A conversation with Kevin Hargaden

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Meeting our Eco-friends:

Director of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Dublin, Kevin Hargaden talks with us about political ecology, christian faith, and the future of our societies.

Qs: Who is Kevin Hargaden, tell us a bit about your background.

I am married to Claire, who is a prison chaplain at the biggest men’s prison in Dublin. We have a son, who is two and an absolute treasure.

I was trained as a computer scientist but I really discovered my faith during my college years and could not resist the attractions of theology. I eventually did a PhD in Theological Ethics under the renowned disability theologians, Brian Brock and Stanley Hauerwas, at Aberdeen University.

As that was coming to an end, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice provided me with the opportunity to return home and take up a fascinating role as a theologian who worked within a cross-disciplinary team to consider social policy in Ireland. I have loved my time here and the Jesuits appointed me to the role of Director of the Centre this summer.

Qs: How did you first become in touch with ecological affairs? Has this ecological consciousness affected your framing of contemporary political debates (inequality, justice, work, progress)? 

I was very invested in ecological affairs as a teenager, decades before the Fridays for Future movement! But when I began working with the Jesuits it became inescapable. I had settled into a relationship with the catastrophe which I think many people will recognise – I wanted to be informed and active but all my youthful exuberance was gone. All I had terror. I remember one evening starting into Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and having to throw it away like it was a horror novel. It induced that kind of gripping, physical reaction. I felt powerless.

Through the Jesuits I came to appreciate the constructive message of Laudato Si’ and I was introduced to people who were finding a way to work through the climate grief and dismay, to face the reality of the situation, and to act meaningfully for change.

I am convinced by Francis’ “integral ecology” contention to the extent that I suspect it now frames all my thinking. There are other factors at play, but we cannot understand the climate and biodiversity catastrophe apart from carbon capitalism. What that means is that we have no way into a conversation about inequality, about work, about social justice, that is not also about decarbonisation. It is no longer a separate issue that I am concerned with – I do not think “Oh here is the battle for housing and here is the struggle for healthcare and over here we have the ecological conversation”. Instead, the ecological question is first. It breaks down the barriers that separate those silos. It becomes the means by which we reimagine housing, recalibrate our health-systems, and holistically reconsider what justice means for us.

Qs: You once said that “we no longer ask what sort of society we want, but what it will cost”. To what extent has the neoliberal financialisation of imagination hacked our understanding of what is possible? With what effects for political ecology?

It is terrifying to have your words quoted back to you! Did I really write that? Do I still believe that?

In this case, I did write it and I still think it is true. The Utilitarians won! All questions of common good are subordinated to the logic of cost/benefit. We have no basis for naivety here. Things have to be costed. I had a builder visit my house today to talk about improving the ventilation. He laid out great ideas for what can be done but I had to ask him how much it would cost, how long it would take, what disruption I could expect. In the policy arena we must recognise that fiscal prudence is a virtue!

But it is no longer the case that this is one consideration among others. Instead, a crude determination of cost/benefit – which disproportionately slants our thinking towards things that can be measured tangibly – utterly dominates the public policy sphere. You talk of the neoliberal financialisation of our imagination and I think that is what is at play here. If I found out the ceiling above my child’s bed was about to collapse, I would not get out the calculator to decide if it might be cheaper to just have another child! That analogy might seem exaggerated but as the teenagers’ signs declare, there is no Planet B. And if we are facing an ecological catastrophe – if the roof is falling in on us – then it becomes an existential issue.

The impact on the environmental movement of this imaginative capture is plain to see. Far too many leaders, far too often, settle for compromises that they maintain are moderate and mature but they are in fact desperately short-sighted.

We are long past the point where everyone appraised of the reality of the situation accepted we need to decarbonise. But the recognition isn’t backed up in action and I think that is because the shock to the markets, the impact on local communities, the consequences for infrastructure – it all feels too drastic. Even though the world imagined after decarbonisation is clearly a better vision, we continue to cultivate the old, polluted world with which we are familiar, or posit grand plans to renovate that world with fancier technology that only deepens our commitment to an extraction mindset.

 

Qs: In its “Manifesto for a Green New Deal”, JCFJ advocates for de-growth to bring solution to our current social and ecological crisis. How would you explain the concept of de-growth to those who are not familiar with this paradigm?

