Emily Holman has found inspiration that could help the Lebanese move closer to a new cultural and political order.
Two days after my arrival in Lebanon in mid-July, and almost one month after the publication of Pope Francis’s most recent papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, collection of the nation’s rubbish reached a standstill. Activists and residents of environs surrounding the Naameh landfill, in mountains south-east of Beirut, refused to accept any more rubbish following a planned closure for the site scheduled for July 17th, which had already been postponed since January. When the government tried to continue to use the site, residents took matters into their own hands, and blocked the roads to the Naameh landfill. With nowhere to go, the rubbish could not be collected. Garbage piled up. People marched on the streets and threw eggs in protest at government inability both to respond to the situation, and to take the preventive measures that became necessary long ago.
It has long been known that Naameh cannot take any more rubbish. For over a decade the closure of the site has been delayed repeatedly. Naameh was only ever supposed to be temporary, following the closure of a landfill site in Bourj Hammoud in 1997. Originally appointed to receive 2 million tons of rubbish, Naameh has received over 15 million tons to date. Protests last year ended in a government promise to close the site permanently in July. But that did not happen, and residents are no longer able to tolerate the garbage that has accumulated in their neighbourhood. They claim that inhabitants of the Naameh area suffer from high cancer rates, incurable diseases, skin diseases and breathing problems. The smell is so bad that windows cannot be opened.
Now that smell is being experienced by residents of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, as the accumulation of rubbish on the roads continues. Streets have been closed because of the spillage. The resignation of environment minister Mohammed Machnouk has been demanded. Although garbage collection in some areas has resumed, the destination of the rubbish—over 3000 tons per day from the Beirut and Mount Lebanon districts—is unclear. Following a statement by Machnouk in late August in which he requested six months’ further access to Naameh, local residents threatened to burn any rubbish trucks that try to enter the site. Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, said that ‘it is no longer possible at all to accept any extension for the Naameh dump, which now poses a substantial risk on the environment and neighbouring villages’. Machnouk has since withdrawn from a ministerial committee tasked with tackling the garbage ‘catastrophe’, as locals are calling it. He has, as yet, refused to resign.
Demonstrators are castigating the government’s reaction to the crisis, accusing it of hiding rubbish under bridges and in valleys so as to save face. Solutions including exporting garbage and creating more landfills, alternatives backed respectively by Samir Geagea and Hezbollah, have been pronounced ‘childish’. Sukleen, the company hired by the Lebanese government in 1997 to gather garbage in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, has been accused of charging excessive fees per ton of collection, and of insufficiently sorting waste. Protesters have been wounded in clashes with security forces following blockage of the Jiyyeh highway, which links Beirut to south Lebanon, so as to prevent trucks from dumping waste near their homes. Many Lebanese say that the fact that the situation was allowed to develop to this point, when the closure of Naameh has been pending for years, is proof of government corruption. Machnouk has had garbage bags—some with posters of his face attached—dumped outside his house. The two new companies that won bids to handle rubbish collection have since accused the government of obscuring facts and misrepresenting prices. The bid as a whole has been rejected by the ‘You Stink’ campaign, which sees corruption at the heart of the trash crisis and has demanded clarity in government process. You Stink has organised demonstrations in which tens of thousands have participated, and the calls for change—political as much as environmental—are growing louder and more urgent. Police have used rubber bullets, teargas and water cannon on protesters. A stake-out of the Ministry of Environment on 1st September ended with the enforced removal of activists, seven of whom were injured seriously enough to go to hospital. At the time of writing, eleven young men camped outside the Ministry have gone on hunger strike to pressure Machnouk into resigning.
Meanwhile, on the government’s side, short-term solutions are being sought—where can the trash be put?—leaving the treatment of more deep-rooted waste issues aside. But these urgently need to be dealt with. Why should the solution be yet more landfills, when 50% of Lebanon’s waste is organic, and 39% made up of recyclable metal, glass, paper or plastic? Why is only 23% of Lebanon’s rubbish recycled, incinerated or composted, and the rest put in landfills or dumped? How is it that the waste on the road has become an apposite metaphor for a rotten state, when it is also a visible and shocking sign of reality? Wherever this garbage is put, it exists. The rubbish does not just need to be put away and made invisible again. The solution is not merely political.
