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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.
Number 271: July 2019

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Needless war
Gerry Adams, at the funeral of a former IRA Chief of Staff, Kevin McKenna, in Co Monaghan in late June justified the armed struggle which took place in the North. That is to be expected. But it does not mean it is correct.

Nonviolence could have achieved a ‘Good Friday Agreement’ in terms of power-sharing and plans for mutual respect and equality both earlier, with better outcomes, and without the rancour, deaths and pain inflicted by armed struggle. It was simply not necessary. This should not be taken to imply that the nonviolent road would have been easy, it would not, but it would not have fed into the hatred and divisions in the North in the same way.

Elements of civil society continually pointed the way forward without violence. Most republicans and loyalists did not see these possibilities, they were invisible to them, and they instead took up both arms and the myths about violence and redemptive violence which are common in the world and supported by states including the state in Northern Ireland (but also rejected by some people everywhere). As we have often said, condemning people who saw no possibility of acting without violence, and felt the need to take up arms, is somewhat pointless. But that does not mean they were right to do so, or right in their judgement; they were not.

Sinn Féin will continue to justify the armed struggle in the North. It is part of its DNA and lineage without which it would feel naked and be afraid of further defections to those who continue to believe in armed struggle in the North. Again that does not make it correct, no more than the loyalists who justify the brutal loyalist campaigns of violence and, in many cases, continue to prepare for some kind of war (even if it is only on their own people).

But if this should be taken to castigate only the so-called ‘men of violence’, let us be quite clear about ‘our’ failings in peace groups and movements. We failed to show a viable nonviolent path. We failed to effectively help people explore how nonviolent tactics were the way forward. In some cases it was not for want of trying but it was – and is – a major failure. The people of Northern Ireland still do not know the possibilities of nonviolence and nonviolent struggle. They may have rejected most bombs and bullets for the moment but with the example of the British government or the militarisation of the EU, they have some very bad examples to follow in relation to believing in violence as a way to solve disputes.

And lest this editorial be seen as an exercise in bashing Sinn Féin, we can be quite clear that in the current era that party is more progressive on issues of peace and neutrality internationally than the vast majority of other parties on the island. In the North, unionist parties tend to support whatever wars and militarism that Britain gets engaged in. In the Republic, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour – and some others - have all supported the diminishing of Irish neutrality, the increased militarisation of the EU, increased links with NATO, and the use of Shannon Airport as a forward base for the USA’s military and thereby the unnecessary, exceedingly violent, counterproductive and brutal wars (and their aftermaths) in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya in this century. In these wars far, far more people have been killed than in Northern Ireland in the Troubles. So if we want to see who does not have blood on their hands, well, it will be a long search.

Every death and serious injury is a tragedy – for the person concerned, their loved ones and friends. Death in the rich West is no longer acceptable but death ‘out there’ – Afghanistan or Iraq for example – is seen as par for the course. This mentality has to change. A death is a death is a death, and the pain of Lyra McKee’s loved ones and family is no greater or less than that of someone killed in Syria or Iraq. All are tragedies which could have been avoided and which have left agony, heartbreak and angst for generations to come.

We need a change in world consciousness in relation to war. We need to dedicate ourselves to removing the scourge of war, so that it becomes unacceptable as a means of solving disputes in all places and cultures. This is an enormous task but, step by step, it is not an insuperable one. It is one that Mairead Maguire of the Peace People has often spoken about at home and abroad.

Pacifists and those who oppose the possibility of war are often labelled unrealistic idealists. However the experience of war over centuries has shown that it has rarely achieved its aims – and if people quote the Second World War as a successful example of it, then it can equally be stated that the Second World War was a direct outcome of the First World War and its aftermath.

The time has come for humanity to break into the cycle of wars and violence to establish something different. In Ireland, we need to join up the dots from the Troubles in Northern Ireland to be able to say – “Violence – not here, not anywhere”.

Forty shades of green
Ireland has lived on its green image without being green in its policies. Of course ‘green’ means different things; in terms of image, it stems from the green countryside which comes from the abundance of rain. When it comes to being green in terms of pollution and contribution to climate change, well, Ireland has been up there with the worst; if there was an opposite colour to green then this island would be a darker shade of it. The recent climate change plan from the Irish government may help to change that.

