Spiritual Steps on Sustainable Living

“Respect for human life extends to respect for all creation and Catholics must re-engage with the life systems of the planet and accept environmental responsibility. To live simply in sustainable sufficiency where there are enough resources for everyone, brings peace to caring for creation. “
“Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”, para 470
Extracts from “Spiritual Steps on Sustainable Living” by Abbot Christopher Jamison
Christopher Jamison OSB is a Benedictine monk and former Abbot of Worth Abbey in West Sussex, England. He became well-known through the BBC TV series The Monastery.
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“What can the monastic tradition bring to the climate change debate? I hope to show this evening that it can bring not a whole solution but some elements that are currently neglected in environmental conversations. Historically, the monasteries of Europe have been repositories of forgotten truths and neglected texts, enabling people to emerge from the Dark Ages and rebuild European culture. I will not make such grand claims for my insights this evening but I think that the insights of the Christian monastic tradition are still significant as we look to develop sustainable living…..

So my first proposal this evening is that the debate about the physics of climate change must be accompanied by a debate about the metaphysics of climate change. We need rules and laws aimed at reducing climate change but they will not be enough. If we are to move beyond rhetoric and aspirational goals to have a tangible impact on people’s motivation to do the right thing, then our culture will need to rediscover the reality of metaphysics…..
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The first metaphysical port of call for a modern person facing a public issue is the human rights agenda. Most people today believe in human rights; they are the great metaphysical success of the modern era. Contemporary discussions about right and wrong usually revolve around human rights. So, for example, discussions about the end of life cluster around the right to die and discussions about gender cluster around women’s rights. The development of human rights has succeeded in creating a framework within which to address many issues and the benefits have been enormous…

So having looked at the culture of virtue and how it might apply to policy issues, let’s now take a look at how virtue plays out in people’s lifestyle and how that too is relevant to climate change. In this area, I choose as an example how the virtue of temperance can affect our lifestyle choices. We are increasingly aware that the Western lifestyle needs to change if we are to contain climate change. This is a problematic area because consumer culture is so embedded in our way of life. And of course this industrial system has brought real benefits. Too often people decry this culture’s material impact without seeing its material benefits, so what has gone wrong with this commercial process? The danger lies not simply in what consumer culture has done to our bodies but in what it has done to our souls, which in turn has led to an abuse of the material world. In this area of life, the monastic tradition offers some penetrating insights about temperance and about greed.
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John Cassian was a great fourth century monk, the inspiration of St Benedict, and here is his account of greed in a monk: Greed is a work of the imagination that begins with apparently harmless thoughts. The monk begins to think that ‘what is supplied in the monastery is inadequate and can hardly sustain a healthy and robust body.’ The thought develops: ‘the monk ponders how he can get hold of at least one penny.’ When he has achieved that ‘then he is distracted with the still more serious concern of what to buy with it and how he can double it.’ This in turn leads to disillusionment with the way things are in the monastery and the monk cannot put up with things any longer so he wants to leave the monastery.

What emerges from this and other monastic writings is how deeply seriously greed was taken by the founders of the monastic tradition. The two basic insights that they offer can be readily applied to the lives of ordinary people today. Firstly, greed has its origins in the mental picture we have of our life and its needs. Secondly, if we get that mental picture wrong, it is a potential source of disintegration in the lives not only of individuals but also of communities. Armed with those monastic insights about how greed actually works, we can now look at consumer culture.

Our Western culture is saturated with goods. The economically stable individuals and households who make up the majority of our population have more stuff than they actually need. While they might be persuaded to buy some more or different versions of what they already have, business recognises this material saturation and so the present thrust of consumerism is towards selling culture as well as things. Having saturated the world of our material needs, consumerism is now taking over our need for cultural goods such as music, entertainment and even moral purpose……

The workings of temperance to contain greed is just one example of what virtue brings to people’s lives as we learn how to reduce climate change. One of the most important insights of Catholic theology is that the life of virtue can be known by all, without reference to religious doctrine. This natural law approach means that the Church urges virtue on all people irrespective of their religious beliefs and wants to work collaboratively with all those who promote virtue. The term ‘the good life’ once meant the life of goodness and virtue that all decent people aspired to lead. This was seen as a life full of delight in living well, this was happiness, not a burden to be endured. This attitude is one that we must recapture if we are to find the human resources needed to cope with climate change.
It could well be that the current economic crisis and the growing ecological crisis act as a summons to rediscover this understanding of happiness. Our current culture describes happiness as feeling good and then adds that consumption is what keeps you feeling good. In other words, happiness is the same as pleasure. If, on the other hand, we identify happiness with knowing the good and doing good, then we have a happiness that does not demand endless pleasure and endless consumption. So what does it mean to know the good? It means knowing the goodness of creation, the goodness of other people and ultimately the goodness of God. What does it mean to do good? It means to live the virtues, responding generously to other people and working positively with others. Happiness is not feeling good, it is knowing the good and doing good. There is nothing inherently wrong with pleasure and consumption but if they are not set in the wider context of the good life then they will not make us happy….
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So my proposal this evening is simple but demanding: the tradition of the virtues is our greatest resource in developing the metaphysics of climate change. Just as the development of the human rights project during the 20th century liberated people from suffering so we now need a new virtues project in the 21st century to liberate us from climate catastrophe. As the guardian of the tradition of the virtues, the Church, together with other religious communities, has a special role in this new and vital project.


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