The Problem with Balance

agriculture, breast feeding, climate change, climate justice, environment, pope francis, Uncategorized

Balance is always a good thing. We talk about people being balanced, about approaches being balanced and about having a good work life balance. Balance never seems to be bad. Saying something is unbalanced, or worse, that a person is unbalanced, has negative undertones. If it refers to an issue, it either assumes that something is unfair or biased. If it relates to a person, it usually insinuates that the person is facing some kind of emotional problem, often related to stress – “that person is a bit unbalanced.” It is often used to dismiss their opinion or perspective. But is balance always so good?
Yesterday, after a year of internal wrangling, the European Commission presented its ‘balanced’ proposal on how the EU member states will share the burden of tackling climate change. It outlines all the national targets countries have agreed on, based on criteria of fairness, solidarity and cost-effectiveness. Ireland has come out of this pretty well when it comes to minimising targets – in fact, it has managed to achieve nearly +10% “flexibility” in its already reduced -30% emissions target. Given that Ireland is significantly off track with its 2020 target, this is an added bonus. It is breath-taking. Other countries have already made serious in-roads in their emissions, and are aiming to make further cuts of up to 40% – with no extra flexibility for wriggle room. 
For some, especially those who have long argued for this special status on behalf of Ireland’s agri-food sector, this is a political triumph. The media seems to be presenting it as such. For others, who really know what this means from a climatic perspective and who have deep understanding of the massive political capital expended in the process, it is very disheartening – and that’s putting it mildly. Trócaire called Ireland’s approach it a ‘derogation of global responsibility’, particularly towards the millions of people Ireland claims to be helping through its aid programme centred on alleviating hunger.
At the MacGill Summer School in Donegal, last night, almost by coincidence, a debate on this very issue was held between some of Ireland’s leading lights on this very issue. A balanced debate, you might say. Professor John Sweeney, Ireland’s leading climate scientist, outlined in meticulous detail the extreme urgency of the climate catastrophe. No hyperbole needed – this is an emergency. He demonstrated the impact the nearly 1.5 degree rise in global temperatures is having on the world’s poorest people. He described Ireland’s approach within the EU as “freeloading”, having won a “get out of jail card” to maintain the status quo in our farming sector. Fr. Sean McDonagh, an eco-theologian and close advisor to Pope Francis, then described the deep moral questions raised by humanity’s failure to face up to this issue of existential proportions. 
New Irish Farmers Association President, Joe Healy, then took the floor and presented the perspective of his organisation. Perhaps reading the situation well, he didn’t gloat or present the EC decision as a victory for the hard bargaining of the farmers. He recognised that there are many initiatives that can be undertaken by farmers in order to address emissions – and indeed the IFA is working with other agencies to ensure these are rolled out and that farmers profit from being better stewards of their environment. However, he ignored the fact that this watering down of targets – which we know are already too little, too late – is purely about facilitating the scaling up the beef and dairy industry which already accounts for 47% of our emissions at the expense of everyone else, without so much as a discussion. The recurring theme of his presentation was balance. The balance between the need for the agricultural sector to continue to focus on increasing carbon intensive beef and dairy exports and the moral responsibility of our country to reduce emissions for future generations.
The problem is, when it comes to tackling climate change, balance can actually be a bad thing. Yes, we need to understand winners and losers in the transition to a sustainable future and compensate losses. But we can’t let this transition issue stand in the way of the need to shift toward more ecological food production – changing our consumption habits, and therefore producing and eating less polluting food. But our fixation with balance, level headedness and our misplaced belief that maintaining a good balance will solve this issue is actually leading to the destruction of the planet. It provides cover for those who wish to prolong old perspectives and vested interests which are preventing more transformative change. It starves us of the innovation that comes about through accepting the urgent necessity for change. Isn’t necessity the mother of invention?
We urgently need to become a bit unbalanced. When my house is on fire, the last thing I want is a balanced approach. I don’t want a little bit of water and a bit of petrol mixed in for good measure. I don’t want the 999 call centre to put me on hold or worse, negotiate with me around how much water is available! I want the emergency services to arrive – now. Not tomorrow, not next week. I want them to come immediately. Our planet is burning. That’s the reality which we now face – it is so evident in the long-term data, in what we observe around us, in the experience of the millions now facing starvation across East Africa. Professor Sweeney’s message last night was so stark: the atmosphere does not unfortunately take heed of our balanced approaches. Rather, it betrays a deep disconnect with our physical reality. Yesterday’s EU decision reveals that our political establishment – certainly in Ireland – currently has no intention of shifting tack. They are hell bent on maintaining business as usual, albeit with a little bit of green paint. When will we wake up and smell the coffee?
 