But ...... there are many ‘buts’. If the plan is seen as a starting point to serious engagement with producing a net zero-carbon country then it is good. If it is suddently thought that this plan will ‘solve’ all the issues then it is a big mistake. And some of the time frames are still too lax. Cutting emissions by only 2% per year in the period 2021 to 2030 to meet targets, but by 7% a year 2030 – 2050 is backloading the burden. Stopping electricty generation by coal by 2025 and peat by 2028 is very late in the day. Targets for recycling are modest – meaning inadequate.

There are, however, many positives in the plan. It is at least an attempt to be serious about the issue. The retrofitting of houses, phasing out oil heating and then gas heating in favour of heat pumps, these and other aspects are positive moves. Oisin Coghlan of Friends of the Earth [which states that the new plan “'gets us to the starting line' on climate action”] has said “"This plan is the biggest innovation in Irish climate policy in 20 years. The key is not simply the measures themselves but the new mechanisms to ensure we actually deliver them.” / There will be a Climate Action Delivery Board within the Department of the Taoiseach, as well as an advisory Climate Action Council.

As the Green Party has pointed out, transport is one aspect sadly awry in the plan. The scattered housing pattern in the countryside (which amazingly dates back 5,000 years to the time of the Céide Fields in Co Mayo) makes for difficulty in surviving in the countryside without a car. There has been some publicity recently on the fact that even electric cars are not as green as people think and utilise scarce resources. The Plan does talk, page 40, about “increasing the proportion of more compact forms of growth in the development of settlements of all sizes.” The policy of allowing scattered housing needs to be rethought, although that is a sacrosanct perceived right at the moment for most country dwellers; however this is an emergency, and a stricter policy could in time be relaxed if a handle was got on global warming.

However much more could be done in terms of public transport in all parts of the country – urban, rural, and commuter belts. Park and ride schemes should cover the countryside as well as towns and cities – and these can be bicycle park and ride schemes as much as ones for cars, and the bicycle should be thought of in relation to the countryside as well as urban areas (e.g. cycle riding to park and ride schemes which can have multiple pick up points). Cars should be strictly controlled in urban areas as unnecessary and anti-social; but this means major investments in pathways, cycle ways and public transport.
The bicycle does not feature greatly in the climate change plan (page 88). It and walking – need to be a norm for transport rather than an aberration, certainly for journeys of 5 miles/8 km or less – which form the bulk of urban journeys. Promoting cycling needs a major change in attitude to road use and layout. Cycling and walking will also make the population healthier. The plan does evisage “a comprehensive cycling and walking network for metropolitan areas of Ireland’s cities” – but should be extended to towns and rural areas as well. Those unable to cycle should not be penalised but cycling should become the expected norm for short journeys; this can only happen with a major effort to transform roads, and with public transport better equipped to transport bicycles as well. Major developments are required in public transport which mean that few people need to take a car.

Developments in battery storage (including a recent one associated with scientists at TCD) may lead to electric planes, but these are currently ‘pie in the sky’ and will still take more energy than overland and boat for anything but longer journeys outside the continent. While there is mention of air travel in the plan, there is no mention of plans to move away from it where possible. But we need to rethink our travel patterns. Rather than people travelling halfway across Europe for a weekend break, travel should be much more infrequent but for a longer period, irrespective of whether the energy for transport is provided by green means or not (energy and resources are still precious when generated by renewable means). Integrated efficient transport planning is needed so that train, boat and bus/coach links lead to time efficient means of travelling overland and overseas. These issues are especially important for an island stuck on the outskirts of Europe. There is no indication in the Irish government plan of thinking in relation to this. Air travel needs to contract, not expand.

However there was good news if plans for microgeneration are followed through, allowing locally generated electricity to be sold into the grid. Only private homes are mentioned though it does state the government will “Continue promoting closer working with community and enterprise by Energy Obligated Entities to ensure wider community gain”. The possibility of community generated power being promoted is an important, indeed essential, element in the mix and Friends of the Earth’s reading of the plan is that this will be facilitated.

