Build back better
by Tim McEvoy
‘May you live in interesting times’ goes the old apocryphal curse. I don’t know about you but I have had quite enough of interesting and find myself longing to live in uninteresting times. Some semblance of ‘normality’ would be nice, I catch myself thinking. But I have the sense that whatever the world will look like after Covid it will not be the same as it did back in early March; nor should it, we might say.
The word ‘unprecedented’ seems to be used at ever increasing intervals by commentators these days. ‘Worst in a century’ environmental events have become almost weekly news staples. Living as we are in a period of what appears to be rapidly escalating ecological and human crisis, the continually shifting scale of measure makes it nearly impossible to grasp the magnitude or significance of things.
In such a surreal and confusing environment maybe it is no wonder, I tell myself, that I so often end up feeling desensitised, in denial or deliberately distracting myself from what feels like a constant barrage of fear, anger and negativity in the media. Navigating the news today requires some careful discernment and, perhaps, even regular periods of abstinence from the 24-hour cycle for the sake of one’s own mental wellbeing. But there are equally times when taking a long, loving look at reality is essential.
Something that brought things home to me this month was a feature article in the Welsh RSPB magazine that described the extent of decline of natural species in our local region and also suggested some practical ways to ‘build back better’ as and when we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a sobering read which still, importantly, managed to be hopeful and hope is a precious commodity these days. It was in many ways a local example of what David Attenborough has managed to achieve at a global level in his moving and deeply challenging testament, A Life On Our Planet, out now on Netflix and also published as a book.
According to a landmark report by the UN published two years ago this October, we have only ten years left as a global community to bring a halt to an irreversible ecological and climate catastrophe. In Wales alone - despite its still ‘green’ surface appearance which impresses everyone who visits St Beuno’s - one in six species is at threat of extinction. Intensive farming, overgrazing, poorly-managed hedgerows and the lack of woodland diversity are just some of the human-made causes which radically need addressing in the next decade.
These are depressingly hard facts to face. Things, quite clearly, cannot be allowed to carry on or go back to ‘normal’. Encouragingly, the Welsh government appears to have recognised the criticalness of the situation and has committed, in partnership with organisations like the RSPB, to ‘Five Steps to a Green Recovery.’ Their impressively holistic policies include creating ‘sustainable jobs and infrastructure’ post-pandemic; ‘strong environmental protections’; ‘resilient, nature-rich land and seas,’ and ‘healthy citizens.’
I was struck by how in synch this approach was with the inspiring vision laid out by Pope Francis in Laudato Sí back in 2015 and his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti which was pointedly released at the start of this month at Assisi on the Feast of his namesake St Francis.
‘Build back better’ could almost be a paraphrase of the mission entrusted by God to St Francis, who heard the voice of Jesus calling him while praying in a dilapidated Umbrian chapel: ‘Francis, rebuild my Church’. In many respects, Pope Francis has received that same summons and shared it urgently with the whole world. It is not just the Church that needs rebuilding now but our ‘common home’ if it is to survive as a home for all.
What Pope Francis makes clear is that all of us must have a hand in rebuilding it. Everything and everyone is intimately and inextricably connected. Only a collective response to such a complex crisis will be successful: ‘No one reaches salvation by themselves’ he says. We are all in the same boat, ‘fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other.’ (Urbi et orbi, 27th March 2020). This reality of our common, mutually-dependent humanity has been borne in on us like never before in recent months.
All of which left me wondering, what might ‘build back better’ mean to us concretely where and how we are, in our relationships, families, workplaces, spiritual lives? What might our own ‘Five Steps to a Green Recovery’ from the present crisis look like? What, together, do we most truly want to ‘build back better’ in our world?
To re-build without firm foundations, however, is to risk long-term stability and sustainability. Only the fool builds on sand, we are told in the Gospel.
In these strange and uncertain days, perhaps while retreat-like conditions have been re-imposed on some of us, I wonder, what foundations are we being asked to lay in this time? What foundations might God be laying and inviting me to build my life upon? When everything else fails, what, in reality, do I fall back on?
At such a turbulent time it might feel more like things being demolished, the supports being pulled away or work being put interminably on hold at the moment. There might not be many evident signs of building going on. I may simply have to trust that God knows what on earth God is doing in my life. But I may also have a sense of some ‘ground work’ that has been or is taking place - perhaps quietly out of sight, perhaps quite noisily and noticeably - at a foundational level in me. Deep-down lessons or graces being offered during this time.
When all else is stripped away, as St Francis discovered, we are left asking the important questions: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘who is God?’ Perhaps, ultimately, there is no better or more urgent place than that to begin re-building.