I have been reading Laudato Si’ during these events. Pope Francis’s words are disconcertingly relevant. But it is the language of his resolution that seems most applicable.
How do we talk about resolving an issue whose roots are historical, social, economic, and cultural, as well as circumstantial? How does one change ingrained habits without sounding naively hopeful and being dismissed for lack of realism? No problems can begin to be solved without language that recognises an issue in its fullness and the far-flung array of its implications. Lebanon’s zbele (rubbish) problem is not just about the environment. It isn’t even about political inadequacy, as many activists are claiming. At the profoundest level, it is linguistic. Deep questions about mankind have to be posed in order for solutions proposed to be solutions that will endure, attacking the symptoms of a problem, its underlying causes, and its entrenched origins.
One of the problems Lebanon has encountered in trying to deal with its garbage is the multitude of possible solutions that have been offered by one person or group, and rubbished—no pun intended—by another. Take Ali Darwish, president of environmental NGO Green Line Association, who has encouraged sorting at the source, which means consumers putting their rubbish into appropriate bins depending on its material: compost, paper, plastic, glass and other. An overwhelming response at the political level has been the claim that the Lebanese will never recycle. ‘Somebody who is throwing his trash from the car without stopping at the bin, you want him to start sorting at the source? This is impossible’, a ministry engineer has said. But Darwish has hope: ‘people change, with awareness, incentives, and enforcement’. Laudato Si’, too, advocates a vision of hope. Pope Francis’s vision, however, recognises that the roots of the problem of rubbish disposal in the country grow from a place that is not only to do with insufficient public awareness about recycling or inadequate resources for waste management.
For Francis, it is our language, and therefore our concepts, which is insufficient. Many of today’s problems ‘stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society’. Significantly, whether or not you are inclined to agree that a ‘certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry’, the situation in Lebanon is itself proving that a different way of thinking, and an appropriately different language to accompany it—so as to make that different way of thinking felt in its fullness—is necessary. The response to Darwish as naïve cannot easily be countered without a recognition of humanity’s responsibility to itself and to the environment, which Darwish’s language, concerned with advocating recycling, cannot convincingly provide. The Pope’s language confronts humanity’s distinctive role from the beginning of the encyclical. It reiterates that ‘human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement’. This statement is far more than a nice-sounding phrase; it recalls an anthropological vision that must be at the foundation of political decision-making. One form of debasement is believing that human beings can never adjust their habits or respond to education. The lack of confidence that the ministry engineer shows in his fellow citizens, and which many would describe as ‘realism’, is another way of maintaining things as they currently are. It belies a belief in stasis rather than recognising a possibility in hope. But if ‘(a)uthentic human development has a moral character’, then so too does the way in which such development is discussed.
Francis is right to assert that the story of St Francis’s life, with its conviction that living things are to be loved and relished as a brother or sister, is one that cannot be dismissed as ‘naïve romanticism’, for the reason that such a conviction ‘affects the choices which determine our behaviour’. St Francis’s beliefs were what enabled his life to be such as it was. We need ‘the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world’; we need to have an ‘openness to awe and wonder’ in our approach to creation. Without these concepts, and the vocabulary for them, the world too easily becomes a means for an end—usually an economic one, given that the language of the economy is the one that is most common and that carries most weight in the public language of contemporary worldwide culture. If language used differently enables us to think about things in different ways, we have a tremendous responsibility to bring back this sort of language into contemporary debate: the language of awe, of love, and of praise; the language of human dignity; the language of a responsibility to the gift of the world.
‘The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth’. It is striking to read these words when there are piles upon piles of filth 20 metres from your home in both directions: filth that is steaming in the humidity of a Beirut summer and emitting such a smell that people cover their noses or pull up their car windows when they pass by, or avoid certain areas or streets altogether, if they can. Roads have had to be closed. How to respond to events? Ignoring it until something is done has felt like the only possibility to many ordinary citizens weary of yet another crisis. The country currently has no president. Parliament has extended its own term from 2014 to 2017. The last parliamentary election was in 2009. In 2011, one government collapsed, and five months passed before another replaced it. Lebanese citizens are used to political inadequacy and have come to expect it. Such impressive resilience has also created a culture of ignoring those things that do not immediately concern you or your loved ones. The effect is evident in everyday responses to the garbage, which cars whirl past with AC on and windows up. Windows up, AC on: when there are things on the street that demand attention and response, it can too easily become an automaton for keeping the world out. Yet alternatives are not easily visible. Few people have a sense that anything they do might have a positive impact.
