On A Quiet Day I Can Hear Her Breathing


Climate change and its solutions have long been the preserve of scientists, more recently economists and always – the generation in power. Politicians pore over documents in negotiations, inner cogs working to explore how close they can swing to disaster without harming their reputation or the concerns of vested interests.

These politicians must act ‘for our children, our grandchildren’. Obama states that our elected representatives are of “the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it”. Nelson Mandela’s quote is widely shared ‘sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great; you can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom’. Young people will be protected, coddled, bowed to the concerns and priorities of an older generation. Understand that in being told that the future is ours there is also a warning that the present is not.

There are many conflicting portrayals of mysterious ‘millennials’, all of them patronising. Merely by virtue of the fact that a person may be between 0 to 35 years old they can be selfish, entitled or idealistic dreamers that refuse to work for the world’s worst corporations. As a young woman I am everywhere and nowhere at the same time, in every magazine, on every billboard – and yet never in the Dáil or a public representative. Young people are emblems of dynamism and entrepreneurship, or wasters and binge-drinkers – embodying a threat all the larger for the underlying sense of post-boom guilt. Small towns and villages grow empty and elderly, our cities exhausted.

Not only have we inherited a rotten economic system with an austerity that will undermine our security and healthy as a society for decades to come, we have inherited a market view that has undermined our very means of subsistence.  Climate justice not only insists on just contributions to action on climate between nations, but within them. In the last 25 years, inequality and carbon emissions have dramatically increased in tandem. The challenge is not only to decouple emissions from economic growth, but to question why we allow growth to be decoupled from wider prosperity.

In 2050, 95% of Ireland current carbon emissions will have to be cut.

All things going well, this means homes and business will be insulated to reduce energy use and fuel poverty, any excess will be 100% renewable energy developed in tandem with communities and co-ops. Town and country planning will allow quick, safe and clean transport to and from work. Work will include clean-tech, renewable energy, Climate Smart agriculture/agroecology and co-operatives. Natural resources will be owned in common, disease and carbon intensive farming practices will become local, clean and devolved to the expertise and control of farmers working in partnership with their environment. 2050 then will be the culmination of a whole-scale transition to a post-carbon economy.

At a mere 61 years of age I will have lived through the Great Industrial Revolution – or indeed, its reversal. All things going wrong, I will live in a securitised state where EU navy boats patrol the shores to cut off refugees fleeing scorched or sinking states; privatised water resources poisoned as the land is bored and bled for natural gas.

However, there is little point in scaremongering without offering a credible, confident alternative to a market economy that has caused unimaginable harm to people and planet.  Climate change has no true clear enemies, though corporations like ExxonMobil and Volkswagen that lobby and lie are more culpable than others. We are all involved in, and part of, a structural construct that has adapted our way of thinking to consumption and exploitation without consequences. A whole-scale reorientation of society to our core values of care and sustainability requires co-operation, inclusion and recognition that everyone’s contribution is valuable in building this new just ideology to suit a new future, no matter their background or political view. The awkward categorisation as a ‘youth’ then must be only a strategic act to advance rights and future concerns.

The transition to a climate-smart economy and society no longer ‘needs’ to happen – it is happening. The only question is whose voices are at the table and whose concerns will be protected. Inaction on climate change is not a question of technicalities, but a political choice – a question of who we share declining resources with, and who we allow to reach prosperity. Whole communities are built around peat and coal plants, those who lose their jobs must be offered alternatives, training and jobs with decent pay and conditions.  The energy revolution must not take from communities, but share, devolve and involve.

We are working to solve a problem like climate change in a time when there has never been such a deep absence of faith in institutions.  Despite key figures scrambling to have photos taken with ‘the yuff’ at Yes Equality marches, the cut to under 25’s social welfare was one of the few social welfare cuts not reversed in the 2016 budget. The very organisations that lead on social and climate justice adopt widespread use of unpaid or Jobsbridge interns, inherently devaluing young people in a society where wealth equals status.

The majority of those involved in the Rising were under the age of 35 – the age limit for the category ‘youth’ as per the EU Youth Guarantee and its low-paid work schemes. Jim Larkin set up the ITGWU (now SIPTU) at the age of 28, the first casualty of the Rising was a 14 year old messenger boy and Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell that surrendered the forces with Padraig Pearse was 32.

It is a dated concept that women, the Global South or young people should lay low, be quiet and wait to ‘earn their stripes’ in a world that was not built for them or the reality of our life on one earth. The issues that led to the fateful burst of built tension that was the Easter Rising still exist today – war, disease, famine, joblessness, slums and an industrialisation that served few and condemned many.

There is a better world for all of us there for the taking; creating healthy and safe communities for our families, our own children and the creatures with whom we share this planet. There is a whole new world waiting just beyond a horizon as foggy as Beijing’s; as Arundhati Roy says, “on a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

Sinéad Mercier is a consultant in Climate Change and Environmental Law and tweets @merrimerci

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