Degrowth is a political movement that recognises that our economy is prosperous enough as it is. It is an ecological political movement because this positive affirmation is grounded on a fundamental observation about our environment: there are only so many resources and services we can extract from the planet that can be replenished within the natural cycles. Our current economic model is plunging us deeper into ecological debt each year and eventually we will be bankrupt. As that happens, our insolvency – so to speak – will hurt practically all the species on Earth. This is typified beautifully in the concept of World Overshoot Day which tracks how much faster every year we end up using the amount of resources that would maintain sustainability. As long as our economic systems are geared towards relentless growth, they are destined for eventual devastation. Degrowth takes that fundamental insight and pairs it with a realistic assessment about what is needed for a good life, and finds a deep discrepancy in how we have organised our societies.

We do not need to grow more because we have all that we need. This is true not just in the wealthy states of Western Europe, but is true globally – if only we had the political will to achieve it. If we took a step back and considered all the productive forces at humanity’s disposal we would quickly recognise there is enough food to feed everyone. We can build and staff schools to educate everyone. We can establish and equip clinics to care for everyone. The essentials can be catered for. We lack nothing in terms of material resources. What we lack is the political, economic, and social structures that would distribute those goods equitably.

If this is true, then the rapidification of our economy, the obsession with GDP growth, is no longer realistically directed towards meeting human needs or alleviating human suffering.

It is unjustly directed towards those who are already rich and strong and it is dedicated to meeting superfluous luxury. This is an interpretation that seems to some degree inescapable for Christians. We can think about in contemporary terms provided by Catholic Social Teaching – specifically the universal destination of goods. Or we can dig into the archives and retrieve the Patristic emphasis on the sin of luxury. There may be live discussion about how far to take this idea, but it seems like the basis of a very interesting Christian position.

Within the JCFJ, we don’t think that the economy should be entirely geared towards degrowth. More modestly, we propose that government spending should be targeted to build up the parts of our economic life that do not require GDP growth to survive. There are many deep needs experienced by our societies that require responses which are not carbon intensive and are not (or need not be) commodified in competitive markets – research and development, education, health and social care. There is great potential in replacing our default production-for-destruction processes with a re-conceived approach which accounts for the entire lifecycle of resources, products, and energy. Deepening our commitment in these areas while allowing private enterprise to pursue growth strategies – in a regulated fashion! – feels like a viable way to experiment with these important ideas.

Qs: It is argued that the EU and the US “Green Deal” proposals can be best categorised as “forward growth strategies” and not genuine green propositions; a push for “green” competitiveness before the arrival of decarbonised global economy. What is your opinion on this?

I would defer to Dr Ciara Murphy in the JCFJ who is much more deeply invested in the debate about the nuts and bolts of policies, but I think this is the case. She would likely emphasise that the plan on paper is as far from the real thing as the press release at the glossy launch. The measure of these programs can only be taken in the implementation. This means that there is much that can be achieved as the component policies and legislation are formulated.

If it is a compromise, I am not sure there is any other way at the moment. Any policy is better than nothing and rejecting a policy outright. This is a debate that is very sensitive in Irish environmentalism because the Green Party are in a coalition government where they are often supporting policies that are anathema to the green activists. We are back to the way neoliberalism has been hacking our imagination for the last few decades. What feels extreme and radical to many is often little more than greenwashing. As the joke goes, the electric car isn’t a plan to save the world, it’s a plan to save the car industry. But it remains the case that the majority of Europeans will pluck for the cheaper and more familiar fossil fuel technology, never mind embrace a world beyond private car ownership. As long as the various Green New Deals continue to trade in the myth of never-ceasing growth and continue to operate on an assumption of fossil fuel extraction, we cannot be satisfied.

 

We would love to see more ambitious plans emerge and we are confident that the “green new deal” process will be iterative as against being a once-off thing. There will be updates to Frans Timmermans’ European Green Deal! But we need that process to be democratically authentic and not just a product of a technocratic vision. So, even if we were invited to sit down with Ursula von der Leyen, and draft our dream bill, we would decline. We must sit in the difficult place between what is necessary – dramatic and transformative action – and what is possible – considerably slower and more halting steps. From where we are sitting, it matters a great deal however that our “yes means yes” on this and we do not pass off moderate compromises as if it is decisive action, which is all too common.

Qs: In your book Theological Ethics in a Neoliberal Age you address the relationship between modern Christians and wealth. To what extent has the biblical notion of material accumulation as a problem been overlooked? Will ecology change this?