As so often, one thing is bound up with one another. The overwhelming majority of Lebanese use cars for transportation. Often individual members of families have their own vehicles; it is not unusual for a middle-class family of five adults to have four or five cars. Lebanese public transport is inadequate, inconvenient, uncomfortable and often unsafe. Buses take two hours to make a trip that a car could manage in thirty minutes. Quite apart from the environmental impact of so many cars on the roads, the car culture creates a sense of detachment from one’s environment, as well as from one’s fellow citizens. Pointing out the unhealthiness of poor public transport, Francis specifies that we ‘were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature’. As a permanent means of transport, enclosure in one’s own car cannot but engender the illusion of the self-contained bubble. Take the jeep, the common car for Lebanon’s wealthy. A jeep allows one to disregard bad roads and to spin over speed humps, as well as to have the advantage in a road accident (a likely occurrence in a country where traffic rules have only recently come into enforcement, and frequently are still flouted). The jeep gives you a sense of being in your own world, higher than everyone else, immune from bad driving and ill-kept roads, closed off from the bad smells, loud noises and stifling heat of outside. It is easier to overlook the beggars who weave through traffic jams to knock on closed windows and ask for money or help when you are secure in your towering car. And when the trash crisis begins, you are already in the habit of speeding through the city with music on and windows shut. Metres of trash strewn across your path is an inconvenience, not something immediately to be grappled with. It can be ignored.
Of course, many are not ignoring the situation. You Stink’s protests have seen thousands take to the streets to demand a sustainable method of dealing with Lebanon’s rubbish. An umbrella group has sprung from the movement, named ‘We Want Accountability’. The change it seeks is radical: nothing less than a new government, or, better yet, a new political system. Urgent calls for an end to political corruption resound with many Lebanese, particularly the youth. Thousands have also participated in demonstrations sanctioned by political parties: 4th September saw Downtown Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square filled with supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement, which is demanding elections. For some, disillusion is growing. One man in his mid-thirties, who participated in the series of protests following the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005 named ‘The Cedar Revolution’, which prompted the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and remains the largest gathering of demonstrators in recent Lebanese history, told me: ‘If there is one thing we Lebanese are good at, it is protesting. But look. It achieves nothing.’ The fact that Syrian troops withdrew in 2005 proves him wrong, but it is easy to see why some Lebanese feel that change is not going to occur—or that, if it is, it has to be drastic. The same man felt that the only solution that might have traction was the removal of the current government from power through violence.
Other activists are focusing specifically on the issue that prompted this crisis: the rubbish on the roads. Unfortunately the language that calls for change to take place innocently or peacefully is often met with charges of naivety. Protests are easily taken over by malcontents looking for an opportunity to fight—as has happened at the You Stink protests. And it is telling that it is not unusual to hear green activists called hippies. Yet the notion of the green activist is itself misguided; as Laudato Si’ makes clear, care for our common home is the responsibility of us all. If caring for the environment is part of ‘activism’, its goal is already sidelined, misrepresented as a choice, a ‘green’ whim or fancy. Environmental awareness is not just part of our common duty as caretakers of the earth; it has to be talked about as such.
Paul Abi Rachid, head of Lebanon’s Eco Movement, has insisted that recycling ‘must be part of the solution’ to the rubbish crisis. He also says that every household in Lebanon must take its part in sorting rubbish, a reminder of the responsibility each of us has to contribute to change. Francis recognises the importance of ‘local individuals and groups (, who) can make a real difference. They are able to instil a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land’. He also emphasises that a deeper language is needed in order to enable us to locate the real goals. ‘(E)ven the best mechanisms can break down when there are no worthy goals and values, or a genuine and profound humanism to serve as the basis of a noble and generous society’.
