rites and liturgies, for sacraments: then, we play that future that is not yet and that represents a vision that is difficult to imagine in our world today … but that play is stimulating. It is as a kid that puts on the shoes of its parents: they are too big, but for one moment the kid imagines what it could mean to be an adult and that playful imagination changes its life.
Toon Vandevelde is a philosopher and an economist. The latter was very clear when he insisted on the importance of using all available economic tools to address the environmental issues: taxation or real cost calculations are crucial. He suggested three main dimensions for a new ethics today. (1) Ethics is not only about the people who live near to us, but also about people who are far away both in time and space: solidarity is compassion with people we don’t know because they are so far away. (2) Ethics is about setting and admitting limits, and that precisely today when it has become difficult to recognize real limits. (3) Ethics is about changing the time horizon of the actors involved. E.g. politicians in a democratic country are too often unwilling to take a large time horizon: they look only at the couple of years that separate them from the next elections – the long term view is beyond their horizon.
The debate with the public focused heavily on the role of economics in the environmental crises. I always feel here that the distinction should be made between “economic laws”, i.e. how variables relate in economic equations, ánd “the politics of how these laws are implemented and used”, i.e. how we flesh out the variables by making political decisions. This means, and I think all the members of the panel agreed on this point, that politics play a crucial role here, up to the point that some very clever politicians will hide their political motivations and goals behind the “inevitability of economic laws” which they have already manipulated precisely to fit their own interests.
I was also left, as a theologian and a Jesuit, with another impression: the need for common discernment – which means at least three things: (a) discerning together and so constructing a new social body; (b) the willingness to act technically and materially; (c) the openness to question motives and interests, consolations and desolations.
Those who are interested in some photographs, can visit the following website.