Father Sean MacDonagh on Fleeing Vesuvius

photo of Sean McDonagh

Father Sean McDonagh

Speech given by Father Sean MacDonagh at the launch of Fleeing Vesuvius, our latest book, on November 20th 2010

Welcome to each one of you to the launch of Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the risk of economic and environmental collapse, here at the European Parliament building. I am both honoured and delighted to accept the invitation from Feasta to launch this crucially important book.

Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1966) when priests were asked to deliver sermons, they would normally start with a well known quotation and then unpack the meaning of the quotation during the course of the sermon. Having read Fleeing Vesuvius two quotations come to mind. The first is from that eminent soccer pundit, Mr. Eamon Dunphy. Eamon dispenses pearls of wisdom on RTE 1, before and after games of soccer. One of his favourite phrases is, “this is not just a good team, its a great team.” I’d like to paraphrase that by saying, “Fleeing Vesuvius is not just a good book, it’s a great book.” The second quotation is from the Good Book itself. In the Book of Proverbs 29. 18 we read, “Where there is no vision, the people die.” This author of this proverb is not a starry-eyed idealist, proclaiming some new idea which is easy to achieve. He is a realist and knows that good analysis, a knowledge of where we need to go, and appropriate actions are all part of that Vision.

I believe that the author of the proverb would agree that Fleeing Vesuvius does hold out a viable vision. It first of all presents the reader with an accurate analysis of where both humanity and the planet are at this moment in time. Part 1 does this very effectively. Because it takes the well-being of the earth as well as the well-being of humanity seriously, the analysis differs significantly with the dominant narrative which is almost exclusively economic. Even some of the more progressive analysis of the current global and national crisis, such as the one enshrined in Claiming the Future, is almost exclusively homocentric or human-centred.

Let me give you another example of the myopia of our current debate about the global and local economy. During the past few months I have listened to 36 half hour lectures on the global economy post-World War II, by the distinguished American economist, Timothy Taylor. His pedigree is excellent as he is the editor of the important publication, Journal of Economics. Though the lectures are very comprehensive and quite insightful, not once in the 18 hours of talk does he call attention to the fact that economics is a part of ecology. There is a lecture on Climate Change but is conducted within the remit of the traditional economic paradigm where only humans, and for that matter, economically active humans matter. The lectures were recorded in the summer of 2008 and though he examines the Great Depression in the 1930s and many recessions since then, such as the East Asian recession in 1997-98, he is completely unaware of the global extent of the crash that is about to happen. It tells us very clearly that neoliberal economics is not a predictive science.

Furthermore, in October 2010, the UN Conference on Biodiversity was held in Nagoya, Japan. I monitored, as best I could, the media for the two weeks. I didn’t see a single item about the conference in the Irish media. It was clear that we were so totally obsessed with our fiscal deficit, which can be solved, that we are blind to the ecological deficit which is currently underway and which cannot be solved. If one third of the species on the planet are pushed over the precipice of extinction during the next 30 years they can never be recalled. I was amazed that John Gormley, the minister for the environment and leader of the Green Party, did not consider it a priority to attend the Nagoya meeting.

So, let us be very clear, very few institutions, economists or politicians share the analysis of our current difficulties which is found in each article in this book. A central plank of any analysis is discovering where we went wrong in the past. Richard Douthwaite and David Korowizc in their respective chapters give us a good insight into the mess we are in on multiple fronts – energy, food, water, critical infrastructures and financial collapse. David writes, “As I write fears are being expressed that a Greek sovereign default may be inevitable and that, as a result, the markets might refuse to lend to Ireland, Portugal and Spain, causing them to default was well.” He goes on to paint a picture that is all too common, “In Ireland as in other countries deflation is continuing as the money supply contracts and people retrench their spending because of fears of future unemployment.” Chris Vernon also focuses on our current energy demands which are the Achilles’ heel of our industrial society. He tells us that it is critical that we “move society away from its current reliance on declining, finite energy stocks and back to an energy system based on flows.”

Main stream economists or politicians do not share Herman Daly’s view that “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse.” Herman, who is a pioneer in environmental economics, wrote those words over 30 years ago. He even worked at the World Bank, and yet, the wisdom of those two lines is lost on most economists and planners.

