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!
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:
- 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.
- Internationalise environmental costs: Accept burden sharing, and the need to pay our ecological debt based on the concept of universal destination of goods.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Support diversified local agriculture – prioritise investment in local markets rather than globalised, centralised agro-industry.
- 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.
- Regulate global finance: Promote the regulation of speculative financial practices and virtual wealth.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
There is something very strange going on. I’m not sure whether it has to do with the blood moon eclipse, the strange rainbows over Manhattan during the Pope’s visit, or something they put in the water, but my head has been scrambled.
I have just returned from the UN General Assembly where, amid much fanfare, the new Sustainable Development Goals were signed-off by 190 Heads of State. The week’s events were a non-stop caffeine fuelled tour-de-force involving side events, receptions, road blocks, concerts and papal masses. It was a veritable who’s who of global society – from nearly being run over by President Xi Jinping, to bumping into Christine Lagarde in a UN lift. Anyone who is anyone in the global elite and/or the global fight against poverty was in New York for this momentous occasion. The Taoiseach and the President were both in town, together with a large representation from civil society and entertainment world. Ed Sheerin was one of the headline acts at the massive launch party in Central Park.
So what’s not to love? Surely this veritable global gathering of the great and the good, endorsing the new Sustainable Development Goals agenda, will save the world? Maybe I should just stop moaning and ‘get behind the goals and tell the world about them’ as Project Everyone has been contracted by the UN to tell us to do. If only we could all declare the new world order – and it shall be done. But when Gucci, the world’s most luxury brand, worth €12.2 billion, is the lead sponsor for a launch party to celebrate the quest to end global poverty, as happened on Saturday night, you must admit – something very strange is happening.
There is much to love about the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Don’t get me wrong. When taken together, most of the goals are motherhood and apple pie. The new agenda could have been a lot less progressive had NGOs like Trócaire not applied significant pressure on the UN and governments. Arguably, the Irish co-facilitation role also played a key role in keeping more progressive elements on the table such as a human rights approach and gender equality. None of that can be taken for granted. These goals are potentially transformative. They represent a kind of re-interpretation of human rights for the modern era within the context of environmental sustainability. To say “no one should be left behind” in fact, is another way of saying “everyone has rights.”
And therein also lies the rub. Whilst the SDGs effectively re-interpret human rights for the modern era, they say virtually nothing about the primary duty of states to deliver human rights for their citizens. Taken in the context of the recent Financing for Development Summit, the SDGs, it seems, will not be delivered by empowering poorer states and citizens to claim their rights through progressive, corrective public policies including taxation and regulation. The sub-text is that they will be realised by a further deepening of the expanding network of transnational corporations, now in active partnership with global NGOs and international agencies. Public Private Partnerships, blending public and private finance initiatives and new forms of privatisation are central to the delivery of this new agenda. New contracts to deliver on these goals were most likely signed in New York over the weekend at one of the many lavish corporate lunches.
The first off-shoot of the SDGs, in fact, are the ‘Global Goals’, massive feel good global campaign funded by major corporations, and backed by many leading NGOs. These are global household names and a taste of things to come. Their mission is to use their brand power tell everyone about the global goals. Of course, in doing so, there is one thing they may wish to avoid at all costs– anything that could remotely challenge their brand power and their bottom line. In fact, to do so would contravene the licensing agreement of the Global Goals campaign. The public SDGs have already been co-opted into private hands.
The problem is, however, that the very economic model of affluence, waste and excess on which many of these brands such as Gucci rely, is actually at the heart of our current ‘socio-environmental crisis’ as Pope Francis calls it. The SDGs avoid asking the difficult questions around corporate tax avoidance, fossil fuel divestment, public finance for development, consumerism culture and so on. They are loaded with assumptions of unending economic growth and now can harness the poverty eradication agenda to fuel growth. If the corporations backing the global goals campaign were serious about their role in eradicating poverty they could start with paying their fair share of tax, doing human rights due diligence, and safeguarding the environment. Governments and NGOs would do well to support them in this quest!
There is a serious risk that many NGOs could be co-opted into this new agenda too, with a chilling effect on really important conversations on what really needs to change to tackle consumerism, inequality and climate change. Or they could become a massive administrative distraction, as Pope Francis has warned. The big funding in the future will lie in supporting the delivery of the SDGs – but most likely only in ways which do not challenge the power of global brands.
