Putting a trans-border university at the heart of the Shared Island agenda – The regenerative role of a local university

With plans to form a Shared Island unit in the Taoiseach’s Office there will be opportunities for Dublin’s new coalition government to select a number of flagship projects that can form part of a transformative legacy. One that can contribute significantly to the re-imagination of our island is a trans-border university in the North West. The region could lead the way in both pedagogical and ecological innovation as we prepare to ‘Build Back Better’ to address the impacts of both Covid-19 and the profound economic challenges of a Just Transition to address climate change.

Colm Burke TD, with some support from Simon Harris TD, has just written enthusiastically about a cross-border university dedicated to the legacy of John Hume. He wrote: “There is also great potential for a cross border university incorporating the existing colleges of higher education in the region into the structures of the university. These could include the Magee campus of the Ulster University, the Institutes of Technology in Letterkenny & Sligo, and the North West Regional College in Northern Ireland. The educational, social and economic benefits of a full university in the north west of Ireland are compelling.”

When a global spirit of liberation ignited a generation of rights activism in the 1960s, the relationship between knowledge and power was manifest in the role of universities and university students. The university issue in Derry became and remains totemic because the cultivation of knowledge can be a route to transformation when it is used to speak truth to power and liberate ethical imaginations. The civil rights demands of the 1960s and 1970s – championed by community leaders on all sides of our communities – have now been joined by an extension of our understanding of justice that incorporates care and responsibility for the earth and our island ecology.

No longer can nationalisms or unionisms get away with declaratory commitments to the land, the forests, the rivers and loughs without grounding that intention in the soil of active policies founded in a new (is)land ethic. Our ecological challenges are much more than technocratic and bureaucratic questions; they are provocations that must reach deep into our cultures, ways of knowing, being and belonging if we are to emerge anew and inhabit our shared habitat in a deep spirit of inter-dependence. Let the cry of the earth join the cry of the poor in transforming us!

The original acts of resistance in Derry were inspired by (and inspired) an emergent worldwide movement of resistance, confronting multiple forms of social exclusion and post-colonial oppression. In the same way, the current campaign for an authentic local university presence can contribute to contemporary movements of liberation, including those that refuse to partition social and ecological transformation. There can be no future in an economic project or renaissance that is not wholly imagined within “Planetary Boundaries” and thresholds that define the conditions for our lives together.

The Latin origins of the word “genius” convey more than a unique endowment of creativity and insight. Early usage referred to an “attendant spirit” or care and cultivation for our ways of understanding and acting in the world. There was an implicit ethical dimension, linking the ways in which we care for ourselves and the quality of attention and care we can bring to the world around us. A North-West trans-border University, created in a spirit of service to the care and regeneration of our cross-border communities is a chance for a renaissance of our local genius, in that original sense. Genius as a pursuit of learning attended by deep care for each other and for the communities of species with whom we share our deep sense of place, and from whom we draw our stories and identities in this (eco)region we call the Foyle. Those seeds of a spirit of mutual care and attention have already been well cultivated in Derry’s particular history of engagement between once hostile political traditions (the so called “Derry Model”) and can be drawn on again to co-author an inclusive vision of regeneration for our cross-border bioregion. Something that binds all communities in our city region is an abiding sense that the tapestry of our ancestries, connections and landscapes was never fully interrupted by a line on a map. Donegal and its Atlantic hinterlands are the spiritual commons that invite us to unlock an “economy of regard” and generosity encompassing all relationships: human and ecological.

As a seat of monastic learning, Derry, Donegal and our environs have a close association with an ancient understanding of learning that has a deep integrity: a connectedness that can now be recovered if we are to work our way through the challenges presented by the social, economic and ethical crises that have become visible in ecological breakdown. Consider, for example, how our mainstream understandings of “economy” have become partitioned from the deep rhythms, cycles and enlivenment of nature that ultimately sustain all activity. There’s a growing awareness, not yet reflected in most university teaching, that a “system error” sits at the heart of capitalist economics. This design error is summed up in the fiction that economic activity can be partitioned from the reality of limits, or pursued without regard for the physical boundaries of our planet’s capacity to sustain the conditions for human life.

The ancients understood that learning and the practices of caring for our bodies and minds were inseparable. In the Scholasticism of the High Middle Ages, the education of the monks consisted of a seamless integration of: lectio (reading), meditation (thinking about), oratio (praying), and contemplation (contemplative union). Today, leading thinkers such as Byung-Chul Han issue profound and urgent calls for a modern reclamation of the “contemplative life” (vita contemplative), lingering and slowness, lest we suffocate from our own hyper-activity, and life is reduced to mere industry and labour transformed into a commodity.

The great Quaker educationalist, Parker Palmer, summed up this insight with the words: “Every way of knowing becomes a way of living.” He believes that the dominant forms of learning in our institutions have spawned an associated ethic of violence associated with the scientific world view, with its emphasis on reducing the world and nature to a series of objects for manipulation and exploitation. A new university can draw from these new insights and contribute to a renaissance founded on a new reconciliation of wellbeing and economy, meaning and human flourishing, human and ecological liberation. As we draw from new ways of knowing, being and living together, older narratives give way to a generosity that restores a will to novelty and the unexpected.

Partitioned Knowledge and the Regenerative economy

In close collaboration with Zero Waste North West, one of our most creative – locally embedded and globally connected – cross community networks of activists, Derry and Strabane District Council have embarked on a significant journey towards a circular economy. One that will redesign our local production and consumption to bring it into line with the cycles of nature. Acknowledging that design is the first signal of human intention, the circular economy is about designing waste out of our economic system.

It will be a long journey. Thankfully every step is an arrival. Regenerating our economy is now about transforming ourselves, our communities and about the ways in which we draw pleasure, rest and meaning from our lives in the here and now.

Daniel Christian Wahl, one of the intellectual authors of the “regenerative economy” has warned us that redesigning our industrial system of production and consumption around the circular patterns of resource and energy use that we observe in mature ecosystems is only one part of redesigning our economy. To create a truly regenerative economy challenges us to ask deeper questions and initiate more far-reaching transformative change.

Education, research and new forms of community collaboration in the generation of new and meaningful knowledge will take centre stage in bringing about that transformation. For Wahl living regeneratively is about going much further than merely sustaining the current economic system. Regeneration is about living in right relationship to the dynamically evolving nested wholeness of life as a planetary process.

Wahl adds: “Living regeneratively is about finding our own uniqueness [or local genius] and expressing it in service to our communities and life’s ongoing evolutionary journey.”

So living in ways that puts right relationships front and centre is also about being conscious of how all our thoughts, words and actions have creative agency in what will emerge from the fabric of social and ecological networks we reside in and are expressions of. By understanding our own individual and collective ability to act and impact on life as a planetary process and our fundamental dependence on the health of ecosystems and planetary health, we come to understand that nurturing the health, resilience and adaptive capacity of our communities and the wider community of life is in all our enlightened self-interest.

In calling for a new university let us also re-imagine the university, with a nod to the ancients who knew well that our ways of seeking, knowing and understanding are also destined to become our ways of being in the world.

Let us re-imagine a university in a new spirit of freedom and liberation extended to our relations with all species, including those who make up this region, including the Foyle river system and all of its communities.

As Derry’s Holywell Trust once observed in a publication some decades ago, even an economy demands our love.