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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Changing the zeitgeist – Reflections on climatejustice2015

climate change, climate justice, environment, integral ecology, pope francis

There is a joke going round Trócaire that I have a hot line to the Vatican. How was it that we managed to time our recent conference on Climate Justice to take place just four days after Pope Francis launched his new encyclical Laudato Si’ on ecology? Without a doubt, the timing was impeccable! I’ll let you in on a secret – there is more than a grain of truth to the idea that we may have influenced the timing. In fact, I suggested the date of 18th June for the Encyclical launch to Cardinal Turkson when he visited Ireland in March this year for the Trócaire Annual Lecture! In any case, the timing of the Encyclical and the #climatejustice2015 conference this week in Maynooth could not have been more perfect.
The dust is still settling on the Conference, which brought together many high powered speakers on climate justice – Mary Robinson (UN Special Envoy on Climate Change), Professor van Ypersele (IPCC vice-chair), and Bill McKibben (co-founder of global climate movement 350.org). Over 500 people participated in the event, which was livestreamed around the world and at one stage was trending globally on twitter. The heads of almost all religions in Ireland were present – as was the humanist association. Senior executives from over 25 companies attended. Many politicians, policy makers, young people, academics, teachers, religious, film makers, poets… And they came from all over the country. Ireland was in the room. The event was free and open to all who wanted to come and learn about the challenge of climate justice. Some prominent journalists found the first day so interesting, they came along on the second “just to learn more.”
The Climate Justice Conference took place in Maynooth University, but the purpose of the conference was far from “academic” – in the sense that we understand the term “purely academic” to mean detached from reality! The main purpose was to inform people about the mounting scientific evidence around climate change, the moral imperative it presents as a justice issue, and to inspire them to action. More than once, the process was described as a journey – a spiritual, moral and intellectual journey. In that sense, it was a profoundly normative initiative, grounded in the perspective that with climate change, we have moved into a new era, where the production of knowledge – and how we choose to use it, is a profoundly political and moral choice.
This idea was crystallized in the inspiring talk given by Bill McKibben entitled “we are all activists now”, positing the view that regardless of our profession or position, now is a time to be taking action. Appealing to the older generations in the audience to engage in direct action (and risk arrest), he said “If you have kept your powder dry till now, waiting for a big cause, your time has come.” Just eight years ago, in fact, he started out with seven students – and formed what is now one of the most powerful global social movements in 350.org and Peoples Climate. The movement is made up of young and old, from every corner of the globe. The inter-generational solidarity in the movement is very strong: the older people are on teh front line in direct action – so the youth will not suffer a criminal record.
Indeed, he used himself as the prime example of an unlikely activist. By character and by preference, he would much rather be at home thinking and writing books… but he came to a realisation that books alone would not change the world. I could really identify with that – having moved out of academia over a decade ago and into public policy and advocacy. He said that collective strategy, embracing evidence, moral arguments and action is required. Tackling climate change is not something one person can do on their own – since nobody can know all of the sides of the story. It requires a group effort, a movement. “If the people with power have money, we have to find a different currency – our currency is in movement building.” He urged us to use our efforts to build collective action here in Ireland. Bill talked of the priority now being about “changing the zeitgeist” rather than focusing on individual initiatives. Yes, we can all live more sustainably, and make a contribution to reducing emissions by an insignificant amount – but the problem is systemic, so systemic responses are needed. We now need a movement on the scale of the anti-aparthied movement in the 1980s, perhaps bigger.
Mary Robinson also talked about her reluctant “journey” from a human rights campaigner to a climate justice campaigner. She realised that it is impossible to talk any more of human rights when the most basic conditions for human survival are being undermined by climate change. She talked of the need to overcome our individualism if we are to build a movement for change. “We need to recover that ancient Irish saying ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhairimid ‘- we live in each others shadow. A value so akin to the African value of Ubuntu.” Without rediscovering that value, and even celebrating it in music and dance, it is difficult to envisage the shift required to tackle climate change. Making that leap is not something easy, yet it is one required of each of us if we are to make the shift from isolated actions and campaigns with limited impact, to achieving a “paradigm shift” rooted in compassion, justice and love for our planet.
At the end of the Climate Conference I was honored to give the closing remarks. What struck me most was the spirit of hope which underpinned the conference. It was as if the 500 people there embraced the hard scientific and moral truth – looked it straight in the eye – and came out the other side with courage and determination to move forward. In truth, denial is the worst state to live in. It destroys the human spirit. Once you start to face the truth, you realise there are many things which can be done, and many new friends waiting to be made on the journey ahead.