As Ireland greens its existence, electricity generation will become more important. That and a growing population (a projected 5.7 million in the Republic by 2040 – by which stage the island will be approaching the population of 8 million at the time of An Gorta Mór in 1846, two hundred years previously) mean a very significant increase is required in network capacity and innovation. It is uncertrain that the capacity for this is adequately dealt with in the plan in relation to sustainable generation. So considerable work will be necessary in this area – it is not just a question of providing charging points for electric cars.

Agriculture is dealt with in the plan but inadequately. While innovations in cattle feed or supplements may reduce their considerable production of greenhouse gases, no suggestion is made of limiting or reducing the size of the national cattle herd. Considerable R & D is required, beyond what is currently engaged in, to search for alternative, suitable agricultural production for a country which has been so suited to cattle and dairy production as its major agricultural area, and where it has been part of the landscape for millennia. Ireland may be ‘cattle country’, and agriculture and agribusiness more important than for most EU countries, but Ireland has five times the average production of greenhouse gases per head from agriculture as the rest of the EU (page 16).

It is good that forestry and peatlands are included in the report. But in both cases, forestry development and bog conservation and rewilding (the report quotes 21% of the land area as bog), need to be done in conjunction with local consultation. Monocultural forest in poorer land is a recipe for driving local people and communities away whereas forestry, if done with community consultation and sensitivity, can be a source of both local joy as well as some, limited, employment.

Built in obsolescence is a problem with equipment of all sorts, and that has a carbon or energy cost as well as a resource cost. While it obviously needs done on a wider level, since most equipment sold in Ireland is not manufactured on the island, the world needs to move to more durable machinery and equipment of all sorts. One valuable initiative, which can be programmed for in Ireland, is subsidisation of repairs to things like bicyles or household equipment where they are energy efficient. Repair needs to become better value than replacement. While Ireland can press for changes in international standards, subsidisation of repairs could start any time in Ireland, and it would also, like many green policies, create additional employment. This is not touched on.

Like the global impact of a warming planet, impacts of disastrous policies fall disproporionately on the poor while the rich can often buy their way out. If moving to a sustainable future meant screwing the poor then it is a pyrric victory; supports need to be in place so that poor people do not suffer. Moving to a green future cannot be allowed to impact negatively on inequality and economic justice when disarities are already so blatant. Tackling the possibility of increased inequality should be copperfastened in all green developments, at home and abroad.

Larry Speight in his column in this issue [immediately following this editorial] raises the taboo topic of Zero Growth. It may be possible to have economic growth in a zero carbon economy. But it will be of a different kind to what we have known (and less measured by GNP and GPD), and lifestyles have to change. We have to seriously move in this direction if we are to be sustainable and this is not even dreamt of in the climate plan. Larry Speight’s column points to the need for education in this area and, while education is mentioned in the plan (page 136) it needs to be a much more radical induction in what is needed than is likely to be envisaged. Zero growth also implies economic redistribution of wealth – and that is another major issue and taboo to be tackled.

Northern Ireland is also behind in its climate change game. This editorial is about the situation in the Republic whereas the UK has also announced climate plans recently; however many of the points made pertain also to what is needed in the North, or indeed anywhere else. But while there is no government in Stormont the North is likely to fall even further behind in the stakes of combating climate change.

As Friends of the Earth have stated, the plan by the Irish government gets (the Republic of) Ireland to the starting line. The race has yet to be run, and it will be a marathon. Unlike a running marathon however, the faster we go earlier in the race the easier it will be later on and the bigger the prize; that still seems a message that has not fully percolated through. The Irish government seems content to cross the line before the race is wound up and everyone goes home. That is not adequate in the light of the terrible crisis facing so much of the world, so we need to keep pedalling hard – literally and metaphorically.

On this issue, see also the following Eco-Awareness column by Larry Speight -


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The ecological catastrophe is an educational challenge

On the 12 June Prime Minister Theresa May announced what the British government considered the significant policy change of amending the 2008 Climate Change Act making the country legally bound to end its contribution to climate breakdown by 2050. For many environmentalists, such as Greenpeace, this is far too late, global warming emissions they say need to be eliminated much sooner. The campaigning group Extinction Rebellion advocate 2025. Aside from ignoring the case that climate breakdown is an emergency requiring immediate remedial action Theresa May’s harmful misconception is that ‘greening the economy’ can heal the terminally ill biosphere. In her speech May said.

