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?

2016 – a year for action!

climate justice, current affairs, environment, ethics, integral ecology, sustainable development goals, Uncategorized

Happy new year to you! Its over a month since I last blogged so this one is rather overdue. I ended 2015 on s high, but quite exhausted and ready for a digital detox. I put away my computer for a few weeks and enjoyed a screen free existence for a while. It has taken me till now to gather my thoughts on 2016. But here I am.
I guess my first blog of the year has to be somewhat reflective… and a bit of looking at the year we are now almost 1/12 of the way through. 2015 was a phenomenal year. It was the hottest year on record. It was a year of unprecedented migration into Europe. A year of seemingly never ending conflict and terrorist attacks. It was a year of major global summits. A year of unprecedented people power with mass demos on TTIP and climate change. It was a year of big big promises and grand political gestures – in Addis, in New York and in Paris. World leaders promised to ‘leave no-one behind’ – to end global poverty by 2030; they promised to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees C; they promised international partnership with the poorest countries.
These are all significant achievements, and we can’t dismiss them. As I said back in December, the year could have ended very differently with disastrous consequences. Yet the proof of all these promises and agreements will be in what happens next. In reality, getting agreement was actually the easy part. Ensuring that the agreements are followed through and translated into action is the hardest part. The work is only beginning now.
The test of whether rich governments such as our own are really serious about their intentions comes in the next few months as they interpret these agreements and decide what practical measures they are prepared to take to increase the ambition and urgency to translate them into change. Will they, for example, finally agree on a Financial Transaction Tax as a new source of funding which can raise huge resources from the financial sector to fund these essential global issues? Today in Dublin we launched the Irish campaign for a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ – and intend making it an election issue.
Another, perhaps more important, test will be whether governments are prepared to rethink other agreements which now increasingly stand in the way of achieving Sustainable Development Goals, especially climate change. Today I had the chance to address the Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Committee on one such agreement: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP. Behind closed doors, in secret negotiations with large corporations, the EU and USA have been discussing a new ‘free trade’ zone between the EU and US for the past three years. Their plan is to put in place a unprecedented partnership which may result in some benefits for trade, but is profoundly anti-democratic and will lock in climate change for decades. Through setting up a parallel quasi-judicial system only for investors to sue governments (ISDSs), it would effectively facilitate corporations to hold governments to account based on the impact of their policies on profits – rather than the other way round. If a government decides to change its policies to tackle climate change, and that reduces profits (lets say of the oil industry), they can and will sue. It sounds fanciful, but in 2016 the very same governments that signed the Paris Agreement are engaging in this process. We should all be very concerned. If TTIP passes, the Paris Agreement isn’t worth the paper it is written on – nor are the Sustainable Development Goals.
Despite these challenges, I have hope. I feel that in 2016 there is a new energy building across civil society to counter these negative trends. I’ve never been so busy with requests to speak up and down the country, especially in churches. There is a new courage, collaboration and appetite for direct action. The new Oxfam report which highlights the fact that a mere 62 individuals now own the same as the bottom 3.6 billion makes the inequality so clear, so blatant, so disgusting, that people will react. This isn’t about a little bit of financial inequality… this is about structures that facilitate monopoly and oligarchy of powerful groups (who meet up, dine, fly in corporate jets) who are now managing to re-shape the rules of global finance and trade in their image and design. It won’t be sorted by a little bit of aid, philanthropy or charity – but only by a powerful movement which reclaims public space and discourse and releases it from the logic of the market and consumption. The growing movements for tax justice, fossil fuel divestment, stop TTIP, Refugees Welcome! are all examples of where people energy is converging and growing. We all need to become informed and use our power to bring about change. Each of us has power to express our views – as the buddhist group I met outside Leinster House demonstrated today. I joined their street meditation for climate action. There are growing, irrepressible signs that this is happening. It can’t happen fast enough. Bring on 2016!

Journeying through Paris – Between Despair and Hope

climate change, climate justice, current affairs, ecology, environment, Uncategorized