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"Credibility Costs" – Coherence and Ireland's New Foreign Policy

agriculture, climate change, current affairs, foreign policy

Last week in Dublin, leading academics, policy makers and NGOs gathered at Iveagh House at an event hosted by the Royal Irish Academy to examine how Ireland’s new foreign policy ‘Global Island’ can be translated into practice.
There is a lot good about the new policy. On first glance, many NGOs will be very happy. The themes of inequality, poverty and climate change figure prominently. The values expressed in the first half of the policy are ones which any human rights advocate would welcome, particularly against an international context where human rights are increasingly under attack. Ireland remains committed to core values of fairness, justice, security and sustainability. It commits to standing up for human rights, civil society space and promoting greater gender equality. The country’s enduring commitment to multilateralism, particularly to the UN is re-stated, as is its’ intention to stand for the UN Security Council for 2021-22. Reference is made to the Government’s commitment to the UN target of giving 0.7% of GNI in overseas aid, but unfortunately no timeframe for achieving this forty year old target is included.
On closer reading, however, the striking thing about this new policy is the disconnect between the sections on ‘our values’ and ‘our prosperity’. The sections might well have been written by different people. Whilst the re-statement of values is essential – as it states how we want to be seen in the world – there is a chasm with the main thrust of the document, which relates to economic growth, investment, trade and exports. There is an assumption that these areas somehow stand outside the values framework elaborated previously. The entire focus of the second part of the policy is focused on how invigorated economic diplomacy, including through marketing our national day, can generate prosperity for Ireland.
Within this entire section, there is a complete absence of any reference to values and to the need for policy coherence if we are to address that fact that much of our prosperity is still built on the backs of the poor – and the planet. The section, for example, talks about more integrated and skilled economic diplomacy – but has no mention of human rights and the importance of not compromising principles outlined in the ‘our values’ section in the quest for greater trade and investment.
Three flagship policy areas come into sharp relief in that respect: how Ireland’s corporation tax regime squares with our fairness values; how our expansionist agriculturalist policies around beef and dairy square with our sustainability values; how our trade missions square with our long-standing commitment to engage on human rights issues. Given the increasing influence of transnational finance over international governance structures, the chapter on the removal of barriers to trade, and the absence of values to govern this is extremely concerning. The reference to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in the policy is very worrying indeed. It is pitched as simply a positive thing, with no reference to serious concerns from civil society, in particular regarding the inclusion of an ISDS mechanism, and implications for human rights and climate change mitigation.
The conclusion one has to draw is that there is perhaps an implicit acceptance of the view expressed by Minister Richard Bruton in his Irish Times article (23rd January 2014) in which he stated that ‘trade missions are not the place to raise human rights’ and that we do human rights in certain multilateral fora such as the UN Human Rights Council. Bilateral trade missions, even with unsavoury regimes, are not the place to argue about human rights. Irish jobs trump every other concern and value.
Values underpinning policy are critical – and the values at the core of this policy are the right ones. However, the litmus test of values, as was said at the President’s ethics initiative, is how they are integrated across policy and applied in the tough choices between policies. Credibility and coherence costs – but there can also be many co-benefits. There need to be clear accountability mechanisms to assess that process of translation. The commitments made on policy coherence for development laid out in the ‘One World, One Future’ development policy in 2013, which would increase transparency and accountability on such issues, have still not been acted on. The OECD highlighted this gap in its review of Irish Aid last year. There are two glimmers of hope in in terms of coherence commitments in the policy. The first is a cross-departmental committee on human rights. This committee has already met once – how the agenda of the committee is shaped and acted on remains to be seen. The second is a consultation around a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. Hopefully these initiatives will deliver.