“This country led the world in innovation during the Industrial Revolution, and now we must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth.”

“Crucially what we have shown already is you can lower emissions … and have economic growth at the same time.”
Less than a week later, on the 17 June, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar outlined a 183 point plan to achieve a zero carbon emissions economy in the Republic by 2050. Eamon Ryan, leader of the Green Party, criticised it on the grounds that it largely ignores public transport and many of the key elements of the plan have not been costed. The Irish Times editorial of the 18 June notes:

“that many of the actions promised break down into options to be considered or reviewed, rather than undertakings to actually do something new.”

What the Irish and the UK’s carbon reduction plans have in common is the idea of ‘green economic growth’. In the Irish case this is underpinned by the government’s intention to increase the national beef and dairy herd, build a new runway at Dublin airport, build new roads and continue to issue oil and gas exploration licences. The expected growth in electricity use in the coming decades, with data centres expected to use 39 per cent of all electricity generated, does not bode well for the creation of a zero carbon emissions economy.

‘Doublethink’ in regard to living with nonhuman nature is not a UK, Irish phenomenon. On the same day as the Irish government’s emission reduction plans were announced Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, approved the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline tripling its capacity to carry 890,000 barrels of oil a day from the environmental catastrophe which is the Alberta sand oil project to British Columba’s Pacific Coast, a distance of 1,000 km (620 miles). The announcement was presented as good for nonhuman nature and good for economic growth.

Belief in unlimited economic growth is orthodox and the extent to which it is part of the accepted view of reality is illustrated by the case that some of the most vocal advocates of a Green New Deal in the UK and the United States believe it. Perhaps this is because after 250 years of improving economic and social wellbeing for the majority of people in the technologically advanced societies, and many in what was once called the Third World, the idea that these improvements might cease is simply inconceivable. To think there is a limit to economic growth is heresy but for the few and they are not in government or the CEOs of transnational corporations.

The idea that unlimited economic growth is a fallacy is as inconceivable to its adherents as the idea for those who believe in God that human life has no extra-material dimension. Accepting that unlimited economic growth is implausible would oblige the adherents of this view to reconstruct much of the edifice of their meaning and purpose of life. Given that the thought of changing one’s conceptual universe is daunting, whatever it may be, most people opt for the familiar, the conventional and the popular even when they know it is dysfunctional, dangerous and damaging.

The idea that replacing the estimated one billion motor cars in the world with electric ones and having a wind turbine on every hilltop, along with other inventions, will ensure the survival of the human race for epochs to come is absurd. Taking command of the ecological catastrophe we created means seeing the whole picture of our relationship with each other and nonhuman nature. While it is good that a section of the political establishment acknowledge the need to reduce global warming emissions it is imperative they act to create a cradle to grave economy as opposed to giving life-support to the rapacious, inequitable, ecologically destructive economy that prevails. What Theresa May, Leo Varadkar, Justin Trudeau and other political leaders propose is that everything remains the same except that the bulldozers that clear rainforests, the production and transportation of food, the processing of raw materials into consumer goods are fuelled by renewable rather than fossil energy.

If the transition to an ecologically sustainable society is to be effective the necessary legislative changes need to be accompanied by educational measures to ease people into a new culture of living. Roy Scranton, in ‘Learning to Live in An Apocalypse’, MT Technology Review, May/June 2019 writes that to live in an emissions neutral, ecologically sustainable economic order would mean the end of:

“a global marketplace capable of swiftly satisfying a plethora of human desires; easy travel over vast distances; regular trips to foreign countries; year-round agricultural plenty; an abundance of synthetic materials for making cheap, high quality consumer goods; air-conditioned environments; wilderness preserved for human appreciation, vacations in the mountains, skiing, morning coffee; a glass of wine at night … private ownership of houses and cars and land.”

Life without these taken for granted aspects of life in affluent societies would be considered unbearable for the majority of society. While a revolution in technology, governance and equity is a necessary part of any programme for ecological change these won’t work without the whole-hearted support of the public. This means addressing environmental woes such as climate breakdown and loss of biodiversity will be ineffective unless there is a paradigm change in such orthodoxies as unlimited economic growth. Accomplishing this is primarily an educational task.

Copyright INNATE 2021