At the start of this 2015 blog, I highlighted three major global events happening in 2015 which offer an exceptional opportunity to change course. The first of these, the Financing for Development Summit in Addis Ababa has finally arrived.
As I sit here in my comfortable hotel bedroom in Addis Ababa, listening to the police sirens outside as dignitaries from 193 countries arrive, I wonder about the week ahead – and what difference, if any, my being here makes. These big global summits are a circus. In fact, as I write, the negotiations may be over already. The EU unilaterally agreed to the final draft text overnight. They have given the other major block of countries, the G77, until 3pm today to accept this agreement. The G77 will have to decide whether this is a battle worth fighting.
The point is that delegates coming to Addis would prefer not to have to do any serious, messy negotiating – this would take away from the media razzmatazz of the non-negotiated announcements. The last thing they want is for the media to get distracted by any disagreements. Patch it up, cover up the cracks – agree something, anything. Let us all get on with the real business of interesting side events, state dinners, receptions, and the all-important branded global initiatives! Let the people back home know we are making a difference.
The fact is that the official outcome document is excruciatingly weak, despite Ban Ki Moon’s valiant attempt to talk it up to 1000 NGOs yesterday. The “Addis Action Agenda” is very short on concrete action, especially on the part of states. There is no new aid money, for example, on the table. The FfD summit is meant to come up with the additional finance – both the actual money and the structural changes required to generate future resources – to deliver on the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Finance for global goals can come from a range of sources but not all finance is equal. All of us know the difference between a grant and a high interest loan. To achieve the SDGs, especially for the poorest people on the planet, public finance is essential. Only public finance can provide the level of stability and the social contract needed to deliver essential services to the poorest. Without adequate public finance the whole enterprise of human development based on the idea of human rights – where duty bearers can be held to account – is put at serious risk.
What the run up to the negotiations in Addis confirms, yet again, is that a profound shift in global politics taking place right under the noses of our elected governments. This shift is really about a transferal of accountability in global politics away from democratic governance into the hands of powerful financiers and corporations. The only game in town this week is the unrelenting rise of private capital in the provision of the new development agenda, as I recently wrote about here. Public Private Partnerships and blended finance are the only show in town. Such PPPs come at a cost – a cost of democratic accountability, through transferring the responsibility for public services provision away from the state into large, international, unelected profit making entities. The risk burden, moreover, is transferred to the public purse creating the potential for new unsustainable debt crises. The decision on when the cost of an investment in essential, life saving services becomes too high essentially becomes a matter for the board room in New York rather than the cabinet table in Addis Ababa. Who, then, is accountable for ensuring the human rights of those at the receiving end of such essential services?
Whilst the negotiations on agreeing the new goals (the what) have been relatively straight forward so far, the negotiations on the means to get there (the how) have been dogged with bad feeling from the start. It feels like the world was happy to come up with an ambitious wish list, but is hoping Santa Claus will come to deliver it. The atmosphere here could not be more different to the optimistic spirit experienced in the Vatican last week. That spirit, grounded in a realisation of the existential crisis facing humanity, unfortunately does not seem to have made it to Addis yet. The words of the Encyclical are still ringing in my ears “everything is connected”. The fight against climate change, in fact, is profoundly linked to the capacity for state action, which in turn relies on an ability to generate resources through taxation and limit illicit flows – which in turn, requires democratic governance and upholding of basic human rights of communities over corporations. In other words, people and planet before profits.
At present, it would appear that the dominance of the private corporate sphere, with its unrelenting logic of profit seeking has the upper hand. That logic has come to set the rules of the game, even within the UN. The UN, as I wrote here, is not coca cola! Santa Claus, in his red Coca cola truck will not deliver the SDGs. Multilateralism itself it seems is now beholden to the markets. Such a form of multilateralism knows no forgiveness, as the unfolding Greek tragedy demonstrates.
The question is how can such influence be curtailed? How can we reclaim the democratic space, especially in a world where 90 states have introduced draconian measures to limit democratic freedoms? In many countries, including the one I am sitting in right now, public protest will now land you in prison or worse. Everything is connected.
As I said following the Vatican conference, and after the Trócaire conference, we need a new global movement – which is able to see the profound interconnections between the different struggles we are facing. At the heart of this, there is a profound need to reclaim the Greek philosophical basis of a good society – and adapt it to the world we live in today, constrained by climate change and other massive challenges. It seems to me that four burgeoning global movements need get out of their silos and come together: the movement for climate justice, the movement for tax justice, the global treaty alliance on business and human rights and the movement for transparency. Together, these peoples’ movements, grounded in a global “culture of care” based on the Encyclical, could make the difference. Without this kind of united struggle, the spectre of global plutocracy looms large.