Today I’m off to Paris for the final few days of the climate talks. I have to say from what I hear from colleagues in Paris, there is a lot of work still to do. It seems we may once again to be seriously disappointed with the outcome of the negotiations. Miracles can happen, and God knows we’ve all been praying for one, but it is unlikely we’ll see the divine intervention to deliver on the kind of agreement we need to keep the world safe from the worst impacts of climate change. Powerful vested interests, with their insidious control over governments – in the North and South – have prevailed. They are even sponsoring the conference and trying to censor public protest. Their behind the scenes lobbying to protect their interests has been exposed.
Despite the more cooperative atmosphere compared to 2009, most powerful governments have taken a calculated bet that their electorate prefer incremental action for now. They seem to be opting to protect short-term comforts, special interests and lifestyles, whilst pushing more serious change down the road. Whilst the wild weather this week from Ireland to India has not been lost on them, it will not be enough to change the course of this COP. The dynamic of negotiations does not follow the weather or emotional outbursts. It is depressingly familiar and reflects the same pattern which has dogged inaction for a generation now. Whilst the science has finally been accepted, and there is even talk of a new target of 1.5°c being in the text, the will to move beyond business as usual is still lacking. Targets only mean something if commitment to action follows.
On nearly all five of the measures which Trócaire set out as benchmarks, the current draft text is sorely lacking. The 1.5°c is the main positive. Overall, the current draft is very weak and civil society is now locked out of the real negotiations when the gloves come off. It all happens behind closed doors. Worryingly, wikileaks revelations also emerged this week about secret talks which have been happening in parallel with the COP in relation to EU trade interests at the WTO and with TTIP. On the one hand EU governments are seeking to carve out a deal in Paris to reduce emissions – whilst on the other still privileging the position of the fossil fuel industry and instructing negotiators not to accept a deal which damages international trade. This double-speak is utterly despicable and shows the sham of international negotiations whether at the UN Sustainable Development Goals in September, and potentiality again here in Paris.
For those involved in the climate movement, preparing for this depressing outcome is really important. All year climate leaders have been focused on Paris, but also saying that Paris would not deliver and that the most important thing is not to become demoralised by it. The first two major global summits this year – in Addis Ababa in July and New York in September – were clear indications that governments are playing a game of spinning rhetoric for one audience whilst failing to honour existing commitments and sign up to new ones. The omens for Paris were not good.
The emotional toll of failure, however, will still be great. Just like preparing for the loss of a loved one, however, it is one thing rationalising it in advance, it is another thing experiencing it. Nothing can actually prepare you for the loss and despair. We are all going to feel it like we did in Copenhagen in 2009. So much effort, so much frustration, so much anger. So much love. That emotion needs to be translated into re-doubled action.
The big difference between Copenhagen and now is that the movement is much stronger, much broader, much more technically able, better organised and resourced, and above all has strong leadership. The climate movement is no longer seen as an environmental movement. It comprises faith groups, unions, universities, NGOs, businesses, mothers, fathers, youth, children. It has strong and articulate leaders like Pope Francis, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Kumi Naidoo, Mary Robinson, and unlikely heros like the Raging Grannies and the Grandparents for a Safe Earth, who are prepared to pay for this cause at great personal sacrifice. The 785,000 people who marched on the 29th of November are now a force to be reckoned with. They have found their voice. They have a new focus in the fossil fuel divestment campaign. The movement has truth on its side. Despite the expected failure in Paris, the mood amongst activists is buoyant – even full of hope. If 2015 was billed as a big year for big global policies, 2016 will be the year of activism in every corner of the earth.
The challenge for the climate movement is now one of unity. It is about building a counter-force and becoming the future we want to see – following in Ghandi’s footsteps: ‘be the change you want to see’. It is what Brazilian theologian Dom Helder Camara called ‘third force wisdom’ – a future coming into being:
“Don’t waste time with oppositional energy. In the short run, you will have to hold unresolvable tensions, symbolized by the crossbeams on which Jesus was crucified. In the long run, you will usher in something entirely new and healing. This is “third force” wisdom.”
With it, perhaps in this Jubilee year of Mercy, which Pope Francis has launched today, the change will come.

We are here today because…

climate change, climate justice, environment, integral ecology, Uncategorized

All over the world this weekend, in over 2000 cities and towns, people will come together to ask governments to take action on climate change. Here’s my short reflection which I will be sharing at the Dublin march on Sunday.
We are here today because we understand what is at stake.
We have accepted the science.
It tells us our world is in trouble;
We have made a choice that we must act.
Each of us has come on a journey,
And now we stand together.
Shoulder to shoulder,
Speaking with one voice:
We want decisive action.
We regret that too much time has passed,
Too many empty words have been spoken,
Too many excuses have been made.
We just don’t buy it any more.
Too much is at stake.
We are here today because we care.
In our hearts we know
Things cannot continue the way they are going.
We cannot continue to pump out polluting gases
from our homes,
Our cars,
Our factories,
Our farms,
Our lives
And act like it doesn’t matter.
It does.
We are here today because
We believe another world is possible,
We are prepared to put ourselves on the line to build it.
We know that solutions exist
And we are demanding that our leaders step up.
We are here today, above all, because
We know that there are many victims in the climate crisis,
Yet their voices are silent in the corridors of power.
If we stop and listen, we will hear their cries….
Cries of peoples on the tiny atoll islands of the south Pacific,
the drought ridden plains of the Horn of Africa,
the flood hit plains of Bangladesh…
People forced to flee as a result of conflicts and disasters
made far worse by climate change.
Cries the future generations,
our children and grandchildren,
who will face a future of insecurity and conflict,
a burden we seem content to place on their shoulders.
Cries of thousands of other species
with whom we share this beautiful mother earth.
Their cries should be deafening,
yet their silence speaks volumes.
Who will be their voice?
Who will speak for them in Paris?
We are here today because we want to ensure that their voices are heard
in the negotiating rooms in Paris.
That their rights are recognised and protected
and the ecological debt we owe them is paid.
We are here today because
we know that we can only change and build this future
if we connect with each other and make our presence felt.
“To change everything, it takes everyone”.
Neighbour with neighbour,
community with community,
leader with leader,
nation with nation.
Bridging divisions, healing divides.
Finding common purpose.
Right across the world today,
tens of millions of people are coming to the same conclusion.
Our voice of hope is far stronger
than the one that tells us we are doomed.
And let’s be clear: this is just beginning.
Paris will at best, open the door.
But we will not stop,
because our hearts tell us
that this is world is worth fighting for.