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The Disruptive Power of a 'Dangerous Book'

breast feeding, climate change, climate justice, current affairs, ecology, environment, ethics, integral ecology, pope francis, spirituality

The past few days at the Vatican have been full of quite surreal moments. First I found myself introducing Naomi Klein, as I chaired (possibly) the first ever all female panel at a high level Vatican Conference. Later the same day, I was sitting on a bus beside Mary Robinson our way to an open air mass in an ancient pine forest. We were Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mulsims, athiests, feminists, liberals, conservatives, and everything in between. As the sun set over the beautiful pine trees, and the red full moon rose in the sky, the whole thing had strange dream like quality about it. I pondered how on earth I came to be there, in that moment, giving praise to God, Allah, Yaweh, Mother Earth with such an unlikely group of people. Something very strange was happening.
The occasion was the Conference “People and Planet First – the imperative to change course”, which focused on Pope Francis Encyclical Laudato Sí. I certainly wasn’t alone in sensing a surrealness at the event. What I think what we experienced was due to the disruptive power of Pope Francis’ encyclical.  Someone described the Encyclical as “the most dangerous book”. Others, such as Ben Phillips, in his blog on  NGO Courage made the point that we have been “out radicaled” by the Pope. He has said the unsayable, disrupting well positioned lines of defence and throwing them into disarray.
This isn’t just Pope Francis mania either. The group in the Vatican were the an unlikely Papal fan club. For many who associate themselves with this, there is a cost to pay for aligning with the Pope. But the encyclical has the power to bring very divergent views together for the greater good. It disrupts because it speaks the Gospel truth, with all its raw beauty and its pain, in an uncompromising and compelling way. The Pope takes a different perspective – like opening google earth and panning right out as far as you go into space. He brings us right back to the sense of wonder of existence, calling us back to a sense of awe at life on this fragile planet. It stops you in your tracks. It resonates something deep in our hearts and moves us to care. Essentially, in changing the viewpoint to one of integral ecology, Pope Francis offers us a new vocabulary to express in concrete terms the world we want to see. He has given permission to everyone to say what has to be said.
Listening to the many wonderful women speakers in the Conference, I was struck by the intensely maternal, and sisterly perspective Laudato Sí encapsulates. Mary Robinson correctly pointed out the lack of a specific focus on the role of women in the encyclical, but for me the maternal, sisterly dimension is profound and essential. The whole Encyclical in fact revolves around this opening sentence: “Our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” Miss that, and you miss the point. In fact, the image that best sums up the new viewpoint that Pope Francis is proposing, is the image of mother feeding her newborn child. It is the image that best embodies the most fundamental, natural, intimate relationship of mutual love and dependency. It is the icon par excellance of the culture of care that is now needed. It is an idea I stumbled on several months ago, as I wrote here, but is one that seems increasingly relevant.
This image of mother and child, the first tender bond of inter-generational care is the measure of the love we now need to save us from ourselves, and the perils of a climate changed future for our children. This poem of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands to her baby speaks volumes of the mother-child tragedy unfolding before us. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu reminded us that thousands of children are already faced with an uncertain future as climate refugees. Rather than getting lost in useless arguing, above all we need to draw our children and grandchildren close to us and make them a solemn promise to do everything in our power to change course. For me, in fact, my main motivation in the struggle against climate change and injustice , which makes me do what I’d normally not consider doing, is simply to be able to answer the questions of my children when they grow up: “you mean you knew – so what did you do?”
Mary Robinson spoke beautifully at the Conference of this deeply maternal perspective. In her speech she focused on the encyclical theme of earth as our common home. She made the connection to motherhood and the need to see the earth as a home – and us as all as one family. For mothers all over the world, the concern with the running of the home is second nature. This gives women a better sense of limits, as they are the ones who usually focus on tending for the family, ensuring there is enough to go round. Extending that simple idea of being one family to the world scale can help us find new ways to care for our shared home. The word ‘economy’ in fact, comes from the greek word for home – oikonomia ‘household management’, based on oikos ‘house’ + nemein ‘manage’. Through re-imagining the economy from that image of the home, from maternal care, sisterhood, and Ubuntu we can start to build a truly transformative vision.
Perhaps the encyclical’s most profound message is that the earth is our mother, with whom we need a loving relationship to survive and thrive. As Naomi Klein pointed out, we are simply realising we are not the masters of creation. The truth is we utterly depend on mother earth – in reality we are as helpless in the face of nature, as a newborn child feeding from its mother’s breast. We urgently need to feel that again. When that loving relationship with the mother is broken, the impact on the child is devastating, and often irreparable. Repairing that loving relationship once more is essential. That is a dangerous message to those who wield unscrupulous power.
 

