Treasuring Ireland: Looking Beyond Our Living Room Window
As we look out our windows from our isolation units we see the seasons changing and the rhythms of nature continuing, while in our hearts there is anxiety and amazement at the way our lives have changed in four short weeks. Thinking ahead more than a few days has become difficult, and our plans and hopes for the coming summer seem now to be just a mirage. The tragic numbers on our television screens every evening adds to our foreboding and we ration our consumption of news just as we ration our food supplies, and curtail our contacts with the outside world except through the magic of our phones and computers.
Although the current outbreak has caught the world by surprise, emerging viruses have been a feature of the recent past. The SARS epidemic of 2002-3, MERS in 2012 have been recent examples, though less damaging in terms of fatalities than the present one. The overwhelming majority of such emergent diseases result from a crossover from animals to people, and signs are that this has increased in frequency in recent years. To some extent as we remove natural habitats to make space for our growing food and settlement needs, and as we stress the remaining ones by climate change, the interaction and risks of such transmissions grow. Of course, the unhygienic killing of some species of host-rich wildlife for food, such as bats and pangolins, as happened in Wuhan, creates ideal conditions for rapid spread and tragic consequences around our globalised world as we have seen.
But as politicians are prone to saying: “We are where we are” and we need to look beyond the short term consequences of illness, deaths, and economies in free fall. The present situation will come to an end, be it in a few months or longer. Where do we want to be positioned as a country in the recovery phase? What lessons have we learned?
Firstly, we have learned that globalisation has a price ticket attached to it. We are not in any way immune to events anywhere in a world that Pope Francis has referred to in Laudato Si’ as “Our Common Home”. This has not yet dawned on many people, for example with respect to climate change where we think Ireland will transition easily while other parts of the world will be acutely distressed. It is worth pointing out the World Health Organisation (2018), who we listen to eagerly at the moment, project that 250,000 additional people will die annually from the direct and indirect effects of climate change during the period 2030-50 if we continue on our present trajectory. Although estimates vary considerably, Covid-19 may have fatalities in this range - but it will be for approximately one year only, not recurring every year for two decades.
Secondly, the importance of acting together has been clearly demonstrated. As a ‘nimble’ small country Ireland has pulled together in an exemplary fashion, together with our European partners, acting on the best advice available. Now is not the time to become insular or to succumb to self-interest or vested interests that will isolate us from potential supports we may need in the future. The speed at which events have occurred has been remarkable. But also the willingness to make hard choices has been a feature of our political system in recent weeks. So quick has the change in attitudes been that vested-interest based opposition has not had time to mobilise. Yes, we saw belated lobbying from some groups seeking to evade the restrictions, and others are keen to resume business as usual even amid the pandemic. But unlike, for example, climate change, where decades of lobbying and resistance from vested interests have stalled progress, the capability of our political leaders to lead has been remarkable. The voice of scientists have been on our televisions nightly with politicians standing shoulder to shoulder with them in a way we haven’t seen before. This must continue in facing the environmental and other challenges ahead, not least in the area of climate change action.
Thirdly, we must learn lessons from the past. The rush to resume business as usual when the present crisis is over will be overwhelming. But it must not be at the expense of hard earned progress in protecting our environment. There will be calls for deregulation, for short circuiting public participation and for limiting measures aimed at environmental protection. Already we have seen an attack commence on the EU’s flagship policy the Green Deal. The Czech Prime Minister has called for it to be dropped, while Poland wants to scrap the Emissions Trading Scheme. We will probably see the chemical industry seek a relaxation in biocide rules and pesticide reduction targets and even a call for single-use plastic to be boosted on the grounds of virus concerns for recycled items. Since State Aid rules are now waived, the option for countries to support whatever domestic industry they wish threatens that large subsidies will be offered to polluting industries to resume service as before.
When the last economic crash happened in 2008-9 the US auto industry collapsed. Before giving a bail-out of $80B President Obama imposed conditions regarding fuel efficiency which resulted in considerable improvements in auto technology around the world. We now need to apply this logic when aviation and marine interests come knocking on the taxpayers’ door. Both industries have not signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate change and have not reduced their emissions over the past decade. The days of a €10 flight and of frequent flyer bonuses must end and serious research expanded regarding electrification of short distance flights and solar/wind powered shipping. Here in Ireland a selective pause on some aspects of our planning system has occurred, but not all. Attempts to stifle public access to justice which reared their heads before the crisis are likely to re-emerge disguised as ‘in the national interest’. Away from the towns and cities, the folly of headlong expansion of milk production becomes more obvious as we are left with excess supplies of milk and calves that must be disposed of. Vigilance is difficult if society is housebound, and the collegial supervision by our farming community is vital to ensure that damaging short cuts are not undertaken to undo their environmental stewardship over recent years.