Recycling is a significant part of the solution to Lebanon’s zbele disaster. The debate as a whole, however, has to be not just reframed but reconceptualised. Francis points out that we ‘fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth’. He could have been writing about Lebanon when he states that ‘we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis’. The ‘most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented’. The ministry engineer who mocked the possibility of Lebanese sorting their own rubbish commits just this mistake. Francis’s encyclical suggests that it is always hope that is the fruitful option, if it is hope with meaning at its core. One has to have belief in the possibility of a higher good in order to genuinely have hope. One has to believe in the essential dignity of mankind in order to believe in fellow humans and to see the effort of change as worthwhile. This means two things: using different language, and education.
As Francis wrote in Evangeli Gaudium, and quoted in Laudato Si’, ‘the current model, with its emphasis on success and self-reliance, does not appear to favour an investment in efforts to help the slow, the weak or the less talented to find opportunities in life’. Yet the recognition that for ‘all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love’ enables arguments about the value of educating citizens to become persuasive, even if such education might not immediately yield visible benefits. In fact, it is in the nature of education that it rarely does.
Take Teach for Lebanon, an NGO modelled upon organisations such as Teach For All and Teach First. Since 2010 it has been sending talented young graduates to schools in Lebanon in (usually rural) areas in which education is undervalued and tends to be seen as of little importance. TFL faces an issue similar to that diagnosed by Laudato Si’ regarding contemporary attitudes to the environment: lack of instant tangible change. A 2010 article on TFL states that despite ‘the program’s obvious level of impact, donors are more hesitant to invest when a traditional, physical form of assistance isn’t involved’. Without the trumpets that accompany speedy accomplishment, there is less inclination to alter paradigms. As Raissa Batakji, TFL’s Recruitment and Communications Manager, has pointed out: ‘There are no ribbons to be cut, as would be the case when you invest into a new computer lab, for example. (Donors) investments (in TFL) are less visible.’
The issue of visibility forms the disheartening core of the garbage predicament. It is only now the rubbish is on the road that the dual crises of Lebanon’s consumption and waste have come to attention. The desire for a fast short-term solution is a desire to solve the problem’s visible manifestation: hence zbele being taken to rivers or bridges or nature reserves, three places various Beirut and Mount Lebanon municipalities have been accused of hiding waste. But a true solution is one that treats the roots of causes, and the fruits of such a solution take far longer to flower. The educational challenge is enormous but essential. Francis’s encyclical ends by dwelling on the importance of ‘overall personal conversion’: one has to see the value of changing oneself. Change imposed from without—being told to recycle, for instance—will accomplish little unless people can genuinely see the point of it. ‘The existence of laws and regulations is insufficient in the long run to curb bad conduct, even when effective means of enforcement are present. If the laws are to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them, and personally transformed to respond’. How to instil such motivation?
In the same paragraph Francis refers to the cultivation of ‘sound virtues’, something intimately related with a rich spiritual life. We have to ‘continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything’, which includes ourselves and our relationship to one another. Materiality has to be combatted. Francis quotes Benedict XVI: ‘Purchasing is always a moral—and not simply economic—act’. Lebanese society, like many societies, both developed and developing, in contemporary culture, is one in which the goals are frequently material. When the goal is to provide one’s family with a home and regular electricity, this is laudable. When it is to own a car that makes your neighbours jealous or to have an income that allows one to buy the latest mobile telephone every few months, the goal has moved from the family—their security and welfare—to the material object itself and the opportunity to present oneself as rich that goes with it. There is a fundamental need for ‘a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm’. We have to be able to think about goals other than the material—about authentically human goals. Such thinking involves dwelling on who we are, how we relate to each other and to the environment, what our roles in our lives might be, and how best we can contribute. It also involves language that has space to recognise the value of these concerns. In the rhetoric of action that is Protest, Response (often violent), More protest, Further response, and Eventual stalemate—as occurred in the Lebanese calls for revolution in 2011—the escalating cycle can perhaps be broken only by a genuine belief in the possibility of change and improvement through a steady process of education.
