I first became aware of Theresa several years ago when I came across her website dedicated to sustainable development. Some time later I received a telephone call from her after the County Arts Office had given her my name as a contact for the Laois Writers’ Group. Theresa became a regular attender at the group’s meetings, where she shared with us her poems and other writings in which she expressed her concerns about the environment, and about what she sees as widespread economic injustice, exacerbated as it was by the political response to the banking collapse.
As time passed it became clear that her involvement in campaigning gave her less time for writing.
In a recent blog post she outlined the extent of that campaigning which has resulted in several of the principles she has consistently advocated being incorporated into the Irish government’s White Paper on Energy.
I am flattered that she granted me an interview which I can share on my website. I hope it receives many more ‘hits’ than do my usual posts. It is quite long but it is also inspirational.
What prompted you to begin campaigning to change Ireland’s energy policy?
Concern about climate change led me to the Transition movement in 2007. Transition is a network for grass roots, community scale, action to address climate change and diminishing resources. As I worked on projects I began to unwrap policies, seeing the pros and cons of our system. Somewhere in the coming years our economy crashed and the extent of corruption began to emerge. It became evident that developers and financially powerful people run the country.
How successful do you think you have been?
That depends on how one measures success. The main success was collaboration and building a network that could communicate and work together. People’s Energy Charter was the starting point. Then we met other groups and NGO’s. We shared information and submissions. We reiterated each others points. In terms of lobbying the system I think we have achieved a lot on paper. I see a lot of what we’ve been calling for included in the energy policy.
In terms of action on climate change I’m not happy with the progress on addressing it. While Ireland is open to the concept of action, signed up to agreements and targets, there is little by way of meaningful action to show our government intends to act with the urgency climate change warrants.
In fact the laid back approach indicates that they really don’t understand the gravity of the situation.
Infiltrating the energy system was only one battle. Getting half-hearted commitment to action on climate was another inch on to no mans land. This is a massive war.
What have you learned from the experience?
“green capitalism is not the answer”
I learned that keeping a network going is time consuming and requires ample diplomatic skills.
I learned that lots of people do not collaborate naturally – they work in isolation. I’m not quite sure if that’s to justify their own existence or protect their work. It may be an ego thing. People in paid positions are few and far between in the environmental sector so validating your job, aka your funding, can be a job in itself – you have to be seen to be worthy. This can hinder collaboration.
I was reminded that perseverance pays off. Having been a civil servant I knew not to expect open arms to change or a speedy reaction to anything.
I learned a LOT about the system, how our government is interdependent and interconnected yet our departments are working in isolation. Policies get passed around lots of different government departments before sign off to make sure that what’s being proposed will not negatively affect them.
I learned that green capitalism is not the answer. We cannot simply replace our industrialisation and destruction of the planet by changing the raw materials.
“We need more women in the decision making process”
I learned that developers are not in it for the good of the planet or the people. Good people may start out with good intentions but get caught up in the capitalist model which isn’t the answer.
I learned we need more women in the decision making process!
I learned that our political system needs to change. Big time.
I learned that our planning system, infrastructure managers, political system and civil service for the main part all favour working with business over communities. I have less trust now.
I was reminded continuously that profit is more important than people.
I learned that most people think our politicians know what they are doing when really they don’t know even half of it.
I learned that politicians read the brief they are handed whether or not they believe, understand or support it.
I learned that there is little appreciation and hardly any money for the environmental lobby despite the fact that they are probably the only people considering the state of the world we leave our children. It’s an absolute disgrace.
I learned that NESC (National Economic and Social Council) is a well-intentioned think tank that may well have shot itself in the foot by exploring the stark reality of climate change.
Do you think any of the politicians with whom you have engaged have learned anything as a result of your persistence?
I am pretty confident that Alex White learned a lot about public participation and community engagement as a direct result. I believe that while he was Minister for Energy he learned a lot about climate change which was more to do with his trip to international climate conferences than from me, however I hope I showed him that there are a lot of people concerned within Ireland.
Alan Kelly (Who succeeded Alex White as Ireland’s Energy Minister, FP) learned that I believe we need to build resilience to the uncertainty ahead. Although I think even after the third time I said it he wasn’t convinced.
How has the experience effected your personal life?
I’m now separated and I’m sure that my outside passion and the lack of support at home played a part in that. I believe that my commitment evoked resentment in our relationship. It took up time but given that I do not watch TV or have any other hobbies that most people spend time on the jealousy was not justified.
I also feel that if I had been paid for the work there would have been a different attitude. It cost money to do some of the work but I did my best to get expenses covered.
Many of the meetings you participated in took place in Dublin. At the start you were living an hour or so from the capital. Part way through the process you moved to Clare. That must have made it harder to maintain the momentum?
Fortunately my move coincided with being elected to a representative role on the steering group of the Environmental Pillar. This now meant that my expenses would be covered. For the first time in all of the years I was being supported financially. At the time when I needed it most. This actually made me more resolved. I felt this was meant to be – an uncanny coincidence. However funding to the Environmental Pillar was since cut and so there is less support available for me. It’s cheaper to get people in Dublin to participate.
What makes you believe that your opinion is any more representative of public opinion than that of an elected member of the Dail?
“I represent my children. We are robbing from our children, using their share of natural resources, polluting their air, water and soil“
I never claimed to represent public opinion. I represent my children.
I’ve come to realise that the system does not really allow elected representatives look beyond local issues. In order to be elected representatives must look after their voters. Climate change is not their priority. Energy policy doesn’t bother them until it’s affecting them directly. All the while developers work away on local, regional and national plans.
It was also a matter of timing. I was already working on community participation in energy planning. I expect most of our elected representatives were and many still are, oblivious to the policy. Most policies actually. That ignorance is even greater at local authority level.
Groups opposed to wind farms often point to ‘evidence’ cited by people who question the science behind global warming. Do you think we are any closer to helping them understand the danger, and that we all have a duty to do everything in our power to avert it, including the acceptance of turbines as part of the future landscape?
“when your world … is threatened by developer led change … you are well within your rights to rebel.“
I believe people are becoming more concerned about climate change. It is unfortunate that it had to be seen first hand to be believed.
I also believe that when your world as you know it is threatened by developer led change and you’re the last to know you are well within your rights to rebel. It’s a natural reaction to find whatever you can to fight your cause so the circumstances lend themselves to climate deniers monopolising the situation. Our government failed the public on this by allowing developers run the show.
To what extent does being a mother influence your determination to influence policy?
It is the reason I am involved. I was shocked when I realised the state of the world we are leaving for future generations and I cannot justify inaction. I have an inherent sense of justice and what’s happening is inter-generational injustice. We are robbing from our children, using their share of natural resources, polluting their air, water and soil. That’s just inter-generational. The inequality across the globe currently is another massive injustice. As with most mothers, indeed parents in general, my heart wrenches at the sight or thought of anybody’s child dying. Yet this is happening all the time and we are making it worse by abusing our shared resources like air and sea. Then we have the audacity to turn refugees away?
What’s next for you? What other issues do you hope to influence in the years to come?
I hope to be involved in pushing for participative implementation of the energy white paper and I expect to continue watching the system, lobbying when needed. I am still convenor of the environmental pillars climate and energy group and I hope to stay involved with that despite the distance.
I have also acquired knowledge about other environmental issues and am continuously learning. There are so many battles to be fought, so many worthy causes to be supported, so much destruction that I cannot just ignore it.
I am involved with Clare Public Participation Network and I will be working to make the PPN a success – a forum for meaningful public engagement in the decisions affecting them, their environment and future generations.