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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2016 – a year for action!

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

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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.
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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.
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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!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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How deep is your love?

climate change, current affairs, ethics, foreign affairs, pope francis, Uncategorized

I’m sitting in a café on a cold misty Monday morning, on my way into work. For the past few weeks I’ve had writers block – unable to put down on paper the thoughts in my head, whether around climate change or around the state of the world. The Paris terrorist attacks have left me  without words. I know these attacks happen all the time, and we in the West don’t pay enough attention to the violence in other parts of the world. There is a profound inequality in our concern, perpetuated by the media. Still, Paris is a city I know well. Paris is where I got engaged, where I have many friends, where I am due to go in two weeks for the COP climate negotiations. Of course it feels like it could have been me, us. I feel wounded.
Moreover, even my coffee this morning seems different. Suddenly a simple everyday act like taking my morning coffee in peace is not something to be completely taken for granted, as my many friends in Brussels are learning. The pernicious fear which terrorism breeds is game changing – it has to be. We can be defiant, for sure, but it shakes the fundamental security on which all European societies rest: that sense of safety that comes from the knowledge that you respect me enough not to seriously harm me and vice versa. Collectively, it means that for the most part, we can go about our daily lives serenely, without looking over our shoulder or carrying weapons. Of course, all those who have been victims of violent crime know what it is like when this is violated. Those who live in insecure cities right across the world know all too well what fear of random acts of violence breeds.
Listening to the Bee Gees in the café this morning has given me a sudden unexpected spurt of inspiration. Their forty year old song rings as true today as ever – How deep is your love? It is perhaps one of the critical questions today for each of us. Perhaps the question today is not only about how deep, but how big our love is. Who and what does our love embrace? We all think of our love for our families, our friends, our nations, perhaps nature – but does our love have to go beyond that?
It is a big question, and one which has really emerged as key in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Countering hatred with love, violence with peace, intolerance with dialogue  – has become a leitmotif in many responses. It may even seem like a cliché. Yet it echoes Martin Luther King’s famous words that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I think it says something important as a response. Faced with the spectre of terrorism, which is consequence of disunity and division, the only long-term response which can counter it are strong communities, where mutual care and even love prevails. The big question today is how we can translate our sense of care, empathy, which we take as a given (if not always lived up to) within families into a renaissance of civic love – that sense of neighbourliness, universal fraternity which knows no borders?
In our bid to speed up our world, it is this sense of empathy, civic love in the community that often suffers most. Ignorance of each other breeds suspicion and division. You cannot be neighbours unless you have time to get to know each other, to build friendship and dialogue. This is a continual process of bridging which requires time, energy and commitment. Only such communities, where there is a strong sense of dialogue, of belonging to one humanity can drive out the profound isolation that breeds such a lack of empathy and distorted ideology. Interestingly the exact same kinds of things are said about the need to build resilient local communities to tackle climate change.
I’m not saying no other measures are necessary. There are immanent, known threats which require urgent measures to protect lives, but in the long-term, it is our capacity to transcend our differences and become communities of respect and love which is the best defence. Justice is required for the victims and perpetrators need to be caught and stopped from committing more atrocities. But as one father movingly said to his young son in the aftermath of the attacks, when asked how they would defend themselves from the bad guys: “our candles and our flowers are our best protection.” Candles and flowers do not offer the protection of a steel cage or razor wire fence, but his words reflected a profound truth: our capacity to empathise protects our common humanity and transcends the most unspeakable evil.
Next weekend, there is a unique opportunity to show we care on a global scale. All over the world, people will march to protect our common home, this planet – and the people who live on it. In marching for climate justice, we will also march for peace and for the people of Paris. If you can, join us.

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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.
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Welcome to the end of poverty – sponsored by Gucci

foreign affairs, international development, international politics, Ireland, multilateralism, pope francis, sustainable development goals

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.

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