The narrative has changed. Neoliberalism died at the beginning of March 2020. People will not wish to go back to the past. A new role for civil society is now more than ever required to ensure this. Your material and vociferous support for voluntary charities such as An Taisce is now more important than ever.
by Prof John Sweeney, An Taisce Trustee
To join An Taisce as a member please click here.
Reference World Health Organisation (2018) Climate Change and Health Factsheet. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health (accessed 11th April 2020)
Treasuring Ireland: Chair announces the launch of a new Comms Project
I am pleased to announce a new communications project to reach out to and inform you of the ongoing work and ideas of An Taisce staff, officers, members and friends. This has been in gestation during the current Covid-19 crisis as we explored ways to maintain linkages in the organisation and keep each other informed. In my message to members of March 26th I spoke of our desire to:
Ensure that when this crisis eventually recedes that the many elements of sustainable development to which we are committed - protection of ecosystems, natural resources and cultural heritage, climate action, community resilience together with concern for human health and wellbeing will all move centre stage once again.
This is very much the intent of this project - to remind each other of the core values which inspire An Taisce, to record the work that is ongoing and to sketch out the future vision which is well captured in the strapline devised by the former Chair, John Pierce:
Protecting Ireland’s heritage, safeguarding its future.
A small group has been formed to manage and curate this project. It is composed of Phoebe Duvall, the Planning Officer; Sinead Owens, Operations Manager; Eoin Heaney from the Environmental Education Unit and the Hon Secretary, Stuart McCaul. I am particularly pleased that Prof John Sweeney, former president and current Board member, will lead this team and oversee the project. The final title for the project has not been agreed. Maybe members will have suggestions? Initially it was framed as the ‘An Taisce Covid Chronicles’ when it was seen as messages from lockdown. It has now evolved into a more elaborate and hopefully, ongoing stream of communications which will extend well beyond the lifetime of the pandemic and become a regular feature.
It will be largely internet-based using email and uploading to the website. We had thought to wait until the launch of the new website but that is still some weeks away and we will begin on the existing website. I sent out a request for material and was very heartened to receive five drafts in quick succession with others promised in the pipeline. These range from John Sweeney’s overview through Jack O’Sullivan’s observations on the links between climate change and the emergence of viruses to Theresa O’Donohoe’s reflections on community resilience and public participation. Mark Clinton has written on the history of pandemics and Kevin Duff on planning issues. There will also be articles by local associations as well as our Advocacy and Education Unit staff. These articles will be issued in due course in a sequence to be agreed by John and the team.
This initiative builds on many similar communications processes within An Taisce over the years. Charles Stanley-Smith maintained a valuable eZine over a long period and this initiative will emulate that work to some extent. There will be a facility for comment and feedback.
In the process of devising this project I have been reminded of the range and depth of the expertise in our ranks. Also of the passion for the preservation of cultural heritage, the desire to spread ecological knowledge and insight through environmental education and the commitment to ensure the ecosystems which sustain us and other species will be protected.
The communications project will address and highlight all of those issues.
I hope you find it inspiring and it reinforces your conviction as to the essential role which An Taisce has to play into the future.
Chair, An Taisce - the National Trust for Ireland
To join An Taisce as a member please click here.
Message from An Taisce's Chair to Members in these difficult times
Apologies. We have been later than usual in sending our annual renewal notices for 2020. This had been due to a move to a new online membership system which has now been completed. We delayed so we could tell you that you could now renew your membership on the new system at https://membership.antaisce.org
I had hoped to be writing an upbeat look to the year ahead and how our work continues in public interest advocacy for cultural heritage and environmental education in all aspects of sustainable development as a basis for encouraging you to renew your membership. But in the blink of an eye, the world has changed, changed utterly. We are all now in the grip of a global pandemic. So my first message to you is stay safe. We can all help to limit the effects of this pandemic if we follow the guidelines and look out for one another.