This week I had the honour of giving a reflection at the Trócaire Lecture given by Cardinal Peter Turkson, the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The lecture was on “integral ecology” – the topic which Pope Francis’ much anticipated Encyclical will cover later this year. I have to confess that before this week I knew very little about integral ecology. After immersing myself in the subject in preparation for the lecture, I am fascinated by the idea and look forward to learning more. Three aspects of it appealed to me:
- integral ecology demands that we put care for creation and a planetary perspective at the heart of all our decision-making. Environmental issues have to come out of their ‘special interest group’ box and become an integral part of all decisions. In the words of Pope Francis, Christians are not being asked to ‘go green’ but to ‘be Christian’.
- integral ecology requires us to shift to a systems way of thinking. It is about integration and synthesis rather than individual, isolated perpsectives. I was really taken by this idea.
- integral ecology means placing far greater value on ‘interiority’ – the awareness that is present within all living beings. This aspect of the concept really appeals to me – and is of huge value in a world which tends to devalue or disregard interiority.
The absence of integration and synthesis today is everywhere, especially in the political world. It results in incoherence in policies at every level, like that I mentioned in my previous blog. I see this especially when I go to the UN. It is remarkable to witness the sheer numbers and industriousness of NGOs, policy makers, officials… all fighting for very worthy goals. “I’m for disability” “I’m for indigenous peoples” “I’m for small island states” “I’m for people living in extreme poverty”… and so on. Yet everyone is so caught up in fighting their own corner. The end result is 17 new Sustainable Development Goals with 169 targets!!! This sounds fine until you realise that virtually no-one is thinking about the sum of the parts, the systemic questions which make the achievement of these goals possible. It is just too complicated, the power interests are too great. The result is ineffective action, not seeing the wood for the trees.
If we begin to focus on the ‘whole’, the ‘systems’, as an integral ecology proposes, it becomes evident that we need to rethink of our hierarchy of public values which currently puts economic growth above ecology – consumption above conservation, private gain above the universal destination of goods. As a placard at the Climate march last September put it “tell the next generation: it was the economy, stupid!” Despite so much research on human and planetary well-being, governments still define progress in terms of national and global economic growth, even when that growth is predicated on the destruction of the planet we call home. There is something seriously wrong in our accounting system! Rethinking global economic governance in a way that reduces excessive, wasteful consumption but still allows those living in poverty to achieve a decent standard of living is the major challenge today. Redistributive justice is also an ecological issue.
Developing an integral ecology is a collective exercise. This means focusing energy on breaking down the intellectual and political silos and finding ways to achieve new insights through shared knowledge. This demands a very different skill set to what is valued today. Yes, it still requires technical expertise. But above all, it requires an ability to dialogue, to share perspectives, to listen, to try to engage and understand the others perspective and appreciate what is good about it. It requires a certain humility – an ability to see that none of us has the whole truth, but many of us have partial truths.
What is most exciting about the ide of an integral ecology to me is the value it places on ‘interiority’: the spiritual and cultural renewal required to make the shift to a just and sustainable future. This transition, which prioritises care for creation and the poor, can only be achieved through a change of heart, a valuing of interiority. As Cardinal Turkson said at the lecture, ‘we will care for what we cherish and revere’. It means cultivating a sense of ‘wonder and awe’.
Western culture traditionally has placed little value on interiority, almost assuming that a rational, technical, materialist culture is adapted to address the problems of the 21st century. Religion is widely regarded as a private affair. Yet the attitudes, behaviours and values needed are far different. Rather than focusing on quick technical fixes, the key questions for society has to be ‘What is the interior world, the thought systems, the values that sustain or undermine an integral ecology?’ It strikes me that a communitarian spirituality, which is deeply attune to dialogue and mutual understanding, in this regard, becomes a critical public good. As Pope Francis points to, the horizon of hope needs to open up and be underpinned by a new interiority – a change of heart, a ‘revolution of tenderness’. In fact, the flourishing of a counter-culture which actually recognises the beauty and value of less is a profound paradox. It is a hard sell for those who are bought into the dominant culture, but perhaps not for those who have made the Gospel of love and justice the motivating force for their life!