As if there were no end to plenty
we plundered earth.
This line from poet-farmer Peter Fallon, quoted at the close of the third session of Climate Conversations, captured the root of the climate crisis perfectly. It is a line that beautifully encompasses the imbalance of human acquisitiveness and the finite resources we draw on. The words “as if” illustrate the mistake in our thinking, in our assumption that our actions are without consequences. Whether that mistake is deliberate or accidental, the result of the plunder is the same, and the need to redress it just as urgent. It is what Peter Fallon’s poem goes on to call “the mandatory sentence/that became our task and duty.”
This session – The Sustainable Use of Our Land – highlighted the scale of the challenge for Ireland and the quandaries and dilemmas we will face in restructuring our own economy, in which agricultural food production plays such a huge role. As I had expected, the post-dairy-quota question of how Ireland can reduce greenhouse emissions while simultaneously increasing the stock of its biggest greenhouse emitters – cows – was a hot potato of the discussion, and perhaps the clearest indicator of the difficulty of the decisions we have to make. What is true of energy on a global scale – that valuable and lucrative resources (in that case, coal, oil and gas) may have to remain untapped and unexploited for the greater and more sustainable good – would seem to be true of food production here. The reluctance and resistance to that reality is understandable – but it remains the reality we face. What could be an enormous economic boon in the short term could also be a catastrophic ecological bane in the long term.
It is not an easy situation Ireland finds itself in. UCC’s Paul Deane pointed out how difficult it is to reduce emissions in agriculture, pointing out that “the easiest way is to reduce activity in the sector… a cold, economic word for saying ‘Get rid of the cows and get rid of some of the farms’.” Noting that overall emissions must reduce by 80% by 2050 to keep global temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius, he said that if agriculture cannot reduce its emissions by that much, it will mean the energy system will have to go over and above in reducing its emissions. If agriculture cannot reduce its emissions at all – and it is hard to see how it possibly can by adding another 300,000 methane-belching, farting cows to the national herd – it becomes mathematically impossible for Ireland to meet its emissions targets for avoiding the worst effects of climate change. It’s a tall order.
The panel discussion brought together Nuffield scholar Mary Delaney; Andrew Doyle TD chairman of the Dáil Committee on Agriculture; Teagasc’s Roger Schulte; cheesemonger Seamus Sheridan and comedian, farmer and anthropologist Breda Larkin to debate the problems and solutions relating to Irish agriculture and the climate crisis. The discussion ranged across land use, grass and soil management, low-tillage and no-tillage technologies, carbon sequestering, the rise in animal disease through intensified farming and the potential of organic farming to pave a way out of low-income agriculture.
The overriding power of market demands to decide and dictate the ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ of production emerged here and there as a stubborn barrier to achieving the sustainable change needed. Compere Catherine Cleary provided the example of the changing diets in developing countries as a driver of those demands. Ireland’s lucrative export of milk to a growing Chinese middle class who are being actively encouraged to drink it is, she said, “filling a need for nutrition that isn’t actually there and creating a market demand”. As if there were no end to plenty…
As before – just as with the previous debates on the communication and the economics of climate change – this third Climate Conversations discussion brought home the sheer scale of the challenge we face. As before, it highlighted the unavoidable difficulties and dilemmas ahead – but also the opportunities for progress. Once again, it showed the tension between the urgent need for great change and the uncertainties and resistances to that change. And once again, it was clear that how successfully we meet the climate change challenge depends on how willing we are to change ourselves. To restructure our food production, we need to restructure our economy, and to restructure either, we need to restructure our thinking. If we can do that, perhaps we can achieve by 2050 the type of sustainable Ireland that Seamus Sheridan so vividly conjured up in five minutes flat to cheers and applause from the audience. If you watch any of the video of the event, watch that five minutes.
Coming back to the line from Peter Fallon, the only way we have of avoiding the worst of climate change is to recognise that there is an end to the plenty, and that we have as good as reached it. As another poem (Light in the Sorrow Field) that Mr Fallon read puts it, we have to learn to live “within the borders of what’s now.” Can we learn to be satisfied with having just enough? That is our task and our duty.
A foodie addendum
The notion of making full and efficient use of our resources and of living and eating within our means was brought to fruition by chefs Katie Sanderson, Jess Murphy, Iseult Ward from the Food Cloud and Meath St greengrocer Jack Roche. Acting as what Catherine Cleary called “food wombles”, they put together an extraordinary menu of what they named Trash Food. It was just that – waste food foraged from cafés and shops and alchemised into an incredibly appetising selection of treats, including fermented kimchi, garlic mascarpone, roast carrot and sunflower tahini, pickled fennel and aubergine seaweed salad. If anything from the evening suggested that preconceptions can be abandoned and new ways of thinking and acting can be possible, it was the sight of a hundred or so people happily enjoying dumpster cuisine.
Climate Conversations continues this evening at 7pm in Christchurch Cathedral with a session called Prophetic Voices. You can register here or follow the live stream online here. The final session, The Call to New Horizons, will be at the Abbey Theatre on Sunday 10 May
Climate Conversations is a series of conversations hosted by The Climate Gathering in partnership with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Ibec, Christian Aid, The Environmental Pillar and Trócaire. More info at http://www.climategathering.org/