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In Gratitude to our President

current affairs, ethics, international politics, religion

“International ethics is a difficult business – in fact most world leaders take an interest in it once they have left office.” This was one of the opening gambits of an insightful, visionary speech which Michael D Higgins, the Irish President, gave at a seminar I attended on Saturday. It was the culminating event of his year long ‘Ethics Initiative’ which has involved people up and down the country of Ireland in an examination of the values we want to shape our society. The event was attended by around 130 leaders of different sorts from across Irish institutions, including NGOs, all faiths, academics and business leaders. All of them have been involved in the Ethics Initiative in some way in the course of the past year. It was one of the most inspiring, hope-filled days I have attended in a long time. And to think that there, right in the middle of it, sitting at a round table as ‘one of us’, was the President of Ireland. It is remarkable. I can’t think of any other country where it would happen.
The Office of the President in Ireland gets a lot of stick. I get the feeling sometimes that people do not really see the value in a constitutional President. People are quick to point to the weaknesses, the lack of power, the fact that the President has to spend most of his time cutting ribbons and hosting garden parties. What people often fail to see is the creative power that this kind of President can have in terms of the well-being of the nation – on issues that are much deeper than day to day political cut and thrust. Issues that speak to our common sense of being a nation, our common humanity like ethics. Like previous outstanding presidents before him who have championed human rights, Michael D is also making his mark. His way is perhaps a ‘slow burner’ – but through his ethics initiative, his intellect, his capacity to communicate complex messages and his convening power is making waves. I am sure it will generate a rich harvest.
One thing I really admire about President Higgins, which was evident again yesterday, is the dogged way in which he sticks to his core message (which happens to be an analysis I share whole heartedly!) In his speech he talks about the way in which mainstream economics is based on flawed assumptions about human beings. He spoke of the way in which the wide spread acceptance of this flawed conception of economic theory has resulted in many problems we see today. The ‘invisible hand’ may be questioned nowadays, but in fact we are increasingly seeing what Michael Taillard calls an ‘invisible fist’. I can certainly see evidence of this in the way that transnational finance and commerce is penetrating into every sphere of policy and life here in Ireland. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP, which has been in the news this week, is just one example.
Yesterday’s seminar was very enlightening and I just wish we had more time to get to know all the people who were there. It feels like we just started the conversation. Issues discussed ranged from the instrumentalisation of our esteemed seats of learning, the role of taxation in cementing solidarity, the need for inter-religious dialogue on ethics, to the need to rediscover our ‘moral imagination’. It was so interesting to hear from all the groups who have taken the President’s initiative seriously and started their own conversations about ethics at a local level – like University College Cork’s ‘communities renewed‘ project and the ‘peoples’ conversations‘ hosted by Dochas and the Wheel.
Of course the big question is where to take these conversations? How do we turn them from a nice day out into change? Inevitably, the discussion gravitated towards the political system. On the one hand, the absence of opportunities for genuine participation in decision-making… and on the other hand, an electorate who can seem (in focus groups at least) to be only interested in their own self-interest. The issue of the need for more visionary political leadership came through very strongly. Should politicians pander to the PR focus group mentality or demonstrate leadership? Focus groups are deeply flawed. If I’m honest, I would probably focus on very local issues myself – things that matter to me and my family – but that does not mean that the bigger society, and indeed the world doesn’t matter to me! We need bold, visionary leadership to marry both. As Michael D said at one point during yesterday’s conversation “You don’t actually have to be engaged in a good act to enjoy a good society. There is something wonderful about also being an onlooker, and gazing in wonder at goodness in society. There is a value in that.” Valuing social bonds is central to that. As journalist Olivia O’Leary said in her conclusions: “Goodness, softness, forgiveness, mercy are words we have forgotten in Europe.” Lets hope conversations like these can start to bring them back.
So thank you, President Higgins! Thank you for convening the ethics conversation with such grace and dogged persistence. Thank you the opportunity to part-take in such an inspiring day. As you said, it is just a ‘punctuation mark’ – and it is over to us to multiply the ‘ethics initiatives’ across the country.