An escalating cycle it certainly is. August 22nd and 23rd saw two violent days of protests, in which calls for a solution to the trash crisis became calls for revolution. Over 400 people were injured over the two day period, with police using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons in unsuccessful efforts to disperse demonstrators. Recent protests have been more peaceful, and are spreading across the country; further protests are planned. The chief of the Internal Security Forces, which has been involved in violent clashes with protesters, has told policemen that the demonstrators ‘are your brethren and friends, and it is your duty to protect them no matter what is done to you’. The Agriculture Minister, Akram Chehayeb, has put forward proposals for dealing with the trash crisis that ‘consecrate the process of decentralisation’, giving more responsibility to local authorities. Sanitary landfills in Akkar and the Bekaa Valley are being considered; their viability will depend on ‘sorting at the source’, at homes and in businesses. Making sorting mandatory for the public is a necessary step, a specialist consulting with Chehayeb has said. He emphasised that ‘success depends on persistence in managing the plan. You don’t give up on it after three months.’ Meanwhile the hunger strike goes on.
There is no easy solution to the current crisis: neither protest nor revolution will solve Lebanon’s rubbish problems, let alone its political difficulties. A long, difficult, uncertain, road lies ahead. What is definite, however, is that solidarity is needful: a solidarity with hope for humanity at its heart. It is too easy for such terms to sound meaningless or naïve. But Laudato Si’ is far from naïve or romantic. Francis’s tone is realistic and grave. Today’s is a ‘self-centred culture of instant gratification’, he tells us, and a similar desire for a gratifyingly fast solution can be seen in calls for rubbish to be removed from the streets and for normal life to resume. Francis urges us to remember that there is a moral imperative to assess ‘the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us’. Our actions affect politics as politics affect us, meaning that ‘there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life’. The language of politics has to be deepened to acknowledge the lives of humans it was created to serve.
We ‘are always more effective when we generate processes rather than holding on to positions of power’. Recognition of this is fundamental to improving the situation in Lebanon today. New processes, political and environmental, are needed. The Taif accord, which recognises the existence and rights of Lebanon’s eighteen official sects, commits politics to a division of power along sectarian lines: a Christian Maronite president, a Sunni Muslim Prime Minister, a Shia Speaker of Parliament. Many citizens now desire a complete separation of politics and religion, acknowledging that sectarianism commits them to an unchanging political model in which voting follows sect and identity instead of responding to the values and aims of particular parties. One ‘process’ might be examining new models for Lebanese politics. Another would be a campaign to improve environmental awareness among adults across society, including those without education or literacy; a third might be to encourage sorting one’s rubbish through a reward or recognition system. Free bins, for paper, plastic, and compost, ought to be distributed to every household. A fourth process would be to promote goals other than the material: a constructive effort to emphasise not so much the pitfalls of the material as the values of other things, such as an active and inquisitive spiritual life, one that is personal as well as bound up in the community, and such as art and theatre and literature. Lebanon’s poetic heritage is extraordinarily rich, but increasingly undervalued. Most fundamentally, environmental understanding should be built into the curriculum, with recycling and sorting at the source actively encouraged by teachers, so that fresh generations can motivate their parents and contemporaries. These are not difficult processes to put in place. They will not solve everything, but they are significant steps.
Most significant is the change within. ‘We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, “he looked at him with love” (Mk 10:21). He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers’. One of the beauties of Laudato Si’ is that it recognises the only way to change society is to change ourselves. We ‘must not think that these (personal) efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile’.
The ‘restlessness’ Jesus saw in the young rich man is rife in societies in which the only goals worth working for seem to be material ones. As long as solutions to crises use language that does not confront this mentality, situations will remain, at their depth, unchanged. Laudato Si’ ought to be seen as a document with immense practical and spiritual wealth. Francis is not just offering a vision that challenges the contemporary status quo; he is providing a means to change. He has instantiated a use of language that changes concepts—and therefore changes the debate. The document ought to be used: actively. We badly need Francis’s language. As he emphasised in Evangeli Gaudium, ‘realities are greater than ideas’. Reality is ‘a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew’. If we want our ideas to inform and transform reality, our words have not only to become practice, but, first, to shape practice: to show the way to a deeper practice. Laudato Si’ suggests how this might be done. It is up to us to learn from the suggestion and practise the encyclical’s mode of using language in our own lives, and in the lives of our communities and societies, including the life of politics.