'If we are pro-life, we must be pro-environment'

Lessons from the annual J&P conference

Steve Atherton reflects on the central messages of the 2015 National Justice and Peace Network conference which took place in Swanwick, Derbyshire from 17–19 July.

There were over 300 Justice and Peace activists at this year’s conference and one common question was how to build peace in communities and across the planet.

Professor Paul Rogers from the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University claimed that governments often adopt a military solution to try to control problems rather than deal with the underlying causes. He argued that the world economy was organised so that more and more people get very poor while a tiny minority get enormously rich. "The neo-liberal economic system is not delivering justice," he said, noting how this division of wealth is made worse by the effects of climate change, citing how typhoon Hyan left more than 6,000 people dead in the Philippines last year.

Yet Professor Rogers was not despondent, pointing out that it is big shocks that often cause world governments to act. He recalled how the Great Smog of 1952, which killed 4,000 people in London, "affected the power elites and brought the Clean Air Act forward a decade". Similarly, in the 1980s, the threat posed to the ozone layer by the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in our fridges and freezers drew quick action from governments to halt the danger.

Professor Rogers believes that similar action is needed now to address the threats posed by climate change to peace and the living environment. "The period between now and 2030 is crucial – we have to work to get the changes. We can have a peaceful, sustainable and just world in the 2070s if we make the right moves now up to 2045." I was left wondering whether our politicians base their policies on reality or wishful thinking.

We heard also from Father Edu Gariguez, a former Goldman environmental prize winner (2012), who spoke of the threat posed to the people of the Philippines and their environment by large mining companies. He said that there were 92 large-scale mining applications for the island of Mindaro, where he lives. The Filipino government sees mining as a way to earn money but the island’s inhabitants experience it as destruction. "The neo-liberal system sees natural resources as something to be exploited rather than something for the sustainable life of all," said Father Gariguez, who has been targeted by death squads for campaigning against exploitative mining practices. "If we are pro-life, we must be pro-environment," he added, calling for "concerted collaborative action, working together in building the common home".

There were also talks from women having a big influence on their local communities, notably Lorraine Dinnegan, who spoke about the establishing of a Safe Havens scheme in north London after her son Martin was stabbed to death in 2007. The Dinnegans learned about this scheme from the Mizen family, who lost their son Jimmy in similarly tragic circumstances in south London. Lorraine has worked with people from her church and her local police force to set up havens in 45 shops and explained: "The police were grateful that people in the community were standing up for something good." I wonder whether we could copy this idea in Liverpool.

Sister Maire Hayes from the Congregation of the Holy Spirit in Luton, meanwhile, explained how faith groups were working together to promote harmony in a town which is the birthplace of the English Defence League (EDL), and a place often associated with racial hate. She told of an annual peace walk and sporting events where people of different faiths come together. Sister Maire remarked that despite the tensions, often stoked by people coming in from outside, there was no trouble in Luton at the time of the riots across the country in 2011.

Another example of work that began in a church J&P group and ended up making a big impact came in a report from the Lancaster Diocese, whose environmental subgroup ended up advising Lancashire County Council. It was good to learn that a J&P group had influenced the rejection of applications for fracking on the Fylde.

The photo from the convention shows: Jenny Vaughan, campaigns officer at Progressio; Lorraine Dinnegan, Safe Havens organiser; Professor Paul Rogers, Department of Peace Studies, Bradford University; Pat Gaffney, director of Pax Christi and conference chair; Ann Peacey, chair of NJPN; Rev Dr Martin Poulson SDB, Theology Department, Heythrop; Father Edu Gariguez.