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The Global Ecological Crisis and the Global Common Good

In August 2019 news recorded a kind of mourning ceremony not for a person but for a glacier. The Okjökull glacier in the Northern European state of Iceland had covered the volcano Ok near Reykjavik. It had been declared dead already in 2014. This happened when an expert had found out that the ice had lost so much weight and the glacier had become so small that it did not move any longer (which is a characteristic of glaciers). Not many people took notice of it, when the glacier was pronounced dead five years ago.

Now BBC and many other media reported the mourning ceremony which was attended by the Prime minister of Iceland Katrin Jakobsdottir, Environment Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson and former Irish President Mary Robinson. On top of the volcano a copper plaque was laid down which carries a „letter to the future“ written by Icelandic author Andri Snaer Magnason. It reads “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as glacier. In the next 200 years all our main glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

To establish a kind of memorial for the deceased glacier symbolizes that not only a piece of nature which was characteristic of Icelandic landscape has disappeared, but also a piece of the island’s culture which had been a constituent element of both its identity and history. It makes people aware of the fact that this loss won’t remain an isolated case but will be followed by many others in Iceland and elsewhere.

This quite unusual symbol reminds not only Icelanders but all those who take notice of it of the fact of the anthropogenous character of climate change. It is not a blind fate but (at least to a great extent) the result of human practices and human decisions or rather of the lack of resolute action in favor of a change for sustainability. Although the interdependency between human behaviour and global warming is widely known political efforts to establish rules and efficient structures for sustainable development remain weak. Whereas Norwegian teenager Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for future movement keep on demonstrating already for around six months in order to intensify the pressure on decision makers all over the world, we face more and more evidence of ecological ignorance by powerful political leaders and even willful destruction of ecosystems fueled by economic interests.

To name but two examples: Think firstly of the ongoing terrible fires in the Amazonas which are at least partly the result of fire-raising. The ecologically disastrous effects meet the particular economic interests of some people and companies who  exploit the region’s natural resources and disregard the existential needs of indigenous people(s) as well as the bad consequences such practises impose on the global climate. Secondly, think of the suggestion of President Trump to buy Greenland and to praise this absurd idea as a great real estate deal thus revealing complete ignorance of both the right to self-determination of Greenland and the worth of the ecological integrity of the Arctic.

Both examples prove that strong and powerful particular interests dominate over general necessities to save the foundations of shared resources and to promote the common good on a global scale.

In his Encyclical letter Laudato si‘ (2015) Pope Francis urgently reminds the global public of the necessity to build a strong global alliance „on Care for our Common Home”. In line with the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching he enforces the principle of the common good the global dimension of which has already been elaborated since Vatican II.

What is basically needed on the level of political decision making as well as in the international civil society is a change of perspectives from putting particularities in the forefront to thinking in a global scale based on a contextually aware universalism and thus paying attention to the basic interdependencies structuring our world:

“An interdependent world not only makes us more conscious of the negative effects of certain lifestyles and models of production and consumption which affect us all; more importantly, it motivates us to ensure that solutions are proposed from a global perspective, and not simply to defend the interests of a few countries. Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan. Yet the same ingenuity which has brought about enormous technological progress has so far proved incapable of finding effective ways of dealing with grave environmental and social problems worldwide. A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries.” (LS 164)

More explicitly than his predecessors Pope Francis links the principle of the global common good to the issues of ecology, be it water, regenerative energies, governance of the oceans, and the general problem of global warming to name but a few important topics. He consequently highlights the interdependency between ecological and social issues associated with the necessary option for the poor who suffer most from the ecological crisis. Therefore the global common good cannot be considered without precise attention to the development of the ecology.

The Pope sharply criticizes the lack of a global consensus and of ecologically minded political leadership. He stipulates a promising global strategy to solve the most urgent problems of ecology and to overcome their destructive impact on the poor. Being aware of the weakness of national policies he insists on the need for strong international agreements as a corrective of unsustainable local or national strategies (and thus a limitation of state sovereignty with regard to the global ecological impact of local practises).

“Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed, since local authorities are not always capable of effective intervention. Relations between states must be respectful of each other’s sovereignty, but must also lay down mutually agreed means of averting regional disasters which would eventually affect everyone. Global regulatory norms are needed to impose obligations and prevent unacceptable actions, for example, when powerful companies or countries dump contaminated waste or offshore polluting industries in other countries.” (LS 173)

No doubt many responsible people are attentive to the (mutual, but asymmetric) global interdependency, of unsustainable life-styles in the Western world and the necessity to promote a basic change of economic patterns for the sake of a just and sustainable eco-social development. Whereas one can hardly say that we lack knowledge of the causal relationship between the constant (ab)use of natural resources and the ecological crisis, the world still lacks a solid political concept of how to implement the ideas and norms of sustainable development in order to efficiently protect the climate as a global common good and the related global commons such as water, air, soil, and biodiversity.

As far as I can see Pope Francis introduces a new aspect in the Papal teaching when he not only focuses on the global common good but also on global commons. It is with regard to the governance of the oceans that he comes to this political topic:

“International and regional conventions do exist, but fragmentation and the lack of strict mechanisms of regulation, control and penalization end up undermining these efforts. The growing problem of marine waste and the protection of the open seas represent particular challenges. What is needed, in effect, is an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called ‚global commons‘.“ (LS 174, italics mine, M. Heimbach-Steins)

In my opinion the allusion to the concept of global governance and to the protection of goods qualified as global commons (which, of course, to this day remains an issue of academic and political debate) indicates the necessity to further elaborate on what the principle of common good as a globally dimensioned one means. Christian Social Ethics is provoked to deeper reflect the interconnectedness between the global common good as a goal, global governance as conceptual strategy related to that goal and the protection of the global commons as goods which materialize the idea of the global common good. As far as I can see these interconnections have not been treated intensively in the field of Christian Social Ethics up to now. It might be an impulse from the Encyclical for social ethicists to pick up in order to contribute to the „care for our common home“ on the level of social ethical reflection.