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Mother's milk and climate justice

breast feeding, climate change, climate justice, environment, ethics, Ireland

When you start talking about climate change you can expect some unusual, difficult questions. I find that the implications of climate change are so far reaching, when people actually take notice, it touches on something very core. On the whole questions relate to issues like ‘what can I do about it?’ ‘how do we know it’s real?’ ‘how can we tackle it and ensure economic growth?’ and the like.
At this week’s Social Justice Ireland Event on climate justice and policy coherence someone in the audience asked me one of the most left field questions yet: should we be encouraging women to breastfeed to combat climate change? The question raised a few eyebrows, not to mention a few laughs (not least because it was a rather elderly gentleman who asked it!). Having breastfed my boys for very different reasons, I was trying to understand his viewpoint. I struggled to do justice to his sincere question. He got me thinking however: breast milk is free, has no food miles, has zero carbon footprint, is a natural process. I began to see he had a point – not only is it good for mother and baby, it is also environmentally sustainable too.
This sense that he may be on to something grew as I sat at the Fine Gael National Conference in Castlebar last night and listened to the Taoiseach speech about our national strategy for economic recovery. The aggressive export driven development of the agri-food sector is central to that recovery. Ireland sees itself as a quality food basket for emerging economies, providing beef and dairy to burgeoning global middle classes. A significant increase in our national beef and dairy herd is central to it’s achievement. That is sure to please many many rural communities who have been decimated by the crash. The only ‘small’ problem is that it will be near on impossible to lower national climate emissions if the national herd increases. Agriculture already contributes around 40% of all Irish emissions.
One key part of this strategy is to grow Ireland’s role in the infant formula industry: “Developing countries across the world have a growing thirst for dairy products, especially infant formula. Irish companies are already making strong inroads into these markets, including China, and this is expected to grow in the coming year as we ramp up production. (Taoiseach Enda Kenny)  I have to say I let out an audible gasp when the Taoiseach said that (to the disapproval of the party faithful surrounding me!)
Haven’t we learnt anything? It only seems like yesterday we were protesting against the Nestlé powdered milk scandals, where mothers were being targeted to substitute breast milk in poor countries where access to clean water remains an issue of life and death. That scandal has not gone away, as this recent Guardian article shows. Ireland, however, has become a champion of infant nutrition both through its first thousand days campaign nationally, and internationally via the SUN initiative. And here we are, literally exporting a heavily industrialised model of food production globally, at great cost to the environment and vulnerable populations. There is a deep contradiction at the heart of these policies.
It points to the need for a transformative shift in how we view food and agriculture if we are to really address climate change. At present there is little sign it is happening – at least in official circles. There is an uphill battle ahead on that front. So the man who asked me the rather odd question clearly had a point. Everything is interconnected – and it starts with mother’s milk.

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