When I talk to students I ask them why no one ever reads Acts 2 or Acts 4 and wonders – seriously ponders – why those texts which describe remarkable communities of sharing do not apply to us. When I talk with pastors, I ask them when they last really preached the economic angle of Jesus’ teaching. Fully half of his parables deal with money, but you can go to church for years on end and never really understand how unusual, how perplexing, how delightful is the church’s vision for material wellbeing.

So the biblical posture towards wealth has been overlooked.

In the defence of the contemporary church, that biblical posture can’t be easily summarised. Jesus has no positive words for wealth and beyond the Gospels, the wider New Testament only intensifies that scepticism. But Peter doesn’t sell his boats.

I think that ecological reality will change this. It is inevitable. I might joke that I intend to corner a growing market! But seriously, the church will either grapple with this, as Francis is urging, through a proactive, prayer-fuelled engagement with the natural world that God declares “good” or the church will be forced to grapple with it in a reactionary fashion as the consequences of the catastrophe begin to bite. A simple question grammatically, which allows someone to begin to wrestle with the distinctive vision for material wellbeing offered the Scriptures is: “What is enough?” This is a simple question to say, but a profoundly subversive question to enact.

Qs: Our world was inaugurated by the industrial revolution, and this took place propelled by the coercive institutionalisation of a work-society. Shouldn’t we focus on what makes us work and not at the individual dimension of the culture meant to accommodate this output?

I think this is a very important observation. So much that we take for granted today from our conception of family to our attitude to locality is shaped, historically speaking, by the transitions of the industrial revolution – which I think is more sharply described as the transition into carbon capitalism. Even the standard “individual” versus “collective” framework through which we think about social change is determined in a large part by the idea of the solitary individual forged by Modernity, a man (and I use gendered language here intentionally because it was a gendered dynamic originally) as alienated from his neighbours as he is from his labour.

Qs: In this regard, should Christianity revise also its traditional approach to work? Can we have an integral and democratic ecological transition without a culture in which we all are entitled to leisure and the time to reflect?

I absolutely agree. And if I can stray beyond my pay-grade, I worry that some of the discussions of work in the encyclical tradition in the late 20th century (I am thinking of Centesimus Annus and Laborem Exercens particularly) leave us in an awkward position. John Paul II understandably located a lot of the potential for meaning-making in our lives in our workplaces. But in an era of what the anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”, when precarity is the order of the day for so many young people, and where automation threatens to perhaps eliminate many of our traditional, stable careers, we might need a different angle to really grasp this. I think often of John Maynard Keynes’ 1930 essay (Economic Possibility for our Grandchildren) which hoped that a century-hence, our economy would have advanced sufficiently that his descendants would work just 15 hours a week. Our economy has grown many times over since then, but our work week – for those lucky to have it – has not shortened all that much.

There is space where, a sort of opportunity for the church, which I can only discern in the vaguest outline. But were the Christians in our societies known as people who knew that life was lived well when we had just enough, then the Christians would not just have small carbon footprints and small investment portfolios, but they would have compacted work weeks. They would have the time and energy to pay attention to the world around them, to care for their neighbours, to invest in non-monetary, non-measurable goods. This is so much more than leisure – although that is good. Liturgy is, etymologically, the work of the people. I wonder if all these conversations come together in a perspective as yet unexplored that views life sacramentally, that is rooted in Sabbath rest? I sometimes think we need a Christian laziness ethic for the 21st Century to replace our Protestant work ethic.

If I can just be a bit more efficient, maybe I’ll find the time to write it!

Qs: Let’s conclude with a prediction into the future. As a self-contained biophysical reality, planet Earth cannot accommodate the reproduction of our current normal indefinitely. Change, in this regard, is inevitable. Will disaster shape this transition towards sustainability or do you have faith in our ability to embrace what we today believe it is impossible?

Faith is such an important word here. In JCFJ, we say that we are not optimistic about the ecological catastrophe, but we are hopeful. We can’t be optimistic in worldly terms. I mean, you ask will disaster shape this transition but we know it already is shaping it – those who endured the forest fires or tropical storms of 2020 can already testify that the “apocalypse” is upon us. But of course, apocalypse, theologically-speaking, does not mean the end of the world. It means an unveiling or a revelation.

We have faith that we will see clearly in the years ahead what we can only sense in the roughest outline now – a way to adapt under the hard reality of climate change and biodiversity collapse which is just, sustainable, and dedicated towards human flourishing. That’s an apocalypse worth waiting for, working for, praying for.

Thank you very much for providing us all with a very valuable insight, and thank you for accepting our invitation to participate in our series.

 

Interview by Telmo Olascoaga
JESC Junior Ecology Officer