Pope Francis Development Goals: A Counter-Narrative to the SDGs

climate change, climate justice, ecology, environment, integral ecology, international development, sustainable development goals

The past week I have been reflecting on the key recent messages of Pope Francis and the power of Laudato Sí to present a counter-narrative to the Sustainable Development Goals. We need a counter-narrative or a different story because the SDGs are seductive. They draw you into a strange complacency about the really knotty issues the world is facing. I believe the SDGs fail to address those and risk becoming a big distraction, particularly for civil society. Uncontaminated by the inevitable horse trading of international negotiations, these ‘pathways for action’ priorities, or ‘goals’ in Laudato Sí represent what really needs to change to build a more just and sustainable future. Here’s my stab at what Pope Francis says we need to prioritise laid out as a set of alternative goals:

  1. Prioritise energy transition: phase out fossil fuels and make the transition to renewables: we need to decarbonise our economics. Rich countries have a duty to support clean energy in the South.
  2.  Internationalise environmental costs: Accept burden sharing, and the need to pay our ecological debt based on the concept of universal destination of goods.
  3. Make international agreements enforceable. Ensure legally enforceable frameworks with clear boundaries, starting with the COP21.Whilst transitional measures are needed, these must be with a view to binding commitments which recognise the need for system change.
  4. Reform global governance institutions to protect the global commons: Introduce measures to curtail the power of transnational economic and financial sectors, over the political and national. Build a new world political authority with real sanction power.
  5. Promote local participatory accountability: Local and national policies need to be coherent with international agreements.  There is no point signing on to goals when national policies are at odds with those aspirations. Participatory local policy processes are key. Local communities need to be engaged in transition. 
  6. Focus on long-term, generational political perspective: Need to move beyond the myopia of power politics to a far sighted agenda. We must step beyond the reluctance to take public measures which would affect consumption or create risks for FDI. Engage in true state craft and leadership, which always prioritises the importance of continuity over short-term politics.
  7. Do not base policy choices on how markets might react. Base collective action on the precautionary principle rather than a ‘magical conception of the market’ (186) Profit cannot be the sole criterion as it does not tend to measure what has real value. Environment cannot be safeguarded by market forces.
  8. Promote diversified forms of community-based production and consumption: Build co-operatives for renewables and self-sufficiency, harness the power of local groups, indigenous peoples. Promote alternative approaches base on community values and ownership. Support and harness the creativity of diversified, innovative forms of environmentally sustainable production and consumption.
  9. Support development of community-based circular economy: Start with energy conservation and minimising waste, the phase out of less efficient products, improving transport and buildings; modify consumption patterns, including recycling, revamping, reusing.
  10. Support diversified local agriculture – prioritise investment in local markets rather than globalised, centralised agro-industry.
  11.  Ensure ex ante environmental impact assessments are implemented. These need to be interdisciplinary, transparent and free from pressure. Affected groups in local  local population have a special role to play.
  12. Regulate global finance: Promote the regulation of speculative financial practices and virtual wealth.
  13.  Set limits to growth and consumption: Need to contain growth by setting reasonable limits. Limit and reduce excessive, harmful consumption as one way to pay our ecological debt, reducing harmful consumption.
  14. Develop a new concept of progress: Recognise that economic growth has diverged from real progress as it has no planetary limits. Another form of progress is needed which in many cases involves “decrease in the pace of production and consumption”, a possible decrease in growth. We need to de-link progress from ever increasing consumption. Life quality and consumption not always linked.
  15. Account for the real costs of business: Address the mis-conception of modern economics, which fails to truly account for the capital involved in production, particulalry in terms of natural capital. “Businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved.” The key issue is how is how to account for the real costs, particularly the carbon costs.