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40 Shades of #GlobalGreening

climate change, religion

I have to admit it – I LOVE St.Patrick’s Day! I love the parades, the eccentricity, the creativity and the sense of community spirit. Where else in the world would you get a whole country coming out in such a vibrant way to celebrate their national Saint? The essence of St. Patrick’s Day for me isn’t found in the big city parades in Dublin or New York – but in the hundreds of local parades up and down the country. Children are a big focus of activities, as are sports clubs and people with disabilities. Literally everyone who wants to has a chance to march!
A big feature of the national day is of course the colour green. It is everywhere – green hats, green hair, green pints… more cheap imported green paraphernalia than you could shake a stick at. Despite the fact that blue is the official national colour, green is the colour we associate most with St.Patrick and Irishness. The link dates back to the stories about the shamrock – the small native plant that Patrick used to explain the Holy Trinity. Of course, green also reflects the lush vegetation on his temperate island with rolling hills in the middle of the North Atlantic. An emerald green jewel. In the late 1700s when Ireland was struggling for independence, green was worn in sympathy for the Irish cause to such a degree that wearing it was outlawed around 1776. The colour has deep roots in Ireland’s history and its nature.
Sadly, there is little reflection nowadays on what the colour green signifies. For politicians, the colour green has taken on very pragmatic, global dimensions geared at marketing Ireland as a prime location for business investment and tourism. Evidence of this is the fact that back in February the government made a big announcement around 27 ministers travelling for St.Patrick’s Day – and the return on investment that this would bring. It is also seen in the buildings across the world which ‘turned green’ as part of a global strategy called #GlobalGreening.
Some may think this is harmless – and maybe it is on one level. But it strikes me that this kind of ‘green washing’ (or green lighting) risks becoming a parody of what the colour green stands for both in Irish history and in relation to its natural environment. At a time when concern for ecology is an absolute imperative, the disconnect between Ireland’s green image and green credentials is striking. In Trócaire’s recent policy report Feeling the Heat we highlighted the fact that Ireland’s climate emissions are currently among the highest per capita in the world, and that our emissions would be the equivalent of 400 million Africans. Ironically, it is our green fields – or rather the cattle that graze on them – that contribution to a large part of our emissions. Our national policies and are increasingly at odds with a truly green agenda, as I blogged about a few weeks ago.
But surely the Irish love affair with everything green – and the global love affair with everything Irish, at least for a day – is a massive opportunity to reclaim the #GlobalGreening for a more worthy green agenda – an ‘integral ecology‘?
I was very excited this week by the start of our Irish #climate conversations. The initiative brings together many sectors of Irish society to create a new narrative on climate change. It follows similar initiatives in Germany and Holland. The launch event took place in Liberty Hall and involved fantastic contributions from artists, musicians, faith -leaders, composers, politicians, business, campaigners, PR gurus… (If you missed it, you can watch the recording and find out about future events here). It is an opportunity to come together as a society – as concerned citizens of the small patch of ground called Ireland on planet earth – and to reflect together on the new conversation we need to have to respond to climate justice.
As Eamon Ryan put it so well on the night: ‘we need to slow down to speed up. We need to ‘put the kettle on’ and reflect together before rushing to save the world.’ There is something so true in that. It is a mammoth challenge which requires us to find new ways to come together and dialogue together. As I said at the recent Trócaire lecture, solving the problems of the future is all about collaboration rather than competition. It is about together discerning collective wisdom. Perhaps a new vision of Christianity rooted in St.Patrick’s Trinitarian God – a three-in-one God, ‘persons in community’ – could point us in the right direction.
What better country than the emerald isle to lead the way in going green for real. What’s stopping us!

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