I want to assure you that our staff team has responded to the challenge promptly and carefully and we have put measures in place to work remotely, limit contact, cancel meetings and gatherings and to do everything that a responsible organisation should do at this time. Great credit is due Michael John O’Mahony, director of the Education Unit and our new Operations Manager in Head Office, Sinead Owens. We are obviously concerned about the things we cannot control; how long it will last, what effect this will have on the organisation throughout the year, and what the implications will be for our staff, our services and funding and for you, our members. But all that can be done is being done.
On March 21st we had our first entirely online Council meeting. It was very well attended with over 20 elected members and delegates linking in from around the country to address a range of topics.
Dr Declan Murphy, chair of the Natural Environment Committee, gave a very helpful overview of the medical issues relating to Covid-19. He also spoke of the social and economic impacts.
We discussed a new Constitution for An Taisce, one which will be more fitting for a 21st century environmental NGO. It will hopefully include some restatement of the vision and mission to reflect advances in ecological understanding and climate science and a much more explicit commitment to the protection of biodiversity as well as our well-established activities in the areas of environmental education, properties and planning. The newer concerns will be incorporated in redrafted Objects for the charity. We are working towards this new text being submitted to an AGM in the summer for approval, or perhaps more likely the autumn.
We need to be vigilant and ensure that when this crisis eventually recedes that the many elements of sustainable development to which we are committed - protection of ecosystems, natural resources and cultural heritage, climate action, community resilience together with concern for human health and wellbeing will all move centre stage once again.
As Ireland’s oldest independent body fighting for the protection of Ireland's heritage and natural environment we have made a significant contribution to increased environmental awareness and conservation not least through the remarkable success of the Education Unit’s programmes such as Green Schools, Clean Coasts and many others. The increased awareness of the fragility of our systems - social, economic and ecological - requires the expansion and proper resourcing of such programmes and advocacy.
It is also true that we would not have survived without the support of our members for the last 70 years and your ongoing solidarity and support will be needed as much, if not more, into the future. It is greatly appreciated.
For those who can renew their membership at this time we request that you do so. We fully appreciate that now will not be a convenient time for you all. If you need to defer payment until later in the year that will not be a problem. Just let us know.
2020 was to be a period of renewal for the organisation: a new constitution with a new focus; a new Board with renewed vigour and considerable expertise; a more coherent integration of advocacy, educational programmes and cultural heritage work. It is clear now that we have entered a period of national emergency and the current health crisis must take priority. In this phase we - the Board, Council and staff of An Taisce - will keep the organisation ticking over to the best of our ability, initiate change where possible and appropriate and prepare to resume activities when the crisis passes.
Meanwhile we are in the process of redesigning our main website. This should be transformative, making it easier for us to keep you updated with all the work our staff and volunteers achieve on a very limited budget.
I am pleased to report that we have been fortunate in finding four highly qualified new Board members in the past year. They bring expertise and experience in governance, human resources, fundraising and business skills. There is a new governance committee addressing the requirements of the Charities Regulator’s Governance Code and an audit committee overseeing financial matters.
Up to the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, the Education and Advocacy Units continued to provide high quality services in the areas of environmental education, lobbying and policy formulation. Our staff are of the highest calibre and make a substantial impact both within local communities and at national level, influencing policy, planning and political decisions.
All EEU programmes are now operating remotely and are contactable for participants. All schools visits, clean ups, community activities, etc. have been suspended until the restrictions on gatherings have been lifted. All Education Unit staff are working from home and using online platforms and social media to work with participants. The Swift’s Alley office is closed until further notice and stakeholders and funders are being updated and engaged on a regular basis. At the same time, our Natural Environment Officer and Planning Officer are both continuing to work from home.
We have a number of exciting projects in the pipeline for An Taisce's properties which I will talk about in a future update. In the meantime if you're enjoying An Taisce's properties to get some exercise and fresh air please keep a safe distance from each other.
This year’s AGM is currently scheduled for Saturday 20th June 2020. This date will be reviewed as the epidemic progresses. If you wish to raise any issues in a motion please remember to inform us at firstname.lastname@example.org at least 30 days in advance of the meeting.
I thank you for your continued support and enthusiasm for this organisation.
Philip Kearney Chair An Taisce - The National Trust for Ireland