Fintan O’Toole’s column in Saturday’s Irish Times included the following: “it is somewhat ominous that the Green Party has had to do all the heavy political lifting on what ought to be a shared national undertaking”.
What is this ‘shared national undertaking’? It is to respond to the urgent and critical existential threat of climate, ecological, and social collapse – the ecological emergency – by curbing emissions and seeking ways, inevitably imperfectly, to mitigate impacts. This is a huge task with huge costs but bigger risks. One in three working for it is not enough.
With this in mind, I was saddened, but unsurprised, that last week, the local paper published a letter stating that the agreed emission reduction target of 25% for the agricultural sector was “absolute madness”. This is exactly the ‘somewhat ominous’ attitude that allows a quiet war, a real war of ideas, to be won by the neo-liberals who know exactly what they’re doing but will keep turning a profit until the whole edifice crashes. This is what we’re up against and we’d better wake up to it.
Councillor William O’Leary in an article printed in the same edition, was quick to take up the cudgel and present himself as a defender of traditional farming and rural life in the face of attacks by an urban elite, led by the Greens which he caricatures as having no experience of or interest in real rural affairs.
The trouble with these caricatures is that they mask hyper-individualism, the myth that what I do doesn’t affect what you do, so leave me alone. In this mythology, what’s paramount is always the power of the individual, and what’s sacrosanct is the freedom of the market. This is the rise of neo-libertarianism: a free market (which is never really free) operated by a free people (ignoring all the constraints and advantages of wealth, education, background, connections and so on).
Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, the fossil fuel industry and agri-business, devote much of their huge profits to denying that global climate breakdown is happening or that biodiversity is crashing. They know exactly what’s happening. They just don’t care. If we further their agenda, we are just hammering in the nails we’re being handed to our own coffins.
The truth is, we have to learn to work together, and we have to get motivated to work together because we’re all being screwed over, all of us who are not billionaires involved directly in propagating denial and divisiveness. We are all being driven closer and closer to social and ecological collapse by those who seek to profit for as long as possible at the cost of all of us.
As a philosopher, I like reading, and thinking, and I believe in something called wisdom but I also think philosophy, like farming, is a practice, a way of doing things. I was brought up in rural Scotland in the sixties and seventies. I knew sheep farming, and I knew about the management of estates for shooting. I’m not squeamish. I’ve fenced farms and gutted fish in a factory (and gone green in a storm off Stornoway). I’ve set traps, and lamped for rabbits (and killed them to release them from the horror of myxie). But I knew then and I know now that the only way for change to take place in attitudes to the land is jaw jaw jaw. My Dad advocated for the protection of raptors and gradually, the people he talked to stopped poisoning the birds. I’ve taken part in controlled upland burning, and I’ve also taken part in talks for alternative approaches to upland renewal. Things are a long way from perfect in Scotland but by dint of pragmatism and straight talking, they’re a lot better than they are here, at least in some respects (see Trees for Life for what I’m talking about).
Yet Irish culture is hugely resilient. Look what you’ve been through, what you’ve survived. By Scottish standards, it’s amazing to me how personable and polite and, dare I say it, efficient at getting things done people are here compared with there.
You’re fantastic at talking to one another, and much less prepared to take misinformation from someone with a title or the fairytale of higher authority.
Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind says that the best thing we can do to overcome difficulties with working together is learn to see things from another’s point of view. It takes a bit of practice, but it’s possible. Obviously farmers of all kinds will have different interests, as will foresters, as will rural dwellers of other stripes, as will city dwellers with all their various needs and situations. We need to find forms and forums for talking that admit that we’re all up against it, and we’re all up against a war of ideas that says it’s everyone for themselves, and that working together is weakness.
Working together is power. We need to take the power back and stop feeding the myth that I’m alright, Jack, and you’re the problem, Sleepy Joe, and start finding common ground before the cracks become chasms that we all fall through.