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Building ecological justice in organisations

A holistic, culture-sensitive ecological justice has its roots in the feelings, actions and awareness of each person and their relationships: human and otherwise, writes Bronwyn Lay from Jesuit Social Services.

Over dinner Banjo, my 12-year-old, asked the family whether technology was the cause of or the solution to our current ecological crisis. We chatted about how technology is used and where the power to decide its application emerges from.

He pondered whether we could return to a world where we weren’t so reliant on technology. That wasn’t possible — unless we switch off the energy for the whole planet. But surely technology will emerge that’s not reliant on any energy source? Banjo corrected us: there is always energy. It just depends where it comes from, how it is used and by whom. Someone mentioned Einstein.

In conclusion we agreed the real question is how human cultures organise themselves, relate to the world around them, how they use technology and for what purpose. Basically the ecological crisis is both caused and solved by human cultures.

This dinner chat is replicated in more sophisticated spaces everywhere: parliaments, community groups, the UN, workplaces. Ecological issues invite both a complexity of interconnection but also a simplicity of possible responses. Because we remain only human, and our greatest tool is culture.

I work as an Ecological Justice Project Officer for Jesuit Social Services in Melbourne. The organisation has been on a journey of introducing ecology into its organisational structure, culture and programs. The CEO Julie Edwards was inspired to introduce ecology into a traditionally social justice focused organisation seven years before Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ was released.

Like all healthy gardens, it has been a slow and insightful journey. When I was employed in early 2017 the process was well underway. It was also highly prescient, as it’s increasingly evident we are entering a new paradigm of justice, which includes both social and environmental justice. This emerging lens of ecological justice reflects integral ecology, where everything is connected.

A holistic, culture-sensitive ecological justice has its roots in the feelings, actions and awareness of each person and their relationships: human and otherwise. Organisations, a manifestation of our collective culture, must engage with the ecological challenges and not leave it to the individual, privatised space.

For us, the journey has been an open-ended, compassionate process. There was space for contemplation and collectively questioning of what ecology means. There was mutual patience with differences and obstacles. Importantly, there emerged a collective solidarity in creating practices and actions within the organisation that influenced program delivery and social work practices.

For all of us, the required turn towards eco-conversion, towards incorporating ecological justice into our lives and organisations, presents many blockages and challenges.

Firstly, we all live in mainstream society which has been soaked in capitalism, consumerism and individualism for hundreds of years. This has resulted in an ‘ecological deskilling’: the loss of languages and practices that are grounded in ecological engagement. No-one is immune from the degradation and oppression of human cultures that recognise ecology as to central to human life, culture and our relationships with everything.

While we might feel that we understand ecology and ecological justice intuitively, it can be difficult to clearly communicate it. So part of the slow journey for organisations is to recover, or create, a new language that revives awareness of our interconnections and the relational basis of all life.

Secondly, the concept of ecology can be seen as complex, academic, scientific, too heavy and perhaps meaningless, as it describes everything, every relationship and connection in the universe. Sometimes when I present on ecological justice I feel like the suburban lawyer Denis Denuto from The Castle: ‘It’s the constitution, its justice, it’s the vibe, ahh no that’s it, it’s the vibe. I rest my case.’

In many ways ecology is the vibe: it’s the gentle hum of the universe, energy consumption, our family relationships, fruit orchards and deep sea coral. But an organisation that works at the pointy end of social justice — with the most marginalised and vulnerable in our community — requires a grounded, applied approach. Questions arise as to why ecology is relevant to the prison population. What does it do for people living with trauma and surviving on the streets?

The most marginalised populations have contributed the least to climate change and have the least agency to change its trajectory, but will be most vulnerable to its effects. So while green action can be perceived as a privilege of upper middle class inner city dwellers, ecological injustice impacts most heavily on the marginalised. In that context ecological justice becomes vital to reducing the unequal distribution of ecological harms.

Thirdly, I have witnessed that ecological organisation transformation requires an ecological process. Otherwise nothing changes. The culture of Jesuit Social Services was already rooted in social relational practices, both with other staff and participants. So the further step into ecological relational practices was not so hard to do. What are ecological processes? They are relational, restorative, participatory and all-inclusive, i.e. not anthropocentric.

The most interesting and challenging element of the ecological organisational journey is that to be truly ecological requires an open-ended process. We don’t know what will emerge from the process, and in some ways that makes it an authentic journey, as it depends on what needs to be responded to and how and who we build relationships with. This new paradigm of justice enlarges our understanding of justice, which can only be a step towards a more just world.

Bronwyn Lay is Ecological Justice Project Officer at Jesuit Social Services in Melbourne. She is appearing as a panellist this week at the Catholic Social Services national conference, Hearing, Healing, Hope, at the Catholic Leadership Centre in East Melbourne. Details.

This article was first published in Eureka Street.