If Fleeing Vesuvius ended with just a competent analysis, we would all end up in depression or even despair. John Sharry’s chapter “Cultivating hope and managing despair,” is very helpful in this regard. The VISION celebrated in the Book of Proverbs has a practical dimension. It calls on us to flesh out a variety of practical ways which will, not alone get us out of the mess, but create a more satisfying way of life in the future. From Part 1 on to Part 8 there are multiple examples of what can be done in practical ways to address the current crisis and move to safer ground. Some of the suggestions, such as Richard’s argument to allow inflation to correct the debt-income imbalance, go directly against the prevailing wisdom of neoliberal economic policies. (74). According to Chris Cook in “Equity partnerships – a better, fairer approach to developing land,” there are examples of new types of arrangement that can be made when people think of property in terms of rights and obligations rather than ownership.” (Page 89). The following chapters apply this concept to building projects and land.

I was delighted to see Oscar Kjellberg’s paper on the Mordragon bank. The Mondragon Cooperative was started in 1954 by a Jesuit priest named Don Jose
Maria Arizmendiarreta and five young men. After ordination he was sent to the Mondragon region to minister to the people. When he arrived in 1941, he found great unemployment, poor education and no positive vision of the future. In 1955, he began to take action to change the future of Mondragon. He invited five young men who had been in his business classes to go with him to raise money, in order to buy a business and bring it to Mondragon. In setting up the Mondragon Cooperative Complex Don Jose drew heavily on Catholic Social Teaching. By the way, this is the best kept secret of the Catholic Church. Everyone knows what the Catholic Church teaches on sex – contraception, abortion, divorce etc. Very few people, even active Catholic, have a clue about Catholic Social Teaching. Today Mondragon is the seventh largest Spanish company in terms of asset turnover and the leading business group in the Basque Country. At the end of 2009 it was providing employment for 85,066 people working in 256 companies in four areas of activity: Finance, Industry, Retail and Knowledge.

Dan Sullivan writes about another success story, “Why Pittsburgh real estate never crashes: the tax reform that stabilized a city’s economy.” We would have a much more stable housing market, if others followed the example of Pittsburg. Certainly, the Irish economy would not be in its current shambles, with IMF officials poring over our national accounts this weekend.

The articles in Part 4 deal with one of the biggest and most pressing challenges in the contemporary world – climate change. I could spend the whole lecture on this section of the book. Both Alex Evans’ and Laurence Matthew’s articles on Cap and Share show how this mechanism could address both greenhouse gas emissions and produce a more equitable world.

Possible ways forward are addressed by Davie Philip “Transition thinking -The Good Life 2.0, I personally found Nate Hagens’ article “The psychological roots of resource overconsumption” fascinating. In our evolutionary journey, status and the need for novelty, through the addiction of dopamine highs have gotten us into the mess we are in.

I have been involved with environmental issues since 1979, when I first visited the T’boli hills in South Eastern Mindanao. Therefore, I can empathize with the My Eyes Glaze Over (MEGO) response which Mark Rutledge encounters when talking to family or colleagues about environmental issues. It is important that we understand the reasons for individual and collective inertia if we are to change things. I like the “second glass” effect in John Sharry’s “cultivating hope and managing despair.” Kaethe Weingarten’s statement that “Hope is something you create together,” is very important. Anne Ryan’s article on “Enough: a worldview for positive futures,” is hopeful and challenging for us as individuals and societies. It is also a core value for every genuine religious tradition. One of the finest expressions of enoughness is that of the American farmer poet, Wendel Berry. In his book, The Gift of Good Land he writes:
“To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do it knowingly, lovingly, skillfully and reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily and destructively it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and more loneliness and others to want.”

Finally, I wonder is it a coincidence that Fleeing Vesuvius is being launched on week after the collapse of the Schola Armaturarum (roughly translated as those who use arms or Gladiators) in Pompeii. Among the reasons given are torrential rain due to unseasonal weather, management incompetence and sheer neglect. Rather than ending on a negative note – I prefer to see all the writers in this book as gladiators. They are not, like the gladiators of old, wielding their swords to injure and kill other humans for the titillation of a ruling class. Rather their sword is their written word. Each of you has spent long hours in developing your expertise and honing your ability to present your thought in a way that is accessible and readable. Collectively your efforts in this book plot a sure way into a more sustainable future for both humans and the wider Earth community. I congratulate each one of you for the hard work and dedication to a cause which is still, let us not forget, a minority narrative. With the present economic collapse in Ireland there is a space for a new way to live, productive, caring and satisfying lives. And to the rest of us, can I encourage you to put a copy of Fleeing Vesuvius in every stocking you are filling this Christmas.


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