Sustainability Permanently Anchored in People’s Behavior

Sustainability Permanently Anchored in People’s Behavior

Krijn Pansters

Translation of the Dutch article below.

Like many others, I am a big fan of Francis. Francis of Assisi (†1226) declared that we should “return everything to the Lord,” so that material possessions and human imperfections would no longer disturb good relations between people and thus be an obstacle to peacefulness and justice. Francis’s spiritual teaching of living without anything of one’s own and going humbly through the world is also one of the main inspirations of Laudato si’, as is evident from the beginning of the document: “I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure.” The paragraph on Saint Francis is one of the most beautiful passages, in which Pope Francis explains what he finds so fascinating about Saint Francis: the combination of concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

My favorite passage, however, is another one: Pope Francis’s call to ecological conversion. Let me explain why. For many years, I have investigated the meaning of the Christian virtues for individual and social well-being. Many evangelical and pauline virtues, but also the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, can be considered of great importance for the good life and peaceful living today. For aren’t “rendering to everyone his or her due” (a classical definition of justice) or “not using more than is necessary” (temperance) also crucial for sustainable living here and now? In this respect, Pope Francis also mentions “living wisely,” “bold decisions,” and so forth. Recently, however, I have started to ask myself what triggers the start of living according to the virtues – which in recent debates have come to be seen in a very bad light (“moral crusader,” “virtue signalling”). What is the occasion or starting point that makes it possible that the eyes of a person are opened in a moral sense and one becomes susceptible to the priority of the greater, self-transcending, good? What causes the inner reversal from self-interest to an openness to matters of shared value? Without such a moral conversion occuring in an individual’s innermost being, virtues must certainly remain theoretical constructs.

Pope Francis addresses the need for such an inner reversal when he speaks about “ecological conversion” and I find that a very smart move. Traditionally, conversion has been associated not only with the beginning of a new (religious) life but also with coercion and domination. However, I am happy to read in Laudato si’ that conversion has everything to do with spiritual richness, the renewal of humanity, and “an interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity.” Profound inner change is directly connected to communion with all that surrounds us. Overall personal conversion “calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness.”

Encouraged by this appealing paragraph in Laudato si’ to reflect further on the possibilities of such an ecological conversion, I have arrived at the following three basic elements of a moral turnaround (“ommekeer”): aversion (“afkeer”), introversion (“inkeer”), and adversion (“toekeer”). The Covid-19 crisis here functions as a magnifying glass. Should we not seize the moment and turn away from self-centeredness and the desire for non-essentials that ultimately disadvantage others? Should we not, while we have to stay at home and make great sacrifices, also learn to radically renounce irresponsible behavior and social indifference? Should we not, while our home is our world, teach ourselves to turn to the innermost of our hearts in order to find there, and not in production and consumption, a more significant satisfaction? It is a great paradox that, although this crisis has exposed our own insignificance and vulnerability, at the same time through the quarantine we are thrown upon, and back into, ourselves. But should we not also educate ourselves by way of selfless dedication and generosity to turn to the immense importance of the other, especially of the sick and lonely, but also of all other creatures with which we are “joined in a splendid universal communion”? Let us discuss the medical necessities and, not least, the moral requirements – the emotional ethical engagement – that can be asked of everybody, especially now.

History teaches us that after a great crisis people do not necessarily turn in droves to restoring goodness and doing good: “from now on everything will be different.” Many will fall back right away into old behaviors supported by habit and convenience. At the same time, we are also creatures of hope, a virtue that enables us to deem possible a truly better future for everyone. I therefore suggest that we decide to apply ourselves – with hopefully as many people as possible – to the shaping of a sustainable sustainability (“duurzame duurzaamheid”), a durable sustainability that is securely anchored in people’s behavior. Let us give substance to the vision that in the coming years, individual human beings will make the shift “from satisfactions to value,” from chasing self-interests to committing oneself to common goods and matters of shared value. This ethical reversal, which starts with the question “what the h*** am I doing?,” can take place in various ways: it can come from inside (insight and conviction), from outside (incentive and encounter), and from above (inspiration and revelation). But what does this reversal really look like? Can we make it happen? Can people be moved to a moral conversion to interests of greater value? Let this thus be the subject that everyone discusses in the coming years: how to find satisfaction in true concern and in fertile ethical acts for the sake of the well-being of all.