The Problem with Balance

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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