Mary Kenny... saving the planet
How much talk of climate change is hot air?
We all applaud when President Michael D Higgins (like former President Mary Robinson) alerts the world to the dangers of climate change, don't we?
Last month in Paris, flanked by President Hollande, Kofi Annan and Albert of Monaco, An Uachtarán said we were the last generation to have the chance of saving the planet. We need, said Michael D, to stop this insatiable consumerism and "change our models of economics and development".
Who would disagree? Well, actually, quite a few might (tell a teenager who aspires to the latest smartphone update that she must curb her "insatiable consumerism" and see how far you get). But we mostly support the sentiments behind concern about climate change (CC), don't we?
And we agree, broadly, that in the face of CC, we should take action. But that's the difficult bit. Apart from a few slightly eccentric environmentalists who try to live off their own garden produce (manured by their horses), I seldom encounter anyone who has altered their own lifestyle to help out with CC.
When did you hear anyone saying: "Well, I won't install a power shower, because it's adding to climate change"? How about never? Power showers are now de rigueur among the social trendsetters. When were you last told not to flush the loo more than once a day? The last time I heard such advice was about 1962.
Instead of his nice waffle calling for "an inclusive, humane, non-judgemental engagement" to address CC, our President might have been better to demand a targeted, self-sacrificing and emphatically judgemental attitude to the wasteful practices in which we all indulge regularly. Beginning with washing habits. Anyone concerned about using energy prudently should reduce showering to three times a week. Cut down laundering your clothes too. (It'll also help with the water bills.)
Indeed, Michael D could have begun with an examination of conscience. Didn't I read that the Presidential office recently acquired a new, and better, motor car? Globally, cars are hugely contributing to planet pollution, and anyone preaching about CC should surely shun them. What's wrong with a horse and carriage? Totally environmental. No polluting effects from a carriage pulled by horse-power, and the aforementioned manure from the horse can bring the garden up in roses - avoiding that other ecological horror, pesticides.
Our collective problem, really, is that while we support all the nice green efforts to save the planet, a lot of what we say is just hot air. We think it's a lovely, high-minded kind of cause, but we are seldom willing to make sacrifices, personally, to advance it. If we really supported the planet, we would bring our own mug to coffee shops instead of accepting a wasteful polyethylene throwaway. We would try never to take a plane. We would restore the cold larders our great-grandparents used, to reduce the energy used by refrigerators.
We would penalise supermarkets for offers such as "buy one, get one free", since this encourages waste (and can be cruelly exploitative of farmers and fishermen). We would never purchase a packet of runner beans marked "Grown in Kenya", since it is obvious that they have been air-freighted. We would eschew all packaging, which is a polluting catastrophe - some stores are unable to sell so much as an apple without wrapping it in plastic.
If Michael D demanded that supermarkets abolish their packaging practices, he'd be doing more for the planet than just saying nice stuff about non-judgemental solutions. Crusades need committed, specific action, and personal self-sacrifice.
But the problem with climate change politics is that it's so often mostly about nice words and fashionable poses, at no personal cost. There was a generation which believed that if you affirmed an ideal, you had to make a personal sacrifice to achieve it. That was quite a strong idea in Ireland in the past.
The history of the Irish State is now frequently derided for being ghastly, authoritarian, De Valera's corrupt pact with Catholic power, etc, etc - the novelist John Banville recently issued such a stream of invective about Ireland since 1916. But what's forgotten is that there were generations of Irish people who genuinely believed they should practise self-denial "for the sake of the country".
That's now all gone: Generation Entitlement has taken over and the prevailing notion now is that we are all entitled to everything, and we'll sue if we don't obtain our entitlements. The boo-word today is "austerity". But austerity is precisely what is required if you want to save the planet. Suffer a little: and offer it up.